Politics and Money in Fort Myers Races

Soft money. Attack ads. Chicago-style Obama politics versus big GOP spending.

The city elections in Fort Myers have it all.

It seems local activist Anthony Thomas upped the ante in the city when he worked with Ward 3 candidate Christine Matthews to turn out the absentee vote in September. Their door-to-door efforts turned out 429 absentee ballots. With elections restricted to voters in the ward and only 169 voting in person that was more than enough to sweep incumbent Levon Simms out of office.

That got the attention of conservative political groups across Florida and of supporters of Mayor Randy Henderson, who faces challenger Raimond Aulen on Nov. 5.

“What really brought the race to our attention was reading about what happened in the primary,” said Randy Nielson, owner of the public relations firm Public Concepts, which runs various Electioneering Communications Organizations, soft money groups still legal under election law that drop big bucks into Florida races from the Governor’s Mansion on down.

The groups are prohibited from supporting individual candidates, but are not shy about attacking them. Henderson said he knows nothing about FCV. The groups can in fact operate completely separate from any candidate and without a candidate’s knowledge.

Nielson’s group Floridians for Conservative Values has used money it’s raised from other political groups and so-called ECO’s to play its own part in the mayoral race. The group sent fliers to Fort Myers voters warning of “Obama Operatives” looking to take over city hall.

The flier features fotos of the President and of Thomas. Nielson said it’s designed specifically in response to the blizzard of mail ballots in September and to get conservatives out to vote.

“Those extra absentee ballots were not conservative voters,” Nielson said.

Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in the city 14,004 to 10,550, with the rest of the 32,937 voters registered in other parties, as independents or without party. Races are non-partisan, but the lines are clear.

Required reports show Floridians for Conservative Values 2013 funding has come entirely from Florida Crystals, which gave $100,000 in August.

The group has banked over $1.1 million in total, however, much of it from other soft money groups. It was created in 2010 a few months after a like-named ECO was closed down after it had spent $1.6 million.

The donors list, like most ECO’s, reads like a soft money roll call.

The registered agent for Floridians for Conservative Values is Tallahassee attorney John French, who’s had his fingerprints on efforts in Lee County before. He’s also registered agent for let’s Get to Work, Gov. Rick Scott’s ECO.

There are other party connections. The accountant in Nielson’s office, Gary Splain, was the campaign treasurer for District 30 State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto. Benacquisto is the Senate Majority Leader and is married to Bruce Strayhorn, a Fort Myers attorney and behind-the-scenes political force recently reappointed by Henderson to the Fort Myers Housing Authority.

Efforts to reach Benacquisto were unsuccessful.

While the $36 million the governor’s group has raised dwarfs what Floridians for Conservative Values (FCV) has, they share a lot of donors, as the groups shuffle the money back and forth.

FCV is located in West Palm Beach. It has received money from at least 13 other ECO’s, PAC’s and other political committees.

And it still has money on-hand, so Fort Myers voters are sure to hear from them again.

Groups with names like Citizens for Common Sense and Florida Freedom Council have sent money to FCV.

Looking behind the scenes shows large sums of money coming from all the expected sources: Disney. U.S. Sugar. Phosphate. The Florida Chamber. Internet gaming. Private prisons. Citrus.

The Alliance for a Strong Economy sent money to FCV, and the Republican Party of Florida sent over $1 million to The Alliance for a Strong Economy. The party seemingly took a more direct interest this week when ads attacking Aulen made their way into Fort Myers mailboxes.

Those ads cite health code violations at Aulen’s Indigo Room, accusing him of putting profits first and being out for himself. Local FOX TV reporter Warren Wright did a comparison, finding other nearby restaurants with more violations.

The ads came from a group calling itself Accountability in Government, Inc., another ECO. It got not quite $100,000 since September directly from the Republican Party of Florida and more from U.S. Sugar.

Others on that donor list form a litany of soft money groups including Florida First, the ECO that used sugar money in 2012 to help wash former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah out of office after 24 years.

ECO’s are hardly new to local politics. Groups made runs at Judah for three straight elections before Florida First used an estimated $750,000 – more than $300,000 of it from U.S. Sugar – in a campaign to show him the door in 2012.

Over the years those groups spent over $1 million looking to dislodge Judah. Eventually it worked.

Another soft money group attacked Andy Coy when the former commissioner challenged Tammy Hall in 2006. Commissioner Frank Mann has been targeted. Former State Rep. Nick Thompson was too. The soft money crowd has made runs at other local elected officials as well.

Thomas’ own tactics were questioned by the Fort Myers City Council, which passed a resolution asking for an investigation after the unprecedented number of absentees carried the September primary. County elections supervisor Sharon Harrington said that it is not illegal to encourage voters to agree with you, to provide a cell phone to request an absentee ballot, or even to revisit and see to it the ballots get returned.

Harrington said that to the extent Thomas’ tactics increased voter participation and was a local grassroots effort it is a good thing. She said she believes the investigation by Florida Department of Law Enforcement centers more on potential voter coercion.

Thomas, who is black, said the only voter coercion or intimidation is being caused by the investigation itself.

“What we got is the FDLE going to these black peoples houses and asking them who they voted for and why,” he said. “There’s nothing for them to find.”

The absentee scenario could be playing out again in Ward 1. Incumbent Teresa Watkins Brown is standing for re-election against Bill Pierce, a bail bondsman and a Fort Myers native. Pierce’s wife Dana lost to Watkins Brown in 2009.

There have been over 550 absentee ballots requested in the Ward 1. The ward has over 3,700 voters, and the police referendum and mayoral race is expected to drive turnout higher, so the absentees may not swing as much weight.

