TAMPA — At a luncheon in Orlando this month, Deborah Cox-Roush took her seat at a table with newly anointed U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster and Lt. Gov.-elect Jennifer Carroll.
She was there to accept one of 10 Republican of the Year awards from the Orlando Republican Women's Network.
Past recipients include Webster, former Sen. Paula Hawkins, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and state House Speaker Dean Cannon.
Now it was Cox-Roush's turn.
"There's a lot of excitement around Cox-Roush," emcee Tico Perez said before inviting her onto the stage.
Two years after taking over as chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, the state's largest local GOP group, Cox-Roush is running to lead the entire state GOP.
She was elected vice chairwoman of the Republican Party of Florida in February. In doing so, she became part of the team working to turn around an organization wracked by the ouster of chairman Jim Greer, who faces criminal charges for misspending party money.
"The party has truly turned a page in the last eight months. We've gone forward. I'd like to continue that work," Cox-Roush said.
Supporters say she's a tireless grass roots worker who maximizes social networking tools to spread the Republican message and returned credibility to the Hillsborough County party. Its previous chairman was accused of sending racist e-mails days before the election of Barack Obama as president.
"The woman is everywhere," said Republican political consultant April Schiff. "She's goes to all the club meetings. She goes to campaign events. She's at every rally. She's always posting stuff on Facebook and sending out e-mails and keeping people informed and bringing people in."
Critics say she is weak at fund-raising and has used the party to enrich her catering company.
In the past two years, Hillsborough's Republican Executive Committee has paid Cox Catering at least $86,000 for monthly meetings and special events.
The money started flowing to her company in 2005, when she convinced then-chairman Al Higginbotham to move party meetings from a high school to her events facility by saying she thought it offered a more professional environment.
Cox said all the catering jobs have board approval.
"There's always a contract," she said. "It's ludicrous that that's even an issue."
Cox-Roush charges $450 for the monthly meetings in her space, which she said typically rents for $3,700 an event.
Party secretary Robin Lankford said when planning major fundraising events, she compared Cox's pricing to that of other caterers.
"Her cost was always significantly less than anywhere else," Lankford said.
Campaign finance reports filed by the party show fundraising is generally the same as it was before Cox-Roush took over.
Cox-Roush now seeks to take the reins of the Florida GOP as Republicans look to build on their recent victories and win the White House in 2012, when Tampa will host the Republican National Convention.
"We had a great day Nov. 2," she said. "We won, but we can't blow it. I think Marco Rubio said it best. We're getting our second chance."
So far, she is competing against three declared candidates in January: Pinellas County's Tony DiMatteo, Jefferson County's Dave Bitner, and Sid Dinerstein of Palm Beach County.
Born in a small Ohio town, Cox-Roush, 57, started working when she was 6 years old and sold ice cream with her grandmother at the Ohio State Fair.
That grew into a family catering business that now operates in five states. Cox-Roush moved to Atlanta when the company won a contract for the 1996 Olympics.
In 2000, she came to Tampa at the urging of her mother, who held the food service contract at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Her interest in politics started in high school and college, when she was involved in student government. The dramatic 2000 presidential election that saw a vote recount focused on Florida prompted Cox-Roush to become deeply involved in the Hillsborough County GOP. She became events chairwoman in 2003.
In 2008, Hillsborough County went for Obama.
"I said, never again," she recalled.
She was elected chairwoman of the Hillsborough County party in December 2008.
Cox-Roush dove into the task, launching a summer speaker series that regularly attracted 300 people, and adding a Reagan Day Dinner fundraiser to supplement the longtime Lincoln Day Dinner.
She brought in such national personalities as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Mike Pence. She started the philanthropic Republicans Care program.
"It's really important that we not only be seen politically but that we be seen as part of the community," she said.
With Cox-Roush as its leader, Hillsborough Republicans were the first to object when Greer and a handful of state leaders sought to endorse Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio in the GOP primary for the Senate. Party rules generally prohibit backing primary candidates.
"It really had nothing to do with Marco or Charlie," she said. "I wanted them to follow the rules and I wanted integrity in our party."
Meanwhile, her counterpart at the Hillsborough County Democratic Party has floundered. Under Pat Kemp, elected at the same time as Cox-Roush, the frequency of party meetings declined. Kemp caused a bitter divide by temporarily giving up her post to unsuccessfully challenge fellow Democrat Janet Cruz in a special election for the District 57 state House seat.
The party fielded no candidate in the District 12 state Senate race, handing over a victory to Republican Jim Norman, who faced an FBI investigation while running for office.
In November, Hillsborough elected only two Democrats: Cruz and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.
Now, Cox-Roush has set the goal of nearly doubling the size of the county's 400-member party before Tampa elects a new mayor and City Council in March.
Angelette Aviles got to know Cox-Roush through a campaign school for Republican women.
"Some people say her strength is not fundraising," Aviles said.
But what matters most, she said, is votes.
"Her strength is the message and the momentum of engaging the grass roots to making a great turn out when it comes to elections," she said.
Former Hillsborough County party treasurer Paul Phillips said he was disappointed that as vice chairwoman of the state party, Cox-Roush allowed money to be funneled to selected candidates in Republican primaries.
Still, he's impressed by her grass roots skills.
"Considering what we had before, it's a huge step," he said.
He worries Cox-Roush will lose that grass roots focus as head of the state party.
"But I think she's got the cojones that she won't," he said.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.