Here’s how TV20 anchor Paige Beck began the local newscast April 24: “A small group of politically active supporters of Gainesville Commissioner-elect Helen Warren found a legal way around Alachua County campaign finance limits just before her runoff election.” (The emphasis is in her reading – see for yourself.)
Cut to serious reporter Trent Kelly: “This is all legal, David and Paige, but this money maneuver involved one county commissioner who is also campaigning to reform these same PACs.”
In the next five hyperventilating, self-important minutes we learn that South Forward, a political action committee based in South Carolina, received about $6,000 from Gainesville donors and spent the money on mailers and robo-calls urging voters in eastern Gainesville to support Helen Warren over Annie Orlando.
About mid-way through the report we get the incisive synopsis: “It’s a way for people with money to wield more influence.”
Unfortunately, this report and The Gainesville Sun‘s desperate “me, too” follow-up utterly failed to see the forest for the low-lying shrubbery.
And I’ll prove it.
Can you identify these $250 contributors to Annie Orlando’s run-off campaign? (Hover or click for more info.)
- Legacy Property Development
- African American Voter Guide
- Holloway Wealth Management
- NAPA Auto Parts
- RTTH Real Estate Holdings
- 49th Avenue Partners
- 55th Place Partners
- Scherer Construction
Probably not. How about these?
I’ll come back to this later.
For now let’s rejoin the TV20 report.
The implication, certainly the one Annie Orlando would like you to believe, is that not only did people skirt the individual contribution limit by giving money to South Forward, but somehow such shady activity swung the election in Warren’s favor by metaphorically tarring and feathering Orlando.
Warren’s answer (and an accurate one): “When it’s this close, it’s hard to say what the one factor was that influenced my winning.”
Consider this: after a months-long primary campaign, Warren outpolled Orlando by only 115 votes; after another month of run-off campaigning, Warren won the election by 128 votes. Precinct-by-precinct, the results were virtually identical in the two elections. (Note: preliminary election results showed a winning margin of 127 votes; the final certified results added 5 votes for Warren and 4 for Orlando, hence a final margin of 128.)
Is it really reasonable to conclude that South Forward’s efforts were responsible for the additional 13 votes in the victory margin? To be perfectly fair and honest, it’s impossible to detect that South Forward’s activities had any impact at all!
Truth is, if you look at the run-off results by district, it’s pretty clear what happened. Warren increased her margins significantly in Districts 1 and 4. Orlando increased her margin by a similar degree in District 2. But it was in District 3, where turnout actually declined, that Orlando lost the election by failing to get her voters energized the way voters were in the other three districts. Voters who most likely would have voted for Orlando had they voted, simply stayed home. South Forward, of course, had nothing to do with anything that happened in District 3.
Nonetheless, Orlando was thoroughly cheesed: “There was no transparency. It’s super-PAC money. The same people who brought campaign finance reform to Gainesville turned around and used the system against another Democrat.”
And we know Orlando has only good things to say about Democrats.
We know this because her campaign put out a mailer just before the run-off election, attacking Warren for signing the Democratic Executive Committee’s “loyalty oath,” stating, “If she were to get elected, who would she be loyal to? Do we need any more BLIND partisanship on the city commission?” (Emphasis in original)
This “loyalty oath” innuendo was a favorite theme of Orlando and especially her most vocal Tea Party supporters throughout the campaign. Clearly, they’d like you to believe Warren was pledging utter allegiance to some special agenda or party platform. In fact, the so-called loyalty oath is nothing of the sort; it’s simply a pledge to not openly support a non-Democrat over a Democrat in a partisan election, in exchange for campaign assistance from the party. That’s all. And yet somehow we’re supposed to be appalled that a political party (!) would do something flagrantly partisan (!) and political (!), especially concerning an election (!), of all things!!!
But that’s not a smear tactic, saying your opponent will let others do her thinking for her. Why? Apparently because Annie’s saying it, and only she’s the victim of smears. She says as much on her website: “We ran a good, clean, fair and honest race. We stuck to the issues and stayed out of the mud. We did not resort to the politics of personal destruction and falsehoods in order to get votes.”
Throughout the campaign, even though they never actually accused her of being a Tea Partier herself, Orlando’s opponents repeatedly called attention to her de facto endorsement by prominent Tea Partiers, who vehemently denied the charge. As you can see on the Gainesville Tea Party’s website, although their officers repeatedly urge supporters to come out and meet Annie, volunteer for Annie’s campaign, give money to Annie’s campaign, and vote for Annie, not once do they officially endorse her! It’s the proverbial distinction without a difference.
