Harold Gary Morse, who became a political kingmaker by contributing cash and votes to a generation of Republican candidates as the developer of The Villages, Central Florida’s massive retirement community, died Wednesday night.
He was 77.
His death was reported Thursday by The Villages Daily Sun, the newspaper that he founded along with nearly everything else in what Forbes ranked this year as the fastest-growing small city in the United States.
Located 90 miles northeast of Tampa Bay on land that had been cow pasture and watermelon fields, The Villages’ population grew 517 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 8,333 to 51,422. According to the Daily Sun, it has 600 holes of golf, more than 100 restaurants, 76 recreational facilities and close to 4 million square feet of commercial space, amenities that redefined retirement living for middle-class retirees, especially those from the Northeast and Midwest who flocked there in recent years.
A devout conservative with a fortune that made him one of the nation’s richest, Morse contributed millions to Republican candidates and spent at least $2 million trying to oust President Barack Obama from the White House in 2012.
More valuable to candidates than his money was what lived inside the gates of The Villages: a population of 61,000 registered voters that became one of the biggest and most reliable voting blocs for Republicans.
It’s become almost mandatory that Republican candidates seeking state and national office stop there — frequently. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney stopped there at least twice in 2012. And in 2011, it was the backdrop to Gov. Rick Scott’s unveiling of his budget, a tribute to how crucial the community was to his 2010 victory.
Morse’s passing caused immediate ripples in the political world.
“Gary Morse looked at the pastures and prairies of Florida’s interior and saw the American Dream,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. “Not just for him, but for the tens of thousands of seniors who have been able to enjoy their golden years and continue to live them to their fullest. His vision created a retirement community unlike any other, and Florida is richer for his entrepreneurial spirit.”
Morse, a former advertising and marketing executive, moved to Florida from Michigan in 1983 to work with his dad. They sold Central Florida homes with a special pitch: free golf.
It caught on with Northern retirees and sales reached $40 million by 1987. By the 1990s, Morse helped innovate a new method to finance private developments with the use of special taxing districts that were able to float tax-free municipal bonds, paid back by fees charged residents. In subsequent years, Morse established 12 taxing districts that helped fuel the growth of the community, which now includes the Villages Charter Schools, the Villages News Network TV station, and the Villages Health system, which limits the number of patients for its doctors to emphasize better primary care.
“Dad never sought the limelight,” a family statement read shortly after Morse’s death. “He was content to stay in the background and enjoy seeing Villagers revel in this amazing lifestyle of their adopted hometown. While he was a friend and adviser to captains of industry, presidents and heads of state, he never lost focus on this community and making it the greatest retirement development in the world.”
But while most residents revered the reclusive Morse, others, often Democrats, complained he was too controlling.
“You don’t know you’re being controlled, but you really are,” Joseph Flynn, a retiree from Connecticut, told the Herald/Times in 2012. “And Morse is the one who controls you. He wants the control ... to influence what he can.”
Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263. Follow @mikevansickler.