He loves raising money for GOP

As Tampa seeks the 2008 Republican National Convention, it has a not-so-secret weapon: Al Austin, who has spent decades fundraising for the party.

Published August 13, 2006

TAMPA - Al Austin is so used to rubbing elbows with former President George Bush that he recently turned down an invitation to visit the Bush home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

"These things come up all the time," Austin said. "I get more than the average amount of invitations."

Instead, Austin and his wife, Beverly, visited family in Pennsylvania.

Austin has earned audiences with both George Bushes, Ronald Reagan and other prominent Republicans by building a reputation as one of the nation's top Republican fundraisers. Locally, he's credited with turning the Westshore area into one of Florida's largest business districts.

That's a legacy that will come in handy as Tampa seeks to lure the 2008 Republican National Convention. A top consideration for the site selection committee, which visits Tampa Aug. 20-22, will be the host city's ability to raise money for the event.

Austin jumped at the chance to co-chair Tampa's host committee. Hosting the 2008 convention would be a crowning glory for a man who has dedicated the past 40 years of his life to building Republican support in Florida.

"It's going to be a wonderful tribute to him when we win," said Dick Beard, co-chair of Tampa's host committee and former finance chair for the Republican Party of Florida.

Since announcing Tampa's intention to bid for the event, Austin has been cautiously optimistic about the city's chances. Tampa came close in 2004, losing out to New York City.

But Austin has the utmost confidence in this: He can raise the money necessary to stage the event. The committee set a tentative fundraising goal of $39-million.

By his own account, Austin personally has donated hundreds of thousands to the party and its candidates. And he's successfully solicited millions from other donors.

Since Austin took over as finance chair seven years ago, the Republican Party of Florida has become one of the nation's most successful political fundraising committees. In 2003 and 2004, Florida Republicans topped every other state party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"He's been a loyal enthusiastic Republican for all of his adult life," said Al Cardenas, a Miami lobbyist who met Austin when the two were working on Connie Mack's U.S. Senate campaign in 1988.

"When he asks others to help, he does it with moral authority because he does exactly what he's asking others to do."

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Austin grew up working on his family's egg farm in St. Petersburg. After graduating from high school and taking classes at the University of Tampa, he sold cars for a Lincoln Mercury dealer in downtown Tampa, then joined the Coast Guard.

Upon returning to Tampa in 1954, he and his father began building houses on Davis Islands. In the 1960s, they switched to commercial development on the cow pastures in the Westshore area, anticipating the growth that Interstate 275 and Tampa International Airport would bring.

Austin and his wife founded Tampa Preparatory School in the 1970s. Ten years later, he secured city and state funding to rehabilitate the University of Tampa minarets and in 2000 led an $80-million capital campaign to expand the campus.

He's also had some failures. He and his father tried to launch "Pickled Chicken," a ready-to-eat dinner in a bottle. In the 1980s, he unsuccessfully sought to build TampaSphere on Dale Mabry Highway, a high-end retail and residential complex where a Wal-Mart now sits. During the 1990s, he filed for Chapter 11 protection to prevent foreclosure on some of his Westshore properties.

"I've had more wins than losses," Austin said. "I'm a survivor."

Austin's financial success allows him to indulge in sports cars and an 18-room house on 6 acres in South Tampa.

But Alfred Austin remains down to earth. He insists on being called Al and likes toasted cheese for lunch. His favorite restaurant is Bob Evans. He doesn't drink and never smoked.

His fundraising success doesn't come from being boisterous or unusually charismatic, say people who know him. It comes from being persistent, direct and focused, says former Gov. Bob Martinez. He's not discouraged by negative responses, and he doesn't waste time with pleasantries.

Austin's social life revolves around the Republican Party and other fundraising and community events.

"Al always says he doesn't go on vacation because if he does, you lose time in raising money," Martinez said. "His idea of vacation is a political function."

* * *

Austin's rise to prominence in the Republican Party of Florida parallels the GOP's rise to power in the state.

"He was a Republican when Republican was a dirty word," said Zach Zachariah, a Fort Lauderdale cardiologist and major GOP contributor.

