Unofficially, they'll sway governor race
Advocacy groups don't work for candidates, but they can influence a race. And one with deep pockets backs Charlie Crist.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published July 6, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - They call themselves "Floridians for a Better and Brighter Future," and their primary interest appears to be Charlie Crist's political future.
Under that name, a cluster of supporters of Crist's bid for governor have set up a political advocacy group known as a 527, a reference to the IRS section that regulates such groups.
They quickly amassed more than $1-million to help Crist - or perhaps hurt Tom Gallagher, his opponent in the Sept. 5 Republican primary. That, after all, is what 527s do.
Crist says he has no knowledge of the committee or its goals, other than from news accounts. "I've read about it," Crist said. "I hope they do good work."
The committee's president is Christopher LaCivita, a Republican operative in Richmond, Va., who produced the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" ads in 2004 that attacked Democrat John Kerry's Vietnam war record.
The pro-Crist committee is at least the fifth 527 formed to affect the governor's race and has raised the most money so far.
Gallagher soon will benefit from another new 527, called the Coalition to Protect the American Dream. President Mike Hanna is a Gallagher supporter who recently returned to politics after serving as chief of staff at the Florida Department of Corrections.
Hanna, who was political director of Gov. Jeb Bush's re-election in 2002, said the committee will "support probusiness leaders" in the 2006 campaign.
"Charlie Crist is a gifted politician," Hanna said. "But I'd question how a lawyer who is supported by trial lawyers and gambling interests would be good for business owners in Florida."
Hanna's group filed initial papers with the IRS on May 30 and is not yet required to disclose any contribution information.
A 527 can coordinate with a candidate's campaign and can advocate the election or defeat of a candidate as long as it avoids the use of "magic words" such as "vote for" or "vote against." Under a Florida campaign disclosure law that took effect July 1, 527s must also register with the state as so-called ECOs or electioneering communication organizations.
A 527 draws its power from its lack of overhead. It's a pure message machine. There are no employees or meals, only the cost to produce and buy hard-hitting mailings or TV ads.
A candidate can disavow any direct link to a 527 while reaping the benefits of its work.
For Crist, it means an additional $1-million on top of the $2.5-million fundraising advantage he holds over Gallagher, at least until new totals are released in a few days.
Most of the money behind Floridians for a Better and Brighter Future, $750,000, has come from one person: Greg Eagle of North Fort Myers, a commercial real estate broker in Cape Coral whose son, Dane, is a paid member of Crist's campaign staff.
Both Crist and Gallagher signed clean campaign pledges that include a promise to publicly condemn 527s that engage in "unprovoked personal attacks."
Gallagher's campaign views the committee with growing alarm. "There's no doubt that Charlie Crist is gearing up to run a negative and disingenuous campaign, and he's going to do it through these 527s," Gallagher spokesman Albert Martinez said. "If he goes negative, it will only help the Democrats in November."
Martinez said it's not credible for Crist to claim no knowledge of a group funded largely by the father of one of his campaign workers.
"It just fits in too perfectly," Martinez said.
Crist, like Gallagher, has pledged to run a positive campaign.
Crist described his relationship with Greg Eagle as a "good friendship" and added: "I'm grateful for his support."
"There are much more important issues in this race," Crist said. "But I'm delighted to receive support from anybody who cares about the future of this state."
Some other large donors to the committee also have donated the $500 maximum to Crist's campaign.
They include the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida, which gave $25,000; Albert's Air Conditioning of Miami, $50,000; Century Home Builders of South Florida, $50,000; and Century Partners Group of Miami, $25,000. The latter two companies are controlled by developer Sergio Pino, who gained "Ranger" status for raising at least $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney ticket in the 2004 presidential election.
Garrett Walton, a Pensacola real estate executive who gave $25,000 to the committee, declined to discuss the group's mission.
"I'd just as soon not comment on that stuff," Walton said.
Another donor to the committee is Pajcic & Pajcic, a Jacksonville law firm, which gave $7,500. Its principals, brothers Gary and Steve Pajcic - Steve was once the Democratic nominee for governor - donate generously to Democrats Gary Pajcic has donated $500 to Crist's campaign.
Crist has been under attack from Gallagher supporters for accepting contributions from "liberal trial lawyers."
"A contribution to me doesn't mean I support their agenda. It means they support mine," Crist said.
Crist's chief campaign adviser, chief of staff George LeMieux, said he "couldn't pick him (Eagle) out of a lineup," but added: "I reserve the right with any group to talk to them at some point."
Crist said he hired Dane Eagle as his campaign travel aide after they met at a political event at the University of Florida, where the young Eagle graduated. Greg Eagle was ranked No. 9 nationally in May in personal contributions to a 527, according to opensecrets.org, the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions.
Eagle wrote a $500,000 check to the committee in December and a second check for $250,000 in February. His business, Eagle Realty of Southwest Florida, and Dane have each made $500 donations to Crist's campaign.
Eagle also was one of 15 people on the host committee for a Crist fundraiser held last week in Cape Coral.
Eagle did not return phone and e-mail messages. LaCivita did not return a call seeking comment.
The committee formed on Dec. 22. Its stated mission is "to facilitate the discussion of public policy issues important to Florida citizens... under law and consistent with IRS Code Section 527."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.
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