Villages' Morse acts as magnet for GOP
Sentinel Staff Writer
October 5, 2008
THE VILLAGES -- Presidential elections often thrust this retiree playground into the national spotlight. And this election isn't any different.
Republican stars such as Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who campaigned here last month, bask in the adoration showered by throngs of Villagers.
Villages developer H. Gary Morse is a major GOP contributor who draws the rich and powerful to his community of about 70,000 residents. But Morse prefers to shun attention.
"Very few people have had contact with him," said Villages resident Charles Fredricksen, 73. "He's just a man in the shadows. It's difficult to find anyone who has talked to him face to face."
On the heels of the Sept. 21 Palin visit, which attracted tens of thousands of supporters to a rally at Lake Sumter Landing, Morse held a private fundraiser at his home for the Republican National Committee. Those who attended the Sept. 24 soiree rubbed shoulders with former Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime favorite of Villagers.
"It was a fine event," Bush wrote in an e-mail last week.
The Republican National Committee would not provide details of the fundraiser or how much money was raised. Gary Lester, Villages spokesman, did not return a call seeking comment.
While that event was out of view, The Villages is a must-stop spot for many Republican hopefuls seeking to make it to the White House. The primary season brought Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and the man who would become the party's standard-bearer, John McCain.
They join an impressive list of visitors that includes President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Gov. Charlie Crist.
Morse, 71, began crafting the development when he entered the family business in 1983. His father, the late Harold Schwartz, bought the land in Lake and Sumter counties during the 1960s and '70s to turn it into mobile-home parks.
Now, Morse's children help run the company. They include son Mark, vice president of operations, and daughter Jennifer Parr, who has worked as director of sales. Morse's late wife, Sharon, worked as director of design.
In his years as developer, Morse's clout has been displayed in landing projects to make life more convenient for Villagers. These include The Villages Regional Hospital, a Florida's Turnpike interchange directly into the development and a regional Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in the development scheduled to open in spring 2010.
Joe Gorman, president of the development's Property Owners Association, said he wishes Morse's connection to residents was more like his father's. Although Schwartz was known to walk around The Villages talking to residents, Morse is more of a mystery man, he said.
"I've never met the man, never seen him, never had any contact with him," said Gorman, who compared Morse to Howard Hughes. "It's disappointing that he's so elusive. Gary created a beautiful, beautiful facility. People would like to pat him on the back sometimes. Unfortunately, he's very elusive."
'Warm and friendly'
Chico Mir, 70, said he has met Morse and credits the developer with helping find locations for AARP tax-aid volunteers.
"He's a quiet, reserved guy," Mir said. "He doesn't need to socialize to do his job."
Those who know Morse see a generous man who enjoys a private life, said former state Rep. Everett Kelly, a friend of Morse. Kelly played a key role in helping The Villages overcome state regulatory and financial hurdles to open up a $1 million golf-cart bridge over U.S. Highway 27/441 dubbed "The Everett Kelly Causeway."
When asked to describe Morse, Kelly said, "Two words: warm and friendly. I think he's one of the finest men that I know."
Kelly, who lives just outside The Villages in Lady Lake, thinks the entertainment and medical services Morse developed in the area have created a positive environment.
"They're great neighbors to us," he said.
Government an obstacle
In a 2003 interview for a builder publication, Morse said there's only one obstacle for continued growth in The Villages.
"Government," he told BuilderOnline. "Excessive and inefficient regulation is an expensive, continuing challenge. For a country built by free enterprise, we sure make it tough on ourselves."
(text below was allegedly cut from online version)
Bush family ties
Morse was a top fundraiser for George W.Bush in 2000 & 2004, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He was also a top supporter of former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Picking the president
Morse's power doesn't stop at his bank account of his ability to get people to dip into theirs. He was one of the 538 electors nationwide who formally chose George W. Bush as president. Electors are nominated by their political parties and chosen by each state legislature.
Going for a ride
It has become common for politicians to accept free jet rides from Morse. In seven years, The Villages gave the GOP in-kind contributions of $475,000, mostly from complimentary flights. Morse also has a 147-foot, two Caterpillar diesel-engine yacht called the Cracker Bay, which has traveled to Australia, Canada and Alaska since 2007.
In the primary, Morse supported former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who named Morse to his state campaign finance steering committee. Morse then jumped on the McCain bandwagon, adding $100,000 to $250,000 to the effort, according to campaign records.
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