"If you don't love Delmar, you don't love life,'' Charlie Crist was fond of saying about campaign aide Delmar Johnson, and he had a point.
A giant beach ball of a man, Delmar Woodrow Johnson III is boisterous, always gushing with enthusiasm, and treats everybody as a best buddy. It makes perfect sense that such a friendly, outsized personality would be elected president of the student government association at Florida State University. Or that he would cheerfully don a goofy duck costume to mock Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride in 2002. Or that a few years later Johnson would charm Crist and get hired as one of Crist's first gubernatorial campaign staffers.
It made a lot less sense in January 2009 when state party chairman Jim Greer promoted Johnson, 30, to be executive director of the Florida Republican Party. And it was downright outrageous for party leaders to learn that Greer and Johnson entered into a secret contract that brought Johnson's overall pay from the cash-strapped party to more than $400,000.
Today, fairly or not, Johnson is Exhibit A for how a state Republican party once widely seen as the strongest in the country could turn into a nearly insolvent mass of dysfunction punctuated by excess spending and misplaced values.
"When he was working in Gov. Bush's operation he was a young man with a bright future. I think he's gone astray,'' said Kathleen Shanahan, Jeb Bush's former chief of staff who knew Johnson as an enthusiastic junior staffer in his legislative affairs office. "This is where the leadership of the party led a whole group of young people astray with a complete disregard for the value of every donor's hard-earned dollar."
The buck stops with Greer, and arguably Crist, who hand-picked the little-known Greer for chairman and stood by him even amid rampant questions about party spending. But those who know Johnson, who did not respond to requests for an interview, say he rose to where he did by virtue of not just personal charm but a knack for courting the right people.
"He's a friendly guy who likes to build relationships, and I think it's fair to say he's always been very ambitious," said MacKay Jimeson, a former Jeb Bush aide who went to FSU with Johnson, then of Englewood in Charlotte County.
Johnson was the leader of Greer's considerable entourage, and usually the loudest, most visible person at party events. Ingratiating himself with Greer meant making sure the charter jets were always ready when the chairman wanted and the trappings of power and privilege were always on display.
At large party functions, he sported Secret Service-like earpieces. He could be seen barking orders into his shirtsleeve microphone and making sure Greer's wife was properly escorted to a privileged seat, like royalty.
Ironically, Johnson initially was supposed to be something of a watchdog over Greer. After senior Crist advisers heard rumblings of the bombastic Greer rubbing people the wrong way while traveling the state, Crist aides including now-Sen. George LeMieux and then GOP executive director Jim Rimes made Johnson Greer's main travel companion to help ensure Greer stuck to Crist's message.
Greer and Johnson grew steadily closer, as Johnson became Greer's trusted aide and No. 1 yes man. Johnson understood better than anyone the demands of Greer — be it peanut M&Ms at the ready at all times, massage appointments when traveling to posh resorts for party events, or the security accompanying Greer at the Republican National Convention.
When Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign refused to let Greer fly with Sarah Palin on a campaign swing through Florida, it was Johnson who made sure he and Greer jumped on a charter jet at party expense so they could follow the campaign plane and appear at big rallies.
Johnson, who is married with no children, rose from Greer's special assistant to deputy executive director, to executive director with a $153,000 salary in January 2009. Three weeks later, unbeknownst to anyone else, Greer and Johnson entered into a two-year fundraising contract dictating that a mystery firm named Victory Strategies — only a lawyer's name is listed on corporate records — receive 10 percent of all "major donations" to the party.
The contract, obtained by the Times/Herald, was signed by Johnson on behalf of Victory Strategies and stipulates all information about the fundraising contract and activity "shall not be disclosed to any person, including major donors or members of the RPOF Finance Committee, without the express approval of the Chairman and Executive Director of the RPOF" — meaning Greer and Johnson, the two who made the deal.
Johnson is now out of a job, having been kicked out of party headquarters once Republican legislative leaders learned of the contract last month. Greer is also keeping his head low, after being ousted as party chairman, pending a Feb. 20 vote to replace him. Other party leaders, meanwhile, are wondering just how much fallout is coming and shaking their heads at how long the warning signs were ignored.
Veteran Republican consultant and Charlie Crist supporter J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said he was no more perplexed by Johnson becoming executive director than he was by Crist naming the then-obscure Greer to be party chairman three years ago.
"There was certainly ample howling about Jim Greer's chairmanship and his conduct at the party for a long time preceding his departure,'' Stipanovich said. "The governor may well not be accountable for this in terms of knowing about this specific or that specific. But no one, including the governor, is allowed to be surprised."
Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.