BRADENTON – As the primary election nears, the race for the Manatee County Commission's District 4 seat is heating up. Registered voters in Manatee County district 4, particularly Republican voters, are being inundated with mailers, texts, website links, and even a video ad. However, uncovering exactly who is behind the annoying texts and negative messaging being produced is not an easy feat for the discerning voter.
The county commission race for district 4 has two candidates who will face off in the August 23 primary election, Republican Incumbent Misty Servia and Republican challenger Mike Rahn. The two qualified write-ins are Timothy Norwood and Daniel Hansen. Because the district 4 race has qualified write-in candidates, the primary election will be a closed primary in which only registered Republican voters residing in district 4 can cast a vote that will ultimately decide the next county commissioner for the district.
In recent weeks, both Servia and Rahn have been taking the heat from negative campaign materials put out against their candidacies by Political Action Committees (PACs). In Servia’s case, she has been on the receiving end of negative attacks directly from her opponent’s campaign as well as a PAC.
The negative attacks against Servia appear streamlined between Rahn’s campaign and a PAC called Make America Great Again. The messaging is simple, "Servia is a liberal" and some version of "Servia doesn’t support Governor Desantis." The basis for the allegations trace back to the 2021 Vaccinegate scandal in which Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh independently accepted 3,000 State-provided COVID-19 vaccines and, without informing her fellow commissioners, instructed county staff to adulterate the county-approved registration lottery pool for vaccination appointments by culling a list comprised of only constituents in her own district. Baugh also placed herself and four other individuals onto a VIP short list of persons who would be assured an appointment for the vaccine at the vaccination pop-up site.
Back in February of 2021, once Baugh’s actions had been revealed to her six fellow commissioners, Servia was outspoken in criticism of Baugh's behavior and the optics of inequity and lack of transparency, as well as not following the board’s approved policy. Fox News' Laura Ingraham later replayed an edited portion of Servia’s comments out of context for Governor Ron Desantis on her show Ingraham Angle. When the edited clip was aired, Ingraham framed Servia’s comments as though they were directed at the governor when, in fact, they had clearly been directed at Commissioner Baugh.
Despite the ability for anyone to go back and play all of Servia’s comments beginning to end across the two BOCC meetings on February 16 and 18, the Rahn campaign and the Make America Great Again PAC have continued to harmonize the allegations that Servia is an "anti-Desantis liberal" candidate, hoping to capitalize on the governor's popularity with Republican primary voters. Both Rahn’s campaign and the PAC have directed voters to the clip from Fox News to "verify" their allegations.
Screenshot of images from an internet website sponsored by the Make America Great Again PAC
Rahn, on the other hand, whose candidacy has only more recently begun to take some blows, is finding the attacks wielded against his candidacy are sponsored by a PAC titled Citizens for Clean Government. So far, the Servia campaign itself has not released any negative attack materials against her opponent.
The Citizens for Clean Government PAC has so far produced a video ad, as well as a website. The group alleges that Rahn has numerous examples of poor personal financial dealings as well as unseemly personal affairs. The PAC tells voters that Rahn is "Wrong for Manatee." The website produced by the PAC shows alleged court records of past liens, judgments, and foreclosures of Rahn. Some of the materials are dated during the years of the Great Recession when many Americans experienced financial hardships and defaults, so there may be voters who give leniency to such records. However, on the more personal side of the allegations made by the PAC, the website and video ad state that Rahn attempted to "dodge" paying child support to his ex-wife in divorce proceedings.
Court records associated with divorce are not readily available to the public online the way that financial records of liens and judgments, or foreclosures are, but the website does provide voters images of documents that appear to be from a divorce proceeding from 1997-98. According to the partial record images on the website, Rahn argued against providing his wife child support for his children despite making four times the annual income of his wife at the time.
While verifying the allegations about Rahn and his alleged "attempts to dodge" child support is not possible through the Manatee Clerk of Court due to the nature of the proceeding and documents not being publicly accessible online, there does appear a domestic proceeding that matches the dates sited on the "Rahn is Wrong" website.
Screenshot from a YouTube ad produced by the Citizens for Clean Government PAC
It is important to clarify that in instances where a PAC sponsors electioneering materials or negative attack ads, candidates who may benefit from these materials are not directly affiliated with the PACs, which cannot advocate voting for any particular candidate but are ideal vehicles for financial supporters to sling mud at their candidate's opposition. And they can do it without the contribution limits that are placed on campaign donations.
Increasingly, PACs are less often created for the sole benefit of any one candidate. A PAC may be using contributed funds in numerous races statewide or even nationally at the same time. They also tend to move money back and forth by donating to other PACs. This can all serve to make the process more opaque and it can become impossible to draw a straight line from a specific donor to a specific ad.
