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Power-broker Thrasher is anointed choice to lead Florida GOP

TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. John Thrasher likes to call himself a "poor country lawyer from Clay County." And every time he says it, the line brings a good laugh.

A more apt description reads like this: a leading power broker in the state Capitol, a multimillionaire former House speaker and former lobbyist with close ties to former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The St. Augustine Republican, who replaced the late Sen. Jim King in a special election in October, is the anointed choice to lead a state Republican Party in disarray after controversy forced Jim Greer to resign as chairman Tuesday.

Those who know Thrasher — including Bush, who endorsed him for chairman — suggest he is just what the party needs: a former businessman who can raise big money, bring order and integrity to the party's name and mediate an increasingly ideological divide among the GOP faithful.

Although Thrasher, 66, attended a political fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio last year, he is seen as someone who would remain neutral in the Miami Republican's insurgent campaign against Gov. Charlie Crist.

"It speaks volumes of his character that everyone likes John Thrasher," said Steve MacNamara, his former chief of staff. "He will be the glue that will bind the party together."

As a lawmaker, Thrasher worked across party lines and even donated to Democrat Alex Sink's campaign for chief financial officer.

But Thrasher's history as an insider concerns a number of party activists who want to make a break from the establishment and others worry about his split focus between the Senate and the party in an election year.

"A decision to simultaneously remain in this Senate while leading the Republican Party of Florida threatens its very foundation," said Sen. Al Lawson, the Democratic leader.

Said Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat: "That's the hard thing about taking that role, you've got to be a pit bull."

As House speaker from 1998 to 2000, Thrasher helped Bush implement a number of key policy initiatives in his first years as governor, especially in the education arena.

Aides and allies remember his laser-like focus and his checklist of goals, consistently referenced and kept in his suit pocket.

"He was relentless when it came to meeting a goal," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, the No. 2 Republican in the House when Thrasher served as speaker.

Another top House Republican at the time, Sen. Mike Fasano of Port Richey, said you didn't want to cross him. "You'd get that 'Thrasher look' . . . that would make you want crawl under your desk in the chamber," he said.

Thrasher twice has been cited for ethics violations, once as a House member for illegally representing a client before a state agency and later for lobbying the Legislature less than two years after leaving office.

He took the helm of top lobbying firm Southern Strategy Group in 2001 after leaving the House, representing the Florida Medical Association, Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Florida Associated Industries, among others.

Times/Herald staff writer Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Power-broker Thrasher is anointed choice to lead Florida GOP 01/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 10:10pm]
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