Who funds Democratic gubernatorial candidates? Here are 4 takeaways.
In his final days, Charlie Crist seized on a question during Florida’s Democratic primary for governor: Which major industries are backing this year’s Democratic campaigns?
Last week, the congressman’s campaign released a statement accusing Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried of obtaining hundreds of thousands of dollars from political committees closely tied to Florida’s influential sugar industry. The release cited a report from VoteWater, an environmental group that endorsed Crist.
Then the Palm Beach Post published an investigation that found that Fried broke his promise to create new rules on sugar cane burning in the Glades region.
Crist’s campaign promoted the story to reporters across the state.
In response, Fried’s campaign responded that the criticism was a sign that Crist was increasingly concerned about the polls. She disputed the findings of the investigation, calling the Post’s story “get a job on the eve of an electionand saying that she had heard a rumor that Post reporters had been paid by the environmental group Sierra Club to write the story.
A reporter who worked on the Post’s series on burning sugar cane called the accusation “obviously false.” Fried has yet to provide any evidence to support his accusations against the Post.
Campaign posture aside, the episode is an opportunity to examine who is funding the race for the Democratic governor of Florida. Such a look opens a window into the vested interests they believe will adopt their priorities in Tallahassee.
The governor selected members of the Public Service Commission, which regulates state public services.
The governor also appoints members of the water management districts’ board of directors, who have a role in regulating water resources, including environmental policy around Lake Okeechobee — a constant source of tension between the sugar industry and environmentalists.
For millions of Floridians and their livelihoods, the stakes are high.
Fried has ties to sugar – and a mystery group
Fried’s Sugar Links are not direct donations from companies in the industry. Yet since Fried launched her gubernatorial bid in June 2021, she has secured at least a combined $98,500 from the groups Floridians for Economic Advancement, Floridians for a Stronger Democracy, Florida Alliance for Better Government and Fighting for Florida Jobs, who have been linked to the sugar industry silver.
According to records obtained by the Times/Herald, Floridians for Economic Advancement is a committee controlled by political consultants working for both Florida Power & Light and Florida Crystals. The group received funds from nonprofit political committees that don’t have to disclose their donors, and directed those funds to the candidates — as well as Florida’s political parties and their affiliated legislative political committees.
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The Education for All group also donated $25,000 to Fried’s campaign. Records show the committee got more than half of its nearly $375,000 from the sugar companies and Florida Power & Light’s parent company.
VoteWater highlighted hundreds of thousands more in sugar-adjacent donations to its policy committee before it announced its gubernatorial campaign.
Meanwhile, the third largest contributor to Fried’s political committee since she began running for governor is a group called “Embrace Equality.” The Washington, DC-based group gave Fried $125,000 — $25,000 directly and $100,000 through the political committee of Her Bold Move, a group dedicated to electing women who support the right to abortion nationwide.
Embrace Equality does not appear to disclose its donors. A call to the number listed on the Her Bold Move website was unsuccessful. The organization did not respond to emails seeking comment on the people behind Embrace Equality.
Fried’s campaign declined to comment.
Crist brags that he doesn’t get any sugar or utility money. But …
Crist likes to tout his adversarial relationships with Florida’s utility companies and sugar companies, dating back to his time as governor, as proof he’s willing to stand up to big business for consumers and the environment.
This cycle, Crist has not received any donations from Florida Power & Light or other utilities, such as Duke Energy and TECO Energy Inc.
Nor has he received any donations from US Sugar or Florida Crystals, either directly or through the handful of political action committees that sugar companies have used in the past to direct their money.
Crist turned down donations from Florida Power & Light during his gubernatorial run in 2006 after the utility giant spent hundreds of thousands on his chief Republican opponent.
As governor, Crist opposed Florida Power & Light rate hikes and refused to reappoint two commissioners to the board of directors overseeing Florida utilities, making the board less supportive of utilities.
“Charlie Crist has always been a champion of the people, supporting special interests,” campaign spokeswoman Samantha Ramirez said. “Meanwhile, Nikki Fried has strong ties to Big Sugar, which has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to her campaign.”
… Politics is murky.
Crist’s campaign reports — and Fried’s, for that matter — may not be as simple as they seem.
Although he received no direct donations from these industries, Crist did receive money from political committees which in turn received donations from other sugar-related committees and utility money.
Take, for example, the Winning Florida group, which donated $28,500 to Crist’s campaign and at least $35,500 to Fried’s. This committee received $50,000 from Floridians for Economic Advancement, which got $200,000 from Florida Crystals, as well as a large number of donations from other political committees.
This is nothing new in Florida politics. It is common for political committee donations to be organized like Russian nesting dolls. Since fundraising groups often get money from multiple sources, it is often impossible to tell if the money is from a particular interest once it arrives at its final destination.
In the example of Winning Florida, we know that the sugar industry gave money to a political committee which in turn gave money to a committee which in turn gave money to Crist and Fried. Does it make sugar money from the final gift? It’s impossible to say without internal documentation.
A few individuals and groups have made a big difference
Crist recently accepted his biggest donation of this election cycle – a last-minute $500,000 boost from the American Federation of Teachers, a union representing 1.7 million members.
South Florida-based philanthropist Barbara Stiefel gave the second most to Crist’s campaign: $300,000 over one year. Francoise Haasch-Jones, a Palm Harbor personal injury attorney, gave Crist just over $200,000.
Crist also got a big boost with the money he raised earlier. In May 2021, shortly after announcing his candidacy for governor, Crist’s statewide action committee received $185,000 from his federal committee, Charlie Crist for Congress.
Donations from individuals and groups who have given at least $100,000 or more to Crist represent approximately 25% of total fundraising to its political committee, according to the latest available report.
Meanwhile, Fried has secured at least $425,000 from Mike Fernandez, the South Florida billionaire private equity investor who was a top donor to Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. June Piscitelli, a Fort Lauderdale educator, contributed at least an additional $174,000.
Together, those two donors account for about $1 in every five dollars raised by Florida Consumers First, Fried’s policy committee, since she declared herself governor.
Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.