Pro-Gallagher committee has raised big bucks fast

Major help for him and rival Crist is pouring into less-regulated third-party groups, reports show.

Published July 12, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - A third-party political committee formed just a month ago to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher has raised $1-million, nearly matching money raised over the past several months by a similar committee backing rival Charlie Crist.

The fundraising success of both groups, spelled out in state campaign finance reports filed Monday, highlights the intense battle between Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, and Crist, the state's attorney general, to win the primary Sept. 5.

Both men's campaigns have raised millions: Crist, $10.6-million in cash; Gallagher, $7.8-million. But political supporters are increasingly looking to less-regulated third-party political advocacy groups to make their case, much like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did in the 2004 presidential campaign against Democrat John Kerry.

Leading the donations to the committee supporting Gallagher was Florida Power & Light Co. of Juno Beach, which frequently clashes with Crist over the utility's rate hikes. The South Florida utility gave the Coalition to Protect the American Dream $225,000. State records show a $250,000 donation, but company officials said Tuesday that was a clerical mistake.

Meanwhile, a similar Crist-related group, Floridians for a Better and Brighter Future, funneled nearly $1.3-million it raised to another committee backing Crist, Floridians for Truth and Integrity in Government.

Of the transferred funds, $750,000 was raised from Cape Coral commercial real estate broker Greg Eagle, whose son, Dane, is a paid member of Crist's campaign staff.

The reason for the fund transfer was unclear Tuesday, but it might have been an attempt to comply with a new state campaign finance law. The first committee - led by Virginia Republican operative Christopher LaCivita, who produced the anti-Kerry Swift Boat ads - never registered as a political committee with the state.

More telling of the rising popularity of the political strategy, perhaps, is that the Gallagher group claims to have raised nearly two-thirds of its funds in just two days, June 29-30. Among the big donors, contributing $100,000 each, were the Hospitalists of America professional association and Waters Edge Building Co., a Destin developer.

"A lot of people out there believe in our issues and support our issues," said Mike Hanna, the committee's president. He was political director for Gov. Jeb Bush's 2002 re-election.

FP&L officials denied Tuesday that the company's support of Gallagher had anything to do with Crist, with whom they have frequently clashed over utility regulation. The Attorney General's Office represents consumers before the state's utility regulator, the Public Service Commission.

"We're contributing to a coalition that supports a candidate who has presented a comprehensive vision for future of the state," said FP&L spokesman Jim Davison. "We respect all candidates running for governor."

Joni James can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com