Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics

Bondi and lobbyist Ballard emerge as top Trump advisers in Florida

As Donald Trump celebrated his improbable victory in a New York hotel ballroom before dawn Wednesday, two prominent Florida allies were there to cheer him on: Attorney General Pam Bondi and Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard.

Bondi and Ballard are at the top of a short list of people who played key strategic roles in Trump's Florida victory and both stand to be rewarded with more than good seats at January's inauguration.

Ballard was Trump's chief Florida fundraiser and shaped his campaign operation in his biggest must-win state.

Bondi, a trusted surrogate, is a logical choice for a big job in a Trump administration, if she wants one, though former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been mentioned as a possible attorney general.

"I would imagine her opportunities are unlimited," Ballard said. "There's no one in Florida ahead of her in influence."

Bondi had a prime-time speaking role at the GOP convention and was a regular at Trump rallies, though she dropped out of sight during a frenzied September controversy over a $25,000 campaign check she sought from Trump in 2013.

Bondi received the money after New York's attorney general filed a lawsuit that charged Trump University real estate seminars of fraud, an allegation stemming from a rash of complaints from consumers who said they were bilked out of their savings.

A former Tampa prosecutor, Bondi is midway through her second and final term as the state's chief legal officer and has said she won't run for another office. Her voicemail system was full Wednesday, and she did not answer a text message.

If Bondi resigns to work for Trump, Gov. Rick Scott would name a replacement to serve through the next election in 2018.

Scott, who raised $20 million for the pro-Trump Rebuild America super PAC, said Wednesday that he won't leave early to join Trump's administration, even if he's offered a Cabinet post.

"No," Scott told reporters. "I like this job, and I want to finish this job." Scott keeps a "countdown clock" in his Capitol office that, as of Wednesday, said he has 789 days left as governor. He said he's looking forward to having an ally in the White House.

Scott is widely considered to be a likely candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018, when his tenure as governor ends.

Trump, who disdained and was shunned by the party establishment, did not have a large circle of influential supporters. That gives Bondi, Ballard and only a few others in Florida importance in Trump's orbit.

Also a key member of Trump's inner circle in Florida is Susie Wiles of Ponte Vedra Beach, who ran the statewide campaign that clinched Tuesday in the nation's biggest battleground state.

Wiles also managed Rick Scott's first race for governor in 2010, an insurgent campaign against the Republican establishment much like Trump's.

Wiles, who works at Ballard Partners, Ballard's lobbying firm, spent Election Day in a campaign office in Orlando watching returns.

"I would hope that some of the people who helped him win Florida would be considered for transition jobs," said Wiles, who added that she's eager to offer her advice on candidates.

A potential kingmaker is Joe Gruters, chairman of the Sarasota GOP and one of Trump's first Florida supporters, who in an interview downplayed any possible role in a new Trump administration.

Gruters, an accountant, is a newly elected state House member from Sarasota.

Outgoing state House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, raised money for Trump and helped bring him to Brevard County's Space Coast for campaign rallies. He said he'd consider working for Trump if an offer came along.

"He's obviously someone I've worked closely with and built a good relationship with over the last couple of years," Crisafulli said.

Two others mentioned in speculation as possible Trump appointees are Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady, on Trump's list of potential nominees for the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, and retiring U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, an early Trump supporter, as secretary of Veterans Affairs. Miller, a St. Petersburg native, oversaw the VA as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Ballard was a top Florida fundraiser for presidential candidates John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 and initially supported former Gov. Jeb Bush for president.

He's already hearing, and dismissing, talk about being nominated for an ambassadorship in Trump's administration.

With 40 staff members in seven cities, Ballard directs a lucrative lobbying practice and has long represented Trump's Florida interests. With his ties to Trump, business would be lucrative in Washington, too.

"I'm reluctant to ever leave Florida because I know Florida," he said. "We'll take a look."

Ballard and Wiles both mentioned state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, as another trusted Trump ally who helped the candidate win Cuban-American votes in Miami-Dade.

Trujillo on Wednesday was named to one of the most powerful jobs in the Legislature as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"Florida was important to Donald Trump," Ballard said. "Every morning, he was asking about precincts in Hialeah, or he would ask, 'How are we doing in Little Havana?' "

Ballard, 55, entered politics in 1986 as a "body man" or travel aide for former Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez, who shocked the political establishment in becoming the second Republican governor of Florida since Reconstruction.

"The feeling of that victory is the feeling I have here now," Ballard said. "It's hard to describe. It's emotional and transformational."

Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

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