WASHINGTON — Brian Ballard's iPhone lit up with a familiar number. "I need folks in Florida," the caller said, "who do you have?"
Donald Trump had just launched his presidential campaign and wanted help.
Ballard was Trump's lobbyist in Florida for business dealings and a former chief fundraiser for John McCain and Mitt Romney. At the time, he was committed to Jeb Bush but he offered Trump an ace: Susie Wiles, the Jacksonville consultant who guided Rick Scott's 2010 campaign for governor. She's also the daughter of late NFL broadcaster Pat Summerall, which delighted Trump.
Ballard arranged for a meeting at Trump Tower, and Wiles went on to deliver a win in the biggest battleground state. Ballard eventually joined the team, raising millions for Trump as state finance chairman and serving as vice chairman of his inaugural committee.
Now the powerful Florida political insider is capitalizing on Trump's Washington, establishing a lobbying shop here and scooping up clients eager for an inside track, from Amazon and U.S. Sugar to the ruling party of Albania and the Republic of Turkey, which is paying Ballard Partners $1.5 million this year to represent its interests.
"We have turned down quite a bit," Ballard said.
The 55-year-old may not be widely known outside political circles, but since a chance meeting with Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez three decades ago, Ballard has been climbing to the top, hard-charging and charming, more influential than most of the elected officials he presses into action.
Trump pledged to "drain the swamp," but Ballard is flourishing in a city where access is the ultimate commodity.
"It's luck," he said in an interview from his new office on a recent afternoon, a Diet Coke before him and the TV tuned to Fox News.
"I thought the right guy was John McCain. I thought the right guy was Mitt Romney. A lot of people didn't want to wear the Trump jersey," he said. "Well, he was our nominee and frankly, I find him to be an incredibly fine human being."
Ballard's growing Washington team includes Wiles; Syl Lukis, a veteran lawyer and lobbyist; Otto Reich, who worked in the Reagan and both Bush administrations; former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, a liberal brought on to work with Democrats and head up the Turkey account; and Dan McFaul, who served as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida.
Having already opened offices across Florida, including Miami, Orlando and Tampa, Ballard now has formed partnerships with firms in New York and Chicago and is exploring Austin and Los Angeles.
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The second-youngest of six children, Ballard mowed lawns as a kid in Delray Beach and his hard-driving German-Irish Catholic mother made him go back if the work was subpar. He could be mischievous. At the University of Florida in 1982, Ballard was accused of pouring sugar into the gas tank of a student senator, though the complaint was later dropped. Ballard became a member of the prestigious Florida Blue Key, a springboard for aspiring politicians, and in 1985 was elected student body treasurer.
At the University of Florida law school, Ballard envisioned a career as a trial lawyer but while clerking for a Tampa firm, he met Martinez, the mayor, who was running an underdog campaign for governor.
Martinez needed a travel aide and Ballard suspended his studies to drive Martinez and his wife around the state. On the way to an event on Jan. 28, 1986, Ballard was listening to the radio — "Some of that rock music," Martinez, 82, recalled in an interview — when a news bulletin announced that the space shuttle Challenger had blown up, the debris visible in the sky.
Ballard's brash streak came through during the campaign. Martinez did a fly-around with a GOP primary rival, Tom Gallagher, who kept observing how his campaign did things better. "I have a question, Tom, if you're so smart and your campaign was so great, why is that we kicked your a- -?" the young travel aide blurted out, according to Mac Stipanovich, the campaign manager, now a leading Tallahassee lobbyist.
"He was indefatigable, very bright," Stipanovich said. Ballard even learned how to land the plane, worried what would happen if the out-of-shape pilot croaked. "I at least wanted to have a fighting chance," Ballard said, laughing.
Nonetheless Stipanovich tried to diminish the punchy Ballard in Tallahassee. "He was a lot like me and I didn't need another me."
But Martinez's wife made sure Ballard had an office near the governor, who later made him chief of staff. He was still in his 20s, a record the competitive Ballard pointed out after Gov. Scott recently elevated his 31-year-old communications director to the same post.
Ballard's first interaction with Trump came when he was working in the governor's office and read Art of the Deal. So impressed, he said, he wrote the businessman a letter, and Trump wrote one back on fancy stationary. "I reached back out to him and said, 'If you ever have any issues in Florida, please don't hesitate to call.' " Trump, who had purchased Mar-a-Lago in 1985, did call.
Working for Martinez put Ballard in contact with major political players. He keeps a photograph of him and the governor meeting in Washington with George H.W. Bush. In another they sit across the table from the Israeli prime minister.
Ballard's youth made him a target for criticism but his reputation was budding. "The brat-savant of Florida politics rocks back in his high-backed executive chair," began a 1990 Orlando Sentinel profile that crowned him "the state's youngest power broker."
That year Ballard married Kathryn Smith, the daughter of Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith. Ballard and his father-in-law would eventually open a lobbying shop, Smith & Ballard. (Jim Smith left in 2011 to join rival Southern Strategies.)
Ballard said he didn't set out to become a lobbyist. But in 1996, as Rep. Daniel Webster became the first Republican House speaker in 122 years, GOP connections were in demand.
