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Mel and Betty Sembler reflect on the GOP they helped build: ‘It’s the end of an era’

Scores of aspiring or sitting presidents, governors, senators, and congressmen from across America for decades have made pilgrimages to the Sembler Co. offices on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg to seek his advice and support. The Semblers have slept in the White House. But, as much as they may not care to acknowledge it, Mel is a dinosaur in today’s Trumpian political world.
Mel and Betty Sembler talk about their long relationship and marriage at their St. Petersburg condominium, Thursday, December 13, 2018. Mel Sembler is the former United States Ambassador to Italy from December 2001 to July 2005 under US President George W. Bush. He was also United States Ambassador to Australia and Nauru from October 1989 to February 1993 under US Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The Semblers founded Straight, Inc., in 1976, an adolescent drug treatment program now known as Drug Free America Foundation. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
Mel and Betty Sembler talk about their long relationship and marriage at their St. Petersburg condominium, Thursday, December 13, 2018. Mel Sembler is the former United States Ambassador to Italy from December 2001 to July 2005 under US President George W. Bush. He was also United States Ambassador to Australia and Nauru from October 1989 to February 1993 under US Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The Semblers founded Straight, Inc., in 1976, an adolescent drug treatment program now known as Drug Free America Foundation. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Jan. 3, 2019
Updated Jan. 4, 2019

It's easy to forget after two decades of overwhelming Republican dominance of Florida politics how anemic Florida's GOP was in 1979.

That's when a registered Democrat named Mel Sembler and his wife Betty hosted a fundraising reception for Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. That November afternoon at the Semblers' Treasure Island home raised only about $10,000 for Bush, but it started a lifelong bond between the Sembler and Bush families and spawned one of the most successful and influential money men in state and national Republican Party history.

"It's almost hard to put on a Richter scale what both Mel and Betty have meant to Republican politics in Florida," said Ann Herberger, a veteran Republican fundraising consultant.

"Two of the brightest, most capable and most competent people around. … You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who's more dedicated or patriotic or able to sustain the effort over many, many years," former Vice President Dick Cheney said of the shopping center developer in a phone interview.

Scores of aspiring or sitting presidents, governors, senators and U.S. representatives from across America for decades have made pilgrimages to the Sembler Co. offices on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg to seek Sembler's advice and support. The Semblers have slept and celebrated Shabbat in the White House, and former President George W. Bush has slept in theirs, working quietly on his memoirs in a robe on their terrace.

But, as much as they may not care to acknowledge it, Mel is a dinosaur in today's Trumpian political world, a dinosaur with a dapper pocket square puffing out of his $3,000 Brioni jacket.

At ages 88 and 87, Mel and Betty Sembler are long-standing pillars of the GOP establishment witnessing Donald Trump upend their party. The are lifelong antimarijuana crusaders seeing state after state liberalize drug laws.

"The electorate has changed. I don't understand our country anymore," Sembler told the Tampa Bay Times in 2016 after Donald Trump easily extinguished the presidential campaign of Jeb Bush, for which Sembler had helped raise $118 million.

That was nearly three years ago.

Today, like most of the Republican old guard once aghast by Trump's ascendancy, the Semblers do their best to avoid criticizing the president.
They prefer to talk about his administration cutting regulations than the myriad administration scandals.

The indictments of Trump's former national security adviser, personal lawyer, campaign chairman and more than 30 other people and companies swept up in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation?

Nobody has shown Russian collusion, Mel noted, while sitting in his St. Petersburg office packed with photos of the Semblers alongside world leaders.

The president's sometimes crude and frequent false statements? Trump is an unconventional politician, Betty said, whose style is to approach problems with a hammer he's not afraid to wield.

Trump's regular attacks on long-standing U.S. allies and consistently positive comments about autocrats like Vladimir Putin? Well, look at how Trump, unlike George W. Bush and Barack Obama, fulfilled his pledge to open an American embassy in Jerusalem.

"He's accomplishing some things," said Mel, a twice-appointed ambassador. "He's running over a lot of people getting there, and I can't imagine the people willing to work for him — who would want that job? — but I'm a supporter of the party, and he's leader of my party …"

"… And he was duly elected," Mrs. Sembler said.

Friends say their reluctance to publicly question the president reflects their nature, decidedly different from Trump's.

"It's simple," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, calling the Semblers giants in the rise of the Republican Party in Florida. "He's a gentleman. That's how Mel Sembler operates. You don't find him being critical of anybody."

