Focus at Capitol: raising money

Facing a time squeeze, legislators launch a fundraising blitz.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writers
Published December 14, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawmakers spent this week at the state Capitol, but many of them didn't accomplish much until the sun went down.

By day, legislators were on light duty, meeting in committees to review programs and proposed laws. By night, they flocked to clubs, law firms and trade-group suites to collect campaign checks from lobbyists and their clients.

The ritual of plain white envelopes changing hands in the shadow of the Capitol is nothing new. What's different, lobbyists and some legislators say, is the frequency and intensity of the solicitations.

Republicans held an event Monday for 18 House members, including eight from the Tampa Bay area, who supposedly have difficult re-election fights in 2008.

The "battleground fundraiser" could cost a lobbyist $9,000, the equivalent of the maximum $500 donation to all 18 members.

"That's ridiculous," said Miami Beach lobbyist Bob Levy as he scurried between events with a fistful of checks in hand along with a client who runs a tow-truck operators' association.

"This week there are more fund-raisers than there are bills moving," said Levy, who also represents several cities.

He wasn't exaggerating.

Many committees held shortened meetings and debated no legislation. Some legislators arrived Tuesday and headed home Wednesday. All House committee meetings ended at noon Thursday. The Capitol's hallways were silent -- a sure sign that not much of significance was happening.

The week's fundraising blitz began Sunday with a Senate GOP fundraiser at the Jacksonville Jaguars-Carolina Panthers football game.

Lobbyists' calendars show four fundraisers Monday, 13 Tuesday and 12 Wednesday.

Several events benefited more than one legislator. Or in some cases, politically ambitious family members of lawmakers.

Republicans Will Pruitt and Mario Rubio, brothers of Senate President Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie and House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, held fundraisers for their bids for House seats. And Democratic Sen. Larcenia Bullard of Miami had a "mother and son" event for her son Dwight, running for a House seat in Miami-Dade.

This has been a grueling year for legislators and their staffs, with one regular and four special sessions. Lawmakers are prohibited from raising campaign money during sessions.

Some say that has left them with almost no time to raise money, so they took full advantage of this week's opportunity.

"We had about four of these things scheduled, but they kept getting postponed," said Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Dunedin, one of those so-called battleground Republicans.

Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said a new law barring lobbyists from offering free meals to lawmakers has added to the crunch.

"You can't go to lunch, you can't go to dinner," Saunders said. Actually they can, but lawmakers must pay their own way. "These fundraisers are taking the place of the opportunity to make the contacts you used to."

Lobbyists said the "battleground" event was a gimmick to get them to open their wallets one more time, noting that a number of those House members are safely ensconced.

"Faye Culp is in an endangered seat? Give me a break," Levy said, referring to the Tampa Republican who won with 55 percent of the vote last time and 59 percent in 2004.

But some Republicans are nervous about 2008. They cite President Bush's poor approval ratings, voters' anger over taxes and insurance, and the Democrats' 2006 success in gaining seven seats in the 120-member House. Republicans currently hold 78 of the House's 120 seats and 26 of the Senate's 40.

"There's an anti-Republican mood we have to overcome," said Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, one of the "battleground" beneficiaries.

That event, at the Doubletree Hotel, drew about 50 people who sipped drinks and munched on snacks. Some lobbyists had already sent the checks and came to schmooze with legislators.

"I'm just here to help," said lobbyist Will McKinley, who counts several cities, Comcast and the Seminole Tribe of Florida among his clients.

Organizers allowed twoSt. Petersburg Timesreporters to attend the event, but refused to allow pictures to be taken, a sign of the self-consciousness attached to campaign-money solicitations.

One of the best-attended events was at the private Governor's Club on Monday, benefiting Senate Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

Facing re-election in 2008, Atwater has already raised more than $560,000 for his own race, far more than any other candidate in the state.

But he needs to raise millions to make sure his party remains in control of the Senate.

On Tuesday, Atwater was formally chosen as his party's candidate for Senate president in 2008. But moments before his designation, Atwater had no interested in talking about all the money he needs to secure his presidency.

"We'll cover this another time," he said. "We're going to do whatever we need to do to have the resources to campaign effectively."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

The big money
These 2008 candidates have raised the most money this year through Sept. 30, the most current data available:

Source: Division of Elections