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Era of self-financed millionaire candidates begins in Florida

First it was Texas and California, then New Jersey and New York, and now Florida: Sunshine State voters, brace for bazillionaires gunning for public office.

On Friday, billionaire Palm Beach real estate investor Jeff Greene, who was already very rich when he made $800 million by betting the housing bubble would burst, jumped into Florida's topsy-turvy U.S. Senate race as a Democrat.

Three weeks ago, megamillionaire Rick Scott of Naples, who made a fortune running a hospital chain that admitted to fleecing Medicare out of $1.7 billion, filed to run for governor as a Republican.

Scott and Greene intend to spend a lot of their own money — "whatever it takes," Greene said Friday — to win over voters who may be excused if they don't know either from Adam.

"I'm not buying an election," Greene, who was dubbed "the Meltdown Mogul" by the Wall Street Journal, said in an interview. "I'm not going to take a penny of special-interest money. I'm not going to take more than $100 from anyone because I don't want to be in the business of fundraising."

Not that he needs to. With a fortune estimated at $1.25 billion, Greene, 55, has the money to make a dent in a Senate race already thrown wide open by Gov. Charlie Crist's decision Thursday to run as an independent.

If GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio was sweating Greene's move, he tried not to show it. As Friday's deadline to make the ballot passed, Rubio quipped: ''It's past noon. Any billionaires qualify to run against me?"

Meanwhile, 57-year-old Scott, who has a fortune believed to run into the tens of millions, has spent more than $2 million on ads. He's in an uphill battle to overtake the GOP gubernatorial front-runner, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who has raised nearly $4.7 million.

Like Greene, Scott, who now owns a chain of urgent-care centers around Jacksonville, is emphasizing his business background as evidence he can bring jobs and innovation to Florida. Scott was traveling Friday and unavailable for an interview.

Whether the duo's wealth and positioning as political outsiders will win them traction with voters is no sure bet. But their wild-card presence in the biggest two state races could further stir up a political season that one might have thought could not get any stranger, veteran political observers say.

"It's curious," said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. "I'm not sure what it means. … These are turbulent times, and as a result outsiders may think that they have more of a shot of putting together a winning strategy."

But after two go-go decades that exalted free markets and minted multimillionaires out of savvy investors, bold entrepreneurs and dirty rotten scoundrels alike, the rise of the modern megamillionaire candidate has likely only just begun.

The famous first was Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who spent $65 million of his money to run for president as a third-party candidate in 1992, in the process tipping the election to Bill Clinton. He inspired billionaire Steve Forbes, who got nowhere as a GOP presidential candidate.

Two years later, Michael Huffington — then-husband of Huffington Post founder Ariana — spent nearly $28 million failing to get himself elected to the U.S. Senate from California.

But it was New York City, where media mogul Michael Bloomberg has three times been elected mayor, and New Jersey that made mere pikers out of Perot and Huffington.

In New Jersey, Democrat Jon Corzine, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs — the Wall Street investment giant now under scrutiny for its role in the financial meltdown — spent $100 million of his money to get elected first as a U.S. senator and then as governor. (He lost a re-election bid in November.)

And in California, several megamillionaires are duking it out for U.S. Senate and gubernatorial posts.

In the governor's race, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has contributed $59 million to her campaign, and her chief primary opponent, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, has put up $19 million of his cash.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a Republican, has loaned $2.5 million to her campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, giving Fiorina a healthy fundraising edge over GOP competitors — though not a lead in the primary race.

No guarantee

The overarching lesson, political observers say: The ability to burn through lots of your kids' inheritance doesn't guarantee results.

A credible statewide race in Florida could cost $20 million to $30 million, political observers say. But even if voters get to know Scott and Greene, the voters could well judge them unsavory characters, given how they acquired their wealth, said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic political consultant who often works in Florida.

"Money only gets you so far," he said. "The press and their opponents are going to make sure people know about some of these stories."

Scott, a hard-charging Texas lawyer, made millions while presiding over the expansion of a for-profit hospital chain, Columbia/HCA. At one point Columbia was the third-largest private employer in Florida, with a staff of 52,000 at its 55 hospitals, including several in South Florida.

But the chain won widespread criticism for its hostile takeovers of community hospitals, where executives aggressively cut staff and imposed strict profit targets.

Scott was forced out by the company's board of directors in 1997 amid allegations by federal regulators and investigators that the company had been systematically defrauding Medicare, the government health insurance program for seniors.

Two executives who worked under Scott were convicted in 1998 of defrauding Medicare out of nearly $3 million, but Scott was never charged. The chain paid the government $1.7 billion to settle civil and criminal charges.

Grass roots support

Scott re-gained national attention last year when he founded the nonprofit group Conservatives for Patients' Rights, which opposed President Barack Obama's initial plans to include public insurance as part of health care reform. Scott financed the campaign with $5 million of his money.

The campaign won Scott some grass roots support among tea party activists, and he's racking up friends on his Facebook page.

Greene, who grew up in Florida, has been far less public, but the way he became a billionaire may leave him vulnerable to criticism that he profited from the misfortune of others.

A Harvard MBA grad who worked menial jobs as a student but made millions as a real estate investor and developer in California, Greene has said he correctly bet $40 million to $50 million that the value of $1.05 billion in bonds based on subprime mortgages would collapse. His adviser: investor John Paulson, a Greene friend who has been implicated — though not charged — in the Goldman Sachs inquiry.

Greene has dabbled in politics before. A Democrat growing up, he ran as a moderate Republican in a congressional primary in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. He became a big Democratic donor after returning to his "Democratic roots."

He doesn't apologize for what he says was a necessary bet.

"I've worked hard for every penny I have. No one has ever given me a thing," Greene said. "I saw where the housing market was going, and I knew I could be heading into a lot of trouble, and so I wanted to find a way to protect my investments and that's what I did."

Era of self-financed millionaire candidates begins in Florida 05/02/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 3, 2010 12:50am]

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