For years, a 501(c)(4) "dark-money" nonprofit called Florida Strong has been supporting Democratic candidates across the state. Though the secretive group has been more than deserving of its own criticism over the years, there's apparently now a second and perhaps even shadier organization called "Florida Strong" funded by right-wingers operating in the state. The new PAC is now running a bunch of awful, anti-Andrew Gillum ads that falsely refer to the Tallahassee mayor as a "socialist," among other insane attacks.
Perhaps most misleadingly, the PAC is also sponsoring Facebook ads asking users to click to see which "award" Andrew Gillum recently received. The website redirects to a single page showing a fake award congratulating Gillum for Tallahassee's high crime rate. The site is clickbait.
So who is paying for these attacks? According to state campaign-finance records, the new Florida Strong political action committee's funding comes from a small cadre of right-wing donors, including $15,000 from the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, $9,000 from a group called "Sunshine State Conservatives," $4,000 from another PAC called the "Responsible Leadership Committee," $25,000 from a pro-Trump PAC called the "Freedom First Committee," and a whopping $100,000 donation on March 1 from former Sarasota state legislator Patrick K. Neal, who is now a major real-estate developer around Florida.
But perhaps the most striking donation came in the form of a $25,000 check on September 28 from Florida's largest power company — Florida Power & Light, one of Florida's four state-regulated electricity monopolies.
FPL representatives did not respond to a message from New Times yesterday evening. But the timing of FPL's donation — long after the August primary, as Gillum continued to lead in the polls — suggests that the company is pumping more money into the political race to try to back Ron DeSantis into the governorship.
The leader of the original, Democrat-leaning Florida Strong group, Maria Garcia, tells New Times she believes the new group is designed to either mimic her organization or simply confuse voters. She also tried to report the group's Facebook page for stealing her group's identity, but Facebook declined to remove the page. She provided New Times with her email chain confirming her exchange with the social-media giant.
"This feels like a deliberate attempt to mislead voters and to muddy the waters using Facebook to exploit misinformation," Garcia told New Times.
FPL is one of the largest single political donors in the state. The company has long been accused of using political donations to ensure state lawmakers don't impede its extremely safe business model or regulate its environmental standards too hard. Reporters have caught company lobbyists writing portions of proposed state laws. The company and its parent corporation, NextEra Energy, generally support Republicans but neither is shy about donating to Democrats willing to accept power-company cash, too.
FPL floods money to all sorts of political-action committees and is suspected of funding local and national "dark money" groups as well. In 2015, FPL spent more than $8 million on a misleading campaign transparently designed to trick Floridians into making it harder to install solar panels on their own homes.
One ultrapowerful PAC, Associated Industries of Florida (and its many subsidiary PACs), is absolutely flush with FPL money. The AIF, which is also funded in large part by Big Sugar, has endorsed DeSantis' campaign. FPL also gave a small, $754 in-kind donation to the "Friends of Ron DeSantis" PAC on August 29.
But the new "Florida Strong" PAC is a particularly strange case. The already-extant, Democratic-leaning Florida Strong is a fairly well-known group in Sunshine State political circles — the group is tied to a network of donors called the "Florida Alliance," which is linked to billionaire mega-donor and former Florida Democratic Party head Stephen Bittel, who was forced to step down after he was accused of sexual harassment and racial insensitivity. The better-known version of Florida Strong compiles opposition research on candidates and stumps for centrist-Democratic causes. Critics, especially those on the Democratic Party's left flank, say the group's funding structures seem dishonest and that Democrats should not stoop to using the same "dark-money," 501(c)(4) tactics as right-wingers do. (Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits, 501(c)(4) groups do not legally have to disclose their donors.) Other critics say the group is either ineffectual or insufficiently progressive.
The network of Florida Alliance groups is tied to a national 501(c)(4) nonprofit called America Votes. According to Politico Florida, the name "Florida Strong" is technically a fake name owned by a 501(c)(4) group called "Florida Watch Action."
But Garcia, the group's director, said she found out about the new, right-leaning PAC from a friend, who saw the anti-Gillum ads on Facebook and was confused by their rightward slant.
"She said that the messaging seemed way off-base for Florida Strong, so she sent me a screenshot," Garcia said. "Imagine my shock when I saw our name next to anti-Gillum ads calling him a socialist."
Asked to comment, Neal, the former state legislator and the right-leaning group's largest single benefactor, said in a two-word email to New Times that he had donated $100,000 to the PAC "for this," and included a link to a pro-Adam Putnam ad that ran during the Republican gubernatorial primary. Putnam then lost to DeSantis by a huge margin in August.
But the PAC is now paying for a website called LearnAboutGillum.com, which includes a massive headline blazing that Gillum has "WRONG ideas for Florida" and that "under Andrew Gillum, Florida will be closed for business." The website also includes a bizarre, nonsensical graph showing where the group thinks Gillum sits on the left-right political scale within the Democratic Party:
Gillum has proposed raising taxes on corporations in order to pay for increased social programs for the poor and working class. But he is also expressly not a socialist — both in name and in policy. As a very basic example, he has not proposed worker control of businesses or the abolition of company profits. He is likely the most left-leaning gubernatorial candidate Florida has seen and has been endorsed by more than a few socialists, but it's simply inaccurate to say he's proposing a socialist platform. He isn't.
But the ads Florida Strong is running on Facebook say Gillum will "bring Bernie Sanders-style socialism to Florida." The ads also flat-out falsely state that Gillum wants to "end Medicare for seniors" by instituting a national Medicare-for-All healthcare plan that would, by design, cover everyone. The website also says that a single-payer healthcare plan will cost an estimated $32 trillion in new taxes — but, as New Times noted earlier this election cycle, that number is total scare-mongering, since Americans are actually projected to pay more than that for insurance premiums and other healthcare costs if we don't institute Medicare-for-All.
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The site also repeatedly whacks Gillum for the fact that murders increased in Leon County after he joined the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003 and later became the city's mayor in 2014. But that "increase" is also a bit misleading — there were 14 murders in Leon County in 2004, compared to a peak of 22 in 2017, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data. (Leon County's overall crime rate does remain the state's highest.) Though no number of murders is good, this is also not Cocaine Cowboys-era Miami we're talking about.
Garcia, the head of the liberal Florida Strong, showed New Times an email chain with Facebook. On October 15, she reported the right-leaning group to the company for impersonating her organization. A Facebook employee wrote back the next day telling Garcia the company was not going to remove the page.
"We aren't able to remove the accounts you reported because they don't violate Facebook policy or they have already been unpublished," a Facebook employee identified only as "Henry" wrote. "We can only remove accounts that falsely claim to represent your official presence on Facebook. Fan pages and opinion pages don't violate Facebook policy."
It perhaps didn't help that the liberal Florida Strong is also operating under its own, assumed name.