By Kartik Krishnaiyer
Since the publishing of Part II of this series last week, I have been asked what happened on the school voucher issue to create a dynamic where the number of legislative Democrats who supported corporate tax credit vouchers grew from 1 to 24 between 2001 and 2011. Did the Democrats shift ideologically to the middle in mass during that period, despite continuing to lose the vast majority of legislative elections in the state? Why has the pro-voucher group All Children Matter, founded by Betsy and Rich DeVos (the largest family contributors to the National GOP during the 1980s and 1990s) and heavily funded by the estate of Walmart founder Sam Walton, spent over half its money in the state of Florida since 2004? I have also been asked why Florida’s Democrats seem to have accepted school vouchers while their counterparts in other states, some more conservative than Florida, continue to fight tooth and nail against them.
The simple answers are campaign cash, lack of personal convictions by many Democratic officeholders and a state party with no moral compass. Also the unwillingness of Democrats to stand strong on principle and desperation for campaign cash plays into this growing acceptance of school “choice” legislation. Many Democrats in the era of term limits and an absentee state party structure have chosen to sell out to the highest bidder possible. They also do not have the strength or courage in their personal convictions about education issues to stand tall on these matters. Just yesterday, former Democratic Senate Leader Al Lawson testified on behalf of the “Parent Trigger Bill” in front of a House Committee. Lawson can be excused somewhat as he has not flipped his position on any of these issues. He started out fairly conservative and has stayed there. But many ostensibly liberal Democrats (or at least those who claim they are liberal when back home in front of partisan audiences) have “evolved” on the issue contrary to public opinion at home and the Democratic Party’s views in the other 49 states.
The number of legislative Democrats who supported corporate tax credit vouchers grew from one to twenty-four between 2001 and 2011. This is especially interesting when you consider the Democratic caucuses was arguably more conservative on other issues in 2001 than in 2011. But this is contrasted by the large numbers of Democrats in Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin that thought vouchers might work as a solution to the education issues in their states but over the last several years have flipped back towards a pro public school position.
When Jeb Bush was elected in 1998, backed by the Republican takeover of the Legislature two years earlier, school vouchers became one of the two biggest priorities for the new Governor. The other major priority of tort reform went along with the national GOP agenda of “de-funding the left,” which meant mitigating the amount of influence the trial lawyers and teachers unions could have on political campaigns. Vouchers were a way of breaking the teachers union while echoing common Republican themes about the private sector and capitalism.
Many longtime Republican legislators were dubious about vouchers. These legislators, such as the late Senator Jim King and Representatives Dennis Jones and Evelyn Lynn, went along with the 1999 “A plus Plan” but voiced concerns about some of the plans’ facets. In time, all three of the aforementioned legislators would become thorns in the side of the school “choice” movement in Florida. Meanwhile, several other Republicans voted against the school choice plan and a few rural Conservative Democratic legislators who had stopped voting with their party on every other issue cast questions over school choice. But as time went on the conversion of Democrats from more liberal areas more than offset the defections of a few wise Republicans on the voucher issue.
The DeVos family who own the Orlando Magic were prominent financial backers of the late Rev. D. James Kennedy a Fort Lauderdale pastor whose Sunday services were beamed via satellite to a national audience. Kennedy’s weekly sermons often contained messages denouncing the separation of church as a myth and state and included frequent gay-baiting. They have also been the single largest contributor to the various groups, advocating school choice legislation in Florida, most notably the group they founded “All Children Matter.”
John Kirtley, who runs the Florida chapter of All Children Matter has been a frequent direct contributor to the campaigns of many Democrats including current House Minority Leader Ron Saunders.
According to Right Wing Watch:
In 2004, All Children Matter-Florida run by John Kirtley paid for brochures in support of President Bush’ in Florida. The brochure falsely claimed that Senator John Kerry “opposed equal opportunity in education” and stated that President Bush supported increased education funding. Campaign finance laws require political groups to clearly identify themselves on their ads. Though the phrase “no matter what, All Children Matter” appears at the bottom of the flier the group did not place a disclaimer that they had paid for it. The Florida group then spent that money to support pro-voucher candidates in the state, without having to disclose the individuals who donated it. Relevant disclosure forms for the Florida groups will show only that money came in from All Children Matter-Virginia, with no disclosure of a connection to the Walton family. All Children Matter-Virginia appears to be the centerpiece of this scheme. ACM-VA is seeing an unprecedented cash flow even though it can only spend money in Virginia on state races and there are none in 2006. ACM-VA acts a conduit to stealthfully distribute money to other states.
According a report in the Florida Times Union the following legislative Democrats received money from pro voucher interests between 2006 and 2010
– Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington: $5,000
– Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach: $17,000
– Rep. Debbie Boyd, D-Newberry: $5,450
– Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens: $17,500
– Former Rep. Ronald Brise, D-North Miami; current member of the Public Service Commission: $13,500
– Rep. Charles Chestnut, D-Gainesville: $7,000
– Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Pompano Beach: $9,850
– Former Rep. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville; running for state Senate: $26,500*; $41,000 to Florida Fresh Start, a political action committee he heads
– Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami: $5,450
– Former Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg: $12,451
– Pat Felder-Lockett, Jacksonville Democrat; ran for the Florida House in 2008: $8,750
– Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole: $16,000
– Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa: $11,450
– Rep. Hazel Rogers, D-Lauderhill: $10,000
– Rep. Darryl Rousson, D-St. Petersburg: $8,000
– Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray: $5,750
– Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West: $13,750
– Former Rep. Michael Scionti, D-Tampa: $6,500
– Sean Shaw, Tallahassee Democrat; ran for the Florida House in 2010: $6,000
– Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach: $20,750
– Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek: $8,000
Read more about this issue at Jacksonville.com
* Terry Fields lost his Special Election in 2011.
It is worth noting that this does not include Independent Expenditures which have been done by the group on behalf of many of the above listed Democrats. I am evaluating those expenditures and hopes to have a breakdown in the near future.
As we are now into the 2013 Legislative Session, I will continue to highlight the failures of Florida’s Democrats to hold the line on important issues for progressives. Florida’s schools continue to fail, but the solutions proposed by Republicans and many Democrats disincentive and ostracize public education. Florida has to do better. The failure of Republican legislators to attract a sufficient amount of private sector business and employment to the state is directly correlated to the shambles that is education in Florida. Yet Florida Democrats instead of offering solutions or alternatives to stimulate growth in this state which are what a truly Democratic system of Government depends on, often practice “me too conservatism,” or “me too Republicanism.” Whether or not you are a liberal or a conservative, pro school “choice” or pro public schools, it is important that politicians compete with one another in the marketplace of ideas. The Democrats in Florida have failed Democracy with the unwillingness they have to stand tall on critical issues and offer strong alternatives.