Betty Sembler, a prolific Republican fundraiser and a seminal figure in the war on drugs in Florida and beyond, has died. She was 90.
A message sent out from her loved ones Wednesday evening announced that she had died “this afternoon surrounded by her loving family.”
“We all know she led a blessed life filled with amazing adventures, but her true passion was her family and all the people she treated ‘like family,’” the message read.
Sembler lived in St. Petersburg with her husband, Mel, who is a longtime Republican powerbroker.
“Betty Sembler is a legendary figure in Florida,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “Her impact on our state is profound, and I have no doubt her legacy and advocacy will be carried on by her family.”
Republican Sen. Rick Scott wrote in a tweet that Sembler “was truly a great Floridian who dedicated her life to serving others.”
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody wrote on Twitter that Sembler was “an amazing woman” whose “anti-drug efforts no doubt saved lives.”
In 1979, Betty and Mel Sembler hosted an event for Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush at their Treasure Island home, starting a lifelong bond between the Semblers and the Bushes that led to Mel being one of the most influential fundraisers in the Republican Party nationwide.
Their massive clout held firm until the upending of the Republican establishment in the Trump era. But even still, Mel has continued to be active and planned to host a fundraiser this month for Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who has made controversial statements about the Jan. 6 attacks.
Betty Schlesinger met Mel Sembler when they were both students at Northwestern University. They would be married for nearly 70 years.
Mel became a successful real estate developer, and the pair moved to St. Petersburg in 1968, capitalizing on the popularity of shopping plazas in the era of suburban strip malls.
The Sembler Co. has developed or managed dozens of local shopping centers, including Dolphin Village in St. Pete Beach, Bayside Bridge Plaza in Clearwater, Publix at Brooker Creek in East Lake and Highland Square in Inverness.
News reports at the time said the couple’s interest in advocating against drugs started in the 1970s, when the parents of three sons learned that one of their children was smoking marijuana. Mel had been a registered Democrat until that turning point, when the couple felt Jimmy Carter’s approach to fighting drugs was too soft.
They founded a drug treatment program called Straight Inc. that operated from 1976 to 1993. Part of that program was a residential center for troubled teens. After opening in about a dozen states, the program was shut down amid allegations of abuse and excessive force.
Pat Neal, a Sarasota home builder and former state senator, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2016 that the controversy was “regrettable.”
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”He only wanted to do the right thing,” Neal said, referencing Mel Sembler.
The Semblers continued to advocate against drugs after that program was shut down, founding Drug Free America in St. Petersburg in 1995. It dropped the treatment and instead focused on advocacy and drug policy.
Mel and Betty Sembler gave $1 million in 2016 and $100,000 in 2014 to a political committee that opposed a ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana in Florida. Fighting medical marijuana is a continuation of his and Betty’s life’s work, Mel Sembler told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald in 2016.
”We’re trying to save lives and people’s brains,” he said at the time. “It’s not a medicine.”
Betty Sembler also served on the board of DARE America, was vice chairperson of DARE International and “campaigned against liberal drug policies around the world while traveling with her husband,” according to the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, of which Sembler is an inductee.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who was previously a Republican governor before switching to the Democratic party, said Sembler was a “lovely, lovely person” who was “very passionate about the things she cared about.”
Her impact on Florida’s GOP is “hard to capture, it was so enormous,” he said. “It’s a great loss to Florida and America and the world.”
Times metro editor Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. This is a breaking story. Check back for updates.
Times Political Editor