News Column

Special Interests Contribute Greatly, Mostly to Republicans

July 16, 2012

Aaron Deslatte


Responding to an election field upended by redistricting, Florida corporations and interest-groups are flooding a record amount of cash into legislative races that will help finance a blizzard of ads and fliers during the coming months.

With all 160 House and Senate seats up for election, the stakes are as big as the dollars.

In 2010, corporate groups such as the Florida Chamber helped elect business-friendly Republican super-majorities to the House and Senate, which set off a "business-friendly" policymaking binge -- gutting Florida's growth laws, repealing hundreds of safety and environmental regulations, and cutting corporate taxes.

Business groups hope to preserve as much of that clout as possible, despite new redistricting maps that theoretically make legislative districts more competitive for Democrats. Despite those maps, though, cash is king in modern electoral warfare.

And new reports filed late Friday detail the millions of dollars flowing into the coffers of candidates -- mostly Republicans -- and slush-funds they control.

Gov. Rick Scott -- who won't even be on the ballot until 2014 -- led the way, garnering just over $2.8 million over the last three months and nearly $3.8 million total this year. The biggest checks: $250,000 each from Florida Power & Light, which is pushing to dominate the state's renewable energy market; Las Vegas Sands Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson, whose company wants to build "destination" casinos in South Florida; and former Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga.

"There is no question that the governor will face an unprecedented barrage that will be extremely well funded by the national Democrats, labor unions and liberal groups across the country," said John French, the elections lawyer and chairman of the governor's committee. "And we have every intention of being prepared and able to assist the governor to meet that challenge."

GOP lawmakers aren't far behind Scott's torrid pace.

Future House Speaker Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, and Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, raised $225,000 during the past three months through a fund called Citizens for an Enterprising Democracy, which has raised a total of $810,000. The money pays for meals, travel, political consulting and other expenses the lawmakers rack up campaigning. More than half the quarter's take came from Walt Disney, but Broward-based drug software maker Automated Health Care Solutions, pari-mutuels and health-insurers also chipped in.

"Our goal is to bring back as many pro-business, free-market Republicans as we can," Dorworth said.

Just since the end of the legislative session in March, Democratic and Republican candidates for House and Senate seats have created two dozen new committees for either bypassing the $500 campaign-contribution limits, or channeling big dollars into political ads. Those new funds raised $1.25 million from companies including Malaysian gaming giant Genting, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, U.S. Sugar Corp., and others.

Some of the largest sums are being funneled through the Republican Party of Florida. However, neither RPOF nor its Democratic counterpart has to report contributions until four days before the Aug. 14 primary elections.

But the size of the RPOF war chest is indicated by the $1.75 million the party gave a committee called the Florida Conservative Majority, headed by incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. Its other major donor was the Florida Medical Association, which gave $100,000.

"In no way is this an attempt to not disclose funds," Gardiner said Saturday in an email. "Both parties move resources where they see fit."

Democrats have been less successful in raking in big checks.

One fund, called Taxpayers for Integrity in Government and controlled by Reps. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, and Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, has raised $575,000 so far this year -- mostly from a Buffalo, N.Y.-based company called Solar Sports Systems, affiliated with billionaire Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs.

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat waging a tough Senate primary fight with Victoria Siplin, raised $50,000 through a Common Sense in Florida fund, all of it from the Florida Education Association.

But another fund controlled by House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, to help Democratic House candidates has raised just $15,000 since being created in January. By contrast, Thurston's Republican counterpart, incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has raised $1.37 million this year for his own fund.

Mickey Mouse may be king of the cycle.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts gave $250,000 to the Florida Chamber of Commerce's primary committee in April and at least $300,000 to a handful of connected legislators: $115,000 to the Dorworth committee; $100,000 to future House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Port Rickey, through his Florida Forward fund; $55,000 to another fund controlled by Reps. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee; and $30,000 to the Protect Our Liberty fund controlled by Gardiner, Sen. David Simmons, R- Maitland, and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

Lawmakers also have been amassing dollars in their campaign war chests, with Central Florida Republicans dominating -- even in races where they appeared mathematical underdogs a month ago.

Republican Orlando trial-lawyer William McBride has lent his campaign $205,000 to try to defeat Democratic Rep. Darren Soto in their Senate District 14 contest.

Soto, the region's only Hispanic lawmaker, raised a more-than-respectable $62,736 for the quarter, giving himself a total haul of $94,386. But McBride, the son-in-law of wealthy Christian-radio-station owner Stu Epperson and a U.S. Senate candidate in 2006, blew him out of the water with one check-signing.

McBride raised contributions of $42,487, for a total war chest of $247,000. Senate District 14 is a heavily Hispanic east Orange/Osceola district where Democrats have a 23-percentage-point advantage in registrations. However, its mostly Puerto Rican Hispanics have proven less partisan in past elections, and McBride's Latino ancestry from Mexican and Dominican immigrants could help, as will his law firm's ads for "Abogado William."

Democrats said the GOP always has a cash advantage, but Republican candidates will have the baggage of an unpopular governor to confront.

"Money won't wash away the sins of Rick Scott and his supporters," said Orange County Democratic Chairman Scott Randolph.

The Democrats' hopes for gaining ground in the Legislature rest heavily on two Central Florida candidates.

One is Maitland teacher Karen Castor Dentel, who's challenging incumbent Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, for the swing House District 30 seat.

Dentel's political bloodlines -- a sister, Kathy, in Congress; a mother, Betty, who was education commissioner and a U.S. Senate candidate -- clearly helped her. Dentel reported raising $53,482 since entering the race in April, making her the biggest Democratic House fundraiser in Central Florida. She also got another $11,165 of "in-kind" assistance from the state Democratic Party, for staff and research.

Dentel said her supporters "obviously know the importance of having someone in Tallahassee who shares their mainstream values and views. And they trust that I will make education a priority."

But Plakon outraised her -- with $61,096. He said he "was expecting a lot more than that" out of Dentel's fundraising efforts.

"People have an opportunity to see my record, which is a record of a conservative who has successfully reached across the aisle to get things done," he said.

Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-DeLand, also added to her fundraising lead over Volusia County Chairman Frank Bruno in the Senate District 8 race, collecting $45,856 in the second quarter. Hukill has amassed a total of $278,010 in her quest for the district that stretches from Daytona Beach to Ocala.

"Our support is growing, and we don't intend to let up," Hukill said.

Bruno, one of the Democrats' top candidates heading into this election cycle, reported raising $30,405 for the quarter and $207,073 total.

Source: (c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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