Joe Gruters relishes his disruptor role in local and state politics, where he’s mostly been behind the scenes. His influence on a vast array of topics is likely to grow — quickly.
The political life of Joe Gruters began around the time he was 13, when his mom, Robin Gruters, drove him to swim practice. It wasn’t the grunge music of the early 1990s jamming on the radio, but instead, the booming voice of conservative political personality Rush Limbaugh.
Then, while in ninth grade at Cardinal Mooney High School in 1992, Gruters scored 10 bonus points in World History for going to an event for vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle. “It was like a rock star, with crazy loud people screaming,” says Gruters of the Island Park pep rally. “The rest is history. I got bit by the political bug.”
Gruters political life and climb has since been a series of turning points — including two election losses, one a 20-point thumping — that has tipped over into what he is in today: chairman of the Republican Party of Florida; a recently elected state senator; and, triumphantly, against intraparty snickers and fierce opposition, the man who helped deliver Florida to President Donald Trump in 2016. To some, outside of governors and U.S. senators — the trifecta of Ron DeSantis, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio — Gruters is the most powerful Republican in Florida.
While Gruters is no Francis Underwood, the fictional House of Cards TV president with insatiable ambition, both friends and foes alike recognize Gruters’ craftiness. “Excuse the cliché,” says Tom Tryon, longtime opinion page editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, who knew Gruters when the budding politico was a shirt-and-tie clad Cardinal Mooney student, “but the road is littered with people who have underestimated Joe Gruters.”
‘Rubio and Bush didn’t pick me to be Florida chairman. Trump did.’ Joe Gruters
Gruters, 41, is also something of a political enigma, a self-described disruptor. Consider this: within a week in January he filed both an LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill and legislation to ban abortions in Florida after 20 weeks. People on both sides of politics both praised and panned Gruters for the bills.
“This guy is a bit of a unicorn,” says Max Goodman, a political communications official who worked with Gruters for nearly a decade in the office of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. “He’s unafraid. He doesn’t do things according to plan. He doesn’t play it safe.”
There’s even a dose of business and entrepreneurial lessons in Gruters’ overnight-yet-it-took-two-decades rise. Be steadfast in your beliefs and moral compass, even in the face of doubters, for one. Others? Never be outworked on any project/idea/campaign. And find a niche and use it to your advantage.
“I’m not surprised he’s gone as far as he has and he can absolutely go further,” says Casey Welch, who went to Cardinal Mooney with Gruters and is now in external affairs and government relations for USF Sarasota-Manatee. “He’s a tremendously hard worker. He’s relentless.”
One final side to Gruters, not in headlines, is his quirky, soundtrack-music loving, dad-joke sense of humor; his Regular Joe demeanor; and, above all else, his devotion to his wife, Sydney, and their three young children. The couple, who go to a vows renewal ceremony every year (when Joe’s not in Tallahassee) on Siesta Key on Valentines’ Day, met when they both worked for Buchanan.
The congressman, in an interview, recalls Gruters asked for a raise once, and when Buchanan said it wasn’t in the budget, Gruters asked if he could instead have the desk next to Sydney. Lots of take-out, campaign-style dates followed. (Sydney Gruters remains in politics, working for recently elected U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.)
TURNING POINT: LOSING HURTS
Tracking how Gruters got to where he is today, and where he leaned his appetite for risk and ability to overcome obstacles, starts in 1922. That’s when his great-grandfather, William Hobson, moved from Ohio to Sarasota, where he became a tentmaker for the Ringling Circus.
Gruters’ father, Terry, and uncle, Guy, served in the Vietnam War. Terry Gruters flew B-52 Bombers in Vietnam and was shot down and rescued. Guy Gruters, meanwhile, was a POW for more than five years in Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison for U.S. soldiers detained by North Vietnam. After the war Terry Gruters got into software programing, and later owned his own business, while Joe Gruters’ mom, Robin, was a homemaker, then later went back to work to help Joe pay for college.
One factor that helped shape young Gruters at home was being one of six kids, including a twin, Jackie. Gruters was loved, but also had to fight for attention and what he wanted.
Another issue that shaped young Gruters: he had a speech impediment, where he couldn’t say Gs or Rs, all through high school. That impediment, combined with being a lonely, rock-solid conservative voice among his high-school peers, says Gruters two decades later, “is how I got a really thick skin.” (Gruters worked through the impediment while in college at Florida State, at a speech therapy clinic.)
Both Tryon at the Herald-Tribune and Cathy Layton, a Sarasota entrepreneur and active community resident, met Gruters when they helped form Youth Leadership Sarasota. Gruters was a 16-year-old participant in the class “As conservative as he is now, he was like that when he was 16,” Layton says. “He was outnumbered. But he was fearless.”
