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Publix and Pay-to-Play vs. #NeverAgain

May 25, 2018

Putnam

This is a Florida story, but it has national importance because it brings together at least two major threads of American politics in a single dramatic confrontation.

David Hogg is one of the survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida who have galvanized the gun control movement in the US by organizing the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC and by forcing politicians throughout the country to own up to their ties to the NRA and the gun lobby. Now he has started a boycott of the dominant supermarket chain in Florida over its enormous campaign contribution to Adam Putnam, the Republican candidate for governor who has actually described himself as a “proud #NRASellout”.

For those of you not lucky enough to live in the Sunshine State, it is difficult to convey just how ubiquitous Publix is and how thoroughly it has woven itself into everyday life here. I have written before about the “inevitability” of Publix, because although IMHO it is only a slightly-above-average supermarket, it is literally everywhere. For most Floridians it is the default option for grocery shopping if for no other reason than it has routed the competition and there really aren’t that many alternatives.

The clash began when the Tampa Bay Times published a story on May 15 revealing that Publix had given Putnam, who is currently Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, some $670,000 in campaign contributions over the past 3 years–more money than “any other candidate since at least 1995 and likely for the entirety of the company’s history.” The story added that “no other Florida candidate has ever come close to that kind of subsidy from Florida’s largest Fortune 500 company. Its most recent contribution, a $100,000 donation on April 30, was the largest, too, according to the latest campaign finance filings.”

Now I suspect that Publix couldn’t care less about Putnam’s ties to the NRA, but the company surely does care a great deal about having a friendly and beholden Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, and having him installed as Governor would doubtless be even better.

Putnam appears to have delivered on the investments Publix has made in his campaigns since 1996. The department he heads conducts food safety inspections and customer complaints pertaining to grocery stores. According to the TBT story:

In 2016, WFTS-Channel 28 discovered seven Tampa Bay area Publix stores failed health inspections. In those stores, food inspectors found rodent droppings, hundreds of pounds of meat and other food stored at unsafe temperatures, bugs and employees not washing their hands, according to the report.

Putnam responded the next day by pulling the inspections from the department’s website and eliminating the pass/fail grading system.

He replaced it six months later with a new rubric. Instead of a failing grade, the worst rating issued now is “re-inspection required.”

 

Moreover, he publicly defended Publix, calling it an “industry leader” that “ought not be mislabeled based on minor infractions.”

But it gets better. It turns out that the chairman of Putnam’s PAC “Florida Grown” is Justin Hollis, the grandson of the former president and chairman of Publix. And the TBT reports that Putnam’s PAC has paid Justin Hollis’ consulting firm, Silloh Consulting, more than $1 million this election season. So, in essence, one could say that Putnam is recycling some of those campaign contributions right back to Publix’s founding family.

But all of this was before those incredible kids from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High changed the national conversation about guns, and David Hogg’s idea of boycotting Publix has–rather surprisingly–caught on with a lot of people. He is now calling for a
“die-in” to disrupt Publix stores by having supporters lie down inside supermarkets for 12 minutes at 4 p.m. today. Hogg told Miami’s CBS affiliate station that he would call off the protest if Publix would contribute double the amount it gave to Putnam to the Stoneman Douglas victims fund and pledge never to support a politician who is A-rated by the NRA.

Of course, not everyone is on board with the protest. While being interviewed outside a Publix store, Hogg was bombarded with shouted insults by a few gun-rights supporters chanting things like “God bless America” and “USA NRA”. Florida has been and still is, overall, a very gun-friendly state.

Publix isn’t accustomed to this kind of scrutiny and criticism and seems somewhat flummoxed by the whole controversy. The company released a statement saying, “We support bi-partisan, business-friendly candidates, regardless of political affiliation and we remain neutral on issues outside of our core business.” Unfortunately, the “bi-partisan” part is clearly nonsense. For the 2018 election cycle, roughly 90 percent of its contributions have gone to the Republican Party or Republican candidates, according to the watchdog organization Open Secrets.

The Publix statement added: “As a result of this situation, we are evaluating our processes to ensure that our giving better reflects our intended desire to support a strong economy and a healthy community.” I guess we’ll see if that actually means anything.

So where should you shop instead if you want to support the protest? There is no easy answer. According to Open Secrets data, Winn-Dixie, which is a distant competitor to Publix, apparently has all but stopped making political contributions after contributing heavily to Republicans during the 90s and 00s. Walmart speads its money between both parties, but the majority goes to Republicans, which generally means NRA supporters. Whole Foods is now owned by Amazon, which gives more to Democrats. Target went heavily Republican during the Bush years, but now bestows its largess roughly equally between the two parties.

If you want to know where your shopping dollars end up in the political swamp, you can get some idea at www.opensecrets.org.

Of course, the fundamental problem is the poisonous influence of money in politics, which has grown worse by orders of magnitude since Citizens United. Corporate money is especially corrupting because corporations don’t have political views, they have financial interests. And the money they give to parties and candidates are essentially legal bribes, because they do expect favorable treatment in return. That is the sad state of our corporatocracy today.

So who knows how the Publix protest will turn out, but I wish the MSD kids all success and have nothing but admiration for them!

 

 

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