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What I’ve Learned: Mac Stipanovich on Donald Trump, retirement, the ‘recount’ and real Florida politics

I really don’t have a vision of a post-Trump era anymore. All I know is he’s got to go.

Ed. note: Florida Politics asked John McKager “Mac” Stipanovich for a brief conversation to talk about what he has learned over decades in state and national politics. The venerable political consultant and lobbyist had recently announced his retirement from the firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

On the end of his career and retirement:

Dec. 16, 2019, was the official day I left the firm. It wasn’t planned this way, but it is 45 years to the day after I first went to work for Fowler White, which was acquired by Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney five years ago. I’ve been continuously employed but for leaves of absences for campaigns and a little bit of public service.

That is somewhat a measure of my satisfaction, but probably a greater indication of my laziness and lack of any entrepreneurial impulse. When my computer’s not working, I just liked to yell down the hall “My computer’s not working,” and somebody would bring me a new one.

When I say I have Trump Derangement Syndrome I mean it literally. I admit it freely; it is an ever-present, influential factor in my daily life. He’s literally changed my life. I thought he was a damn fool before he ever ran for President. I was a Never-Trumper from the moment he descended from on high on his golden escalator and I have not wavered since. He has confirmed my worst expectations — and then some.

This moment is unique in American history. Is it the greatest existential threat the country ever faced? No, of course not. That would be the Civil War. Is he the first demagogue the country has suffered from? Huey Long, Father [Charles] Coughlin, pick somebody. But he’s the first to be President of the United States, someone that has reached that pinnacle of power. And that’s what makes him uniquely dangerous.

And I do consider him to be an existential threat to American democracy. He attacks the very concept of truth. The idea that there’s no truth, that we have no shared epistemological framework as a people — that there are literally at least two entirely different realities where we can’t even describe what happened and understand each other when we speak even though we speak the same language — is very dangerous, very dangerous.

What Donald Trump represents, the tendencies he exhibits, the emotions he evokes, are frightening and they’re dangerous in my judgment. He’s the ultimate con man. He’s the carnival barker, and it’s just amazing how many rubes there are in the country.

Another possibility is that I’m entirely overreacting, that I’m an old man who wants to still feel relevant, that I want to wake up in the morning and feel like I have something worthwhile to do and that this too shall pass. I suppose that’s a possibility, I just don’t think so.

This derangement syndrome has cost me friends, lifetime friends. It has cost me money. And ultimately, because a business can’t have somebody offending a substantial number of their clients, it cost me a job. My law firm does not want me giving interviews and writing op-ed pieces, tearing into Trump, tearing into congressional Republicans, tearing into Republicans in Tallahassee. It’s bad for business, but I can’t not do it. So, it’s better for me to retire.

On his Florida roots:

I was born in Ocala, where my mother was originally from, because Williston didn’t have a hospital. I originally was born a Mixson, a distant cousin of Wayne Mixson and a distant cousin of Ed Moore. My great-great-great-grandfather, Jessie Willis, founded Williston around 1850.

When I was 6, maybe younger, mother divorced my biological father, who was an alcoholic troublemaker. She met my (adoptive) father in Williston. He met my brother and me at a basketball game, and we introduced him to our mother. They ended up getting married in 1957.

We moved to Gainesville in the sixth grade, so I basically grew up there in the Old South. We had three black kids in Gainesville High School my senior year, the first to go to school at GHS. I graduated on June 3, 1966, and I was in [the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at] Parris Island on June 15.

On his time in the military:

My dad had been in the Marine Corps, so it was something I was accustomed to hearing about when I was growing up. But probably it was mostly Ernest Hemingway’s fault. I had read too much Hemingway, growing up. I have heard him described now — I would have been terribly insulted then — as the best novelist for 14-year-old boys who ever lived.

I had a college scholarship of sorts at the University of Florida, but I had a theory at the time that there was one war in every man’s life and if I went to school first, I might miss mine. Little did I know that war was perpetual and would be going on for another 60 years, and I had plenty of time.

I was with 1st Recon in Vietnam beginning in April 1967 and left in December of ’68. The Tet Offensive was in January ’68, so I was there for Tet. An explosion in the middle of the night woke me up. It was a suicide bomber trying to blow up the division communications bunker, and it was game on. That night, the [North Vietnamese Army] got very close to the airfield, which was their objective — to impair air power in northern Vietnam.

