Miami Herald: Future Florida Senate leader’s fund raking in dollars
Sep 23, 2009
The Miami Herald published this article on September 23, 2009
BY STEVE BOUSQUET AND SHANNON COLAVECCHIO
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
To solidify his grip on the Florida Senate presidency following the 2010 election, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, is walking a familiar path: He is collecting as much money as possible from special interests to make sure his allies win elections.
Since May, a newly formed political committee that Haridopolos controls raked in $1.1 million. That’s an average of $44,000 on each of the 26 days the committee reported getting checks, or slightly less than the median household income of a Florida family.
The largest check, for $225,000, came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida, based in Jacksonville, sent a check for $100,000 to Haridopolos’ committee, as did the Petway Co., a Jacksonville insurance firm. Other donors ran the gamut of capital lobbying interests: agriculture, alcoholic beverages, hospitals and real estate development.
Haridopolos’ committee is one of almost 100 that have proliferated in recent years, allowing 76 current and former lawmakers to circumvent the $500 contribution limits to their own campaigns. Contributions to lawmaker-controlled committees are unlimited, and there are few restrictions on how the money can be spent.
Asked whether special-interest money pollutes policymaking in Tallahassee, Haridopolos cited the millions of dollars that President Barack Obama received from labor unions in 2008.
“That is the price of doing business,” he said, “and I’m not going to leave my friends in the Senate out there without protection.”
Haridopolos said he was just getting warmed up: He said the $1.1 million is a fraction of the $12 million he plans to help the Republican Party raise over the current election cycle to aid the GOP’s slate of 2010 candidates.
He said he formed the Freedom First Committee in May with a major goal in mind: to make sure that former House Speaker John Thrasher won the Northeast Florida Senate seat that became vacant with the death of Republican Sen. Jim King.
Thrasher pledged to support Haridopolos for Senate president following the 2010 elections, so Haridopolos hit up deep-pocket donors to pay for advertisements attacking Thrasher’s opponents, to counteract an advertising campaign against Thrasher funded largely by trial attorneys.
Thrasher had far more money than all three of his GOP rivals combined and won the Sept. 15 primary with ease. Haridopolos has already christened Thrasher as a member of “my leadership team,” and Thrasher has pledged to repay a debt by helping to create a winnable seat for former Rep. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, who dropped out of the race and backed Thrasher.
Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who sits on the national chamber’s board, said the $225,000 check is “an example of things to come” as businesses battle trial lawyers. “Florida’s about to be the third largest state in the country, and we have and opportunity to make Florida a more pro-business state,” Wilson said.
The ever-growing size of individual donations troubles some long-time observers of the Legislature, who say the trend results in only the wealthiest interests being heard.
“It’s just the worsening of a bad situation,” said Carl Adams, president of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists. “The individual lobbyist doesn’t do very well competing against that kind of money. This really takes it away from the overall lobbying corps and puts it in the hands of a few.”
A 2ND FUND While Freedom First financed ads intended to help Thrasher, Haridopolos dipped into his second fund, the Committee for Florida’s Fiscal Future, to pay for about $2,400 in travel and dining expenses during the same period. That committee is also supported by special-interest money.
Haridopolos, 39, was elected to the Senate in a 2003 special election. He teaches political science courses to graduate students at the University of Florida.
Herald/Times staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com.