TALLAHASSEE — In an annual game of beat the clock, lawmakers fanned across the capital Monday with dollar signs in their eyes, chasing campaign cash from lobbyists.
When the annual legislative session begins today, most fundraising is off limits for two months — a ban intended to discourage a perception of "pay-to-play" politics. Money is in high demand every election year, but lawmakers won't be able to resume the chase until May 1.
For now, the goal is simple: The more money legislators can raise, the less likely they are to attract tough opposition.
"Fundraising is not a virtue — it's a necessity in a state with 19 million people and 11 media markets," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. The candidate for attorney general hosted a lunchtime event at an area watering hole, Clydes and Costello's.
"You have to hold these fundraisers. It's the hardest part about running," he said.
The annual presession fundraising frenzy isn't immune from the ravages of Florida's economy, either. "It's a challenge. The bad economy affects everything, including fundraising," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, Gelber's opponent in the attorney general primary.
Racing against time, lawmakers hit the streets Monday in search of the coveted envelopes with $500 checks inside. "I'm running around, collecting checks," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West. "You gotta do what you gotta do."
Standing outside Clydes and Costello's, Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, accepted a check from South Florida lobbyist Ron Book.
"You have to raise money and it takes money to run a campaign," said Glorioso, who said the economy has hampered his fundraising. "Businesses are struggling, so it's a tough year this year."
Three House Democrats — Reps. Betty Reed of Tampa, Hazelle Rogers of Lauderdale Lakes and Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed of Deerfield Beach — sat alone at a table inside Clydes and Costello's, as a small wicker basket held a handful of checks.
Asked to identify who left the checks, the lawmakers laughed and demurred, even though the information must be publicly reported next month.
"We're not disclosing that," said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, who was with the group. "We want them to come back."
Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant for the trial lawyer lobby, said the intensity level is always higher in election-year sessions.
"Politics is always a part of the legislative session and the campaigns rise to a higher level, absolutely," Schale said. "If you look at the even-numbered year of every legislative session, there's always politics involved and fewer things get done. Is that good for the process? Not necessarily. But it's the way it is."
One of Monday's biggest events was off limits to reporters: a Republican Senate majority event hosted by some of the same senators who frequently recite the need for greater transparency to regain the confidence of voters.
The Senate event benefited incumbents as well as 2010 candidates who have the support of the reigning Senate leadership, including Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Jim Norman of Tampa.
Times/Herald staff writers Shannon Colavecchio, John Frank, Mary Ellen Klas and Robert Samuels contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.