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Common Cause lists big donors

Under attack by Gov. Jeb Bush for hiding "secret squirrel" liberal donors, Common Cause on Tuesday released a list of donors who gave the national public interest group at least $5,000 last year.

The more than 40 donors accounted for about half of $2.6-million Common Cause has spent in Florida on a ballot initiative aimed at making the process for drawing the state's political districts less partisan.

Bush opposes the measure, which could help Democrats be more competitive in legislative district elections, and in recent weeks has hammered Common Cause for keeping its donors secret.

But if Bush was hoping to find a labor union or famous liberal stalwart like George Soros bankrolling Common Cause, this list didn't produce it.

The biggest individual donor? The late George J. Finney, a retired librarian with the U.S. Information Agency, who last year willed Common Cause more than $181,000.

"Gov. Bush is running around Florida implying there is some kind of smoking gun or some sort of secret funder behind us, and there is not. He's trying to distract from the real issues," said Mary Boyle of Common Cause. "This is not a partisan issue for us. It's about fixing the system. We see that as the core of democracy - competitive elections, being able to hold your elected official accountable."

The list of major donors included one institutional contributor, the Proteus Action League, which gave $240,000 to Common Cause and another $100,000 directed specifically for its Florida campaign to take district drawing out of the direct control of legislators and instead turn it over to an appointed commission.

The Action League is a nonprofit issue advocacy group organized by the liberal-leaning Proteus Fund, based in Amherst, Mass. The Proteus Fund supports grass roots political activity nationally, including campaign finance reform, gay rights initiatives and living wage campaigns.

Though the Open Society Institute founded by Soros has given to the fund in past years, Proteus executive director Meg Gage said, "Soros has not given 1 cent to the Action League."

Bush's latest criticism of Common Cause's campaign came Monday in a meeting with the Tampa Tribune editorial board. He spoke of "a group of secret squirrel liberals who go to some fancy resort somewhere, and they divvy up the states and the ballot initiatives. They write large checks; they launder the money through places like Common Cause, ironically."

On Tuesday, before the list of donors came out, the governor applauded Common Cause's decision to disclose them.

"They didn't invite me to their secret squirrel meeting at the fancy resort. You know the vast left-wing conspiracy meets to decide all these things, I wasn't invited. It's a secret squirrel meeting so I wasn't invited. But the fact that they're disclosing is great and I applaud them for it," Bush said.

Bush is bashing Common Cause's campaign in Florida. But he helped Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raise money for a similar effort Common Cause backed in California last year that would have helped Republicans make gains had it passed. Common Cause spent only about $13,000 on that California effort, but aggressively campaigned for it.

"It's not a partisan issue, it's a power issue - who's in charge at the time," Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, said, noting that Florida Republicans wanted independent redistricting back when Democrats controlled the redistricting process.

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com.

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