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Former and perhaps future mayoral hopeful Steve Francis last month asked the local Republican Party to return $25,000 in campaign contributions after the party’s surprisingly early endorsement of Mayor Jerry Sanders for the 2008 election.

Francis is a prolific political donor, and he hasn’t ruled out challenging Sanders in 2008. He’s also the state Republican Party’s finance chairman — which means he’s in charge of raising dough for its causes.

In 2005, the party endorsed Francis for mayor over Sanders. The battle for the endorsement became a story in itself, as the meeting reportedly went on into the early morning. This time around, it didn’t appear the party put much thought into it.

My colleague Scott Lewis described last month how the party reached its endorsement of Sanders:

(Chief lobbyist for the Building Industry Association Matt) Adams said the move came up spontaneously.

“They started talking about the mayor and the meeting and I said, ‘Why don’t we go for it now?’” Adams said.

The committee agreed and, by Tuesday night, it had sent out an announcement.

I just spoke with Francis. He said the fact that the party failed to go through the normal process, such as candidate interviews, was unprecedented. He was highly critical of the local party leadership and its relationship with the building industry. In his own words:

I think it was situation in which they tried to sneak something through without debate and they were successful at it.

That’s the reason I lost faith not only in the leadership of the party, but I was also disturbed that the Building Industry Association was one of the main culprits behind it and I don’t think that represents the party very well. …

I had no illusions that somehow I was going to be endorsed over the mayor if I chose to run but I think it was very disturbing how it was done.

He said he holds no grudges against the party as a whole and will continue in his role as finance chairman.

According to campaign records on file with the Secretary of State, Steve Francis gave $3,500 to the local party on May 15 and Gayle Francis gave $2,500. The filings show the money was returned June 18, a week after the party’s endorsement of Sanders. However, Francis, a health care executive, said he and his wife in fact donated — and were returned — $12,500 each.

Francis said he has yet to decide whether he will run in 2008.

ANDREW DONOHUE

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