Bar Politics

Irish Politicians’ Club: Where Pensacola Goes to Get Down to Business

Jim Reeves

Dave Barfield

The Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce made headlines in 2013 when the organization’s executive committee voted not to extend the contract of then-president and CEO Jim Hizer.

That decision touched off a nasty court battle — and a lot of soul-searching — for the organization. In the wake of Hizer’s ouster, the chamber was directed to comply with the state’s open government laws and made the decision to spin off its tourism and economic development divisions into separate entities.

This crisis of identity changed the face of economic development in Pensacola. It also had another, less far-reaching consequence — it introduced many people for the first time to the Irish Politicians’ Club.

It was during a meeting at the IPC, as the club is sometimes known, that Hizer learned his services were no longer needed. The club, housed in a private dining room in a back corner of McGuire’s Irish Pub, has long been the place where Pensacola’s movers and shakers go to get down to business.

The membership roll — as recorded on the beer mugs that line the ceiling — reads like a who’s who of business and civic leaders. One newspaper editor dubbed the IPC “the seat of power” in Northwest Florida. Others have been less kind.

Every few years, some controversy or another drags the club back into the public crosshairs. In the popular imagination, “IPC” is often a stand-in for “GOB” — a place where old-school, good ol’ boy politicking still holds sway.

Jim Reeves, the club’s enigmatic creator, enjoys this controversy, though he suggests it’s overblown.

“We don’t burn crosses in people’s yards,” he quipped in October, while reclining in his office overlooking Pensacola Bay.

The room — like the club he created — speaks to Reeves’ flair for the theatrical. The office is encased entirely in carved wood salvaged from the original Lloyd’s Insurance offices in London. Reeves, a real estate attorney and developer, paid $30,000 for the room at auction, shipped it to Pensacola and had it cut down to fit the space. He went in a different direction with the bathroom, which is wallpapered, floor to ceiling, in fake $100 bills.

Reeves, a Pensacola native, served three terms in the Florida House of Representatives in the 1960s and three more on the Pensacola City Council.

“Six years is about as long as I can last in active politics,” he said. “I never get tired of kissing babies. The other kissing I don’t like too much.”

That’s just as well. Reeves doesn’t have to kiss anyone these days, because the suitors come straight to him.

Reeves started the IPC in 1984 — right around the time he left government. He had helped McGuire Martin out of some legal trouble and lined up investors to help him move his eponymous pub from its former location to new digs downtown. Upon opening, the restaurateur asked Reeves how he could repay him.

“I said, being in politics, I just want one table in the whole place I can call my own,” Reeves said. “I can come at lunch, through the kitchen, and not have to deal with the public.”

Martin’s advertising agent, Cooper Yates, caught wind of the idea and convinced the pair that others might be interested in such an arrangement. The IPC opened in 1984 with 60 members. Today, there are between 200 and 300.

Reeves says the organization remains, at its heart, a social club. There are no official membership meetings, and the IPC does not openly endorse policies or candidates, though members often host fundraisers at the club.

The inspiration for the IPC, according to Reeves, was the Silver Slipper — a Tallahassee steakhouse synonymous with backroom politics for the better part of seven decades. The restaurant closed its doors in 2009 — a victim of the economic downturn and tighter ethics laws.

This legacy — as well as the club’s exclusivity and the discretion it affords members — is part of its appeal as much as its controversy.

“Some people have a negative connotation of the IPC,” said David Peaden, a member of the IPC’s inner circle. “They think it’s the fat cats sitting in the IPC smoking cigars and plotting against the world.”

Still, he insisted, “It’s really not.”

Peaden, director of the Northwest Florida Home Builders Association, is an IPC “charter master,” one of seven who control the group’s membership rolls. The group typically meets twice per year to vote on new members. In the old days, they did so by secret ballot.

“One black ball,” Reeves said, “and you were out.”

These days, unanimity is still the rule, though the process has become somewhat more “polite.”

“We’ve gotten away from the black balls,” Reeves said. “If I don’t particularly like somebody, I just tell them.”

Reeves said the club is inclusive.

“We don’t discriminate on race, color or creed,” he said. “We’ve got several convicted felons, a few foreigners.”

The felons — who have their own wall of framed portraits — include former state Sen. W.D. Childers, convicted in 2003 of bribery and corruption. As for foreigners, new members must claim to be Irish to be inducted — but that’s just a gag, according to charter master Autumn Beck.

Beck, an attorney and former lobbyist whose father and brother are also members, became the first woman charter master in the club’s history last year. Still, even she places the proportion of women in the IPC at less than one-fourth. It’s a work in progress, she said.

“We have no limits,” Reeves said, “other than we’ve got to like you.”