by Amy Keller
Updated 1 years ago
In the spring of 2009, Dosal Tobacco was feeling heat from state lawmakers. The Miami cigarette company founded by Cuban immigrants had built a thriving business around its 305s and other low-cost brands of smokes. But rivals claimed Dosal had an unfair advantage because it wasn’t part of an $11.3-billion settlement struck between the state and large tobacco companies in 1997 to cover smoking-related health costs — and House leaders were pushing for a 40- cent per pack assessment on Dosal’s cigarettes to plug a hole in the state budget.
Worried that a surcharge could cripple its business, Dosal hired more than a dozen Tallahassee lobbyists and Sarah Bascom, a former GOP communications aide who had just opened her own public relations and media consulting shop. Bascom advised the company to shut its plant for a day or so and bus 200 employees up to Tallahassee to confront lawmakers. She had “Save Dosal” T-shirts made and less than 48 hours later “marched all of them into the Capitol to explain the impact of taxing one company,” Bascom recalls.
The demonstration grabbed headlines and caught the attention of then- Gov. Charlie Crist, who threatened to veto the legislation. House leaders backed away from the plan after meeting with the Dosal employees. “It was probably one of the biggest battles we had — high-profile, full-contact sport from the very beginning — and up against very large companies,” Bascom says. “We were fighting Philip Morris, RJR and Liggett on behalf of this company.”
A decade later, Dosal remains a loyal client, and Bascom Communications and Consulting has come to be regarded as one of Tallahassee’s leading communication strategy shops. Though the firm is not the biggest by revenue or staff, Bascom’s aggressive advocacy and strong GOP connections have earned the firm a seat at the table in some of Florida’s biggest policy battles — and she’s often the first consultant other Republican lobbyists call when they need an effective messenger.
Bascom also gets kudos from clients for her integrity — she doesn’t jump sides on issues — and her inclination to stay out of the spotlight. “People in the communications world, they too often want to become the story. They want to be the one at the megaphone,” says client Rep. Chris Sprowls. “She’s never angling for self-promotion.”
A Clearwater native, Bascom, 45, got into politics in the late 1990s after earning a communications degree from Florida State University. The daughter of two teachers, she had contemplated a career as a news reporter but changed her mind during an internship with News Channel 8 in Tampa, when she realized she was more intrigued by the work that Jeb Bush’s campaign press team was doing than by the political reporter she was following around. “I just started to notice there was this whole different career in political campaign communications,” she says.
She cut her political teeth as a communications assistant at the Republican Party of Florida headquarters in June 1999. More than a year later, she got the 4 a.m.-to-2 p.m. shift doing press clips and answering phones when George W. Bush’s re-count committee swept in and took over the party’s headquarters following the too-close-to-call 2000 presidential election.
After Bush’s razor-thin victory over Al Gore, some of Bascom’s colleagues left Florida for jobs on Capitol Hill. She stayed in Tallahassee and signed on as press secretary for then incoming Senate majority leader Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican who would become Senate president.
King kept her busy. He had a penchant for sometimes going off-script at press conferences, a trait that helped Bascom hone her crisis communication skills. “He would say anything — wasn’t even certain if the numbers were correct — and he would rattle off budget numbers and just look at you, and I would look at him and say, ‘That’s not correct,’ and he’d say ‘It’s fine,’ ” Bascom recalls, with a chuckle. “One time, I kicked the camera cord out of the wall to stop a live feed because … he was saying things you can’t say on live TV,” declining to be more specific.
Bascom ventured into the public affairs arena in 2004 and two years later, D.C.- based political consultants Mike Murphy and Todd Harris tapped her to open a Tallahassee outpost for their Navigators lobbying and communications firm. Within six months, she hit the million-dollar mark with client billings and became a partner in the all-Republican firm. In 2009, as Navigators adopted a more bipartisan business route — Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress at the time — Bascom decided to cash out her retirement account and start her own shop. “It’s no secret I’m a Republican consultant,” she says.
Bascom says the household where she grew up wasn't very politically active, but her family was “politically astute” and kept up with current events. “I knew I was Republican based on what our views were and what I aligned with” even at a young age, she says. She isn’t the only one in her family involved in politics. Her cousin, David Jolly, went to work for U.S. Rep. Bill Young, the longtime Republican representative of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and eventually ran for office himself. “We were close growing up,” she says.
While she only works for Republicans, Bascom says she won’t take on just any client. She recalls a “strange conversation” with one group several years back that was angling to have manatees removed from the state’s endangered species list. She took a pass on that one. (Manatees were reclassified as a threatened species in 2006.) On occasion, she quit working for campaigns when she discovered the candidates weren’t giving her accurate information. “We don’t work for or against things unless we believe in them,” she says. “We won’t just take a client to take a client.”
Bascom’s firm, which does a mix of PR and political campaign work, represents various business and trade groups, including AT&T, Florida Power & Light and the Florida Association of Health Plans. On the campaign front, Bascom Communications billed more than $742,000 during the 2016, 2018 and 2020 election cycles combined as of early July, according to state campaign finance records, and was called into help run Ron DeSantis’ campaign PR after he clinched the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2018.
Bascom’s political clients have included her cousin Jolly, a former congressman who left the GOP in 2018 to become an independent — and state legislative leaders, including outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano and Sprowls, the incoming House Speaker. Galvano says she helped him message on “many important objectives,” including the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (MCORES) program, which authorized the building of more than 300 miles of toll roads, broadband infrastructure and sewer hookups through many rural parts of the state. Sprowls says he relies on Bascom as a “sounding board.”
Sen. Aaron Bean credits Bascom with getting him through “a dark time in my political world” when he was accused in 2017 of misusing his office to secure a $1-million appropriation for a mental health screening program run by friends and political supporters. The Fernandina Beach Republican was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by the Florida Commission on Ethics.
“I was accused of doing things that I didn’t do. It’s a scary place to be when you feel alone and reporters are making accusations and they’re writing bad stories about you,” Bean recalls. He says Bascom shepherded him through the process, guiding him on “what to say and who to talk to” as well as what not to say and who not to talk to. “It’s easy to talk about your campaign when everything’s going your way — but she specializes when there’s storm clouds out there, how to get back to safe harbor,” he says.
Bascom says crisis management comes with the territory. “I think that we are by nature, because of our political background, calm operators. A crisis doesn’t really freak us out that much because we’re used to having to eat the elephant for that one point in time.”
Today, Bascom oversees four other consultants — all veteran GOP operatives - who stay busy crafting strategy and messages for some of the most hotly contested legislative battles in Florida. This past session, the firm spearheaded communication for the Sadowski Coalition, which earlier this year garnered full funding ($370 million) from the Legislature for the state’s affordable housing trust fund. It was the first time in more than a decade that lawmakers didn’t raid the trust fund for other purposes, but DeSantis vetoed $225 million of the allocation in June. Bascom’s team also crafted outside messaging for the successful effort to expand the scope of practice for nurse practitioners and pharmacists in Florida — a key priority of Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva. The Florida Medical Association had fiercely opposed the move for decades.
ABC Fine Wine & Spirits is another longtime client. Over the years, Bascom has helped the Orlando-based company and allies like Lakeland-based Publix fight efforts by Target and Walmart to repeal a Depression-era law that requires hard liquor to be sold in space separate from groceries and other products. The “liquor wall” battle reached a fevered pitch in 2017, when lawmakers passed the so-called “whiskey and Wheaties” bill that would have allowed retailers to install doors in the walls that separate some retailers from liquor stores. Then- Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.
Bascom has also done business fighting for or against various ballot measures to amend Florida’s constitution. In 2014, she was the spokesperson for Vote No on 2 Campaign, an effort to defeat a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. She says she wasn’t opposed to medical marijuana, but the way the amendment was written made it a “Trojan horse” that would have allowed for recreational marijuana as well. It fell short of the 60% threshold by 2.5 percentage points.
Bascom declined to fight a revamped version of the amendment in 2016 because the new amendment “fixed what we would publicly say against it,” she says. (With backing from trial lawyer John Morgan, it passed with 70% of the vote). But at the time she was also engaged with one of that year’s ugliest referendum battles — dueling constitutional amendments over the future of rooftop solar in the Sunshine State.
On one side, a group called Floridians for Solar Choice — backed by an unusual alliance of rooftop solar companies, environmental groups, Tea Party activists and the League of Women Voters, among others — was pushing an amendment that would have allowed Floridians to buy power directly from third-party solar providers. Bascom, meanwhile, was plugging for Consumers for Smart Solar, a $25.6-million, utility-backed campaign to try to kill off the so-called Solar Choice amendment with a different amendment. The proposal would have enshrined in the constitution the right of rooftop solar owners to generate electricity for personal use — but it would have left intact regulatory structures that give utilities a monopoly over power sales.
In the end, both initiatives short-circuited. Floridians for Solar Choice failed to gather enough signatures to even make the ballot — and Bascom was thrown into damage control mode when recordings surfaced in the media of a James Madison Institute staffer calling the Smart Solar amendment a “political jiu jitsu” and “savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar) interests would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.” On Election Day, the Smart Solar amendment fell about 9 points short of the 60% supermajority needed to become law.
Heading into the 2020 elections, Bascom is serving as the spokesperson for Keep Our Constitution Clean, spearheading an amendment that would make it harder to pass future constitutional amendments by requiring they be approved twice by voters. Little is known about the organization, which was set up by three attorneys with the Fort Lauderdale-based law firm Haber Blank. The group has raised $9 million from a separate non-profit that doesn’t have to disclose its donors — and Bascom’s been close-lipped about the group. “We operate under the current system and the legal structure. What you are questioning is the structure. We did not design the structure,” she recently told a Tampa Bay Times reporter.
Clients say Bascom plays the political game for the long haul — and appreciate her loyalty. “When you’re just a hired gun, so to speak, people treat you that way. When you’ve done what Sarah has done, which is build a brand, a reputation (it’s different),” says Sprowls. “She stays loyal to her clients; she stays loyal to the side of the issues she’s on, and I think people value that because they know what they’re going to get.”
Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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