The man behind TV's antitax adsBy STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 11, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- Pat Roberts has been called dishonest by the president of the Florida Senate. Senators accuse him of spreading lies about a plan to change the tax system.
In a town where lobbyists live off political good will, Roberts doesn't mind a bit. He's the aggressor in Florida's bare-knuckled tax brawl, and it's a role he relishes playing.
With his thinning gray hair, black-rimmed glasses and cell phone clutched to his ear, Roberts could pass for any industry lobbyist in a town full of them. But his trade isn't insurance or optometry. It's television. As president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, Roberts lobbies for TV and radio stations that beam ads into living rooms.
That gives Roberts a powerful political weapon, and he's not afraid to use it.
Only Roberts sent his own TV crew to tape Senate President John McKay's allies as they filed into a strategy session next door to the Capitol. The not-so-subtle message: We're watching your every move.
Only Roberts stationed a camera in the Senate gallery to record speeches in favor of McKay's plan. "For posterity," he insists. The suspicion on the Senate floor was that Roberts was stockpiling material for more tax-bashing TV ads.
Only Roberts has his clients running antitax ads for free, while suggesting those same stations refuse to sell time to McKay's side.
C. Patrick Roberts, 51, has the beguiling manner and rapid-fire patter of a born salesman.
A former St. Petersburg resident who was born in Pensacola, he attended a Bible college in east Texas, and a North Carolina seminary for one year. He's a Baptist who at one point had a job setting up appearances in high school gyms for Christian youth evangelist Nicky Cruz.
Roberts' wife, Pam, grew up in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast, and her dad ran a large egg hatchery with the father of former House Speaker Peter Wallace of St. Petersburg.
Roberts, a father of four, won't discuss his salary. But he makes enough money for a 4,800-square foot home in Tallahassee and a getaway house in wealthy Seaside, the picturesque Panhandle beach town where he is also involved in real estate ventures. Further, he is developing a four-story retail and condominium project there, and he designed an interfaith chapel.
"I do more than beat up Senate presidents," Roberts says jokingly.
But he clearly loves this fight.
Roberts works out of a spacious office in what once was a living room of a restored two-story house a few blocks north of the Capitol. A Bible rests on a big oval desk. Cigarette in one hand, cell phone in the other, he fends off callers.
"Call me back in five minutes," he shouts into his phone.
Befitting a lobbyist for TV stations, Roberts talks in sound bites, with an emphasis on emotion and confrontation. The McKay plan "will kill this state," he says. Unveiling more negative ads even after McKay promised to exempt advertising from the tax plan, he protests: "Just buying us off won't work."
Devoid of subtlety, Roberts talks the way his ads sound. The signature antitax TV spot that ran for several weeks called McKay's plan "an income tax for many and a gigantic tax increase for all Floridians." In fact, it is neither.
An income tax is barred under Florida's Constitution. And McKay has said his plan would save the average family $227 a year.
He once served as a political adviser on the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of Al Haig and Bob Dole. He came to prominence in Florida two decades ago as an assistant to Jack Eckerd, the drugstore magnate, philanthropist and Republican candidate for governor.
"Giving away Jack Eckerd's money," Roberts says, was a great job, and it brought him into contact with an array of up-and-coming Republicans from Tom Gallagher to Bob Martinez.
In his first Florida campaign in 1982, Roberts said he helped catapult an obscure Mike Bilirakis into Congress.
Although Roberts generally supports Republicans, his rift with McKay has become ugly.
One day in January in his office, McKay blasted Roberts' ads as "absurd" and "extreme" in front of Roberts and his employers, the Florida Association of Broadcasters board. McKay especially criticized an 11-minute video that mocked McKay's presentation of his tax plan.
"It was not pleasant," recalled Bill Brooks, the former manager of WPTV-Ch. 5 in West Palm Beach and a member of the broadcasters' board who was there.
Roberts' salesmanship skills have brought him a special notoriety.
He has worked both sides of the casino gambling issue in two statewide campaigns. In 1986, he helped Eckerd lead a statewide anticasino drive. Eight years later, he resurfaced as head of the Proposition for Limited Casinos, which failed despite raising more than $16-million, a record at the time for a referendum campaign.
"He's always gone in the direction of where the money is," says Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, one of McKay's leading tax plan strategists. "I'm sure there's money in this."
Roberts says he's on a mission to save the business community, including advertisers, from higher taxes, and to make sure a similar tax plan doesn't resurface for a long time. He says all he wants is for his group to be reimbursed for TV production and Web site costs by the Coalition to Protect Florida's Economy, the political action committee made up of business groups that oppose McKay's plan.
"There is no economic benefit to the association or to me personally," Roberts says.
He played a prominent role in Florida's last big services tax battle in 1987. He had just taken charge of the broadcasters' group when the Legislature and then-Gov. Bob Martinez proposed taxing newspaper and TV ads. Roberts harnessed the electronic power of his clients, producing caustic, sometimes misleading TV ads that sought to sway public opinion against a services tax.
Martinez's then-chief of staff, J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, is now a lobbyist working with Roberts on the antitax campaign.
"Pat has been a standup, unafraid guy who's been representing his clients' interests without worrying about covering his own rear end," Stipanovich says. "We live in a town where boot-licking is an art form, and Pat doesn't have any polish on his tongue."
Attack ads worked in 1987, and Roberts says they're working now, as stations donate time to attack the tax plan. But McKay's plan steamrolled through the Senate, and the ad campaign doesn't appear to have whipped Floridians into an antitax frenzy. A business-sponsored poll showed more opposed than in favor, but the difference was less than 10 points.
McKay insists the tax battle has a long way to go, but the ever-confident Roberts figures he has already closed another sale. "It's over," he says.
Now that Gov. Jeb Bush has called for defeat of McKay's plan, Roberts describes himself as "the second-least popular guy in the Senate president's office." He almost sounds disappointed about that.
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