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A Times Editorial

Party leader or senator, not both

Whether Jim Greer's resignation as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida on Tuesday is the right move for the party is up to Republicans to judge. Whether he should be replaced by a member of the Florida Legislature, as Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders telegraphed, is a broader question affecting all Floridians.

Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine likely would be an effective party chairman. But the longtime Tallahassee insider should make a choice between his public office or a partisan leadership position. To hold both jobs simultaneously would pose a conflict and inject more high-stakes politics into nearly any piece of legislation.

Thrasher won the District 8 seat in a special election in October after the death of Republican Sen. Jim King. He is a close ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush, a former House speaker and formerly a prominent lobbyist. Top Republicans said Tuesday that Thrasher's esteem among rank-and-file Republican activists prompted his emergence as the likely successor to Greer, a controversial leader and Crist ally who angered many of the party's biggest donors and long-time leaders over his spending.

Senate President Jeff Atwater on Tuesday appointed Thrasher to the party's executive committee, a necessary step if Thrasher is to be elected chairman in a Feb. 20 vote by that body. But Atwater's action is just the first example of the potential conflicts that would await Thrasher. Atwater is running for chief financial officer and will expect the state party to help his campaign. Was Thrasher's appointment to the executive committee Atwater's first attempt at currying favor? What about less prominent Republican lawmakers? How willing would they be to challenge Thrasher on a piece of legislation as he decides how to dole out campaign funds?

And how effective would Thrasher be working with Senate Democrats, since any deviation from hard-line Republican positions as a senator could undermine his authority as party chairman? The Senate has grown more partisan in recent years, but it remains the best venue for collegial, bipartisan consensus in the state capital.

Then there is Thrasher's conflict as chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. The post requires him to shepherd all legislation that impacts how political parties and campaigns operate. Whose interests will he represent in that role? Those of citizens who are best served when campaign finance is as transparent as possible? Or political parties, which prefer less disclosure and thrive on unlimited contributions?

Florida Republicans, including Thrasher, should know better. Former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez simultaneously served as general chairman of the Republican National Committee. He lasted just nine months as RNC chairman and saw his Senate job approval ratings with Floridians plummet.

Former legislators have led both state political parties, but no incumbent legislator in years has simultaneously served as party chairman. Thrasher may be a good choice to lead Florida Republicans, and he is a formidable, well-prepared legislator. But he should choose one job or the other.

Party leader or senator, not both 01/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 6:41pm]
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