Politics & Government

Trump’s man in Florida a believer from start of long-shot bid

Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters (left) behind Donald Trump during a speech in Tampa on Feb. 12, 2016.
Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters (left) behind Donald Trump during a speech in Tampa on Feb. 12, 2016. Tampa Bay Times file photo

Joe Gruters forged a relationship with Donald Trump in 2012 after party leaders snubbed the New York real estate magnate at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Then the Sarasota Republican chairman, Gruters knew something GOP elites did not — Trump’s celebrity resonated with rank-and-file party members. He cold called Trump’s businesses to invite him to speak in Sarasota the night before the convention where he was denied a speaking slot.

Trump agreed.

“This Joe’s some piece of work,” Trump said when he took the stage that night.

Now that “piece of work” is Trump’s campaign co-chair in Florida. It was Gruters who convinced Trump to put his Florida primary headquarters in Sarasota. Gruters established early on a network of Trump-loyalists in all 67 counties, acted as a press surrogate and was responsible for the list of delegates that would go to the Republican National Convention.

Often the opening act at Trump’s Florida rallies, Gruters has come a long way from a childhood where a speech impediment made it hard for him to say his name. Having overcome the impediment, Gruters now finds himself leading crowds in “Trump-Pence” chants.

If Trump wins the White House, Gruters would be in an enviable spot — an early Trump supporter with access to the upper levels of Trump’s circle. It seemed improbable in early 2015, when most high ranking Florida Republicans lined up behind Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.

“Joe’s taken some risks, but those risks are paying off,” Florida Republican Party chairman Blaise Ingoglia said.

Besides his role with Trump, Gruters is now vice chair of the state GOP, member of Florida State University’s Board of Trustees, and is favored to win a Florida House seat representing Sarasota and Manatee counties.

A framed hand-written letter from Trump sits above Gruters’ cramped accounting office in downtown Sarasota.

“You are Amazing!” Trump declares.

Gruters is well thought of by Trump, said Susie Wiles, co-chair of the Trump campaign. He has a “tireless work ethic” and “terrific judgement,” she said.

To his critics, Gruters, 39 and the father of three, is simply lucky.

“He’s an opportunist,” said former Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta. “He’s simply ended up in the right place at the right time.”

Whether shrewd judgement or luck, Gruters is a long way from 2010. Back then, Gruters was a party chairman when the Tea Party was putting pressure on the establishment. Gruters, who had been U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan’s campaign manager, struggled to please both the establishment and newcomers.

“I wasn’t even sure if I was going to put my name in again for chairman,” Gruters said.

That’s when pie changed Gruter’s course.

A little known hospital executive in July 2010 had just started a bus tour telling Republicans he wanted to be governor.

“I didn’t even know who Rick Scott was,” Gruters said.

But when Scott told him he wanted to come through Sarasota, Gruters planned a rally with free pie near a retirement community.

“Punch and pie,” Gruters said, referencing a line from the animated TV show South Park. “People will go anywhere if you give them free punch and pie.”

After drawing sparse crowds at earlier stops, Scott’s bus pulled into Sarasota, where a cheering crowd of 300 awaited.

“It was a huge crowd,” Scott remembers.

That was made more important because key Republican players were helping Scott’s opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum. Although McCollum’s allies warned him not to help Scott, Gruters pressed on.

Scott said that’s part of what made him a Gruters fan. “He hosts events and gives people an opportunity to make their pitch,” Scott said.

If McCollum had won the primary, Gruters says he’s sure he would’ve been run out as chair.

Gruters said the pie event started something else. In the 2012 presidential election GOP contenders like Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich all had some of the largest rallies any would see during their failed bids for the White House. Gruters said when he started calling Trump’s associates in 2012 he had a track record of turning out big crowds.

Trump’s speech would be an early version of what his rallies are now. He slammed President Barack Obama and warned “our country is in serious trouble.”

Gruters said he didn’t know what that early sneak-peak of Trump’s presidential bid was going to lead to now. Gruters is a regular speaker at Trump’s rallies and marveling at how much has changed since the pie rally.

“It’s crazy how things work out.”