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Politics

Florida's top campaign donors

By CONNIE HUMBURG and JONI JAMES
Published November 3, 2006


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John Walton died last year, crashing his experimental aircraft near his home in Montana.

But that hasn't kept him from being one of the major political donors in Florida's elections this year.

The estate of Walton, one of the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, has funneled more than $2-million this year into a group that favors private school vouchers and that is playing a role in 15 Florida legislative races, including two hard-fought campaigns for state Senate seats in the Tampa Bay area.

The largesse of Walton's estate ranks near the top of 14 entities that have contributed at least $1-million over the past two years in local and state elections, mostly in anticipation of Tuesday's election, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of state campaign finance reports through Oct. 21.

The Times' analysis provides a window into the bankrolling of candidates and issues this election cycle. It also offers an early guide to the issues that likely will be raised in Tallahassee over the next two years, even if candidates aren't talking about them now.

Consider, for example, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a 34,000-member union and political behemoth that has reported more than $2-million in political activity this election cycle, from heavy backing of Republican gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist to paying a role in local sheriff's races.

The exact totals for professional groups like unions are difficult to compute because they collect money and transfer it to affiliated groups, so the same dollars can be counted more than once.

But there's no doubt the police association is a major player in Tallahassee and local sheriff's races. At a time when Florida's overall crime rate is dropping, politicians aren't talking about police pension benefits or whether to add private prisons to the state's prison system. But the police association will talk to them once they're in office.

"The Lord helps those who help themselves," David Murrell, executive director of the Florida police association, said this week about his group's political contributions. "We've tried to make things happen instead of sitting back."

* * *

Whether Walton's estate will end up as the largest individual donor in this year's election cycle isn't clear, in part because of a loophole in Florida's reporting requirements for campaign donations.

One of the biggest chunks of campaign donations - unlimited soft money given to either the Democratic or Republican parties since the Sept. 5 primary - isn't due to be reported until today.

Big money in Florida politics flows more often to Republicans, who have dominated the state Legislature for the past decade and have held the Governor's Mansion for eight years. Eleven of the top 14 campaign contributors identified by the Times donated most of their money to the GOP.

How contributors spend their money can vary: donating to the Republican and Democratic state parties, giving to specific candidates or contributing to a vast array of third-party political groups that may do political work on their own to benefit specific candidates or issues.

Everyone in the top tier of political donors has a reason to curry favor with elected officials, which causes concern among some advocacy groups.

"The public should be concerned," said Ben Wilcox, head of Common Cause of Florida, which has pushed for more campaign finance disclosure. "These are basically special interests and a lot of time businesses, who contribute not in the hope of good government but in the hope government will benefit them down the line."

The money from Walton's estate flowed solely to a pro-voucher group, All Children Matter, which wants to ensure Florida continues allowing corporations to earmark income tax dollars for a voucher program for low-income children.

The group also is a major advocate of restoring, possibly through a future state constitutional amendment, vouchers for children from public schools deemed to be failing. The Florida Supreme Court struck down that program in January.

The impact of Walton's money has been evident in Tampa Bay, where All Children Matter has spent thousands in a pair of state Senate races. The group has mailed fliers bashing St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Justice to help Clearwater Republican Kim Berfield; and it bought television ads to support Brandon Republican Ronda Storms over Plant City Democrat Stephen Gorham.

"We hope to see elected legislators who support school choice for low-income families," said John Kirtley of Tampa, chairman of All Children Matter. "We don't care what party they're from."

Only one other individual cracks the top 14 in donations, Cape Coral developer Greg Eagle, who put $1-million into a third-party political group, Floridians for a Better and Brighter Florida, before the September primary. The money later was transferred to another group that helped Crist secure the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Eagle, whose son Dane is a travel aide for Crist's campaign, didn't return calls to his office seeking comment.

Six of the 14 top donors are corporations, including U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, two giant South Florida agricultural concerns. Their donations included millions to third-party political groups that tried to get Rod Smith nominated in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Also in the top tier are two Tampa health care leaders: health insurer WellCare, which has a contract under the state's experiment in privatizing Medicaid in two counties, and HCA, which owns more than a dozen private facilities in the Tampa Bay area and negotiates annually over Medicaid reimbursements.

The list also includes the Gulfstream Park Racing Association, a Broward County parimutuel that spent most of its money in 2005 in Broward to win voter approval of slot machines at parimutuels there. The state is negotiating with Florida's Indian tribes, whose casinos are considered direct competitors with parimutuels, over how the new amendment will affect what kind of gambling they can provide.

Six of the top 14 are linked to professional groups, including two public employees unions, the police association and the Florida Education Association, whose members' salaries are largely set in the state budget passed by Florida lawmakers. Other professional groups include Realtors and home builders, who seek to block efforts to raise taxes on real estate or significant changes in Florida's development laws.

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

[Last modified November 3, 2006, 02:02:39]


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