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A Banker Eyes Congress

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  • | 6:00 p.m. July 15, 2005
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A Banker Eyes Congress

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Was banking ever this complicated? In a month, Tramm Hudson has gone from RBC Centura Bank's Gulf Coast regional executive to novice Republican candidate for Congress. It was an uneasy transition.

Katherine Harris, national icon of the Grand Old Party, has the congressional job now. Hudson says he has coveted her 13th District seat since before Harris won it in 2002. But he wasn't about to wrestle her for it three years ago.

Harris, 48, of Longboat Key, was at the peak of her standing among party faithful. As Florida's secretary of state, Harris handed the White House to George W. Bush by calling the Sunshine State's chaotic 2000 election recount for the president.

"I saw the handwriting on the wall," says Hudson, the Sarasota County Republican chairman at the time. "After the 2000 recount, she was extremely popular and her name ID kind of sucked all the oxygen."

Republican voter registration is 47% in her district, which includes all of Sarasota, DeSoto and Hardee counties, along with most of Manatee and a sliver of Charlotte counties. Democratic registration is 31%.

After two terms in Congress, however, Harris wants to move up to the U.S. Senate. She is doing so without the blessing of the Bushes. Her allegiance to the president, welcomed in 2000, has since made Harris a political lightning rod that the Bushes fear Democrats can exploit in a statewide race.

While Harris has won twice in her GOP-friendly congressional district, the victory margins were smaller than those of her predecessor, Bradenton businessman Dan Miller. The Bushes are said to be concerned that Harris on the 2006 statewide ballot could not only rally Democratic turnout to return freshman Sen. Bill Nelson to Washington, but also create problems for other Republicans down the ticket.

Where did all that leave George T. "Tramm" Hudson, 52, of Sarasota?

Hudson is the only Bush "pioneer" in the 13th District. Pioneer is a fundraising rank that the Bush campaign bestowed on anybody who bundled a minimum of $100,000 in donations to the president's 2004 re-election.

Yet Hudson has his own reasons for siding with Harris and against the Bushes when it came to her political aspirations. Hudson was contemplating the state chief financial officer's job until Harris bucked party bosses and jumped into the Senate contest in June.

Hudson won't discuss the irony of the situation. "You need to talk to Katherine or the Bushes about that," says the Alabama native. In a chuckling drawl, he adds: "Let the record show I am very supportive of Katherine's run for the U.S. Senate."

A banker running for Congress is starting to become a biennial event in Sarasota.

Sarasota Bank founder Christine Jennings tried it in 2004, with no beginner's luck. Jennings is running again for the Democratic nomination next year.

Jennings, 59 and now out of banking, says more of her former peers should consider politics. "We're consensus builders," says Jennings. "We're relationship people."

Bank directors aren't always as enthusiastic about highly partisan executives. The Sarasota Bank board was no exception, says Jennings.

"When I announced that I was a Democrat and people were so surprised, I think that was because, outside of a few close friends, I had never discussed politics," says Jennings, who was chairwoman, president and chief executive of Sarasota Bank and its holding company. "My board did not want me involved in politics and I respected that. I was in banking."

Both Hudson and Jennings helped organize community banks in Sarasota during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Hudson's case, that was Enterprise National Bank, which was scooped up by Provident Bank and later became part of the Royal Bank of Canada's U.S. banking unit, RBC Centura.

Jennings retired two years ago after engineering the sale of Sarasota BanCorp. Inc. to Colonial BancGroup Inc. for $40.5 million. If successful at the polls in 2006, Hudson is prepared to exit the business as well after 24 years.

"It's another chapter," says Hudson, who has already turned over daily supervision of RBC Centura's regional operations to a colleague. "Banking has been good to me. I look back on it with pride."

The financing that Hudson is focused on now is that of his election campaign. He hopes to raise $1 million over the next 14 months. During the first two weeks of his campaign in June, he says he collected $150,000 toward his goal.

The political action committees and the big party money will come later. "Right now," says Hudson, "it's talking to friends and neighbors and relatives and whoever else can write a check."

