One Percenter

Mel Sembler: Mitt Romney’s Florida Fat Cat

There’s no stopping the Florida shopping-center magnate from raising money for Romney. By Lloyd Grove.

Alessandra Tarantin / AP Photos

Florida shopping-center magnate Mel Sembler is proud to personify the sort of Republican fat cat that Mitt Romney is depending on.

The 82-year-old Sembler—the erstwhile finance chairman of the Republican National Committee as well as a former U.S. ambassador to Italy (under the second President Bush) and Australia (under the first)—has been raising money for the one-term Massachusetts governor since they had a heart to heart in 2007. Romney was then gearing up for his first presidential campaign.

“He came and asked to sit down and have lunch with me,” Sembler tells me in his sprawling, power-photo-festooned office in St. Petersburg, just across Tampa Bay from the site of next week’s Republican National Convention. “I met him at the Palm in Tampa and brought some of my family with me. Mitt had flown in and his advance man was there. And the restaurateur came up to me and said, ‘Ambassador Sembler, would you believe it? The Romney people want to pick up this check today for lunch.’ I’ve never had a politician try to pick up a lunch check in my life!”

Sembler didn’t let him, of course. But if he had, Romney’s lunch-check ROI—that is, “return on investment,” as the venture capitalists like to say—would have trumped, by far, the most profitable deal Bain Capital ever made. In the past five years, Sembler has bundled many millions of dollars for the presumptive Republican nominee.

“We’ve raised $10 million in the state,” says Sembler, a silver-haired fellow in a vibrantly checkered sport jacket, who speaks as fast and emphatically as a man calling a horse race. “Florida has to raise 10 percent of whatever they raise nationally. So over the whole campaign, if they raise $500 million from major donors and $300 million from small donors, then of that $500 million, we’ll have to raise $50 million.”

Piece 'o cake, it seems. Sembler says the Romney campaign’s Florida money operation is on track to meet or exceed its goals, and last Friday at St. Petersburg’s posh Club at Treasure Island, he hosted Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s first fundraiser as Romney’s vice presidential running mate and collected over a million bucks from about 200 attendees.

“Why do people keep taking my calls?” Sembler muses. “I’ve got a fundraising event every month. They keep taking my calls because people understand that I do it for the right reasons. They don’t feel obligated to come, but if they want to change the way they’re governed, the most impactful way they can do it is to invest their money in a candidate and bring a voice. And that’s all money is in politics—it’s voice.”

Sembler has been giving and raising money for the GOP and its candidates for more than three decades; his Federal Election Commission disclosures, and those of his wife, Betty, go on for pages and pages.

“I’ve maxed out, so I have no more federal contributions left in the two-year cycle,” he says, adding that he isn’t giving to the various Republican-oriented super PACs such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and the Romney-supporting Restore Our Future. “I’m crazy about all of them,” Sembler says. “I’m crazy about what the Kochs are doing, about what Karl is doing, and I’m crazy about what Restore Our Future is doing. But I’m involved with the campaign.”

Surprisingly, Sembler was a loyal Democrat until 1979.

“Jimmy Carter made me a Republican,” he says. “I was in the antidrug war,” Sembler says, referring to a nonprofit he founded in 1976 to dissuade wayward youth from abusing illegal substances after discovering that one of his kids was a marijuana smoker. “And when Carter was doing all this pot smoking and stuff in the White House, I found it terribly distasteful.”

President Carter himself was getting stoned?

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“Well, that was going on,” Sembler claims—referring more to Carter’s staff than to the president himself. “It was just a big turn-off, and at that time we were treating thousands of kids for drugs all over the country. At any rate, I changed from a Democrat to a Republican in ’79, and I’ve been a Republican ever since.”

