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Soft money he scorned is now vital to Lee race

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published October 14, 2006


Florida Senate President Tom Lee has never liked those huge donations from corporations and individuals who seek to buy influence with one fat check.

"Grotesque" and "horrible" are two of the nicer words Lee has used to describe how unrestricted soft money contributions have eroded public confidence in the system. Lee was talking mainly about committees with bland-sounding names that use piles of soft money to pound political opponents.

Lee has led the way in demanding fuller disclosure of all those zeroes. What made him a refreshing presence in Tallahassee is that he would say out loud what most other politicians would only whisper about.

"Most of the people that are donating to political parties in this country today are making investments, not contributions," Lee said last year. "They're often not interested in less government or good government. They're interested in their government."

Now, as the Valrico Republican enters the final weeks of his race for chief financial officer, the hard truth is that soft money, in the form of party donations, could determine whether he wins or loses.

Lee was at the forefront of demanding more transparency for soft money donations to electioneering groups and so-called 527s that launch soft money-funded assaults in specific races. He closed his own soft money committee and gave its $1.1-million to a fund controlled by Senate Republican leaders.

The least transparent fundraising system left is the one controlled by the parties, and neither side is eager to change that.

The parties last filed a financial report on Sept. 1, and don't have to file the next one until Nov. 3, four days before the election.

GOP soft money could be a key to Lee's hopes because he's not exactly breaking records for individual contributions to his own campaign.

He's paying the price for demanding that lobbyists disclose their fees, and he's running in a down-ballot race where it's tough to raise millions in $500 increments.

Lee raised $2.5-million in the primary cycle, all of it in "hard money" donations of $500 or less that represent what's left of average Floridians having a voice in the fundraising game. But he had to spend it all to defeat the feisty Rep. Randy Johnson.

Polls now show Lee is in a neck-and-neck November race with his Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, the retired president of Bank of America in Florida.

In the first five weeks of the general election campaign, Lee raised about $416,000. Sink raised $707,000.

Sink can't depend on Democratic Party soft money to pay for millions of dollars of TV ads in the final weeks, but the Republican Party is already running TV ads for Lee.

Lee said he does not know how much money the party will spend promoting his candidacy.

"The party has been helpful, but they make those decisions," he said.

The party won't discuss it. "We don't talk about that," party spokesman Jeff Sadosky said.

Lee's reliance on party money cuts against the grain of his record as an uncompromising critic of soft money in politics.

But in fairness, Lee was a soft money fundraiser before he became Senate president, and that didn't stop him from condemning the system. In a very real sense, he bit the hand that fed him.

"I try to stay true to my beliefs," Lee said. "But I understand the nature of the business that I'm in."

It's also true that Lee won the Republican CFO nomination with hard dollars. The party doesn't take sides in contested primaries. He says soft money to the GOP is vastly different from that given to 527s, because people know exactly what the Republican Party stands for.

"It's not just an accident that all those people are contributing to the Republican Party," Lee said.

In the last quarter alone, the party raised $5-million, including 83 donations of $15,000 or more. And there's lots more where that came from, though we won't know until right before the election.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 14, 2006, 00:37:46]


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