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    Developer to be ambassador to Italy

    Mel Sembler, whose company developed BayWalk, is a big fundraiser and friend of the Bush family.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 15, 2001


    St. Petersburg shopping center developer Mel Sembler will be named the next U.S. ambassador to Italy.

    Sembler, whose company recently developed BayWalk and Centro Ybor, is a major Republican fundraiser and a longtime friend of the Bush family.

    The White House has not announced his appointment, but the St. Petersburg Times has learned that President Bush has tapped Sembler for the job and has submitted Sembler's name to the Italian government.

    Sembler, 71, would not comment Saturday.

    "We're not at liberty to say anything," said his wife, Betty Sembler. "Any announcement would have to come from the White House."

    In choosing Sembler, Bush is following the time-honored tradition of rewarding prominent fundraisers with coveted ambassadorships.

    Sembler has been a heavy hitter in Republican politics for two decades, raising campaign money for George W. Bush, his brother Jeb Bush, their father George Bush, and Ronald Reagan.

    Sembler served as U.S. ambassador to Australia during the previous Bush administration. More recently, he headed the Republican Party's national finance committee before stepping down in January to spend more time with his family.

    Sembler has been building shopping malls, strip centers and outlet malls in Florida and Tennessee for three decades. He is chairman of the Sembler Co., which operates out of the Sembler Center at 5858 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.

    Before Sembler heads to Rome, his appointment must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate -- a process that was turbulent for him the last time around.

    After George Bush was elected president in 1988, Sembler was among a handful of his ambassadorial nominees who came under fire from Senate Democrats for their lack of foreign policy experience.

    "Picking Lemons for the Plums? Bush selects some rich but unqualified ambassadors," said a headline in Time magazine. In one Doonesbury comic strip, a character resembling Sembler won the ambassadorship to Australia by bidding at an auction, saying, "I just promised the kids a country where they could surf."

    Sembler responded by telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "I have held to the belief that you can and will succeed through hard work and persistence." The Senate approved him.

    In Australia, his performance as ambassador won favorable reviews and quieted his critics.

    Now the new President Bush is whittling down a list of friends and allies who want to be ambassadors.

    About 1,700 people applied or were recommended to the White House for the top jobs at U.S. embassies. Two hundred made the first cut. About 50 will be chosen.

    Recent presidents have set aside about a third of the ambassadorial jobs for political appointees, with the rest going to veteran foreign service officers.

    The United States staffs about 160 embassies worldwide. Assignments in Africa, Latin America and Asia mostly go to career diplomats.

    This year, President Bush nominated Sembler to head the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that loans money to help foreign countries and companies buy U.S. goods and services. Sembler turned down the job after learning of a possible conflict of interest: the agency loans money to some of the same banks that finance Sembler's real estate ventures.

    News that Sembler, who lives in Treasure Island, has been picked to be ambassador to Italy infuriated some New York Republicans, who had wanted Bush to choose an Italian-American, the New York Daily News reported Saturday.

    Bush, on a second European trip next week, will spend three days in Genoa, Italy, for an economic summit. From there, he travels to Rome to meet with Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and later Pope John Paul II.

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