TAMPA — With Florida Republicans set to choose a new leader in January, an anonymous attack campaign has been launched against Hillsborough GOP chief Deborah Cox-Roush, who is running for state party chairwoman.
The broadsides hitting Republican mail boxes highlight payments made to her catering company by the local GOP and her minimal contributions to candidates and to the state party.
One mail piece likens her to Jim Greer, the indicted former head of the Republican Party of Florida who is facing trial accused of secretly directing party money to a consulting company he created. Greer was ousted in February, and Sen. John Thrasher was selected chairman of the state party. Cox-Roush was elected vice chair.
She continued her duties as chair of the local Hillsborough GOP organization — a post she assumed in 2008.
The local party raised a total of about $318,900 during all of 2009 and this year through October. During that time, Cox-Roush estimates, the party paid her company, Cox Catering, about $77,800, or approximately 24 percent of the total.
In an interview Monday, Cox-Roush defended the expenditures, saying they were similar in the years before she was elected chairwoman.
"I sleep well at night. Yes, I cater for the party. But it's with board approval and after reviewing if we're going to save money by using my company," she said. "Honestly, I lose money when I do catering for the party."
She said she also gives preference to party members when hiring for other services, such as flower arrangements or printing.
"I feel like we should support our Republicans, especially in this economic climate," she said.
She said it's ludicrous to compare her to Greer, noting that she was one of the first local party leaders to criticize Greer.
"It's amazing they even put me in that category," she said.
The mailers do not indicate who produced and sent them.
One also notes that Cox-Roush personally has contributed only $800 to the Republican Party and its candidates, while other possible contenders to head the RPOF — including Pinellas County's Tony DiMatteo, Palm Beach County's Sid Dinerstein and Florida national committeewoman Sharon Day — have contributed thousands.
"First of all, I'm a small business person, and the last two years in this economic climate, we know how hard it's been. My money is going to back to my company," Cox-Roush said.
She also said she decided not to make contributions as long as Greer was in charge.
Dinerstein and DiMatteo said they don't know who is sending the mailers attacking Cox-Roush.
"Having been a victim down here of anonymous pieces also, I don't pay attention to anonymous pieces. If people have something to say let them say it," said Dinerstein, who has led the Palm Beach County Republican Party for eight years.
DiMatteo, who led Pinellas County Republicans from 2005 to 2009, dismissed the pieces as "internal Hillsborough County politics."
"Anybody in the public eye has friends and has enemies," he said. "There's obviously somebody who doesn't like her very well."
He noted that there's a big difference between Greer and Cox-Roush because Greer is accused of keeping payments to a shell company a secret, while payments to Cox's company are for legitimate work and included in public records.
"You are comparing apples and oranges," he said. "There's no money laundering here."
In addition to the catering contracts, Cox-Roush has weathered criticism in Hillsborough from party members who say her fundraising skills are weak, and that she neglected her duties as county GOP head after she was elected state vice chairwoman.
Detractors note that she spent election night at Gov.-elect Rick Scott's victory party in South Florida instead of with the organization she leads in Hillsborough.
Still, DiMatteo said it's folly to go negative in the race to head the Florida Republicans.
"We just got through a horrendous campaign cycle with Crist and Rubio, and McCollum and Scott and Sink," he said. "The people in the party would not take kindly to one of us taking on our own."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.