Friday, February 21, 2014

Fixing Florida elections to serve the radical right: former state senator Michael Bennett (part II) … by gimleteye

News of yet another Republican-led voter suppression effort in Florida drew immediate attention, but none was directed at the instigator of the suppression tactics, former state senator Mike Bennett. The February 11, 2014 edition of the Bradenton Herald reported:
The Manatee County Commission on Tuesday voted 6-1 to approve a cut in the number of polling locations by almost 30 percent, despite pleas from speakers to delay the plan to provide more time for public vetting. Commissioners OK'd plans submitted by Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett to trim the number of precincts from 99 to 69.

Voting in favor were Commission Chair Larry Bustle and commissioners Robin DiSabatino, Betsy Benac, Vanessa Baugh, Carol Whitmore and John Chappie. Voting against was Commissioner Michael Gallen, the board's sole Democrat and in whose district the largest percentage of precinct closures will take place.

Bennett's plan drew fire from those who complained that minority and poorer voters will bear the greatest share of the inconvenience. “We all know what this is about is voter repression ... period,” said Lou Murray, vice president of the Democratic Black Caucus.

He noted that the area that will lose 50 percent of its polling places is heavily Democratic precincts, and questioned how fragile senior citizens without transportation would be able to get to polls three miles away during summer's heat.
In 2012, Michael Bennett was term-limited out of the state legislature where he had served a decade as one of the most powerful Republicans and committee chairs in the state senate. He re-surfaced in 2013 as the supervisor of elections for Manatee County, following others who had been powerful state politicians like former senate president Ken Pruitt, now property appraiser in St. Lucie County.

Mike Bennett is no stranger to the politics of divide and conquer. In fact, those politics defined what amounted to a highly successful legislative stint on behalf of big business interests who hold the state capitol in Tallahassee hostage, today. They are Republican. They are right-wing. And they will stop at nothing to preserve hard won gains against changing demographics including the rise of Hispanic voters who strongly lean Democrat.

The disconnect in the Manatee County story is not between voter suppression and the failure of the mainstream media to report what the GOP is doing at the state-level to cement its immoveable majority, but the great divide between what voters know about the hostage takers who dominate the state government.

Few Floridians can even name their state representatives or state senators, and even fewer still from the emerging demographics.

In the early 2000's state GOP leaders controlled by Big Agriculture and construction and housing industries organized behind a full-throttled effort at the top level of Republican leadership to deploy low interest rate policy advocated by the Federal Reserve in response to the perceived threats to the economy by 9/11. At the time, the campaign finance chairman to both the Jeb Bush and George W. Bush campaign was a then powerful developer and founder of WCI Communities, Al Hoffman.

Hoffman bubbled to the Washington Post that suburban sprawl in Florida -- taking off like a rocket ship as a consequence of politics aligned in response to the war on terror -- was "an unstoppable force". He meant it in a good way. Cities like Bradenton became incubators for rampant suburban sprawl, with cookie-cutter profits to match low cost production to derivative mortgages tied far upstream on Wall Street.

The political business of knocking down barriers to growth was left to the GOP state legislature. That is where Mike Bennett made his mark. Decades of pandering to pro-growth forces left the Democrats weakened and adrift; far easier to bunker around union and ethnic divisions than to advocate for the public commons.

Less than three years after Jeb Bush signed for Florida the agreement with the Clinton White House -- on the same day in January 2001 that the US Supreme Court decided the presidential election in favor of George W. Bush -- memorializing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Act, Big Sugar went to the Florida legislature to dismantle the agreement. Senator Bennett was a key driver of the 2003 bill tarred by Sierra Club as "The Everglades Destruction Bill".

The effect of the bill was to postpone Everglades cleanup for two more decades, and to subject water pollution measurement to "mixing averages" as a way to essentially write around 10 parts per billion of a key pollutant generated by Big Sugar; phosphorous from fertilizer that is overwhelming the nutrient-limited River of Grass. At the time, Florida's top environmental officer, David Struhs was remarkably cavalier;. "Whatever date is put into law will not speed up or slow down our process," said Secretary David Struhs told the press, "That is because the laws of man cannot affect the laws of nature."

