Pay to Play

In this political season, Miami's high-profile campaign contributors favor Republicans and Democrats

It's hardly surprising that Micky Arison wrote out a $2000 check to President George W. Bush's re-election campaign. After all, last year the Carnival Corporation CEO and Miami Heat owner cashed in $66.1 million of his cruise line's stock, on top of receiving another $90 million in stock dividend payments. Thanks to the Bush tax cuts on both dividends and capital gains, Arison saved millions of dollars that would have otherwise gone to the IRS. A $2000 thank-you note would seem the least he could do to show his appreciation.

Yet talk about ungrateful -- Arison also contributed $2000 (the legal limit for individual campaigns) to Florida Sen. Bob Graham's quixotic campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, even as Graham pledged to undo most of Bush's tax cuts. Adding insult to injury, just a few weeks after his Bush donation, Arison gave $6000 to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as well as another $1000 to the party's Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Arison seems just as fuzzy on the Red vs. Blue divide when it comes to a race closer to home: He's given $2000 to Florida Republican hopeful Johnnie Byrd in his quest for Graham's senate seat, as well as $2000 each to two of Byrd's Democratic challengers -- Peter Deutsch and Alex Penelas. For those new to the workings of the American political system, perhaps a reminder is in order: Only one person can win an election.

Calls to Arison's Carnival office seeking a little clarification were -- surprise, surprise -- not returned. But of course Arison isn't the only Miamian hedging his bets on the 2004 presidential race. Perusing federal election records via the Political Money Line database reveals a veritable who's who of the city's power elite contributing to the campaign efforts of George W. Bush as well as Bob Graham, not to mention the host of Democrats who jockeyed for their party's presidential anointment during this past primary season.

Spanish Broadcasting System CEO Raul Alarcón, the Vincam Group's Carlos Saladrigas, and Southern Wine and Spirits CEO Wayne Chaplin are just some of the folks who gave the maximum allowable under federal law to both Bush and Graham during the most recent election cycle. Eagle Brands CEO Carlos de la Cruz has a different dilemma to solve -- his money went to both Bush and Dick Gephardt. County mayoral hopeful José Cancela gave $2000 to Bush and $2000 to the DNC, while prominent lobbyist Ron Book just seems to like everybody: He gave Bush $2000 the exact same day he gave the DCCC $1500. Graham received $2000 from Book, as did Howard Dean and John Kerry -- within days of each other.

Vista magazine head Alfred Estrada took a more convoluted path to the same end, giving $25,000 to the DCCC, then $10,000 to Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart's Democracy Believers Political Action Committee (PAC) -- which doles out money to many of the Republicans running against the congressional candidates bankrolled nationwide by the DCCC. Perhaps to help even the score, Estrada's wife Teresa kicked in another $5000 to Democracy Believers.

What on earth is going on here? Isn't giving to both sides in a race counterproductive?

"It's actually pretty simple," explains Nancy Watzman, research director for Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign-finance watchdog. "These folks are protecting their investments. They're giving money for bottom-line business reasons, as opposed to ideological or true-belief reasons. They just want to make sure that whoever gets elected, they're going to have access to that administration."

In a Public Campaign report titled Whoever Wins, They Win: Double-Giving in the Presidential Campaign, Watzman found that such practices were a "time-honored strategy practiced by the politically savvy." The report continues: "One of the best known examples of this phenomenon are the sugar-growing Fanjul brothers of Florida. For years they have managed to fight off attacks on the federal sugar loan-support program that is worth more than $65 million a year for their business. Their secret? Alfonso 'Alfy' Fanjul is a major Democratic donor; José 'Pepe' Fanjul is a major Republican donor. Meanwhile, consumers pay $1.2 billion more per year for sugar than they otherwise would."

Naturally Miami's double-dippers have a less jaundiced take on all this. To hear José Cancela tell it, his giving money to both Bush and the DNC's effort to unseat Bush is the only way to stay above the fray. "I'm a Democrat, I'm not ashamed of that," Cancela tells Kulchur. "But this presidential race is going to be very divisive and I want to be the mayor for all the people of Miami-Dade County, not just one sector of the community."

So are you a Bush supporter or a Kerry supporter?

"I'm neither," Cancela replies, honing his debating skills. "Both sides are happy I gave, and I'm happy that they're happy."

Keeping people on both sides of the aisle smiling also seems to be the secret behind Ron Book's booming lobbyist practice. "I like both candidates and consider them both to be friends of mine," Book tells Kulchur. "From a business community perspective, President Bush is a better candidate. On other issues, John Kerry is more attractive."

You do realize only one man can win in November, right?

"I guess we'll have to see what happens when I go into the voting booth," Book counters wryly. Turning serious, he adds, "You want to try and make sure you're accessing both campaigns. I don't do that all the time."

Actually you do. You gave to both parties in the 2000 presidential race.

"Did I?" Book asks earnestly. "Who did I support in 2000?"

I don't know who you voted for, but you gave $5000 to the Republican Party, $1000 to Bush, $2500 to the Democratic Party, and $500 to Bill Bradley.