The NVA had gotten through and reached a place called Cam Le, a little village with a bridge over a river — a creek really — very near the airstrip at Da Nang. The MPs had been thrown in there, which isn’t actually a combat unit, but that was all there was. The MPs stopped them, but they were chewed up pretty bad. The next morning, 1st Recon was sent in to relieve the MPs. I remember a great number of tin pots full of orange juice laced with Dexedrine. And they issued us little maps with an “X” on it. They said, “We’re going down to chase the NVA away from the airstrip. But if it doesn’t work out and they get through, make your way to the beach and the Navy will try to take you off,” but it worked out. They didn’t get on the airstrip.

On his family:

My wife, Mary, has been my partner, my fiercest defender and my most caustic critic for almost 38 years. I had been married before and, with all the campaigns and stuff, I thought it would be better for our marriage if she was involved. She ran all the whole finance operation in the ’86 campaign. She had a position of responsibility, usually administrative, on every campaign for which I worked full time.

My father married my mother when my brother and I were small, and adopted us. My father has no natural children. The three children were Mary’s by a previous marriage and I adopted them. So, there have been two generations now of second spouses, myself and my father, who have no natural children.

My grandchildren are, with the exception of my wife, the center of my life. When my girls were growing up, I was a typical 1970s father. I worked. I was often not at home. Mary more or less raised the children, and I went to recitals and graduations. Mary did a good job, they don’t seem to be any the worse for it. But with my grandchildren, I get a second chance. I get to pick ‘em up from school each day. When I pick them up, I say, “Tell me something you learned today.” Two of them apparently never learn anything.

My father will be 98 in May. His blood pressure, resting heart rate, blood sugar and cholesterol are all better than mine. Now his mind is not so good, but I don’t know that it bothers him. He’s still funny. He’ll introduce me as his second-favorite son.

On his introduction to politics:

I was originally registered as Republican and voted for Gerald Ford.

David Ward, one of the senior partners at Fowler White, was good friends with Bruce Smathers, so I had an opportunity to work on the Smathers campaign for Governor. I switched my registration to Democrat. I lived out in Killearn in Smathers’ basement, and I was his speechwriter and travel aide. On election night, I was all ready for the great victory. He came out of the gate fifth and never moved all night long. Bob Graham went on to win the race.

Then, in ’79, there was a Mayor’s race in Tampa. It’s amazing how small Florida is. The front-runner for that Mayor’s race was a County Commissioner named Bob Bondi, whose niece is Pam Bondi.

I took a look at that race, and I didn’t see much percentage in going to work for Bondi or helping him because he was the front-runner. He had all the help he needed. And so, I asked Fred Rothenberg, a partner in the firm, “Well, who’s gonna win the Mayor’s race?” He said, “Bob Bondi, probably.” I said, “Well, who’s the best candidate?” And he answered, “Bob Martinez, probably.”

I walk in off the street to meet with Bob Martinez and volunteered to work in his campaign, fully expecting to be campaign manager within an hour. And I was, of course, put to work putting out yard signs. I finally told him “I don’t mind putting out yard signs, but I might be able to contribute a little bit more than that.” I ended up writing position papers for him, doing precinct analysis to help guide the precinct walkers and that sort of thing. The editorial board at the Tampa Tribune very much liked the position papers. People didn’t do this sort of thing that much back then. I ended up traveling with him, talking to him all the time. And so, when he was elected without a runoff, I became an assistant city attorney, which was just an excuse for me to be able to travel with him officially.

I continued to think about stuff and watch stuff. And I kept asking myself, “Why is it that Florida has voted Republican in every presidential race since Truman with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter, who was a neighbor.” I just felt like a breakthrough at the state level for Republicans was just there, out of sight, in the mist. So, I did some more analysis about where the Republican primary voters were.

A relatively small percentage of Democratic primary voters lived on the West Coast and in the Tampa Bay area, specifically because the Democratic Party so heavily loaded toward the Gold Coast. But if you looked, a very large percentage of Republican primary voters were in those markets from Citrus to Charlotte. Bob Martinez at the time was probably the dominant media figure as Mayor of Tampa in those counties. I thought he had a really good chance to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

I wrote a memo to him — I wish I still had a copy of it — explaining how he could be elected Governor as a Republican, and we came up here. He was involved in the Florida League of Cities, which was an important aspect of my plot. The following year I was tapped to be executive director for Reagan/Bush Florida.

The League of Cities provided an instant statewide organization, something I’m always puzzled that no one’s attempted to replicate since.

