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Businessman wields hammer in politics

Sam Rashid can count among his vanquished former Commissioners Dottie Berger and Ben Wacksman.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2001


Sam Rashid can count among his vanquished former Commissioners Dottie Berger and Ben Wacksman.

TAMPA -- The matter before the Hillsborough County Commission Tuesday morning was the sort of thing that usually gets rubber-stamped.

A landowner wanted to put a two-story retail building on Oakfield Drive in Brandon. The proper zoning already was in place. Only one person objected, a neighbor who said her back yard would no longer feel private.

Commissioner Jan Platt was the lone dissenter.

It wasn't the project that bothered Platt. It was the owner.

"I didn't feel comfortable," Platt said later, "because of the perception of his influence."

The developer was Sam Rashid, a wealthy Plant City businessman known for a bare-knuckled approach to local politics and conservative causes. His network of like-minded business types has helped sink politicians such as former Hillsborough County Commissioners Dottie Berger and Ben Wacksman.

"Sam believes absolutely in what he's doing," said longtime friend David Hurley, owner of Landmark Engineering & Surveying Corp. "No one can say Sam is two-faced."

Affable and at times self-deprecating, Rashid moves through the political arena to his own beat. If he stands for anything, he says, it's fiscal responsibility. He opposes certain taxes but says others are critical. He hates government funding of the Tampa Museum of Art but shrugs off the mayor's plans to throw $14-million at the Lowry Park Zoo, saying it serves more people. A practicing Catholic, Rashid won't touch social issues, even abortion, asserting they're personal matters. He'll even back the occasional Democrat when it suits him.

"I don't lobby for anyone but my own opinion," Rashid, 39, said recently, sitting in the cafe of the Hillsborough County Center and letting his coffee get cold.

And yet, he's the first to admit he makes people like Platt nervous.

"These guys are creating their own myth; they're creating their own monster," he said. "Why is there so much angst about me, about who I am or what I represent?"

Critics say it is partly because Rashid, a family man who lives in Valrico and sells precision saws, already has too much sway in county politics. Platt accuses him of trying to control the County Commission with dollars and psychological intimidation during election time. Others say his influence now straddles the city. Mayor Dick Greco invited Rashid to lunch at the Tampa Club about a month ago to introduce himself.

A Pakistani native who settled in Tampa 20 years ago, Rashid does more than mount formidable political campaigns. He goes after elected officials with special vengeance, some say.

"He doesn't just talk mean and say, "I want to kill you politically,' " said Mike Scionti, Hillsborough Democratic Party chairman. "He does it."

As an example, some point to the political demise in 1998 of former Commissioner Berger, a Republican. She had voted in favor of allowing taxpayers to decide by referendum whether to foot the bill for Tampa's new stadium, Rashid's hot-button issue.

In return, Rashid raised money for Tim Curtis, Berger's Republican opponent, and she lost the primary. When Berger was then offered an appointment as deputy secretary to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Rashid weighed in against her with Jeb Bush's administration.

"I said I didn't feel very good about it, because in my opinion, she had just come off a resounding electoral defeat, and small-business owners had spoken very loudly that they did not trust her," Rashid said.

The offer to Berger was withdrawn. Rashid's pick, former state Sen. Charlie Crist, got the job instead.

"He really didn't like me," Berger said of Rashid. "And that's putting it mildly."

Last year, Rashid ran Stacey Easterling's campaign for a County Commission seat. He also bought the rights to five Web sites that contained the name of her opponent, Democrat Wacksman.

"I think that's just a dirty, foul approach to politics," said Wacksman, who was defeated.

Rashid is one of three Republicans who organized the group "Balance to the Bench," to unseat a Florida Supreme Court justice whose ruling favored Vice President Al Gore during the elections imbroglio.

And over the past several years, Rashid said, he has given about $5,000 to the Tampa police union. An additional $1,000 recently went to Jim Thompson, who was up for re-election as union president.

Thompson lost. But Rashid's contribution was criticized as an early move to line up police support for his favorite mayoral candidate in the heavily contested 2002 race.

"It's a lot easier to call up Jimmy and find out who they're leaning toward (for a mayoral endorsement) when I've helped him out," Rashid said.

