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Big Sugar Sours Florida Governor's Race with Falsehoods

Outside groups funded by U.S. Sugar mount deceitful attacks on a Democratic primary candidate

September 1, 2006

Modified: September 1, 2006

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Summary

In the Florida Democratic primary for governor, Rep. Jim Davis has been the target of a series of attacks by outside groups funded largely by U.S. Sugar Corp.  According to state records, one group is 100% funded by U.S. Sugar; the other has recieved $1.6 million in contributions from U.S. Sugar over the past two weeks alone.

A TV ad sponsored by one of the groups says Davis "voted to deny some struggling workers the minimum wage."  However, the bill Davis voted for actually called for a  raise in the minimum wage for the vast majority of workers.

The other group used recent donations from U.S. Sugar to fund two pieces of direct mail. One was aimed at Florida's Jewish community and says Davis failed to "condemn attacks against Israel" when he actually did condemn the attacks.  The other mailer, aimed at African-Americans and accompanied by a radio ad, faults Davis for voting against restitution for two wrongly imprisoned men, but even one of the ex-prisoners thought the ad was "dirty politics." 

 

Analysis

Rep. Jim Davis and State Sen. Rod Smith are dueling for the party's nomination in the state's Sept. 5 primary. 

Big Sugar Bankrolls Smith

If he didn't have a sugar daddy, Smith's campaign would be practically out of business. From Aug. 15 through Aug. 31, U.S. Sugar contributed 20 times as much money to outside groups supporting Smith as Smith had left in his own campaign coffers, according to  forms filed with the Secretary of State's office.

The connection between the sugar industry, a powerful force in Florida politics, and Smith is well documented by the state press. As a state senator, Smith was instrumental in passing Everglades cleanup legislation that went easier on the sugar companies than prospective alternatives.  Also, a top consultant to the Smith's campaign serves  as a U.S. Sugar lobbyist. 

In addition, the group Florida's Working Families has a history of large  contributions   from U.S. Sugar.  This pattern continued as the group's most recent report, filed on Sept. 1, showed that U.S. Sugar donated $1.6 million in the last two weeks of August alone.     

Also, according to disclosure forms filed  with the IRS, U.S. Sugar and its subsidiary Southern Garden Groves Corp. pumped over $430,000 into a group called Floridians for Responsible Government during an 8-day period around the end of May.  The majority of this money was spent on "voter contact." Local media reported on pro-Smith mailers sent out by the group in June. 

At this point in the campaign, Smith's coffers are practically empty. As of Aug. 18th, he had  barely $75,000 left. U.S. Sugar's actions thus loom all the larger in Smith's effort to get the Democratic nomination.  By comparison, Davis has nearly 1.7 million in the bank.

Florida's Working Families  Ad: Davis Attendance 
Announcer You. Should. Know. Congressman Jim Davis has the second-worst attendance in Congress. Jim Davis voted to deny some struggling workers the minimum wage. Jim Davis voted against capping rates credit card companies can charge us. Jim Davis voted against allowing seniors to order low-cost prescription drugs from Canada. Maybe we should be glad Jim Davis rarely shows up for work.

  Deny Some ... Improve Most

On Aug. 22, Florida's Working Families began running a TV ad attacking Davis. The ad accurately represents Davis's attendance record and a vote he made against capping credit card interest rates, but then makes the grossly misleading statement that he "voted to deny some the minimum wage."  The bill  cited actually called for a raise in the minumum wage. 

Language in the bill exempted certain jobs such as funeral directors, computer programmers, and some sales positions, but for everyone else the minimum wage would have gone from $5.15 per hour to $6.15. So while it is true to say that some would be denied the minimum wage, the overwhelming majority would have received a raise. Additionally, exemptions to the minimum wage have always existed . For example, fishers, farm workers, and janitors are not covered currently.

The bill was never introduced in the Senate and thus never enacted into law; other recent efforts to raise the minimum wage have stalled as well.

Targeted Mispresentation I 

According  to documents filed with the state, U.S. Sugar Corp. supplied 100% of the budget for the newly formed Coalition for Justice and Equality with a $100,000 donation.  The group has released two direct-mail pieces attacking Davis.  One piece is aimed at the Jewish community saying, "Jim Davis fails to condemn attacks against Israel" based only on the fact he missed the vote on a  House resolution after Hezbollah's attack. However, Davis actually did condemn the attacks three days before the symbolic vote even took place.