Sembler, today a neoconservative hawk and a pal of Dick Cheney’s, as well an activist in the Republican Jewish Coalition, also had little use for Carter’s attitudes toward Israel. He was an early supporter of George H.W. Bush, who ultimately rewarded him with the ambassadorship to Australia and Nauru (a tiny island republic in the Pacific Ocean), and later Bush’s politically successful sons Jeb, the two-term governor of Florida, and George W., who sent him to Rome.

Sembler, who before Australia had no experience as a diplomat, became a juicy target for satirist Garry Trudeau’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Doonesbury comic strip. Sembler was lampooned as a wealthy airhead who basically won the ambassadorship at auction. “Why Australia, may I ask? Any special connection?” a fellow fat cat asks the Sembler character in Trudeau’s strip. “No, no,” comes the answer. “I just promised the kids a country where they could surf.”

Two decades later, Sembler seems perversely delighted by the notoriety. “I don’t want this conversation to be about me,” he says with all due modesty. “But I personally like political ambassadors. The reason I say that is that I spent almost eight years as an ambassador in Asia and Europe, and what I found was that political ambassadors can take risks that career ambassadors cannot take. As long as they’re competent, as long as they understand what they’re doing, and surround themselves with good key personnel, they can be very effective.”

Sembler is especially well-connected in Israel, where he acted as tour guide for both George W. Bush, when he was governor of Texas, and Mitt Romney. He was invited to accompany Romney to Israel last month, a foreign-policy odyssey that also included Britain and Poland, but didn’t. He defends his candidate’s controversial observation, at meeting with Jewish Americans, that the Israeli economy is doing much better than the Palestinian economy because of inherent differences in “culture”—a remark that was widely condemned as racially insensitive in the Middle East and beyond.

“I think he was absolutely correct,” Sembler says. “It’s true, and I’ve been over it too many times. I see what’s going on over there.” He says Romney took heavy criticism in Israel because “he probably had the wrong press following him around.”

Sembler takes comfort in knowing that Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who has clashed repeatedly and publicly with President Obama—enjoy a warm relationship going back more than three decades.

“This was before Bain, when both were working at Boston Consulting as very young men,” Sembler says, referring to the well-regarded business strategy advisers. “Bibi said to me once, when I was seeing him for dinner in Israel, ‘I was like a private, and he was like a colonel.’ Bibi told me that they had known each other since they were very young men and had very high regard for one another because of their business experience. Bibi said something else to me. He said, ‘I was finance minister here in Israel, and I got a lot of distasteful criticism from Israelis because I had to make some tough decisions to get this socialist economy turned around. And I applied the things I learned at Boston Consulting—and it did turn the economy around, and now our economy is really humming.’ ”

Sembler is betting that Romney—once he’s elected president with Sembler’s help—will apply the same Boston Consulting principles to revive the troubled American economy. “I really think America is going to recognize the fact that we're not better off than we were four years ago,” he says. “The fact of the matter is we have an amateur for president of the United States who doesn't know what to do. And we can't keep letting this $15 trillion national debt come up—whether it’s 16, 17, or 18 trillion—with no direction and nothing to do about it. No leadership going on.”

Sembler says he, too, has suffered from the recession. Since 2008 the shopping-center development business has come to a screeching halt, and his company has laid off 100 of 165 employees. Like many of his friends and associates, he had prospered from the real-estate boom and didn’t see the bubble bursting until it was too late.

Not so his old friend Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino billionaire and former Newt Gingrich backer who has vowed to spend as much as $100 million this election cycle to help Romney and the Republicans.

“Sheldon said to me in 2006, ‘Mel, something is wrong in our economy.’ And I said, ‘But Sheldon, we’re blowing and going! We’re building so much stuff, we’re doing fantastic. What are you talking about?’ And Sheldon said, ‘My cocktail waitress on the floor at the Phoenician owns four condominiums in downtown Las Vegas. If the banks are loaning people money to speculate on real estate, it’s only a question of time before we’re in serious trouble.’ And he was absolutely right.”

In other words, let the high rollers speculate. As for the others, let them serve cocktails.