Lobbying is second nature to him. At a Tampa backgammon championship in 1981, Rashid met a woman who bested him at the game, then snubbed him when he asked her out. Over six months, Rashid phoned her repeatedly with the vigor of a campaign manager.

She finally agreed to lunch at the revolving restaurant atop the Tampa Airport Marriott. It was there that Rashid broke the news: Someday, he told her, he would marry her.

"I think she almost choked," said Rashid with a laugh.

Three years later, she became Mrs. Geri Rashid.

Today, they live in a five-bedroom house with a pool room on Sugar Loaf Lane. In the early 1980s, Rashid converted from Islam to Catholicism, and the couple's two children go to Nativity parochial school. Mrs. Rashid owns a Brandon beauty salon and drives a 2001 BMW 740i sedan.

Rashid, whose father was an industrialist, said he attended English-language school in Karachi until the family moved to London when he was in the sixth grade. A year later, they settled in Vancouver.

He relocated to Tampa in 1981 for a Canadian lumber company and started his own business a few years later, importing huge, German-made saws. That led to his first taste of politics.

Gov. Lawton Chiles wanted to impose a corporate income tax in 1991 and needed businesses to back him. Rashid was one of 50 business people Chiles beckoned to Tallahassee to sell his plan.

But instead of being won over, Rashid took a stand against the governor, telling him the tax was flawed.

"I remember clearly what I said," Rashid said. "People applauded."

The tax proposal failed. And Rashid was hooked.

"I realized it was a lot easier to take a proactive role than a reactive one," he said.

Rashid, who became an American citizen in 1995, says his life is filled with simple pleasures. He takes his children to school and helps them with homework. He avoids social clubs and spends weekdays at Holtec, his business on Sydney Road, which he said grosses about $5-million annually.

"Frankly, I think I'm mainstream United States," he said. "I just happen to be able to do a little bit more than just cast a vote."

In the past decade, he has raised between $700,000 and $1-million for statewide or Hillsborough County campaigns, he recently told the Florida Elections Commission. The commission was investigating the Wacksman Web sites purchases, but found Rashid hadn't violated elections laws.

Rashid says he has nothing to gain personally from his political involvement. In the past year, he purchased two Brandon properties for retail development, but says he has no plans to further enlarge his real estate holdings. He also says he is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and make a few phone calls when he feels his position on certain issues isn't obvious.

Col. David Parrish worked for two years to add a child care center to the Hillsborough County jail in order to better retain detention deputies. Parrish had lined up federal money to cover most of the project, and it had sailed through the commission late last year.

But when Rashid heard that public funds would be used, he said, he complained to Sheriff Cal Henderson (whom Rashid had supported for re-election) and a county commissioner, though he said he couldn't remember which one. Soon after, Commissioner Chris Hart made a motion for the nursery to go to bid instead of allowing the county to build it as planned. All but Commissioners Platt and Thomas Scott followed suit.

"It's kind of on hold for the time being," said a disappointed Parrish.

Beyond Hart and Easterling, Rashid has also backed Commissioners Scott and Jim Norman.

"Most people feel he controls the County Commission," Greco said. "I don't know. But I'm sure they listen to him."

Platt, a Democrat who last year defeated opponent Joe Chillura, heavily supported by Rashid, has sharp words for Rashid.

"If he wants to exert control, let him run for office," she said.

In the past few years, the Rashids gave a total of about $37,000 to statewide and local candidates. But even his critics agree that Rashid's biggest strength lies with his fundraising and forceful campaigns.

"We lay out a strategy: who to meet, which houses to walk, mailing lists," said Rashid, who rattles off precinct statistics by rote. "We bring in a whole team of people: political consultants, artists that create the image."

Rashid doesn't appear to hold grudges. He had only compliments last week for Commissioner Pat Frank, the Democrat who beat Tim Curtis, the Republican candidate Rashid supported in 1998.

Rashid mentioned he would back Frank in her next re-election bid, "if she'll have me."

Frank, when told of the remark, was flattered.

"Oh, my golly," she said. "I'll take all the help I can get."

- Staff researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or wexler@sptimes.com.

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