So who are these PACs, who is funding them, and why are they so interested in our local elections?
Citizens for Clean Government is a Jacksonville-based PAC registered to Gary Cross. The financial records of the PAC and Servia’s campaign show that both her campaign and PAC have financial ties to a campaign consulting firm called the Nolan Group. So far in 2022, the Citizens for Clean Government PAC has paid roughly $2,200 to the Nolan Group for services that include the purchase of a domain name, website, and consulting. Since its founding in October of 2020, the PAC has paid for services from the Nolan Group totaling roughly $35,000.
Both Citizens for Clean Government PAC and Servia’s campaign have also received contributions from some of the same entities.
Financial filings for the PAC show that in 2022, local developers or their affiliated companies have contributed to the political committee. Pat Neal and/or his company have given roughly $15,000, companies owned by Carlos Beruff have contributed approximately $10,000, Benderson Development has contributed $20,000, and Schroder-Manatee of Lakewood Ranch $7,000.
Citizens for Clean Government’s financials also show a June contribution of $50,000 from a PAC called Floridians for Positive Change and a $10,000 July contribution from Mosaic Global Sales.
While there are other similar-sized or more moderate locally-based contributions from individuals, businesses, or organizations to the PAC, much of the money coming into the PAC is coming from outside of Manatee or Sarasota counties.
Since January of 2022, the Citizens for Clean Government PAC has received approximately $244,000 in contributions, with a lifetime total contribution just shy of $400,000 since the PAC was first organized in October of 2020.
Unlike the Citizens for Clean Government PAC, there are far fewer details available for review within the financial records of the Make America Great Again PAC.
The Make America Great Again PAC is based in Venice, Florida, and its registered agent and treasurer is a well-known name among local political circles: Eric Robinson. Robinson is a rather controversial political figure due to his past ties to political committees and campaigns. Some of Robinson's dealings made him the recipient of administrative complaints, though he has never been charged with any violations related to the allegations. Robinson has become infamously known in political circles as, "The Prince of Dark Money," a moniker coined by Cathy Antunes in a piece she wrote in 2015 for SRQ Magazine. Antunes later produced a campaign "dark money" e-flipbook titled "Local Dark Money: Citizens United Meets Main Street in Sarasota and Manatee Florida."
In 2020, the Make America Great Again PAC produced numerous negative campaign fliers attacking opponents of current Commissioners George Kruse, Kevin Van Ostenbridge, and James Satcher. Each of the four commissioners who won the election in the 2020 county commission races shared the same political consultant and consulting firm, Anthony Pedicini of Strategic Imagine Management, or SIMWINS.
SIMWINS is also connected to at least three of the current Manatee Commission candidates. The official campaign press announcements delivered to TBT for Mike Rahn and district 2 Republican Amanda Ballard, were delivered to TBT directly by Pedicini. Likewise, Rahn and Ballard have reported expenditures in the campaign finance filings to Pedicini’s firm. At-Large candidate Jason Bearden shows he too has paid for services to SIMWINS on his campaign reports filed with the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections.
Perhaps coincidentally, Eric Robinson, registered agent and treasurer of the Make America Great Again PAC, is also the official campaign treasurer for Manatee Commission District 2 Republican candidate Amanda Ballard.
Financial disclosures for the Make America Great Again PAC show little activity in 2022, with only one individual donor. John Blanchard of Montgomery, Alabama made a significant contribution of $550,000 on May 13.
Blanchard is a wealthy real-estate developer whose wife, Lynda Blanchard, served as the United States Ambassador to Slovenia from 2019 until 2021, under former President Donald Trump’s administration. Mrs. Blanchard later was a candidate in the 2022 Alabama gubernatorial election, having switched to that race from the Senate election.
Other than the one large donation from Mr. Blanchard, the Make America Great Again PAC shows no other contributors so far for 2022. Financial reports show expenditures of the political committee are also limited so far in 2022, with only three payments since May all going to Anthony Pedicini’s campaign consulting firm, SIMWINS. From May through July of this year, the Make America Great Again PAC has paid about $90,000 for services to the firm.
While there are few clues to be found in the recent financial filings for the Make America Great Again PAC to understand who specifically is funding the negative campaign attacks against Republican Incumbent Servia, some interesting details can be found in the financial reports of another PAC, the Citizens Alliance for Florida's Economy.
The Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy PAC is a political action committee belonging to campaign consultant Pedicini of SIMWINS. Financial filings of both the Make America Great Again PAC and the Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy PAC show the two PACs have some shared financial history.
