The sale of The Miami Herald property to a Malaysian gambling magnate, for three times the next comparable sale on Biscayne Bay, points to Florida's future: full scale casinos. Tempting as it is to draw a wan observation about the games of fortune taking over mainstream media, the $239 million deal speaks for itself. The convent for casinos both tears the Christian conservative base of Florida's GOP and is a hymn to the party's impenetrable majority in the state legislature. The path to casinos is also highlighted by a wealthy governor who bought his way to the executive office in a campaign that denied access to newspaper editorial boards. In other words, if no one is listening and everyone is looking the other way, what you say to appease the God-fearing Christians and Tea Party acolytes in your base is just words. Do what you want and get what you can, now. That is the ethos the Malaysian Chinese are betting will prevail in Miami. Based on recent history, it is a very good bet.
In an interview with FloridaEnvironments.com, Associated Industries of Florida CEO Barney Bishop admitted to this mindset. Florida's GOP, goaded by the Chamber of Commerce and Bishop, aimed and succeeded in eliminating the state land use planning agency based on statements that regulations inhibiting development in Florida were wrecking the economy. They glided over facts that from 2007 to 2010 -- in the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression-- "the state agency had approved 1.5 billion square feet of commercial development in addition to nearly 600,000 new housing units and nearly 1 million acres of land use changes." Bishop affirmed the party line and gospel to the GOP faithful. According to the St. Pete Times, "DCA was that bogeyman for us... so we essentially got rid of that." And so it will be with barriers to full-scale gaming in Florida.
The Republican base that deployed right-wing, "Christian" values to marginalize opposition and secure a lock on the state legislature is now prepared to vault a long history of legislative bars to full casino operations in the state, even if cracking the code means elevating the mysterious economic benefits of gambling over the mysterious benefits of faith.
The pro-casino forces tested the waters for change in this session of the Florida legislature. Genting Berhad, the Malaysian corporation that bought the Miami Herald property, is one the entities registered to lobby at the legislature. So who are the lobbyists and what are their connections? If you wanted to build an effective team to launch tall ladders against the church walls, you would need a senior strategist first who had the full confidence of the dominant players in the GOP.
Harkley Thornton is a Jeb Bush lieutenant. His lobbyist and consultant practice is based in Orlando. Thornton was a former Bush appointee to the South Florida Water Management District governing board. As governor Jeb Bush was a micro-manager and used political appointments to the state water management districts to establish a train of loyalty and discipline towards achieving one of his key objectives: shaping water policy as a series of spigots for campaign contributions from well drillers, engineering companies, real estate and development interests; all needed cheap, reliable and abundant sources of fresh water for new zoning and construction in wetlands and open spaces. (The flip side, "free market environmentalism", created a series of privatized wetlands "mitigation banks" whose failures have been well documented.) In the 2008 election cycle Thornton awarded $31,400 in political contributions to GOP candidates, including $30,000 to the John McCain Victory Committee. In the 2010 cycle, he gave $2400 to Marco Rubio, Jeb's most loyal majority leader in the Florida House who subsequently ran a successful US Senate campaign against Jeb's successor, Charlie Crist. And significantly, Thornton was chair of the Florida Liberty Fund, the entity that raced to the rescue of state Republican party moneys when its former chairman, Jim Greer (hand-picked ally of Crist), was discovered to have looted the party bank account to fund his lifestyle, including robes and crown and sceptre.
There is a connection, of course, to being predisposed to "looking the other way" and falling victim to insiders who mastered the ruse and got wealthy doing it. The connection in Florida is the dominance of land speculation over the economic landscape; the growth of platted subdivisions and condos, the deferring and shifting of costs -- including environmental ones-- that have piled up municipal deficits measured by tens of billions of dollars in recent decades. Associated Industries Bishop provides insight. "It wasn't a complete ruse," Bishop said of the effort to kill off the regulatory agency that was nominally charged with bringing order to Florida's chaotic growth. "They (DCA officials) weren't guilty of everything they were charged with. Again, you have to put a name and a face to these kinds of issues in order to push that down the road. And that's what we did." No different than a barker luring marks into a game of three card monte, or, the public into the notion that a state lottery can fix public education funding.
In early 1997, gambling expert and University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor Bill Thompson offered an interesting perspective on the PBS series, NOVA, in response to a question, "What's the message that the Government's sending out when it puts such heavy money-- millions of dollars in promoting: "Hit the lottery, be a millionaire!" Thompson responded: "Something for nothing. Money grows on trees. You don't have to work. ... just let it roll. Don't be concerned about tomorrow. Live today. Get rich quick."
"Get rich quick" is woven through Florida. Now that Florida's economy is in a hole so deep it is hard to see daylight, what better way to climb out than to reach for the tools that got it there? A decade after Thompson's interview, the housing bubble collapsed. Floridians had bought lock, stock and barrel into the gamble that a house or condo could be used as a personal ATM. And why not? In the late 1990's, the news was filled with instant millionaires from the dot.com boom. When the stock markets crashed in 2000, fingers pointed in all directions except those most culpable for letting the speculation run rampant. Instead of tightening of credit requirements, the bust in the equity markets gave wind to fill the sails from another form of gambling: it was called the "Ownership Society".
