When Ben Eason first suggested I think about hiring Wayne Garcia as a political columnist back in 2004 for what was then the Weekly Planet, I was a little suspicious. Wayne had been a consultant to Johnnie Byrd, of all people, about as far from the left-of-center mindset of the paper as you could possibly get. How could such a hire be viewed as "on brand"? Or more to the point, what could I or my readers have in common with someone who had oiled the cogs of the right-wing propaganda machine?
Plenty, as it turned out. Wayne's years as a consultant had led him to partnerships all over the political spectrum: not just the Byrds of the world, but Judge George Greer (of Terri Schiavo fame) and Phyllis Busansky, Ken Welch and Rose Ferlita, David Fischer and Ed Turanchik. And before that he'd worked as a journalist on both sides of the Bay, with gigs at the Times and the Trib. "The point here," he said in his first column," is that I've been around."
And with that wide breadth of experience came a whole bunch of potential conflicts. The title we eventually landed on for his column and eventually his website — The Political Whore — was a pre-emptive strike of sorts. OK, it said, we know he's been to the dark side, but now he's back — and we'll never be less than frank about his past associations.
By and large, we succeeded in that, though it sometimes resulted in disclaimers as long as the columns. (Add in the occasional need to mention that my partner is a political consultant who's been involved in several local races, and the full-disclosure paragraphs started to resemble the interminable warnings you hear in drug commercials.)
But the huge plus is that Wayne brought all that experience, all that inside info, to his writing and editing. Relieved to be free of the strictures of both the political and mainstream media worlds, he began to reveal the real Garcia: not just the savvy insider, but a deeply intelligent, effortlessly funny humanist with a wide perspective not just on politics but on — well, you name it: history, civics, pop culture, food, rock music, Broadway, all things Florida and Tampa Bay.
And being the polymath that he is, he took to new media with ease, soon becoming an indispensable resource for the latest in online research, social networking and any innovation that came down the pike. He was an ideal mix: an early adapter to new media with a firm grounding in the principles of the old.
It's not a surprise that Wayne is now becoming a full-time educator (he's headed to the University of Florida as the Freedom Forum Visiting Professional at UF's College of Journalism and Communications, where he'll be teaching four sections of investigative journalism). Even in his first year at the Planet he was teaching part-time at UT. And as anyone who's seen him on TV or heard him on the radio will attest, Wayne's a natural teacher: knowledgeable without being condescending, tough-minded but easy-going, a genial guide who just happens to be the smartest guy in the room. If you've read his award-winning blog, or seen him on Kathy Fountain or Studio 10, or heard him on WMNF, or seen him at a Tiger Bay meeting — truly he was the king of all media — you know the same Wayne we do. He's the real thing.
I hope that by the next election season, he'll be the go-to academic when the media need the insights of a political expert. And he tells me that, once he gets a better sense of the workload at UF, we may see his writing again in the Loaf, online and in print.
But there's no question: He's leaving us some big shoes to fill. Dancing shoes, for one: We've no idea who will take his place as as DJ of the newsroom's Friday Night dance parties.
Wayne's departure coincided with another big development at the Loaf: The shift in ownership from the Eason family to Atalaya Capital Management. There's been enough said in print and online about the circumstances that led to this change; suffice to say that I have nothing but respect for the vision and the resilience of Ben Eason, and I have great optimism about the future of Creative Loafing under Atalaya. I'll keep you posted as we move through this transition. I feel strongly that we will be able to continue the strong journalistic traditions embodied by people like Wayne, and that Creative Loafing in print and online will not only survive but thrive.