Florida Republican chairman Greer resigns under pressure

State GOP leaders rally behind Sen. John Thrasher as successor.

Published: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 11:22 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Bowing to months of criticism over his handling of party finances and his meddling in campaigns, Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer resigned Tuesday, accusing his GOP critics of trying to "burn the house down."

Greer's resignation, which takes effect Feb. 20, represents a major setback for Gov. Charlie Crist, who had vigorously defended the chairman but on Tuesday abruptly endorsed state Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, to become the party's new leader.

Greer, who became GOP chairman in January 2007, had drawn controversy to himself by his open endorsement of Crist in this year's U.S. Senate primary. Greer's demise and Thrasher's apparent ascension - which will have to be approved by a vote of the party's executive committee - may add momentum to former House Speaker Marco Rubio's challenge of Crist for the Republican Senate nomination.

Greer said he was stepping down because it was apparent his conservative critics - who were planning to remove the chairman in a vote this weekend in Orlando - would not relent in their efforts.

"They simply have two goals in mind, and if the first one fails, then fall back to the second one," Greer said. "And the first one is remove me as chairman, and if that doesn't work, burn the house down and try and destroy the Republican Party.

"I have made a point to put the best interest of the party before my own, even when criticisms were misdirected and invalid, and I will do so again now," Greer said. "I cannot be a participant in the shredding and tearing of the fabric of the Republican Party."

A letter backed by nine former GOP legislative leaders released this week accused Greer of interfering in primaries and misusing party funds, including "expense accounts for some elected officials, chartered jets for party leaders and other gross expenditures of funds not related to furthering the best interests of the party."

Without providing details, Greer said the accusations were "not true."

Some of the state's top GOP fundraisers, including many linked to former Gov. Jeb Bush, his father and his brother, had also called for Greer to step down.

Following Greer's announcement, Bush - who has deliberately taken a low-key role in state politics - issued a rare statement strongly endorsing Thrasher, who was the speaker of the state House during Bush's first two years as governor.

"Based on his commitment to conservative principles and his demonstrated leadership abilities, John Thrasher is the best equipped leader to unite our members around our common goals and values," Bush said.

Other prominent Republicans also moved quickly to endorse Thrasher, who was elected to the state Senate in a special election last fall and had previously worked as an influential lobbyist in Tallahassee. Among his supporters are Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is running for governor this year, as well as party leaders in the Legislature.

While he has the backing of the party's most prominent members, Thrasher acknowledged that his election as chairman would be contingent upon him winning support from the party's executive committee, which includes party officials from Florida's 67 counties.

"Over the coming weeks, it is my intention to meet with and speak with my fellow Republicans and ask them to support my candidacy, so that we can all work together to restore party unity and focus on victory in November 2010," Thrasher said.

Thrasher's elections could also bring new controversies as Democrats immediately began questioning how Thrasher could serve in the state Senate and also lead one of the state's top parties.

"You cannot serve two masters," said Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee.

Lawson said Thrasher's election as party chairman would "threaten" the foundation of bipartisanship in the state Senate. Others questioned how Thrasher could serve as a party leader while chairing the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, which handles all bills related to election laws.

Nationally, Democrats tried to portray Greer's ouster as a victory for the right wing of the Republican Party.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said in a statement that Greer's removal "is a telling and unsettling sign about the extreme direction of the Republican Party - a direction that is narrowing the party ideologically, demographically and, ultimately, electorally."

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