Karl Rove, the veteran Republican strategist, echoed that.

"Some people in politics are motivated by being against something, against that person or that thing. … Betty and Mel tend to be positive and for things.

That's their instinct and one of their strengths," said Rove, an adoring friend for decades. "When you're around Mel and Betty, they're joyful. What drives them is helping people. We want to educate people about the dangers of drug addiction, or we want to make sure our state is a welcoming place, or we believe our conservative philosophy will help our country."

• • •

But for marijuana, the Semblers may not have become icons in the Republican Party.

Betty Schlesinger and Mel Sembler met as students at Northwestern University, where his early interest in politics prompted his successful campaign for senior class president. Campaign motto: Be Wise — Semblerize.

Mel was the son of a second-grade dropout who ran an illegal gambling house in Missouri. Betty was the daughter of a high-end women's clothing shop owner in Tennessee. The young couple moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, where Mel sold commercial time for the radio show of Charlie Chaplin Jr.

That chapter ended abruptly after a 1955 party at Chaplin's home where marijuana smoke wafted among the guests. Betty was horrified.

"I can't live with these kinds of nut cases," she told her husband.

Time for a new career away from Hollywood.

After a stint in retail sales in Tennessee, Mel decided to put his considerable skills as a salesman into the development business.

He opened his first shopping plaza in Tennessee in 1965, and three years later moved to St. Petersburg to pursue building one of the country's first drive-through restaurant chains. The Wagon Ho restaurant business did not work out, and Sembler returned to shopping plaza business as suburban strip malls entered their heyday in the 1970s.

The business model focused on developing just a few centers a year, many anchored by an Eckerd, Walgreens or Publix, and developing close relationships with the tenants. He routinely entered into handshake deals and said he has never defaulted on a loan.

He could have been one of the largest developers in the country had he wanted to, but he opted for a smaller scale approach.

"He would prefer to do two or three shopping centers a year and do them well," said Craig Sher, who joined the firm in 1984 and succeeded Sembler as CEO. "Mel is truly one of the deans of the shopping center industry, and that is based on years of honor and loyalty."

Sembler said he uses the same approach to development that he does for political fundraising.

"You've got to build relationships, and you've got to deliver. Talk is cheap. Delivering is sometimes more complicated."

Around 1973, the Semblers said, they discovered one of their family members was smoking pot. It launched Betty's lifelong offensive against marijuana and other drugs.

His switch to the GOP came in large part by what the Semblers saw as Jimmy Carter's soft approach to fighting drugs.

Carlton Turner, who led Ronald Reagan's antidrug efforts, was a University of Mississippi professor specializing in drugs and addiction when he met Mrs. Sembler at a 1975 drug conference.

"She had a tenacity about her. She was not just a worried parent wringing her hands and saying, 'Oh woe's me.' She really wanted to learn. She said, 'Give me all the information you can give me,' " Turner said.

Not long after that, St. Petersburg Police Chief Ray Waymire came to the Semblers seeking their help to start a local drug treatment center to replace one that had shuttered amid controversy and accusations that it was excessively harsh on clients.

"I am happy to write a check, but I'm too busy developing shopping centers to do much more," Sembler said.

His wife cut in: "You can build all the shopping centers you want, but you have to do this."

Mel Sembler spent the next 17 years as chairman of Straight Inc., a privately funded drug treatment center. The Semblers call Straight their greatest achievement but it also dogged them for decades with criticism and controversy.

Critics, including former clients who to this day accuse the Semblers online as responsible for rampant abuse of clients, say Straight locked up teens against their will and coerced them mentally and physically.

A Virginia jury in 1983 awarded $220,000 in damages to a 20-year-old man who sued Straight for false imprisonment. A Pinellas jury in 1990 awarded $720,000 to a Jacksonville woman who sued Straight for abusive behavior.

"The methods, at least initially: No living at home. No talking to parents. No contact with anyone outside the program. No drugs. No cigarettes. No TV. No music. No reading. No school. And a daily onslaught of counseling sessions that often reduces a person to tears," the St. Petersburg Times reported in 1987.

A 1989 Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment study of a Straight facility in Virginia found that among 222 clients, 53 percent six months after their treatment ended said Straight helped them "a lot," 21 percent said "a fair amount," 18 percent said "a little" and 8 percent said not at all.

