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Republican mainstay steps off party stage

Without fanfare, an era in Florida politics ends today.

Tom Slade, former chairman of the state Republican Party and member of the GOP's national committee the past four years, is leaving partisan politics.

He has resigned as chairman of the Duval County Republican Party, and today the state GOP elects someone new to fill his national committee post.

How could the most Republican of all Republicans step aside when his party controls everything?

There are multiple reasons.

Slade will chair an education study committee that the nonpartisan group Taxwatch formed to recommend education improvements.

"I hope to have some meaningful input," says Slade. "I felt it was probably appropriate to back out of partisan politics."

Slade, 67, has also spent a lot of time helping his wife, Carole, through chemotherapy. But he says she's feeling better, and they just returned from a trip to New Zealand and Australia.

No one did more for Florida's GOP than Slade.

"He took a ragtag group after Gov. Bob Martinez was defeated in 1990 and turned everything around, and he did it in six years," notes Allison DeFoor, the former Monroe County sheriff who was Martinez's running mate.

Gov. Jeb Bush, the biggest beneficiary of Slade's work, calls him "a legend in our party."

"He has seen it all. From the days of the distinct minority to our ascendancy to majority status, he has been an active participant," Bush said Thursday night. "He can look back and accurately claim that he has made a huge difference in Florida."

Limited government, innovation, tax relief and economic growth are now the norm, says Bush.

I would argue that Slade's strongest legacy is his candor. No one in the Florida political arena these days shares his reputation for telling it like he sees it.

And you might expect that Slade would have a few words to say on his way out the door.

When he took over as state party chairman in 1993, Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, was governor and the Democrats controlled the Legislature. But Slade was filled with enthusiasm and envisioned the GOP as a party that could lead the way on creative issues and ways to make government perform more efficiently and better.

"But as I look at the realities of today's brand of politics, it's kind of hard to find a real difference," Slade says.

Money is a much bigger factor today, and Slade accepts some of the blame for that. When he took over the party, the most money it had ever raised for campaigns was between $6-million and $7-million, and in 1999, the year he left, it was around $38-million.

"I'd like to tell you we were raising it from people we thought wanted us to do good things, but it has gotten to the point now that if you can't participate economically in pretty meaningful ways, you can't do much with the Legislature," says Slade.

Big money improves your legislative fortunes, he says.

Is there a way to change it?

"Public financing is the only way to fix it," says this master of fundraising. "But it won't change in the next two or three years."

If anyone ever "pops the top on the box and gets a good clear look at the inside of it, it could cause enough rage to do something," he adds.

Slade also feels sorry for lawmakers who spend way too much of their time raising money. He notes the problem is far worse in Washington, where members of the U.S. House must raise between $30,000 and $50,000 every week, and senators need to raise about $250,000 a week just to run campaigns.

Campaign fundraising begins the day after every election day and continues until the next election.

If you ever wonder what is really wrong with government, this is it.

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