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GOP effort to unite behind new leader falters

John Thrasher could be the perfect salve for what ails the Republican Party of Florida. The veteran legislator and lobbyist from St. Augustine is a polished dealmaker, a proven fundraiser and a stalwart conservative at a time when the party is riven by infighting.

But Thrasher's swift coronation by the party's elite as the next party chairman immediately after Jim Greer's resignation Tuesday has created new problems for the party, too.

The crush of endorsements from half a dozen of the state's top Republican officials sought to showcase party unity but rankled some grass roots activists. The staged show of support carried unpleasant echoes of the party establishment's push to crown Gov. Charlie Crist as Florida's next U.S. senator over rival Marco Rubio.

Questions cropped up about the ability of Thrasher, newly elected to the state Senate, to represent his constituents and the party at the same time in a crucial election year.

"The heavy-handedness of what happened yesterday was disrespectful," said Sharon Day, a longtime Republican activist who has been lining up support to challenge Thrasher from her Fort Lauderdale condominium. "It was like, 'By the way, here's your new chairman.' "

Day's underdog campaign threatens to keep Florida Republicans divided a little longer as the 2010 election approaches. The state party holds its annual meeting Saturday in Orlando and will vote Feb. 20 on Greer's replacement.

While state party leaders are rarely familiar to voters, they wield enormous power in recruiting candidates and steering millions of dollars in campaign donations.

A sitting legislator has not led a major political party in Florida in decades, if ever.

Democratic lawmakers argue that Thrasher's potential dual roles create a host of conflicts of interest. How can he serve as both party chairman and as chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee? Would he use his power as party chairman as leverage in legislative talks?

"It certainly creates an opportunity for everything he does to be questioned," said Democratic Sen. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg, vice chairman of the ethics and elections panel. "Mixing politics with policy does not allow us to put our best foot forward. He's going to come under a lot more scrutiny."

Thrasher said he is up to the challenge, adding, "We're going to look at all of the issues" concerning his two potential roles.

"I'm doing this because at this critical point in time I believe I can do a good job leading the party," he said. "It's not about me. It's about the party."

Thrasher also downplayed his biggest liability in running for party chairman: Senate rules bar him from fundraising during the annual 60-day lawmaking session in Tallahassee.

"If I'm elected Feb. 20, we're going to raise a ton of money before the session starts," Thrasher said. "I'm not worried about the time off, and once the session is over we'll make up the difference."

Some election law experts and Democratic leaders have questioned whether the party can raise money at all during the session with Thrasher at the helm. Party staff members report to him, and he signs off on checks coming in.

But state Sen. Alex Villalobos of Miami, who heads the Senate's rules committee, said the fundraising ban applies only to senators, not to party staff.

He also said Senate rules do not prevent Thrasher from heading both the Senate's Ethics and Elections Committee and the state party.

As a former House speaker and lobbyist representing big business, Thrasher doesn't fit the typical mold of the party chair who comes up from the grass roots. As negotiations for Greer's exit were under way Monday, Senate President Jeff Atwater quietly added Thrasher to the party's executive committee, comprising mostly party leaders elected by their home counties.

The political maneuvering recalls Greer's controversial path to the chairmanship in 2007. A vacancy was hastily created on the committee only days before he was elected chairman with the newly elected Gov. Charlie Crist's imprimatur.

Tensions mounted under Greer's top-down leadership and favoritism toward the sitting governor over U.S. Senate rival Marco Rubio, who has developed a strong following among the party faithful.

"We had the experiment with bringing someone from outside to lead the party," said Republican state committee member A.J. Matthews of Hillsborough County. "With the party in its current state, we need somebody that's been around and done the hard work. Sharon (Day) knows the grass roots as well as anyone, and she's the one to lead our party where it needs to go."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

GOP effort to unite behind new leader falters 01/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 10:19pm]
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