TALLAHASSEE — The modern political history of U.S. Sugar traces back to a 1987 pizza and beer night at the company lobbyist's townhouse near the state Capitol.
Robert Coker wasn't home that night, but his job is to build relationships in Tallahassee. So he lent his place to state legislators, who secretly crafted a deal to tax services such as dry cleaning and barbers, scribbling the details on a pizza box. The next day, the tax was passed.
Months later, due to public outrage, the tax was repealed. But Big Sugar's role in Florida politics has continued.
The Clewiston sugar colossus agreed last month to sell its vast land holdings to the state for $1.75-billion, a deal certain to alter the future of the Everglades. But U.S. Sugar's disappearance will alter the political landscape in Florida as well.
"For the last decade, the 600-pound gorilla has been U.S. Sugar," said lawyer John French, an election law expert who has worked in the grower's campaigns. "Having that kind of leadership and resources disappear from the political radar is going to leave a vacuum. I don't think it will be filled by another industry or company."
Coker, still the company's lobbyist, declined to comment for this article.
But state campaign records show that since 1996, U.S. Sugar has spent $17.5-million in its name to influence the outcome of state elections in Florida.
The company donated untold millions more through political committees, including millions used to kill a constitutional amendment that would have taxed sugar for Everglades cleanup.
Amendment 4 would have imposed a penny-per-pound tax on sugar. The company flexed its muscle through a political committee called Citizens to Save Jobs and Stop Unfair Taxes.
When it was over, those fighting on both sides had spent a combined $30-million, most of it from U.S. Sugar and its allies. The campaign still ranks as the most expensive ballot initiative campaign in Florida history.
But money has been just part of the equation. U.S. Sugar is renowned for playing hardball. In 1996 it did it by stoking fears that the sugar tax would lead to unemployment.
In 2003, the company hired nearly three dozen lobbyists —a large number even by Tallahassee standards — to persuade the Legislature to delay deadlines for Everglades cleanup by seven years.
"That was the most brazen show of political muscle I had experienced in all my years of lobbying," recalled Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida, though he noted U.S. Sugar did not get as lengthy a delay as it wanted.
"They've always been a major player and been willing to put their money where their mouth is," said state Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat, speaking from personal experience.
In the 2004 Democratic primary, Saunders challenged Sen. Larcenia Bullard, a reliable supporter of the company's agenda.
Saunders, who is white, found himself the target of repeated hard-hitting mailings that attacked his ethics, while other mailings used images of "colored-only'' waiting rooms to warn that an unnamed "them" wanted to "take away our voice." Bullard, who is black, won the election.
The mailings, paid for in part by U.S. Sugar but issued by a committee called "People for Fairness and Equality," represented a new trend in legislative races: the launching of attack ads through so-called 527 committees that gave voters no hint as to the source of the attacks.
Under state law, the committees are known as electioneering communication organizations, or ECOs.
U.S. Sugar's last such blast in a statewide election was in the 2006 Democratic primary for governor. The company spent millions on ads that implied that then-U.S. Rep. Jim Davis was a racist for his vote more than a decade earlier opposing restitution for two wrongly convicted black men.
Those ads were intended to help then-state Sen. Rod Smith. But an old nemesis, Save Our Everglades, retaliated, portraying Smith as a pawn of the sugar industry.
After Election Day, when Republican Charlie Crist won the governor's race, the company offered $50,000 to offset inauguration festivities that Crist later canceled.