Former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida Tom Slade, 78, was remembered Monday at a ceremony in Tallahassee as a skilled strategist who was responsible for bringing the party to its current dominance in Florida politics today.
"If he had not been there, I'm convinced we would not have the party we have today,'' said John Thrasher, former House speaker, Republican Party chairman who is now newly-elected president of FSU. "Tom practiced tough love. I'm not sure he was always right but he never thought he was wrong."
Slade, a former state legislator, was chairman of the Republican Party of Florida from 1993 to 1999. He died of heart failure on Oct. 20 at Orange Park Medical Center.
Friends recalled his prowess as an intuitive strategist, a disciplined organizer, and a good quote who "really loved the press." They spoke of how he could cajole donors for funds, persuade reluctant candidates -- like Bob Milligan and Frank Brogan -- to consider running for statewide office and how he used Patton-like precision to get candidates to agree to avoid bloody primary battles.
"Tom Slade had an imposing personality" who "owned the room," said former GOP chairman Carole Jean Jordan.
She recalled how he tried unsuccessfully to run for national Republican Party chairman, a defeat that she believes had lasting consequences for the party.
"We lost the U.S. Senate the next term'' because of it, Jordan said.
David Johnson, who served as party executive director under Slade, organized the memorial service.
Johnson said when he came to Tallahassee there were few Republican jobs in town but working for Slade "was like playing for the Yankees."
Slade's former staffers and veterans of the media spoke about his willingness to speak openly to the press without talking points or spin. He never needed to go off the record, and he could employ his considerable verbal dexterity to advance the GOP position in any debate.
"He never met a reporter he didn't want to talk to,'' Jordan said. "And that was somewhat unfortunate."
In 1996, when Pat Buchanan was trying to control the platform debate over abortion, Slade told the Miami Herald’s Tom Fiedler: "The truth is, he has lost. The game's over. There's a Southern saying that 'There ain't no education in the second kick of the mule.' "
Jordon recalled how remarks like that once prompted a call from the George W. Bush White House.
"It wasn't the president but it was close,'' she said. "They said, 'Can you please stop Tom Slade's non-positive comments?' "
Al Cardenas, a Miami Cuban who succeeded Slade as party chairman, said that after he met Slade he thought, "I never met a guy more different than me" but realized they both had one thing in common: "We both hate to lose."
The era in which Slade ran the party was a "glorious decade" Cardenas said, but it was also "our most challenging."
He recalled Slade's fierce determination to raise money -- at one point charging each Republican candidate for president $50,000 to speak to GOP audiences in Florida. "Sure enough, they came and they paid,'' Cardenas said. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, however, arrived in Florida with laryngitis and had his wife fill in for him as a speaker.
When Wilson's aides asked for a discount on the fee, Slade's responded firmly: "hell no," Cardenas said.
Randy Enwright, another former political director under Slade, recalled how he was barely making $1,000 a month when he started working for the party but, under Slade, the landscape shifted to yachting trips and donor parties that helped enrich the party coffers.
"It's a little different ball game because of Tom Slade,'' he concluded.
Johnson joked that while Republicans came to the memorial to pay their respects, there were some Democrats in the audience who probably came "to make sure he was gone."
In honor of Slade, a hard-drinking veteran of Tallahassee watering holes, the group adjourned to Clyde's and Costellos.