And it's stepping up his charm offensive, from big RBC Centura clients to potential voters and even local journalists.

After a friendly game of ping-pong on a third-floor patio outside his downtown Sarasota office, Hudson sat down with the Gulf Coast Business Review to discuss banking and politics.

Hudson's father worked in banking for 47 years in their Alabama hometown of Montgomery. Bankers stuck to innocuous civic activities back then. But Hudson's mother worked on political campaigns when he was a boy. That made him comfortable helping southwest Florida congressmen Porter Goss and Dan Miller after he moved to Sarasota in 1986.

He was finance chairman in his key Republican county for all three of Jeb Bush's gubernatorial campaigns. Eventually, he rose to chair the entire Republican apparatus in Sarasota, which has virtually one-party government in the county.

That is not as easy as it sounds. "The biggest job as the county chairman is that of peacemaker," he says, "keeping peace in the valley."

Among numerous photographs displayed around his office, Hudson pointed to a personal favorite. He stands with Gov. Bush and former Florida Senate President John McKay on either side of him in 2002.

"McKay and Bush did not get along," says Hudson. "That's me in between them." The Bradenton senator was the last Republican in his chamber to endorse the governor's re-election. Hudson takes credit for bringing McKay around.

But Hudson may have to crack a few heads inside his own party, if he expects to join the 110th Congress.

Although a dozen names have been floated for the Republican primary, it appears that Hudson's serious intra-party opposition will be limited to automobile dealer Vern Buchanan and state Rep. Nancy C. Detert of Venice.

"A lot of people like to see their name in the paper," says Detert, who owns an Osprey mortgage brokerage. "They're not bungee-jumping off the side of a building, like us entrepreneurs."

Hudson and Buchanan, 52, of Sarasota, are solid conservatives in the Bush mold. The pro-choice Detert is positioning herself as a moderate alternative in the Republican primary. And Detert, 60, is taking a few shots at Hudson and his profession.

"Tramm Hudson is responsible for me being in this race," jokes Detert, who cannot seek re-election to the Florida House. "If he hadn't pushed for term limits, I wouldn't be stepping on his dream."

Contradicting Jennings, Detert says bankers aren't cut out for politics. "Bankers aren't risk takers. They're afraid," she says. "I'm unafraid."

Buchanan campaign strategist Adam Goodman says both Hudson and his candidate, who headed U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez's 2004 election finance operation, can tap into national fundraising networks. Goodman isn't so sure about Detert, after she hits up other mortgage brokers.

"I don't know where else she goes," says Goodman, who is based in Tampa.

On the issues, Hudson and Detert acknowledge some anxiety in their backyard over Social Security reform and the Iraq war, which are dragging down President Bush's national poll numbers.

"I don't think the administration has made the case for private accounts in our congressional district," says Hudson, who nevertheless supports the concept for younger workers.

So does Detert. Unlike Hudson, however, she leans towards elevating the $90,000 ceiling for Social Security taxation. That would expose the entire paycheck of more high-earners to federal levy, as is the case for all moderate-income workers now.

Detert says it's not just Democrats who want to lift the earnings limit. A conservative Republican banker recently urged Detert to include the idea in her campaign platform, she says.

In Iraq, Hudson opposes a set date for withdrawal of American troops. "You're crazy to give your enemy information in terms of any of your movements," says Hudson, a former infantryman who retired from the Army Reserve in 1996 as a lieutenant colonel.

Like Bush defense officials, Hudson is starting to talk publicly about the U.S. occupation of Iraq lasting decades. After World War II, Hudson notes, "we're in Germany for 50 years."

Both the Hudson and Buchanan camps are placing a premium on endorsements, in order to gain credibility as first-time congressional contenders.

Hudson has already lined up Dan Miller and former banker Andy Ireland, who represented the district in Congress before Miller. Retired New York congressman and part-time Siesta Key resident Bill Paxton is introducing Hudson to the Washington lobbyist corps.

But Goodman says Buchanan will catch up. In six weeks, Buchanan's endorsement list "will be every bit as impressive as with Tramm," Goodman promises.


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