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Florida’s Primary: Big Money and Sleaze are Winners So Far

August 13, 2010

(Note – the Florida Primaries are August 24, 2010)

Florida’s Primary:  Big Money and Sleaze are Winners So Far

by Jay Jurie

Blue Spring State Park, Florida

(Jay Jurie, PhD, teachees Public Administratoin and Planning at the University of Central Florida, Orlando)

Mudslinging attack ads in the Florida primary are proving ever-new lows an ongoing reality.  One of the most vicious contests is between Republican gubernatorial candidates Attorney General Bill McCollum and entrepreneur Rick Scott.  McCollum, a career politician, previously served as a 20-year representative in the U.S. House, where one of his top staff aides was Rob Owen, the bagman for Oliver North.  Ironically, flamboyant liberal Alan Grayson now occupies the seat once held by McCollum.  After losing a U.S. Senate race, McCollum was elected as state attorney general but it was clear his sights were still set on higher office.  As attorney general, he’s been criticized for misuse of a state airplane, and one of his most notable achievements has been to file suit against the national health care program signed into law by Pres. Obama.

It’s been no secret that McCollum opposes gay marriage and gay adoption, but recently he stirred controversy by coming out against gay foster parents.  According to Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell, “Mr. McCollum, you’ve got some audacity trying to deprive needy children of loving parents–and claiming to do so in God’s name” (Orlando Sentinel, 08-12-2010).

Anointed as the candidate of the Republican Party establishment, including an endorsement from former Gov. Jeb Bush, McCollum appeared to be a shoo-in for the nomination until multi-millionaire Rick Scott entered the race and began spending heavily on attack ads.  Among the earlier ads was an audio clip of McCollum purportedly opposing an Arizona-style anti-illegal immigration law in Florida.  Since then, McCollum has aired his own ads, proclaiming himself, not Scott, as the true anti-immigrant candidate.

While preaching fiscal austerity for local governments, McCollum was outspent early on and sought public campaign finance dollars.  Scott sued on free speech grounds to prevent the McCollum campaign from collecting

Ybor City, Florida - Old Cuban Cigar District

those funds, and initially lost in state court.  Then he took his case to federal court, where he prevailed.  It is unclear as to whether McCollum will appeal, but as the primary is rapidly approaching that may soon be moot.  Regardless, all is not lost for McCollum as he has managed to tap some deep pockets.  Among those are Big Sugar, which, according to the Orlando Sentinel (08-12-2010) has contributed more than $680,000.  According to this same report, one of Florida’s two largest utilities has given McCollum $100,000, and the Chamber of Commerce has given him $883,000.  McCollum has spent $12.9 million on ads to date, while Scott has spent $34.1 million, with $11 million of that coming from his own pocket.

After stepping down as CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, Scott founded the Solantic walk-in health clinic chain, which has been the subject of multiple lawsuits involving employee and patient treatment practices.  McCollum has called for an investigation of these practices, and so far Scott has managed to successfully resist divulging any information, a strategy that served him well in the Columbia/HCA scandal.  Though it did not stick to him personally, Columbia/HCA was found guilty of massive Medicare fraud while he was CEO, and fined $1.7 billion.  In the run-up to the primary, Scott  has positioned himself as the “conservative outsider” and promises more cuts in government programs and taxes if elected.

There are three other candidates in the gubernatorial primary.  Running as an independent is Lawton “Bud” Chiles III, the son of former U.S. Senator and Governor Lawton Chiles.  At this point he seems likely to draw in almost equal measure from Democrats and Republicans alike, so will not be viewed as a spoiler by anyone.

On the Democratic Party side of the fence are Brian Moore and Alex Sink.  A comparative unknown, Brian Moore has previously run for office, most recently as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president in 2008.  After a falling-out with members of the Florida Party, Moore switched allegiances.  Although he holds the most progressive values of any candidate in the race, it is a virtual certainty he will receive no support from the Democratic Party apparatus, scant media attention, and has no chance of winning the nomination.

Jay Jurie, Sanford Florida

Alex Sink, who currently holds the elected cabinet position of Chief Financial Officer of Florida, is the Democratic Party establishment’s favored candidate.  She is married to Bill McBride, a Democrat who ran and lost against Jeb Bush in an earlier race for governor.   She is a moderate, running on the strength of her business acumen, and generally viewed as competent.  Beyond that she’s the lesser of evils, perhaps the most interesting fact about Alex Sink is that she is a descendant of Eng and Chang Bunker, the original “Siamese Twins.”