Austin said he has been asked to run for office often but always declined.

"I liked building buildings. I liked the excitement," he said.

But he also liked raising money.

"I found that it was very easy because all I had to do was ask all the subcontractors who worked for me. How could they say no? Whenever we had a fundraiser I'd just go and say, 'Listen, I want you to give me 500 bucks,' and they'd do it."

Another tactic is to organize a luncheon and go around the table, starting with someone he knows will donate, and ask for contributions.

"I could raise $15,000 to $30,000 just like that," he said. "I never had anybody in the room that wasn't capable of giving what I was asking."

Having Republicans holding high office also helps. Fundraising events that feature the governor, president or vice president are always successful.

Ana Cruz, former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, describes Austin as an ideologue and the type of person both political parties need.

"We are polar opposites in terms of partisan politics," Cruz said. "But I do respect his passion."

Austin said he has always been a Republican at heart, following in the footsteps of his father. But as a young man, he was a registered Democrat, because so few Republicans ran for office, and it was the only way to have a voice in the primaries.

That changed in the 1960s, when Claude Kirk entered Florida's political fray by running against Spessard Holland for the U.S. Senate.

"Spessard Holland, he's a well-known senator," Austin thought. "This guy must be nuts."

Indeed, Holland had been in the Senate since 1946 and was governor of the state before that.

But some business acquaintances told Austin they believed Kirk could get elected, despite the Republican Party's minimal support in the state. Kirk's supporters pointed out a complete unknown made a decent showing in the 1960 governor's race. So a well-funded, good candidate might be able to win.

"I was young and gullible, so I said: 'That sounds pretty logical to me,' " Austin said.

Kirk lost, but in 1966 he ran for governor against Robert King High from Miami. This time, he won.

Kirk became the first Republican governor in Florida in nearly 100 years, and Austin switched his party registration to Republican.

"With Claude Kirk we discovered you could win office," he said. "The precedent had been set."

As thanks for his commitment to the party, Austin has had several political appointments.

Kirk tapped him to head the Florida Racing Commission. Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed him to the Hillsborough Aviation Authority and the military base closure advisory committee. He's served as a member of Florida's Electoral College at least three times.

He has turned down two presidential appointments that would have taken him away from home.

He unquestioningly supports President Bush and says Republicans who don't are weak and tarnished by media coverage of the Iraq war.

"I support the president for all the right reasons. His approval ratings should be in the 65 to 70 percent range because we've enjoyed a tremendous economic upturn," he said. "He doesn't get credit for all the good things he has done."

There have been no terrorist attacks in the United States since 2001, he likes to point out. The Patriot Act is intended to spy on the "bad guys," and the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are terrorists, he said.

Austin met with Bush just a few weeks ago.

"He comes bouncing in the room like he's on top of the world," Austin said.

The president doesn't read the newspaper or watch TV, Austin said. Instead, he gets daily reports from Karl Rove.

"If anybody thinks this guy's dumb, they're idiots, because this guy has it together, and I know that from personal experience," Austin said. "I'm proud that I know him."

* * *

In recent years, Austin has scaled back his business dealings. At one time, he controlled 1.5-million square feet of office space. Now he owns about 500,000 square feet and has turned over the day-to-day operations of the Austin Co. his son-in-law, Nelson Guagliardo.

"You have to have fire in your belly to do these things," Austin said. "I wanted to have more freedom."

He has two daughters, one who works as a nurse in California and another who lives in Tampa and has two children, ages 5 and 8. Austin, who once dreamed of being a cartoonist, draws pictures for his grandchildren and goes to their T-ball games and dance recitals.

His wife of 47 years is his guiding light, he said. She's the one who pushed him decades ago to start giving back to the community by getting involved in the Easter Seals.

"She's my role model. She's as good as they come. She's sincere, dedicated and everybody loves her," he said.

These days, she wants him to slow down.

Austin said he told her he would - after the 2008 Republican National Convention.

"I promised my wife that's it for me. No more politics," Austin said. "Hell, I'll do fundraising for people I like. But on an occasional basis."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com 813 226-3401.