TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers like to say that they're just like the rest of us.
And that may be true, except that according to financial disclosure forms filed with qualifying officers last week, 21 Senate candidates this year have net worths of more than $1 million — with 13 candidates at more than $3 million.
Add candidates for the House, and nearly 70 of the 400 candidates for the Legislature top the $1 million mark, with 124 reporting net worths of at least $500,000.
Some of Tallahassee's biggest names are also the most affluent, led by incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a health industry entrepreneur worth $24.9 million. St. Augustine Republican Sen. John Thrasher, a lawyer, and Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala, CEO of a printing company, are worth $6.6 million and $5.7 million, respectively.
Not all candidates are high-rollers. Many have modest incomes, and some have upside-down mortgages that land them in the negative on net worth, calculated by assets minus debt.
But for the ultra-rich, thick wallets can offer a leg up on races, which are the most competitive in years because of redistricting. The numbers also reveal the advantage of wealth when it comes to running for state office.
"I've tried to solicit some great people to run for the state House and state Senate, and sometimes the answer is they just can't afford it," said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton, a lawyer with a net worth of $895,000. "The cost of campaigning is going to favor those who have lots of money, and some working people don't have the flexibility for the time commitment."
Many wealthy candidates are entrepreneurs, and their supporters argue that constituents benefit from a Legislature speckled with successful millionaires.
Others contend that constituents fare best when represented by a spectrum of professions and social statuses. While the disclosure list shows candidates with many professions and incomes, a bid for state elected office is not viable for most blue-collar and middle-class workers. Senators and representatives earn about $30,000 per year — not enough to raise a family, by most standards — for work that is supposed to be seasonal and part time.
Most lawmakers have other jobs. But campaigning, serving constituents and shuttling to Tallahassee for committee hearings and the 60-day legislative session often limit state officials to those who can call their own shots in the workplace, such as real estate brokers, consultants and lawyers.
Sachs, who was elected to the House in 2006, said she spends so much time away from law that income at her practice dropped from $100,000 to $49,000.
"This job would have been impossible when I had two little kids at home," she added.
Personal wealth can also give an edge to newcomers who may not be as well known in their communities or have access to elected leaders who can help with fundraising, said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.
It can also help stave off opponents. Take Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, a real estate broker and investor who poured $150,000 into her campaign before this year's qualifying deadline.
Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, a former Senate majority leader, was eyeing the same north Miami-Dade Senate seat, but entered the race for the House instead.
Jupiter investor Carl Domino, worth $24.3 million, is a former representative facing five opponents for the District 82 House seat that spans Martin and Palm Beach counties. He says he'll spend as much as necessary on his campaign. It's not unusual for a race to cost $1 million to $3 million, with expenses ranging from campaign consultants to mailers and television ads.
"The consultants tell you how much you need to raise, you see what the polls say, and you adjust accordingly," Domino said. "It would be naive to say that money doesn't help in an election, but it would also be naive to say money can buy an election."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]