Sunday, June 24, 2018

Imagine if Greer weren't the choice

Think about what might have been.

In October 2006 it looked as if House Speaker Allan Bense would become the next chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

Bense was completing a scandal-free run as the leader of the House and insisting he had no plan to run for another political office. He was ready to go home to Panama City and return to his private business despite some heavy pushing from lots of Republicans who wanted him to run for the U.S. Senate.

Then in October, less than a month before Bense would leave office, GOP gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist asked Bense if he would take the reins of the state party.

"I said I'd be happy to and even became the chair of my local Republican Party,'' Bense recalled last week. "You have to do that if you're going to seek the state chairmanship.''

Bense got himself elected chairman of Bay County Republicans. And then he waited.

Meanwhile Crist decided to support Jim Greer, a little-known party official from Seminole County. George LeMieux, Crist's campaign manager, and the former governor say Lemieux suggested Greer as one of several names to be considered. Both say Bense was also on the list.

"I learned not long after Crist was elected that Greer would be the guy,'' Bense recalled. "Quite frankly, I was disappointed. I thought, 'Boy this is really embarrassing,' but I didn't complain.''

Asked recently why he thought Greer was qualified to run the state party, Lemieux said he had been "the best county chairman for the campaign in terms of organizing and he and Charlie knew each other from when Crist was at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.'' (Crist, in a deposition last year, said he didn't recall knowing Greer back then.)

"I think time has shown it was a mistake,'' Lemieux admitted.

An Oviedo city councilman who was on the Seminole County Executive Committee, Greer's only experience in statewide politics had been helping Crist in Central Florida.

"A lot of people told Charlie from the beginning that he wasn't qualified,'' recalled former Secretary of State Jim Smith during an interview last week. "He was over his head, and the power and the money can eat you up.''

Greer quickly made enemies inside the party. Longtime employees called him a "bully'' and criticized his free-spending ways. "His hubris didn't match his talent,'' says Sharon Day, a longtime GOP committeewoman. "He had no political background and was much more impressed with himself than anything else. He was like a bully in a schoolyard."

Day says Greer "totally destroyed in three short years what others had spent 12 years building.''

"The party very nearly went broke,'' Day noted. "That's what happens when you stay in $3,000-a-night hotel rooms and rob the mini bar.''

One time Greer rented a $3,600-a-night hotel room on Fishers Island for a meeting with the governor, and he often used private planes to get around the state, Day said. During a Sarah Palin trip to Florida in 2008, Greer rented private planes so he could get to each stop she made along the way. "Palin didn't want him on the plane with her,'' Day said.

Crist left the party shortly after Greer resigned and ran unsuccessfully as an independent in 2010 against Marco Rubio. Now he's a Democrat reportedly considering a race for governor.

Crist said he initially believed Greer would do a good job "but it didn't turn out that way.''

Day says she believes the party now has good leadership in chairman Lenny Curry and will be able to rebuild.

These days the party struggles to recover from three years of insults hurled by Greer, who faces prison for taking about $200,000 from the party and diverting it to a company he secretly created to handle fundraising. Greer has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing. Before his plea he repeatedly accused the party of plots to suppress black voters and threatened to expose all sorts of internal wrongdoing.

And the fundraising? Greer took fundraising duties away from Meredith O'Rourke in early 2009, insisting that they would do it in-house instead of paying O'Rourke $30,000 a month.

Party officials scheduled to testify against Greer say fundraising dropped from more than $5.9 million in 2007 to $4.8 million in 2008 and $1.3 million in 2009 when Greer took over the duty.

And Bense? He's a happy guy.

"I moved on,'' he said last week.

Contact Lucy Morgan at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]

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