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  1. Florida Politics

Bilirakis, Hunter: Where's the money coming from?

Former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, Chris Hunter, left, is the Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Gus Bilirakis, right, in the race for District 12. [Times Staff]
Published Sep. 5, 2018

The elementary school teacher from Denver who gave Chris Hunter $250 for his bid to unseat U.S. Rep Gus Bilirakis cannot vote for him in November. Neither can donors like the lawyer from Georgia or the investor from California, who live far from his Tampa Bay district.

Almost all of the $465,627 Hunter has raised so far has come from individuals, but about 60 percent of that money is from people who live outside of Florida and won't see his name on their ballots. Hunter is part of a growing cadre of Democratic challengers in GOP-held districts using nationwide online fundraising to compete against incumbents like Bilirakis, whose re-election campaigns are fueled with cash from special interest PACs.

About 51 percent of the $1.4 million Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, has raised for his campaign for a seventh term in the 12th Congressional District has come from PACs, according to federal filings.

Individual contributions to counter special interest money is being made possible in large part by ActBlue, an online payment vendor that works like PayPal, which has helped Democratic candidates raise $1.1 billion from almost 4 million small donors in the 2018 cycle so far, an all-time record since the company's founding in 2004, according to ActBlue Executive Director Erin Hill.

"They say all politics is local but at the end of the day, there is a lot of messaging on both sides of the aisle about how a handful of races will decide who controls the U.S. House of Representatives," said Michael Beckel, research manager with the nonpartisan accountability group Issue One. "If you are trying to make a big impact, you can knock on doors, you can make phone calls or you can make a financial contribution to support the candidates who are going to help the party of your choice win on Election Day," even if they don't live in a donor's district.

Hunter, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent who quit the Department of Justice in Tampa to run against Bilirakis, said nationwide fundraising from individuals has provided the means for him to get his name out in a district where he's relatively unknown.

The Bilirakis name has dominated the district for 36 years, with the election of Michael Bilirakis in 1983 and Gus Bilirakis, his son, succeeding him in 2006.

"For a first-time candidate challenging a sitting, entrenched incumbent, the biggest hurdle is the ability to raise money," Hunter said. "There's a desire in our district, in our state and nationally to have service-minded leaders in Congress, especially in this cycle, that's driving a lot of financial support to candidates like me all across the country."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Congress: Chris Hunter sweeps District 12 Democratic primary

The ActBlue platform has fueled 13,000 campaigns and organizations in 2018, including high-profile candidates like Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat who has raised $23 million in his bid against Senator Ted Cruz without accepting PAC money. It was the online platform used in Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and Democrat Conor Lamb's March special election upset victory in Pennsylvania.

According to federal filings, at least $280,000 of Hunter's $465,627 has been donated by people through the ActBlue platform, which provides candidates with online infrastructure like web pages and solicitations that make donating seamless for users.

Of the individuals who have donated to Bilirakis' campaign, about 70 percent live in Florida, according to federal filings. Bilirakis' campaign manager, Towson Fraser, said that since January, 34 percent of individual donations came from within the district, indicating "strong local support."

Bilirakis declined an interview request to discuss the majority of his funding coming from PACs but said in a statement "contributions to my campaign do not affect decisions I make on policy issues. Period."

Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, said there is a contrast between contributions from corporate PACs and donations from individuals outside of a candidate's district.

"If you're a large business owner or a PAC, the chances are you're interested in access to an office holder and the reason you're interested is because you're hoping to gain a little favor on some large bill in the future," Malbin said. "The ActBlue donors will not be asking anything from the person they supported. They might not give in the future if they don't like what he does. But they are not coming asking for favors."

Bilirakis received $80,850 in the 2016 election cycle from the pharmaceutical/health products industry, the same year he co-sponsored legislation making it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after drug companies that distribute suspicious quantities of prescription pills to doctors and pharmacies.

It came as Florida was battling a raging opioid crisis, with 5,725 opioid related deaths in 2016, a 35 percent increase from the year before, according to a report from state medical examiners. So far this election cycle, Bilirakis has taken $64,950 from the pharmaceutical/health products industry, according to Center for Responsive Politics.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Rep. Gus Bilirakis sends out press release inflating amount of local fundraising support

"I look at evidence and data to make determinations," Hunter said. "The evidence of Gus' voting record, the evidence of the money he's taken, demonstrates he is aligned with the PACs that fund him, not with the people in his district he is supposed to represent."

Fraser said pharmaceutical money "had nothing to do with (Bilirakis') vote on that bill," and that PAC money is simply a means to pay for messaging to voters.

He said no concerns were raised about the bill, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, until a joint investigation last year by The Washington Post and 60 minutes demonstrated how drug industry officials poured more than a million dollars into lawmakers' election campaigns to influence the legislation.

"Hearing those concerns (Bilirakis) has been working with the DEA federally and the DEA locally to try and find a solution to their concerns," Fraser said.

Hunter said he's not committing to swearing off all PAC money the way some Democratic challengers nationwide have done.

He said there is a role for PACs in politics, like committees funded by employees of companies and those backed by party leadership. Hunter has so far raised $17,000 from political committees funded by Democratic leaders.

"It's a question of amount and scope," Hunter said. "Part of what I think people don't care for is when career politicians go off to D.C., they think they don't have to be accountable to the people they're supposed to be serving, take an enormous amount of PAC money to the point where it becomes the majority of the financial support they receive."

Times data reporter Eli Murray contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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