As Algae Bloom Grew, Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart Took $27,200 From Big Sugar

From the beginning of June until early July, an algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee grew and grew until it covered 90 percent of the lake's surface. Then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water from the lake, letting the algae migrate to both coasts of Florida.

The nasty, toxic sludge — caused in significant part by polluted runoff from sugar farms — has killed wildlife, lowered property values, and wrecked tourism. It's also made campaign contributions from the sugar giants a major political liability. As the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reported earlier this week, only one of Florida's gubernatorial candidates, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, is still accepting donations from Big Sugar.

But Putnam isn't the only candidate finding sugar money too sweet to give up. Since June, Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart has accepted $27,200 from the sugar industry, including more than $16,000 from six members of the Fanjul family, which owns one of the state's largest sugar companies, Florida Crystals.

The donations include:
  • $5,000 from American Crystal Sugar Company PAC
  • $2,700 each from Lourdes Fanjul, Alex Fanjul, Jose Fanjul Jr., Nicole Fanjul, Jose F. Fanjul, and Emilia Fanjul
  • $2,500 from Snake River Sugar Company PAC
  • $1,500 from Michigan Sugar Company Growers PAC
  • $1,000 from Florida Sugar Cane League PAC
  • $1,000 from American Sugar Cane League of USA Inc. PAC
A spokeswoman for Diaz-Balart did not respond to phone messages or emails seeking comment.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Diaz-Balart is the top recipient of sugar industry dollars in Congress. In 2018 alone, he has accepted $48,200 from companies such as U.S. Sugar and American Crystal Sugar. (Both of Florida's senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, are also top recipients this year, netting $32,600 and $30,500, respectively.)

So it's not a major shock that Diaz-Balart's record on environmental issues is abysmal. The League of Conservation Voters gives him a lifetime 11 percent rating and found he voted for just 6 percent of environmentally friendly legislation last year. He's also on record as a climate change denier.

Diaz-Balart, who was first elected to the House in 2002, is up for reelection in November. His Democratic challenger, former judge Mary Barzee Flores, has pledged not to take donations from Big Sugar and says the industry's contributions to Diaz-Balart speak to a larger point.

"This is typical of what voters have come to expect of Mario," her campaign manager, Sam Miller, told New Times in a statement. "He's a pay-to-play, career politician who is out of touch with his constituents, but very much in touch with the special interests who are funding his campaign while toxic sludge washes into our communities."
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.