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Trailblazing adviser bows out

When Phyllis Busansky said she might quit her job and run for the Hillsborough County Commission against a veteran Tampa City Council member, her husband offered a little advice:

"Find anyone in this whole world who gives you a chance."

Busansky wasn't sure she gave herself a chance against an opponent with $100,000 already in his campaign account. But she went to the Village Inn on Dale Mabry Highway for two hours of coffee and strategy with a political consultant named Mary Repper.

The two had never met, but Repper said, "I will take you for free. You can do it," Busansky recalled. Repper convinced Busansky she had "the charisma and the spirit and the personality to do it."

Busansky, who at the time was human resources director for Hillsborough County, returned home. When she told her husband about the meeting with Repper, he placed two bottles of champagne in the refrigerator. "For your victory party," he said.

For 22 years, Repper has played the role of cheerleader, analyst and pit bull for candidates in the Tampa Bay area. She has pulled off many dramatic upsets _ including Busansky's victory over Tom Vann in 1988 _ and important firsts. The first African-Americans ever elected to the Pinellas County School Board, the Pinellas County Commission and the Manatee County Commission were Repper's clients.

But now, Repper, 59, says she is quitting political campaigns. Ask why, and this woman known for winning mentions the flip side of politics: the defeats.

"Losing is just unacceptable to me, and it just rips my heart out," Repper said. "When it gets that way, it's time to move on."

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Repper, who graduated from Northeast High School in St. Petersburg and attended what was then St. Petersburg Junior College, got into campaigning early. She became president of the Pinellas County Young Democrats, worked on George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 1973.

After working on Dick Stone's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1974, she left with her three children to work as a Washington aide. She returned to Florida in 1979, by this time remarried and with four children.

When Stone lost his re-election bid in 1980, a friend suggested that she start her own consulting firm. She did, and it was soon clear that something strange had happened to the former Young Democrat. In Washington, she had grown to admire conservatives such as Barry Goldwater.

Back in Florida, she agreed to take on Republican clients. Her first startling upset was Jim Gillum, who in 1984 became the first Republican elected Pasco County sheriff. She made a different kind of mark in Pinellas County, signing on with Everett Rice, a Republican who defeated an incumbent sheriff, also a Republican.

Repper worked for Democrats, too, and in 1986, she helped Tampa legislative candidate Ron Glickman defeat Larry Smith, an attorney and popular former All-America football player for the University of Florida. Smith didn't forget the political consultant who helped beat him. When his father, then-Hillsborough Tax Collector Melvin Smith, faced a re-election campaign a few years later, "I suggested that he hire Mary Repper," Larry Smith said.

Working for Democratic and Republican candidates has earned Repper suspicion from both parties, which periodically kick her out of meetings and deny her business.

Ironically, the woman who advises candidates to create clear and direct campaign themes is someone with a confusing political background herself. She's a Young Democrat-turned-registered Republican who voted for Bill McBride. Her pantheon of clients includes former Democratic legislator Mary Brennan _ at the time called one of the House's more liberal legislators _ and incoming Republican House speaker Johnnie Byrd, an ardent conservative.

Even her business partner, Wayne Garcia, says running a bi-partisan, local consulting agency is "a business model that's absolutely impossible. . . . She did it through sheer force of personality."

She also did it with a combination of nuts-and-bolts campaign knowledge, a wide aggressive streak and an instinct for seizing the right candidate.

When a Pinellas County commissioner's arrest created a vacancy in 1996, local politicians were skeptical when a college administrator named Calvin Harris applied. He was an African-American Democrat in a county with no Democratic commissioners that had never elected a black person.

"She was one of the first people that said Calvin Harris . . . can win in Pinellas County," Harris said. "She worked hard in helping me line up support."

During her early campaigns, Repper obtained long voter lists and put one crayon mark next to each name for each time a given person had voted. People with lots of crayon marks were frequent voters _ and therefore got visits from Repper's clients.

Now, consultants use computers that do the work of a million crayons.

All consultants lose races, just as all home-run hitters strike out, but in recent years the losing seemed to cut even deeper into Repper than usual, Garcia said. "It gets hard to accept a loss; you just care so much about them."

This year, Repper scored more wins, helping Mary Brown win a School Board seat in Pinellas and assisting Linda Babb in a successful Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge race. But she also worked for Declan Mansfield, a well-regarded attorney who spent $85,000 in a losing judicial campaign. "That killed me," Repper said. She advised Arlene Waldron in her quest to unseat Hillsborough Commissioner Ronda Storms but lost.

"It takes a lot out of my soul," Repper said. "It just takes chunks out of me."

The rumor of Repper's retirement has begun to work its way through political circles. It probably would have spread more quickly if more people believed it. They have trouble imagining Repper fishing on the Withlacoochee River, which is how she wants to spend her time a few years from now. She and her husband, Bill, have a home in Hernando County.

"I said "You're not quitting,' " said former Pinellas Commissioner Sallie Parks, a Repper client. "She said, "Yes, I am.' "

Garcia and Repper's daughter, Colleen Mackin, will take over the business, and Repper will continue for a few years with corporate and government relations clients.

Last week, Repper stayed in a familiar place, cooking in the kitchen of her Clearwater home that has doubled as an office and campaign nerve center. She has always cooked to relax, finding it helpful to chop, saute and stir in the midst of campaign pressure cookers.

Her kitchen was full of pickles she canned with Circuit Judge Lauren C. Lauglin (a client) and tomatoes from Manatee Commissioner Gwen Brown (another client).

The only thing missing was a frantic candidate.

Repper's rules for winning candidates

MESSAGE: "You've got to believe it. I've found the voters are pretty smart and they can tell a phony a mile away."

FINANCE: Pull out a notepad and write the names of every person you can possibly approach about money, with a dollar figure next to each name. "At the end, you add it all up and you divide it in half." That's your beginning campaign budget.

ORGANIZATION: Assemble your friends and "turn them into a machine that gets votes."

NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING: "Negative works as long as it meets the three important tests and that is: Is it fair, is it accurate and is it relevant?"

REASONS FOR RUNNING: "You want to make a difference, you want to make a change, you have a vision for your community."