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Ken Jones, Republican Convention Tampa Host, Preps For Spotlight

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Long before Mitt Romney won the primary race, Ken Jones was organizing the Republican convention in Tampa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Long before Mitt Romney won the primary race, Ken Jones was organizing the Republican convention in Tampa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Ken Jones' full-time job is general counsel and executive vice president of Communications Equity Associates, a private equity, wealth management and investment banking firm in Tampa, Fla. For four days next week, however, it's his work as president and CEO of the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee for the Republican National Convention that will be on display.

Jones is a veteran of such events. A Tampa native and former Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, he has worked on the last four Republican nominating conventions, as well as both of George W. Bush's presidential inaugurations. Over the past three years, together with commercial real estate magnate Al Austin, he has worked to secure Tampa's bid to host the convention and to raise an estimated $55 million in private donations to cover the municipal costs of the event.

While Austin, the chairman of the host committee, has been labeled "the man behind the convention" by the Tampa Bay Times and Politico, Jones, for the most part, has avoided being drawn into the public back-and-forth that's inherent with any modern nominating convention. Instead, he's focused on his city's moment in the national spotlight.

"This convention is a fantastic economic development opportunity and a great source of pride for our local Tampa Bay community," Jones said in a statement. "The host committee has worked diligently with Democrats, Republicans and Independents for the last three years to showcase our vibrant and diverse community."

But in the eyes of Democrats, Jones' Washington résumé and his high-finance day job still represent the true face of the Republican Party.

“It’s absolutely fitting that the consummate Republican and financial industry insider is heading the Republican convention, which will be nothing more than a four-day exclusive schmooze-fest for donors, special interests and the party elite," said Melanie Roussell, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

Jones adamantly objects to this characterization. "It's sad that partisan individuals would make unwarranted personal attacks when I'm simply serving my community as the CEO of a 501(c)(3) charity," he said via email.

The host committees for both party conventions -- the Republicans in Tampa and the Democrats in Charlotte, N.C. -- are nonprofits that, among other tasks, raise private funds to lift the convention's financial burden on local business and government, coordinate logistics and manage security arrangements. In the case of the GOP, volunteer roles on the host committee, including Jones', were assigned back in 2010, two years before there was a presumptive presidential nominee.

But Jones (left) is undeniably a GOP insider, having spent much of his career in Washington, where he was deputy counsel to the Republican National Committee, counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign during the 2000 Florida recount, deputy chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and chief counsel for a Republican-controlled Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

Nowadays, at Communications Equity Associates, Jones negotiates private equity and banking deals and provides financial advice to wealthy families. A firm representative declined to provide details about his clients.

That work plays directly into Democratic criticisms of Republicans -- and of presidential candidate Mitt Romney in particular.

Democrats have spent the past year seeking to define the GOP as a party whose policies serve the interests of huge corporations and the wealthiest individuals at the expense of the vast majority of Americans. They have taken aim at Romney's personal taxes and his record as chairman of Bain Capital in an attempt to show that he plays by a different set of rules.

Speaking at a Connecticut fundraiser in August, President Barack Obama called Romney's tax plan "Robin Hood in reverse," implying that his opponent would steal from the poor to give to the rich. "It's Romney Hood!" the president said. As for Romney's own taxes, his 2010 return revealed that he had paid a tax rate of just 13.9 percent on income of $21 million, while depositing assets in such offshore tax havens as the Cayman Islands.

When the Republicans roll into Tampa on Aug. 27, they will seek to tune out such criticisms and present Romney as a successful entrepreneur who has the right experience and priorities to jumpstart the American economic recovery, lagging since the collapse of 2008.

Jones insists that he has different goals for next week's convention: to help revitalize Tampa's economy and to steer scrupulously clear of politics. But those goals may prove just as challenging.

Unemployment in the Tampa area is above the national average, at 9 percent, and few states were hit harder than Florida by the subprime mortgage meltdown.

"It may be a partisan event for the GOP, but it's an economic development for Tampa," said Bob Buckhorn, the city's Democratic mayor and Jones' fellow host committee member. "And for that, we could not have had a better partner than Ken Jones."

Tampa is looking for an immediate short-term revenue bump, projected to be around $175 million, and the mayor is hoping there will be longer-term benefits as well.

"This is Tampa's coming-out party," Buckhorn said, "and if people who are familiar with Orlando and Disney and Miami start to refer to Tampa in the same breath, then we've succeeded."

As for steering clear of politics, the host committee's status as a charity bars it from political activity, something that Jones, a campaign finance expert, knows full well. In order to underscore his nonpartisan role in organizing the convention, Jones will likely avoid the spotlight during the highly political week.

"It's funny," said Buckhorn, "Ken and I never talk about partisan politics. And we're together two days a week, minimum."

"For now, Ken has taken his partisan hat off and put his Tampa hat on, and so have I," Buckhorn added.

As proof of his bipartisan bona fides, Jones said in a statement to The Huffington Post, "It is my hope that the Democrat [sic] National Committee will choose Tampa Bay as its host city in 2016 so I can once again serve my community and assist another host committee in spotlighting our wonderful region to the world."

Republican National Committee spokesman Shawn Spicer praised both Buckhorn and Jones for their work on the convention, and saved his more partisan line of attack for the DNC chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who hails from Florida.

"It is sad that the Chair of the DNC, who is from Florida, would attack someone who has worked with an outstanding group of Republicans and Democrats and used his time and talent to highlight the area," Spicer said, referring to broader Democratic criticism of the convention.

As high as the stakes are for Tampa next week, they are just as high for the GOP.

Romney is running neck and neck with President Obama in nationwide polls. A successful convention could help Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, connect with voters and chip away at one of Romney's most pronounced deficits -- a major likability gap. In a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of voters surveyed said they liked Obama personally, while only 30 percent said the same of Romney. Taking jabs from Democrats on everything from his economic policies to his Medicare plan to his wife's Olympic dressage horse, the presumptive GOP nominee could use a smoothly run, energizing convention.

If Jones and his city can pull this off, no one will remember his day job.

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