Another spectacular mudfest is being waged in the three-way race for U.S. Senate, but leading up to the primary, the mud is being flung exclusively on the Democratic side.  This is for the seat presently held by George LeMieux, who was appointed to serve the term left by the resignation of Republican Mel Martinez.

At the outset, it was assumed current U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek from South Florida, the Democratic Party establishment favorite, would have no trouble sewing up the nomination.  As has been revealed in attack ads as well as media reports, Meek did not come without flaws.  Some of his troubles stem from his mother, Carrie Meek, who previously held the House seat he currently occupies.  Carrie Meek was paid $90,000 by Miami developer Dennis Stockhouse, who also paid for a Cadillac Escalade leased to her.  Stockhouse sought funding support for an inner-city housing development, for which Kendrick Meek obtained federal earmarks, and unsuccessfully sought substantially more.  Stockhouse, who has since been indicted, gave Kendrick Meek’s former chief of staff Anthony D. Williams $13,000 for a down payment on a house.

For nine years prior to his election to Congress Meek sold contracts for the Wackenhut Corp.  The firm also

Sarasota Florida

employed his mother and wife. Meek denied any wrongdoing when Wackenhut agreed to a $7.5 million settlement over accusations that it had overbilled Miami-Dade County.  Though Meek denies it has any influence over his role as a public servant, Wackenhut has donated the maximum allowable contribution to the Meek campaign.

Among his accomplishments, in 2000 Meek and a fellow state legislator briefly sat-in at then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s office to protest an end to state hiring practices that gave preference to minorities.  He has pronounced himself “100% pro-choice,” and has won the endorsement of the National Organization for Women.

Competing with Meek in the Democratic primary are Jeff Greene and Maurice Ferre.  Until Greene entered the race as a latecomer, the contest had been fairly quiet.   Greene, a billionaire who made his fortune from the housing crisis, changed his political affiliation from Republican and moved to Florida three years ago.   Realizing he needed to gain name recognition, he began launching increasingly vitriolic attack ads against Meek, and the race heated up considerably.

While still in California, Greene entered into a dubious arrangement with a developer named James Delbert McConnville, who is presently in jail on criminal conspiracy and money laundering charges.  The FBI is currently investigating this arrangement, in which investors lost substantial amounts.  According to a St. Petersburg Times editorial (August 10, 2010):   “Federal investigators should keep digging around Greene’s involvement in the failed development in the California desert.”

Greene has become embroiled in controversy on several fronts.  “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss was reportedly a guest at his California mansion, and it has similarly been reported that Mike Tyson was the best man at his wedding.  He owns a 145 foot luxury yacht which several years ago dropped anchor on a sensitive

Ft. Lauderdale Florida

coral reef off the coast of Belize, while persons on shore frantically waved their arms for it not to do so.  The damage was substantial and Greene incurred $1.87 million in fines.   More recently, the yacht docked in Havana. Asked what he was doing in Cuba, Greene responded he was on a humanitarian mission to visit synagogues. After reports of partying on board the yacht, Greene changed his story to having put in for parts and repairs. Proclaiming himself against offshore oil drilling, Greene’s yacht reportedly burns 50 gallons of fuel per hour and costs $100,000 to fill its tank.  He’s also made a point of claiming he’s accepted no special interest money to finance his campaign.

Meek’s financial backers include an independent “Florida Is Not For Sale” PAC headed by former Hillary Clinton fundraiser Ben Pollara.  Florida’s other U.S. Senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, is currently fundraising for Meek.  By early August, Greene had spent more than $10 million and Meek about $4 million in the primary.

The third Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat is former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, who has neither the political backing of Meek or financial resources of Greene.  He was not allowed to participate in the major debate held thus far, the organizers claiming his poll numbers were too low.  Ferre sued, but the judge agreed with the organizers.  This seems to be a classic Catch-22, where a person with low poll numbers can’t get exposure, and because they lack exposure, have low poll numbers.  Perhaps election laws should be changed so as to require all candidates with some very minimal threshold of support be allowed to participate.  Otherwise, it means only those with strong political connections, like Meek, or who can buy their way in, like Greene, will invariably dominate the process.

On the Republican side, sailing appears smooth for former Florida House Speaker and Tea Party darling Marco

Weston, Florida

Rubio. He staged a successful coup by knocking off Gov. Charlie Crist in both fundraising and Republican poll numbers early on.  Crist was forced to withdraw from the primary, and continue the race as an independent.  In terms of national politics, as with the nominations of Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Ken Buck in Colorado, the ascendancy of Rubio is a huge blow to the Republican Party establishment and a major victory for the Tea Party.

