Mr. Wilcox Goes to Tallahassee

Imagine being executive director of Common Cause/Florida. You are the Tallahassee lobbyist for the quintessential good-government group. "Let me tell you, I'm not the most popular person in the capital," said Ben Wilcox. "Politicians can't expect me to pick up the check for a meal or buy a drink."

Wilcox, who covered the Legislature as a broadcaster for Florida Public Radio before joining the goo-goos in 1999, explained that Common Cause is not-for-profit. "I thought public broadcasting ran on a low budget until I went to work for Common Cause," he said.

On March 26, Wilcox took a welcome break from getting his head beat in at the state Capitol and came to St. Petersburg. There, he tried rallying a mostly college crowd to the tattered banner of government reform in Tallahassee.

"I tell people that I am an anti-lobbyist lobbyist," said Wilcox, looking weary despite a day away from the rebuffs of another legislative session. "When people see me coming, generally, they run the other way. More than likely, I will be telling them something they don't want to hear and asking them to do something they don't want to do."

Legislators seldom crowd around Wilcox at Clyde's or other Tallahassee watering holes after a hard day of selling out their constituents to the highest bidder. Wilcox is so lonely that he could be confused with an idle washing machine repairman. In his chosen field, however, there is almost too much to repair.

"I thought the system was corrupt when I first came to the Capitol in the 1970s," the former radio reporter said. "But it's nothing like it is now."

The difference is what interest groups nowadays are willing to throw at a legislative problem.

"In those days, free lunches, dinners, hunting trips, football tickets were the currency used to get things done," said Wilcox. "Today, the currency in the Capitol is campaign contributions. One company or organization will hire 20 or 30 lobbyists at a time to work on a single issue. Lobbyists are known to have influence with certain legislators through their campaign contributions and their ability to fund-raise. Those lobbyists are hired just to get those legislators' votes."

Wilcox mentioned one example of cash begetting action — or, in this case, inaction — from last year's lawmaker-lobbyist mating season.

In the week leading up to the 2000 legislative session, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Inc., the allegedly nonprofit health-maintenance organization, poured $90,000 into the till of the Republican Party. The GOP happens to control state government at the moment. Like many HMOs, Blue Cross was fretting about the political momentum building for giving patients the right to sue insurers that deny needed medical treatment.

"By contributing a large amount of money to the Republican Party, Blue Cross was sending a message," said Wilcox. "Guess what? Message was received."

When the gavel came down on the session last May, right-to-sue-HMO legislation was as dead as a patient refused life-saving care.

For the whole year, Blue Cross was second on the list of the biggest donors of unregulated "soft money" to the state Republican Party. The insurer gave $455,396 in 2000, according to Common Cause.

The top Florida GOP donor was Grand Building Corp., whose president is Miami Beach aviation entrepreneur George E. Batchelor. With a $500,000 check, the Hialeah company made the single biggest soft-money donation in Florida history, said Wilcox.

The state party collected $37-million in soft money last year, besting the out-of-favor Democrats by a comfortable $5-million margin. "In campaign financing, money follows power," said Wilcox.

The Republican idea of Florida government reform is quite different from Common Cause's. Institutions or groups that have irritated Republican leaders — be they public universities, state employees or even judges — have caught it in the shorts once the Legislature convened.

"That's a big part of my job," Wilcox told his audience at the University of South Florida's Bayboro campus in St. Petersburg. "Killing bad government reform ideas. The best example of a bad idea this year is the effort, mainly by members of the House of Representatives, to make the judicial branch "more accountable to the people.' Turns out, some members of the Legislature are unhappy about the recent state Supreme Court rulings, including decisions rendered in the weeks following the presidential election.

"There are some really bad bills out there right now, including one that would have Florida join that other progressive state, Alabama, and require that Supreme Court justices run for election, just like any other politician.

"Bad idea," Wilcox observed. "Government reform is rarely successful when the motivation for it is political retribution."

Not all is bleak on the clean-up-state-government agenda.

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are leading a petition drive to place two referendums on the 2002 Florida ballot. The measures would remove the task of legislative and congressional redistricting from the clutches of the Legislature and give it to a presumably less mischievous 17-member special commission.

Perhaps more gratifying is that former House Speaker John Thrasher may be brought up on ethics charges. A citizen has asked the state ethics commission to investigate whether Thrasher violated a ban on former legislators lobbying ex-colleagues within two years of leaving office. In February, barely three months after his term was officially up, Thrasher arranged a luncheon chat for a client with several current lawmakers.

Thrasher might have been looking ahead last year when, as speaker, he single-handedly blocked a House vote on legislation to toughen our weak conflict-of-interest law.

Should a formal complaint be issued against Thrasher, the worst he could get would be a $10,000 administrative fine, as it stands now. (Thrasher's former top aide already faces such a complaint on an unrelated matter.)

In the current political environment of Tallahassee, it is a wonder that Florida's conflict-of-interest statute has survived at all. But, as Wilcox noted, the state ethics commission came into being to decriminalize the political corruption of our elected representatives. By creating what Wilcox called a "paper tiger" of an ethics commission, legislators hoped to discourage attention from prosecutors who could put them behind bars.

Word around the Capitol has Thrasher taking down a cool $1-million this year for representing duPont pharmaceutical interests, Wilcox said. Thrasher's client wants Floridians to be prevented from saving money by purchasing generic equivalents to a costlier class of duPont blood-thinners.

That is just what Thrasher attempted to do for duPont last year — only then, he was speaker. If ethics commissioners were to call Thrasher on the carpet for helping duPont in 2001 as a lobbyist, he has little to fear from the consequences.

"What's a $10,000 fine when you stand to make millions?" said Wilcox. "The answer is: "It's the cost of doing business.'"

Contact Staff Writer Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.