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Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
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Political campaign fundraisers lose the frills

ST. PETERSBURG — To riff on the old commercial, this is not your father’s fundraiser. Indeed, this is the new generation of campaign money events.

Jeff Brandes, the Republican state senator from the area, held a “Brews with Brandes” fundraiser at downtown’s Green Bench Brewing Co., where he’s an investor. “Come and enjoy a relaxed evening,” the invitation said.

Brandes, wearing a sports coat but no tie, worked the room grasping a glass of Belgian-style ale. On the other side of a glass wall, a brewery worker was shooting hoops next to the tanks.

A brew pub event “works for this community,” said Brandes, facing re-election this year.

The attendees included a neighborhood association president, a local chamber of commerce CEO and Kathleen Shanahan, businesswoman and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s chief of staff.

“These folks have been to enough stuffy fundraisers in back rooms of restaurants,” Brandes said.

No matter the theme or venue, the week before the legislative session is lawmakers’ last chance to rake in campaign cash.

Both chambers, by House and Senate rule, prohibit accepting contributions during the 60-day session, which starts Tuesday.

Florida is one of 29 states that prohibit or restrict receiving campaign contributions during a legislative session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Not surprisingly, what that did was pushed a good deal of fundraising to just before the legislative session,” said Peter Butzin, who chairs Common Cause Florida, the nonpartisan good-government organization.

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At least 10 fundraisers were scheduled for last week around the state, though there were likely more that news organizations hadn’t heard about. There’s no public notice requirement.

“It’s always been clear to Common Cause that what we have here is an obscene system where special economic interests virtually buy public policy,” Butzin added.

A liberal blogger and New York Times op-ed columnist disagrees.

“People look at this as politicians getting bought and sold,” said Bill Scher, executive editor of LiberalOasis.com. “My argument has always been: You can whine about the process, or you can try to outdo” the opposition.

Activists have long complained about the power of wealthy Republican donors, but director Steven Spielberg and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream co-founder Ben Cohen, among many others, have contributed big bucks to Democrats.

“I’m not saying it’s a laudable feature of democracy … but it’s not like shaking your fist at it is going to stop it,” Scher said.

Last year, Florida lawmakers changed state campaign finance laws to raise the $500 limit on individual campaign contributions to $1,000 in legislative races and to $3,000 in statewide campaigns.

At the same time, they abolished the sometimes-shadowy “committees of continuous existence” that many politicians set up to take unlimited contributions for political slush funds.

❖Legislators besides Brandes have learned it’s not the place but the vibe that makes a successful party.

“People don’t eat at fundraisers,” said Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the Senate’s budget committee chair. “You get a lot of fancy food and people don’t eat it.”

Sen. Bill Galvano, for instance, instead threw a “campaign cookout” last week at his local botanical gardens, with the Bradenton Republican offering backyard barbecue to guests.

At his last event, Negron got Chick-fil-A and set up ping pong tables for an impromptu tournament.

“It was a big hit,” Negron said. “We raised about $40,000 that night.”

Event-driven fundraising, in fact, is all the rage.

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From 2008 through early 2012, the Sunlight Foundation — a governmental transparency group — tracked fundraiser types across the nation and counted 40 hunting trips, 47 St. Patrick’s Day parties, 68 music concerts and 189 golf tournaments.

Of course, when in Tallahassee, many lawmakers still have fundraisers at the members-only Governors Club, where reporters are traditionally turned away at the door.

Moreover, it’s hard to imagine Gov. Rick Scott currying favor with donors by offering chicken strips and table tennis.

That approach works, though, for Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who held a fundraiser last week at a ribs and wings joint in his home county. He’ll become the House Democratic Leader after the 2014 election. “It’s an unfortunate necessity,” Pafford said. “I’ve gotten used to it. If you don’t like asking people for money, it can be a little intimidating.”

Informal events, like the one at the brew pub, may also serve to gin up good will as well as checks.

David Hoover, who heads the Riviera Bay Civic Association, said he can’t contribute much to Brandes’ election efforts but will offer him volunteers and face time with members at club meetings.

“The more I learn about politics, the more I learn good people can make good laws,” Hoover said, sitting in the beer garden with a plate of food.

“And Jeff is a really nice guy.”

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