Florida's 2018 election cycle has not been sweet for the sugar industry.
Toxic green slime is suffocating Lake Okeechobee and surrounding waterways, which has largely been blamed on "Big Sugar" whose polluted runoff has contributed to the crisis (though isn't the sole cause). And Republican candidate for governor, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, took serious heat from his opponent, Ron DeSantis, for his acceptance of millions in sugar money during the pair's televised debate in Jacksonville — to cheers from the crowd.
Yet in this notably anti-sugar environment, those looking to replace Putnam as the state's top agricultural regulator have followed his lead. Three of the top candidates for Agriculture Commissioner – in this case, all Republicans – have accepted more than $1 million in both direct contributions from U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, as well as groups that advocate for sugar's interests, such as the Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
The GOP's haul from these groups in this race is more than all of the contributions raised by the Democratic frontrunner for Commissioner of Agriculture, Nikki Fried, who had raised just over $250,000 at the beginning of the month.
State Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers tops the list of candidates supported by sugar, AIF and the Chamber, with about one in every five dollars he's received coming from their checkbooks for a total of about $450,000.
"I've always had the attitude that I would accept support from everybody except strip clubs and pornographers," Caldwell told the Times/Herald. "I've got a vision … and I'm happy to have support from whomever wants to help me achieve that vision."
On who's to blame for the toxic algae crisis, Caldwell said the sugar industry has taken an unfair beating.
Environmentalists blame "Big Agriculture," but also the repeal of septic tank regulations, stormwater and general political sluggishness to address water quality. The sugar industry has spent much of its capital in Tallahassee resisting efforts to use its land south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir to store and clean water. Republican Senate President Joe Negron successfully pushed a reservoir that will limit future releases of toxic algae into surrounding waterways.
Caldwell isn't buying sugar's outsized role as culprit.
"The algae crisis is a direct result of the changes we made as a state over the last 150 years," Caldwell said, explaining that flood control systems have dramatically changed where water is concentrated in Florida. "Trying to peg any one group as the silver bullet bad guy, frankly, makes it more difficult to solve, not less."
The two other top Republican contenders for Agriculture Commissioner have also received sizable sums from sugar. State Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring has received about $370,000 in sugar-connected contributions — about 12 percent of her total raised — and Baxter Troutman, a former lawmaker and small business owner from Winter Haven, has received $170,000 from the same groups.
These total figures represent direct giving through U.S. Sugar, AIF, the Chamber and their political committees. Contributions are sometimes first given to other, various committees before being donated to a candidate so the actual totals may be higher.
Grimsley's campaign declined to comment.
Troutman, in an emailed statement, cited the fact that "the overwhelming majority" of his campaign dollars have been his own. He can afford it. He's a member of the wealthy Ben Hill Griffin family. Campaign finance reports show he has poured in $3 million of his own money, and his campaign has collected $600,000 more from other donors.
"I'm proud of the support I've received from those who have chosen to contribute (and volunteer) to our campaign and support my goal of protecting Florida agriculture and its consumers," he wrote. "I believe farmers and ranchers deserve our respect and support; they put food on our tables. The algae bloom crisis at Lake O — like the citrus greening killing my groves — requires a scientific solution and less finger-pointing. No special interest will change my mind."
Sugar's support, historically, has been far from partisan, with millions in contributions pouring into the Democratic Party's account, and then to candidates – making the money more difficult to track than direct contributions.
So far, neither Fried's campaign account nor her political committee have received any contributions from the Democratic Party, nor U.S. Sugar. However, when asked if she would make a pledge not to accept any sugar money in the future, Fried declined to take that step in a statement.
"Ensuring we have clean water and protecting our land, beaches and coasts are my top priorities," Fried said. "I will sit down with all stakeholders on both the industry side as well as environmental side … I will serve as an honest broker to make a solution happen, and that begins with not signing pledges from any side that vilifies or isolates one of the stakeholders."
Fried has received a great deal of support from a different, less mighty agricultural group: the medical marijuana industry, which she has long championed as a lobbyist and advocate.
She said she does not consider medical marijuana a "special interest." Her campaign platform includes moving more oversight over medical pot under the Department of Agriculture, rather than the Department of Health.
When it comes to sugar, Frank Jackalone, Florida Chapter Director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said "nothing is new" about their contributions buying influence in politics.
"Some people would claim that the sugar industry is the most powerful single entity in the state of Florida," he said. "Despite their small size, they use combination of maximizing their profits through price supports through state and federal rules, then using some of their surplus profits to reinvest in those political leaders through campaign contributions."
In his interview with the Times/Herald, Caldwell cited his environmental record as proof he is not beholden to U.S. Sugar despite their support of his campaign.
A few examples: Caldwell supported building a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, which would help store and clean the water instead of releasing it into surrounding waterways, which spreads the toxic algae.
But, Jackalone said, the version of the reservoir that Caldwell supported was a dam that was deeper and thus took up less space on land, which he said was more structurally risky and was the "worst of all possibly good outcomes."
One of Caldwell's other, often-touted environmental achievements is his role in pushing reform to the Florida Forever program, though those reforms were not adopted. The state uses Florida Forever to purchase land for conservation. Spending for Florida Forever tanked during the Great Recession, and Caldwell's bill proposed setting each year's funding for the program in law, with gradual increases to reach $200 million for the 2035-2036 fiscal year.
The Sierra Club argued it still wasn't enough funding. This year, the budget negotiating process resulted in a higher funding amount than Caldwell's bill would have provided.
Caldwell says overall, he is proud of his environmental record and his ability to work with both industries and advocacy groups.
"I negotiated with everybody," he said. "Everywhere we could agree and I could see solution that would be effectual, we implemented it, and that's the exact same way I'm going to operate in this office."