Developers & Landholders Using Dark Money PACs to Influence Local Races

Dennis Maley
The onslaught of glossy direct mail pieces voters get in the runup to an election can become numbingly routine. The vile attack ads, the opacity of who exactly is funding the communications and the tired, culture-war issues they often attempt to exploit are all good reasons to chuck them right into the recycling bin. However, the nearly-untraceable dark money at play in local races and referendums this year are demonstrative of just how easily special interests can use their deep pockets to high-jack issues that are better served by open and intellectually-honest debate.

The first really suspicious operation I came across this cycle was the campaign to defeat a City of Bradenton referendum that would decide whether the city council would have oversight of the city’s police department (as it does all other departments along with the budget) or it would remain with the mayor. The city has been wrestling with the question of which form of government would best serve its continued growth with many good government advocates calling for the city manager/strong council form of government that is more common for cities of that size. I wrote a column supporting the referendum here. 

One of the weaknesses in a smaller city using the strong elected-mayor system, in my view, is that it makes it even easier for special interests to have influence when only one elected seat conveys that much power. After all, you only have to get a single person elected to gain influence, and if they can keep one, large and politically-active department happy—regardless of whether the means to do so is in the best interest of citizens—that becomes all the more easy to do. Considering that Bradenton has had exactly two mayors over the past four decades, my intuition isn’t exactly far fetched.

When I noticed that an obscure PAC was financing a campaign to defeat the referendum under the asinine notion that the mayor’s race could be won by a candidate who wants to defund the police, it caught my eye. The same thing happened when I saw a full-page newspaper ad—funded with dark money from the same opaque PAC—targeting the county’s attempt to purchase land for a much-needed east county operations center. It would turn out that the campaigns weren’t exactly unrelated and that the players involved would be quite familiar.

As I reported previously, the ads against the city referendum were paid for by Florida Citizens for Economic Prosperity, an obscure PAC that had been funded by a single donor, Avanti Capital LLC. Sunbiz had the Orlando-based entity as inactive and the only person associated with it was an Orlando attorney. The LLC seemed to be related to a land development group with property in Manatee County, which should be no surprise in a county where nearly all of our worst corruption can be traced back to raw land and the commercial builders who want to develop it with the fattest bottom line possible—ordinances, zoning, comprehensive land use plans, and impact fees be damned.

As the Bradenton Herald reported, the mail pieces seemed to be connected to the same political consulting firm that former city councilman and current mayoral candidate Gene Brown paid nearly $37,000 to design, print, and distribute mailers, noting that Brown's campaign reported making the buy on the very same day the PAC was formed. In the article, Brown denied any knowledge of who was behind the PAC ads. Federal statutes prevent candidates from coordinating with such PACs, as they are not subject to contribution limits and are supposed to be issue-based rather than in direct support of a candidate.

Accordingly, the ads don't tell you to vote for Brown, the developer-backed candidate. They essentially tell you to vote against a referendum that would weaken Brown's powers should he win on November 3, and those same interests are also working very hard to make sure that happens. It's also not much of a leap to suppose that he benefits additionally from a "defund the police" scare when you consider that both of his opponents, Harold Byrd and Dimitri Denis, are black, making it unnecessary to additionally tar them as "Black Lives Matter" candidates, given that the subliminal work has already been done.

It should be noted that none of the candidates for mayor nor anyone on the city council has called to defund the police. Quite the opposite, those pushing for the amendment are actually looking to increase funding to the department, even amid a nearly 10 percent drop in city revenues, in order to implement body cameras, a technology that has been proven to reduce both infractions for police violence as well as false accusations against them, as it seems most everyone tends to behave a bit better when they know they're being video recorded. But this is politics, where facts are fluid and often absent completely.

In the end, the developers who run local politics very clearly want Gene Brown to be Bradenton’s mayor, the same way they wanted his political ally and current incumbent Wayne Poston to be mayor, and it seems that they or someone that they are in business with want the office to be just as powerful when he gets it, as it is currently. If you live in the City of Bradenton and you think that developers already have enough (or, more likely, too much) political power, you should consider that when you vote. 

The East county land deal advertisement was paid for by the same PAC. That expenditure, however, will not be reported until the next filing period, but there’s good reason to believe that it will have passed through the same vendor, Strategic Image Management, the Tampa-based company of campaign consultant Anthony Pedicini who is the go-to guy for developer-sponsored Republicans throughout the region. Manatee County races have kept his firm busy this election cycle, as Strategic Image Management has also handled the developer-sponsored attack ads against district 3 Manatee County Commission Candidate Matt Bower on behalf of his opponent Kevin Van Ostenbridge.

Through a convoluted network of PACs, local developers and landholders have funded an enormous war chest they plan to use to ensure they continue to see friendly faces across the dais when they go before the local governments that they routinely ask to allow them to ignore the rules in service of the bottom line. For a look at the convoluted web of dark money, check out this dizzying infographic compiled by TBT publisher Joe McClash. Hundreds of thousands of dollars from developers Carlos Beruff and Neal family and landholders like the Cox family and the McClures flow through large PACs like MAGA, Conservative PAC, and Trump Committee into others, such as Citizens Alliance for Florida's Economy, which has targeted Bower and for which Pedicini is listed as a registered agent.

This makes the direct support less transparent, but by following the timing of the money movement and the ad buys in the PACs’ campaign finance reports, the picture becomes predictively clear: the developers and large landholders in Manatee County want Kevin Van Ostenbridge to be the District 3 commissioner at all costs, as Bower has made sustainable growth tied to adequate infrastructure a hallmark of his campaign. 

