The rich are different: Like Rick Scott, they run for state office

27 state candidates have donated at least $100,000 to themselves.
Published August 26 2016
Updated August 29 2016

TALLAHASSEE — After Tuesday, Irv Slosberg could be a state senator — or he could be out nearly $2 million in a failed election.

Slosberg, a Democratic state House member from Boca Raton, has spent $1.88 million of his own money in a primary battle with Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

"I could spend my time going around begging for money from all of these special interests," Slosberg said. "Or I could just write a check myself rather than owing them."

Such extravagant personal spending is growing more popular for legislative jobs — despite their stingy $29,697 salaries.

In 2008, nine legislative candidates gave their campaigns $100,000 or more. So far this year, 27 have — and there is still more than two months left until November's general election.

A number of conditions explain why.

• The concentration of wealth in the past 30 years has produced a record number of billionaires and millionaires undaunted by the typical expenses of a campaign.

• While state law limits donors to $1,000 per candidate each election year, no such restrictions exist for candidates. They can loan or donate to themselves as much as they can afford.

• In an era where being an outsider appeals to voters, relying on personal wealth comes with political benefits. Candidates don't have to worry about appearing bought and paid for by big-money donors.

• Convenience. Candidates don't have to spend time making pleas for big bucks.

Still, the record of those financing their own campaigns is mixed. Rick Scott pumped $73 million of his fortune into his 2010 campaign and nearly $13 million four years later. He won both times.

But just three of the nine candidates who spent $100,000 on a 2008 legislative race ended up winning. Billionaire Jeff Greene spent about $20 million on his failed bid for the U.S. Senate in the 2010 Democratic primary.

In large part, that's because using a personal fortune indicates that party leaders and special interests have lined up behind another candidate, diverting the traditional revenue needed for a campaign.

Slosberg's personal net worth of $9.5 million puts him among the richest in the Legislature. He made his money importing handbags through his Pompano Beach-based Mediterranean Trading Co. His success has given him unbridled confidence.

Asked if the money he's spent would be worth it if he loses, Slosberg would only say, "I'm going to win."

State Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, is running against self-funded candidates in a heated three-way Republican race for state Senate in Marion and Sumter counties. She said it's not necessarily bad for people to finance their own political races, it's just that not everyone can do it.

"If you want rich people to run your political offices, then I suppose that would be your opinion," she said. "If you want everyday people to give up their time and service and expertise, it's maybe not."

O'Toole's opponents in the Republican primary — state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and David Gee, a retired businessman — have given their campaigns $360,000 and $310,000, respectively. She has relied mostly on money from donors.

Most self-funded candidates balk at the idea that they could enrich themselves in the Legislature. Never mind that most state lawmakers increase their personal net worth while in office. Last year, the Times/Herald found that a lawmaker's net worth climbed an average of 63 percent during their tenure.

But those chipping in their own money claim their bids for office are a personal sacrifice for the greater good.

"That's the problem," said Steve Vernon, a Manatee County Republican and tea party activist who drained $123,079 from his retirement to fund a state House bid. "So many people look at this as some return on investment. … I feel like I have been called and this is my mission."

But Vernon's money opens a line of attack.

His opponent for the state House, Joe Gruters, Florida co-chairman for Donald Trump's presidential bid, has sent out mailers and given stump speeches declaring that he is "not interested in buying" his way into office.

Such criticism isn't fair, said Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, who's running for a Brevard County Senate seat. Her opponent, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melborune, has the backing of major donors including lobbyists and business groups.

Mayfield has spent $501,050 trying to stay in the state Legislature. She cashed out joint assets she owns with her husband, Robert Scaringe, who founded a research and development business called Mainstream Engineering, she said.

"Here I am investing myself and my money into a race to represent my people in my district, and I'm being criticized for it," said Mayfield, who won her first House race in 2008 largely on contributions from Tallahassee donors. "He's taking other people's money. What's he going to have to pay them back?"

There is a possible financial gain for at least one self-funder.

Gee, a tea party Republican, hopes to win state business for a health care payment company that he partly owns. He says he wouldn't have the company, HealthCare Pays, profit from a state contract if it doesn't save the state money.

"I would like to make it known to the people in Tallahassee that we can absolutely improve vastly the waste and fraud in health care in the state of Florida," he said.

In Tampa Bay, Augie Ribeiro wants to inspire a Bernie Sanders-like political revolution, claiming donations in $27 increments.

To do that, he's spent $514,000 of his own money trying to take out two state representatives and a former lawmaker in a Democratic primary for the state Senate. He insists the only way for a "true Democrat" to win his first election is to reach into his own pockets.

"I didn't know another way," Ribeiro said. "What are the options?"

Jim Waldman, a Broward County Democrat, cites noblesse oblige in his bid for a state Senate seat in Broward County. So far, it has cost the lawyer $202,500.

"It's part of giving back," he said.

Times staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.