Oy vey! Smear?
What all that back-and-forth does establish is that both camps essentially agreed on the defining issue of the election: Whose allies are you more troubled by: Warren’s status quo establishment or Orlando’s Tea Party insurgents? Now we know how the voters felt.
Anyway. Back to the report…
Paying homage to the gods of contemporary journalism, Trent Kelly offers up the sacrament of Balance by also uncovering PAC money swirling around Orlando’s candidacy. You see, the Florida Realtors Political Advocacy Committee receives donations from individual realtors, as much or as little as they want to give. And thanks to Florida law, Realtors PAC can simply manufacture as many artificial, fictitious clones of itself as it wants. In this case, they spawned a Realtors Political Action Committee and a Realtors Political Activity Committee (same people, same address) out of thin air, and each gave $250 directly to Orlando’s campaign in both the primary and run-off elections (total of $1,500), all of which was entirely legal.
But somehow when the Realtors PAC finds “a legal way around the campaign finance limits” it’s morally superior to the PAC involvement in Warren’s campaign. At least, according to Annie: “That money is reported on your campaign report. It’s upfront. Everybody knows about it.”
Yeah, if by “upfront” you mean finding the Realtors PAC reports on the Florida Division of Elections website (you knew to look there, right?) and plowing through menu after menu, report after report, and screen after screen to see who contributed from our area, then, yeah, it’s upfront. Supposedly, that’s in contrast to South Forward’s contributors, who you can only discover by, well, going to the same Florida Division of Elections website and eventually plowing through two screens of data. But how would you know to even look for South Forward in the first place? Maybe it’s because they have to put “Paid political advertisement, paid for by South Forward” on all campaign materials, the same as everybody else. It’s called “disclosure.”
So, you see, being “upfront and transparent” means being for Annie. Glad we could clear that up. (BTW, there appear to have been independent expenditures on behalf of Orlando’s campaign, too, but no one mentioned them in the reports, and I’m not able to document them for certain – e.g., radio ads I didn’t hear, mailings I didn’t receive.)
Enough of that. There are other titillating revelations in the TV20 report.
Two of the people who maxed out as individual contributors to the Warren campaign were County Commissioner Hutch Hutchinson and local philanthropist Gladys Cofrin, both leaders in the effort to adopt the $250 limit for Alachua County in the first place. (Elsewhere the limit is $1,000.)
Hutch gave $100 to the PAC, less than 2% of its total income from our area. But Kelly zeroed in and wouldn’t leave him alone until he extracted a mea culpa. (Next time, Hutch’ll probably just get his wife to sign the second check. You know, like the really rich people do. No one bats an eye over that.)
And finally – and this one actually borders on having some substance – is that Warren’s campaign manager, Helen Strain, is listed in official records as the registered agent for South Forward. This raises the question, was South Forward’s activity truly an independent expenditure, not coordinated with the Warren campaign? If it was coordinated, there could be serious repercussions.
Technically, “registered agent” is merely the person designated to receive official correspondence from the state concerning a PAC or corporation. Usually it’s the attorney or CPA used by the organization, but sometimes it’s an actual officer or executive of the organization. For her part, Strain denied still being the registered agent, but someone at South Forward told TV20 they thought she still was. And that’s where that thread ended: dangling.
- the little quiz at the top of the jump? How “transparent” were the real donors? How many more donors like these were there? And how would you know how much they gave in total?
- how TV20 described Warren’s supporters as finding a legal way around the contribution limit? What about the dozens of Orlando, Chase, and Carter supporters who obscured their multiple contributions by funneling them through their corporations?
- how TV20 made the point that getting around the contribution limit is a way for people with money to wield more influence? What do the South Forward donors stand to gain from city government decisions, versus what do developers, construction companies, and investors stand to gain or lose from tax breaks, zoning decisions, and other regulations?
- how Annie Orlando shed so many crocodile tears over “transparency?” I guess the beam in your own eye isn’t a problem as long as you believe it’s transparent.
Well, that’s what I meant about TV20 not seeing the forest.
As I’ve consistently noted in my series of “Follow the money” posts, THE BIG STORY of this year’s election is the way a handful of local special interests have used the corporations they own to pump massive amounts of money into three of the campaigns – Orlando’s, Chase’s, and Carter’s – rendering the supposed $250 limit an utter and complete hoax, even without the participation of a super-PAC.
This is a loophole big enough to fly the flaming Hindenburg through. And it benefits developers, construction companies, and wheeler-dealers to the virtual exclusion of everyone else.
