Days before Republican activists planned to vote state GOP chairman Jim Greer out of office, he bowed to their pressure Tuesday and resigned suddenly in a blow to Gov. Charlie Crist who had picked Greer for the post and stood squarely behind him to the end.
"I cannot be a participant in the shredding and tearing in the fabric of the Republican Party," Greer said in announcing his decision and accusing critics of spreading false accusations about his leadership and financial management.
State Sen. John Thrasher, the former House speaker, emerged as the consensus replacement choice of establishment Republican leaders, though county party leaders raised concerns about backroom deals to anoint a new chairman, and questions arose about Thrasher's ability to hold office and lead the party at the same time.
Republicans on all sides of the increasingly bitter internal divide hoped Greer's decision would unite a deeply fractured state party even as Thrasher potentially faces a contested election next month and as bitter feelings remain about the direction of the once mighty Florida GOP.
Barely a year ago, Greer, 47, was talking about running for chairman of the Republican National Committee. On Tuesday he cast himself as a victim of internal warfare between conservative and moderate Republicans.
Greer said he stepped down for the good of the party because opponents of his "big tent" philosophy would not stop attacking him and had only two goals in mind: "Remove me as chairman, and if that doesn't work, burn the house down and try to destroy the Republican Party."
Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine hailed the development in America's biggest battleground state as a coup by extremist conservatives that "confirms that the GOP's biggest liability this year will be its right wing that sees November's elections as an opportunity to purify the party — at any cost."
While many of Greer's critics also have soured on Gov. Crist as a moderate who endorsed President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus package, the anti-Greer rebellion was about more than ideology or support for Crist's U.S. Senate rival, Marco Rubio.
"Regardless of the merits of the arguments against Jim Greer, there was enough of a cloud of dust in the party's atmosphere that a change was warranted,'' said former state party chairman Al Cardenas of Miami who unexpectedly backed Crist over the hometown candidate Rubio. "It may or may not have been right for Jim Greer, but it was definitely right for the party."
Members of the state executive committee, former legislative leaders and top fundraisers, including former Republican National Committee Finance chairmen Mel Sembler and Al Hoffman, accused Greer of lavish spending, anemic fundraising and clumsy meddling in primaries. Controversy about free-wheeling spending by legislative leaders using state party credit cards prompted Greer to publicly cut up his own American Express card in August.
"It has nothing to do with Gov. Crist or Marco Rubio. It has to do with the perception of the leadership of the Republican Party,'' said Hillsborough GOP chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush, who was among several GOP leaders who last year objected to Greer's unsuccessful efforts to snub Rubio and throw the party fully behind Crist's Senate campaign.
As if to put an exclamation point on allegations about dubious spending, a paper shredder truck was spotted at the party headquarters Tuesday in Tallahassee shortly before Greer announced his resignation. A spokeswoman said that the truck comes monthly to dispose of old documents and that it had nothing to do with Greer's departure.
Republicans had scheduled a meeting Saturday in Orlando to consider ousting Greer, and his announcement staves off what promised to be an ugly public battle. Greer's resignation is effective Feb. 20, when party officials will elect a new chairman, and most of the Republican establishment united behind Thrasher as the successor.
But not necessarily the grass roots.
"If you look at the people supporting Thrasher, these are all the same people who supported Greer," said Pasco GOP committee member Bill Bunting, who is supporting Republican National Committee member Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale for chairwoman.
For months, the governor had urged Greer to stand firm as chairman, but legislative leaders helped persuade him to embrace Thrasher as a successor. It underscores how much the governor's influence has ebbed in the party.
A once obscure Oviedo City Council member and donor whom Crist anointed three years ago to the $130,000 chairman's job, Greer now is poised to be replaced by Thrasher, a close Jeb Bush ally who supported Crist's Republican rival in the 2006 gubernatorial primary and last year attended a Rubio fundraising reception.
"Sen. Thrasher is a dedicated public servant, and I look forward to working with him to ensure Republican victories this election cycle,'' Crist said in a statement. "He will do a great job, and I have tremendous respect for him."
Top Democratic leaders immediately raised questions about whether Thrasher could represent both his constituents and his fellow partisans. "You cannot serve two masters,'' said Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson, noting that senators are barred from raising money for themselves or their political party during the annual 60-day lawmaking session.
That means Thrasher would have to take a two-month hiatus from party fundraising in a crucial election year. Day was phoning party activists Tuesday and noting that, unlike Thrasher, she would not be distracted by legislative duties and fundraising restrictions.
Attorney Mark Herron, a Democrat and among the top election experts in Florida, said the Senate rule could possibly apply to all party staff and leaders during the session.
"The question is: Is the chairman of the party the one who accepts contributions, and I think the answer is probably yes because the chairman can say we're not accepting a contribution from a certain person or entity,'' Herron said. "The party's staff works for the chair, and the chair has to sign the report that the contributions were accepted."
But the question over the state party's fundraising during session is unlikely to foil Thrasher's bid for chairman, since it's up to the Republican leadership of the Senate to interpret the rule.
Meanwhile, Republican activists are hoping tensions subside soon as they head into the busiest election year Florida has seen in decades.
"Greer leaving helps every Republican on the 2010 ballot because this was a distraction that permeated through the entire party,'' said David Johnson, a former executive director of the state party.
Others are wary.
"People who tried to disrupt the party, if they don't get in line we're not going to tolerate it,'' said Pinellas state committee member Nancy Riley, a Greer supporter who said he did the honorable thing in stepping down. "We're not going to tolerate this kind of destruction. We're either going to unite, or we're going to get rid of this type of Republican."
Times/Herald staff writers John Frank, Steve Bousquet and Lee Logan contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]