Ballard rode a Republican takeover and today is one of the top lobbyists in Tallahassee, his firm handling nearly 200 clients this year, in addition to local government work. Last year Ballard Partners' Florida billings reached $20 million.
Trump, who has several properties in Florida, has employed Ballard at times. From 2013-2015, records show, he paid the firm at least $460,000.
In turn, Ballard worked to introduce Trump to top legislative leaders, including former House Speakers Will Weatherford and Steve Crisafulli, both of whom played golf with the future president.
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Ballard has a reputation for professionalism and sharp elbows.
"He and I have gone toe-to-toe on a number of occasions," said Ron Book, another top-earning lobbyist. "When we get engaged, we brawl. Brian runs a highly-respected, aggressively competitive and effective lobbying house."
"There's no question he has a bit of a temper and he can play rough at times," said former Republican legislator Mike Fasano, now the Pasco County tax collector, who once confronted Ballard over attack ads from the nursing home industry. "That's Brian, he's a competitor. But he doesn't hold a bitterness forever," Fasano said. "He knows that you may not be with me today but I may need your help on an issue tomorrow."
Ballard has demonstrated an ability to get on the inside track. In the 2006 race for governor, he backed Charlie Crist over Gallagher, who had locked down much of Tallahassee insiders. Now Ballard is close to Scott. He raised gobs of money to help Rep. Richard Corcoran become House speaker, and is longtime friends with Senate President Joe Negron.
Lobbyists use political contributions to cultivate relationships with lawmakers and Ballard is prolific, doling out not only his own money but tapping vast contacts to direct even more. He primarily gives to Republicans — a couple months ago, for example, he gave $25,000 to a committee backing Sen. Marco Rubio — but Democrats have enjoyed support. In 2013, Ballard hosted a fundraiser for congressional candidate Gwen Graham, a longtime friend of Ballard's wife, and now a candidate for governor.
As the 2016 presidential race began, Ballard was helping former Gov. Bush, joining much of Florida's establishment. But Bush began to sputter and in November 2015, Ballard announced he was quitting. Some viewed it as opportunistic or disloyal. "It was surprising how easily he jumped," Fasano said. Ballard cited attacks on Rubio, primarily leveled by a Bush super PAC.
"The only thing I thought I could do after bitching about it and no one listening was to say, 'Screw it, I'm going to help Marco," Ballard said in an interview. "It wasn't something I took lightly."
Rubio withdrew from the race after being rolled by Trump in the Florida primary. Ballard fully committed to Trump and raised more than $16 million, putting him in elite company.
In April, he was named to a fundraising team for the Republican National Committee. And he's helping organize a June 28 dinner in Washington with Trump that will cost $35,000 per person or $100,000 to join the host committee.
It's that kind of big money that Trump once railed against, dismissing politicians as bought and sold by special interests. He pledged at rallies to "drain the swamp," and audiences roared in approval. As it applies to lobbyists, Trump hasn't necessarily followed through.
His administration has granted waivers to a number of lobbyists now overseeing areas of government they once tried to sway. (A former health care lobbyist now holds a top position at the Department of Health and Human Services, for instance.) And lobbying dollars are on the rise for the first time since 2012, with the expectation that a GOP Congress and White House will act on a business-friendly agenda.
Stipanovich said anyone with connections would be a fool not to "cash that check."
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Ballard doesn't try to shield the obvious. "I would imagine if Hillary Clinton were elected I wouldn't be here," he said.
But he noted he had a relationship with Trump that predated the presidential run and that by and large, his clients so far have a Florida tie. Ballard will maintain Tallahassee as his home base — where this fall he will open a $25 million office building — but he's working about three days a week in Washington; he has a Realtor looking for a place to live.
One client, Boca Raton-based Geo Group, recently landed a $110 million federal contract to build and operate an immigration detention facility in Texas. Ballard said he doesn't discuss how he works or his contacts with the president. He's been spotted at the White House, however, and Trump maintains phone relationships with allies.
Geo paid Ballard Partners $100,000 for work in the first quarter of this year, records show. All told the firm earned $1.25 million, dwarfed by the $9.2 million pulled in by top earner Akin Gump but hardly insignificant. The $1.5 million Republic of Turkey contract will double the second quarter haul.
Scott H. Amey, general counsel for the Project On Government Oversight, a Washington watchdog group said: "We hope that President Trump stays true to his pledge to drain the swamp and that he does not provide any special access or benefits to those who helped him move into the White House."
Ballard's approach on Washington was encouraged by an old friend. "He was already contemplating it but I said, 'Your friend just got elected and it would seem wise to set up a shop,' " said Crist, now a Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg. In February, Ballard "maxed out" to Crist's campaign with a $5,400 contribution.
"If you're his friend, you're his friend," Crist said. Jokes Ballard, "He can't do a damn thing for me up here."
Now Ballard has the ultimate friend in the Oval Office. "What's surprising to me is many in the media won't give him a chance," Ballard said. "Donald Trump is not going to be politically correct. Yeah, sometimes he's a bull in a china shop, but by the way, that's who people elected."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow @learyreports.