The reach of corporate cash and super PAC’s into local elections was the topic that brought several dozen people out to hear from local candidates who believe that their bid for office was sabotaged by the strong arm of big money.
Independent political action committees (PAC’s) are able to raise millions of dollars while camouflaging the money’s origins and often, the people behind the money. The identity of donors to PAC’s are a matter of public record, but often not until after the election according to Ray Judah, former Lee County Commissioner who lost his seat in the 2012 primary election.
Judah was one of the key speakers at last week’s Southwest Florida’s Move to Amend meeting in Fort Myers. Move to Amend is a national coalition of organizations committed to amending the Constitution to establish that money is not speech and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights. Specifically they believe that money is not a form of protected speech and should be regulated in political campaigns.
David Smith, co-chair of the SWFL affiliate along with Susan Ziemer, began the meeting by explaining his reason for belonging to the group.
"When I was growing up, I believed that it was possible for anyone, including me, to become President.I don’t believe that our children and grandchildren believe that today, due to the influence of money in the elections.”
"This is not just about ‘Citizen’s United.’” he said referring to the January 2010 Supreme Court decision that determined that corporations and unions have First Amendment rights to contribute to the political process. They are still prohibited from contributing directly to campaigns or parties in federal races, but can form and contribute to PAC’s.
"Move to Amend was formed in 2009, well ahead of the Citizens United Supreme Court case.There are now 156 affiliates of MTA in 40 states.”
Will Bronson, 2012 Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress for the 17th District, spoke of his experience running for office. No newbie to political campaigns, he told of running for office in Massachusetts and Georgia before putting his name on the ballot in Florida.
"I raised and spent $10,000. My opponent spent over $900,000. I still got 41% of the vote…It’s not only me that’s changed, the country’s changed and we’ve got to fix it!”
Debbie Jordan, 2012 candidate for Florida State Senate District 30, is also a veteran of Lee County elections, having run against Brian Bigelow for County Commissioner in 2010. She explained that she was asked to run for State Senate by the Democratic Party in 2012 and was outspent in her campaign against Lizbeth Benacquisto.
"It wasn’t just her money. It was her money and the party’s money,” she said. "Every time I turned around, money was being spent. Every day in the mail, there would be several pieces of mail-some from her; some from the party- same with TV ads. Radio ads were continuous.”
"We definitely need to fix this problem. They buy the election. Elections are not won, they are bought. It’s the voice of the money. "
Judah shared his perspective, having lost to challenger Larry Kiker in the 2012 BoCC Republican primary.
"I may be the poster boy for what heavily influenced super PAC’s can do to an election.”
He summarized his 24-year experience with Lee County Commissioner elections.
He spoke of going door to door, letting people know who he was. He also emphasized that he did not want to be beholden to any donor, so he limited donations to a maximum of $100 rather than the county limit of $500.
"I was in office for 24 years and had 6 successful elections,” he said. "My opponent raised more money than me in several of those races. Things changed with Citizens United. There was no limit on super PAC’s. The 2012 race was unlike any other BoCC race. In the primary, I was opposed by a candidate that was relatively unknown, so the decision was made to run me against the perception of me.”
"First there was a wave of propaganda-on radio, TV, pamphlets and brochures, sometimes 2-3 a day delivered to Republican voters in Lee County to undermine my personal and professional integrity. Nothing was ever said about my opponent. I really felt that, having immersed myself in this community, that the community would have dismissed a last ditch effort –the last 10 days of the campaign – to undermine my character. I couldn’t believe that a community would accept and believe this campaign. Shame on me for being naïve. Special interests finally caught up with me.”
Judah explained how super PAC’s work. They don’t contribute directly to a candidate. They set up their own PAC and receive money from an array of other PAC’s. In spite of the labyrinth of PAC’s, he knows who targeted his campaign.
"I’ve taken on U.S. Sugar because of the adverse impacts they’ve created with backpumping nutrient laden water from fields into the lake and then into the river, and the environmental impacts they cause with phosphorous and nitrogen that come down the river from Lake Okeechobee,” he said. "I’ve really taken them to task to store and treat water before it reaches the river."
"U.S. Sugar donated $325,000 to the super PAC Partnership for Florida’s Future which donated to the super PAC Florida First, which spent $750,000 to defeat me.”
"I raised $57,000. No way could I keep up with the barrage of attacks… U.S. Sugar and the fertilizer industry saw an opportunity and exploited it. The special interests really climbed on, contributing $750,000 to defeat me. My opponent raised $90,000, which is fine, but when you have the influence of the super PAC’s, all bets are off.”
Judah also had words for the closed primary system and those who manipulate it, primarily party leaders who ensure there is a name on the ballot so that the primary is closed. In Florida, if the only declared candidates are from one party, then all voters are allowed to vote in that primary. But if a write-in or "no party” candidate qualifies, than the primary is limited to only voters who are declared party members.
He advised attendees that the people of Lee County can place an item on the ballot to make BoCC elections non-partisan by gathering signatures of 7% of voters or about 27,000. Another route would be the Charter Review Commission that meets again in 2016 and would need 12 out of 15 votes to place the item on the ballot.
"These are doable and something that will make a huge difference in getting you the representation you deserve.”
Smith encouraged attendees to learn more at movetoamend.org and invited them back for the April 24th SWFL Move to Amend meeting to hear more about the legal history of corporate personhood in the United States dating back to 1886. The meeting will be held at 6:30pm at Unitarian Universalist Church, 13411 Shire Lane, Fort Myers.
Smith closed with the group’s mantra.
"Money is not speech; corporations are not people.”