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Election 2004

As election nears, stealth attacks build

Lofty names camouflage affiliations as groups seek to sway outcomes in state legislative contests.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, LUCY MORGAN and JOSH ZIMMER
Published August 24, 2004

One week before Florida's primary election, mailboxes are stuffed with last-minute attacks in state legislative races - and it is difficult to tell who is attacking.

The lobbying groups behind the mailings are concealing themselves as much as possible until after the Aug. 31 election. They often list a mail drop as a business address and file paperwork at the last minute.

By the time the identity of the attackers are known, the election will be over.

The barrage of attack-by-mail covers the state:

"Floridians for Integrity in Government" compares Republican House candidate Bill Bunkley of Tampa, who has had tax problems, to gangster Al Capone.

"Taxpayers for Conservative Government" slaps a "liberal" label across the forehead of Rich Glorioso, a GOP House candidate in Plant City.

"People for Fairness and Equality" portrays Rep. Susan Bucher, a two-term Democrat of Royal Palm Beach, as a captive of lobbyists, without mentioning that she is one of the most outspoken critics of special interests in Tallahassee.

Those three groups, and about a dozen more according to state elections officials, were formed in recent days under a state law that allows so-called "electioneering" ads. Those are ads paid for by interest groups seeking to influence the outcome of an election without expressly advocating election or defeat of a candidate.

Depending on the race and the candidates, the money could come from telephone companies, the sugar industry or home builders.

The groups use the same street address, a UPS service center with different mailboxes, in a nondescript retail plaza in Tallahassee. The telephone number of People for Fairness and Equality's chairman, Bridget Billinge, is a cell phone with automated voice-mail. She did not return calls.

A new state law requires the groups to report all contributions and expenses. But because they were formed so close to the election, they do not need to file any documents until Friday, just four days before the election.

The only group unmasked so far is Floridians for Integrity in Government. It was formed by the Florida Home Builders Association, according to the group's general counsel and lobbyist, Richard Gentry.

Gentry said the group took aim at Bunkley and Glorioso because they have the backing of outgoing House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, a U.S. Senate candidate with whom the builders clashed repeatedly over the past two years.

Glorioso is running for Byrd's District 62 House seat.

"In those two races, we have a strong interest because Johnnie Byrd is actively supporting them," Gentry said.

Byrd's campaign manager, Wayne Garcia, strongly denied that Byrd has taken sides in either race. "He's much too involved on the Senate trail," Garcia said.

One name surfaces repeatedly in connection with the vaguely named groups: Randy Nielsen, a West Palm Beach political consultant who specializes in political mail in Republican races.

Campaign records show Nielsen's firm, Public Concepts, has done extensive work for the home builders' lobby. Nielsen also is the consultant for candidates running against Bunkley and Glorioso: Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, and Valrico banker Arlene Waldron, respectively.

Republican Josh Burgin is also in the District 62 primary.

Ambler and Waldron said they had no personal knowledge of Nielsen's involvement with outside groups attacking their opponents.

The mailings by Floridians for Integrity in Government have hit mailboxes within days of a negative ad in local newspapers blasting Glorioso, a former Plant City commissioner. The ads were bought by a group called Taxpayers for Conservative Government, which lists the same Tallahassee mail drop as Floridians for Integrity in Government.

Nielsen is listed in IRS records as an associate with Taxpayers for Conservative Government.

Some of the harshest mailings are in the suburbs north of Tampa in the District 47 race between Ambler, an attorney with a maverick reputation, and Bunkley, a lobbyist for the Florida Baptist Convention and other clients.

Despite Ambler's denials, Bunkley said Ambler will have a tough time separating himself from the personal attacks. He suggested the ads could backfire.

"I certainly hope with all the people that I have been shoulder to shoulder with in this community that this politics of personal and family destruction will be seen for what it is," Bunkley said.

The home builders' lobby is targeting Bunkley because Ambler is under attack by other business groups and doctors, Gentry said.

Ambler also is facing attacks. The anti-Ambler ads and phone calls began in earnest Monday from a group called People for a Better Florida, which is supported by the Florida Medical Association. The lawmaker said postcards are blaming him for hospitals having to close and for women who can't get mammograms.

To bring the attacks out of the shadows, legislators passed a law this year requiring immediate electronic reporting of all contributions. But the provision takes effect Jan. 1.

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 24, 2004, 00:08:14]


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