East Hillsborough County developer has top role in RFK Jr. campaign

John and Kay Sullivan, active in the Brandon-Riverview area, have ties to the Kennedy family dating to their time in Massachusetts.
John and Kay Sullivan outside the Winthrop Town Centre they developed in Riverview. [Times (2013)]
John and Kay Sullivan outside the Winthrop Town Centre they developed in Riverview. [Times (2013)] [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 23

East Hillsborough County, it turns out, has a surprising connection to the 2024 presidential race — John Sullivan, a prominent Riverview-area tax accountant and lawyer turned real estate developer and civic activist. He is serving as national treasurer for the presidential campaign of Kennedy family scion Robert Kennedy Jr.

Sullivan, who built the Winthrop Town Centre planned community near Riverview, is originally from Massachusetts, and has a long-time connection to the legendary Kennedy political family and to RFK Jr. His connection to the campaign is one reason Kennedy held one of his first fundraising events in Tampa in May, just after announcing his presidential run in April.

Sullivan and his wife Kay are well-known, long-time community activists in the Brandon-Riverview area; he is a former president of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce, and she has been actively involved in the arts, friends say.

Sullivan declined to be interviewed because he’s not authorized to speak publicly for the campaign. Campaign finance personnel typically are reluctant to comment publicly on political issues.

But his connection to the campaign is something of a political anomaly.

Sullivan, a Democrat, has not been heavily involved in politics, according to voter and campaign finance contribution records. He has donated occasionally to campaigns of candidates of both parties, mostly local.

His daughter Sarah Sullivan, somewhat more involved, formerly worked in the Obama White House. Long-time friend Mark Proctor, a local political consultant, said John Sullivan was also involved in the Obama presidential campaign, which had an office in Winthrop.

But Kennedy’s conspiratorial stances on issues including vaccine skepticism have alienated many Democrats, including some in the Kennedy family.

Kay Sullivan is vice chairperson of Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit set up by Kennedy, while he is on leave as its chairman during the campaign. It describes itself as advocating for alternative and natural medicine and vaccine safety, but has been widely accused of disseminating dangerous misinformation on vaccines.

Kennedy previously embraced the debunked theory that childhood vaccines cause autism, and has compared the federal response to COVID-19 to the Nazi regime.

The Sullivans have told reporters in the past that they set out to develop Winthrop Town Centre in the 1990s, despite having no experience in real estate, because they wanted to live in a walkable, close-knit community but also wanted to stay in East Hillsborough, which is heavily developed as traditional suburbs.

Winthrop was designed originally by Andrés Duany, a leader in the New Urbanism movement in municipal planning, best known for designing the Seaside community near Panama City. Winthrop now boasts a population of about 1,200, nine restaurants and numerous businesses, including dental and medical offices, with numerous live-work spaces, according to its web site.

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As Irish Catholics in Massachusetts, the Sullivans had a natural connection to the Kennedys, and host an annual St. Patrick’s Day party, Proctor said.

Winthrop Town Centre is named in honor of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a legendary figure in the state.