Gator alums' political clout has waned in recent years

Chances are you haven't heard of Christina Bonarrigo or Johnny Castillo.

A couple decades ago I could have almost guaranteed you'd know at least one of them some day.

That's how certain the pathway was from student politics at the University of Florida to the Governor's Mansion, the halls of Congress, the state Legislature, even the Florida Supreme Court.

Both Bonarrigo and Castillo are vying to be the next UF student-body president in this week's election on the campus of 50,000 students.

No matter who wins, the chances that he or she will bounce to automatic political stardom off campus seem less likely today.

Nothing personal. I talked with both of them, and they are committed to students and the Gator Nation.

It's just that — and you know how we Gators hate to admit this sort of thing — we're going through a bit of a dry spell.

Call it the political equivalent of the Ron Zook years.

The domination once held by UF alumni who cut their teeth through the traditional campus political machine is fading.

And if you've been in Florida longer than a couple of days, you likely know that talking about UF student politics also means talking about Florida Blue Key.

For those of you who just crossed the state line, I'm not referring to an island destination south of Miami.

Florida Blue Key is known as the most prestigious leadership society in the state, and one that for decades pulled the political strings at UF and beyond.

To give you some idea, in the 28 years from 1971 to 1998, every Florida governor except one came from Blue Key.

Only Bob Martinez wasn't a graduate of UF or a member of the club. And he just served one term.

The 14 years since Jeb Bush took office — followed by Charlie Crist and current Gov. Rick Scott — is the longest Florida has gone without a UF alum in the governor's mansion since at least 1949.

For the Gator power structure, losing Gov. Lawton Chiles was like losing Steve Spurrier. The team knew it would be rough for a while but hoped to get past the inevitable rebuilding years.

Why does any of this matter?

Because this is Florida, where people either love or love to hate the Gators. And because if Blue Key's grip on power is loosening, then it's a sign that the old system of clout is shifting — the result of growth and diversity at the University of Florida and across the state.

It's still easy to rattle off a list of Blue Key-trained power players: U.S. Rep. John Mica and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, for example.

And Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam or Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, both Blue Key members, could throw their hats into the ring for governor.