GOLDEN STRINGS: Republican lobbyist pulling for Darren Soto

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 8.19.14 PMAs Scott Powers reported in the Orlando Sentinel, campaign fundraisers for political candidates are starting to draw crowds. But in the case of Darren Soto, they’re also raising eyebrows.

Soto’s host committee for his District 9 race includes a well known Republican lobbyist and bundler, Fred Leonhardt.

Most people wouldn’t know or care who’s who on a fundraising host committee, but Leonhardt’s name jumped out at me because he was an opponent of the Earned Sick Time initiative, and produced a commentary for WMFE opposing it. This is unsurprising for a lobbyist for Darden and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association. But it’s a choice that clashes with the image Soto has crafted as the true “progressive” in the race.

As we’ve noted many times before on this blog, it’s fine to be a neoliberal, corporate Democrat. Just don’t market yourself as a Progressive and expect not to be called out on it. Clearly there’s those who are eager to support a Democrat who can be counted on to cross the aisle when the Chamber of Commerce demands it. Why try to pass as something you’re not?

Maybe the identity crisis is meant to appeal to unions or activists he’s also hitting up for support. I can’t imagine that anyone familiar with his voting record, or who knows that he scored a 100% approval from Jeb Bush’s education foundation, would fall for that.

True Progressives steer clear of board members of the Koch-funded James Madison Institute, who max-out donations to Republican Presidential candidates like Leonhardt did a little more than a month ago when he stroked a $2700 check to Jeb Bush’s campaign. Progressives also stand in opposition to the free market fundamentalism pushed in the James Madison Institute’s legislative agenda which includes pension “reform,” prison privatization, and school “choice.”

There’s other Centrist Democrats on Soto’s host committee such as Derek Bruce, who was one of the architects who helped block the creation of a truly Hispanic Orange County Commission seat. Soto should stand tall with this cohort, admit that his record doesn’t reflect  Progressive values, and run with the Centrist branding.

If his host committee is any indication, Soto will benefit from the deep pockets that Leonhardt has access to. But what does a Republican bundler and Koch-funded JMI board member, think is valuable in Darren Soto?

Seems to me that the kinds of things Leonhardt might expect in return for his largesse is support for items on the JMI legislative agenda: tax breaks for the wealthy, privatization of public works, and squeezing workers in any way possible. They call it “economic development.”

Which is funny because another issue flying under the radar is the future of “economic development” in Puerto Rico. Whoever is sent to Washington from District 9 could be called upon to help decide policy on how to handle the debt crisis in the island commonwealth. This is exactly the kind of “economic development opportunity,” that a Republican bundler might be interested in cultivating.

Right now Puerto Rico is $70 billion in debt and is unable to re-finance through bankruptcy, which leaves the island open to financial bottom feeders. As Nobel Laureate of Economics, Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Private creditors are unwilling to admit they made foolish investments, lured by the triple tax break on Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds. And once again the investment funds and banks, rating agencies and insurers who failed to do due diligence on the debtor’s capacity to pay will attempt to shift the blame. Vulture funds swooped in late, looking for a killing.

This is the kind of crisis that presents big opportunities for “vulture capitalists,” and threatens to create new levels of hardship for citizens. Stiglitz suggests remedies which would never be approved by Republican lobbyists:

“…the U.S. must take responsibility for its imperialist past and neocolonial present. Washington owes Puerto Ricans a future based on democratic legitimacy and a financially and socially viable development strategy—a development strategy that is more than a set of tax breaks for profitable U.S. corporations.”

Corporate interests are already lining up to influence policy, and pick the economic carcass clean. For District 9 voters who care about the future of Puerto Rico, the best hope is to send someone to Congress who will stand up to lobbyists bearing checks, and expect little economic development favors in return. Appeasing these interests will result in more hardship for the unincorporated U.S. territory, and suffering for its citizens.



Brook Hines is a writer, photographer, activist and former alt-weekly publisher, as well as an award-winning advertising creative with more than 20 years’ experience crafting strategy in “words + pictures” for clients ranging from banking and financial services to radical nuns. She’s the Senior Political Correspondent for Progressive News Network, the Communications Chair for the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, and the 2015-2016 Co-Chair of New Leaders Council, Orlando Chapter. All opinions offered here are her own. You can easily find Brook Hines on Facebook and Flickr. Read all of Brook’s articles here.


