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Mel Sembler, Republican Fund-Raiser and Real Estate Developer, Passes Away at 93

Mel Sembler, a developer and major Republican fund-raiser, passed away at the age of 93 at his home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Sembler was known for his successful career in real estate development, his involvement in political fundraising for Republicans, and his controversial drug rehabilitation program. He was awarded ambassadorships by two presidents in return for his financial support. Sembler’s cause of death was lung cancer.

During his career, Sembler developed numerous shopping centers and retail projects in the Southeast. He had an impressive ability to raise funds for Republican candidates, including Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and members of the Bush family. Sembler recognized the influence of money in politics and stressed its importance in giving individuals a voice.

Sembler’s fundraising efforts spanned several decades and witnessed the evolution of political contributions, from the days when $100,000 was considered substantial to the current era of multi-million dollar donations to super PACs after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010.

Sembler’s influence extended beyond fundraising. After donating a significant amount to George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 1988, he was appointed ambassador to Australia and served throughout President Bush’s term. He later became finance chairman of the Republican National Committee during George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign, raising over $220 million in donations. Sembler was subsequently appointed ambassador to Italy.

Sembler’s relationship with the Bush family was particularly close. He not only supported Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign with over $100 million in donations to a super PAC but also shared personal moments with the family. For Jeb Bush, it was predicted that Sembler’s financial support could make him unbeatable in the Republican primary, but he ultimately faced challenges from the rise of Donald J. Trump and dropped out. Despite initially considering voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election, Sembler later became a supporter of Donald Trump, reflecting the opinions of many traditional big Republican donors.

Melvin Floyd Sembler was born on May 10, 1930, in St. Joseph, Missouri. He attended Northwestern University, where he met his wife, Betty Schlesinger. Sembler’s real estate career began in the 1960s when he convinced merchants in Dyersburg, Tennessee, to relocate their stores to a new strip mall configuration. He later moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he developed shopping centers and other projects.

In addition to his real estate ventures, Sembler funded and oversaw Straight Inc., a chain of residential drug treatment centers for adolescents. The program focused on tough love and intensive counseling, attracting attention from figures such as Nancy Reagan, who used the experience to support her anti-drug campaign. However, the program faced controversy and legal challenges, leading to its closure in 1993. Despite this, Sembler remained committed to supporting anti-drug causes, including donating to campaigns against the expansion of medical marijuana access in Florida.

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