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Who’s funding the Democratic candidates for governor? Here are 4 takeaways.

Both Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried have vowed they’re for the people of Florida, not special interests. What does the money say?
Campaign reports for Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist, who are seeking the Democratic nomination for Florida's governor, may not be as straightforward as they appear.
Campaign reports for Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist, who are seeking the Democratic nomination for Florida's governor, may not be as straightforward as they appear. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK FOR THE | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Aug. 17

In its closing days, Charlie Crist has seized on one question in Florida’s Democratic primary for governor: Which big industries are backing this year’s Democratic campaigns?

Last week, the congressman’s campaign put out a statement accusing Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried of getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in money from political committees closely aligned with Florida’s influential sugar industry. The release cited a report from VoteWater, an environmental group that has endorsed Crist.

Then the Palm Beach Post published an investigation that found Fried had underdelivered on a promise to create new rules on sugarcane burning in the Glades area.

Crist’s campaign promoted the story to reporters across the state.

In response, Fried’s campaign shot back that the criticism was a sign Crist was growing concerned about the polls. She disputed the investigation’s takeaways, calling the Post story a “hit job on the eve of an election” and saying she had heard a rumor that the Post reporters had been paid by the environmental group Sierra Club to write the story.

A reporter who worked on the Post’s series on sugarcane burning called the charge “demonstrably false.” Fried has yet to provide any evidence backing her accusations against the Post.

Campaign posturing aside, the episode is an opportunity to examine who is financing the Florida Democratic governor’s race. Such a look provides a window into who special interests think will enact their priorities in Tallahassee.

The governor selects the members of the Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s utilities.

The governor also appoints the board members of water management districts, who have a role in regulating water resources, including environmental policy around Lake Okeechobee — a constant source of tension between the sugar industry and environmentalists.

For millions of Floridians and their livelihoods, the stakes are high.

Fried’s got ties to sugar — and a mystery group

Fried’s sugar ties are not direct donations from companies in the industry. Still, in the time since Fried launched her bid for governor in June 2021, she’s gotten at least $98,500 combined from the groups Floridians for Economic Advancement, Floridians for a Stronger Democracy, Florida Alliance for Better Government and Fighting for Florida Jobs, all of which have been tied to sugar industry money.

According to records obtained by the Times/Herald, Floridians for Economic Advancement is a committee controlled by political consultants working for both Florida Power & Light and Florida Crystals. The group received funds from nonprofit political committees that do not have to disclose their donors, and steered those funds to candidates — as well as both Florida political parties and their affiliated legislative political committees.

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The group Education for All also chipped in $25,000 to Fried’s campaign. Records show that committee has gotten more than half of its nearly $375,000 from sugar companies and Florida Power & Light’s parent company.

VoteWater highlighted hundreds of thousands more in sugar-adjacent donations to her political committee from before she announced her campaign for governor.

Meanwhile, the third-largest donor to Fried’s political committee since she started running for governor is a group called “Embrace Equality.” The Washington, D.C.-based group has given Fried $125,000 — $25,000 directly and $100,000 through the political committee arm of Her Bold Move, a group dedicated to getting women who support abortion rights elected across the country.

Embrace Equality doesn’t appear to disclose its donors. A call to the number listed on Her Bold Move’s website did not go through. The organization did not respond to emails requesting comment about the people behind Embrace Equality.

Fried’s campaign declined to comment.

Crist brags about not getting sugar or utility money. But ...

Crist likes to tout his adversarial relationship with Florida’s utility companies and sugar corporations, spanning back to his time as governor, as proof he’s willing to stand up against big business in favor of consumers and the environment.

This cycle, Crist received no donations from Florida Power & Light or other utilities, like Duke Energy and TECO Energy Inc.

He also hasn’t received any donations from U.S. Sugar or Florida Crystals, neither directly nor through the handful of political action committees the sugar corporations have used in the past to steer their money.

Crist turned down donations from Florida Power & Light in his 2006 run for governor after the utilities giant spent hundreds of thousands in favor of his Republican primary opponent.

As governor, Crist opposed rate hikes from Florida Power & Light and declined to reappoint two commissioners to the board overseeing Florida utilities, making the board less utility-friendly.

“Charlie Crist has always been a champion for the people, taking on the special interests,” campaign spokesperson Samantha Ramirez said. “Meanwhile, Nikki Fried has close ties to Big Sugar, who has donated hundreds of thousands to her campaign.”

... Politics are murky.

Crist’s campaign reports — and Fried’s, for that matter — may not be as straightforward as they appear.

Although he’s received no direct donations from those industries, Crist has gotten money from political committees that have in turn received donations from other committees linked to sugar and utility money.

Take, for example, the group Winning Florida, which donated $28,500 to Crist’s campaign and at least $35,500 to Fried’s. That committee has received $50,000 from Floridians for Economic Advancement, which got $200,000 from Florida Crystals, along with a large number of donations from other political committees.

This is hardly novel in Florida politics. It’s common for political committees’ donations to be arranged like Russian nesting dolls. Because fundraising groups often get money from multiple sources, it is often impossible to say whether money came from a given special interest once it arrives at its final destination.

In the Winning Florida example, we know the sugar industry gave some money to a political committee that, in turn, gave money to a committee that, in turn, gave money to Crist and Fried. Does that make the final donation sugar money? It’s impossible to say without internal documentation.

A few individuals and groups have made a big difference

Crist recently accepted his largest donation this election cycle — a last-minute $500,000 boost from the American Federation of Teachers, a union representing 1.7 million members.

South Florida-based philanthropist Barbara Stiefel gave the second-most to Crist’s campaign: $300,000 over a year. Francoise Haasch-Jones, a Palm Harbor personal injury attorney, gave Crist just over $200,000.

Crist also received a big boost from money he had raised earlier. In May 2021, shortly after he announced for governor, Crist’s statewide action committee received $185,000 from his federal committee, Charlie Crist for Congress.

Donations from individuals and groups who gave at least $100,000 or more to Crist make up about 25% of the total fundraising to his political committee, as of the latest available report.

Meanwhile, Fried’s gotten at least $425,000 from Mike Fernandez, the billionaire South Florida private equity investor who was a major donor to Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. June Piscitelli, an educator from Fort Lauderdale, has chipped in at least another $174,000.

Together, those two donors comprise about 1 of every 5 dollars raised by Florida Consumers First, Fried’s political committee, since she declared for governor.

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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