Betty Sembler, anti-drug crusader and prominent GOP backer, dies

Sembler, along with her husband, Mel, was a longtime Republican fundraiser from Pinellas County.
Betty Sembler, right, with her husband, Mel, died on Wednesday at the age of 90.
Betty Sembler, right, with her husband, Mel, died on Wednesday at the age of 90. [ Times (2013) ]
Published Feb. 17, 2022|Updated Feb. 17, 2022

Betty Sembler, a prolific Republican fundraiser and a seminal figure in the war on drugs in Florida and beyond, died Wednesday. She was 90.

Originally from a small town in Tennessee, she became a prominent figure in Florida’s political scene alongside her husband, Mel, a longtime Republican powerbroker. She associated with legislators, governors and presidents, including two generations of the Bush family.

“She loved her family fiercely but she loved people outside her family like they were her family,” her son Brent Sembler said Thursday. “If I would say anything about my mom, that’s what stands out in my mind.”

Politicians extolled Betty Sembler for her influence in the Sunshine State and beyond.

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

“Betty Sembler is a legendary figure in Florida,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said Wednesday. “Her impact on our state is profound, and I have no doubt her legacy and advocacy will be carried on by her family.”

Republican Sen. Rick Scott wrote in a tweet that Sembler “was truly a great Floridian who dedicated her life to serving others.”

Betty Sembler in a 2018 photo. [ Times (2018) ]
Betty Sembler in a 2018 photo. [ Times (2018) ]

In 1979, Betty and Mel Sembler hosted an event for Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush at their Treasure Island home, starting a lifelong bond between the Semblers and the Bushes that led to Mel being one of the most influential fundraisers in the Republican Party nationwide.

Their massive clout held firm until the upending of the Republican establishment in the Trump era. But even so, Mel has continued to be active and planned to host a fundraiser this month for Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who has made controversial statements about the Jan. 6 attacks.

Betty Schlesinger met Mel Sembler when they were both students at Northwestern University. They would be married for nearly 70 years.

Mel became a successful real estate developer, and the pair moved to St. Petersburg in 1968, capitalizing on the popularity of shopping plazas in the era of suburban strip malls.

The Sembler Co. has developed or managed dozens of local shopping centers, including Dolphin Village in St. Pete Beach, Bayside Bridge Plaza in Clearwater, Publix at Brooker Creek in East Lake and Highland Square in Inverness.

The Semblers felt welcomed by St. Petersburg’s tight-knit Jewish community, Brent Sembler said, and have been fierce advocates for Tampa Bay ever since.

Betty was a “huge, huge” Tampa Bay Rays fan, who would attend games in their regular seats near the dugout in full Rays attire, with a scorecard and multiple cowbells with which to cheer.

“If you’d go to the game (with her) you’d have a headache when it was over from those bells,” said Brent Sembler, 64. The couple also regularly supported local museums, theaters and the Florida Orchestra, and went out nearly every night until very recently, he said.

Mel and Betty Sembler sing the National Anthem before the Rays game against the Tigers on Sept. 5, 2009, at Tropicana Field.  Betty threw in the ceremonial first pitch.
Mel and Betty Sembler sing the National Anthem before the Rays game against the Tigers on Sept. 5, 2009, at Tropicana Field. Betty threw in the ceremonial first pitch. [ BORCHUCK, JAMES | St. Petersburg Times ]

The couple’s interest in advocating against drugs started in the 1970s, according to news reports, when they learned that one of their children was smoking marijuana. Mel had been a registered Democrat until that turning point, when the couple felt Jimmy Carter’s approach to fighting drugs was too soft.

They founded a drug treatment program called Straight Inc. that operated from 1976 to 1993. Part of that program was a residential center for troubled teens. After opening in about a dozen states, the program was shut down amid allegations of abuse and excessive force.

Pat Neal, a Sarasota home builder and former state senator, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2016 that the controversy was “regrettable.”

”He only wanted to do the right thing,” Neal said, referencing Mel Sembler.

The Semblers continued to advocate against drugs after that program was shut down, founding Drug Free America in St. Petersburg in 1995. It dropped the treatment and instead focused on advocacy and drug policy.

Mel and Betty Sembler gave $1 million in 2016 and $100,000 in 2014 to a political committee that opposed a ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana in Florida. Fighting medical marijuana is a continuation of his and Betty’s life’s work, Mel Sembler told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald in 2016.

”We’re trying to save lives and people’s brains,” he said at the time. “It’s not a medicine.”

Betty Sembler also served on the board of DARE America, was vice chairperson of DARE International and “campaigned against liberal drug policies around the world while traveling with her husband,” according to the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, of which Sembler is an inductee.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who was previously a Republican governor before switching to the Democratic party, said Sembler was a “lovely, lovely person” who was “very passionate about the things she cared about.”

Her impact on Florida’s GOP is “hard to capture, it was so enormous,” he said. “It’s a great loss to Florida and America and the world.”

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody wrote on Twitter that Sembler was “an amazing woman” whose “anti-drug efforts no doubt saved lives.”

Brent Sembler said the thing that stands out most about his mother was her ability to build relationships with friends as if they were family — even calling them “framily” — and keep them for her entire life.

“She stayed in touch with her 1st-grade friends, her 3rd-grade friends,” he said.

Since her death, that massive network of loved ones has become even more apparent, Sembler said, as his phone can’t even stay charged because of all the messages and calls. Former President George W. Bush called Mel Sembler to offer condolences Thursday morning, Brent said.

“She knew who she was, stayed in touch with her roots, and collected ‘framily’ all along the way.”

Sembler is survived by her husband, three children, 11 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Temple Beth El in St. Petersburg.

Times metro editor Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.