The Big Sugar push orchestrated by Jeb Bush outraged at least two Republican members of the Florida Congressional delegation; the late Porter Goss and late Clay Shaw. Both vehemently opposed their own party's legislative meddling. A powerful Republican Congressman from Ohio, Ralph Regula, warned, "The Everglades belongs to 280 million American people."

Mike Bennett earned his credibility with the most powerful business interests in the state showing that power didn't belong with voters, it belonged with the small group of very wealthy billionaires who could mobilize dozens of lobbyists in capitol hallways to advance their profits at the expense of the social contract.

In the 2004 session of the legislature, Senator Bennett found the issue that would define his tenure in the state legislature. Florida's developers and Big Sugar wanted to neuter the ability of state, regional and local authorities to approve or to deny large-scale developments.

Audubon of Florida wrote its warning in March 2004, "The Association of Florida Community Developers, claiming to represent 52 major development companies owning over 1.4 million acres of land in Florida, has launched a major attack on Florida's laws protecting water, remaining wildlife habitat, and open space." The bill called for a "one size fits all approach" to cutting regulatory authority; a theme reviled by Florida's conservative Republicans except when applied to the largest campaign donors in the state.

In a March 29, 2004 editorial, The Orlando Sentinel wrote: "Pity the poor development community. To hear state Rep. Mike Davis and state Sen. Michael Bennett tell it, Florida developers have been brutalized by state and local bureaucracies in their earnest quest to simply make the most of their fallow land holdings. That's why the two introduced legislation that effectively would remove many of those obstacles, paving the way for a more "common sense" approach to growth approvals."

By 2011, the change Mike Bennett represented had eviscerated state authority to plan for the future of its communities. Bennett stood at the center of undoing decades of bipartisan effort to tame the impulses of developers and Big Ag.

Tom Pelham, a Republican, had been the state secretary of the Department of Community Affairs under two governors. In the 1980's, he had been charged with implementing a law called the Growth Management Act during the administration of a GOP governor, Bob Martinez, that was in its key features the most forward looking in the nation. Mike Bennett would bomb that intent, back into the Stone Age in scarcely ten years.

In "Florida's Retreat From Planning And Growth Management", Pelham wrote: "Florida conceived, developed and maintained its comprehensive planning and growth management legislation, popularly known as the Growth Management Act (GMA) over a forty-year period. By comparison, the state's lengthy commitment to planning ended almost in a twinkling of the eye. With no study or little deliberation, the 2011 State Legislature precipitously passed, and the newly elected Governor quickly signed, the development industry's proposed legislation dismantling the state land planning agency and emasculating the state's planning legislation." This dismal outcome was the crowning achievement of one state senator, Michael Bennett, who has recently made news for advocating and promoting the drastic reduction of polling stations in one Florida county. Bennett's work is of one piece: doing the political business of an entrenched radical right that is threatened by changing state demographics including a rapidly growing Hispanic population that tends to vote Democrat.

It seems to have escaped voters' attention that the brook-no-dissent pro-growth policies at both the federal and state levels in the late 1990's and early 2000's --- mostly a Republican affair supported by right wing conservative billionaires -- led directly to the worst housing collapse since the Great Depression.

Bradenton is located on US 41 between Tampa and Sarasota. According to the 2000 Census, Bradenton was 78 percent white and only 11 percent Latino. The area is surrounded by waterways, both fresh and saltwater. Along the Gulf of Mexico and into Tampa Bay are over 20 miles (32 km) of Florida beaches – many which are shaded by Australian pines. Bordered on the north by the Manatee River, Bradenton is located on the mainland and is separated from the outer barrier islands of Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key by the Intracoastal Waterway. The housing crash hit the region, and Bradenton, like a hurricane. By 2008, housing prices had fallen precipitously -- by at least a third.

