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Groups hope cash, ads sway voting

Two sugar-backed committees set the pace for independent groups spending millions to influence primaries.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published September 2, 2006


If Rod Smith beats Jim Davis for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, the upset will be among the sweetest in Florida's political history.

That's because the Florida sugar industry is throwing its economic muscle behind Smith in a huge way. Political committees funded mainly by Florida sugar corporations spent roughly $4-million in August trying to help state Sen. Smith win the nomination, campaign finance reports released Friday show.

It is the most striking, but by no means the only, case of independent groups spending heavily in the final weeks of the primary election. Republican and Democratic voters alike are getting pounded on TV, radio, mail and phone with often nasty political messages from organizations few people have ever heard of.

The Conservative Values Coalition, heavily funded by groups wanting expanded gambling in Florida, is trying to hurt Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher's appeal among conservatives by calling him a gambling supporter. A mystery group called ElectionWatch is telling Tampa Bay Republicans that state Senate candidate Kim Berfield was caught pressing the vote buttons of other House members to pass her own bill. The doctor-backed People for a Better Florida has unleashed mailers basically calling Berfield's Republican rival, Frank Farkas, sleazy.

"To some extent this is now part of the new norm," Republican consultant Cory Tilley said. "They help provide distance between nasty attacks and the candidates. In the past, the candidates had to do the nasty attacks themselves."

Among the millions of dollars flowing in and out of dozens of "527" organizations, so-called for the section of the IRS code that regulates them, two sugar-backed groups, Florida's Working Families and the Coalition for Justice and Equality, stand out. They are putting more money into the Democratic primary on behalf of Smith than Smith has raised for his own campaign.

"Without their $4-million, Rod Smith's campaign would virtually cease to exist," said Josh Earnest, U.S. Rep. Davis' campaign spokesman.

Smith, campaigning through North Florida on Friday, repeatedly joked that he only used NutraSweet in his iced tea. While he has distanced himself from some attacks on Davis, Smith said the independent groups are simply a political fact of life today.

"As long as campaigns are allowed to go on like this, it's going to go on," Smith said. "The great irony is there's no way that anything I would do would not be scrutinized at the heaviest level. My independence has been proven."

U.S. Sugar vice president Robert Coker brushed off suggestions that Smith would be beholden to the industry reviled by some environmentalists. "Rod Smith is an independent guy," Coker said. "... Our industry over the years has literally raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for former Sen. Bob Graham. I don't believe Jim Davis thinks Bob Graham is beholden to anybody."

Graham is a Davis supporter and on Friday denounced the aggressive campaign against Davis by the sugar-backed committees.

"I think this has enormous negative implications," Graham said. "You can imagine ... the lesson that's going to be delivered to the young politician who has aspirations of higher office if you get on the wrong side on any of these big interests ... that may sink your future, so you better be very accommodating to those interests."

Through radio and TV ads, mailers and phone calls to Democrats, the sugar committees have hammered Davis for missing congressional votes while running for governor, for 16 years ago voting against restitution for two black men wrongly convicted of murder and for voting against a minimum wage increase (he voted only against an obscure amendment to that bill).

"The campaign does not know 90 percent of what hits (from these sugar groups) until it hits," said Screven Watson, a top adviser to the Smith campaign who also lobbies for U.S. Sugar.

On the other side, Mary Barley, of Save Our Everglades, has started a 527 political committee that is financing TV commercials attacking Smith's vote in 2003 to delay Everglades funding.

She touted spending $1-million on the campaign, but hadn't filed the finance reports by Friday's deadline. The major financier to most of her nonprofit groups is a family friend, philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones II.

A Mason-Dixon poll conducted Monday through Wednesday found Davis leading among Democrats with 40 percent support to Smith's 33 percent.

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto, Alex Leary and Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

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