  1. No, Darren Soto is no progressive Democrat,and the voters have a right to know about the Republican promoters who are behind him! Darden Enterprises owner is a corporatist Republican who naturally would be opposed to earned sick leave. That is diametrically opposed to our Progressive values of workers’ rights, increasing the minimum wage and healthcare via Medicaid which Florida is still refusing to provide for our low-wage workers! If Soto is making deals with the devil (Republican businessmen) then we need to find a true Democrat to run for Dist. 9! We need Orlando folks to write letters to the editor at the Sentinel informing voters of where he stands on these important campaign issues!


  2. Brett Upthagrove · ·

    Brooke, Sen. Soto represents us in Polk and I keep an eye on him and have found him to have integrity. You are pretty thorough in most of your articles but I noticed you failed to mention that the same GOP fundraiser also raised money for Scott Randolph and Mr. Saunders, both great Democrats. That should be added to your article in my opinion.


    1. If you can find a citation for those claims I’ll be happy to post. Leonhardt does not come up on a search for either in any of the fundraising contributions databases.


      1. Blue Dog · ·

        More importantly, Leonhardt actually raised money and ran candidates AGAINST both candidates mentioned along with Linda Stewart and Karen Castor Dentel. Everyone who has been in Central FL Politics and who has been awake knows that Leonhardt pulls the strings of all GOP causes. This is very disturbing to see him on this list for Soto.


      2. Darren Vierday · ·

        According to the Florida Division of Elections, Joe Saunders received $250.00 from Leonhardt on 07/09/2013. Linda Stewart, Geraldine Thompson, Ricardo Rangel, Jeff Clemens, Victor Torres, and Randolph Bracy have also received sizable support ($500-$750) from him as well.
        Although Scott Randolph has not received any contributions from Leonhardt, they have appeared on host committees together, notably for Buddy Dyer for an event on March 29, 2011. Randolph did receive $500 from Leonhard’s employer Gray Robinson in 2007.


  3. Brett Upthagrove · ·

    Sen. Soto had been a champion for.Democrats. He sponsored a bill on fracking, fought and had the gay adoption ban bill tabled. I am a fan of both canidates and they are both freinds, I just think you are trying to paint Sen. Soto unfairly into a corner.


    1. Blue Dog · ·

      I just can’t support someone who has such a big, anti-Union lobbyist funding his campaign. Haven’t we learned anything as progressives?


  4. Ruth Ann Eaddy · ·

    Brook, if you are working on one of Senator Soto’s opponents campaign, I think you should own up to it. Or are you speaking as a voice for the real Progressive Caucus? I know many in the caucus that are most upset with the tone of this blog when it comes to Darren Soto. I too am from Polk County and Darren has been our only representation on the state level. He and Dwight Bullard are the only Democrats that you read about doing something positive for the Progressive cause.


    1. I guess I don’t understand. Some people aren’t supporting Hillary Clinton because of her record being too conservative, so they’re supporting Bernie. You have a Senator who voted anti-choice and anti-public school yet the same people who complain about Hillary turn a blind eye to this guy’s record? You can’t have it both ways if you want to actually be a progressive.


  5. Soto is not a progressive democrat nor does he stand for progressive values. He voted for mandatory ultrasounds for women, to allow guns on campus and to fund charter schools in Florida. Sometimes telling the truth is more important than writing a positive blog post. We should hold our legislators accountable and always have access to the truth. Thanks for doing that, Brook.


  6. Lance Weaver · ·

    This is exactly the kind of analysis I come to this blog to find. Republican lobbyists and bundlers don’t work for anyone they don’t think is working for their clients.

    I’d like to know where Soto stands on things like the paid sick leave initiative Orange County Republicans illegally kept off the ballot, which state Republicans then “pre-empted,” largely at the bidding of Disney and hotel lobby groups. If he’s backed by the people who fought Orange County citizens and Dems so hard on that issue, is going to feel comfortable backing workers’ rights here?

    Likewise, I don’t like any connection to Jeb Bush or his bogus education “reform” efforts that are nothing more than a scheme to divert millions public funds out of the schools into the pockets of Jeb-friendly businesses. The country is catching on to this scam, so much so that Maine’s weirdo rightwing governor LePage apparently cut his ties. Where does Soto stand on putting our tax dollars into the public schools, where they will do the most good.

    I’d like to hear more on his actual positions, but given his Republican-friendly voting record, and this telling connection to the Republican money men, I don’t see the “progressive” in this candidate much at all at this point.

    Thanks for putting this out there.


%d bloggers like this: