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  1. Florida Politics

Florida campaign manager Susie Wiles says the Donald Trump she knows is not the one critics rip

Susie Wiles got her start with U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, then joined President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Susie Wiles got her start with U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, then joined President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Published Oct. 24, 2016

ORLANDO — What's a genteel, chamber of commerce, establishment Republican like Susie Wiles doing on a campaign like Donald Trump's?

Longtime admirers of Wiles, the daughter of legendary NFL broadcaster Pat Summerall, lately have been asking themselves — and Wiles — that question a lot as she steers Trump's tumultuous and divisive campaign in must-win Florida.

"I actually tried to talk her out of it. I didn't think it would be good for her," University of North Florida president John Delaney said of Wiles, his chief of staff when he was mayor of Jacksonville in the 1990s.

"I said, 'Susie, I don't think this is who you are.' But she has an uncanny nose for the mood of the people and she saw that he was going to win" the primary, said Delaney, who is so turned off by Trump he wrote in House Speaker Paul Ryan's name on the mail ballot he has already cast.

In the summer of 2015, most of Florida's Republican elites lined up with home state favorites Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Wiles, a 59-year-old lobbyist and communications consultant, became co-chairwoman of Trump's Florida campaign.

"Bringing on Susie is one of the few smart decisions that I've seen the Trump campaign make this year," said Democratic consultant Chris Hand of Jacksonville. "Frankly, if Donald were running as a Susie Wiles Republican — reasonably conservative, pro-environment, pro-investment — he might have a real chance of being elected president on Nov. 8."

In Jacksonville, where Wiles advised Delaney in the '90s and Mayor John Peyton from 2004 to 2009, she is best known for championing environmental causes and helping gain support for more government spending on local services. She led a successful ballot initiative for a half-cent sales tax to pay down pension debt in the city just before she took over day-to-day management of Trump's Florida operation in September.

This is not her first candidate to challenge the political establishment. She worked for her political idols, Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan, who also bucked the GOP establishment in many ways. But they also offered warmth and optimistic views of America that could hardly be more different than Trump.

Wiles ran Rick Scott's gubernatorial campaign in 2010, one of the few Floridians at the top of that campaign organization.

Washington-based Republican consultant Tim Miller worked with Wiles in 2008 when she managed the presidential campaign of another candidate very different from Trump — moderate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Miller has become one of the most visible and unyielding critics of Trump, calling him dangerous to America and a disaster for the GOP.

He is at a loss to explain how his friend could work for Trump.

People make compromises when working in politics — no candidate is perfect — but most people who get into that line of work start "with an element of ideological purity because you felt passionate about a certain issue or a certain candidate or ideology or viewpoint of the country," said Miller, a senior adviser on Jeb Bush's presidential campaign.

"But Donald Trump is so far away from the ideology that I know Susie and I and so many people came up in — of Reagan's sunny optimism and conservatism and small government and empowering individuals rather than autocrats. I can't understand how you would sacrifice that purity to go work for him."

Wiles makes no apologies.

At the start of this cycle she saw 16 or 17 Republicans running, and none of them represented the kind of sweeping change she believes Washington needs. Year after year, her party has fallen more and more into "an expediency culture" and lost sight of core principles.

"I said, 'I don't want this to continue.' I think it seriously will damage our republic and who among that group can really have the fortitude to shift what I've seen happening over all these years?" Wiles said.

Brian Ballard, her partner at the lobbying firm Ballard Partners, arranged for Wiles to meet Trump, his client, in New York. She was sold, she said, by his strength and smarts.

Wiles presides over a campaign operation vastly smaller than Democrat Hillary Clinton's in Florida, spending less than half of what the Clinton campaigns has on TV ads. Democrats so far have significantly cut into the Republicans' traditional advantage in mail ballots cast, but a recent infusion of additional money has helped the GOP.

In Trump campaign headquarters on the 10th floor of a downtown Orlando office building, Wiles sounded more optimistic than confident. And she brushed off questions about Trump's offensive comments and inflammatory behavior, along with any insinuation that she has put principles aside to elect Trump.

"I'm committed to change, and fundamentally that's why I'm here," she said.

The sexual misconduct allegations? The boorish behavior, conspiracy theories, attack on the mother of a fallen soldier, and on and on?

"I will tell you this: The Donald Trump that I have come to know does not behave that way, and the lens that I look at him through, I don't see any of that. I see strengths, I see smarts, I see a work ethic that is unparalleled," she said. "I blanch sometimes. But, again, it's not the Donald Trump that I have come to know."

Wiles grew up in New Jersey, one of Summerall's three children. Her first job was working for Kemp in the U.S. House of Representatives before joining Reagan's administration in 1980.

She met her husband, renowned Republican campaign advance man Lanny Wiles, who also worked for Reagan. They moved close to Jacksonville in 1985, and Wiles also worked for former Republican U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler.

A reporter interviewing Wiles last week wondered whether she thought her first boss and mentor, Kemp, would roll over in his grave to see how the Republican nominee of 2016 repels minorities with his rhetoric. Decades before most GOP leaders concluded the party's long-term viability depended on attracting more minority support, Kemp had urged Republicans to embrace diversity and court all Americans with principled conservatism.

"But he was so much more evolved as a politician by the time I got there," said Wiles, who worked for Kemp in 1979 and 1980. "We don't know where that evolution might take Donald Trump. I happen to believe he's not a person who necessarily sees color or ethnicity; he doesn't operate that way. So I would hope he evolves in the same way Jack did over time."

Later in the conversation, she returned to Kemp.

"Back to that point about Jack Kemp rolling over in his grave. He would about some of the (Trump) phraseology," she allowed. "But he was such a competitor, I know he would admire the grit that Donald Trump exhibits. I know he would."

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.