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Real Ron DeSantis, Part 1 (Follow the Money)

October 2, 2018
desantis

Ron DeSantis reading “The Art of the Deal” to his infant child in his primary TV ad.

You know that the environment has become a major issue in Florida when Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis is running commercials claiming to “stand up to special interests” that have led to massive toxic algae blooms that have polluted rivers and created enormous “red tides” in the Gulf of Mexico.  So now suddenly DeSantis has become an environmental crusader after running as Trump’s “Mini Me” in the primary??

Of course, that’s all nonsense. DeSantis has a lifetime score of 2% from the League of Conservation Voters, which is about as low as it can get. Outrage over the disgusting green slime in Florida’s rivers and coastline generated by government-subsidized sugar growers has made Big Sugar almost as politically toxic as the algae itself–especially in the heavily Republican areas most affected. DeSantis received at least $4,500 in direct contributions from the sugar industry when he first ran for Congress in 2012, and thousands more within his first year in office. Now DeSantis is making a big thing about no longer taking money directly from Big Sugar, but he is supported by PACs like Jobs for Florida which gave his campaign $100K in late August. US Sugar and Florida Crystals have contributed more than $280K over the past 5 years to Jobs for Florida.

You can tell a lot about a politician from who gives him money. Throughout his political career, DeSantis has been financed by some of the most reactionary and anti-environment PACs in the country. In the 2016 election, by far the largest contribution to DeSantis’s campaign ($267,615) came from the Club for Growth, a SuperPAC fueled by Wall Street money which funded primary challenges against Republicans who strayed from its uncompromising line. Jane Mayer, in her excellent book Dark Money,  says it “developed the use of fratricide as a tactic to keep officeholders in line after becoming frustrated that many candidates that it backed became more moderate in office. It discovered that all it had to do was threaten a primary challenge and ‘they start wetting their pants,’ one founder joked. Its top funders included many in the Koch network, including the hedge fund managers [and Trump supporters] Robert Mercer and Paul Singer and the private equity tycoon John Childs [see below].” The Club for Growth spent millions to win the 2012 GOP primary for Ted Cruz. For the 2016 election, DeSantis ranked #7 in Club for Growth contributions. (Marco Rubio was #4 at $327,280, according to OpenSecrets.org.)

John Childs personally remains among DeSantis’s top donors. So far this year, he has directly given $500,000 to the campaign PAC Friends of Ron DeSantis, according to the official tally kept by the Florida Department of State. During 2016, he also gave $400,000 to the “Fighting for Florida Fund”, described by OpenSecrets as a “single-candidate SuperPAC in support of Ron DeSantis.” Childs made his money in leveraged corporate buyouts (most famously in the takeover of Snapple) at a Boston-based firm and was described in the Boston Herald as “the closest thing the Republican party has to an automatic teller machine in Massachusetts.” Jane Mayer notes that in the 2010 “Tea Party” election cycle, Childs spent $907,000 on federal elections.

Robert Mercer also contributed $200,000 to the DeSantis’s 2016 Fighting for Florida Fund. You may recall that Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, were among Trump’s biggest financial backers in the 2016 election, and Mercer was a major funder (and co-founder with Steve Bannon) of Cambridge Analytica–the UK-based political consulting and data brokerage firm which dissolved earlier this year amidst scandal over, inter alia, misuse of personal data of millions of Facebook users and allegations of being implicated in the Russian manipulation of the US 2016 election and the Brexit referendum in the UK.

But the largest contribution to the 2016 PAC was $500,000 from Frederick Sontag’s Spring Bay Capital LLP, described by Politico as “a Ponte Vedra Beach private equity firm that focuses on technology-based investment.” These three donors–Childs, Mercer, and Sontag–represented 87% of the total $1,265,000 raised for this PAC.

Unspent money from one PAC often spills over into a succeeding one. And so it was that $318,101 from the 2016 Fighting for Florida Fund was dumped into the 2017 Fund for Florida’s Future, which was set up for DeSantis’s run for the Republican nomination for governor. (Yes, I know this gets confusing, which of course is the whole point.) The new PAC was established in April 2017 by–wait for it–Frederick Sontag (see preceding paragraph), who chipped in another $500,000 to get things rolling. At the time, as Politico noted, DeSantis (who had not yet announced his candidacy) could not be officially be associated with or raise money for a state political committee because he was still a federal office holder.