The primary was a pretty good campaign. We came within a few points of winning without a runoff. Democrats Steve Pajcic and Jim Smith were locked in a very hard-fought runoff. We were advantaged, by an almost outright win in the primary and token resistance in the runoff while the Democrats were going at it hammer and tong.

Smith had mauled Pajcic badly during the primary on crime issues like legalizing marijuana and the death penalty. We unleashed a series of crime ads on him. He dropped nine points, in like three or four nights. And then it was all good after that. People started smelling a victory. Money started pouring in, we couldn’t spend it all at the end of the day. And we won.

On the 2000 recount:

Certainly, the recount and the media coverage that attended it and the mythologizing that followed it was unique. There were two different perspectives. From the Democrat perspective, we stole the election. From our perspective, we prevented a soft coup because they were trying to steal the election. Both interpretations of events are plausible.

What I’ve said in the past is that I believe when you counted the votes among those who voted properly that day under any means used at that time to determine how a vote was properly cast, is that George Bush won. But I believe a majority of Floridians who went to the polls that day and attempted to vote, attempted to vote for Al Gore.

The focus in the media and otherwise was on the butterfly ballots. It was your hanging chads and all that sort of thing. But look at Duval County. In Duval County, activists took a large number of voters to the polls from predominantly black precincts. They allegedly suggested they vote for Gore in the presidential election. There were something like 17 presidential candidates actually on the ballot and it spilled over onto a second page. What a lot of folks did — and I believe it was thousands — voted for Gore. The first page flipped over and they managed to vote for another presidential candidate, which invalidated their vote because it was clearly an overvote. Now you and I can be almost certain what their intent was, but there you go.

I had helped Katherine Harris in her campaign to be elected Secretary of State. I was pursuing a master’s in medieval French history at [Florida State University] in 2000. I was in a Latin class on the Thursday after Election Day when my phone vibrated, and someone said “Can you get into Katherine Harris’s office and help her? She’s understaffed for this kind of thing.” I said “Yes, I can,” so I went straight there.

Her role — and I use the phrase advisedly — was quasi-judicial. She was supposed to be an umpire. No one knew I was there. They didn’t know I was there until people started writing books after the fact. My presence as an adviser to her during all of that would not have inspired confidence that there was a nonpartisan, unbiased effort underway.

There were sound trucks and reporters everywhere. Protesters on both sides of the Capitol. I would park my car away from the Capitol and be picked up and driven into the garage underneath. Then I would walk up the interior stairs from the cabinet-level to the Secretary of State’s office.

Her office windows at the time faced out onto the plaza toward the Supreme Court. To prevent protesters and passersby from looking into that big conference room, we taped the windows up with cardboard, ordered the usual raft-load of pizzas and Cokes and sat at a long conference room table and fought it out from there. Usually, after the sunset, I would be driven out of the Capitol and back to my car so that no one would see me.

I did go to dinner with Katherine and Ben one night over at Cypress and three tables away were Bill Daley and Warren Christopher. But that was the only memory I have of going out as opposed to going home. Until it was all over, and sometime after it was all over, I had no profile.

On that “Recount” movie:

It just wasn’t fair. They picked Bruce McGill, who’s about a foot shorter than me, to play me and they picked Laura Dern, who’s about a foot taller than Katherine, to play her.

On his loyalty to the Bush family:

I have always been a Bush liege. What I did was no less than might have been expected of me. I considered it both an opportunity and a duty. And for that I did not think that deserved a statue in the town square.

I suppose the irony is I made a very small, perhaps inconsequential, contribution to his election at a critical time and then did not vote for his reelection.

I thought the invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake. I said so before the first shot was fired. I believe the war was immoral and unjust, and I believe history has proved I was right. It’s been a disaster. It has unleashed chaos at least in the Mideast and in Europe. So, I didn’t vote for him, as much as I like him — and I like him a lot. I did not vote for his reelection because I felt he needed to be held responsible for a historic blunder.

On lobbying in Florida:

The principal change that I have noticed, aside from changes in philosophy, is money. The system is soddened with money. It is dominated by fundraising. It is so crass and so prevalent, it’s hard to believe a truck doesn’t just back up and put us all in and take us to jail. But I think that’s true at the national level, too. Fundraising is constant and unrelenting.

I think that there are still basically three ways you become an effective lobbyist. One is from the way I came, which is from the outside as a result of politics and the relations you develop in that process.

You can come in from the inside. You could be a staffer, John Andrew Smith, being perhaps a very good example of that. Eileen Stuart interned with us a couple of times. She worked on staff for the Senate Transportation Committee. She comes out, and goes to Gov. Charlie Crist’s political office, then she goes to work for Mosaic. From Mosaic, she moves to a private-sector lobbying firm.

