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Bushes' bash raises a cool $2.5-million

 
Published June 22, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

St. Joe Co., which needs state money and permits to develop its vast Panhandle holdings, delivered $25,000. So did U.S. Sugar Corp., several major developers and the state's most influential citrus and vegetable company.

Corporations and lobbyists that depend heavily on government decisions chipped in for the Florida Republican Party on Friday night, joining President Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush to raise more than $2.5-million at the state GOP's annual Majority Dinner.

It was another stark illustration of what Democrats face as they try to retake the Governor's Mansion and gain seats in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The money that Florida Republicans raised Friday night could buy nearly two weeks of statewide television ads to re-elect Gov. Bush. Or 3-million yard signs. Or send campaign fliers to nearly every registered voter in the state.

It's also $1-million more than the Florida Democratic Party raised in the first three months of the year. And it's more than double what the Democrats' two leading gubernatorial candidates, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, raised combined.

With the president's approval ratings hovering around 70 percent and the governor's comfortably above 50 percent, state Republicans descended on the Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Studios full of confidence about November's elections.

It was the president's 10th trip to Florida since he moved into the White House last year and his third fundraising trip to Florida this year, bringing his haul for the state Republican Party to about $5.5-million. He also raised $1.5-million for his brother in January in Washington.

The president offered familiar praise for his younger brother again Friday night, calling him a man of integrity who has succeeded in being a governor for all Floridians. He also lauded Jeb Bush's record on the environment, taxes and education.

"You've got a fiscally sound governor, somebody who understands that the people with money, it's their money, not the government's money," the president said, echoing one of the lines he regularly used in his 2000 campaign.

President Bush spoke for half an hour, between cocktails and the lobster salad, filet mignon and chocolate lasagna. He asked for continued support for his plan to create a new Department of Homeland Security, and he said the war against terrorism is making progress.

"A lot of what's happening, you won't see," the president said between bursts of applause. "That's the nature of the new war. . . . You just need to know we're after them. We've got them on the run."

Gov. Bush defended his record and complained the Republicans have not gotten the credit they deserve for improving social services. Under his school testing program, he said, students and schools are making progress. Reno and McBride have both criticized the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, and the way Bush uses it to assign grades to schools.

"More money is not the answer. There are many states that spend more money than Florida _ you'll here this all the time on TV _ but we have rising student achievement because we fund success," the governor said. "I will not allow the people that refuse to see the progress we're making take us back to the days when we didn't test, when we had low standards."

But Friday night's focus was politics, not policy.

Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas warned that the Republicans thought they had Florida won at this point in the 2000 presidential election, too, but it came down to a disputed 537-vote victory.

Others cited their fundraising, which is on pace to set a party record, as proof they are on the right track.

"People give to candidates when they know the candidate is doing well," said Dr. Zachariah P. Zachariah, a longtime Republican contributor and one of about 30 people or corporations who paid $25,000 to serve on the event's host committee.

Michael Hicks, Sumter County's GOP chairman, optimisticly predicted the governor will easily win re-election by more than 10 percent. "The governor has provided results that the people of Florida can see for themselves," he said.

Friday's Majority Dinner, the GOP's main annual fund-raiser, was the party's largest and richest ever. Tickets started at $500, with all 1,280 ballroom seats sold out and an overflow crowd of 300 packed into the foyer, facing a big-screen TV. The decor matched the theme, with gold and green napkins and gold plates. The chairs had been spray-painted gold. The cushions were gold.

The 2000 version was at the same hotel, with the same keynote speaker _ he was Texas Gov. Bush then _ and raised about $2-million. Last year, Vice President Dick Cheney brought in $2.5-million.

As usual, the major underwriters included a who's who of companies and lobbyists who do frequent business in Tallahassee, and business had much to celebrate: Industry groups banded together to defeat a Legislative rewrite of the sales tax code that would have cost some companies millions of dollars.

They also won a controversial $262-million corporate tax break.

Among those paying $25,000 or more for a spot at the head tables were U.S. Sugar Corp.; Outback Steakhouse of Tampa; the founders of Hooter's restaurants; A. Duda & Sons Inc., a giant Florida-based citrus, vegetable and sugar giant; and Diageo LPC, one of the world's largest beer and liquor dealers.

Peter S. Rummell, chairman of St. Joe Co., also served on the host committee. St. Joe, the state's largest landowner, secured $8-million in state money for a new airport that will aid its development of nearly 1-million acres of Panhandle coastline and forests.

St. Joe spokesman Jerry Ray said the company supports both major political parties. "We're very interested in many areas of moving the state forward," he said. "That involves the political process."

The dinner brought the state GOP's contributions for the year to well over $15-million, though new totals won't be released until next month. The Democrats may not raise one-third as much.

Al Austin of Tampa, the state party's finance chairman, said the Republicans this year have raised more money, at all levels, than ever before, largely because of events like this one. By this time in 2000, the party had raised about $6-million.

"The president is always a huge draw," Austin said. "Having the combination of a popular president who just happens to be the governor's brother, and a governor who's very popular with his followers, has given us a great boost.

"We're preparing ourselves for a tough campaign this fall. And we're going to have the resources for whatever comes up."

The Democrats can only wish they were so well-prepared. Its fundraising star, Reno, is also its leading gubernatorial candidate. Her biggest Florida event for the party was a $150,000 fundraiser in Coral Gables with Martin Sheen, star of West Wing.

Her campaign refused to release specific figures, but Reno has raised more money for the party outside the state than within it. While the president was speaking Friday night in Orlando, Reno was meeting with supporters at a much smaller Democratic fund-raiser in Chicago where tickets ranged from $1,000 to $25,000.

Florida election law limits contributions to candidates to $500, so candidates and political parties also focus on raising the unlimited contributions to political parties. The parties then use the so-called soft money to subsidize candidates' campaigns and for get-out-the-vote efforts.

A new federal law will ban soft money for federal races after the November elections, but state campaigns are not affected.

Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said Democrats do not have to match the Republicans' fundraising.

"When we sat down and we said what is it going to take to win this race, we mapped out a plan, and we're confident of that plan," he said.

Poe said the GOP's fundraising efforts indicate Republicans worry the president's brother could be defeated. But recent polls show Bush with a commanding lead over Reno and McBride.

"A year ago, after all the chads happened in Florida, the Democrats said they were going to bring millions of dollars to Florida to beat Jeb," said Zachariah, a Fort Lauderdale cardiologist whom Gov. Bush appointed to the state Board of Medicine.

"But it's not happening, and it's not because Democrats are stupid people. They are smart people. But nobody wants to give any money because they don't think they have a candidate."

Before the fundraiser, the president toured a senior recreation center as part of his new push to encourage Americans to eat better and exercise more.

Prominent donors

Some local Republicans attending the fundraiser in Orlando on Friday:

Al Austin, Tampa developer.

Bob Martinez, former Florida governor

Dr. R. Vijay, Tampa cardiologist

Ed Droste, founder of Hooters

Sen. Don Sullivan of St. Petersburg

Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon

Rep. Mike Fasano of Port Richey