While it is true that Davis missed  the vote on July 20th, he had already released a statement on July 17th saying, "I strongly condemn Hezbollah’s brutal and unprovoked attack on Israeli soldiers, and support Israel ’s right to defend its people."

Targeted Mispresentation II 

The same group sent a second mailer, this one targeting African-Americans. It accurately describes a vote Davis made as a state representative in 1990 denying restitution to two black men who were wrongly imprisoned for 12 years, though it's quite a stretch to say that the vote is part of Davis' "record of shame." An accompanying radio ad "dramatizes" comments of the two ex-prisoners.  While the men have been critical of Davis, one of them has recently characterized  the use of their case in the attacks as "dirty politics."

 Freddie Pitts and Wilbur Lee were convicted of murder in 1963 but pardoned after someone else confessed to the crime.  For years, starting in the late 1980s, the state legislature considered awarding the men damages and eventually granted each $500,000 in 1998.

Davis was no longer in the legislature by then. However, in 1990, he had joined the majority of his statehouse legislative committee in a 6-4 decision against restitution. Davis has said he didn't believe there was enough evidence at the time to justify the payments. The mailer concludes that this is evidence of Davis' "record of shame" in the African-American community.

Perhaps, but Davis supported the interests of the NAACP 91% of the time, according to the civil rights group's 2005 scorecard. Even Smith has condemned the mailer as going "too far."     

Coalition for Justice and Equality Radio Ad

Announcer: Twelve years. Two African-Americans, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, sat in tiny cells.  Nine years on death row.  Convicted of murder by an all-white jury for crimes they didn’t commit.  A white man confessed.  All they asked for was a little of their lives back.  To be treated fairly.  Jim Davis voted no.  Voted to deny justice to Pitts and Lee.  Listen to the words of Freddie Pitts: 
Actor: Davis is a backwater politician.  He voted to renege on justice.  He’s a cold-hearted man.
Announcer: Fortunately, there’s Rod Smith.  Smith led the fight to close the boot camps after a fourteen-year-old black kid was beaten to death by sheriff’s deputies.  Rod Smith is a man we can trust to do the right thing.  Paid electioneering communication paid for by Coalition for Justice and Equality.  201 SW 8th Terrace, Boca Raton , FL 33486

The mailing was followed by a radio ad.  An actual copy of the ad could not be obtained by FactCheck. Stuart Rosenfeldt, the registered agent for the Coalition for Justice and Equality, responded by email that he was "not going to supply" the ad. However, quotes have appeared in local press accounts, and the Davis  campaign supplied a full transcript at our request.

The ad discusses the pair's wrongful imprisonment and then says, "listen to the words of Freddie Pitts." An actor portraying Pitts claims "Davis is a backwater politician.  He voted to renege on justice.  He's a cold-hearted man."

However, Pitts didn't say that.  He did make the "backwater politician" remark in a Miami Herald story, but the other lines were actually said by Wilbur Lee in a different story.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Rosenfeldt " stands by the ad" but will produce a new spot "that removes any 'dramatization' of the facts."

Some local black leaders have said the ad is "attempting to polarize the black community."

by Justin Bank

Sources

U.S. House, 106th Congress, 2nd Session. House Vote No. 45 

Caputo, Mark and Reinhard, Beth, "Big Sugar plays rough in governor's race," Miami Herald. 26 Aug 2006.

Leary, Alex and Liberto, Jennifer, "Sugar dollars pour into pro-Smith group," St. Petersburg Times. 19 July 2006.

Reinhard, Beth and Caputo, Mark, "Davis Discusses 'Bad Vote' with Black Voters ," Miami Herald. 28 Aug 2006.

Reinhard, Beth, "Some tough questions for two Democrats," Miami Herald. 22 July 2006.

Wallsten, Peter, "Telephone Companies, Sugar Industry Fare Well in Florida Legislative Session," Miami Herald. 3 May 2003.

"Straight Talk on Rod Smith and Sugar," press release. Jim Davis for Governor Campaign. 25 Aug 2006.