Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Bullsugar calls out Big Sugar's rigged political system ... by gimleteye

Toxic algae bloom on the St. Lucie River, Florida

Big Sugar farms on over 400,000 acres -- roughly 800 square miles -- south of Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of Florida. The big players in the industry are billionaires; Florida Crystals owned by the Fanjul family and US Sugar Corporation, owned by the descendants of Charles Stuart Mott. Through its campaign contributions, Big Sugar controls the levers of government in Florida.

It needs levers. Big Sugar needs control because profits depend on micromanaging rules and regulations of water pollution (think, Lake Okeechobee and toxic algae) and the operation of the nation's most complex flood control system whose primary purpose is keeping sugar farms dry in wet season and wet in dry season. Regulatory and political capture is Big Sugar's game, pure and simple.

Oh. There is one more season that matters to Big Sugar: election season.

This cycle is exceptional because a massive toxic algae outbreak in Lake Okeechobee is focusing voters' attention on Sugar's role in ways that could upset its best laid political plans.

So Big Sugar is lashing out at the group taking a stand against a rigged system at the root of the toxic algae outbreak. That group is Bullsugar, whose purpose is to call out the fakery and to direct public attention toward real solutions to protect Florida's environment and jobs.

By its very name, Bullsugar elicits anxiety from the polluters it shadows.

In 2016, Big Sugar suffered a stinging defeat in the Republican presidential primary. It bet the farm on US Senator Marco Rubio to be the Republican nominee for president. That investment came a cropper. (By the time John C. Hotten published his A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words in 1859, the phrase has come to refer to any failure rather than the specific failure to stay on a horse: "Cropper, 'to go a cropper', or 'to come a cropper', that is, to fail badly." In the word of our president, Sad!)

Pepe Fanjul, of the billionaire Florida Crystals empire, was first to hug Rubio when he left the Miami stage after his campaign debut. From there, it was all downhill. Rubio's shellacking by Trump shocked political operatives who calibrate Big Sugar's risk. The reason Rubio did so poorly among Republicans, garnering scarcely 25% of the primary vote, was his pathetic response to a massive toxic algae outbreak on both coasts -- the same kind that is occurring today.

If the toxic algae outbreak was the wild card in a normally predictable game, what surprised Big Sugar even more was Bullsugar's role. The grass roots start-up organized in Martin County on Florida's east coast. Its staff quickly mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters through social media.

The role of toxics in Rubio's thrashing by Trump in the GOP primary generated practically no attention in the mainstream media. Nor did Democrats wake up to the phenomenon in the subsequent US Senate race; an election that Rubio handily won.

Big Sugar did not immediately adapt to this unwelcome development in its careful communication strategy. But it has.

State Representative Matt Caldwell, campaigning to be the next Agriculture Secretary, recently attacked Bullsugar in Sunshine State News: "From the base vulgarity of your name to the harassment and abuse hurled toward fellow Floridians to the constant stream of twisted misinformation spread to the public, your organization has all the hallmarks of a hate group." (Read more about Sunshine State News, here.) Caldwell's claim is a laughable, sad commentary of our current politics.

Big Sugar picked Caldwell from the GOP bench as an up-and-com'er through his role unseating the only Republican county commissioner in Florida with the guts to call out the rigged system that permits Big Sugar to pollute Florida waterways at the expense of taxpayers. In 2012 Ray Judah, a long-serving and popular official in Collier County was blind-sided by a television ad campaign later revealed to be organized by a political committee headed by Caldwell, resident of an adjacent county. US Sugar Corporation was the sole benefactor and spent a million dollars in the dark money blitz. It worked, and Caldwell was on his way to calling Bullsugar a "hate group".

In this election cycle, Big Sugar's political plans are clear. It is spending hundreds of thousands -- if not, millions -- to push term-limited Gov. Rick Scott into the US Senate seat held by the Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. Although Nelson has always been respectful of Big Sugar, Scott is an energetic ally who proved his chops by bending state authority even more closely to Big Sugar's will. Scott, of course, is a friend of Trump. To succeed Scott, Big Sugar is pushing Adam Putnam -- now Agriculture Secretary -- to be governor. Big Sugar never had a better friend than Putnam, whose family wealth derived from a land sale to the state at an inflated value compared to its appraisal. To succeed Putnam, Big Sugar has thrown its weight behind Caldwell to be the next Agriculture Secretary.

Whether Big Sugar's election plans are a golden ticket or a trap door depends on Florida voters in November. Informed voters should take a close look at the results of the Bullsugar candidate questionnaire, the one that is getting Matt Caldwell and Sunshine State News all hopped up, because the only way out of this rigged system is to loosen the grip of the polluters who refuse to clean up their pollution at the source and instead force taxpayers to pay and pay and pay.

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