The current lay of the political landscape in Fort Myers is this:

Henderson is mayor now, a post he’s held since 2009. He’s being challenger by Aulen, who owns the Indigo Room bar and restaurant downtown.

There’s also the referendum to abolish the Fort Myers Police Department, an effort Aulen, Pierce and Thomas have pushed.

Thomas has his own Political Action Committee, Citizens for a Better Fort Myers Government. It’s Fort Myers-based and virtually all of its money has come from within Lee County.

Nielson said Fort Myers residents should be worried about people like Thomas going door-to-door to influence voters.

“The word’s gotten out,” he said. “Those are the same kinds of tactics Obama for America uses.”

Nielson also questioned where the money is coming from for Aulen’s campaign ads. Aulen’s reports show about $20,000, virtually all of it out of his own pockets. His most recent report lists $13,500 in in-king donations, lacking the details the report requires.

“Everyone who lives in that community should be very concerned and very suspicious,” Nielson said. “Right now it looks like Fort Myers is Shenanigans Central.”

Thomas sees it differently. He points to similarities between Benacquisto’s financial reports and those of the soft money groups.

Nielson said he hasn’t spoken to Benacquisto about the Fort Myers races, though he does know she supports conservative values. He said the lack of detail in Aulen’s report is telling.

“Usually where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he said.

There is no fire, according to Aulen campaign consultant Phil Nichols of Whitestar Strategies. Nichols also consulted with Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker when he was elected to Judah’s old seat in 2012.

“We are taking in money but Raimond is basically self-financed,” Nichols said. “We’re not relying on U.S. Sugar and the Republican Party of Florida.”

Politics does create strange bedfellows. Nichols’ efforts for Kiker were boosted by those very groups now pushing for Henderson.

Which is not to say Aulen’s campaign won’t be running its own ads and sending its own fliers. Nichols said those will be showing up this week, paid for almost exclusively by Aulen himself and listed in his next campaign report.

Floridians for Conservative Values is fronted by Tallahassee attorney John French, who’s had his fingerprints on efforts in Lee County before. He’s the registered agent, a role he also fills for let’s Get to Work, Gov. Rick Scott’s ECO.

The $36 million the governor’s group has raised dwarfs the $1.1 million Floridians for Conservative Values (FCV) has raised, but they share a lot of donors, as the groups shuffle the money back and forth.

FCV is located in West Palm Beach and is chaired by Mark Langley. It has received money from at least 13 other ECO’s, PAC’s and other political committees.

The only donation reported so far in 2013 is $100,000 from Florida Crystals.

And it still has money on-hand, so watch out for more.

Groups with names like Citizens for Common Sense and Florida Freedom Council have sent money to FCV.

Looking behind the scenes shows large sums of money coming from all the expected sources: Disney. U.S. Sugar. Phosphate. The Florida Chamber. Internet gaming. Private prisons. Citrus.

The Alliance for a Strong Economy sent money to FCV, and the Republican Party of Florida sent over $1 million to The Alliance for a Strong Economy.

As if this alphabet soup of behind-the-scenes political manipulation wasn’t confusing enough Floridians for Conservative Values gave $10,000 to the Committee for Progressive Values on November 1, 2012.

If this looks like an effort for the two disparate political groups to bridge the gap look again.

Maybe this will make it easier to understand. Maybe not.

Six days after the Committee for Progressive Values got $10,000 from Floridians for Conservative Values it wrote a $10,000 check to something called Conservatives United. A week later it wrote another one.

This exchange of money between purported ‘conservatives’ and their supposed political opposition the ‘progressives’ is a little easier to understand.

The conservative group is chaired by Carmela Falcone of Melbourne. The treasurer is Michael Millner.

The progressive group is chaired by Carmela Falcone of Melbourne. The treasurer is Michael Millner.

It gets better, or at least more local. In June of this year the Cape Coral ECO Families for Freedom and Fairness gave $1,500 to Thomas’ Better Government PAC. Families for Freedom and Fairness is chaired by Terry Miller, who is chairman of the Republican Party in Lee County.

Miller said that donation was rooted in the two groups’ agreement on the single-member districts issue.

“It certainly had nothing to do with the Mayor’s race,” he said.

Thomas’ PAC has not raised or spent money in several months.

Miller said he doesn’t believe the state party has any interest in the city races, but the local party does.

“We do support the mayor because even though it’s non-partisan he’s a registered Republican and his opponent is not,” Miller said.

When he got state party approval to take part in the mayor’s race, Miller said, the state party would have told him if it was interested, too. It didn’t.

So in a political pseudo-world where conservatives aren’t conservative, progressives aren’t progressive and no one tells the complete story what’s a voter to do?

The best advice is to do what every responsible news outlet, candidate or party will tell you:

If you are a voter in Fort Myers – or if you are any voter anywhere who ever receives any mailer or any phone call or sees any TV commercial from any group you cannot identify – ignore it.

Talk to your neighbors. Talk to the candidates themselves – Fort Myers is not that big and the candidates not that hard to reach. Educate yourself. Read local news reports on the candidates. Figure out where they stand on issues that matter to you and vote your own mind.

If a flier from someone you don’t know lands in your mailbox do not read it. If a commercial from an ECO comes on mute the TV. Ignore it.

Because ECO’s all have one thing in common. They want you to do what’s best for them, their donors and their clients – not for you.

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3 comments

  1. Gayle O'Neil

    Generally an attack adofany kind received or seen or heard by me gives a brownie point to who or what is being attacked. An ” unknown” ad for works the reverse in my world.

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