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Nancy Smith

Front Line Strategies' Brett Doster: Good Vibes Abound

May 17, 2011 - 6:00pm

Brett Doster is living the adage, bloom where youre planted and he is living it well.

The political consultant, founder and president of Front Line Strategies, moves from success to success in Tallahassee, the town where he was born. But folks who know this liltingly upbeat protof perhaps the states most powerful family insist he would be the best bloom in the garden no matter where he took root.

It's his personality, they say. It's his humility or his work ethic or his integrity -- it's maybe a dozen knockout qualities. You ask around, you'll hear them all.

But let Doster himself talk, and he'll tell you this: "I've been the luckiest guy on earth. Things just broke right for me, right down the line."

They did indeed. At 39, Doster is one of the hottest commodities in the business. He helped himself mightily in 2007 when he signed an affiliation agreement with Matt Leonardo and his Washington, D.C.-based team at Revolution Media. It made Front Line Strategies Revolution's partner and the face of the business in Florida.

Now Front Line is even pitching clients in South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. And in the last couple of months, Mike Murphy has come aboard at Revolution national. Murphy's presence is a real coup, Doster enthuses. Called a "media master" by Fortune magazine, Murphy has handled media and strategy for more than 26 successful GOP gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns.

Doster actually made his bones working for the Bush family -- two kinetic campaigns with Jeb, including a five-and-a-half-month stint with the electric Bush-Cheney campaign and the drama of the Florida recount in 2000. Experience no political consultant can buy.

Ah, but it's more than that. Truth be told, it's a bit like a love story, this thing between Doster and the political philosophy of the Bushes -- especially Jeb's.

Doster had barely settled back in Florida in 1993 after graduation from The Citadel, when he walked into Jeb Bush campaign headquarters and volunteered. "I was inspired," Doster said. "Jeb was running for governor against Lawton Chiles and he was saying all the right things for Florida. I would have followed him anywhere."

Sally Bradshaw, longtime Bush confidante and chairman of Jeb Bush's 1993-94 campaign, vividly recalls Doster. "From the minute he walked in the door, he was something special," Bradshaw says. "Right out of college but he fit in perfectly. He had such a strong work ethic. He could multi-task, he was cheerful and smart. He was just a joy to work with."

It wasn't long before Bradshaw offered Doster the job of travel aide. He jumped at it. "It was a great learning experience," he remembers. "I drove the car, walked the dog, carried the luggage, did anything that needed to be done."

When Bush lost to Chiles, Doster was exhausted, bitter, angry at losing. "I figured I was done with politics," he said. "I just went out and sold real estate for a while."

But in 1997, Bradshaw called him again, asked for his help on the campaign and Doster took the plunge for a second time. This time Bush won the '98 election handily -- and when he moved to Tallahassee, so did Doster.

Just as Jeb Bush was settling into office, George W. Bush's campaign for president had started up. Florida would be a pivotal state in the national election, that was an established fact early on. For Jeb Bush especially, the heat was on. It wasn't long before Doster was pressed into service again. Jillian Inmon, executive director of Florida Victory 2000, a Republican effort to win elections throughout the state, appointed him political director for the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney effort in Florida.

"Jeb and I used to talk regularly," Doster recalls. "But then, on that Election Night when everybody's nerves were so frazzled, Jeb talked to me and then didn't say a word again until the night of the inauguration. He just felt he had to back away."

"I remember Election Night like it was yesterday -- listening to them call the race first for Al Gore, then for George W. It was incredibly nerve-wracking," he said. "But it ended as it should have."

Said Sally Bradshaw, "Through all of that, Brett proved what he's made of."

Jeb Bush said this to Sunshine State News: "Brett is one of the finest young men I know. He is hard-working, smart, humble and principled.

"Over the years he has acquired a lot of experience. So, apart from his personal attributes, he is one of the best political operatives in Florida."

In between work on Bush's election and re-election campaigns, Doster went to work for lawyer Steve Uhlfelder to try his hand at lobbying. "Lobbying is important work, and I'm not sure people always appreciate that," said Doster. "But I was coming out of Jeb Bush World when I took that job. I was an idealist. Great experience, believe me -- but it was hard to be captive for someone else's agenda."

During George W. Bush's re-election campaign, Bradshaw phoned Doster again, asking him to be executive director of the Bush/Cheney Florida campaign. "I knew Jeb would be under pressure, so I took the job. It wasn't as difficult against John Kerry. We had pretty much an unlimited checkbook. And of course, the inauguration isn't half as much fun the second time around."

Later, in 2005, when Doster launched his all-Republican Front Line Strategies, he broke in with a bang, with a client list of one. But what a one client it was. Doster became the chief political adviser for GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher. Gallagher, making his third run for Florida's top office, was locked in a fierce primary battle with Charlie Crist. In the end, Crist won nearly twice the votes Gallagher did.

"Losing is tough," Doster said. "I had a good candidate, a good man. It wasn't easy to get over that. But you learn more professionally from your losses than you do from your victories."

Gallagher told Sunshine State News that Doster was one of big positives he got out of the campaign. "Brett is just all quality," he said. "Best of all, he's a great manager of people. You can't say enough for that. When you're running a campaign, you have to rely on volunteers. They aren't getting paid, so you have to make sure they're happy to be part of your camp every minute, every day. Brett excels at that."

Incidentally, while Front Line Strategies was forming, Doster got married. His wife Iris, an El Salvadoran naturalized American citizen, keeps the books and runs the office. The couple have two children, Angelica, 3; and Isabella, 1.

Doster and his partner brother Matt now represent a stable of public officeholders. The most notable is Attorney General Pam Bondi. Consultants around town consider Doster something of a miracle maker to have taken a Tallahassee outsider scantly known apart from a handful of west coast counties, and guide her to a primary-election win against two candidates, including the favorite a month before the election -- Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.

"There was no miracle about it," says Doster. "Pam did it all herself. When she makes a friend of somebody, they're very committed. Few people realize that in December 2009 she raised $200,000 just from her friends. I didn't do that, she did that.

"And we had a lot of luck. Everything that happened in the last two weeks of that campaign broke her way and it gave her maybe 5 more points. Plus, we had a very aggressive campaign to make a major announcement a week, which we did, starting the third week in June when (then-House Speaker) Larry Cretul and (Rep.) Will Weatherford (a future speaker) endorsed her."

"Pam Bondi was just a great candidate, a great prosecutor and conservative. What you don't know is, how many victims' families came out strong for her. They came out of the woodwork to help her. She's just too modest to mention that."

The feeling is mutual: Bondi had high praise for her political consultant, Brett Doster.

"As a first time candidate," she said, "the most important qualification I wanted in a political consultant was the highest standard of ethics and integrity. ... He proved time and again throughout the campaign that his ethics are above reproach. His relationships throughout the state, his judgment, and his political instincts are second to none. Brett is not only a skilled political consultant, but also a trusted friend."

Front Line Strategies has only been operational for six years. But it's strong and growing and its prestige and possibilities look to be endless. Sally Bradshaw would tell you it's all Brett, that he has made it so.

"Never mind that," she said. "All that good work aside, I must tell you, I'm so proud of the person Brett has become."


Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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