On Nov. 4, Florida Republicans joined with their counterparts around the country to celebrate a number of big victories. The next day, a group of Republicans gathered in Orange Park to lament a tremendous loss.
We were there to remember the man many believe was the architect and general contractor who laid the foundation for this year’s successes two decades prior. We celebrated the life and times of Thomas Howell Slade, Jr., the most consequential Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) in its history.
Slade passed away rather suddenly on Oct. 20. Those involved in politics somehow expect an “October Surprise” prior to an election, but this one was particularly cruel.
The memorial brought admirers and beneficiaries of, as well as donors to, Slade’s vision and generosity. The tales brought memories and laughs, but they also reaffirmed his enormous accomplishments in a short period of time.
Tom Slade was more than just the Chairman of the RPOF. He was a leader, a mentor, a motivator, a policy wonk, a prodigious fundraiser and a visionary. Those of us fortunate enough to work with him and for him saw these traits up close.
To some extent, the Capital Press Corps who covered him understood what was happening. While awaiting the next sound bite, usually mere moments away, they had to know they were witnessing the re-branding of the Republican Party.
After assessing the state of the Republican Party in Florida, Slade sought the job of chairman anyway. In January 1993, Democrats controlled Florida.
Slade took it upon himself to become involved in candidate recruitment and training. His belief in developing a “farm system” of potential statewide candidates helped the GOP eventually gain the upper hand. Among his key first term successes were Frank Brogan, who became Education Commissioner, and retired Gen. Bob Milligan, who became Comptroller in 1994.
His approach to fundraising led to many successes. Large-dollar donors would donate either believing in the cause or just to get Slade off the phone. His person-to-person touch was effective.
Leaders don’t do it all by themselves, so Slade hired astute operatives to build the party machine. He also recognized the power of technology to turn out voters.
Slade’s first election cycle as chairman saw Jeb Bush nearly upset Gov. Lawton Chiles and victories by Brogan, Milligan and Sandy Mortham, who won election to succeed Jim Smith as Secretary of State. Over the same period, Republicans gained a 20-20 tie in the Florida Senate and narrowed a 24-seat gap in the House of Representatives to only six seats.
Without question, Florida was now a two-party state. Bush’s election as governor in 1998 marked the end of Slade’s six-year tenure at the RPOF, but he passed on a legacy and a foundation for those who followed.
We know Slade was not a perfect man (who is?), but he sure had fun doing what he was doing and we had fun doing it with him. The good news was he was almost unfailingly quotable. The bad news was he was almost unfailingly quotable.
The mission was to get under the skin of opponents and speak for the rank-and-file, but once in a while he could infuriate Republicans as well. Those of us serving as spokespeople carried rhetorical pooper-scoopers to clean up after the chairman from time to time.
But we would not have had it any other way. Neither would the Capital Press Corps, who never had it so good.
Sadly, many of us recall attempts to take advantage of his good nature. Once, some cocktails and candid comments he thought were off the record turned into an attempt to portray him as a racist, which was patently ridiculous.
This year’s elections would have pleased him and perhaps he played some role in the size of the GOP victory. His obituary contained the obligatory “in lieu of flowers,” but the alternative was an admonition to vote early, or send in absentee ballots or vote on Election Day.
Neither the most optimistic Republican nor the most pessimistic Democrat could have imagined the changes begun 20 years ago under Slade’s leadership. Chairman Slade (none of us felt comfortable calling him Tom), was the right man at the right time for the job.
Democrats should feel optimistic that such a person exists for them. They must look harder for that person because the Creator broke that mold many election cycles ago.
Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. From 1996-1999 he was Communications Director for the Republican Party of Florida under Tom Slade.