TALLAHASSEE — With more than $300,000 left in his political committee and only months remaining in his last term as a state legislator, Rep. Mike La Rosa wrote the largest check of his political career on July 2, steering $50,000 to the fund used to elect Republicans to the state Senate.
La Rosa, a Republican from St. Cloud, is not running for the Senate but he did have other aspirations in which the Senate plays a role.
On June 24, days before La Rosa wrote the hefty check, he applied for the Florida Public Service Commission, the board the regulates the state’s utilities, which pays $132,036 a year.
The chair of the Public Service Commission Nominating Council is Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican and, if appointed by the governor to the post, La Rosa would have to be confirmed by the Senate. Two other senators, Republican Majority Leader Kathleen Passidomo of Sarasota and Democrat Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach, also sit on the 12-member nominating panel.
The council on Wednesday voted unanimously to nominate La Rosa to the job, sending his name, along with three other candidates to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday to make the selection. The other nominees sent to the governor are: Donald Polmann, the current PSC commissioner who is seeking to be appointed to another four-year term, Key Largo state Rep. Holly Raschein, and Thonotosassa state Sen. Tom Lee. All are Republicans.
Only La Rosa and Raschein received unanimous votes and, in a rare display of animosity, neither of the Republican senators voted for Lee, a Republican and former Senate president.
Was La Rosa’s contribution from his political committee intended to send a signal to the Senate and give him an edge? If it was, no one is saying.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, the incoming Senate president who controls the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee that received the contribution, said: “you’ll have to ask Mike that question. We have many House members who are now running for Senate seats.”
When asked for comment, current Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said he supports Lee.
“Personally, I think President Lee is highly qualified for the position,’' Galvano said in a text message. However, last Friday, Galvano made a last-minute appointment to the nominating council, and his appointee, Michael Rahn, also cast a no-vote against Lee.
La Rosa’s political committee, Floridians for Opportunity, has raised $748,000 in its six years of its existence. In the last two years the committee has received $15,000 from the state’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light.
La Rosa acknowledged Thursday he has made no similar gift to the House’s Republican political committee, run by incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, but has spent about $15,000 in individual contributions to various Republican House candidates.
Was La Rosa trying to influence his nomination or the Senate votes? “Straight forward, I had no interest in doing that,’' La Rosa said. “I want to see Republican leadership continue. I will continue to help folks over the finish line.”
As for Stargel and Passidomo, they both laughed when they heard of the contribution, but said they knew nothing about it. They each had separate reasons for their votes for La Rosa and against Lee.
“I have no idea why Mike would have given that,’' Stargel said. “I didn’t even know he’d given it.”
As for Lee, Stargel said he was probably not surprised by her vote. “I’ve never been a fan of Tom Lee,’' she said. “He’s divisive. He will be with you and, if he was treated poorly, he changes. He stands on the floor and will claim it’s all about the policy but it’s not.”
Passidomo said she also didn’t know about La Rosa’s contribution but “if you look at the composition of the Senate, it’s all his friends.”
She said she didn’t think Lee, who was Senate president from 2004 to 2006 and returned to the Senate in 2012, “would be a good fit” for the PSC.
“He was Senate president for two years and used to being in charge, and I know for the last six years that chafed,’' she said. “There’s a lot of things he’d be great at, but not to be an equal member with others.”
Passidomo said she thinks DeSantis should choose Polmann, the current commissioner.
“I believe that Polmann should be reappointed,’' she said. “I went into the meeting listening, and he is the only one who articulated the role of the PSC. It is not to be a consumer advocate, that’s the role of the public counsel. It is not to be an advocate of the utility companies, that’s for their lawyers. The role is to put all the pieces together and do what is best for the state.”
Lee has his own political committee, Restore the Trust, with about $370,500 in it. He has not made any contributions this year, although he gave $25,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee last November. Lee said he was aware of the La Rosa contribution but didn’t want to comment on it.
He said he respects his Senate colleagues but admits he was surprised by their vote against him. “I harbor no ill will,’' he said, adding, “I have a vast capacity to work with my fellow colleagues when they work with me.”
If selected by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, La Rosa said he would abandon his political committee. “I want Republicans to be re-elected but, as a commissioner or agency head is it right to have a political committee or not? I would side on the area that it’s not and I shouldn’t.”