Between July 2020 and July 2022, the Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy PAC contributed roughly $320,000 to the Make America Great Again PAC. Pedicini's PAC was the only contributor to the Make America Great Again PAC in all of 2021, with two contributions totaling $28,000.
Both PACS have made substantial payments to Pedicini's firm. Financial records show that the Make America Great Again PAC has handed over more than $600,000 for service to either SIMWINS or Strategic Image Management. Since March of 2015, Pedicini's firm has received payments from his Citizens Alliance for Florida's Economy PAC of just over $3 million. Between February 2020 and June 2022 alone, the Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy PAC has paid SIMWINS $1,158,000.
Pedicini's Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy PAC has reported about 10 expenditures so far in 2022. The most recent and largest payouts from Pedicini's PAC were in May of this year and were to an Alabama-based law firm at $100,000 and to a Virginia-based super-PAC totaling $440,000. Besides those two items, there are no other out-of-state expenditures reported from Pedicini's PAC in 2022. In fact, there is no record in the lifetime of Pedicini's PAC since its organization in 2014 of it ever having paid or collected any money from Alabama.
Alabama is the same state where Mr. Blanchard’s wife was competing in the governor’s Republican primary race earlier this year, and Mr. Blanchard contributed $550,000 to the Make America Great Again PAC in May of this year. Upon investigation, the Virginia-based PAC which Pedicini’s PAC contributed $440,000 happens to have direct and specific ties to the Alabama gubernatorial primary race last May.
It turns out that the Common Sense America Election Fund is a super-PAC based in Virginia that made headlines in May of 2022 when Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill issued a public notice about what he said appeared to be a violation of Alabama’s campaign finance laws by the PAC. Merrill cited the PACs' failure to file expenditures, despite spending over $500,000 on negative campaign ads against Alabama’s incumbent Republican Governor Kay Ivey. Ivey was Lynda Blanchard’s biggest opponent in her race for the Republic gubernatorial primary.
Interestingly, aside from the Super-PAC failing to file expenditure reports, it only received five separate contributions total. Four of those were from the same mystery business, with a similar name, Common Sense America INC. The business claims to be based in Virginia but a search of the Virginia Commonwealth registry’s online records produced no results. Likewise, internet searches produce no results for a business in Virginia with the name.
The only other contribution to the Super-PAC was from Anthony Pedicini’s Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy PAC on May 16th of $440,000. May 16 was also the same date that Pedicini’s PAC reported an expenditure to an Alabama law firm of $100,000. May 16 was just three days after Mr. Blanchard placed $550,000 into the Make America Great Again PAC.
May 12- Make America Great Again PAC pays 5k to SIMWINS
May 13 - John Blanchard contributes $550k to the Make America Great Again PAC
May 16 - Make America Great Again PAC pays 10k to SIMWINS
May 16 - Pedicini’s PAC Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy contributes $440k to VA-based Super PAC Common Sense America Election Fund and pays $100k to an Alabama-based law firm
May 19 – Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill issued a notice of possible violation of Alabama’s campaign finance laws by Super-PAC Common Sense America Election Fund related to the PACs production of negative campaign materials injected into the Alabama Republican gubernatorial primary
May 24 – Kay Ivey defeats Lynda Blanchard
June 3 through June 15 – Pedicini's PAC pays SIMWINS $6,250
July 6 – the Make America Great Again PAC pays $75,321 to SIMWINS
The reported activities above are the only ones reported so far in 2022 by the Make America Great Again PAC.
While there are few local contributors of note to the Make America Great Again PAC, in 2022, Pedicini's PAC has seen contributions from local developer Pat Neal, $50,000, McClure Properties, which gave $20,000, and developer Bob Spencer gave $10,000. Spencer also contributed $30,000 to Pedicini's PAC in 2020. Local Cox family members, of Cox Chevrolet, also appear in 2020 records for having contributed small amounts to Pedicini's PAC, totaling less than $2000.
Overall, the Citizens for Clean Government PAC is no competition financially against the contributions and stockpiles within the Make America Great Again PAC and Pedicini's Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy PAC. Comparing PAC to PAC, each PAC has reported having received all-time contribution totals as follows:
Make America Great Again PAC
- over 2 million since 2018 / received a total of 57 contributions / 54% of contributions into PAC came from other PACs
Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy PAC
- over 9.1 million since 2014 /received a total of 527 contributions /59% of contributions into PAC came from other PACs
Common Sense America Election Fund Super-PAC
- over 1.1 million since May 2022 / received a total of 4 contributions /38% of contributions into PAC came from another PAC
Citizens for Clean Government PAC
- just under 400k since 2020 / received a total of 55 contributions /17% of contributions into PAC came from other PACs
Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter for The Bradenton Times. She covers local government and entertainment news. She can be reached at email@example.com.