This year, more than probably any election year past, political action committees or PACs are spending big money to influence local elections throughout the Gulf Coast.
In theory, political action committees exist as a vehicle through which like-minded citizens can rally around an issue — lowering taxes, legalizing marijuana, you name it — and pool their money to influence change. But where local elections are concerned, PACs have become little more than a mechanism wealthy donors use to evade limits on campaign contributions.
Take the race for the District 1 seat on the Escambia County Commission. A PAC called “Experience Common Sense Leadership Florida” (what does that even mean?) has poured more than $25,000 into the race in support of Jeff Bergosh’s candidacy. Where did that money come from? Well, $15,000 of it came from area beer distributor The Lewis Bear Company, and $11,500 of it came from developers Jim Cronley and Tony Terhaar. Big donors used to just use a bevy of limited liability companies to get around Florida’s $1,000 cap on individual contributions — take Terhaar & Cronley’s TCIP-A LLC, TCIP-B LLC, TCIP-C LLC, etc. — but somewhere along the way they figured out that it’s easier to just create a PAC.
Perhaps even worse are PACs set up by special interests in Tallahassee to sway local elections like the State Senate race between Doug Broxson and Mike Hill. Upset by Hill’s vote against $250 million in funding for Enterprise Florida, the state’s controversial public-private economic development agency, the big business lobby has poured more than $800,000 into the “Conservative Leadership Fund” PAC. Much of that money has been spent flooding voters’ airwaves and mailboxes with increasingly ridiculous ads and mailers attacking Hill on Broxson’s behalf. One particularly ludicrous mailer labels Hill as anti-jobs and anti-business, despite the two candidates’ largely identical voting records as state representatives. Another blatantly racist mailer compares the biracial Hill to President Barack Obama in a not-so-subtle attempt to trigger the prejudices of some voters.
When Hill responded with negative mailers of his own, Broxson called him and threatened to have the Tallahassee PACs pour even more money into the race, an incident which is now being investigated by the State Attorney’s office (it’s against the law for candidates and PACs to coordinate).
There’s nothing wrong with citizens organizing around political causes — but these PACs aren’t grassroots organizations. They’re a loophole being exploited by wealthy donors and special interests to skirt the law.
Why are limits on campaign contributions important? Because more money in the political process benefits incumbents and leads to less competitive races. Surveys have shown most Americans are united in their concerns about the increasing role of money in politics. A Rasmussen poll released in February found that 80% of Americans feel that wealthy special interest groups have too much power and influence over our elections. Worse, the increasing influence of money in politics has undermined Americans’ confidence in their elections, with another Rasmussen poll finding just 41% of Americans believe elections are fair.
It’s clear that there’s no appetite in Tallahassee to close this loophole, so local governments are stepping up and taking action themselves. Ironically, residents of Tallahassee voted in 2014 to limit campaign contributions in city elections to just $250. But it’s St. Petersburg that is leading the way on reform. An ordinance currently before that city’s council would sharply limit spending by PACs and other outside groups on city elections. The ordinance is scheduled to come back before the council in October.
If those of us on the Gulf Coast value free, fair, and competitive elections, it might be time for us to consider similar measures. Otherwise, we’re likely to see wealthy donors continue to sidestep the law, flooding our airwaves and filling our mailboxes as they look to buy our votes.