So fearless that when he was 20 years old at FSU, Gruters ran for the state House for the Sarasota seat held by incumbent Shirley Brown, now a three-term Sarasota School Board member. “I heard her speak and said ‘I could do a better job than that’ so I ran against her,” says Gruters. “She beat me pretty soundly.”
Gruters lost that election by 20 percentage points. He ran again two years later, and while he lost, he narrowed the margin of defeat.
The losses burned enough to make Gruters want to win even more. “It’s a devastating feeling,” he says. “It’s like you’re being rejected and it’s the public who is rejecting you.”
TURNING POINT: VERN BUCHANAN AND RICK SCOTT
Gruters, after that second loss, thought he was headed to law school.
But a meeting with Buchanan changed that. An owner of multiple Ford dealerships in the early 2000s, Buchanan heard Gruters had knocked on some 20,000 doors for his second Florida house campaign. “I said ‘this is crazy,’” Buchanan recalls. “I have to get this guy on my team.”
That was the beginning of a career shift for Gruters. He skipped law school, and first worked for Buchanan’s businesses, and then several campaigns for U.S Congress. Gruters learned a lot from Buchanan, including this nugget, to play the long game in politics. “He taught me that preparation gets you ready for the right opportunity,” says Gruters.
Buchanan, now in his seventh term in Washington, says one of Gruters biggest strengths is empathy. “He’s got a really high emotional IQ,” says Buchanan. “He has the intangibles that help him read people.”
Like how Gruters, long before others in the Republican Party did, got behind a neophyte politician who, like Buchanan, had spent his life in business.
That politician? Rick Scott.
Gruters, a leader in the Sarasota Republican Party, found all kinds of places for Scott to speak in the run-up to the 2010 Republican primary for governor. Scott was running against Florida attorney General Bill McCollum, widely seen as the favorite and safe pick. “Rick was an outsider,” says Gruters, “and nobody would really listen to him in the party.”
Gruters identified with Scott’s disruptor style, and the pair became friends. Scott, who liked to stay home in Naples as often as he could during the primary campaign, would often call Gruters in the car from Interstate 75, asking “who could I meet with?” And Gruters would find a Republican Club or an event for Scott in Sarasota.
That move plays to one of Gruters’ biggest political lessons: just show up. That’s half the battle, he says, to win over voters.
The loyalty paid off when Scott won the next campaign, narrowly beating Florida CFO Alex Sink in the Florida gubernatorial contest. “Five minutes after he left the stage,” says Gruters, “Rick called me and thanked me on helping him win.”
TURNING POINT: DONALD TRUMP
If backing Scott was a political risk, then Gruters, in awarding Donald Trump the Sarasota County Statesman of the Year award — not once but twice — took a bigger gamble than a Florida sinkhole.
The first time Gruters, as chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party, gave the award to Trump was in 2012. Back then the future President of the United States supported Mitt Romney and said nice things about John McCain.
By May 2015, when Gruters gave the award to Trump again, the real estate mogul was much closer, but not 100%, to announcing his campaign for president.
Gruters was widely criticized for supporting Trump and the awards, in various media accounts and political circles, for again going against the norm and particularly with Trump, whose comments, to many, weren’t exactly statesmanlike. One anti-Gruters lobs of many was in a U.S. News & World Report, from Tom Eldon, described as a veteran Democratic pollster who used to live in Sarasota. Gruters, Eldon said in the story, is “Ted Knight from Caddyshack in a Make America Great Again cap.”
Tryon, a longtime observer of Florida and Sarasota politics, noted the hole Gruters dug for himself, too. “With Trump, there was a heck of a lot of Republicans in town who rolled their eyes and thought ‘geez, Joe has just gone off the deep end.’”
Gruters, of course, won the day on Trump.
Gruters says he loved Trump’s energy and agreed with him on many policy and political positions. He adds that when Trump began to lose favor, with a nasty tweet or allegation, it only made Gruters more steadfast in his support. “Once I commit to something,” he says, “I’m pretty committed. I don’t normally budge.”
Gruters also notes Trump’s pair of Florida-based primary opponents weren’t pounding on his door. “Rubio and Bush didn’t pick me to be Florida chairman,” Gruters says. “Trump did.”
Now with Trump gearing up for reelection, Gruters, in his position as chairman of the state Republican Party, is poised to play another big role in the presidential election. He also is primed for a busy Session in Tallahassee, where his roles include chairman of the commerce and tourism committee.
On what he’s looking at next, personally, Gruters cites a lesson from State Sen. President Bill Galvano R-Bradenton: “He learned this from his dad, who said ‘you play the hole you are on, you don’t worry about the next hole.’”
Wherever it is, Gruters’ next turning point in politics is likely to be something significant. “This is the community I grew up in,” he says. “I want to have a lasting impact on my community and be a part of something bigger than me.”