By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI— In the countdown to the November election, the subject of Super PACs and outside spending has become a key talking point for many running in races throughout Florida.
The Sunshine State has been invaded by a flood of “shadowy Super PACs and right-wing front groups” who are seeking to “funnel unlimited money into buying elections,” wrote Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in a recent fundraising email.
“You’ve got a handful of billionaires that are gearing up to try to buy the White House,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of District 20, told MSNBC in June after the Democrats’ defeat in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election.
But in Nelson and Schultz’s own backyard, Miami-Dade County, local elections have also become the latest targets of political action committees, appealing to local issues that have garnered widespread support between liberals and conservatives alike.
More than 150 political action committees are registered in Miami-Dade County alone, according to the county Division of Elections, and the most active are directly engaged in races for county commissioners.
In particular, many eyes have turned to the seat currently held by Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who raised $62,730 in the period from April 1 to July.
He is being challenged by state Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, who has raised $72,240.
Garcia has received significant support from the political action committee Miami Voice, financed by Norman Braman, a billionaire automobile dealer who has made a name for himself as a political activist.
In 2010, Braman successfully financed the recall of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez after the initiation of a 14 percent hike in the property tax and reports of large salary increases for members of the mayor’s staff.
The recall was supported by 176,000, or 88 percent, of voters in Miami-Dade, making it the largest municipal recall vote in the history of the United States.
Vanessa Brito, the Miami political activist who is chairwoman of Miami Voice, explained to Florida Watchdog what the focus of the PAC is in 2012, as well as the Change Miami-Dade Now! PAC, which was registered in May.
“The two organizations have the same basic goal: remove the four current Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Barbara Jordan, Audrey Edmonson and Dennis Moss,” explained Brito.
“They have been in power for over 19 years. They have never supported term limits, and they have supported increasing the salaries of their staff.”
Brito said Braman is supporting candidates Shirley Gibson, Luis Garcia, Alison Austin and Alex Pena, because they believe in “responsible government” and want to “reform the county administration and charter.”
Barreiro’s campaign did not respond to calls for comment.
Brito explained the essential goals of the Miami Voice PAC to be:
- Limiting the terms for county commissioners;
- Limiting the influence of lobbyists and special interests;
- Eliminating the commissioners’ discretionary funds, totalled at $800 thousand each;
- Not raising taxes.
Political action committees are third-party groups registered with the Division of Elections and are intended to raise funds to either support or defeat a specific candidate.
Michael Hernandez, director of Hispanic communications for the Democratic Party of Miami-Dade, said Braman’s influence and money might be enough to sway the elections even by “3 to 4 percent.”
Brito reiterated that her organization is committed to encouraging voters of all stripes to vote in the November elections.
“We call on all to collect absentee ballots, because the current commissioners always win with absentee ballots because they have much more money to pay for an operation that encourages people to vote for them,” said Brito.
“We are trying to educate people when they go vote. We do not want to see only 12 percent of voters at the polls, but we want more people to be interested in the welfare of the county.”
Taking into account the criticisms by Democratic politicians about the negative influence of PAC spending, Brito explains that it actually represents the greater good.
“Our case is different. There is no special interest behind the work we are doing. Norman (Braman’s) motivation is to improve the county,” said Brito.
“I do not work for the county and neither does Norman Braman. Nobody has contracts with the county and we have no other interest than to try to change things.”
Hernandez said the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2011, which removed barriers to political advertising for third-party groups, can be influence for good or evil.
“When a candidate wins an election and receives thousands or millions of dollars from a political action committee or a corporation, it is very difficult to rule out their direct influence and that should concern us all,” said Hernandez.
“As Republicans and Democrats, we want a government to govern for the good of all citizens and not just a few,” he said.
Hernandez said Republicans have the advantage with PAC spending, but also acknowledged the role of heavily bank-rolled trade unions, which also can pour unlimited funds into opposing or supporting candidates.
“It is worrying that unions and corporations can have as much influence on a candidate,” he said.
Interviews with Miami Voice chairman Vanessa Brito and Democratic Party spokesman Michael Hernández: