Florida Big Sugar’s campaign donations reach $6M in state races

But Florida clean water advocates are urging the public to support candidates who don’t take money from the industry.
Sugar cane grows in a large field owned by the US Sugar Corp. as a rainstorm rolls in over Clewiston in August 2014.
Sugar cane grows in a large field owned by the US Sugar Corp. as a rainstorm rolls in over Clewiston in August 2014.
Published May 12, 2022

Coming off a pivotal legislative session and heading into election season, Florida’s largest sugar growers have given more than $6 million in campaign contributions to state races and thousands more to federal campaigns.

The companies, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, have given $3.8 million and $2.2 million respectively to state candidates and their political committees in the 2022 election cycle, according to first-quarter reports posted by the Florida Division of Elections and analyzed by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau.

At the federal level, records show that Florida Crystals has contributed more than $687,000 in direct contributions to members of Congress, and that seven members of the Florida delegation have received more than $20,000 in sugar industry contributions to date.

But Florida clean water advocates want candidates to sour on sugar money. VoteWater, a Florida-based advocacy organization that says its mission is to “fight political corruption and defend the public’s right to clean water,” on Wednesday launched the No Big Sugar Campaign, an open letter urging the public to support candidates who reject political contributions from the industry.

The group argues that there is a political shift in Florida, and the tight grip the companies have long had on lawmakers from both parties in Tallahassee and Washington is slipping.

“With the emergence of movements for social justice (Black Lives Matter), national concern about damage to our natural resources (Florida’s toxic algae blooms), and bipartisan anger over political corruption, there is an opportunity to build a diverse, bipartisan reform coalition unlike any we’ve seen before,” the organization said in a statement.

Florida’s sugar industry is facing more friction than it used to on Florida’s political landscape.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has openly sparred with the industry since his two terms in Congress and during the 2018 gubernatorial primary, when he won the endorsement of the Everglades Trust and called his primary campaign rival the sugar industry’s “errand boy.”

In the 2022 legislative session that ended in March, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals tried and failed to obtain legislation to force the board of the South Florida Water Management District, whose members DeSantis appointed, to direct more water from the Everglades into agriculture sources. The proposal, sought by Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner this fall, was approved 16-4 by the Senate Appropriations Committee and would have made favoring agriculture a condition of receiving state funding for Everglades restoration projects.

Related: Florida Senate reverses plan to give sugar industry water advantage

After an outcry from clean water advocates and a veto threat from the governor, the Senate backed down. The governor has not indicated whether he will accept or reject a scaled-back bill.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the sugar industry is also preparing for another fight over the federal farm bill, a giant piece of legislation that comes up for renewal every five years and is scheduled for renewal in 2023.

In 2018, the industry fended off an attempt to end the program that provides minimum price supports for sugar farmers, with industry critics arguing the subsidy costs taxpayers and results in higher prices for consumers. A House amendment to end the sugar subsidy failed by a 137-278 vote and advocates are working to revive the proposal next year.

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The power of the state’s sugar companies to influence state and federal legislators through campaign contributions is the focus of the VoteWater effort. It notes that newly-elected U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, a Democrat who replaced the late Congressman Alcee Hastings in a special election this year, narrowly won her primary and overwhelmingly won her general election and did not take money from the sugar industry. Cherfilus-McCormick largely financed her campaign with her own money.

Most of the state money spent on state campaigns by both U.S. Sugar and the Fanjul family’s Florida Crystals has gone to political committees controlled by Associated Industries of Florida. The money is then distributed to legislators and their committees, effectively shielding the source.

The sugar industry investment in Florida’s midterm elections to date may be just the beginning. The industry spent more than $11 million on Florida campaigns in the 2020 cycle, according to records analyzed by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau.

Associated Industries of Florida calls itself the “Voice of Florida Business” but, according to an analysis by the online news site Seeking Rents, it received its primary support from six organizations.

The analysis found that since 2019, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar Corp. were the largest donors to five political committees controlled by Associated Industries of Florida, which spent about $26 million on Florida elections through its political committees. More than 80 percent of that money has come from just six companies and of those, Florida Crystals was the largest donor with $6.7 million, followed by U.S. Sugar, which gave $4.5 million.

The Times/Herald review found that Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar steered their money through the following Associated Industries of Florida committees:

  • Florida Prosperity Fund: $350,000 from U.S. Sugar, $400,000 from Florida Crystals
  • Floridians United for Our Children: $350,000 from U.S. Sugar, $400,000 from Florida Crystals
  • Floridians for a Stronger Democracy: $400,000 from Florida Crystals
  • Voice of Florida Business: $400,000 from U.S. Sugar and $400,000 from Florida Crystals
  • Associated Industries of Florida PAC: $750,000 from U.S. Sugar and $300,000 from Florida Crystals

VoteWater, formerly known as Bullsugar and the political arm of the nonprofit Friends of the Everglades, accuses the sugar companies of exploiting federal sugar subsidies “to rake in billions on the backs of American consumers and communities, killing local jobs and poisoning our air and water.”

The group has support from Muck City Black Lives Matter, Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, Florida Council of Churches, Florida Keys Outfitters and the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club. The national outdoor retailer Patagonia is also supporting the cause.

A handful of elected officials have already signed the pledge. They include U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Fort Pierce Republican who has long been a critic of the sugar industry, and state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat.

“The sugar industry does not have the right to demand Florida’s environment kneel to their wishes,” Mast said in a statement. “As a representative of the Treasure Coast and the Palm Beaches, I will not let them make backroom deals that poison our waterways or starve Florida’s Everglades.”

Neither U.S. Sugar nor Florida Crystals responded to requests for comment.