The next megadonor to step up for the still officially candidate-less Fund for Florida’s Future was Richard Uihlein, the fiercely anti-union Chicago-based CEO of Uline (a packaging supplies company), who chipped in $250,000 in June 2017. According to Politico,Uihlein is filling a void created by the demise of Steve Bannon, whose GOP revolution — with Republican megadonor Robert Mercer as his supposed benefactor — was derailed when he became a party pariah…In addition to donating to tea party groups and the Club for Growth, which Uihlein has supported in the past, he’s given several million dollars to super PACs backing specific candidates in Senate races.” Among his more notable beneficiaries have been Ted Cruz and failed Alabama GOP senate candidate (and accused pedophile) Roy Moore. The Washington Post reported that the Uileins gave more than $55 million to conservative candidates and PACs in the past decade ($22 million in 2016 alone) for federal elections, plus at least $45 million from the Uihlein family foundation.

Other big donors to the Fund for Florida’s Future PAC were Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus ($250,000) and billionaire CEO of Interactive Brokers Group Thomas Peterffy ($100,000). These four donors–Sontag, Uihlein, Marcus, and Peterffy–taken together with the spill-over from the Fighting for Florida Fund represented more than half of the total contributions to the PAC, according to data available from the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections.

That PAC was succeeded in January 2018 by a new SuperPAC, “Friends of Ron DeSantis”. This was kicked off by–stay with me here–a spill-over of almost $2.5 million from the previous PAC, and an additional $1.1 million from his “principal campaign committee”, “Ron DeSantis for Florida”. (The FEC limits donations to principal campaign committees to $2700 per person per election, so it essentially functions as “petty cash”.)

Once DeSantis announced his candidacy for governor in early January, the right-wing money tree really started producing. Along with his announcement, DeSantis proudly issued a list of his financial backers, headed by Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, and David Bossie, president of Citizens United and Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016. Also included in the list were Breitbart co-owner Rebekah Mercer, deputy RNC finance chairman Elliott Broidy (who has been implicated in too many scandals to detail here), and Foster Friess (a conservative Christian mutual fund manager from Wyoming and key member of the Koch donor machine). Donald Trump tweeted that DeSantis, who had made a name for himself attacking the Mueller investigation, was a “brilliant young leader” who would “make a GREAT governor of Florida”.

There are a lot of very rich “Friends of Ron DeSantis”. As of the end of September, individual contributions of $50,000 or more and spill-over money from his other PACs represented two-thirds of the $19.3 million raised. (Again, according to public data from the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections.)

Leading the PAC, so to speak, is $2 million from Laura Perlmutter, wife of Marvel toys CEO Isaac Perlmutter. (She reportedly gave the same amount to Marco Rubio in 2016, but her husband was worth $3.7 billion at the time, so no big deal for them.) There was $750,000 from the Chicago-based hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, another $500,000 from the aforementioned John Childs, a token $25K from Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone. (Griffin, Childs, and Langone had all been prominent participants at the notorious Koch-convened 2010 Aspen “donors summit” that bankrolled the Tea Party and created the “Kochtopus” network of superrich donors and dark money PACs.)

Other noteworthy donors to “Friends of Ron DeSantis” so far include:

The list goes on and on. And this is only the visible money that has to be reported! We have no real idea about the dark money PACs whose donors don’t have to be disclosed.

What do these people expect to get for their money? Aside from the satisfaction of having a governor who will snap to attention when they call, it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly. But the PACs that support DeSantis have a very clear agenda which is anti-regulation (especially with regard to financial dealings and the environment) and low or no taxes on corporations and the rich. These donors live in a world of wealth and privilege, whether by birth or achievement or just good luck, and they want to keep their money. Many of those with Florida connections are in the Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach/Jupiter orbit. They’re fine with our health care for profit system, and calls for Medicare-for-all scare them. DeSantis’s militantly pro-Israel (and pro-Netanyahu) positions certainly haven’t hurt him with the Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd. Twenty years of Republican control has made Florida a very comfortable environment for preserving wealth and doing business with a lot of chummy help from Tallahassee, and those who have benefitted don’t want it to change.

What really stands out when you start looking at all of this is how utterly–and legally–corrupted by money our politics has become. In a world where a $5,000 or $10.000 donation to a candidate is just chicken feed, what chance do we who can only afford to give 10, 20, or 50 dollars really have? This election is our chance to bend that trajectory at least a bit before the tsunami of money drowns democracy for good.

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