Out of State Right-Wing Interests Bankrolling Pro-Voucher Florida Democrats

I have often been asked what happened on the school voucher issue to create a dynamic where the number of legislative Democrats who supported corporate tax credit vouchers grew from 1 to 24 between 2001 and 2011. Did the Democrats shift ideologically to the middle in mass during that period, despite continuing to lose the vast majority of legislative elections in the state? Why has the pro-voucher group All Children Matter, founded by Betsy and Rich DeVos (the largest family contributors to the National GOP during the 1980s and 1990s) and heavily funded by the estate of Walmart founder Sam Walton, spent over half its money in the state of Florida since 2004? I have also been asked why Florida’s Democrats seem to have accepted school vouchers while their counterparts in other states, some more conservative than Florida, continue to fight tooth and nail against them.

The simple answers are campaign cash, lack of personal convictions by Democratic officeholders and a state party with no moral compass. Also the unwillingness of Democrats to stand strong on principle and desperation for campaign cash plays into this.

When Jeb Bush was elected in 1998, backed by the Republican takeover of the Legislature two years earlier, school vouchers became one of the two biggest priorities for the new Governor. The other major priority of tort reform went along with the national GOP agenda of “defunding the left,” which meant mitigating the amount of influence the trial lawyers and teachers unions could have on political campaigns. Vouchers were a way of breaking the teachers union while echoing common Republican themes about the private sector and capitalism.

Many longtime Republican legislators were dubious about vouchers. These legislators, such as Senator Jim King and Representatives Dennis Jones and Evelyn Lynn, went along with the 1999 “A plus Plan” but voiced concerns about some of the plans’ facets. In time, all three of the aforementioned legislators would become thorns in the side of the school choice movement in Florida. Meanwhile, several other Republicans voted against the school choice plan and a few rural Democratic legislators who had stopped voting with their party on every other issue cast questions over school choice. But as time went on the conversion of Democrats from more liberal areas more than offset the defections of a few wise Republicans on the voucher movement.

The DeVos family who own the Orlando Magic were prominent financial backers of the late Rev. D. James Kennedy a Fort Lauderdale pastor whose Sunday services were beamed via satellite to a national audience. Kennedy’s weekly sermons often contained messages denouncing the separation of church as a myth and state and included frequent gay-baiting. They have also been the single largest contributor to the various groups, advocating school choice legislation in Florida, most notably the group they founded “All Children Matter.”

John Kirtley, who runs the Florida chapter of All Children Matter has been a frequent direct contributor to the campaigns of many Democrats including current House Minority Leader Ron Saunders.

According to  Right Wing Watch:

In 2004, All Children Matter-Florida run by John Kirtley paid for brochures in support of President Bush’ in Florida. The brochure falsely claimed that Senator John Kerry “opposed equal opportunity in education” and stated that President Bush supported increased education funding. Campaign finance laws require political groups to clearly identify themselves on their ads. Though the phrase “no matter what, All Children Matter” appears at the bottom of the flier the group did not place a disclaimer that they had paid for it. The Florida group then spent that money to support pro-voucher candidates in the state, without having to disclose the individuals who donated it. Relevant disclosure forms for the Florida groups will show only that money came in from All Children Matter-Virginia, with no disclosure of a connection to the Walton family. All Children Matter-Virginia appears to be the centerpiece of this scheme. ACM-VA is seeing an unprecedented cash flow even though it can only spend money in Virginia on state races and there are none in 2006. ACM-VA acts a conduit to stealthfully distribute money to other states.

According a report in the Florida Times Union the following legislative Democrats received money from pro voucher interests between 2006 and 2010

– Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington: $5,000
– Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach: $17,000
– Rep. Debbie Boyd, D-Newberry: $5,450
– Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens: $17,500
– Former Rep. Ronald Brise, D-North Miami; current member of the Public Service Commission: $13,500
– Rep. Charles Chestnut, D-Gainesville: $7,000
– Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Pompano Beach: $9,850
– Former Rep. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville; running for state Senate: $26,500*; $41,000 to Florida Fresh Start, a political action committee he heads
– Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami: $5,450
– Former Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg: $12,451
– Pat Felder-Lockett, Jacksonville Democrat; ran for the Florida House in 2008: $8,750
– Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole: $16,000
– Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa: $11,450
– Rep. Hazel Rogers, D-Lauderhill: $10,000
– Rep. Darryl Rousson, D-St. Petersburg: $8,000
– Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray: $5,750
– Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West: $13,750
– Former Rep. Michael Scionti, D-Tampa: $6,500
– Sean Shaw, Tallahassee Democrat; ran for the Florida House in 2010: $6,000
– Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach: $20,750
– Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek: $8,000

Read more  about this issue at Jacksonville.com

* Terry Fields lost his Special Election in 2011.

It is worth noting that this does not include Independent Expenditures which have been done by the group on behalf of many of the above listed Democrats. I am evaluating those expenditures and hopes to have a breakdown in the near future. Additionally I will add the 2012 numbers to these totals soon.

In the 2012 cycle we saw continued direct contributions from both Kirtley and his organization to a number of Democrats. Given the mounting evidence of a financial incentive for Democrats who vote for school vouchers, one must wonder if there is a direct quid pro quo. The shift in attitudes towards school vouchers has been striking among Florida Democrats since 2001, a shift that does not mirror the continued public opposition to these initiatives according to public polling, nor the continued strong opposition to these sorts of schemes by Democrats outside of Florida. This past November, Florida voters overwhelmingly rejected a “religious freedom” Constitutional designed to make voucher and sectarian schools recipients of public money.

Many Florida Democrats have proven unwilling to stand strong and fight for progressive causes. As time goes on and Florida’s Democrats become less and less relevant in the political and legislative processes we find many selfish legislators have put self-interest above that of the causes they claim to have once believed in. It appears out of state campaign cash from right wing sources provides incentive to some Democrats to vote against their constituents’ wishes and that of their party and with the agenda pushed by Rick Scott and Jeb Bush.

As we approach the 2013 Legislative Session, I will continue to highlight the failures of Democrats to hold the line on important issues for progressives.


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