Turner, Reagan's drug policy leader, credits the Semblers and Straight with not only driving Nancy Reagan into her "Just Say No" drug war, but instilling in the first lady a steely confidence.

She was interested in making drugs a signature issue, but most of her advisers urged against it because it seemed such a no-win fight. Turner urged her in 1982 to visit the Straight center in St. Petersburg, at a time when she was shaken and insecure over constant negative publicity about her expensive designer clothes, $1,000-per place setting china and socialite friends.

The Straight visit was the Reagan's second public trip, having previously visited the British royals. At Straight, her sincerity, connection to the teens and emotional reaction to their struggles shone through. She drew glowing publicity, and Turner said the trip ingrained in her a passion to combat drugs and confidence that never left after the Straight visit.

"She came, she saw, she cried and she changed," Turner said.

Amid lawsuits and run-ins with licensing authorities in several states, Straight in 1993 shut its centers in St. Petersburg, Orlando, Atlanta, Washington, Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, Dallas and Los Angeles.

The Semblers blame a small, vocal minority of clients and overzealous, shortsighted regulators for the negative publicity. They said Straight had overwhelming success, saved thousands of lives and still hear from parents who credit them with saving their children's lives.

The Semblers created the Drug Free America Foundation in 1995 to educate the public about drugs and combat the easing of drug laws.

• • •

What's the secret to a 65-year marriage where husband and wife are virtually inseparable?

Sitting in their 25th-floor penthouse overlooking downtown St. Petersburg, both shrugged. They cite their similar backgrounds: loving, Jewish families and a mutual commitment to Judaism's emphasis on philanthropy and charity.

This might help too: "In 66 years, I have never once had to pick up anything of his off the floor, not a sock, not a handkerchief," she said.

In style, he's the diplomat, literally and figuratively, and she's the blunt, tell-it-like-is straight shooter.

At a gathering of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank (Mel is a director), she excoriated then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie so hard over New Jersey legalizing medical marijuana that he, in jest, dropped to his knees and apologized to her.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson recruited Sembler to serve as national finance chairman for two terms following Bob Dole's 1996 defeat to Bill Clinton. Later, while Nicholson served as ambassador to the Vatican, Sembler was ambassador to Italy during President George W. Bush's administration.

Nicholson recalled Bush making a visit to the embassy, and during some downtime, he, Sembler and Bush decided to enjoy some cigars. Betty spoke up.

"I realize that you're the leader of the free world, but with all due respect, I wish you wouldn't smoke that in the house."

The president and ambassadors scampered outside.

"The only one more impressive than Mel Sembler is Betty," said former Florida governor Jeb Bush. "She reminds me of my mother. What you see is what you get."

Rewarding fat cat donors with ambassadorships is a long-standing bipartisan endeavor. When President George H.W. Bush appointed Sembler ambassador to Australia in 1989, the Doonesbury cartoon mocked it as a purchased ambassadorship.

George W. Bush appointed Sembler ambassador to Italy in 2001, where he not only worked with Italian leaders helping with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but helped negotiate the $83 million purchase of an annex to the U.S. Embassy.

"I come into contact with people in the governments of Italy and Australia, and I can tell you Mel Sembler was beloved," Rove said. "And that's because he not only represented America well but because he was always a straight shooter."

The late U.S. Rep. CW Bill Young, another Republican Sembler favorite, had Congress officially name the ornate building the Mel Sembler building, an unprecedented move for a current ambassador/political moneyman.
Sembler, no surprise, is not among those decrying the role of big money in politics.

"Money gives you a voice. Without money you have no voice," he said.
Republicans who have worked with the Semblers say that part of what puts them in the most elite tier of money raisers is their motivation.

"They didn't do fundraising because they wanted to get to the front end of the trough. They sincerely believed in the cause," Jeb Bush said. "That's what makes them so successful."

Tampa businesswoman Kathleen Shanahan, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney and Gov. Bush, noted that the Semblers don't just raise vast sums but also donate vast sums, to political and charitable causes. They may write checks to many candidates but they don't throw their energy behind a candidate unless they genuinely admire his or her integrity.

"They are a team, and they are known around the country and the world for advocates for what they believe," Shanahan said.

More than anyone, they loved Mitt Romney and the Bushes.

The Semblers had visited George and Barbara Bush multiple times in Houston and Kennebunkport in recent years, but health issues prevented them from attending Bush's funeral and memorial service in November.

"It hit me hard," Mel Sembler said of the death of his oldest political pal.
"It's the end of an era."