An unknown to lead Florida's GOP

Published January 26, 2007

When Charlie Crist tapped his pal Jim Greer to lead the Republican party in America’s biggest battleground state, the reaction among party activists was pretty much universal.

Jim who?

“Everybody was scratching their heads because that was the first anybody had heard of him,’’ said Hillsborough Republican state committeewoman Carole Carter. “To bring in somebody new like that, who doesn’t even know the party’s procedures, in this two-year period when we have an open presidential election, is beyond my imagination.”

Greer, who is expected to be elected the new GOP chair today   in Orlando, is indeed a big departure for party activists accustomed elevating to high profile party leaders.

At 44, Greer is a self-made millionaire who helps clients comply with state liquor and food regulations. Clients have included major restaurant chains and Tampa Bay’s adult entertainment magnate Joe Redner.

He also does a mean Elvis impersonation.

Until recently, Greer had never served on a local Republican Executive Committee, but he impressed Charlie Crist mightily with his energy, formidable fundraising and organizing skills in the Orlando area.

Among Greer’s top priorities are minority inclusion and building a strong field organization to help elect a Republican president in 2008.

“He’s a new face, and I think that’s an important part of it. I have confidence in Jim. He was chairman for our effort in Seminole County, he did a great job,’’ Crist said.

He’s also the latest example of Gov. Crist aggressively putting his own stamp on Florida government and the state GOP. Greer was an early supporter of Crist and of Jeb Bush, and his allies predict he’ll inject new energy and ideas into a party that can’t afford complacency.

“It’s going to be an entrepreneur in charge of the party instead of a politician. He’ll be a great chairman and leader of our party,’’ said U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, who comes from Oviedo, outside Orlando, where Greer is vice mayor.

While anything can happen with a secret ballot, Greer is widely expected to be elected chairman by party activists gathered for their quarterly meeting at Disney World today. No one has stepped forward to challenge him, though current GOP Chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan has not endorsed him.

At least initially Crist’s selection drove a wedge between two crucial groups of GOP activists - the politicians and elite money-raisers like Greer, and the grass roots door-knockers and phone bank operators suspicious of a party novice leaping to the top. Which is why Greer has spent much of the past three months traveling the state introducing himself to local party activists.

 Pasco Republican Chairman Bill Bunting said he’s giving Crist and Greer the benefit of the doubt, but acknowledged Greer faced some tough questions at a recent private meeting with Tampa Bay party activists.

“It was the like old fashioned Tammany Hall in New York City,’’ Bunting recalled. “There were questions flying; the hard knuckles hit the table. He answered each and every question and did a good job.’’

Skepticism is natural, Greer said.  “I’ll be a chairman of ideas, with a lot of energy, and a leadership philosophy that recognizes that 2007 is a year to build the foundation for success in 2008.’’ 

Greer ran unsuccessfully for state House in 1988 in Brevard County, was a Palm Bay city council member in the early 1990’s, and after moving to Seminole County was elected to the Oviedo City Council in 2004.

In 1984 he started a business helping the hospitality industry comply with state liquor regulations and has expanded into food service and other areas in 30 states.

A big part of the work is training restaurants to serve alcohol responsibly to limit business’ liability. Records show he was cited for an open alcoholic container violation in 1990 and convicted of driving under the influence in 1993, which Greer called a mistake he deeply regrets.

He said he will devote almost all his time to the party, and dismissed the potential for any conflict of interest between his business interests and the lobbyists who will work for him.

“It certainly does raise that potential for conflict of interest and potential problems for Gov. Crist,’’ said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida-St. Petersburg political scientist, working on a book about the Florida GOP.

But Paulson said he suspects Greer will be embraced by most party loyalists in the mood for change after losing ground in last year’s state elections.

Crist said he has no worries about conflict of interest and that a fresh face is great for the Florida GOP.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.