by John Kennedy
The News Service of Florida
Pledging to end months of bitter in-fighting, State Sen. John Thrasher was elected Saturday as Florida Republican Party chairman, leading the nation’s fourth-largest GOP caucus into a tough election year.
Thrasher won the post by a large margin over two rivals, powered by having driven a $1 million party fund-raising effort over the past six weeks and drawing the support of most of the state’s top elected officials, including Gov. Charlie Crist.
Thrasher and Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, also pledged to hire a major accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit of the state party’s finances during ousted chairman Jim Greer’s three years as chairman, an era clouded by accusations of budget shortfalls, overspending, and sweetheart dealing.
Both men said they wanted to make public the eventual results of that audit.
“Nothing should be left unlooked at,” McCollum said. “This isn’t just about credit cards, it’s about every question you might have ever had. There may be nothing there. We don’t know. But there’s been a lot of rumors and innuendo.”
Thrasher said the approach “wasn’t just a one-trick pony,” but was the beginning of a more open period of party decision-making, a theme he used as part of his final campaign pitch to the more than 220 members of the Republican Executive Committee who gathered in Orlando for Saturday’s special election.
“Folks, the fracturing of our party stops today,” Thrasher said.
Thrasher will serve out the remaining year left in Greer’s term. Greer moderated Saturday’s meeting in his last act as party boss, having resigned after months of mounting criticism over party finances.
Top GOP fund-raisers accused him of overspending on travel and consultants and using dollars earmarked for House and Senate campaigns to plug budget holes. He leaves amid continued calls from party members that party records be opened to allow deeper scrutiny of how party contributions have been spent.
A party internal audit is already underway. But Thrasher and McCollum said Saturday the party next week plans to hire a major national auditing firm to conduct the kind of review that could ferret out possible criminal wrongdoing, which the attorney general said would be referred to criminal agencies if found.
“I stand ready to assist you in referring that to the appropriate law enforcement agencies in our state for a resolution,” McCollum told Thrasher.
Thrasher was elected Saturday with the support of 135 REC members with his chief rival, Broward County state committeewoman Sharon Day trailing with 85 votes. Osceola County state committeeman Mark Cross received two votes.
In the race for vice-chair, Hillsborough County Republican Chair Deborah Cox-Roush defeated Alachua GOP Chairman Stafford Jones in a run-off election, 113-97.
The theme of purging the past clearly dominated the weekend meeting. And few attendees at the Florida Republican gathering failed to notice that in a neighboring ballroom at Orlando’s Rosen Centre Hotel international disaster managers were holding their annual meeting.
“Let’s not look in the past, let’s look into the future,” said Cox-Roush, in a Friday evening speech touting her credentials as one of five contenders for party vice-chair, replacing Allen Cox, a Greer critic, who also resigned his leadership post.
Nancy Riley, the Pinellas County state committeewoman, who also ran for vice-chair, emphasized that this weekend’s election was “not a popularity contest. Make a decision that’s best for the Republican Party of Florida,” she urged.
Thrasher rivals Day and Cross were no match for the firepower the state senator and his supporters sought to bring to the gathering. Most top state lawmakers, including four Republican members of Congress, spent Saturday morning in the windowless Rosen Centre ballroom to help cement Thrasher’s victory in the secret chairman’s election ballot.
Within the REC, 222 members were eligible to cast ballots in Saturday’s election. Roughly 40 of those casting ballots were either elected officials or appointees of Crist, who was among those spearheading Thrasher’s candidacy to succeed Greer.
Greer, whose leadership roiled party members for months before he announced in January that he was stepping down, chaired the meeting but his presence was muted. In a brief farewell after Thrasher’s election, Greer said he was “very proud of our accomplishments over the past three years.”
Greer, though, leaves a party sharply divided over finances – with many members accusing him of leaving a million-dollar shortfall in the party’s operating budget, caused by unbridled spending on travel and consultants that was brought into balance only by tapping dollars intended to elect House and Senate members.
Revelations that party executive director Delmar Johnson earned at least $408,000 while performing the dual role of administrator and top fund-raiser has fueled more anger toward Greer and raised lingering questions about whether the chairman received some of that money in addition to his $130,000 salary.
Greer departed as chairman without taking any questions. During the meeting, his three-year tenure was referred to obliquely – but also as a deep pit the party must now climb from as an election year dawns.
R.B. Davis, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, in nominating Thrasher as party chair cited the “weak…incompetent,” leadership which plagued the party. Cross, the Osceola County state committeeman who trailed Thrasher and Day in the chair’s contest, cited the rebuilding ahead.
“We have to restore the trust of the voters, the donors and the grassroots,” Cross said. “We also have to get this party united.”
Day also talked about the excesses of the Greer years.
“We will earn back that faith,” she assured. “We will earn back that trust…Those velvet ropes are gone.”
Crist left without addressing the crowd, as did former House Speaker Marco Rubio. The contest between the two men for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate has also divided the state party, but both candidates have said they are eager to end the turmoil within the Florida GOP.
“Even before the election, the party had already won and had already turned the page and was beginning the process of rebuilding the party into what it once was,” Rubio told reporters.
Despite the promises, the party has plenty of challenges ahead. Democrats, Republican gubernatorial candidate Paula Dockery, Republican Senate President Jeff Atwater (R-North Palm Beach) and several party members have demanded that American Express credit-card records accumulated during the Greer era be made public.
Thrasher also pointed out Saturday that he had made good on his campaign pledge to bring at least $1 million into the party over the past six weeks. Top fund-raisers had refused to solicit contributions for the party while Greer was chairman, but were quick to help Thrasher once he declared his candidacy.
Thrasher said with renewed fund-raising potential, the party would focus on carefully pricing its campaign spending on consultants, direct-mail and other tactics. Also, Thrasher said he would work to restore grassroots campaign efforts that he suggested languished under Greer.