tampabay.com

He's Obama's political muscle in Florida

A brassy Miami lawyer wrings $4.5-million from Floridians.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2007


MIAMI -- In any conversation of more than a few minutes, Barack Obama's top advocate in Florida is apt to bellow, "I'll kick your a--," become agonizingly corny about the greatness of America, make an off-color ethnic joke, and predict that Republicans will nominate John McCain "because he's like the last chick left in the bar."

Suffice to say, Miami lawyer Kirk Wagar, Obama's roguish Florida chairman, has not mastered the soaring rhetoric of the politics of hope.

But at 38, this cocky, born-again son of an arctic ship captain has emerged as one of the most important and courted Democratic players in America's biggest battleground state. Beneath Wagar's legendary political incorrectness is a ferociously loyal and idealistic champion who, not incidentally, can reel in reams of campaign checks.

"Lord knows I've spent enough time in cars, buses and planes with him the last eight years to have accumulated my list of Wagarisms. He's funny, he's tough, he's fun, he's relentless. He's cocky in the very best way,"said Sen. John Kerry, for whom Wagar raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and in 2004.

"He's just an unceasingly optimistic guy who doesn't know the meaning of the word 'quit,'" the 2004 Democratic nominee for president said. "In the darkest days before the Iowa caucuses, this guy was just a horse calling in every favor and chit he had to keep our doors open because he was absolutely convinced we were going to win."

This year it's Obama, whom Wagar describes as the most inspiring candidate America may ever see. He has helped Obama raise about $4.5-million out of Florida this year. Frank Sanchez, Obama's Tampa Bay area finance chairman, says Wagar has an inspiring, if unorthodox, leadership style.

"He has a level of sophistication about politics that is very, very high, and yet he can also talk to you like he just came out of a frat house," said Sanchez, a former Clinton administration official and Tampa mayoral candidate.

When pundits this summer were dismissing Obama's prospects against Hillary Clinton, Wagar was incessantly e-mailing positive news clips and upbeat analyses to hundreds of donors and friends across Florida.

"Kirk is one of those guys you want in the foxhole with you on a campaign because he will be with you when you are up, but he will also be with you fighting during the harder times when you are down," Obama said in an e-mail.

Mo Elleithee, a senior Clinton adviser and Wagar's best friend, remembers coming down to his New Year's Eve party in 2003, when most of the political world had written off Kerry. Elleithee was working for former Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential campaign.

"I remember joking that if he were to switch to Clark, I would try to deliver Madonna to do a fundraiser in his back yard. Well, he almost threw me out of his house," Elleithee said. "He is loyal beyond belief. He will run barefoot over a mile of broken glass to help a friend or fight for what he believes in."

Wagar is a husky former rugby player who tends to get noticed at buttoned-down political events. He variously dresses like a gangster with dark pinstripes and brown wing tips or like a Miami hipster in jeans, T-shirt and jacket. He has a knack for bluster and getting in people's faces.

"I tell him I think he's got Tourette's syndrome," Florida House Democratic leader Dan Gelber said of Wagar's fondness for profanity. "But I'll take any kind of abuse from him because Kirk's so well intentioned. The thing about him is, he's not a mercenary. He's a real believer who's in politics for all the right reasons. This is not one of these guys looking to get some influence after the elections."

Sitting recently in his Coconut Grove living room, his 2-year-old son Declan's toys scattered everywhere and walls sprinkled with photos of the family with John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and others, Wagar insisted he has no personal stake in who wins elections. Many of the donors he courts, he said, give money against their economic self-interest because Democrats tend to take aim at their tax brackets.

Long active in trial lawyer politics, he has been engaged in Democratic politics since the 1990s. But Wagar became a U.S. citizen only in 2004. He grew up in Perth, Ontario, and was the first member of his family to attend college.

He went to a conservative Christian college, where his liberal politics "went over like a turd in a punch bowl." He wound up getting his law degree at the University of Miami and fell in love with South Florida. He has a 19-year-old daughter from a teen romance, and a 22-month-old son with his wife of 11 years, Lara Murphy, a teacher and ballet dancer.

In Florida Democratic money circles, Wagar gained prominence helping Janet Reno's 2002 gubernatorial campaign, and helping the Kerry campaign, showing a knack for motivating young professionals and political newcomers.

Until the Democratic candidates promised to boycott Florida's Jan. 29 primary because it violated the national party schedule, Wagar did much more for Obama in Florida than raise money. He was a de facto press liaison, as well as political operative talking up Obama to state legislators and party leaders.

"If we can get them to say positive things about us, well, that gets pinheads like you in the press to write good stories, which makes it easier to raise money," the ever-diplomatic Wagar said.

It's less certain whether constant profanity and bombast helps raise money, but Wagar shrugged off that issue with a roar. "I'm a rugby player and my dad's a ship captain, for God's sakes!"

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.