The man who helped build Parkland now wants to help build support for gun control

Real estate developer Al Hoffman, a longtime Republican donor and the former ambassador to Portugal, says he's been inspired by students.
Hoffman. [Florida Trend]
Hoffman. [Florida Trend]
Published March 30, 2018|Updated March 30, 2018

Florida real estate developer Al Hoffman has met with dignitaries in the highest levels of power across the globe, but it was when he stood under the big screen at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., last weekend that he had what he describes as "the most profound experience of a lifetime."

Hoffman, 83, is the former U.S. ambassador to Portugal, the former co-chair for President George W. Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004, a former finance chair for the Republican National Committee and former chair of Marco Rubio's 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate. He was at the march to channel his enormous political and fundraising heft into a new cause: a gun control advocacy group.

Launched on the same day as the March for Our Lives, Americans for Gun Safety has a six-point plan aimed at persuading Congress to pass comprehensive gun control legislation before November, and a ban on assault weapons soon to follow.

"I truly believe we are at a milestone," Hoffman told the Times/Herald. "A lot of these young people are just turning 18 and, to a person, they were committed to registering and voting and to get their legislators to listen to their simple demands."

The plan includes closing background check loopholes, raising the age for all gun purchases to 21, eliminating bump stocks, limiting high-capacity magazines, provide support for mental health, and explicitly seeking allegiance to the Second Amendment.

And the long-time political veteran believes it is possible because young people are engaged.

"I believe we have created a real wedge issue here — for young and old alike," he said. "They have this motivation now — and everybody thinks they will have their 15 minutes now and then forget about it. But they will not forget. They know what it's like to see these young people die."

Hoffman said he is partly motivated because Parkland, home to the mass shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was developed by his company, WCI. He attended the opening and dedication of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and his children and grandchildren live close enough that, he laments, they could have been victims.

The organization has lined up Republican congressmen and donors from across the country, including some of Florida's heavy hitters. The organization's web site lists 21 supporters, "from the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre and other mass shootings across the nation, to our elected officials, political donors and grassroots organizations."

It includes Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting; Republican Congressmen Carlos Curbelo and Brian Mast, who authored a New York Times op-ed supporting a ban on assault weapons; Florida Republican donors Tampa developer Mel Sembler and Miami auto magnate Norman Braman; former ambassadors Cathy Bailey and Howard Leach; Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence from 2009 to 2010, and retired professional golfer Jack Nicklaus.

Hoffman said the group has been established as a 501c4 organization, a non-profit group that does not have to disclose its donors. For him "it is a social movement," but he is approaching it with all the pragmatics of a political campaign.

For starters, he's targeting Republicans because he is convinced too many of them are on the "wrong side."

"If we can't get them to endorse our plan, they are not going to get a contribution from us," he said. "I cannot in good conscience give money to or vote for a candidate, whether he is a Republican or not, that does not embrace these simple points."

Hoffman has some Republican congressmen on board but from most he has "gotten a lot of hesitancy," he said.

"I don't have one Republican senator on board yet," he said. "They're afraid. They don't want to get blasted by the NRA or the gun lobby. We don't object to the Second Amendment. We support the right of everybody to own a shotgun, a hunting rifle, but not an assault weapon, high-capacity magazines and armor piercing ammo."

He is especially disappointed in Rubio, whom he supported for re-election but now says "I don't think I'm going to be involved anymore."

"Marco Rubio said this is the kind of incident that can happen anytime to anybody and nothing will change," he said. "I don't agree with that. This is one small step at a time."

He is also unhappy that Rubio took $3.3 million "from the NRA, the gun lobby and the gun manufacturers to win reelection," and he wants him to explain "how did he use that money."

Hoffman also is not happy with U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz Balart of Miami who told him "he's been taking money from the NRA for 30 years and he'll continue to take money. He has a real issue with me. I think he's a good man, but he needs to become enlightened."

He is pleased that Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that includes three of the items on their list but if Scott runs for U.S. Senate he won't get their support until he endorses the rest of the plan, he said.

The group also has financed polls. "The overwhelming percentage — it's over 80 percent — everywhere are in favor of common sense gun controls and banning assault weapons today," Hoffman said.

And they have access to "the e-mail list for every registered Republican in the state of Florida — and the whole country for that matter," he said.

Hoffman said that as he watched thousands of students and their families stream into Washington, knowing there were 800 similar marches across the country and the globe, he said it was "probably the most exhilarating and uplifting experience of a lifetime."

"This is probably my last hurrah on this issue," he said. "But I'm going to keep working on these congressmen and senators until we get it done."