Van Ostenbridge—who received the bulk of his massive campaign war chest ($118,000 as of the last filing for a county commission race in Manatee’s second smallest district) from Beruff and other development-related interests in addition to all of their dark money PAC support—recently made "repeal the sweetheart deal" for the land the county is in the process of purchasing his main issue. It is surely no coincidence that it is the same purchase the aforementioned PAC is so eager to derail. Who is really behind the money for that campaign or what their interest may be is unknown, although you can bet that money is targeting some landholder or developer’s bottom line and not the county’s fiscal responsibility.

Not coincidentally, the issue has also become the chief concern of George Kruse, for whom Mr. Beruff all but purchased a county commission seat for during the August primary. In Kruse’s countywide District 7 race, where no Democrat or independent had filed to run, a write-in candidate was used to close what would have been an open primary to only Republican voters, who were limited to two-developer backed candidates, Beruff’s man and former Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, who was backed by even more developer money courtesy of east county interests. What’s more, Thomas Dell, the write-in candidate used for the same purpose when Beruff spent a small fortune to get retiring District 7 commissioner Betsy Benac the seat in 2012, was used for the purposes of the loophole once more.

Van Ostenbridge’s campaign attempted the same tactic in August when it appeared that his race against a Bower, a Republican who’d qualified by signature petitions to be on the primary ballot, would also be open. Bower responded by changing his candidacy to No Party Affiliation on the final day of ballot qualification, giving more than 20,000 District 3 voters who would have been shut out of the process a chance to have a say in their political representation on the BOCC. In a county where Republican registration has long been dominant, however, that comes at a significant price, as it concedes a lot of votes to straight-ticket, party-line voters who will simply check the name with an R next to it, not even knowing that Bower is also a Republican. 

It also makes it easier for the PACs to tie the race to hot-button cultural issues and the national polarization of our political system. In the Republican primary race between Kruse and Hunzeker, dueling dark money PACs spent heavily on attempting to paint their candidate as the real Trump Republican and their opponent as a closet liberal. The race was almost completely absent of any substantive debate on policy issues that actually affect the county commission. This isn’t new, but it’s getting much worse, as local candidates (aided by right-wing voter groups) attempt to frame races around issues like gun rights, abortion and other controversial subjects that don’t come before the county commission, which is fine by developers because it means they are not talking about things like sustainable growth, our neglected infrastructure, crippling traffic and other fruits of incoherent, scatter-shot, profit-oriented growth strategies. 

This week, a negative mass-text campaign tried to laughably link Bower, a Republican Army veteran who served on the Manatee County Planning Commission (until developers had him thrown off) to Black Lives Matter. Voters may recall Bower also ran for the District 3 seat in 2016 against outgoing incumbent Stephen Jonnson, a seat all but purchased by Beruff, who had business ties to the banker before he ran. Beruff hired his son as in house counsel after Jonnson won. In Manatee County, where Trump won by 17 points last time around, there’s not much more damaging of a label you can throw on someone—a desperate move considering that Van Ostenbridge is already operating at a $10-1 fundraising advantage in campaign cash alone, not to mention all of the dark money developers are using to prop up his candidacy. In this David versus Goliath battle, Bower has run a grassroots campaign driven by small donations, pledging both not to take special interest money or participate in vitriolic politics.

For those of you who follow county politics even somewhat closely, none of this will come as a surprise. The problem is, far too many people who vote in county races do not follow such issues at all and are therefore much more likely to be swayed by negative campaigning tied to ideological talking points. People often ask me why there is so much negative campaigning in politics, claiming to be revolted by the tactic, but the reality is that candidates who lack the moral scruples to refrain from such dirty tricks use them because they work. 

The result is a perpetually-stunned community endlessly asking how this or that has gotten so bad. Why has nothing been done about the traffic? Why are they building more homes in this flood-prone area that doesn’t have adequate roadways to handle the increased volume? Why are we destroying our wetland buffers for a few more high-dollar homes when there are rules to prevent it? Why is the workforce housing inventory so inadequate? 

The answer is almost always the same: because the majority of voters keep electing developer puppets, and until they begin to understand that anyone who comes into a local election with six figures worth of contributions and six figures more in dark money PAC support isn’t running to represent the people of their community. They are running for their own self-interest and will have far more allegiance to the paymasters who installed them than the voters who elected them. 

But hey, at least Republican voters in Manatee County can sleep soundly knowing that the commissioners they elect will defend the second amendment, pledge allegiance to Trump, and defend us against Antifa, BLM and whatever other liberal boogiemen developers can convince them are at the gate anytime someone runs with the interest of everyday citizens at the forefront of their campaigns. 

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University, where he earned a degree in Government. He later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. Dennis's latest novel, Sacred Hearts, is available here.

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Reader Comments
Andy Mele
OCT 26, 2020  •  Mitch and Joe, fantastic work! Way to go.
Paula Clark
OCT 25, 2020  •  Thanks, Dennis. You've hit many nails on the head with this piece and hopefully those voters who have not yet cast a ballot will heed some of your warnings. Big developers have been given too much free rein to circumvent the laws and their 'puppets' on city/county councils are to blame.
Al Horrigan
OCT 25, 2020  •  Dennis, you helped get Kruse elected so you made that bed...sleep in it. We all need to support Matt Bower. If Matt doesn’t win we are all screwed Carlos will own the BOCC lock stock and barrel for the next 4 years.
Rick Rudolph
OCT 25, 2020  •  Very good article. Unfortunately it’s a day late. Most likely half the populace has already voted. I’ve lived in the area my entire life...the developers have kept their knees on Manatee Co and Bradenton’s neck for as long as I can remember...and when SO MANY folk don’t even make the effort to vote....Well, ‘we can’t breath’!


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