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The heart behind Tampa's successful RNC bid: Al Austin

Al Austin keeps fibbing to his wife.

The Tampa developer and Republican money man for 15 years has been promising Beverly Austin that he'll cut back his never-ending work for the GOP. And now at 81, he's landed the trophy fish he's been after most of the past decade — the Republican National Convention — guaranteeing that Austin won't slow down one iota for at least the next two years.

"I started 46 years ago doing this, and I guess I'm addicted to politics,'' Austin confessed Wednesday, basking in the glow of TV cameras minutes after Tampa was picked to host the 2012 convention.

"But this is the ultimate. This is the biggest, most important political event any of us that have ever worked in these sort of things together could ever have an opportunity to do."

There have been other crucial civic leaders in Tampa's long struggle to land the convention — notably, developer and Republican fundraiser Dick Beard and Paul Catoe, president and CEO of Tampa Bay & Co. But no one is more closely associated with the effort than Austin (partly because Beard four years ago was consumed with bringing the Super Bowl to Tampa.)

"I've never seen a guy with so much energy. Al's just been tireless,'' said Ken Jones, a Tampa lawyer and former Republican National Committee official who worked on the Tampa effort this year. "If you go at something once and don't win it, then go at it twice and don't win it, you'd think your enthusiasm level would drop. I've never seen Al's enthusiasm higher."

It better be, because he is committed to raising more than $40 million in a horrible economy and has promised not one penny of local or state taxpayer money will be needed. What happens if they fall short?

"We're not even going to think about that. It's going to happen, I promise you," said Austin, a no-nonsense, blunt talker who has raised millions of dollars for Republican candidates and was finance chairman of the Florida GOP in its most successful period. "I wouldn't have taken on this responsibility if I didn't believe it could be done. You have to remember I've been doing this a very long time."

Asked what clinched it for Tampa this time, Austin mentioned the political importance of Florida, whose electoral votes could rise from 27 to 29 after the next Census tally.

The electoral significance of a national convention's location is often exaggerated, though. Far more important is the question of whether the community is equipped to pull it off, and Tampa left little doubt.

The lore among those involved in the process is that four years ago, the RNC leadership basically ordered the site selection committee to pick Minneapolis-St. Paul because they thought it could help the party in the Midwest. What happened? Barack Obama swept most of the Midwest, and Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota lost his re-election bid.

Catoe was so mad about the last selection process, he said he initially didn't even want to bid for 2012, but Austin helped persuade him.

"The last two times politics played a big part of it and we were on the wrong end of the political decision,'' said Beard, noting that this time RNC Chairman Michael Steele promised them it would be a level playing field.

In fact, some prominent Florida Republicans quietly smiled when Tampa lost its convention bids for 2004 and 2008, fearing that such a giant undertaking would pull people and money away from actually electing Republicans in Florida.

"I never bought into that,'' said former Gov. Bob Martinez, who gave the closing speeches to all three site selection committees that visited Tampa. "It's separate money. A lot of it's going to be national money for the convention."

As leader of a nonprofit host committee eligible for tax-deductible contributions, Austin said he's going to step away from partisanship and not be involved in any campaigns. But as someone who has been passionate about Republican politics since Claude Kirk was elected governor in 1966, Austin has a hard time refraining from talking about what a disaster he thinks President Obama has been.

Nor did he have much doubt that it was worth trying a third time to land the convention, his political magnum opus.

"You know the old adage. You try, you try, and you try again,'' Austin said.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

The heart behind Tampa's successful RNC bid: Al Austin 05/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 8:09am]

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