When asked about his position on health care, Rubio responded he was in favor of “tort reform.”  Aside from being photogenic, his track record reflects a lavish lifestyle that has been subsidized by taxpayers and the membership of the Republican Party.  Throughout his political career he has exhibited a reluctance to disclose his campaign expenses.

Like his counterpart Kendrick Meek in the Democratic primary, Rubio has a penchant for inclusiveness when it comes to his relatives, whom available documentation shows he paid $20,000 for various expenses.  He has double-dipped on meals subsidized by the taxpayers through the use of a Republican Party credit card.  Former Florida Republican Party Chair Jim Greer has been indicted on multiple charges, some of which involve misuse of his Party credit card for personal expenses.  Similar charges have not been brought against Rubio.   According to the Miami New Times (July 22, 2010), Rubio is a “world class opportunist…and he’s a hypocrite:  a ‘fiscally conservative’ Republican who has let his own home lapse into foreclosure, likely abused state party credit cards, and spent tens of thousands of dollars in political donations on personal expenses.”

One other significant race is that in Florida’s 8th Congressional District, pitting incumbent Alan Grayson against a field of candidates in the Republican primary and a conservative independent.  He recently mailed constituents a DVD showing him in action against a variety of figures summoned to testify by House committees on which he sits.  Grayson was taken to task for the $73,000 this cost taxpayers by the Orlando Sentinel.  Grayson responded that since the media was not providing coverage of important matters addressed at these hearings, he had to do it himself, and he does have something of a point.

According to the Orlando Sentinel (August 13, 2010), a recent Tea Party candidate debate in Orlando attracted seven candidates and almost 1,000 people.  The debate opened with a prayer that “asked forgiveness for government spending, abortion, and attempts to limit gun rights.”  All seven candidates vowed that Grayson had to be defeated, but of these, only two would seem to have a reasonable chance: a current state representative and a former state senator.   For his part, Grayson has assembled a formidable, possibly unassailable, war chest.  Coupling this with the renown he has gained and his pugnacity, Grayson will be very tough to beat.

Very recent polls show McCollum has managed to turn the race around with a narrow lead over Scott.  It remains to be seen if this will hold up until the Aug. 24th primary.  It may well be that Republican voters have begun to define McCollum as the “least sleazy” of the two.  If so, it may offer more hope that Big Money doesn’t always pay off in politics, but either way, negative campaigning will have prevailed.  On the other hand, Greene’s effort to outspend Meek still puts him ahead in the polls.

Whichever candidates win these highly contentious primaries will be damaged goods for many of the electorate. Waiting in the wings will be the comparatively unscathed Alex Sink and Charlie Crist.  Whether the general election will follow the same unsavory course as the primaries remains to be seen. Already, Big Money, Sleaze, and less than stellar candidates have scored a victory over honest and much-needed consideration of vital matters of public concern.

Sources:  The Miami Herald, Miami New Times, Nakedpolitics.com (the Miami Herald), the Orlando Sentinel, the Orlando Weekly, Politicsdaily.com, the St. Petersburg Times, and numerous televised attack ads.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay Jurie permalink
    August 14, 2010 12:42 pm

    Something I left out of my article is that in one of his TV ads Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott calls for drug testing of welfare recipients. He didn’t dream up this idea on his own, it’s part of a national campaign. Funny thing, I haven’t heard of those promoting this proposal calling for the drug testing of CEO-types like Rick Scott, who’ve scammed off hundreds of millions in taxpayer revenues. This is emblematic of our era: the economic elite deflecting attention away from themselves by seeking to inflict further indignities upon those whom their policies have put out of home and job.

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  4. Denis Johnson permalink
    September 27, 2010 1:45 pm

    “perhaps the most interesting fact about Alex Sink is that she is a descendant of Eng and Chang Bunker, the original “Siamese Twins.”

    What I find most interesting is that Alex Sink says she is “very proud about my heritage”

    Most people are ashamed of how African-Americans were treated by brutal slave owners, not “proud”. But I guess that’s what got her to where she is today.

    Chang Eng Bunker (1811-74)

    “In that same year they became American citizens and settled in North Carolina. They took the name Bunker, and in 1843 married two sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Ann Yates. During their marriages, Eng had 11 children and Chang 10. They ran two households, and became wealthy plantation owners, known for their brutality towards their enslaved workers.”

    http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/changengbunker.aspx

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