Seats safe, legislators dole out surpluses

Published Jan. 4, 2005|Updated Aug. 24, 2005

Like dozens of other Florida legislators, state Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor was a two-time winner in 2004.

First, he was automatically re-elected when nobody challenged him. Then he was left with a pile of campaign money he didn't need to defend his seat.

Safely returned to a fourth and final term in the House, Bilirakis went on a spending spree. He showered charities across his district with money and sent $9,800 to a nonprofit foundation to help schools in Pinellas comply with a new law requiring an American flag in every classroom, a law Bilirakis supported.

Bilirakis, 41, was one of 63 House members who won office unopposed or faced token resistance from write-in or minor-party challengers with no money or political clout.

Fourteen state senators won the same way, making the 2005 Legislature more than ever a creature of the new political reality in Florida, shaped by term limits, reapportionment and the power of campaign money. Most seats are uncontested until term limits force out the occupants.

Raising money can scare away opponents, and giving it away can build goodwill for the future.

Like most incumbents, Bilirakis received tens of thousands of dollars, mainly from people and groups with an interest in legislation. Sources included lawyers, lobbyists, PACs, medical firms and friends and hometown supporters.

Bilirakis raised $66,800. It was the first time the Palm Harbor lawyer faced no opposition. Four people already are jockeying to run for his District 48 House seat when it becomes open in 2006.

Statewide, 77 of a possible 142 contested seats were decided long before Election Day. Those legislators raked in $6.5-million anyway.

The average contribution total for unopposed senators was $156,000, and the average total for unopposed House members was $69,000.

State law requires lawmakers to refund the surplus money to contributors or donate it to charity or political parties. (Senators may only give up to $20,000 to a party; a House member's donation caps out at $10,000.) They also can keep $10,000 to cover the costs of running district offices, but the money must be disbursed.

Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, raised $516,000 while facing a write-in opponent, making him the Legislature's runaway champion of fundraising by the uncontested. Atwater, a banker, was elected to the Senate in 2002 and is a possible future statewide candidate, though he has ruled out running for chief financial officer in 2006.

In the House, where districts are much smaller and the costs of campaigns are less, Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, raised $195,000. An expected Democratic challenge never materialized.

"I'm a competitor. I'm very organized," said Arza, a teacher and former high school football coach. "I'm a master of overkill. That's the football coach in me."

Arza gave $25,000 to a Catholic Church in Hialeah, $10,000 to the Archdiocese of Miami radio station, $3,000 to the Miami-Dade Community College Foundation, and $2,500 each to the Florida International University Foundation and Boy Scouts.

He spent even more on TV and radio ads, mailings and bus bench ads thanking the voters for their support. Arza has his sights on a state Senate seat and he cited other politicians in Miami-Dade who lost races for higher office because he said they didn't keep their names before the public.

Legislators are raising more money than ever in an era when fewer seats are contested. But they and the lobbyists who underwrite their campaigns say aggressive fundraising is the most effective way to ward off opposition.

"You've got people who are going to raise money to make sure their seats are secure," said lobbyist Ron Book. "It sends the message that if you're going to run, you'd better have the ability to raise a lot of money."

The money raised from special interests to discourage challengers is then available to dispense in the form of goodwill.

Bilirakis paid about $14,000 to two campaign advisers, gave $7,500 to the state GOP and gave the remainder to nonprofits and charities.

"If I thought it was a worthy cause, I decided to give it, and it's customary that you give the party a certain amount," Bilirakis said.

He gave $1,000 to the Pregnancy Center of Pinellas County and the Bethany Education Program, an afterschool program in Clearwater founded by County Commissioner Calvin Harris for at-risk children.

He gave checks of $500 each to nine charities, including churches, schools and local Republican groups. He said some groups solicited donations after they found out he was re-elected without opposition.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, spent some of his surplus funds on thank-you mailings to his District 13 constituents. "The lack of opposition in my bid for re-election should be seen as a testament to how well organized and enthusiastic all of our supporters are," he wrote in one mailing. "I certainly wouldn't want to play against such a strong team, and it looks like no one else wanted to, either."

The unopposed lawmaker who raised the least campaign money in 2004 was Rep. Jack Seiler, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who won his third term in a cakewalk. He capped contributions at $100 each, and stopped when he reached $13,300.

Four years ago, with a Republican opponent, Seiler raised $116,000. Two years ago, with a Libertarian Party challenger, he raised $97,000. He said it's wrong for lawmakers to amass a fortress of funds without an opponent.

"I knew there was not going to be a serious challenge, and I thought it was wrong of me to raise funds just to raise funds," Seiler said. "That's not consistent with what I consider to be good government."

Money to burn

Nine westcentral Florida lawmakers are among 77 statewide who won election uncontested in 2004 or had only a writein opponent. Many were left with a stockpile of campaign cash that by law had to be disposed of. Here's a look at where it went:

Name - Total raised - Major beneficiaries

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island - $151,252 GOP - Senate fund, $ 30,000 The Mallard Group, consulting firm, $ 27,488

Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater - $69,142 - Direct Mail Systems, Clearwater, $ 11,306 Robert Watkins, accountant, $ 12,000

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor - $66,800 - Pinellas County Education Foundation, $ 9,800 Republican Party of Florida, $ 7,500

Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa - $31,320 - District office account, $ 10,000 Strategywise Consulting, consultants, $ 7,500

Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg - $31,820 - Henry Mallue, consultant, $ 7,500 Florida Democratic Party, $ 5,000

Rep. Ken Littlefield, R-Wesley Chapel - $35,500 - Saddlebrook Resort, golf tournament fundraiser, $ 6,702 East Pasco Medical Center Foundation, $4,000

Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg - $20,672 - District office account, $ 10,000 Weekly Challenger, newspaper ad, $ 840

Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton - $72,167 - Political Insights, Ellenton consulting firm, $ 12,575 Republican Party of Florida, $10,000.

Rep. Everett Rice, R-St. Petersburg - $29,105 - District office account, $ 10,000 Crabby Bill's Seafood, victory party, $ 5,000 Garcia, Mackin & Associates, consultants, $ 5,000

Source: Florida Division of Elections Times chart