How to Win the Influence Game in Sarasota

We asked attorney Morgan Bentley to share his analysis of power in our city.

By Morgan Bentley August 31, 2016 Published in the September 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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 Few people know more about power players in Sarasota than attorney Morgan Bentley, who has fought for and against many of the region’s highest-profile people in court and counts most of the others among his friends and connections. With political ambitions of his own—he’s run for office once and is likely to do so again—he’s fascinated by how influence is gained, used and lost here. Articulate, observant and good-natured, Bentley was such a great sounding board for this story that we asked him to share his analysis of power in our city.

When I was asked by Sarasota Magazine what makes someone a power player in our city, I knew two things. First, I knew I was not going to be named one of those power players. Second, I knew we needed to start by recognizing the uniqueness of Sarasota. 

In many cities, the Old Guard is entrenched and decides whether new players can rise to a position of power. Anyone who is part of the “Gasparilla Krewe” scene in Tampa or has lived in Savannah knows what I am talking about.

That’s not true in Sarasota. Newcomers and new enterprises flourish here. Consider entrepreneur Harvey Vengroff, who became active in civic affairs soon after he moved his credit collection business here. Likewise, retired banker Christine Jennings was able to help turn the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe into a regional powerhouse, despite the existence of terrific, long-established theaters. 

That openness to new people and ideas has helped Sarasota remain relevant and vibrant through the waves of growth and change we’ve experienced.  Other cities may get bigger, but they do not necessarily get better. Sarasota does.

It’s important to distinguish between power and influence. A police officer is powerful. He can put you in a cell. But is he influential? Usually not. By contrast, Ayn Rand has no inherent power at all. But she has influenced such powerful figures as Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan and Rand Paul (who was even named
after her)!

What does it take for someone in Sarasota to achieve both power and influence?

Money is often mentioned. And some people—for example, on the national scene, the Koch brothers—do leverage their wealth into influence. Still, plenty of billionaires stay off the power grid. Most of Sarasota’s leading influencers have done well financially, and some, like software entrepreneur Jesse Biter and developer Carlos Beruff, have amassed fortunes. But some people of modest means wield considerable clout in our city.

Speaking up—and stepping up—are essential. Power abhors a vacuum. As my high-school boss used to say, “Showing up is 90 percent of the battle.” Those who make themselves heard gain influence simply by the act of making themselves heard. But that has limits. The line between activist and gadfly can be narrow. You have to prove yourself effective as well as ubiquitous.

Intellect counts. Plenty of people, like Henry Kissinger or Steve Jobs, had no money or family connections but their brains reshaped the world. In Sarasota, consider Michael Barfield, who taught himself the law in prison and has become a leading (if controversial) advocate for Sunshine Laws and civil rights.

Never underestimate sheer likeability. Bill Clinton and George Bush made big mistakes and had vocal enemies. But people liked them, and that helped them gain—and retain—their power.

I believe it comes down to the ability to create and maintain relationships. Almost every one of Sarasota’s power players has a genius for understanding what others want and making that happen for them. Often that’s done without any expectation of immediate return. But like the favors Godfather Don Corleone did for those in his sphere of influence, those actions create trust, good feeling—and lasting obligation. Relationships, once made, create a network much bigger than themselves.

In the past, those relationships grew into the “good old boy” network. In Sarasota today we have multiple “good old boy” networks, and they don’t all involve good old boys. Women’s networks, youth networks, minority networks, political networks, environmental networks—in these diverse, multilayered relationships, our city’s power resides.

In many cities, the Old Guard is entrenched and decides whether new players can rise to a position of power. That’s not true in Sarasota.

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