Big sugar and the 2018 Florida election

By Andrew Migneault – USDA-ARS Canal Point Sugarcane Field Station, Public Domain,

Following eight years of Rick Scott’s anti-environmental administration, cleaning up and resorting the Everglades water quality and flows which is mandated by a court order is further behind schedule than imaginable. Scott’s alliance with sugar barons in southern Florida has been mirrored by a legislature unwilling to stand up to the industry with the exception of a few lonely souls. This has allowed the industry to have unmatched control over legislation in the state.

Particularly successful, sugar has been in impacting Democratic House and Senate primaries over the course of the last decade and finding loyal Democrats to their cause. While many of these same Democrats talk a good game and vote correctly on most other environmental issues, when it comes to Everglades cleanup, restoration and water issues they tend to dance around the topic of sugar or avoid it altogether. As far as Republicans are concerned, the vast majority have echoed sugar’s talking points for years now. The days when many elected Republicans, in this state did effective battle with the sugar industry passed in the late 1990’s when the party veered sharply to the right on Everglades issues (prior to the election of Jeb Bush as governor and term limits impacting long-term GOP officeholders around the same time, it could be argued strongly that the Republicans were actually better on the sugar issue overall than the Democrats). 

Sugar has also had a great deal of success with Florida’s Congressional Delegation though a few from this state have openly opposed the industry such as 2016 Democratic US Senate nominee Congressman Patrick Murphy. Thanks to his advocacy, Murphy won numerous awards from the Audubon Society and Everglades Trust among other groups concerned about water quality and the ecosystem south of Orlando.

Sugar’s obsession with maintaining control over politics in this state led the industry to pull out all the stops to prevent Murphy from reaching the US Senate. The multi-million dollar effort, which first focused unsuccessfully on weakening Murphy in the Democratic Primary and then defeating him successfully in the general saw sugar successfully return Marco Rubio to the US Senate.

Entering this cycle, sugar favorite Adam Putnam appeared to be ready to pick up the torch from Rick Scott and continue working to protect the industry from doing its part to accept responsibility for much of the current trouble the Everglades faces. Gwen Graham given her ideological bent also seemed to be a safer bet than the other Democrats and she was the front runner in her party.

However, Putnam began to run into trouble early in the cycle with Donald Trump acolyte, Congressman Ron DeSantis harnessing the anger and populism of the President’s winning coalition of Republicans in this state. DeSantis’ policy stands on national and international issues are virtually indistinguishable from Trump’s. However, on issues related to the Everglades, he appeared incredibly well-studied and unlike Putnam who was essentially a sugar apologist, deeply critical of the industry and it’s impact on the ecosystem. DeSantis correctly notes that someone has to pay for the cleanup of the Everglades, because not only are we under a court order to do so, but tourism and economic growth in the southern half of the peninsula will eventually fall off without a restored Everglades ecosystem. Either sugar pays or we pay.

Given DeSantis’ positioning on the issue it was not surprising to see the industry pour money into the GOP primary hoping to prop up Putnam and send DeSantis packing the way Murphy had been prematurely retired. But it simply didn’t work out that way. Any hopes sugar had of DeSantis backpedaling were quickly dashed as he’s added attacking sugar to his Trump-like populist messaging. It might be a mismatch ideologically, as opposition to sugar is perceived as a progressive cause but it seems to flow of his tongue without much hesitation. Besides, DeSantis has seemingly given a very conservative justification for what would be a radical shift to the left policy wise for the state – clamp down on sugar now or pay for it later with higher taxes and diminished economic growth/quality of life. 

Meanwhile on the Democratic side, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum with no historic links to sugar was able to upset Graham. Gillum received no money from sugar or related entities in the primary yet was able to overcome Graham in a party which has become increasingly tied to the industry in recent years. In fact, Gillum’s political mentor Tallahassee Commissioner Scott Maddox was the last Florida Democratic Party Chair to openly do battle with the sugar industry. Maddox lost those battles however, as sugar had already infiltrated the ranks of Democratic legislators who were running their own shadow party for all intents and purposes at the time.

So where does sugar go or where are they positioned with a week left in the campaign?

Oddly, Andrew Gillum hasn’t been willing to call sugar out directly on the campaign trail, but almost certainly isn’t playing ball directly with the industry. On the GOP side, sugar spent according to published reports and my sources multi-millions to try and defeat Ron DeSantis in the primary as noted above, in the process turning the Congressman(who was already hostile to them) into an avowed opponent of the industry who openly attacks them.

For those unfamiliar with sugar’s impact on the Everglades here is a brief synopsis from the Friends of the Everglades:

The Florida Independent published a report on May 2nd, 2012, that deserves wide attention, “Everglades suffering from sulfate runoff, Methylmercury contamination”. Friends of the Everglades has been studying issues related to mercury contamination in the Everglades. Data is accumulating that sugar farms are a major source of contamination, through the use of sulfur in their farming practices. The Florida legislature has proven intransigent on mercury contamination as it has on phosphorous, the subject of more than two decades of litigation in federal courts. Friends of the Everglades believes that the polluters must be held accountable for the full costs of their pollution. In fact, that provision was put in the Florida Constitution through a ballot referendum approved by Florida voters in 1996 but it has never been enacted by the legislature. Although sugar growers complain that pollution comes from other sources and not their lands, it is clear that much, much more could be done to keep pollution on private lands and not flowing into lands owned by the public, including Everglades National Park and the national wildlife refuges.

In the televised Gubernatorial debate on CNN last Sunday, both candidates soundly ridiculously similar on the issue of the Everglades, given they couldn’t agree on anything else and the moderator Jake Tapper allowed the discussion to denigrate into something resembling a food fight between 12 year-olds. However, one key distinction was Gillum cleverly danced around naming sugar directly despite echoing virtually everything else said by DeSantis, and despite being goaded on the issue by the GOP nominee.

The problem for Gillum despite his progressive instincts on the issue, appears to be the attachment of other elements in the Democratic Party to sugar. Lobbyist/consultant Sean Pittman who is closely connected to the Tallahassee Mayor, lobbies for Florida Crystals, while many of the elected officials from southern Florida who have endorsed Gillum have close ties to the industry. Similarly DeSantis has many supporters connected to sugar beginning with the sitting Governor himself.

Irrespective of the governor’s race, the sugar industry continues to maintain an out sized influence on county commissions in south Florida, legislative delegations in both parties from throughout the state and with members of Congress from Florida. But they could face a hostile Governor in DeSantis and at best a lukewarm one in Gillum. Both would be a far cry from Rick Scott on this particularly issue.

One comment

  1. […] or pro-development? Is he for universal health care or aligning with the insurance industry? Is he for or against making sugar clean up the Everglades? Is he a foreign policy hawk aka Marco Rubio on Latin America (supporting right-wing talking points […]


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