By STEVE BOUSQUET and MARC CAPUTO
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — As Rick Scott freely spends his fortune in his bid to become governor, Republican rival Bill McCollum is fighting to keep up by spending the millions of others.
McCollum’s allies make up a long list: Big Sugar, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Progess Energy, real estate developers, road builders, beer distributors, car dealers, nursing homes and wealthy individuals like Fort Lauderdale entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga and Dallas philanthropist Peter O’Donnell.
All have written hefty five- and six-figure checks to a pair of political committees controlled by McCollum, the state attorney general, as the two men battle for the nomination in next Tuesday’s primary.
McCollum’s two groups, Florida First Initiative and Sunshine State Freedom Fund, have raked in a combined $4.1-million to help fund a barrage of McCollum TV ads attacking Scott for his role in leading the Columbia /HCA hospital conglomerate, which was hit with record Medicare fraud fines. McCollum, who has criticized Scott for trying to “buy the governor’s mansion,” said he’s not selling out in taking special interest money.
“If people want to contribute to me, generally speaking, I don’t care who they are, unless they have an unsavory background,” McCollum said. “They can give to this campaign. They can give to me if they believe in my cause. That doesn’t mean I believe in theirs.”
McCollum said he’s not sure, for instance, if he supports a major buyout of U.S. Sugar lands in the name of Everglades restoration. U.S. Sugar has spent more than $1.1 million to help McCollum.
“Our company has stepped up pretty significantly with Bill McCollum. But that’s not unusual,” said U.S. Sugar Corp. vice president and lobbyist Bob Coker. “We don’t sit down and say, ‘We’ve given you $49, therefore, we expect blah, blah, blah.’ That’s not our game. We expect someone who’s going to be fair, and who will allow us to espouse our views.”
Coker said he has known McCollum for decades and has respected the candidate’s work ethic and principled approach to issues. He acknowledged U.S. Sugar contributed to a secretive political committee, The League of American Voters, which does not have to disclose its donors under federal tax law because it is a 501(c)4 nonprofit activist group. The league has contributed $550,000 to one of McCollum’s committees.
Scott’s campaign issued a statement demanding that the league disclose its donors, pointing out that some contributors could be seeking favorable votes from the Florida Cabinet or could face investigation from the attorney general.
McCollum said he “didn’t have knowledge” of the league and that he “didn’t have any contact” with its members. So he won’t call on the group to disclose its donors.
Other large chunks of the McCollum money are tough to track because they were diverted through other committees controlled by two influential state legislators who support McCollum: Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican and incoming House speaker who gave $975,000, and Sen. Mike Haridopolos, an Indialantic Republican, who gave more than $608,000.
Before contributing to McCollum, the committees of Haridopolos and Cannon received large sums of special-interest cash from developers, insurance companies and the health industry, all of whom dominate the agenda in the Legislature.
Scott’s free-spending ways — $34-million at last count — make this primary far and away the most expensive election in Florida history.
McCollum has repeatedly accused Scott of trying to buy the Governor’s Mansion. Scott calls McCollum a career politician who’s tainted by special interest contributions.
Candidates for office in Florida cannot receive more than $500 from each donor in a primary and a general election. But a quirk in the election code allows a candidate to create an electioneering group that can raise and spend unlimited sums, as long as they do not expressly call for the election or defeat of a candidate.
In addition to raising money from big special interests and small donors, McCollum also gets money from taxpayers by participating in the state’s public campaign financing program.
All told, his campaign has received $1.7 million in public money — $442,000 from July 31 to Aug. 6, the last reporting period. The public money accounts for 88 percent of the money McCollum’s campaign raised during that period.
In that same week, Scott raised $6,373 from individual contributors and kicked in $3 million more from his personal account.
McCollum has raised $7.6 million since May 2009, when he entered the race. His two electioneering groups have raised an additional $4.1 million since June 9.
AutoNation, founded by billionaire Huizenga, wrote one of the first checks to the Sunshine State Freedom Fund, for $25,000, and Huizenga Holdings gave $20,000 to Florida First Initiative in July.
Whoever wins next week will face Democrat Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer. She has raised a total of $7.4, much of from bankers, lawyers and insurers. Like McCollum, Scott has an electioneering committee in addition to his campaign, but funds most of it himself. Sink doesn’t have one yet.
Some donors to McCollum’s committees, such as the Committee for Florida Justice Reform ($65,000), back causes that McCollum favors, such as making it harder for personal injury lawyers to sue businesses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also opposed to trial lawyers, contributed $500,000. Scott’s campaign pointed out that, in an election season where immigration dominates the GOP primary, the chamber has opposed some legislation that would crack down hard on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
“I’m happy to help General McCollum in ways that are allowed by Florida law and federal law,” said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist and lawyer in Tallahassee and a top fund-raiser who’s all-in with McCollum. Numerous Ballard clients have contributed to both of the McCollum-controlled committees.
If Scott wins the nomination next Tuesday, Ballard and other representatives of powerful business interests would be in the very awkward position of having backed the wrong horse. So it is very important to them that McCollum have enough money to put Scott away.