Dust-up over campaign money in SD 19 primary: big deal or nah?

AMSCOT. Verizon. Duke Energy.

All are entities most people don't particularly like, and chances are those companies don't much care what you or I think of them.

But they do care what elected officials think of them, and they spent lots of money on candidates they think will best represent their interests if elected.

It's a part of the political process that is infuriating to most people, yet an ugly reality for serious candidates who can't self-fund their campaigns.

In the Democratic primary for Florida's 19th Senate district, a race that will likely be decided on Tuesday, those dollars are currently under a microscope, thanks in part to candidate Augie Ribeiro, a self-funded St. Pete lawyer and political newcomer who hopes voters will see him as the Bernie Sanders candidate in the race (and who does a killer Bernie impression).

As he faces a steep uphill climb against three seasoned lawmakers who are well-liked in their communities, he's trying to characterize his opponents as questionable because of who has contributed to them, calling it "troubling" that the above-mentioned companies have donated to Democrats in the race for a seat representing a district where thousands of constituents struggle.

“This district in particular needs a leader who is going to speak out against those corporations that I believe are passing on exorbitant costs to the consumers of this district, making it harder every single day for them to live and survive," Ribeiro said. "What I hear is that people need an increase in the minimum wage, but at the same time I hear that the costs from the utility companies and the insurance companies and in the hardest-hit communities, the payday loan companies, need to be regulated better."

But State Rep. Ed Narain, a Tampa Democrat also competing for the seat, said donations from corporations that don't have stellar reputations when it comes to consumers doesn't exactly spell nefarious dealings down the road.

“A check from any company doesn't buy my vote and it certainly doesn't grant anybody any favor,” said Narain.

Narain was elected to his seat in 2014. Though his campaign donor list consists largely of individual contributions, many of them quite small, names like Wells Fargo and AMSCOT (the latter of which also donated to the two other candidates in this race) do appear on the list, as do those of political action committees associated with Gulf Power and Associated Industries of Florida, a very pro-business lobbying group.

He said it's naive to think that donating to a campaign or candidate PAC would influence a lawmaker to vote against the interests of his or her constituents.

“Money in politics is one of those unfortunate things," Narain said. "You have to be able to get your message out. But just because you're received contributions doesn't mean you're going to vote the way they tell you to vote. In fact, no one tells you how to vote in Tallahassee. You make up your own mind, especially if you're a Democrat.”

But Ribeiro, who became a full-time resident of St. Pete three years ago, said he's not concerned about what kinds of laws legislators push as much as the ones they wouldn't want to touch for fear of pissing off a donor.

“I believe ultimately that it's going to be very hard to bite the hand that feeds you. And I'm not saying that there's been any quid pro quo, but I believe that in this particular district, when making a choice of your next leader, that they should know who is funding their candidacy," he said. “My concern is that silence is betrayal, as Martin Luther King said... If your people are the most in need, I think that if you need to step aside and make a choice not to take funds from corporations who are not good business partners.”

That's easy for someone with the ability to self-fund to say, Narain said.

“It's easy for someone to self-finance their campaign to drop into town and start making accusations because of contributions,” he said.

Earlier this week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that another group is seeking to influence the race on the sly: Republicans.

Among those receiving help via a PAC, according to the report, is State Rep. Darryl Rouson, another candidate in the SD 19 primary, who told the paper he wasn't sure why they'd want to support him, given his record.

Though Rouson was briefly a registered Republican years ago, he's earned Democratic cred for, among other things, successfully championing a bill banning backyard gun ranges and vocally supporting Medicaid expansion.

But Ribeiro is trying to cast both Narain and Rouson as being aligned with Republicans via attack mailers, which Ribeiro prefers to call "contrast pieces."

Rouson has caught fire for having accepted money from Duke Energy — a longtime target of progressive scorn — as well as AMSCOT, but he said in a brief phone interview he's just focused on getting to Tallahassee so he can fight for his prospective constituents.

“We'v got four days to go and I need to spend as much time as I can turning out the vote," he said. “I don't have time to explain... all the contributions, motives, who they came from and why. I am interested in being a strong advocate for the people.”

Further evidence of his cred, he said, is his list of endorsements, which includes St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, the entire St. Pete City Council and, most recently, Orlando area Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

Candidate Betty Reed, a former Tampa area State Representative, is also in that primary, but in large part has stayed out of the nastiness.

Florida's primary election is Tuesday, Aug. 30. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Due to possible inclement weather, Governor Rick Scott on Friday urged voters to take advantage of early voting if they can.

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