The other way is money. All those doors that you have to pry open if you come the other two ways and are lucky, you could just take off the hinges if you have enough money.

On uber-lobbyist Brian Ballard:

I haven’t seen Brian or talked to him in probably a year. Not because I think there’s any issue between us. It’s just that he’s so busy, so important and so super cool that he’s just not around and I don’t go anymore to places where he might be found. He used to tease me by text. “There’s a dinner at the White House next Tuesday. Shall I give you an invitation?” And I’d say “Yes, please. I have something I would like to say.”

He chose a different way. Brian very much wanted, worked hard at, and earned a place on the national stage. He is an example of someone who covered both or at least two of the three ways into lobbying. He came in from the outside with the Martinez campaign and became perhaps the premier fundraiser in Florida when he went into the private sector. So he had the hard-earned advantages of both ways. He was a [Sen. John] McCain finance guru. He was a [Mitt] Romney finance guru and in the last presidential election, you’ll recall, Trump was his third candidate after Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. He had a little leg up on Trump because he represented him here in Florida. Brian will come down here and punch me in the throat when he reads this. Actually, he’s too busy, he’ll pay somebody to come down here and punch me in the throat. But Brian Ballard is a smart guy. He knows that Donald Trump is a joke. But somebody’s gotta make money while Trump is President. It might as well be Brian.

On the Republican Party:

I became a Republican in ’83 during the time of Ronald Reagan. Then, if you went into the booth and voted Republican, you had a good idea of what you were getting, even if you did not know the candidate. You were getting fiscal discipline. You were getting a strong commitment to a forward-leaning foreign policy. America as the leader of the free world. Free trade. You were getting pro-home rule bias. You were getting personal accountability and you were getting, as you will recall, a shining city on the hill, to which the entire world looked for leadership and to which immigrants, beckoned by that light, were welcomed.

There’s always been a nasty underbelly in the Republican Party since World II. Basically, a virulent strain of right-wing populism, beginning with John Birchers who thought Dwight Eisenhower was a communist to the Trump people today who think that John McCain was a traitor. They’ve been movement conservatives, they were Tea Party people. And now they’re Trump people. The Trump party now is isolationist. It is protectionist. It is nativist. It is xenophobic. And it is so far from a shining city on the hill that it’s hard to remember that’s what we used to stand for — and I can’t stand it. That progressed over time. As I said, there was always roughly 20 to 30%, maybe a little more, of the Republican primary vote that were right-wing nuts.

Go back as far as 2006 to the Charlie Crist primary with Tom Gallagher. Remember, Gallagher reinvented himself as champion of the religious right. I told Charlie that’s poison candy, stay near the center. Don’t be drawn to the right by Gallagher. Charlie didn’t, he beat him 2 to 1.

Because of increasing economic dislocations and distress resulting from the transition from industrial economies to service economies around the world, because folks were roiled by very rapid social and cultural changes in America, it was very disconcerting to a lot of Republicans and conservatives. Add to that the continued browning of America, which was exacerbated by the Obama presidency. White fright increased exponentially until it is probably the dominant feature of Trump Republican Party today. What had been a relatively stable minority in the Republican Party metastasized. And it became this majority. Trump’s genius was that he recognized the rot in the Republican Party. He didn’t transform the Republican Party, he reveled it. He could have gone the way of Ross Perot or George Wallace and had a third-party candidacy and been defeated. But his genius was to commandeer the party of Ronald Reagan. Which obviously I have not gotten over yet. And I’m unlikely to get over.

On his predictions for a post-Trump Republican Party:

I really don’t have a vision of a post-Trump era anymore. All I know is he’s got to go and then we’ll sort it out after that.

I don’t know how long it would take for the Republican Party to recover from Trump, if it ever will. Because I think Trump is as much an effect as he is a cause. There was something wrong with the Republican Party, and there is still something wrong with the Republican Party.

I find it sad, but at the same time, in a perverse way, I find it stimulating. It gives me something to focus on and do in this last chapter of my life, which is to oppose what the party I helped build has become. And I don’t have to know how it will end. And I don’t have to know if I will prevail. All I have to do is get up every morning and fight.

I remember reading some history a long time ago about a French order of the day issued at the beginning of World War I when the French offensive on the Rhine failed. The Germans were rushing toward Paris in the west, shattered French units were streaming back. And the order the day was: “Stop where you are, dig in and fight.” And that’s what I’m doing.

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