By John Kennedy Eds: For immediate release. c.2012 Cox Newspapers
TALLAHASSEE (Cox Newspapers) — Democrats have benefited from spending by third-party political committees in national races at levels similar to those backing Republicans.
But within Florida, Democrats hold little influence in state-level politics. As a result, they are vastly out-gunned by outside groups siding with the GOP, although Democrats are still helped by spending from labor organizations and trial lawyers.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision struck down restrictions on corporate and union spending in federal elections. That’s led deep-pocketed interests to pour money into political committees like those Watkins serves as treasurer and is expected to result in an unprecedented level of campaign spending this fall.
Critics say the shift also is making a mockery of state and federal campaign finance laws. These laws limit how much individuals and corporations can give to candidates, but the Supreme Court ruling has unleashed a flood of unrestricted cash flowing into political committees.
Between June 1 and
Sept. 8 alone, for example, third-party groups spent $51.3 million to influence U.S. Senate races — compared with $19.8 million spent by such groups in Senate contests two years ago, according to data from the Wesleyan Media Project.
Florida U.S. Senate candidate Connie Mack, a Republican, told The Palm Beach Post that most of the $30 million he expects to be spent on his campaign to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson will come from outside groups.
At the state level, political committees that drove Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s election in 2010 were among the biggest independent spenders in the nation, according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Scott’s prime committee,
Let’s Get to Work, was financed chiefly by cash from his wife, Ann, and spent $17.5 million in 2010. Scott is back at it, having raised more than $4 million — most of it in four-, five- and six-figure checks from the state’s leading industries, since spring.
Nancy Watkins’ accounting office on a leafy street in Tampa may be one of the scariest addresses in Florida — for Democrats.
Inside, Watkins guides millions of dollars in fund raising and spending that flow through dozens of murky political committees backing Republican candidates and causes.
The dollars are behind some of the toughest campaign mailers and TV spots this election season. But Watkins also has been targeted by critics. A Democratic candidate for governor, Bud Chiles, stood outside the office two years ago and called it “ground zero for what’s wrong with Florida politics.”
Watkins, though, said she shouldn’t be accused of running a virtual Halloween horror house against Democratic candidates and causes.
“Hey, I’m 5-foot-1 and 110 pounds. There’s nothing scary about me,” Watkins said. “But, you know, and I realize this is not always artfully said, I do believe that corporations are people and they have a right to be heard.”
For her part, Watkins kept the books for Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign from her Tampa office. She also is listed as treasurer for the Ending Spending Fund, which opposed U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada in 2010, and SuperPAC for America, a committee led by Fox News analyst Dick Morris that advanced Republican congressional campaigns that year.
But at the state and local levels, political races in Florida always have been open to corporate spending. And that’s where Watkins has flourished.
Watkins said she oversees as many as 120 political committees, some of them existing largely just on paper. But about half that number, she said, “are going fast and furiously right now.”
Watkins’ role is making sure the committees’ books stay balanced, and that they follow seemingly ever-changing elections laws.
She scoffed at Chiles’ description from two years ago that her office is home to “legal money laundering” — the kind that manufactures cutthroat TV spots and mail pieces now flooding Florida households.
“I don’t care about the message. I don’t give political advice. And I don’t watch much TV,” said Watkins, who works exclusively for Republicans and their allied organizations. “I just make sure (the spending) is in compliance with the law.”
But for voters who do watch, any attempt to follow the money can be bewildering.
Names of the spending committees don’t offer much of a clue about who’s behind them, given that they are built mostly on bromides and feel-good slogans. Frequently, legislators control the fund raising and spending.
Florida law does require lawmakers to identify the committees they control. And they must report contributions on a website within five business days of receiving them.
But those who track political spending say the average voter has little chance of understanding the source of the money.
“It’s not easy,” said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “It’s the Russian doll syndrome. You have one committee that gives to another committee and then another, and maybe then that committee pays for TV advertising.”
Dozens of legislators have “committees of continuous existence,” CCEs, where unlimited amounts of industry contributions can be parked, used for meals, political consultants and other expenses, or transferred to committees supporting fellow candidates.
The cash then can be passed on to other “electioneering communications committees” that can convert the money into TV ads or mailers.
Unlike with many federal super PACs and “527 committees,” named for the section of IRS code that governs them, Florida candidates are not barred from coordinating the campaign activities of their committees.
Critics say the huge checks that flow in and out of these committees defy state laws that limit individual contributions in legislative races to $500 per election. Lawmakers also are barred by ethics laws from accepting a cup of coffee from lobbyists.
“The money is out of control. And citizens shouldn’t have to go on a scavenger hunt to figure out who is behind a campaign ad,” said Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, which monitors money in politics.
Watkins is treasurer for organizations including the Alliance for a Strong Economy and Working Together for Florida. There are Floridians for Liberty, Floridians for Strong Leadership and Florida First.
Growing Florida’s Future, Innovate Florida and Making the Right Call for Florida are all pots of cash controlled by legislators.
One of the largest committees Watkins administers, the Florida Conservative Majority, has raised $3.5 million for this fall’s campaigns and is led by Sens. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville; Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando; and Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a lineup positioned to lead the Florida Senate for the next six years.
The biggest contributors to Florida’s ruling Republicans are Florida’s largest industries and associations, with the state’s Chamber of Commerce, Walt Disney Corp., Florida Association of Realtors and U.S. Sugar among those dominating.
Lawyers and labor organizations, including the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, help pour dollars into committees on the Democratic side.
But even some deeply involved in these campaigns say the system is unfair to voters.
“Florida is truly the ‘Wild, Wild West,’” said Mark Herron, an elections and ethics lawyer who operates a handful of CCEs for Democratic-allied organizations.
“There’s little regulation,” he added. “Some say money is always going to find its way to candidates. But I think it’s important we ratchet it back.”
Still, until Citizens United is revisited by the Supreme Court, the free-spending era may endure.
“Corporations do not have the same constitutional rights as people,” Herron said. “But that’s basically what the Supreme Court has said.”
Watkins, though, whose accounting work is at a fever pitch through Election Day, said the committees she works with are signs of a flourishing democracy.
“You’re not dealing with the old party bosses,” she said. “These committees are what’s replacing them. People and companies are trying to influence politics, and this is their voice.”