Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

In GOP Leader's Rise, Lessons in Politics (and Pie)

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

In GOP Leader's Rise, Lessons in Politics (and Pie)

Article excerpt

A few pieces of pie changed everything for Joe Gruters.

In 2010, Gruters' two-year tenure as Sarasota Republican Party chairman was anything but secure. Poor fundraising was hurting him with the GOP establishment, and a rebellious Tea Party wing seemed to be turning on the brash Gruters.

Then he decided to offer pie to attract a crowd for an upstart Republican candidate for governor, a move that ultimately led him this week to Pasadena, Calif., where he was on the field as Florida State University clinched college football's national championship.

Nearly four years ago, most of the GOP establishment in Florida was giving the cold shoulder to the political neophyte who was funding his own campaign, Rick Scott. Gruters decided to offer him an audience.

"I remember the pie," said Scott -- who upset the favored Bill McCollum, then narrowly beat Democrat Alex Sink in the general election -- as he visited Manatee County Thursday.

Back then, Scott was on his first big bus trip through Florida. His initial stops farther south produced a smattering of curious onlookers for the newcomer, who had previously only introduced himself to people through television commercials. But when his bus rolled into Sarasota, Gruters had a dining hall in Sarasota jammed with 500 people looking for free pie.

It was a gamble for Gruters, now 36.

By allowing Scott in, Gruters alienated McCollum's camp, which essentially froze him out. If McCollum had won the GOP primary, Gruters says now, he's certain he would have been pushed out as chairman of the local party.

But the big event put Gruters squarely on Scott's radar. Scott became a key ally and the impetus for Gruters to run for the state party chairmanship in 2011. He didn't get the post, but increased his statewide status.

It didn't end there, either.

Scott appointed Gruters to various panels. Most notably, he named the FSU graduate and accountant to the university's Board of Trustees to replace outstanding Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks.

"He's a great guy," Scott said of Gruters.

As an FSU board member, Gruters not only played a key role in hiring the school's new athletic director, he also landed on the Rose Bowl field Monday, just inches from the spot where quarterback Jameis Winston hit receiver Kelvin Benjamin with a last-minute touchdown pass to win the national championship. …

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