The real story of the 2014 Gainesville City Commission election, unreported except for here, consists of a major theme and minor variations.
The major theme is the startling role played by a handful of big-money special interests in funding three of the campaigns (Carter, Chase, and Orlando), echoing the familiar pattern of developers versus environmentalists in local elections.
The minor variations consist of how that pattern was muddled in one race by a strange mixture of issues and alliances.
Citizens United (more like Money Unlimited)
The U.S Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling gave corporations the same rights to bestow money on federal political campaigns as biological (“natural,” in legalese) persons. That is a benefit corporations have long enjoyed in Florida, and there’s no clearer picture of the impact that’s made in local politics than in this year’s Gainesville City Commission races, especially the one for the open at-large seat.
Practicing typical new-media fetishism, the local outlets ogled candidates’ campaign reports in order to point out the “celebrities” whose names can be found on one side or the other, regardless of the amounts they contributed. Absent is the one unavoidable fact: the campaigns of Todd Chase, Craig Carter, and Annie Orlando were funded overwhelmingly, not just by maximum-allowed donations of $250 from individuals, but by a relatively small number of families and business interests who used their corporate personas to exceed the supposed individual limit many times over.
While it’s true that all the campaigns benefited from $200 and $250 contributions, the campaigns of Susan Bottcher and Helen Warren were relatively free of the kinds of “repeat expenders” who bankrolled the other three candidates. With only a few exceptions, their large donors wrote one check and then put their checkbooks away; the vast majority of their contributors gave $100 or less.
In contrast, more than a third of the $116,000 total raised by Chase, Carter, and Orlando combined came from twenty families and businesses, many of whom have a significant economic interest in City Commission decisions on zoning, development, regulation and related issues.
Here’s how to visualize that impact: Picture Ben-Hill Griffin stadium on game day. It has close to 100,000 seats. Now, imagine that all the seats between the 30 yard lines on both sides of the field (that’s not quite a third of all the seats) are empty, except for 10 people on one side and 10 people on the other side. That’s what a third of a huge number, coming from only 20 sources, looks like!
The minor chords
The first oddity of the campaigns, obviously, is that neither Bottcher nor Warren raised the cry, “Powerful special interests are trying to buy the elections.” I don’t have an explanation for their failure to point out the alarming disparities between their campaigns and their opponents’.
The other oddities concern the alliances found in the endorsements of Orlando and Warren in the at-large race, to wit:
- Warren is president of the local Audubon Society chapter, but is snubbed by the local Sierra Club. Evidently they found her insufficiently anti-growth.
- Warren is a real estate agent who receives contributions from dozens of other real estate agents with whom she’s worked, but is passed over for by the official Realtors PAC. Evidently they found her insufficiently pro-growth.
- Orlando, who’s neither an environmental activist nor a realtor, receives the endorsements of both the Sierra Club and the Realtors PAC, an unprecedented group hug in local politics. Evidently they both found her just right on growth.
These bizarre dissonances must have been awfully confusing to middle-of-the-road voters trying to tune in a clear signal.
Finally, speaking of bizarre…
From Annie Orlando’s March 28 campaign report (click to enlarge):