FLORIDA IS ABOUT TO HAVE AN ANTI-SUGAR GOVERNOR FOR THE FIRST TIME IN DECADES!
Irrespective of how you might feel about Ron DeSantis’ other policy positions (though based on his early days as Governor-Elect, DeSantis’ is appearing more pragmatic than his predecessor Rick Scott) , his strong advocacy of Everglades makes him perhaps the first Governor since the 1960’s completely independent of the sugar industry. The prospect of a truly balanced policy toward Everglades restoration should excite all Floridians, particularly those from the southern portion of the Peninsula.
Big Sugar spent lots of money in the GOP Primary to ensure the nomination Adam Putnam. An estimated $3 million was thrown into the primary to defeat DeSantis and nominate Putnam. Why? As Agriculture Commissioner, Putnam did virtually nothing to enforce existing laws on the books that forced sugar to account for the amount of phosphorous and other pollutants it was putting into the water. Data has long been available that demonstrates sugar farms are a major source of contamination.
Meanwhile, DeSantis had staked out a lonely position against sugar. A position that lazily today might be considered leftist, but could actually be seen as (traditionally) conservative because someone has to pay for the cleanup and restoration of the Everglades. Making sugar pay its fair share keeps the tax burden on citizens and other businesses in the state lower.
The industry might run into trouble with Democrat Nikki Fried as Agriculture Commissioner but we’ll save that for another day – because it’s DeSantis’ victory that now has sugar, the overlords of so many politicians of both political parties and all ideologies very nervous.
The win by DeSantis in both primary and November was the first major political setback for the industry in years. On the Democratic side, sugar preferred not to see Andrew Gillum nominated – but Gillum’s surrounding cast of characters ,sugar links prevented him from taking the strong stand DeSantis did against the industry.
DeSANTIS REPRESENTS A THROWBACK TO DIFFERENT TIME AMONG FLORIDA REPUBLICANS.
DeSantis represents a throwback to when Conservative Republicans worked hand-in-hand with Liberal Democrats to fight the transactional wings of both parties that were in the pocket of the sugar industry. In the 1990’s Republican leaders like future CIA Director Porter Goss, then a Congressman, State Representative Tom Warner, Congressman Ric Keller and many other Republicans targeted the sugar industry in alliance with liberal Democrats.
The late Republican Congressman E. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale, a perennial Democratic target was hated by the sugar industry. Every two years when the Democrats put up a challenger to Shaw, they could count on sugar’s big support. In fact, I was told in 2000, sugar informed the national and state Democratic Party’s they could have “whatever they needed” to take out Shaw and replace him with State Rep. Elaine Bloom in Washington.
What happened in the 2000’s was a rapid consolidation of both parties behind a pro-sugar, slowed down Everglades cleanup agenda. Environmentally conscious Democrats stopped talking about the Everglades and the anti-sugar Republicans eventually disappeared with Rick Scott Governorship representing sugar at its apex.
During the Scott years, the industry controlled the Governorship, all the cabinet seats and the usually the leadership of the legislature in BOTH parties with few exceptions. Thus, DeSantis’ election represents a major threat to an industry that has effectively slowed Everglades restoration thanks to buying its way through the legislative process.
HOW DO WE KNOW DESANTIS IS MORE ANTI-SUGAR THAN ANDREW GILLUM WOULD HAVE BEEN?
In a televised Gubernatorial debate on CNN two weeks before the election, both major party nominees soundly ridiculously similar on the issue of the Everglades, with one key distinction – Gillum cleverly danced around naming sugar directly whereas DeSantis went right after them and tried to goad Gillum into hitting them.
The problem for Gillum was that despite his progressive instincts on the issue, the attachment of other elements in the Democratic Party to sugar forced him to the middle. 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 had endorsed Gillum have close ties to the industry. The Florida Democratic Party raised a ridiculous amount of money from sugar when Gillum’s top strategist Scott Arceneaux was its Executive Director.
Similarly DeSantis has many supporters connected to sugar beginning with Governor Scott. However, having publicly bucked sugar in the primary against Putnam and survived bullets from every direction with sugar funding, DeSantis felt this was an issue to show his independence on. Florida’s voters elected a Governor committed to holding the industry accountable.
Sugar and its front groups spent tons of money funding Governor Rick Scott, particularly in his 2014 reelection effort. A hope had emerged prior to the 2014 election, that Charlie Crist who had a love-hate relationship with the industry would empower those concerned about the Everglades ecosystem over sugar’s lobbyists.
Crist’s own ties to the environmental movement were strong, but even though he had tried to buy US Sugar’s land in 2008, he never crossed the line DeSantis did this year in publicly blaming the industry for many of the problems the Everglades continues to suffer.
Scott’s reelection allowed sugar, already in full control of the state to run wild the last four years. The presumption in official Tallahassee and among the chattering classes that Scott would be replaced by either Putnam or the moderate Gwen Graham gave sugar even more leverage. The emergence of DeSantis caught the industry off guard and despite spending an estimated $3 million against him in the GOP primary, they lost.
The industry has given money to lots of Democrats, even liberal firebrands like Alan Grayson and Rob Wexler. This has allowed an industry more responsible for the problems in the Everglades than anyone outside the Army Corp of Engineers virtual autonomy and exemptions from existing laws and rules. It has frustrated the federal government to no end – as DeSantis made clear in the campaign, someone has to pay to clean up the Everglades and by not making sugar pay their fair share, that burden is passed on to Florida’s taxpayers and law-abiding businesses.
HOW WILL SUGAR COMBAT DESANTIS?
I have no doubt sugar will redouble its efforts among Democrats now to push back against DeSantis’ looming efforts. Democrats by and large have grown soft on the issue of Everglades restoration. Some have even touted the “science” of sugar’s claims that they are actual partners in restoration rather than the chief pollutant. There is zero doubt this lobbying effort which has successful conned some Democratic elected officials who are more concerned with issues of social justice or identity than the environment will continue in earnest.
Similarly, sugar will likely try and influence Nikki Fried, thought not to be a friend of the industry but still not as hardened as DeSatnis. But in Fried they face a challenge- if DeSantis pushes the Agriculture Commissioner to start enforcing existing statutes related to sugar and Everglades cleanup, she is likely to side with him over the industry.
They will also solidify support among other Cabinet officials Jimmy Patronis and Ashley Moody. Among Republicans in the legislature, the industry will continue to rely on its donations to candidates to have both chambers bottle up anything proposed by the Governor.
The opportunity for DeSantis to reverse the course of history, where sugar has fought and defeated ballot amendments that put the burden of the cleanup on them, where sugar has meddled in both party’s primaries to get the most anti-sugar and environmentally conscious people defeated, and where sugar has been able to effectively delay elements of Everglades restoration for two decades is real. DeSantis from my conversations with those around him seems intent on pushing sugar to face the consequences of its action.
DEMOCRATS SHOULD SIDE WITH THE GOVERNOR OVER SUGAR
From where I sit, it does not matter your views on other issues or your general political ideology – if you don’t support DeSantis’ coming efforts you care more about a special interest group than the welfare of the southern part of this state. Shame on anyone who feels that way.