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    Special interest cash floods Fla. campaigns

    Florida's GOP has received $17-million in contributions and its Democratic Party $12-million.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- With the White House and dozens of other offices at stake, campaign donations are pouring into Florida's political parties from individuals and groups with business before state government.

    The money is coming from cruise ship companies that don't want a new tax, from power companies facing the prospect of deregulation, from nursing homes and the lawyers who sue them, drug companies, and even your local supermarket chains.

    So far, the Republican Party of Florida reported receiving $17-million in contributions while the Florida Democratic Party received $12-million.

    The fundraising frenzy ended at midnight Thursday -- the deadline for political parties and candidates to accept contributions for the Nov. 7 general election. A final report has to be postmarked by midnight tonight.

    With the Republican Jeb Bush in the Governor's Mansion, and his party controlling the Legislature, the GOP is collecting most of the big contributions from the special interests that need help from state government. That's a reversal of fortune for Democrats.

    "We're just giving to the party in charge," explained Guy Spearman, a veteran lobbyist with Democratic roots.

    So far, Spearman has personally donated $114,945 to the 2000 political campaigns, with $56,129 of it going to the Republican Party and $9,000 to the Democratic Party. Spearman's clients have given much more: $866,529, including $528,370 to the Republican Party and $194,635 to the Democratic Party.

    Spearman said the final numbers will go "up a little for the Democrats," but not by much.

    "I think the Republicans are in charge of the House and Senate," said Spearman, a former aide to Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew. "No one came to me and said, "You have to write a check.' I think they all knew I would participate in the process."

    In addition to the White House and a U.S. Senate seat, donors have their eye on the fight over the Legislature. Republicans have controlled both houses since 1996, but Democrats hope to pick up seats in a year when so many incumbents are being forced out. Term limits are forcing 51 members of the House and 11 members of the Senate from their seats.

    Money collected by the two political parties and independent committees is considered "soft money" that can be given in large chunks. It is frequently used to buy political ads and mail.

    The biggest sums of the money reported by both parties has been sent to Florida by national party organizations: $5.2-million from national Republican Party organizations and $9.2-million from national Democratic Party organizations.

    The state party money isn't all of it. Each candidate collects their own campaign war chest. And there are a handful of secretive, independent committees funded by trial lawyers, doctors and business lobbyists that are spending thousands of dollars on last-minute advertising. They are taking advantage of a federal court ruling that declared laws regulating political committees to be unconstitutional.

    Many donors are giving to the political parties, to individual candidates and the independent committees.

    The state's major business lobby, Associated Industries of Florida, is helping to finance an independent committee that is buying ads to help pro-business candidates who are being attacked by the trial lawyers.

    Associated Industries of Florida also is into big-time giving with $283,523 to the GOP and $162,880 to the Democrats. All together, Associated Industries, the state's most active business lobby, has kicked in more than $700,000 to support candidates on the ballot this year.

    "Our friends are there," explained Associated Industries lobbyist Randy Miller. "We give to pro-business candidates."

    The lobbyist Ron Book of Miami, a former aide to Gov. Bob Graham, another Democrat, made personal contributions totaling $113,000, including $46,000 to the GOP and none to the Democratic Party. Book's clients have donated $1.6-million to political campaigns in Florida this year, including $716,168 to the GOP and $457,497 to the Democratic Party.

    Book said he raises money when he is asked, and he began giving to Republican candidates long before they were the party in power.

    BlueCross BlueShield of Florida, the state's biggest health care insurance company, has donated $133,135 to the GOP and $36,000 to the Democrats in addition to giving dozens of $500 contributions to individual legislative candidates.

    "We want to make sure health care costs don't go up, and our customers still have access to quality health care," said BlueCross lobbyist Mike Hightower of Jacksonville. "When you look at who helps us hold that position, those are the people we help."

    Vencor, owner of three nursing homes that were targeted by Bush's regulators this fall, gave $23,000 to the GOP. Wilkes & McHugh, a law firm that has made a name for itself by suing nursing home companies, gave $120,000 to the GOP and $5,000 to the Democrats. Pharmaceutical companies such as Barr Laboratories, which makes generic drugs, and DuPont Pharmaceuticals, which makes some of the most commonly prescribed brand-name drugs for senior citizens, also are among those contributing to both parties. The two companies have been battling each other in the Legislature for the past year.

    For many lobbyists it has been a long year filled with repeated requests for money from candidates, the parties and independent committees.

    "I'll just be glad when midnight Thursday comes," joked lobbyist Steve Metz, whose clients have donated more than $545,041, a figure that includes $299,044 to the Republican Party and $42,189 to the Democrats.

    A number of contributions to the two parties come from their customary supporters: the unions gave more money to Democrats than Republicans; the trial lawyers who represent plaintiffs and oppose Republican reforms, and teachers who have often opposed vouchers gave more to Democrats. The largest single contribution given to either party by an individual or corporation was a $500,000 contribution made in September by Grand Building Corp., a Hialeah company owned by George Batchelor, a Miami philanthropist who is an avid supporter of Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

    Other large donations have come from the state's telephone and electric companies, which depend on the good will of legislators who write laws that determine how they will be regulated.

    TECO Energy, owner of Tampa Electric Co., has contributed $503,000 to campaigns, including $341,703 to the GOP and $139,500 to the Democrats.

    Florida Power Corp. of St. Petersburg and Florida Power & Light Co. of Miami also are among the big contributors to legislative campaigns and the parties. Florida Power has given some $223,000 to the GOP and FPL has given almost $95,000 to the Republicans. Florida Power also gave some $68,000 to the Democrats while FPL gave the Democrats some $75,000. Both companies also gave to dozens of individual legislative candidates in both parties.

    Money also is coming from out-of-state owners of merchant power plants that want to compete with Florida power companies. Calpine, Duke Energy and Enron each donated more than $20,000 to the GOP and lesser amounts to the Democrats.

    What do all these businesses get in return for their contributions?

    "Good government," said Jamie Wilson, executive director of the Florida Republican Party.

    "Nothing," said Tony Welch, spokesman for Florida Democrats. "They give because they support our positions. All the people of Florida deserve good government, not just those who give money."

    - Researchers Stephanie Scruggs and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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    From the Times state desk