Saturday, October 29, 2016

How Big Sugar dominates Florida: a case study ... by gimleteye

Crystal Mills Lucas, candidate for Florida state representative District 83

In Florida this election cycle, Big Sugar is playing hard in a state representative election, District 83 north of Palm Beach, that says everything about “rigged systems” and “political cronyism”. Surprised?

Crystal Mills Lucas, a first time Democratic candidate for the Florida state legislature, is running against Gayle Harrell, a Republican in Martin County — the formerly sleepy county that includes Stuart and Port St. Lucie. Lucas has been endorsed by the local newspaper, the Treasure Coast Palm.

The incoming president of the Florida Senate, Joe Negron, is from the area. His support of Harrell would be partisan and politically correct, but it is more than that. To see what a challenger like Lucas faces in a lock-down, rigged system; consider the following.

Lucas is a former school teacher and avid outdoors woman. With her husband and daughter, they grew to love the Atlantic coast beaches and the St. Lucie River devastated, in the winter of 2016, by highly polluted and toxic water spewing from Lake Okeechobee. For the first half of 2016, a river of toxic slime covered the shorefront of downstream communities like Lucas’, Harrell’s, and Negron’s. Homeowners and visitors were appalled by a thick, guacamole-like blanket of algae that was toxic to touch and to breathe.

The pollution tsunami also impacted Florida’s west coast, through the Caloosahatchee River. There, a similar dogfight is playing out between a challenger, John Scott, motivated to run by the terrible pollution and an incumbent Matt Cadlwell, whose campaign account is filled with polluter money.

The 2016 pollution was so bad, so awful, so damaging to local, small tourism-dependent businesses that a civic movement rose up — mainly on social media — in response. I wrote, at the time, about the emergence of groups like as "Florida’s Arab Spring".

That means, in terms that campaign consultants understand, the interest of potentially millions of urban voters was suddenly opposed to a few Big Sugar oligarchs and rural communities where jobs depend on sugarcane production.

The fortunes of the oligarchs depend on polluting practices that shift the majority of cleanup costs to taxpayers and push the practice and implementation of Florida's water management policies and infrastructure into the wilderness.

Then in the winter of 2016 -- a year ago -- the rains began to fall in dry season, forcing water managers to open the floodgates of hell. The South Florida Water Management District and US Army Corps of Engineers supervised the disposal of billions of gallons of toxic water into waterways and along coast real estate owned mostly by taxpayers who vote Republican. But not exclusively Republican.

Water pollution is an equal opportunity offender, and soon social media lit up, a phenomenon that Big Sugar attributed at first to its long-time adversaries: nonprofit environmental groups. Only this time, the opposition to Big Sugar was fueled by broad based, civic revulsion.

Against this backdrop, Crystal Mills Lucas decided to run for public office. She had a little money, a supportive family, great enthusiasm and a willingness to put her time and energy on the line for democracy.

She did so in a Florida county that is statistically insignificant in state-wide elections, but very important in terms of geography and Big Sugar. The western reaches of Martin County border hundreds of thousands of acres in sugarcane production. Big Sugar has a deep interest in converting its lands to suburbs, to inland shipping ports, and industrial uses like rock mines as soon as its economically feasible. Obtaining zoning variances and building approvals depends on local regulations and state laws.

Through privileges and subsidies implicit in the federal Farm Bill, a handful of farmers like the Fanjuls’ Florida Crystals empire and the descendents of Charles Stuart Mott through U.S. Sugar Corporation are extraordinarily wealthy. Big Sugar sprinkles political money like candy drops on legislators; a practice called by GOP taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, “cronyism in its undiluted, inexcusable majesty”.

Big Sugar's tactics have evolved along with campaign finance law. In 2012 — the election cycle after Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court blew the doors off corporate restrictions on campaign contributions — Big Sugar decided to play hardball in local county elections. In the final weeks of the campaign, U.S. Sugar Corporation spent nearly $1 million in “dark” money to defeat Ray Judah, a long-time Lee County commissioner and Republican, who had been the most eloquent advocate for converting lands in sugarcane to water storage and treatment to stop his west Florida coast constituents from being bombed by pollution during wet, rainy years.

In the August 2016 primary election in Martin County, Big Sugar invested in political action committees to eliminate another challenger who supported land acquisition in the Evreglades Agricultural Area, the former mayor of Sewell's Point Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch.

Big Sugar is behind the scenes working to stop Crystal Mills Lucas’ challenge of Gayle Harrell for state representative. According to recent filings, Lucas has raised about $71,000 compared to Harrell’s $200,000.

The money is relatively small potatoes, except it is not. Political committees lined up behind Harrell are investing a multiple of what she has directly raised for her campaign. According to Lucas, every day at least one attack mailer against her is arriving in voters’ mailboxes. The mailers are supported by attack ads on local TV. They are all negative, and all are funded by anonymous political action committees with anodyne, misleading names.

One mailer charges Crystal Mills Lucas is a polluter herself; that her home septic system discharges into the ground. This ties to one of Big Sugar’s tactics: to shift blame for pollution of Florida’s estuaries and rivers to homeowners whose septic systems discharge into the aquifer.

This story is now gaining traction on the front page of the local newspaper, Gannet-owned Treasure Coast Palm: in fact Lucas’ sewer is on a city line.

Another mailer insinuates Lucas is a terrorist.

Harrell’s campaign report shows a $10,000 contribution from the Republican Party of Florida — a drop in the bucket — and another $1000 contribution from the Treasure Coast Alliance, a political action committee controlled by Senate president Negron. These small contributions from connected entities have a point: to plant the flag, in effect, on the durable partnership between the Florida GOP and Big Sugar.

There has been no similar flag-planting by the Democrats on Lucas’ campaign. The careful cultivation of Democrats by Big Sugar — spreading crumbs through Democratic consultants like Balsera Communications in Miami and African American communities — keep it that way.

Lucas, like many other Democratic candidates at the local level, are going it alone because the Florida Democratic Party is a David compared to the GOP Goliath, organized around big business and trade associations like the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida; groups that are, first and foremost, vehicles for GOP political campaigns. Here is a glimpse how it works.

According to her October campaign finance statement, more than 2/3rds of Gayle Harrell’s expenditures in this election cycle have gone to one political consultant, McLaughlin & Associates, based in Blauvelt, NY.

According to its website, "McLaughlin & Associates is a national survey research and strategic services company whose personnel have played a key role in assisting successful organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and Latin America. We specialize in public opinion research, media planning and buying services, and strategic consulting services.” The website doesn’t say it is a GOP operation; the resumes of its key staffers do. Its media director Marianne Campbell lists among past clients Florida Sugar Farmers and Florida’s Working Families.

According to state election data, Florida’s Working Families is now inactive, but ten years ago the political action committee was a vehicle of Big Sugar during a pitched battle to stop citizen activists from passing a constitutional amendment called Florida Hometown Democracy.

Florida Hometown Democracy was a constitutional amendment whose language was approved by the Florida Supreme Court in June 2006. Its organizer was Leslie Blackner, a Palm Beach mother, attorney and activist who invested $1 million of her own family assets in the effort.

If enough signatures could be collected and verified, and if approved by 60% of Florida voters, the measure would have given citizens a strong voice in land use decisions in their communities. According to its website at the time, "Rising taxes, falling home values, gridlocked roads, dwindling water supplies and Florida’s disappearing beauty are just some of the devastating consequences of Florida politicians’ habit of rubberstamping speculative plan changes. Hometown Democracy Amendment 4 changes all that by giving voters veto power over these changes to your community’s master plan for growth."

To Big Sugar, the goal of the citizens’ initiative was a threat by proxy; as fiercely opposed in 2006, as Big Sugar is now fighting the emergence of first time candidate Crystal Mills Lucas in 2016.

In August 2006, Big Sugar deposited $3 million in the campaign account of Florida’s Working Families, and in the following months, the PAC paid McLaughlin and Associates -- the same firm being used by Gayle Harrell -- at least $1.4 million.

