Florida Blue Key, the 96-year-old honorary society at the University of Florida, has long been a springboard for successful political and business leaders in the state.
The organization can claim governors, U.S. senators, state Supreme Court members, legislative leaders, law firm partners and prominent business executives. But for decades the beneficiaries of the friendships and networking built on the Gainesville campus were men.
That’s changing. Florida Blue Key, long an effective “good old boys” network, has finally morphed into an equally effective “good old girls” network.
Blue Key women’s growing success culminated this year with the ascension of three new state officials: Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and Secretary of State Laurel Lee. Moody is a former Blue Key president. Fried and Lee are Blue Key members.
“We have known each other for many decades at this point,” Democrat Fried said, referring to Lee and Moody, who are both Republicans. “To have three strong women who were taught about politics and leadership skills at the University of Florida and are now able to take that experience and skills and bring it to the state of Florida – I think will serve (the state) well.”
A 2003 graduate of UF law school and a former student body president, Fried is the first woman ever elected as the state agriculture commissioner. She is the only Democrat currently serving in a statewide office.
“It taught us how to be good leaders,” Fried said about her experience in Blue Key. “It taught us how to work across aisles, to have consensus on policies, and to put ourselves out there and to step up.”
Florida Blue Key’s Wikipedia page lists 46 “famous alumni,” ranging from governors, like Spessard Holland and Lawton Chiles, to U.S. senators, like George Smathers and Bob Graham, to athletes like Tim Tebow and Steve Spurrier. But it only lists one woman: Julie Brown, a member of the Florida Public Service Commission and a former Blue Key president. Over time, Brown and other women began playing a larger role in the organization. Blue Key admitted its first women members in 1974 and a woman was elected as president for the first time in 1990. Kylie Werk, a second-year law student, is the current president.
Florida Secretary of State Lee said Blue Key “provides an incredible opportunity for young college students to hone their leadership skills, cultivate relationships that last a lifetime as well as instill the importance of civic engagement.”
“My experience as a member of Florida Blue Key helped set me toward the path of public service, and for that I will be forever grateful,” she said.
Lee met Moody and Fried during their time at the University of Florida.
“It is great to have an already-established relationship with them so that we can foster the existing partnerships between our agencies in order to best serve Floridians,” she said.
The Blue Key connections are evident in Moody and Lee’s careers – they were UF sorority sisters, and both graduated from UF law school.
Their paths continued to cross. Early in her legal career, Lee was a law clerk for Blue Key member U.S. District Judge James Moody, Ashley’s dad. When Ashley successfully ran for a circuit judgeship in Hillsborough County in 2006, Lee was her treasurer.
Martha Barnett, a 1973 graduate of the University of Florida law school, was never offered a formal membership in Blue Key, although the organization made her an “honorary” member. But in a 46-year legal career that has made her one of the state’s top lawyers, Barnett broke many barriers. She was the first woman lawyer hired by the Holland & Knight law firm. She was the second woman to hold the presidency of the American Bar Association. When Barnett was at the helm of the ABA, Moody was her legal intern.
“What I think has happened is that women began entering the professions, politics and the world in increasing numbers and achieving positions of status, power and influence. And I think this is a natural progression that women like me had hoped we would live long enough to see,” Barnett said in an interview.
Moody and Fried both worked as Holland & Knight lawyers. Barnett said both followed “the traditional path” to leadership while developing their skills.
“They still were swimming against the tide, but they made it to the top. For me, it portends of great things to come. I’m really proud and happy about this,” Barnett said.
While Blue Key has had many successes, the organization has faced criticism over the years. Some call it “the system,” because of the group’s control over student government and campus elections at the University of Florida.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat, is a University of Florida graduate who operated outside the Blue Key network during her time as a student leader in the 1980s.
In a 2012 interview with student newspaper The Independent Florida Alligator, Wasserman Schultz said a Blue Key member told her she would never have a future in state politics because the organization would never accept her.
“I’m not in Florida Blue Key, and it seems like I did OK,” Wasserman Schultz told the student newspaper. At the time, she chaired the Democratic National Committee.
Fried agreed that Blue Key politics can be rough-and-tumble, and said it’s a good training ground for future leaders.
“I think we’ve had governors say in the past if you can make it in Blue Key politics, you can make it in anything,” Fried said. “It definitely was where we all cut our teeth on politics.”