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Fighter Works to Build Up Coffers

BY George Bennett
by George Bennett on 7/17/01.

Seven months after Mary McCarty took over as chairwoman, the Palm Beach County Republican Party has been transformed from a model of ineptitude to a money-raising machine with a beefed-up staff that calls on pricey consultants and pollsters for advice.

But while McCarty has been arming the GOP for battle against the county's dominant Democratic Party, some of her biggest fights have been with other Republicans.

The three-term county commissioner has never been shy about engaging in a political scrap with anyone from any party. The 46-year-old McCarty's dual role as party boss and public servant has brought even more attention to her skirmishes in recent months, from a campaign to oust Florida Supreme Court justices to a debate over the Boy Scouts of America to a rezoning for a Costco store.

Gaining less attention has been her retooling of the county GOP. A financial report submitted last week shows the county Republican Party amassed $355,119 in cash and in-kind contributions during the first half of 2001. That's $54,465 more than the GOP took in during the entire election year of 2000.

County Democrats, who received more than $1 million last year, have raised more than $150,000 so far in 2001.

McCarty's ability to raise big bucks for the GOP has drawn grudging praise from her critics in the party's conservative wing.

But those critics still muse about the possibility of supporting a primary challenger against McCarty next year when she runs for reelection to her commission seat. And conservatives aren't abandoning their struggle to get the GOP to take stands on thorny issues that "Big Tent" pragmatist McCarty would rather avoid.

Internal strife isn't new to the county GOP, but it could be significant next year in what already is shaping up as a nationally watched governor's race. The quarrelsome local GOP delivered a dismal 35.4 percent of the county vote for George W. Bush in last year's presidential race. State Republican strategists hope for a significant improvement next year for Gov. Jeb Bush's reelection effort.

"We know we under-performed in Palm Beach County," says state GOP Chairman Al Cardenas. "Mary has started out doing a great job. . . . I think she's off to a great start. She's far ahead of where we were two years ago."

McCarty said she wants to deliver at least 41 percent of the county vote for Jeb Bush - roughly the the percentage he got in Palm Beach County in his 1998 victory.

Challenger possible in primary
She'll be balancing that effort with her own reelection campaign. No candidates have filed for McCarty's south-county commission seat, but Democrats would love to unseat her or at least keep her busy. And some of McCarty's Republican critics suggest she might face a primary challenge.

"I would be very surprised if Mary McCarty got through the 2002 cycle without a primary opponent," says attorney Rob Ross, who ran against McCarty for party chairman in December. "Have I decided to pledge fealty to Queen Mary? Absolutely not."

Republican State Committeeman John Parsons supported McCarty's 1998 primary foe, Sally Stewart, and says the fact that McCarty is now party chairwoman wouldn't deter him from backing another primary rival.

"Just because someone's an incumbent or the leader of your party doesn't mean that's the one you would support," Parsons says.

McCarty is one of seven county GOP chairmen in Florida who also is an elected official. She says she took on the double duty because she feared the party would have otherwise been taken over by "extremist elements."

"That element doesn't embrace the Big Tent theory that we need in order to win elections in this county," McCarty says. "I did not want to be a Republican elected official in this county and have the extremist elements of the party dedicate their lives to embarrassing Republican elected officials."

McCarty's foes bristle at her characterization of them.

"I'd like Mary to state what we believe that's extremist. It's just the Republican platform," says Parsons, who says his faction is mainly interested in low taxes, limited government, property rights, term limits and other issues that have been in either the Republican National Committee platform or the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America."

McCarty's GOP critics are generally - but not uniformly - conservative and make up a sizable chunk of the county Republican Executive Committee.

Ross managed 50 votes to McCarty's 79 in the December election for chairman. Parsons soundly defeated McCarty-backed Reeve Bright in the state committeeman race last September. And at least 44 of 112 executive committee members bucked McCarty last month and voted for a resolution supporting the Boy Scouts' right to exclude homosexuals, although a committee majority sided with McCarty and voted to take no position on the issue.

McCarty's anti-issue stance irks conservative executive committee member George Blumel, who authored the Boy Scout resolution and also is a leader of a campaign to impose term limits on county commissioners.

Blumel says the party needs to "put up a flag" to differentiate itself from Democrats.

"Yes, you have to raise money," Blumel says. "But I also think you have to tell people where you stand on things - on specific issues. And they (McCarty and her supporters) really don't like the issues side of things."

Electing candidates her focus

Issues should be left to individual candidates, McCarty says. She wants the local party to focus on the mechanics of getting Republicans elected.

Last week's campaign treasurer's report shows how McCarty has pursued that

- Washington pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick's firm received $27,750 to gauge the mood of the local electorate on issues such as taxes, gun control, crime, education and - yes - the Boy Scouts. The results will be available to Republican candidates for their campaigns, McCarty said.

- The party paid $7,000 to Strategic Direction, a Tallahassee firm hired as a redistricting consultant to try to maximize Republican gains when new boundaries are drawn for congressional, state legislative and county commission seats. McCarty says the GOP also will take an interest in redistricting for the supposedly nonpartisan school board.

- The party spent $17,230 on new computers.

- The party paid $2,469 in moving expenses for Danielle Morris, who was brought in last month from the Washington office of conservative interest group Citizens for a Sound Economy to be the county party's $60,000-a-year executive director.

- Palm Beach resident Gay Gaines, the former chairwoman of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC, is listed as the contributor of a $27,500 in-kind donation for hosting a fund-raiser. Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club is similarly listed to the tune of $6,500 for another money-raising soiree. The events tapped many Republican donors who have been active in state and national campaigns but ignored the local party in the past.

Attracting new contributors has been a priority for McCarty. She's been helped by Gaines, who began taking more of an interest in the local party after the presidential recount last year. Gaines also interviewed Morris for the executive director's job, McCarty said.

Typical of the new breed of local GOP contributor is Elizabeth Fago, the owner and chairman of Palm Beach Gardens-based Home Quality Management, which operates nursing homes. Fago has been a donor to the Republican National Committee and to state and congressional races, but contributed to the county GOP only after meeting McCarty at George W. Bush's inauguration.

"I just felt that I needed to get involved here because it starts here," said Fago, who gave $6,000 to the county party.

While contributors can't give more than $500 to a candidate in a race, there are no limits on contributions to a political party.

Leaving water in the well

Broadening the contributor base is good for the party. It's also good for McCarty.

"I'm trying to avoid . . . the likely suspects that give to county commission races and the normal county-type givers. Because I have my own race to run, and you don't want to go to the well too many times," McCarty said.

Questions about the interplay between McCarty's partisan role and her commission job are unavoidable.

The debate last month over a proposed Costco in suburban Boca Raton - already a mosh pit of personal rivalries and allegiances among commissioners - took on partisan tones as well because of McCarty's vocal opposition and the support for the project by equally partisan Democratic Commissioner Burt Aaronson.

Her dual role as commissioner and party chairwoman also helped raise the profile in December of a campaign to oust liberal Florida Supreme Court justices after they ruled against Republicans during the presidential recount.

McCarty signed on as chairwoman of the controversial effort, but has since backpedaled from it.

While McCarty's own political fortunes and those of the party often intersect, she says she didn't take on the chairwoman's job with the aim of advancing her personal ambitions. She says she won't seek another term as chairwoman when her term expires in December 2002.

"I have no aspirations for anything else," says McCarty, who in the past has flirted with a run for Congress. "I like my (commission) job. I like my county. I like my district I represent. And I like being county chairman."