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Developer's political stock is rising high

TAMPA — Five years ago, Don Phillips moved to Tampa to build apartments.

Along with bricks and mortar, he's raised some expectations that he might be the next Republican power player in Hillsborough County.

His offices at the highly traveled corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Platt Street house the local John McCain campaign headquarters and satellite offices for the Florida Republican Party.

He served as master of ceremonies for the local party's July fundraising dinner, which featured his hunting buddy, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, as its speaker.

He has donated at least $70,000 to the state Republican Party and GOP candidates.

Most recently, Phillips, 42, met with potential replacements for state Rep. Trey Traviesa, who dropped out of his re-election race at the last minute.

"He's certainly stepped up to the plate," said Jim Greer, the state Republican Party chairman. "Don is someone who has been a supporter of the Republican Party not only financially, but from a grass roots perspective."

Phillips, owner of Phillips Development and Realty, said opportunity as much as an interest in politics prompted him to get involved in the McCain campaign last summer, when the senator's run for president appeared near collapse.

"I felt like as a new person to the community and a relatively young man there could be worse things than helping a U.S. senator in his long-shot campaign," he said. "All the great handicapped races were spoken for, and I am a soldier for lost causes. That's why I volunteered to serve on the Expressway Authority."

Charlie Crist, who benefitted from Phillips' largesse in his run for governor, appointed him to serve on the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority after the agency's meltdown in a series of controversies two years ago.

But Phillips, who lived most of his life in North Carolina, said he's not a party-liner.

In 2006, he switched his parties briefly so he could vote for Democrat Al Fox, a failed congressional candidate who advocated opening trade with Cuba.

Last year, he attended the Hillsborough County Democratic Party's annual fundraising dinner, paying $250 in an auction for a polling booth from Palm Beach County used in the 2000 election, complete with a butterfly ballot and hanging chads.

"It's a great piece of political memorabilia," he said.

His first local campaign contribution was to the 2004 County Commission campaign of Democrat Bob Buckhorn, who describes Phillips as a breath of fresh air.

"He's not bogged down in decades-old partisan bickering, competing loyalties, competing interest groups. He brings a different perspective to it," said Buckhorn, who lost the election to Republican Brian Blair.

Although Phillips said he's backing Blair's re-election bid for the commission, he recently met with Blair's opponent, Democrat Kevin Beckner, to get a sense of what he's all about.

"I don't think because people are separated by parties means they're evil," he said.

Phillips said his late father, a developer, was a Republican and his mother, a nurse, is a Democrat. While growing up, he witnessed family and friends engaging in spirited political debates.

"I learned at a very early age that even though party affiliation is one defining factor, the relationship with someone outweighs that," he said.

Still, although he's open-minded when it comes to social issues, Phillips said he feels most comfortable with the GOP.

"I'm not a fan of Barbra Streisand," he said. "I just found greater affinity for people in the Republican Party."

One of his closest friends in Tampa is Bing Kearney, also a developer and major contributor to Republican candidates.

Though Phillips has spent a great deal of time recently shaking hands with political types, he earns a living as an apartment developer.

Phillips got his start in North Carolina as a real estate agent after a brief stint in college.

"I wasn't a good student," he said. "I decided I was better served in business than I was in school."

He got to know some developers. One gave him a job.

He struck out on his own at 27, financing a nonprofit sports facility in Charlotte, N.C., with junk bonds. He did a similar project in Durham.

William A. Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., said 10 years ago Phillips was at the forefront of that city's downtown redevelopment, helping with a master plan, even though some of Phillips' own projects never got off the ground.

"As a developer, he might have been a little bit before his time here," Kalkhof said. Eventually, though, the city's core saw $1-billion worth of investment.

"A lot of the projects and issues that Don championed with us back then have come to fruition today," Kalkhof said.

Phillips said neither of the sports complexes was financially lucrative for him. "I decided I really had to make some money," he said.

He switched his focus to apartment buildings.

A business associate introduced him to Ken Morin, developer of the Walter's Crossing retail complex on Dale Mabry Highway at Interstate 275, and Phillips moved to Tampa to work with Morin on Suncoast Crossings, a 689-acre community in Pasco County, and build apartments in South Tampa.

He now has about 400 units under construction near International Plaza and is about to break ground on another 700 in south Hillsborough County. He also has seven projects in Texas.

He briefly lived in a condominium on Harbour Island, but said he sold that when he saw the real estate slump coming. He now rents a home in South Tampa where he lives with his fiancee, her two children from a previous relationship and their own child, who was born just two weeks ago. Phillips has another child from a previous relationship.

Being a newcomer rising in prominence has brought some lumps. When it came to light that Phillips met with candidates looking to replace Traviesa, "I got some push-back from one or two people that I was holding myself out to be a kingmaker," he said. "I absolutely refute that."

Phillips said he met only with people who asked to meet with him, and never met with Rachel Burgin, the Traviesa aide who ultimately picked by the GOP leadership to take his place on November's ballot.

"I'm working hard in the community for the things I believe in," he said. "If people care about my opinion and want an expression of my opinion, I'm happy to render it."

Janet Zink can be reached at or (813) 226-3401.

Developer's political stock is rising high 08/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 5:20pm]
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