Publix is back in the political arena.
The Lakeland-based grocery chain donated $33,000 to Florida lawmakers in February, the company’s first contributions since halting all political giving last year during a national firestorm related to the Parkland shooting.
Last May, Publix generated significant backlash after the Tampa Bay Times reported the company and its current and former leaders and founders had donated $670,000 to Adam Putnam’s campaign for governor. It was the most by far that Publix had ever donated to a single political campaign.
Gun violence survivors and activists were outraged that the popular supermarket chain had thrown its support behind Putnam in the wake of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Putnam, a Republican, declared himself a “proud NRA sellout” in 2017.
Parkland students led by David Hogg encouraged a boycott of Publix and activists staged die-ins at its stores. In its damage control, Publix responded by halting all contributions indefinitely and internally told employees it was reviewing its political giving policies.
That pause, though, ended in February. The company donated $1,000 to 33 lawmakers, including Democrats and Republicans, just before the start of the legislative session.
Publix spokesman Brian West declined to comment on any changes to the company’s policies, but he acknowledged company money was flowing to campaign coffers again.
“The important work done by our elected officials has significant impacts on Publix, our associates and our customers,” West said. “As such, Publix has made the decision to reengage in the political process."
In response to the Times’ story Monday, Hogg tweeted: “Who’s ready for another boycott?”
Amid the fallout, Publix distanced itself from the NRA, declaring it supported Putnam because of his Polk County roots and not because of his allegiance to the controversial gun-rights group. Nevertheless, the company halted donations during a contentious governor’s race, even after Putnam lost the primary to Ron DeSantis.
Prior to last year, Publix, the state’s largest private company with about 800 Florida locations, was a heavy hitter come election season. Since 2010, Publix had delivered $4.5 million to candidates, committees and parties, both directly and through its contributions to the Florida Retail Federation, a closely affiliated political committee.
Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said he didn’t expect Publix to re-enter the political fray but he’s glad it has. Publix gave Gruters, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party, $1,000 on Feb. 22.
“You can’t sit on the sidelines and think you’re going to be able to accomplish your legislative goals at the end of the year,” said Gruters said. “It’s like sticking your head in the sand. It doesn’t work. You gotta participate. They’re the largest employer in Florida and they have a lot to lose ”
Publix’s five-man lobbying team is working on about three dozen bills filed during the 2019 legislative session, according to state disclosure reports, including legislation related to pharmacies, workers’ compensation and trucking. One of the bills would eliminate a state law that disallows localities from instituting plastic bag bans. Another is a bill that would have required state employers to verify the eligibility of workers via e-verify.
Gruters said he hadn’t heard yet from Publix’s lobbyists. But he added: “There are so many complicated issues and contributions don’t buy votes, but it does help.” (After the story published, Gruters said he meant that, “You can’t buy votes, period, but it does help to participate in the process.")
While Republicans have mostly benefited from Publix’s largess over the years, 13 of the 33 lawmakers to get a check from the company were Democrats. Many of those Democrats have worked alongside the same gun violence activists who called for the Publix boycotts.
Among those is Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat representing West Park in Broward County and one of the loudest critics of state gun laws. Jones said Publix “is a staple in our state" and was appeased by the company’s political hiatus.
“I don’t think it would be fair for me to say whether or not the criticism (of Publix) was fair. I don’t speak down on anyone’s activism,” Jones said. “Our first amendment gives us that right to voice our concerns and protest things we don’t agree with. I’m more or less hopeful that during that time of reevaluation that they’ve looked at how they do these things going forward to make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen again."
Publix donated to $1,000 to Jones’ campaign on Feb. 18.