tampabay.com

Crist tie powers lobbyist to top

The Tampa Bay Rays hope that insider Brian Ballard will score for them in their stadium drive.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published February 4, 2008


TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist scored a double victory last week with the passage of a property tax measure and John McCain's solid victory in the Florida Republican presidential primary.

Brian Ballard could also count a pair of wins. Less than two years after playing a key role in Crist's own victory, Ballard helped raise cash for Crist's "Yes on 1" campaign while also serving as a top Florida fundraiser for McCain.

Now, the Tampa Bay Rays hope Ballard can throw some magic their way. Last month, the team hired the intensely competitive Tallahassee lobbyist and simultaneously announced it would abandon for now any push for a state subsidy for its plans for a waterfront stadium.

In doing so, the young baseball team has turned to one of Florida's most politically connected insiders, a man who cut his teeth on politics at the University of Florida law school and who has been making a living at it ever since.

Ballard won't say if he advised his clients to drop their bid for this year, when state revenue is dwindling and budget cuts, not state subsidies, are the norm. But the consummate insider knows such efforts are never easy. For years he has tried unsuccessfully to strike a similar deal for a former baseball client, the Florida Marlins.

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In a world where the size and number of clients matters, Ballard's roster of 108 tops them all: Cities, counties, hospitals, insurers, utilities, developers, drugmakers, parimutuels and pro sports teams pay to have him and his six colleagues open doors. The firm billed $8-million in fees last year.

The lobbyist with top billing at Smith & Ballard is Ballard's father-in-law, Jim Smith, a former attorney general and secretary of state. Even before Crist took office, the company was among Tallahassee's most successful, matching the rise of Republican power in Florida's capital city.

Ballard was working toward a law degree at the University of Florida in the mid 1980s when he was a campaign gofer fetching snacks and luggage for Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez, who would become the second Republican governor since Reconstruction. By age 27, he was Martinez's chief of staff.

After his boss lost a re-election bid to Lawton Chiles in 1990, Ballard began collecting clients, and a few years later, Republicans were in control.

Ballard's forte is at the crossroads of government and business.

Among his biggest victories: In 2000, he successfully lobbied Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet to replace the vendor in charge of a statewide police radio network with his client, Com-Net Ericsson.

In 2003, the 46-year-old Delray Beach native persuaded the Florida Lottery to replace its online game vendor with his client, GTECH.

In the final hour of the 2006 session, he worked his will again as the Legislature gutted a law once championed by Crist that required detailed tracking of prescription drug shipments, a law that his retail clients opposed.

Ballard's zeal to win extends to the golf course, where he and his buddies force the loser to call the winner "Daddy" until the next match.

"He's a pathological competitor," said lobbyist Matt Bryan, a golfing partner. "When he's on the other side, you'd better pack your lunch."

But what's inseparable from Ballard the lobbyist is Ballard the fundraiser, who persuades clients to dole out money for state and federal candidates, mostly Republicans. In return, Ballard obtains ready access to key legislators.

The Florida Association of Counties, which pays Ballard's firm $50,000 a year, relies on Ballard to reach legislative leaders.

"They've got the reputation of being able to tap into leadership to carry the message," said John Wayne Smith, the group's legislative director. "And Brian is very strong with the governor."

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Today and Tuesday, as Crist joins McCain at campaign appearances in several states, Ballard will be there as well, enjoying unmatched access to Florida's governor.

He's a national finance co-chair for McCain's presidential effort and co-chaired Crist's inauguration, which made a public relations blunder by seeking $500,000 donations from rich donors only to have Crist cancel the events after a wave of criticism.

Some cynics see Ballard's allegiance with Crist as a calculated career move. Ballard takes offense.

What's now largely forgotten, he says, is that GOP primary opponent Tom Gallagher was viewed as the early favorite to win the 2006 race, not Crist. He also says his politics are similar to Crist's.

"He's my kind of Republican. He's against raising taxes, but he's in favor of leaving people alone," Ballard said. "He puts a more moderate face on the party, which is nice."

Crist calls him "a great friend."

"He's a brilliant man and he's been very kind to me," he says.

Most recently, the friends' mutual interest has been Amendment 1. Crist desperately fought to pass the measure. Ballard's clients include Florida Power & Light Co., a utility that got crossways with Crist when it supported Gallagher in 2006. Now the company is seeking to expand its Turkey Point nuclear power plant.

The utility company donated $1-million to the tax effort, roughly $1 of every $4 Crist used to keep his message on TV in the days before the election.

"I've been glad to help folks at FP&L get to know the governor better," Ballard said.

But the lobbyist says he has to make appointments with Crist's staff "just like everybody else" and doesn't always get in. He said he avoids lobbying Crist except in Crist's office with staff members present.

"I don't sneak it in while we're shooting the breeze," Ballard said. "It doesn't work that way. It would be gross."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.