Its messengers, including then chairman of WCI Communities Al Hoffman (finance chair of both the president and governor) were based in South Florida. They propelled Jeb Bush to the Governor's Mansion in Florida in 1998 and George W. Bush to the White House in 2000. The Florida Bush was pushed forward by builders who had grown rich through tract housing and condo developments funded by mortgage pools backing into Wall Street financial derivatives. All they needed was super low interest rates, blessed by a compliant, self-absorbed Federal Reserve to make a scalable, replicable model for GOP success throughout the United States: that gambling on housing should be done on a large scale, where profits accrued to those who could manipulate government regulation and infrastructure and do so with speed, volume, and execution.
Part of the apathy in America today can be attributed to the aftershock of the housing crash. No one is doing what everyone was doing early in the 21st century: withdrawing cash from the personal ATM's to fund lifestyles. Despite a putative economic "recovery", American workers are in tougher shape today than they have since the Depression. Moreover voters are immobilized, shell-shocked by an economic malaise that bears nothing in common with past so-called bust and boom cycles except, perhaps, the 1930's. (Through this lens, Sarah Palin's appearance on the back of chick bike in the Rolling Thunder biker event this weekend is a Disney version: they know not what they bike for.)
Thompson's warning in 2003 is prescient, "These are terrible messages. These are the message the Albanians learned from living under Communism that, you know, work doesn't mean a damn-- we can never get ahead. And so now they have become free and the first thing they spend money on is phony pyramid schemes. And their society is falling apart because the schemes fell apart. Well, their government promoted the pyramid schemes. They get the result. And that's going to be the result in America if our government is promoting gambling." It was the result.
In addition to hiring Harkley Thornton, as a top strategist and supremely well-placed GOP faithful, Genting Berhad reached into the ranks of the GOP apparatchik. Among its registered lobbyists: Chip Case was formerly the state GOP director of House campaigns and chief of staff for the Republican Party of Florida. Robert Hosay, Marnie George, Jonathan Kilman, Jr., and Michael P. Harrell work for Foley & Lardner, one of Florida's largest law and lobbying firms.
Florida Trend list Foley as one of the top ten lobbyists in Tallahassee. The company website identifies Mr. Hosay's practice: "focused on assisting clients who conduct business in the public sector. His practice helps clients develop, acquire and/or manage business in the government sector, according to the company website." And, "Mr. Hosay partners with his clients by helping them to interpret the needs and opportunities within government agencies... He was appointed interim secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) by Governor Jeb Bush after serving in several leadership roles at DMS. During Mr. Hosay's tenure at DMS, he was responsible for several key areas of operations, including the state of Florida's procurement policies and practices; enterprise technology policy and programs; employee health plans and insurance products; retirement programs; real estate management; fleet management; and building construction and operations. He was instrumental in developing new state procurement policies via the legislative process during his tenure as state purchasing director."
Among the group clients in Tallahassee: CSX, Florida East Coast Industries-- closely connected with Bush-- and Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida. In 2002 Jonathan Kilman, Jr. "... represented the Florida House of Representatives in litigation and appeals related to the redistricting of Florida's state and federal legislative districts." Michael Harrell is "a public affairs director" with Foley & Gardner. Prior to joining Foley, Mr. Harrell was a "government relations specialist" for Steel Hector & Davis. He also managed political activities for the PAC linked to the Florida Medical Association and was "the primary liaison with members of Florida's congressional delegation." He started his career working for former US Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, and in the Office of the Vice President, in the Reagan Administration. Harrell gave $2400 to the Marco Rubio Senate Campaign in 2010. A 2004 report notes he is a "frequent golfing partner" of former Governor Jeb Bush.
In 2003, The Florida Baptist Witness noted the Family Research Council's "Gambling Backlash: Time for a Moratorium." The Baptist Witness also reported, "... that then Governor Bush did not propose gambling expansion in order to address budget woes, but Tom Slade, former state Republican chairman told the Palm Beach Post otherwise: "Apparently, there's some flexibility there," ... describing statements from Bush and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City."
The fact that the United States is quickly saturating with local gaming venues means that something else is at play in Florida: its proximity to the burgeoning economies of Brazil and Latin America whose elite still prefer the safety and ease of doing business in the US. Miami has always been a flight capitol for flight capital. The Malaysian Chinese see Brazilians in Miami, a perfect place to repatriate renminbi first converted to the Brazilian real then to US dollars then back into the great maw of Chinese billionaires. In China, Americans only can own 49 percent of the deal, with limits on repatriating assets and cash. Here, the Chinese can own 100 percent. Genting could pick up a minority partner for appearances: one of those neo-colonialists all too ready to impose the rules of a Miami city-state on the witless.