Tom Slade, one of the smartest, funniest and most consequential political operators in modern Florida history, died Monday afternoon at age 78.
"I can't think of anyone as instrumental in the development of the modern Republican Party as Tom Slade," said retired University of South Florida St. Petersburg political scientist Darryl Paulson, who has studied the state party extensively. "Jeb Bush, in many respects, could not be possible without Tom Slade."
The folksy and blunt former state legislator and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida from 1993 to 1999 died Monday at Orange Park Medical Center following heart failure he suffered last week after choking on meat at a restaurant.
"Boss Slade," as he was known both fondly and not-so-fondly, was in many respects the perfect man at the right time for the Florida GOP as it was poised to become the majority party. A strategist, organizer, message maestro, money raiser and occasional bully, Mr. Slade could pull disparate interests together. He capitalized on the momentum from Ronald Reagan, who made the GOP acceptable to lifelong Democrats in North Florida as well as Cuban-Americans in South Florida.
Mr. Slade "was a bold and decisive leader who inspired others to get on board with the causes and campaigns he was passionate about throughout his time in public office and in the political arena," former Gov. Jeb Bush said in an email. "And, if you found yourself on the opposite side of a campaign, he was a true force to be reckoned with politically! Tom also had a huge heart, a larger than life personality and a truly wonderful sense of humor. He was a blast to be around."
A native of Georgia who grew up in Starke and never lost his slow drawl, Mr. Slade was elected to the Florida House from Jacksonville in 1962 as a Democrat. He became a Republican two years later and was elected to the state Senate in 1966. He led Bob Martinez's northeast Florida gubernatorial campaign in 1986, and in 1993 was elected chairman of the state party, serving for six crucial years.
Reporters adored him for his colorful quotes and willingness to tell it as he saw it, even if it meant criticizing fellow Republicans. Some reporters preferred to call Mr. Slade after 7 p.m., hoping he had cracked open the whiskey by then and would be even more free-wheeling.
"Who gives a hoot who is secretary of state?" Mr. Slade said once when asked about that race.
On the slow start of Democrat Buddy MacKay's 1998 gubernatorial campaign: "I saw his schedule the other day and the most exciting thing on it was 'dental appointment.' "
Republican strategist David Johnson, who worked for Mr. Slade, recalled how Mr. Slade's staff reacted to seeing their boss quoted.
"You'd cringe, and you'd laugh, and then you'd try to clean it up," Johnson said, laughing. "I'm just glad that Slade was not chairman in the era of 140-character Tweets."
When Mr. Slade assumed the GOP chairmanship, Democrats held the Governor's Mansion, every statewide elected office on the Florida Cabinet and a majority in the Florida House, and the Florida Senate was evenly split. After the 1998 elections, Republicans were in control, and Democrats have been struggling for relevance in state government ever since.
National political trends helped, but GOP leaders say the gains made in Florida would not have been so dramatic without Mr. Slade.
"There's only one person who could have so successfully taken the beach on the Democratic beachhead that was Florida," said Mike Hightower, a former lobbyist and leading Republican fundraiser. "You had to have a man who never cared what you thought about him. He was all about the fact that if we're not winning, we're not doing our job."
For the 1997 press skits in Tallahassee, an annual tradition, Mr. Slade dressed as Gen. George S. Patton, donning a chest full of medals in front of a giant American flag. "I want you to remember that no candidate ever won an election by dying for his party. He won it by making the other dumb candidate die for his party. Floridians love a winner and will not tolerate a loser," he said in his satirical skit defending negative campaigning.
Mr. Slade aggressively recruited candidates and had a knack for finding future GOP stars, including Comptroller Bob Milligan and Education Commissioner Frank Brogan. He never hesitated to pressure candidates out of a race if he felt it best served the party. He organized forums to fine-tune the GOP message and courted deep-pocketed donors.
At a time when many elections offices had only paper records, Mr. Slade found an Escambia County engineer to develop a computer program to analyze voter lists and enable campaigns and local parties to target voters in a way that was unheard of before then.
Former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said in a phone interview Monday that Mr. Slade was "not only a great party chairman and hugely competent and successful, but great fun."
Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said Republican leaders had a greater sense of purpose when they were part of a minority party or a fledgling majority.
Mr. Slade "was able to pull together any number of disparate personalities and literally lead them in the same direction and lead with a bond that is only now beginning to wear thin," Stipanovich said. "We are living off the seed corn that Tom planted. It's not clear how much new corn we're planting."
Mr. Slade infuriated some Republicans when an interview he gave USF's Paulson for a state party history became public in 2005. Jeb and George W. Bush, he offered, were both "arrogant as hell," and Jeb "just didn't have the maturity and wisdom to do his brother's job."
Mr. Slade later backtracked, saying he was describing a view he once held. Bush loyalists did not hold a grudge.
"I loved Tom Slade," said Sally Bradshaw, Bush's top political adviser. "Gosh, he could be difficult sometimes but I loved him because no one was a stronger advocate for the expansion of the GOP and Jeb Bush, and no one was a fiercer adversary if you ended up on the wrong side of an issue."
Mr. Slade is survived by a sister in Boca Raton and a son in Fort Pierce.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @AdamSmithTimes.