TALLAHASSEE — One loaned him a private plane on the campaign trail. Another wrote a $500,000 check early in the campaign. Now, at least 22 of governor-elect Ron DeSantis' biggest campaign donors are playing an official role in shaping his policies.
They all have been named to DeSantis' transition's advisory committees, which meet regularly to discuss issues and provide formal recommendations to the incoming governor, who launched his campaign with the pledge that he would "drain the swamp in Tallahassee."
These donors have given a total of about $2.1 million to DeSantis' various political committees during his entire political career, with half giving $10,000 or more. This does not include DeSantis' final advisory committee, which had not yet been announced as of Friday afternoon.
For many close to the political process, this isn't out of the ordinary. It's just the way the system works.
That's a problem for newcomers like Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who was elected to the statehouse in November.
"For me, that sounds like transactional politics," said Eskamani, who is part of a small progressive caucus in the Florida House. "It's one reason why so many Americans and Floridians don't like politics."
Since his election victory was officially confirmed by a machine recount last month, DeSantis and his transition team have rolled out four advisory committees, each focused on a specific topic area such as education, the economy or the environment. Each is loaded with about 40 to 50 people, whom the transition team calls "talented leaders" who were chosen based on their backgrounds and are "volunteering their valuable time."
But many of the appointees also wrote checks to DeSantis' campaign for governor, or for his federal races while he was still in the U.S. House.
The most high-profile of these donors may be Kent Stermon, the chief operating officer of a company that contracts with the federal government to relocate military members. Stermon leads DeSantis' committee on public safety. Along with the CEO of the same company, Matt Connell (who's on DeSantis' economy committee), Stermon rented DeSantis a beachside condo while he was in Congress — prompting an ethics complaint.
In DeSantis' entire political career in federal and state races, Stermon and his wife have given DeSantis nearly $40,000.
He told the Times/Herald that he and DeSantis became friends through mutual social circles in Jacksonville nearly 10 years ago, before DeSantis ran for Congress, and he's since helped DeSantis' campaigns as a "labor of love." Stermon said he served as DeSantis' Northeast Florida chair for his run for governor. He said his top priorities on the public safety committee are school safety and supporting law enforcement.
"He trusts me to do it right," Stermon said. "He has so many people coming after him right now. I don't want anything from him."
Others include Ronald Howse, who spoke to the Times/Herald in September about his donation of time on a private plane that he subsidized. Howse, a retired civil engineer who serves on the Florida Transportation
Commission, was appointed to DeSantis' economic committee. He joined Frederick Sontag, the president of a venture capital firm and a nonprofit who donated $500,000 to DeSantis' state PAC in May and thousands more since.
Howse said he thinks his appointment was prompted by "a combination" of his expertise and longtime support of DeSantis. He said he's most interested in advocating for various transportation issues and for helping cities get on the upcoming "5G" technology grid.
"It certainly doesn't hurt I supported him because he trusts me and I've met with him," Howse said. "I've built up a relationship."
Former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford is the chairman of the economic committee, and he said the committee members are all qualified in the relevant subjects.
“The common thread is that they understand Florida, they’re successful in their own right and are trying to provide high-level strategy to the governor-elect,” he said. “It wasn’t predicated on whether they supported the DeSantis campaign.”
Weatherford's father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense, contributed $19,000 to DeSantis' campaign.
Appointing donors to transition committees is so commonplace in Tallahassee that several Democrats didn't object.
DeSantis "needs to rely on people that he trusts so I don't blame him for that," said state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. "But it needs to be monitored because the perception could definitely be there that there's influence-peddling."
DeSantis backers have pointed to the fact that the governor-elect has granted top transition positions not only to his supporters, but also to those who initially supported his rivals. Three of DeSantis' top transition advisors, former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and lieutenant governor-elect Jeannette Núñez all supported Commission of Agriculture Adam Putnam. So did Weatherford.
"Tallahassee and the environment of people around here, it's not a huge pond," said Screven Watson, a Democratic political strategist. "You'd put yourself at disadvantage if you said, 'No one who gave me money can be on these committees.' I know Gillum would do same thing."
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, agreed that it's common practice for new governors to reward those who supported them financially.
But it's important to note, Jewett said, that DeSantis didn't talk about many specifics when it came to his policy vision for Florida while campaigning — meaning that these policy advisory committees may have an outsized role in charting a course for the DeSantis administration.
"(DeSantis) has not been part of the Tallahassee political culture — he was in Washington, D.C. … so it's probably not surprising he wants to bring as many allies with him as he can," Jewett said. "We all have a voice in the sense we all voted, but some people have louder voices than others and contributors, it often seems, have more of a voice."
KEITH WOLD, Attorney, Private Investor, $600,002
RICK SONTAG, President, Spring Bay Ventures, $531,200
JOHN HAMLIN, President, Hamlin and Associates, $188,649
BILL HEAVENER, Chairman, University of Florida Board of Trustees, $150,000
JOE ANDERSON, President, Anderson Columbia, $135,000
MAX ALVAREZ, Owner, Founder & President, Sunshine Gasoline Distributors, $75,000
DAVID KULIK, Retired former CEO, CEVA Logistics, $63,100
STEVE HERRIG, CEO, SUNZ Insurance, $61,000
JOHN KIRTLEY, Founder and Chairman, Step Up for Students, $50,000
ERIC HOLM, Owner, Golden Corral, $50,000
KENT STERMON, CFO, Total Military Management, $39,900
JOHN ROOD, Chairman, The Vestcor Companies, $27,600
DANNY GAEKWAD, Founder & CEO, NDS USA and Founder, Danny G Hospitality Management, $25,000
ANTHONY FARHAT, President, PGI Homes LLC, $20,176
ALLAN BENSE, President, Partner, GAC Contractors, $19,000
RON HOWSE, President, Real Deal Development Group, $17,404
TONY GRIPPA, Former Senior Vice President, Brown and Brown, $15,000
MORI HOSSEINI, University of Florida Board of Trustees member, $12,600
AUBREY EDGE, President & CEO, First Coast Energy, $7,900
MANNY KADRE, Chairman & CEO, MBB Auto, and Director, Home Depot, $5,000
ADAM CLAMPITT, President, The District Communications Group, $5,000
JOHN RITENOUR, Co-Founder and Chairman, Insurance Office of America, $3,000
Source: Florida Division of Elections, Times/Herald research