How does it do that? Because for each project they undertake or business they acquire, it’s simply a prudent business practice to set it up as its own corporate entity, so that it isn’t entangled with anyone’s other assets. And once that corporation exists, why, mirabile dictu, it’s a person! And that “person” can also contribute to campaigns, up to the “individual legal limit.”
And thus you have family businesses, in which several family members each give $250 under their own names, and several times as much again through their corporate alter egos.
That’s who’s in the first group in the quiz at the top – business owners who maxed out under their own names and then were able to keep donating (Where have I heard that before?) simply by picking up the checkbooks for the various businesses they owned. BTW, it’s nowhere near a complete list of all the times that happened.
The people who gave to South Forward didn’t have that benefit. All they could do to feebly counteract the privileged special interests was to donate to a PAC, because they aren’t prolific business moguls, able to use their multiple corporate “selves” to donate the “legal limit” time and again and again.
And when State Representative Keith Perry only donated to candidates with the checkbook for WKP Properties and not under his own name, how transparent was that? Answer: About as transparent as Rob Zeller’s contributions under the aliases CS Foods and Copper Monkey.
And when Cotton Fletcher, his immediate family, and various businesses gave over $3,000 to three campaigns, how is that NOT a case of “a way for people with money to wield more influence?” And how about one single family, the Gleims, giving $5,500 as individuals and through their businesses!
And when that happens over and over and over in a single election cycle, how are those NOT cases of “finding a legal way around the contribution limit?”
That’s what’s shameful about both TV20’s report and The Gainesville Sun‘s riding on their coattails – yeah, there are plenty of examples of people circumventing the supposed individual contribution limit in this year’s elections, but South Forward isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. It’s barely a head of lettuce compared to all the “circumventing” that went into the campaigns of Carter, Chase, and Orlando.
The reporters should have done what any curious citizen might have done: looked at the campaign reports, wondered “who does that business belong to,” dug up the answer, and compiled the results. Those big money special interests bankrolled two of the three winners in this year’s city elections, and came within 128 votes of sweeping all three seats.
Instead of doing their homework, TV20 and The Sun reduced the issue to easy themes of cover-ups, hypocrisy, hurt feelings, and other tabloid trivialities.
Sadly, we know not to expect very much depth from TV news reporting nowadays, especially with the puppyhood and high turnover rates we see among reporters locally.
Sadly, too, on the same day The Sun ran its copycat story on 1A above the fold, they also ran an op-ed column from a totally fact-retardant and unbiased Orlando supporter, her campaign manager (which they didn’t disclose until days later).
He calls South Forward a “South Florida” PAC. Why? Could it be that’s where the voices in his head say they’re from? He repeats the cliché demonizing the DEC, saying they’ve had the city and county commissions “in a vice [sic] grip for decades.” Really? And we know that how? Because Craig Lowe is in his second term as mayor? Because Susan Bottcher is awaiting her swearing-in after reelection? Because what’s-her-name defeated Todd Chase, who was never elected in the first place because Lauren Poe handily won reelection in his district three years ago? Oh yeah, the DEC is really invincible!
Orlando and her supporters all love to claim theirs was a broad-based grassroots movement, but, truth be told, if you take away the large, multiple contributions from special interests, she would hardly have been able to mount a campaign at all. (The same is true of Craig Carter’s campaign, as well.)
Has The Gainesville Sun finally abandoned any semblance of professional standards in what it’s willing to print? (And for the record, no, this isn’t personal bitterness – I haven’t had anything rejected or butchered by them since a couple of regime changes ago.)
Does the current regime even read what they print, or do they just go, “Hey, this one fits, run with it?” There’s no shortage of other recent examples: they posted a heavily-plagiarized fear-mongering attack on Common Core on the website, they printed a fake “student activist” op-ed on a Sunday, they ran identically-worded letters attacking the DEC only days apart, they consistently print letters with egregious errors and misstatements of facts, leaving it to readers to sort them out and correct them. If that’s the kind of garbage they routinely publish, what in the world do they reject?
It’s not hard to foresee how this soap opera of phony outrage on the one hand, and selective blindness on the other, will play out: i.e., more of the same.
The (conveniently) clueless press will continue to blow up a few purple pixels as they ignore the big picture.
And the usual overbearing blowhards will simply add a new verse to their self-righteous acrimony at City Commission meetings and elsewhere, while the candidates they support will happily continue to deposit wads of “legal limit” contributions all having the same signature.
After all, that’s the old-fashioned “way for people with money to wield more influence.”
And the only people really affected by the “$250 individual limit” will be the individuals who only have $250 to begin with.