Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer who parlayed his role as one of the Republican Party’s most influential fundraisers into ambassadorships to Australia and Italy, has died. He was 93.
Sembler died following a battle with lung cancer, his son Greg told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday morning.
Sembler raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Republicans in races nationwide, from future presidents to local mayors, sometimes shifting allegiances when his preferred candidates dropped out, but never straying far from the nexus of GOP power.
“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, a longtime friend, told the Times in 2019.
“He was a generous member of his community and a patriotic citizen who represented America well,” former President George W. Bush said Tuesday in a statement. “To Laura and me, and the entire Bush family, Mel Sembler was a dear friend.”
Former Gov. Jeb Bush called Sembler a “mentor.”
“The most loyal, incredibly generous man I’ve ever met,” Bush said Tuesday. “Mel just loved his country, loved his state, and was successful in every way. He gave back a ton, not just in politics, but in charitable and civic affairs as well.”
Sembler was more than a donor. In Florida and beyond, he cultivated a network of GOP rainmakers willing to shell out thousands per plate at fundraising dinners at the drop of a hat, leading nearly every major Republican presidential candidate since the 1980s to covet his support.
How successful was he? After being named chairperson for the Republican Party’s national finance committee in 1997, he oversaw more than $220 million in donations for George W. Bush and other candidates during the 2000 election, in the process clearing $10 million in debt held over from 1996. One star-studded dinner cleared $11.3 million in one night.
“I’ve never had anybody who gives me a major contribution ask for a darn thing except good government,” Sembler told the Times in 1995. “Most people don’t believe that. And everybody thinks there’s something dirty about fundraising.”
Sembler, a Missouri native, made his fortune during the retail real estate boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s, starting with one shopping center in Tennessee before moving his company to St. Petersburg in 1968.
Recognizing the thriving market for retail in Florida, his companies developed centers all over Tampa Bay, from strip malls anchored by Publix, Eckerd Drugs and Walgreens stores to more experiential destinations like Centro Ybor in Ybor City and BayWalk, now known as Sundial St. Pete, in St. Petersburg. He was seen as a leader in the industry. During the ‘80s, he was named president of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group with more than 40,000 global members.
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He and his wife, Betty, were active in Tampa Bay’s black-tie social landscape, frequently donating to causes like the Florida Orchestra and Florida Holocaust Museum. Their causes included drug addiction treatment. In 1976, after one of their sons was caught smoking marijuana, they co-founded Straight Inc., a juvenile drug treatment program based on curbing addiction through peer pressure.
Straight Inc. opened centers in about a dozen states, treating thousands of children and teens, but it was a controversial program, drawing complaints, investigations and lawsuits alleging harsh and abusive treatment. Multiple patients were awarded six-figure jury settlements after Straight Inc. stays.
The program closed in 1993, and two years later, the Semblers founded the Drug Free America Foundation, which still exists. They kept contributing to various anti-drug causes, including those opposing measures to legalize marijuana in Florida and Colorado.
“If something mattered to Mel, he made sure you knew about it and he showed you its importance by dedicating all of his time and energy into the causes he believed in,” Sen. Rick Scott said Tuesday in a statement. “It is impossible to capture all the good that Mel did for Florida and the United States, but I know this: Florida and America are better today because of Mel Sembler.”
In its heyday, Straight Inc. brought them closer to another anti-drug crusader, First Lady Nancy Reagan, as well as then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. And if the Reagan years established Sembler as a Republican power broker, the Bush years cemented it.
Sembler was not only one of Bush’s biggest individual donors, contributing more than $100,000, but also Bush’s Florida fundraising chief and the chairperson of his inaugural committee. When Bush took office in 1989, Sembler was nominated for the plum role of ambassador to Australia.
It was a controversial nomination, considering his political largesse; cartoonist Garry Trudeau even lampooned it in his Doonesbury comic strip. (Sembler’s reaction: “You really need a good sense of humor when you get into politics.”)
By many accounts, he proved to be a good statesman, well-liked by the Australian public. Later, in 2001, while serving as ambassador to Italy, he hosted a screening of the film “A Beautiful Mind” at the U.S. embassy. Russell Crowe, the film’s Australian star, came by and visited for hours, recognizing Sembler as a public figure in his home country.
That second ambassadorship almost didn’t happen. President George W. Bush originally pegged Sembler to head the Export-Import Bank, the official credit agency of the United States. Sembler withdrew his nomination when he learned the bank provided loans to banks he did business with.
Instead, he accepted the post in Italy, which, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, proved more consequential than expected. He helped orchestrate strategic partnerships with the Italian government during the global war on terror. Today, a building at the U.S. embassy in Rome is named in Sembler’s honor.
“I come into contact with people in the governments of Italy and Australia, and I can tell you Mel Sembler was beloved,” Republican strategist Karl Rove said in 2019. “And that’s because he not only represented America well but because he was always a straight shooter.”
Sembler’s influence played a role in Tampa landing the Republican National Convention in 2012, though he wasn’t directly involved in organizing the event. He was busy that year serving as Mitt Romney’s national finance co-chairperson.
In 2016, he supported Jeb Bush for president, and when Bush dropped out, pushed for Sen. Marco Rubio. After Rubio also dropped out, Sembler initially seemed to waver over supporting Donald Trump, telling the Times he’d “have to give serious thought” to voting for Hillary Clinton.
“Times have changed, the country has changed, the electorate has changed,” he said. “I don’t understand our country anymore.”
In the end, he not only backed Trump, but was vice-chairperson of his inaugural committee.
“I’m a supporter of the party,” he would say, “and he’s leader of my party.”
Mel Sembler was preceded in death by his wife, Betty, who died in 2022. They had three children, 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.