Floridians know all about the consequences of poorly planned growth -- horrific traffic jams, overcrowded schools, dwindling drinking-water supplies, a lack of recreational opportunities, ravaged natural resources. They are intimately familiar with the historically feeble attempts of state and local leaders to contain urban sprawl. The problem is that Florida voters never connected the dots between what cost them so dearly, from cratered housing values and fortunes, to the policies and the politics that created the conditions for their losses.

For Bennett and his right wing supporters, the housing crash provided an even more persuasive case for eliminating state land use planning than during the boom. Reducing barriers to growth -- like those new laws signaling lax enforcement for environmental protections and wetlands permitting -- created the supply for vast quantities of new mortgages that fed Wall Street's insatiable need for "predictable" debt streams to fund financial derivatives, but once those markets collapsed, then Bennett argued that lost jobs could only be recovered by further reducing those barriers that had already been weakened, and citizens resistance worn down by protracted skirmishes across the state.

For his 2002 bid to claim a state Senate seat, Mr. Bennett, a former state representative, received at least $153,000 from the building industry and related trades -- nearly a quarter of all his donations. ("Our position: Florida has no business gutting its law on huge developments", Orlando Sentinel 2006.)

In 2005 Bennett told the Associated Press, "I think the number one thing we have do is change the thinking at all levels, that growth management is something you do after the problem occurs," said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and chairman of the Senate Community Affairs Committee. "We have to change it to growth planning." ("Florida's growth management system facing legislative overhaul", Feb, 19 2005)

One of the most toxic provisions of the bill, was the limitation and restrictions on citizen standing: To the Tallahassee Democrat, "Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and sponsor of the Senate bill, denied that citizens would be restricted from filing challenges even though it plainly says so in the bill." (Law leaves people out, group says, 5/2/05)

Slowly but surely and steadily, Bennett found his life's work around the theme that would soon enough become the mantra of the Tea Party: reducing the size and scope of government where it affected the ability of developers and Big Sugar to do what it wanted with its property.

The Florida Audubon Advocate Legislative Report for March 31, 2006 reported, "This week some of the mostly hotly contested environmental bills have begun to move quickly, most notably the ill-advised effort to remove the Area of Critical State Concern designation from the beleaguered Florida Keys Challenge to Florida Keys Protections Gaining Ground. The Florida Keys have been an Area of Critical State Concern since 1974, conveying added protection on the Keys' natural resources. This pair of bills would remove state oversight before the Designation's requirements have been met. Without state oversight, the beleaguered Keys ecology is sure to suffer further, along with the Keys economy which relies upon it. Ironically, 82% of surveyed Keys residents said they opposed lifting the designation (Source: Lake Research Partners) and only three of Monroe County's five commissioners support these bills."

The Bennett bill gave small municipalities the ability to limit the ability of their county to coordinate their area’s responsible growth. County charters have long been a mechanism through which local citizens can effect responsible growth management in their area and have a meaningful impact on natural resource conservation. These bills would allow a single small municipality to reject larger, county-based planning efforts, even when a majority of the rest of the county supports them."

Today, as supervisor of elections in Manatee County, Michael Bennett has organized and persuaded county commissioners to put their hands directly on manipulating elections by reducing the number of polling stations by a third. Voters around the state need to be reminded that the GOP leadership that came to virtual unilateral control of the state legislature in the early 2000's has carried momentum. The alliances forged through the housing boom and bust created a trained corps of facilitators of radical right-wing goals: dismantling state authority, limiting the ability of citizens to protest through administrative court actions, eviscerating decades of protections carefully crafted through bipartisan consensus over a period of decades, and leading -- finally -- to burrowing into the mechanics of elections themselves.

It is hard to know what is in the mind of Michael Bennett, but his actions speak for themselves. He waged war against twenty five years of growth management that provided, in its most essential form, a level of state authority for citizens interested in the overarching principles of sound community development and environmental protections. He was a team player in the effort to make Florida a safe haven for the radical right, and at least in one Florida county he is leading the effort to suppress the vote pure and simple to protect those gains. (to be continued …)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Someone in Manatee County who is African-American needs to file a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act as soon as this becomes law. Call Howard Fineman of the ACLU.