The recent Congressional special election in the Tampa Bay area was a painful process to watch. Two decent major-party candidates, sincere in their desire to serve the people, displayed their wares offering different philosophies and different political positions on the issues of the day.
Each identified with a political party that has differing plans for America. Collectively, they raised $2.5 million dollars, more than enough to run respectable campaigns.
But events quickly became out of control when the special interest groups, each with their own agendas, entered the scene with another $9.5 million. The money was not sent to the candidates to spend as they saw fit. It went to independent organizations that by law have a firewall between themselves and the candidates.
These various “political committees,” called by various names, usually never identifying with those who fund them, have catchy names such as “Floridians for Justice,” or “Safe Medicine for Citizens.” The trial lawyers and medical doctors are the champions of this political disguise.
By law, these committees cannot campaign directly for or against a candidate, but they are free to disseminate information. Translated, that means they are free to “trash” opponents.
We saw that over and over in the recent campaign, and now the folks who live in Southwest Florida will have to live through it, with another special election under way to determine who succeeds disgraced Congressman Trey Radel.
In that race, former State Rep. Paige Kreegel recently called one of his opponents and said: “If you don’t already know, I just read or heard that the PAC people are going to spend so much negative on her (another candidate) and so much negative on you. It’s not something I wanted, and not something I can prevent. Anyway, that’s the way it is.” How did Kreegel know? Although the PAC in question was pro-Kreegel, candidates are barred by law from coordinating with an independent group what they plan to do or technically even knowing about the plans. The point is this: There are murky walls between campaigns and the ever-growing number of outside groups that hijack campaigns.
I ran nine campaigns for the state Legislature, and I always demanded to be in control. It was my campaign with my reputation on the line. I would rather run an honorable campaign and lose than to sink to a lower level to win.
One case in point is when my TV producers brought me a dynamite spot they were ready to release. I looked at it and applauded them for a great production. Then I said: “Throw it in the trash.” It was a hatchet job on my opponent, and I refused to stoop to that level just to win.
The point is, in years past, before the rise of independent campaign groups, candidates were, or at least should have been, the captains of their campaigns. But today all of that has changed. The influence of outside money in local campaigns has reached an unacceptable level.
It wasn’t David Jolly who said that Alex Sink cost the state jobs when she ran Bank of America in Florida. It wasn’t Sink who trashed Jolly on Social Security. All of this came from the big bucks spent by big special interests. The groups couldn’t care less about the people of Pinellas County. The agenda was their agenda, and they spent millions to propagate it.
Super PACs have grown drastically, and they exemplify the strengthened grasp big money has on our elections. Just 47 individuals, donating $1 million or more, were responsible for more than half the individual contributions to Super PACs, and only 6 percent came from donations under $10,000. Have you heard of George Soros and others?
Special interest money has long had a corrosive effect on our politics. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, which unleashed a new era of unprecedented spending by a handful of millionaires and corporations.
The wave of outside cash threatens to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. In campaign 2012, “independent” groups spent about $1 billion, much of it from anonymous individuals and corporations.
Some of the nation’s largest and richest companies, including ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and AT&T, have joined forces to invest millions of dollars each year to promote the careers of thousands of state legislators and secure passage of legislation that puts corporate interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans.
So tighten your seat belts and get ready for the fall elections and special interest attack ads ad nauseum. Ask who will be the voice of the little people, like you and me.
That’s my opinion, and I am sticking to it.
John Grant is a political columnist who served 21 years in the Florida Legislature and now practices estate planning law in Tampa. He can be reached at [email protected]