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Developers drive campaigns

If money drives elections, then developers and those who benefit from growth are behind the wheel of this year's campaigns for the Hillsborough County Commission.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of all $500 campaign contributions - the maximum allowed by law - has found that more than two of every three come from individuals, associations or businesses with a financial stake in ongoing development.

With some candidates, development interests account for nearly 90 percent of their top contributions. And often, the money pouring in comes from the very people who have business before the commission.

"Development always has been one of the most powerful forces in Florida politics," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. "They are a power, and this is how their power works. And it's bad policy."

The Times examined nearly 2,000 donations of $500 given to County Commission candidates through Oct. 6.

The records reveal that large sums of money flow from real estate brokers, builders, land use lawyers and consultants, planners and construction contractors and engineers.

It often comes bundled in elaborate ways - from those people's employees, their spouses, their various companies at the same address, even their college-age children.

But in the end, it all comes from one industry: growth.

Candidates swear no amount of money can buy votes. But the story of their bank accounts makes this much clear: The guy on the corner waving campaign signs usually isn't the same guy who's paying for them.

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Neither the developers giving the cash nor the candidates accepting it care to talk much about how the industry dominates campaign finance.

The Times contacted some of the biggest contributors, including concrete magnate Ralph Hughes, developers Bing Kearney and Bill Bishop, and Tony Ferguson, an oil and gas executive who wants a helipad at his lakefront home.

None called back.

Mike Horner, a planner who represents applicants in zoning cases before the County Commission, wouldn't elaborate on why clients of his gave thousands in this year's races.

"They're just developers who believe in strong government," Horner said. Asked what he meant by strong government, Horner said he didn't like the tone of the question and hung up.

The candidates themselves offer various reasons why the development dollars bankrolling their campaigns don't influence them.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe got about 84 percent of his money from the growth industry but said he doesn't pay attention to that.

"I don't want to know," Sharpe said. "I don't analyze who gives and why. I will look at all the issues before voting, so there's no relationship between who gives and how I vote."

Candidate Rose Ferlita also said her vote isn't for sale.

"I don't give a damn what you give me," Ferlita said. "If you think your $500 is going to influence me, you're wrong."

She received about 64 percent of her largest contributions, or $152,000, the highest total sum of all candidates, from people tied to development.

Al Higginbotham, running to replace Ronda Storms in District 4, has never held office or cast a vote on the commission. But development-related money accounts for about 71 percent of his $500 contributions.

Higginbotham, who resigned as head of the Hillsborough Republican Party earlier this year to enter the race, said such people support him because they know he's fair and open-minded.

"I've never had one of them ask me for anything," he said. "I make it clear there's going to be times when I disagree. I think they are looking for people who have the same principles."

But don't people from industries other than development share those same principles? Why aren't they donating?

"You've asked me a question that I haven't pondered before," Higginbotham said.

Ed Turanchik, a former commissioner turned developer, said it's unlikely a $500 donation passes unnoticed by any candidate.

"If you're running, it's just common courtesy to thank someone who gave $500," Turanchik said. "I don't believe a candidate wouldn't want to know who's giving him the big money."

And the big money is hard to beat. Just ask Joe Redner.

He has loaned himself more than $90,000 in his bid to defeat incumbent Jim Norman, who owes about 76 percent of his largest donations to growth interests.

"Whoever they give the money to, that's who gets elected," Redner said of the development community. "Why (else) are the county commissioners making these decisions that seem contrary to the public interest?"

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Mariella Smith spent months organizing a grass roots effort opposing a plan for 360 townhomes along the Little Manatee River.

A Fort Myers development company, Manatee Bay Associates, planned to build on land earmarked by the county as a nature preserve. The land linked vital wildlife corridors and wetlands to Cockroach Bay.

Smith, co-chairwoman of the Sierra Club's south Hillsborough committee, celebrated with other volunteers when commissioners rejected the developer's project during a March 7 meeting.

But the developers appealed that vote, and returned in August. They reduced the number of units to 327, but Smith remained confident commissioners would turn it down again because it remained essentially the same.

When Commissioners Sharpe and Tom Scott changed their votes and joined Commissioners Ken Hagan and Norman in approving the project, Smith was shocked.

"To win, and have it yanked out from under us, was just crushing," Smith said.

What Smith didn't know then was that companies and representatives linked to Manatee Bay Associates gave Scott's campaign $3,500 in June and July. They gave $2,500 to Sharpe's campaign in July.

The money arrived in multiple contributions from different corporations and individuals, each one complying with the $500 legal limit, but collectively adding up to a significant sum.

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Norman, who voted for the project both times, received at least $6,000 from the developers and their associates in December.

"Why would a Fort Myers company contribute to candidates running in Hillsborough?" Smith asked. "Are they interested in the indigent health care policies of Tom Scott or the water policies of Sharpe? No. The whole process was a sham. They didn't listen to us."

Scott said he approved the project the second time around because developers satisfied his concerns about traffic. He said he didn't know his campaign received money from developers before he voted.

"I wouldn't know the people who gave if they came in and talked to me today," Scott said.

Sharpe said he voted for the project because, like Scott, he believed the developers had met his prior concerns and reduced the number of homes. He said land use attorney Keith Bricklemyer gave him the checks from the developers, and he didn't realize that they were related to a case he would vote on a month later.

In another case, Sharpe and Norman both received thousands of dollars from a developer before an October 2005 vote on his project to build more than 1,000 homes in southern Hillsborough.

Neither Norman nor the developer returned phone calls. But Sharpe said the money didn't influence his vote.

"I said to myself, 'I'm going to vote on the merits of the case,' " he said.

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It's no secret that special interests long have played a role in elections. They are bound by neither political party nor geography.

In Washington and throughout the United States, special interest money comes from a spectrum of industries with plenty to gain and lose through new laws, regulations and government spending.

Donations from defense contractors, pharmaceuticals, insurance, health maintenance organizations, and telecommunications regularly flood the campaign coffers of those seeking federal and state offices.

City and county officials don't often decide issues that affect those industries. But they do make plenty of land use decisions.

In Hillsborough County, growth equals big business. More development means more jobs and more tax revenue.

But it also comes at a cost.

Since 2002, Hillsborough's population has grown by nearly 100,000 people. The county has struggled to maintain the infrastructure and resources - roads, water, schools - to accommodate this rapid influx.

"Every growing county has the same issue: an undue influence from the land development industry on campaign finance," Turanchik said.

He said that with piles of money come expectations of access and an open ear, even if no one admits it.

"It's naive to think elected officials won't give the benefit of the doubt to people who contribute to them," Turanchik said.

But the reality, some candidates say, is that the money it takes to win has to come from somewhere.

"It's expensive, unfortunately, to run a campaign," said Higginbotham, who has raised $100,000 more than his nearest rival. "We are doing television. We are doing very thorough and intense direct mail, yard signs.

"I wish there was a way around having to spend this money."

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By bundling their contributions in order to give enormous sums, those with an economic interest in public policy can play a disproportionate role in politics, said Newton of the consumer group.

"You may have one vote, but $500,000 buys a lot of votes. Your voice is not equal," he said.

Mariella Smith feels the voices of normal citizens aren't heard at all. And she holds little hope that will change anytime soon.

"In the end, people are voting for who has the most yard signs," she said. "But those yard signs are bought with development money."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or Brady Dennis can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report.