Manatee area business leaders put cash into political campaigns

jsalman@bradenton.comOctober 7, 2012 

MANATEE -- Local companies are finding ways to contribute to candidates in a tense election year in hopes of shaping their bottom line.

More corporations this year are sending tens of thousands in cash to candidates to ensure their voice is heard on policies that directly affect the cost of doing business.

Because it's illegal for a company to contribute directly to a federal candidate, many are donating to nonprofits and trade associations that invest millions of dollars on U.S. elections without ever revealing where a penny comes from.

Some, like Bradenton-based Bealls, have formed their own political action committee.

Other business owners instead write lofty personal donation checks, making no secret of their support.

"There's a lot of important issues," said Gary Kompothecras, a big Republican donor and Sarasota chiropractor who founded 1-800-Ask-Gary. "The country is in a downward spiral, and we're coming out slowly, but could we do better?"

Voters from Parrish to Venice have donated $955,722 to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and $879,269 to President Barack Obama's campaign.

In all, the area has pumped $2.2 million into the GOP primary and upcoming general elections -- the fourth highest in Florida, trailing only Naples, Palm Beach and Miami, according to financial disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission through Aug. 31.

Many of those donations, which cap at $2,500 per person per election, have come from recognizable area business owners.

Kompothecras and his wife each personally donated the most allowable to Romney, incumbent Congressional candidate Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, GOP Senate contender Connie Mack, and a number of local candidates

including Mike Bennett, the longtime state senator now seeking the Manatee Supervisor of Elections seat.

They're not alone.

Big donors for Romney include decision-makers for some of the area's most prominent employers -- from Feld Entertainment to manufacturer Adams Group and Bealls.

Medallion Home, Neal Communities and other area developers also have actively financed the Romney campaign.

The donor snapshot for Obama looks similar, with a slew of area physicians, attorneys and educators writing checks to the commander-in-chief. The president had more total area contributors, although the amounts were usually smaller.

Obama donor and Anna Maria restaurateur Ed Chiles attributes the uptick in political support from area business leaders to recent changes in the way campaigns are financed.

Issues surrounding the economy also have played a significant role.

"It takes a lot of money to run for office," said Chiles, whose late father, Lawton, had a political career spanning four decades, serving in the Florida House, Florida Senate, the U.S. Senate and as governor until his death in 1998. "I want to make sure the candidates I support have the money they need."

Bradenton-based Bealls takes a different approach.

The retail giant formed two nonpartisan PACs in the early 1990s that have supported state and federal candidates with pro-business policies ever since.

What started as Retailers for Responsible Government has molded over the years into the Beall's PAC and its federal counterpart, Beall's PAC USA Inc.

The two committees -- funded entirely through employees and vendors -- have given sizable contributions to Buchanan, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and other retail PACs, records show.

The largest issues on the corporation's radar now are tort reform and Main Street Fairness -- a measure forcing online-only retailers to pay state sales tax, said Bill Webster, director of public and government affairs for Bealls.

"We were probably a little ahead of the curve when we set this up," Webster said. "Our interest is strictly pro-business. If it's not something that affects the economy, like social issues, we don't get involved."

Many companies with a financial interest in the November elections can still choose to keep their contributions in the dark.

Organizations have pressured the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose any donations that ultimately find their way into the hands of a political candidate, but the concept has gained little traction.

Lawmakers also have defeated a measure proposing all groups spending money on campaigns identify their donors.

The present structure now allows companies to shell out thousands to trade association and other nonprofits that turn around and hand the funds to PACs.

But with more policies on the table this election than many business owners care to remember, more have become willing to divulge their interests anyway.

"Small businesses operate on very slim profit margins," Medallion Home founder Carlos Beruff said. "These issues have a huge impact on small business because of the costs tied to them."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service