Over the last few years, we at TFS have repeatedly cited John Kirtley, a Tampa venture capitalist and the force behind the national pro-voucher group “All Children Matter” as a malign force that was able to use campaign contributions to possibly influence the thoughts of many Democrats on the school “choice” issue. In 2012, Kirtley and his allies poured money into the Democratic primary campaigns for State Senate of Rep. Ron Saunders and Rep. Mac Bernard. That same cycle he cut two personal checks to Darren Soto who was running in an open seat for State Senate. Kirtley then cut a $1,000 check for the 2014 cycle to Soto, the day before session began in March of 2014.
Following receiving the checks from Kirtley, Soto toed the line for the school “choice” agenda including casting one of only two votes by any Democrat in either chamber for the infamous “Parent Trigger” legislation in 2012 and casting one of only four votes by any Democrat in either chamber in 2014 for the largest ever statewide expansion of vouchers. It was Soto’s May 2014 vote in the Senate that broke the backs of public school advocates who at the time were successfully playing defense in the upper chamber against the voucher legislation. Soto’s decision to support the package, a pet project of former Governor Jeb Bush which was strongly backed by Rick Scott led to more defections and Republicans who were on the fence falling in line – the legislation passed the Senate the final day of the 2014 session.
In 2015, right before he jumped into the Congressional District 9 race, Soto scored 100% on Jeb Bush’s Excellence in Education Foundation scorecard which advocates for the privatization of public education. So while Soto might have played liberal in 2016 while running in a Democratic Primary in 2015 he was still voting with Jeb Bush in lock-step regarding education issues.
Voucher advocates had for years trouble corralling moderate Senate Republicans, but recently have scored numerous successes in the House even among Democrats. As we have discussed in the past, recently many Democrats in the House have sacrificed support for public schools in the last few sessions for various reasons, be they campaign contributions, to curry favor with the House GOP leadership or because of a lack of Democratic leadership on this issue. When Soto broke with public school supporters the last day session in 2014 he undid the work of education advocates that session who had kept all but one House Democrat in line and were working successfully to bring Senate Republicans over. Soto’s decision to back the voucher expansion blew any cover moderate Republicans had as Democrats in the Senate were no longer united against the school “choice” legislation.
Soto’s anti-public school votes has won him favor and critical acclaim with conservatives. The Sunshine State News, one of the voices of record that conservative political insiders in the state read daily said the following about Soto in 2014:
“Soto is about as good as conservatives can hope for from his liberal Democratic district.”
The SSN is spot-on, but here’s our perspective — Soto is about as BAD a Democrat for liberals and progressives as anyone in the state. A quick overview of Soto’s votes in his legislative career indicates certain trends which include his consistent support for school “choice” schemes. What also is apparent is that the checks from Kirtley have made a difference in his voting record which raises all sorts of other question marks and concerns about whether or not as a member of congress Soto will be an advocate for public education.
Kirtley checks to Soto listed below:
2012 Q1 01/05/2012 500.00 KIRTLEY JOHN 339 S. PLANT AVENUE TAMPA, FL 33605 INVESTOR CHE
2011 Q4 12/30/2011 500.00 KIRTLEY JOHN 339 S PLANT AVE TAMPA, FL 33606 INVESTOR CHE
2014 M3 03/03/2014 1,000.00 KIRTLEY JOHN, F. 511 W. BAY STREET, SUITE 350 TAMPA, FL 33606 SMALL BUSINESS OWNER CHE