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Cruise groups reward GOP

Published Sep. 3, 2005

When Florida's cruise ship industry last year faced a plan to tax Miami cruises to pay for a new Florida Marlins stadium, Gov. Jeb Bush singlehandedly squashed it with the promise of a veto.

When Sept. 11 threatened to blow a hole in the Florida tourism industry _ cruises included _ Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature found $20-million to pump up Florida's marketing. In Boston, he hopped aboard a Carnival cruise ship loaded with New England travel agents to extol Florida last fall.

The industry is grateful. Very grateful.

In June, the Cruise Industry Community Fund, a Virginia-based industry group, gave the state GOP $500,000. The campaign donations came in two checks and established the cruise industry trade group as the GOP's largest single donor for this year's campaign. Money to the state party will pay for most of Bush's re-election campaign.

"Across the board, the governor has been very supportive of the industry growing and Florida becoming the biggest recipient of that growth," said Angela Plott, vice president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, which made the contributions.

Michael Crye, president of the trade association, cited Bush's aggressive efforts to beef up security in Florida ports. The state was "out in front" of the rest of the country, he said, in addressing a top concern of cruise line customers.

More cruise ships depart from Florida than any state, and the industry estimates it has an economic effect on the state of more than $3-billion.

Around the country, some environmentalists and politicians have called for tougher state and federal regulation of the industry, particularly to restrict waste dumped from ships. The cruise industry has had a much friendlier relationship with Bush's administration.

Late last year, Florida became the only state to sign a memorandum of understanding with the industry effectively embracing industry guidelines for monitoring waste.

The industry also has embraced some of Bush's pet projects. Carnival Cruise Lines in June donated $1.2-million to the governor's family's literacy initiative. Last year, the same initiative received $150,000 from the Cruise Industry Charitable Foundation.

The industry has been generous to both parties over the years, though it appears to favor the GOP.

The industry donated about $35,000 to the Florida Democratic Party since 1998, and thousands more to candidates from both parties, records show. But a spokesman for the state Democratic Party said it has received nothing from the Cruise Industry Community Fund for the current campaign.

In February, Carnival Cruise Lines gave $100,000 to a campaign for a ballot initiative that would require the state to provide free prekindergarten learning for 4-year-olds.

Florida Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Banfill speculated the size of the Florida GOP donation might have been aimed at catching the White House's eye. The federal government oversees most regulation of the industry.

"They're giving new meaning to the phrase "love boat,' " Banfill said. "Send $500,000 to the Florida Republican Party, and it's a show of good faith to the president of the United States."

Towson Fraser of the Florida Republican Party said the donations reflect support for how Bush has worked to keep Florida's economy strong.

The donations were among $7.4-million to the state GOP between March 31 and June 30.

Florida Democrats raised $1.7-million during that same period, but the contributors to the Democrats were not available Monday on the Division of Elections' Web site.

With its June checks, the cruise industry jumped to the top of state party contributors this election cycle, which began in January 2001. The GOP's second largest contributor is Tampa's PHP Holdings, whose HMO, Physicians Healthcare Plans, gave $110,000 in May, for a total of $285,000 since 2001.

Other major recent GOP contributors include St. Joe Corp., a huge north Florida developer, which gave $75,000; MBNA Corp., a Delaware-based credit card company, which gave $100,000; Miami-based Burger King, which gave $100,000; California builder A.G. Spanos, who gave $100,000; and the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, which gave $100,000.

Entwistle & Cappucci, a New York law firm the state hired to try to recover investment losses in the state's pension fund, gave $50,000 to the state GOP. The firm's Tallahassee partner, Paul Bradshaw, is married to Bush's former chief of staff.