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A wilting of great promise

Published Dec. 5, 2005

At 29, Peter Schorsch was already a major player in the Tampa Bay political scene.

University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus calls him one of the brightest students she's ever had.

After working for a high-profile Republican consulting firm, Schorsch launched his own company, which drew clients throughout the region. His work won national awards. He created a blog that received more than 3,000 hits a day and was widely read in local political circles.

But behind the impressive resume was a young man with big problems.

Schorsch has been chased by creditors and the IRS. His car has been repossessed, and he has been evicted from an apartment. Police have busted him multiple times for driving with a suspended license.

For years, he was able to hide that side of his life. But no longer.

A candidate he helped during the last City Council election filed criminal charges last month, contending Schorsch took thousands of dollars and failed to deliver services. Other candidates say they've been ripped off, too.

He's also been charged with 16 counts of writing bad checks for cash at Publix.

For the first time, Schorsch's problems are threatening to overtake his life.

"I'm irresponsible," Schorsch said. "I've never claimed otherwise. I don't know what's going to happen to me, but it's been a heck of a ride."

As a child, Schorsch recalls, he told teachers he aspired to become "supreme emperor of the Earth."

He was active in student government at Northeast High. Michelle Dudley, then Northeast's student government adviser, said Schorsch was the most eloquent student she'd ever known. But she was startled by his ethical views.

Schorsch grew up in a middle-class home near Shore Acres. His father was a waiter, his mother a nurse. They divorced in 1984. Dudley said he resented the money and privilege of his classmates, many of whom drove BMWs or Saabs.

"He had this term, "entrepreneurial vigilantism,' " she said. "He thought the rich had so much to give and there were people who needed it. I tried to tell him it wasn't up to him to decide who was deserving and who wasn't."

After graduating in 1994, Schorsch headed to Florida State University. He participated in campus government and held several internships with state politicians, bouncing between Tallahassee and St. Petersburg.

MacManus helped Schorsch get an internship at the Florida Institute of Government. He got an A in her class at USF.

"I remember him as very gifted in terms of discussing ads and strategies," MacManus said. "He was very good at finding angles on politics that would resonate with young people."

MacManus also helped him get a job with the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank, where he wrote articles on subjects such as school safety and gambling.

J. Stanley Marshall, founding chairman of the institute, said Schorsch was a good writer but had problems meeting deadlines. "I emphasized to Peter there was more to being a successful writer than being bright and creative," he said. "There's a discipline involved, too."

With MacManus' recommendation, Schorsch left the institute to work for the Mallard Group in Clearwater, which represents some high-profile Pinellas County Republicans.

He worked on campaigns for state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg; state Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole; and state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, among others.

Schorsch shared in several national awards from the American Association of Political Consultants while at Mallard, including a first and a second place for state legislative campaign radio ads.

But while his professional life was taking off, his personal life was in disarray.

In 1998, a judge signed an order evicting him from an apartment at 11150 4th St. N for failing to pay $575 in rent.

In July 1998, he was caught driving on a suspended license by University of South Florida police, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records.

He was charged twice more for driving with a suspended license, in January and March of 2001.

Also that year, he was sued by a holding company because he wasn't making car payments. His car, a 1995 Ford Contour, was repossessed.

"Peter is a brilliant guy," said Farkas, who worked with Schorsch on his 2000 campaign for state representative. "He's good at what he does. But his personal life has always been a wreck."

It didn't take long for his situation to turn sour at the Mallard Group.

In 2003, Schorsch had a falling out with the firm's founder and principal, Jack Hebert. The disagreement stemmed at least partly from Schorsch's decision to date Hebert's high school daughter, Schorsch said.

Hebert declined to comment.

Schorsch launched a political consulting firm, PS Creative.

His first major client was Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, a collection of St. Petersburg grass roots activists who wanted to replace Albert Whitted Airport with a 60-acre park.

The initiative was soundly rejected by voters, 73 to 27 percent. Tim Clemmons, one of the coalition's leaders, said Schorsch did a good job, working far more than he was paid to do.

Schorsch won another national award for designing the initiative's Web site.

But Schorsch's next clients weren't as pleased.

"Let's just say he took me for a ride, and I wouldn't rehire him," said Andy Steingold, who hired Schorsch this year during his successful bid for the Safety Harbor City Commission.

Neil Brickfield, a former commissioner who helped Steingold's campaign, said Schorsch was paid to print and mail thousands of brochures that never materialized. "It was the closest to a professional shakedown that I've ever come into contact with," Brickfield said.

Still, Schorsch's career seemed to be on an upswing by summer. He launched his blog, Four St. Petersburg City Council candidates wanted him to work on their campaigns.

But by the Nov. 8 election, two candidates had fired him and a third filed criminal charges with St. Petersburg police.

Leslie Curran, who was running in District 4, said she fired him after a vendor called to complain the check he received for her campaign signs bounced. Curran said she sent one of her workers to Schorsch's house to collect the money, which he gave her.

A few weeks later, council member Earnest Williams said, he fired Schorsch, too. He said Schorsch never delivered two mail pieces he was paid to do and that he didn't send out absentee ballots. Williams estimated Schorsch still owes him $3,000.

Eve Joy, a lawyer and political newcomer who ran for the District 2 seat, contacted police shortly after the election. She declined to comment, but police spokesman Bill Proffitt confirmed police were investigating her claim that Schorsch took money and failed to deliver services.

Schorsch called the situation a "misunderstanding" and admitted he's not very good with money. Joy paid him nearly $7,000, according to campaign finance reports. He estimated $3,000 is in dispute.

"Honestly, I just lost track of things," Schorsch said. "If I screwed things up, I'll just have to fix it."

Schorsch faces more criminal trouble. He is due in court Dec. 12 on accusations he wrote 16 bad checks to Publix for cash this year. Each was for $76. (Publix limits customers writing personal checks for cash to $75, plus a $1 fee, a spokeswoman said.)

The charge, obtaining property in exchange for worthless checks, is a first-degree misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of a year in jail for each count.

Schorsch said he wrote the checks to cover debts he incurred gambling on basketball during March Madness. On his blog, he downplayed the seriousness of the charge.

"I am not an elected official, I've never asked for the public trust, so if I drink too much, eat too much, snort too much, fight too much . . . or do too much of whatever else, then I do that at my own peril," Schorsch wrote.

But some of his trademark bluster is gone. He's posted only once on his blog in the past two weeks, a marked change from his typical once or twice a day.

Despite his early promise, Schorsch said his political career is finished - at least for now.

"I've kind of resigned myself that my life's dream isn't going to be what it was anyway," he said. "When the next step comes along for me, I'll be ready."Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or