His memory instantly refreshed, Book insists, "I clearly supported the president last time. I gave more money to [Bush] than I gave to Gore." Not that he's embarrassed by his equal-opportunity check-writing: "I think my clients are better served by my being a bipartisan guy."

In that respect at least, Book is certainly more forthright than some of his fellow lobbyists. Across town at the high-powered firm of Barreto, Cunningham, May, Dudley, Maloy, Rodney Barreto is known as a well-connected Republican. Indeed, with the exception of Alex Penelas, all his contributions this past election cycle have been to GOP figures, including $2000 to Bush and $25,000 to the Republican National Committee. Yet Barreto's partner Brian May donates solely to Democrats. Is there an ideological war brewing at their office's water cooler, or are Barreto and May trying to fool certain clients?

"Well, I'm not trying to fool anybody," Book declares. "Judge this book by its cover!"

Ouch.


Braman Motorcars CEO Norman Braman is refreshingly unequivocal about his presidential hopes. "With all due respect to John Kerry, it's a no-brainer for me," Braman says. "I just really believe in these difficult times we're going through, especially since 9/11 and the courage it took to move against Iraq, that this country needs George W. Bush as president." Sure enough, a look at federal records reveals a $2000 contribution from Braman to Bush -- and not a penny to Kerry or any national Democratic organization. Not that he isn't sympathetic to some of his fellow businessmen's ambiguous positions.

"I can understand Bob Graham from a local perspective," Braman notes. "I encouraged my wife to make a contribution to Bob Graham as a way to say thank you for all the years he served here."

But what about all your pals who are giving money to Bush as well as the DNC? The DNC isn't a local cause.

"You're missing one point, and that's who's asking. If somebody calls an individual where there's a special relationship, you don't say no. Conviction may not always be a factor -- obviously it isn't for some people. It all comes down to who asks you.... You know how it works."

Still Braman has good reason to be so understanding. Besides Graham and Bush, his wife Irma has also given $2000 each to Wesley Clark and Joseph Lieberman. "She's not as avid a Bush supporter as her husband," Braman chuckles.


Celebrities may flock to political causes in Hollywood or New York, but not in Miami. We've got a few crusading stars: P. Diddy gave $2000 to Al Sharpton's presidential quest -- perhaps to exorcise the mojo inside his Star Island mansion, whose previous owner, record company exec Tommy Mottola, gave $2000 to Bush. But if Kerry is serious about taking the White House, he should immediately consider wooing Mount Sinai cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston, better known to his millions of devotees as the creator of The South Beach Diet.

Agatston's influence has moved far beyond his massive book sales. Wall Street now anxiously tracks his advice as closely as any of his nationwide army of dieters: Companies that produce his favored low-carb foods are seeing their stock prices soar (it's a good time to buy into poultry) while several high-carb food-makers are skidding into debt (sayonara Krispy Kreme!). Certainly if a Madonna endorsement was worth enough to Wesley Clark to mandate a one-on-one 90-minute meeting with the Material Mom, Agatston should merit at least a phone call.

Memo to Kerry: Agatston still seems to be on the political fence. He's given $1000 to Lieberman, but he's also contributed $1000 to Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's Northstar Leadership PAC. Agatston was unavailable for comment at press time -- "He's tapingThe View up in New York," explained his publicist -- but Kulchur was promised an eventual exclusive. (Leonard Pitts, eat your heart out!)

Unfortunately, beyond Agatston, South Florida's activist-minded A-list starts to thin out. Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Jennifer Lopez, and Lenny Kravitz all have yet to cough up a single cent to either party. Instead we'll have to make do with KC -- Harry Wayne Casey of KC & the Sunshine Band fame ($500 to Graham), sunbaked singer Jimmy Buffett ($2000 to Graham, $2000 to Clark), and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret author Judy Blume($2000 to Dean). But a word of advice to Blume or anyone else about to go before People's Court TV judge Marilyn Milian: Leave the Deaniac button at home. Milian gave $2000 to Bush.

Still the biggest surprise has to be the discovery that one of the Democratic Party's most generous Miami contributors is hiding in plain sight. WFOR-TV (Channel 4) weatherman Bryan Norcross has given $25,000 to the DNC and $5000 to the DCCCin just the past election cycle, with a $1000 kicker to Dean. Pundits such as Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg have fashioned lucrative careers from their shrill allegations of liberal bias in the media, but Norcross's case poses a thornier question.

Can a weather forecast be, ahem, politically slanted? Is there such a thing as meteorological bias? Kulchur embarked on a rigorous study of Norcross's recent televised forecasts: Did gentle, uplifting winds always seem to blow in from the left? Did property-destroying gales gust in from the right? Were Norcross's predictions of rain always arriving on the eve of a Bush visit?

The results so far have been inconclusive. But ever the dedicated journalist, Kulchur is willing to follow this story all the way through hurricane season. (We smell a Pulitzer!)

A WFOR spokesman curtly informed Kulchur that Norcross preferred not to discuss his political views, but we're pretty sure we could hear a certain weatherman rolling his eyes in the background.

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