New GOP chairman likes progress on 2012 convention in Tampa, dislikes early Florida primary

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, center, speaks at the Tampa Convention Center about plans for the 2012 Republican National Convention. He is flanked by members of the host committee, chairman Al Austin, left, and acting CEO Ken Jones.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, center, speaks at the Tampa Convention Center about plans for the 2012 Republican National Convention. He is flanked by members of the host committee, chairman Al Austin, left, and acting CEO Ken Jones.

TAMPA — The new chairman of the Republican National Committee came to Tampa on Wednesday with two messages.

To the locals, he said planning for the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa is on track.

To the Legislature, he said please don't schedule another early presidential primary in Florida.

The convention was the main reason RNC chairman Reince Priebus came to Tampa.

After being elected to replace former RNC chairman Michael Steele two weeks ago, he fired Steele's hand-picked advance team in Tampa within 48 hours.

"Members of the RNC were very concerned about the spending that had gone on by certain members of the staff," Priebus said.

For example, Steele hired his former assistant, Belinda Cook, for $15,000 per month. She spent thousands of dollars renting a 3,200-square-foot waterfront Treasure Island home.

Through September, the team had already spent $636,000. Cook had said much of the early spending was on legal bills for hotel and venue contracts that were executed earlier than in previous conventions.

The RNC now has attorneys scrutinizing that spending, but Priebus would not say what might happen if the committee finds improper expenditures.

Meanwhile, he is putting his own people in place. On Wednesday, Priebus named businessman Alec Poitevint, a Georgia national committeeman, as the new chairman of the RNC's convention-planning arm, which is known as the committee on arrangements.

The committee on arrangements, funded with a federal grant of about $18 million, operates separately from the Tampa host committee, which is working to raise $50 million.

Al Austin, the co-chairman of the host committee, said fundraising for the event is on track, though he would not say how much has been raised so far. He anticipated that about half of the total would be raised inside Florida.

Austin welcomed the changes Priebus made, saying that the original committee on arrangements "started off on the wrong track" and "it was obvious to some of us" that some of its spending was inappropriate.

Priebus' other message was for the Legislature, which two years ago moved Florida's primary from March to Jan. 29, ahead of early primary and caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

"I would encourage the Legislature to do everything they can to abide by the rules passed by both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee together to make sure we can bring some order into the presidential election process," Priebus said.

In 2008, traditional early-primary states responded to Florida's move by holding their primaries even earlier in January. Another big bloc of states held primaries Feb. 5.

The Legislature's goal was to give Floridians more of a say in picking the presidential nominees, but the national parties did not approve.

As a punishment, the Republican National Committee docked Florida Republicans half their delegates. The Democratic National Committee stripped Florida Democrats of all their delegates.

This time, Priebus said the RNC has adopted a schedule that protects four early-state primaries in February: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. All other state primaries would come on or after March 1, he said.

During a recent four-day trip to Washington, D.C., new Florida Gov. Rick Scott told Priebus he would like to keep the primary as early as possible without losing delegates.

While Priebus declined comment on that, the new chairman of the Florida Republican Party said the state is trying to strike a delicate balance.

"We have been working for quite some time with the Legislature and doing everything in our power to comply with the RNC's rules,'' new chairman Dave Bitner said in a statement. "We must also protect the state's ability to play an active role in selecting the Republican nominee."

Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith called for bipartisan cooperation in achieving Scott's goal.

"I am confident that we can make this happen," Smith said.

Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau contributed to this report.

New GOP chairman likes progress on 2012 convention in Tampa, dislikes early Florida primary 02/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 11:32pm]

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