Big Sugar’s lobbyists and consultants promoted a faux, competitive constitutional amendment — just like Florida’s utilities are doing in this election cycle with Amendment 1. Big Sugar, just like Florida's utilities did this year, paid off signature collectors and confused voters. FHD supporters failed to gather enough signatures to quality for the 2008 ballot, causing a two year delay.

In October 2009, Florida’s Working Families received another $100,000 from US Sugar Corporation. In late October 2010, it paid $75,000 to Political, Ink., a Republican campaign/media firm based in Alexandria, VA whose principals have extensive resumes on behalf of top GOP legislators and funders like the Koch Brothers.

By 2010, an army of political action committees, including those representing Florida homebuilders and realtors were arrayed against Florida Hometown Democracy. Blackner estimated her opponents spent more than $15 million to defeat the measure. After the harsh loss — more than 70 percent of Florida voters in 2010 voted against the measure — she said: "Unfortunately, it is very difficult to have a rational discussion of a solution to Florida’s horrible growth management problem in 30-second television ads that cost millions of dollars to air. Voters were subjected to the full financial power of those special interests that are committed to maintaining a death grip on their ability to control the status quo of sprawl and overbuilding in our state."

Subsequent to the 2010 initiative, an election cycle that carried Rick Scott to the Governor’s Mansion, growth management — that had been under relentless pressure for a decade -- was decapitated. What is left of the agency that once attempted to govern growth in Florida now works out of a broom closet in the state capitol.

Big Sugar’s top shareholders judged the uprising in 2016, Florida’s Arab Spring, as the same threat as Florida Hometown Democracy; citizens meddling in its control of state and federal policies to protect the industry’s right to extract the last, red cent from sugarlands it owns; lands that could be used to protect the Everglades and Florida’s badly damaged estuaries and bays or for suburban sprawl.

That is where Crystal Mills Lucas lands: a neophyte inside a "rigged system" putting up campaign yard signs surrounded by Republican leadership engaged in a tribal rite: to spare no expense in maintaining control to the account of its benefactors, Big Sugar oligarchs.

It is not just that Senate president Negron, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, and Big Sugar interests want to beat Lucas: they want to send a clear and unequivocal message to dissenters in their ranks and to Democratic challengers.

The message goes something like this: you might have rejected our guys, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, and you might win the presidential election, but we have Florida locked down. Raise your voices on Facebook and social media, but if you dare to tamper with our rigged system, we will use every tool in the toolbox to make sure you fail. We will restore the Everglades and maybe the rivers and lagoons, but it is not going to look anything like your version of restoration. It will look how we want it to look, surrounded by suburbs we control and flood control infrastructure we also control. And, If you want to leave the state, be our guests: we will guarantee you safe passage.

That’s the simple message behind an expensive campaign to defeat Crystal Mills Lucas by the Republican Party of Florida, its dark money pools and Big Sugar funders.

What does this say, however, about the post-election picture? This summer, Senate president Joe Negron signed the Now Or Neverglades Declaration calling for acquisition of lands now in sugarcane production using funds directed through another citizens’ initiative to protect the Everglades and other environmentally damaged areas of the state.

Just because he signed, doesn’t mean he will put his shoulder to the legislative wheel in 2017 with any expectation of success. Moreover, by signing the Declaration, Negron effectively removed Florida’s pollution crisis as an electoral issue in 2016.

Big Sugar proxies have already launched a campaign in north Florida districts, enlisting politicians to object to the use of state funding to increase the footprint of state land ownership in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. There are, in fact, no secrets in Florida. The exchange of secrets between legislators and Big Sugar takes place out of state.

It is simple. As Big Sugar says, through its army of legislators, consultants and industry associations, to millions of disenfranchised and angry voters — including Republicans in districts like the one where Crystal Mills Lucas is challenging Gayle Harrell — elections have consequences.


Unknown said...

Keep it coming - Shared on FB and caused many of my "election depressions"

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. So, joe neuron is the "fox"in the henhouse?