In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Lamebrained idea: Kids working for pols

Sen. Tom Lee is from Brandon. Maybe that explains his Senate Bill 566. Maybe they run G-rated political campaigns up there in Hillsborough County.

Lee’s bill would redefine “community service” for high school kids, who, along with meeting academic benchmarks, are currently required to log 100 unpaid hours working for charitable endeavors to qualify for a state-sponsored Bright Futures college scholarship. If the bill passes (and why wouldn’t his fellow legislators vote themselves a dollop of free labor?) “community service” would also include “activity on behalf of a candidate for public office.”

Down here in South Florida, “activities on behalf of a candidate for public office” has come to describe a rather interesting range of pursuits, some of which might not be familiar to folks running for office up in Brandon.

First thing that pops into the imagination of parents in Miami or Hialeah or North Miami: my teenager, full time student, part time boletero.

SB 566 might have the beneficial effect of getting rid of old-time ballot brokers who for years have been paid to wrangle absentee ballots and corrupt Miami-Dade elections. Using unpaid kids, instead, to collect ballots, fill them out, forge voter signatures and deliver them to campaign headquarters would certainly undermine the economics that have long sustained the boletero culture hereabouts.

Of course, there are many other activities that bright students could perform on behalf of candidates. Campaign operatives hereabouts often spend their valuable time defacing or ripping down opponents’ campaign signs. That’s just political grunt work, a kind of electoral vandalism better suited for adolescents, freeing up adult staffers to pursue other, more complex election-rigging schemes.

Youngsters, those brainy enough to qualify for state scholarships, would surely be more adept at computerized fraud than, say, the paid staff members on U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia’s campaign, exposed by The Miami Herald last year after ordering 2,000 absentee ballots over the Internet. The staffers, full grown adults, figured they had masked their illicit operations by directing the budget requests through foreign IP addresses. One or two 17-year-old geeks could have bounced this stuff through Lithuania, China, then Brazil and saved the congressman considerable embarrassment.

Youthful community service volunteers might also have saved Garcia’s predecessor, former Rep. David Rivera, from his own electoral follies. His campaign has been implicated (again, by The Herald) in the surreptitious recruitment and funding of a patsy, a decoy candidate in his opponent’s primary election. Anonymous teenage bagmen would have added another layer of deniability, while instructing the kids the lessons they’ll need to become tomorrow’s David Riveras. Oh, just imagine their bright futures.

If this bill passes, students interested in art, graphics and marketing could be put to work designing, printing and distributing the anonymous, scurrilous, mendacious and colorful mailers so integral to South Florida elections. They could be dispatched to political rallies, to yell and cheer and wave signs and create a false illusion of public enthusiasm for their candidate. Or show up to sabotage opponents’ rallies, jeering, screaming about dark associations with commie dictators. Think of it as a cross between a high school pep rally and a Cold War era civics course.

Interns could learn so much about the inner workings of Florida politics. More, I suspect, than some state senator from Brandon could ever imagine.

However, the League of Women Voters of Florida seemed quite able to imagine the consequences of SB 566. “The League has a high level of discomfort with the idea of channeling high school students into partisan, highly political activities in a candidate's political campaign, with a low degree of administrative oversight,” League President Deirdre Macnab told reporters last week, in something of an understatement.

SB 566 stretches the old notion of charitable pursuits even further than politics. The bill also allows students to take their unpaid labor to the for-profit sector and claim community service hours for work performed for private businesses.

No longer would student volunteers need to waste valuable time seeing to the needs of the hospital bound or feeding the homeless in soup kitchens or cleaning out dog cages at shelters or visiting the elderly in nursing homes, who, after all, are way too far gone to ever return any favors. No need to risk a sunburn cleaning up the beaches. Forget about delivering meals to those stuck at home. High school kids will be able to channel their youthful energies helping out around Uncle Pete’s restaurant or answering phones at Daddy’s law office and still cop those coveted community service hours.

In a study conducted by the Corporation for National & Community Service last year, Florida ranked No. 48 among the 50 states and District of Columbia (thank goodness for the even less involved folks of Louisiana, New York and Nevada) between 2010 and 2012 for our rate of volunteering. Only 21.4 percent of Florida residents bother giving time to community and charitable endeavors. That’s less than half the number in Utah.

That seems to indicate that when it comes to volunteering, Floridians are a dismal, shameful bunch. How do we fix this? Easy. We reconfigure the definition of community service to fit our business and political leaders’ free-labor needs.

But this will only happen if Floridians get out there and work hard to persuade legislators to pass SB 566. Any volunteers? Think of all the easy community service hours.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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