Reaching middle age and achieving financial success leads some men to buy fancy cars. Others go for memberships in exclusive country clubs. Larry Kawa turned to politics.
By dint of his checkbook, never-say-no personality and marketing savvy, he's made himself a player on the political scene, even though he sees politics as a "corrupt sport" that's "become polluted" and is dominated by "political theater."
Spending to make a splash and spread the gospel of conservative ideas, especially about the economy, has fast become a hallmark of Kawa, a 47-year-old orthodontist who lives and practices west of Boca Raton.
His latest venture into the political arena was Thursday night, when he bought a three-course dinner for more than 400 people at a Boca Raton hotel. Dessert was a lengthy series of political speeches from high-wattage Republicans.
Kawa says he's not out to gain anything for himself and isn't interested in running for office. It's simply that he's become consumed with concern over federal spending and the national debt.
"I felt that my country was going down the tubes, and we were overspending to the point where it compromised national security and the future of our country," Kawa said in an interview. "I wanted to go from a watcher to a doer and felt that if my country is going to go down I'm going to go down kicking and screaming with it."
Before December 2011, records show Kawa voted every two years in presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections. Though he's been a registered Republican for years, he didn't vote in primaries and said he'd never been to a political gathering or given a dime to a political candidate or cause.
Since then, Kawa said he's become "a true Republican." He formed his own political action committee, the American Courage PAC. He and his wife Virginia have made about $60,000 in political donations in the past 17 months — mostly to candidates who lost. He's hosted fundraising events that raised about $500,000 for candidates.
Kawa's practice is large and successful — it employs two other orthodontists and three oral surgeons — so he can afford the political spending.
He's maintained his political activity even in the off-year between elections. He paid the entire bill for Thursday's seminar, designed to highlight ways the Republican Party could market itself to black voters. He didn't provide a dollar amount but said the dinners, hotel and transportation expenses ran into the "tens of thousands of dollars."
At the event, former national Republican Chairman Michael Steele, former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, and Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality — none of whom was paid for their appearances — discussed how the Republican Party can make inroads with black voters.
Margi Helschein, a neighbor of Kawa's, president of the Independent Conservative Action Network and former president of the Boca Raton Republican Club, called his transformation and activities "very unique." Ira Sabin, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, termed it "pretty rare."
Parkland Mayor Michael Udine, a Democrat, who has known Kawa for years, described him as a Type A personality and consummate marketer.
"I don't remember him ever doing anything political. And then all of a sudden a few years ago, he's calling and telling me he's going to the Republican National Convention and he wants to meet for lunch and talk politics. It's something that he just really got into and became passionate about," Udine said.
Kawa isn't easily categorized. He said compromise is necessary to get the deficit under control, even if that means he might have to pay higher taxes. He thinks social issues are a distraction from the important federal issues of the economy and national security.
"If we're truly going to be reflective of a party of smaller government, we need to stay out of people's underpants. You can't be smaller on fiscal and bigger on social. It's just counter-logical."
Still, he's not a moderate. Kawa said he's always admired Ronald Reagan, who was president during his teen years and early adulthood. He's not a fan of President Barack Obama.
Earlier this year Kawa donated $5,000 to the Palm Beach County Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner, which entitled him to a table of 10 seats and a full-page ad in the program. His ad — a jab at Obama — was simple: a picture of Reagan and an explanation that "this man did not spend his entire first term blaming Jimmy Carter."
He said he thinks the Republican Party can triumph, and change the nation's economic course, if it can appeal to communities whose members typically vote Democratic. To do that, he said Republicans need to stop looking "like the party of old, bald white men that were banging their fists on the table and did not connect."
Video Q&A with orthodontist turned political activist Larry Kawa at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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