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Florida's story of Republican dominance starts with a Democrat

It's an important week for Florida Republicans, so it's a good time to trace the beginning of the dominance of the modern GOP in the state.

It began with Bob Martinez, the mayor of Tampa, who in 1986 decided to run for governor at the end of Bob Graham's second term.

"There was just one little problem," Martinez's longtime adviser, J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, said recently. "He wasn't a Republican.

"Minor detail."

Martinez's surprise success, and the historic partisan shift that it set in motion, was the subject of a lighthearted reunion at the Governor's Mansion a few nights ago. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of Martinez's inauguration as Florida's 40th governor.

Accompanying the former governor and his wife, former first lady Mary Jane Martinez, were a number of old political hands from that era. They included his former chief of staff, Brian Ballard; his former counsel, Pete Dunbar; former Senate Presidents John Vogt and Jim Scott; and former state Republican Party chairman Van Poole.

Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, showed up, and recalled what a warm and good-hearted governor Martinez was, and how the two became friends by swapping stories during interminably long Cabinet meetings in the late 1980s.

"Every Republican who's been in the mansion since 1986 went through a hole in the wall that Bob Martinez put there," said Stipanovich, who became a prominent lobbyist after Martinez lost a re-election bid to a Democratic icon, Lawton Chiles.

After "Mac the Quote" charmed the mansion crowd with one snappy one-liner after another, Gov. Rick Scott stepped to the podium and said: "You're pretty good at that."

Scott also instantly saw an analogy between his own success and his predecessor's: "Everybody told me I was crazy (to run)," Scott told Martinez. "I'm sure they said the same thing to you."

Martinez wasn't just a Democrat. He had once led a teachers' union in Hillsborough County through a strike. He was unknown beyond the Pinellas County line. He had no statewide political fundraising network.

He was Hispanic in a state that never elected a Hispanic to statewide office, and voters upstate either couldn't or wouldn't pronounce his name correctly: He was Martin-EZ, not Mar-TEE-nez.

He also was a dreadful public speaker.

But he won the GOP nomination over a crowded field of rivals, and a Democratic fratricide resulted in the majority party being deeply divided in November.

History has not been very kind to Martinez, largely because of his memorable flip-flop over a sales tax on services that the Legislature passed in 1987. His about-face doomed the tax, and legislators have been skittish about the "T-word" ever since.

But he championed growth management, created the Florida Forever land-buying program, and little by little, Republicans kept gaining power in the Legislature, completing their takeover of both houses in 1996.

Martinez, 78, still walks the Capitol's halls today as a lobbyist for the Holland & Knight law firm, where he can witness the transformation he helped wrought.

"Since we didn't know we couldn't do it, we went ahead and did it," Stipanovich said.

Florida's story of Republican dominance starts with a Democrat 01/23/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 10:03pm]

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