In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Executions, gators and other Florida fundraisers

If the governor and his cronies had promised to wrestle alligators — offering two sets of slimy swamp reptiles thrashing about in internecine warfare — his campaign fundraiser could have filled whatever they’re calling Joe Robbie Stadium lately with paying customers.

It would have been a grand spectacle, for sure, and would have thrust Seminole and Hurricane fans into a rare evening of harmonious accord, the entire crowd cheering for the gators.

A $25,000-a-ticket alligator killing, however, was not such a dandy idea.

It was easy to figure how Gov. Rick Scott got the notion of staging an alligator hunt as a campaign fundraiser. Last spring, U.S. Sen. David Vitter advertised a “Louisiana Bayou Weekend,” in which $5,000 bought you an airboat ride, Cajun cooking and the chance to join in an old-fashioned Louisiana alligator slaughter with a senator previously known for bagging high-priced hookers.

Last weekend, Vitter took to Facebook to post a heartwarming photograph of his bayou weekend: him kneeling on a bloody boat deck amid a prodigious pile of slain alligators; perhaps a message to would-be interlopers who might be tempted to disrupt the senator’s plans for the 2015 governor’s race.

It was only slightly less grisly than the press conference images of the senator with his wife, Wendy (her facial expression reminiscent of a terrorist hostage), as he feigned contrition for his commerce with the D.C. Madam.

Florida politics, however, are not quite so beholden to the legacy of Huey Long. Look, we don’t much mind Rick Scott’s unseemly record in the hospital industry. After all, Medicare fraud’s a major industry down here in Florida. But cavorting with prostitutes and killing alligators just don’t go down so well without jambalaya and Tabasco sauce.

Scott’s PAC, “Let’s Get to Work,” had sent out lovely invitations to high rollers: “You are cordially invited to join Governor Rick Scott for a private gator hunt, October 18, 2013, New Smyrna, Florida. Contribution amount $25,000. Space is limited.”

But when Scott’s reelection staffers saw that photo of Vitter grinning amid a slew of dead animals, they must have imagined a similar photo of killer Rick and, with a shudder, realized that in Florida his public standing wouldn’t be much better than one of those belly-up alligators. Those scaly creatures may be unwanted varmints in Louisiana, but hereabouts (unless one of them happened to have dined on your poodle or your granny) alligators command a certain affection.

Besides, they may be the only creatures keeping the pythons from slithering out of the Everglades and taking over Sweetwater City Hall (not that anyone would notice).

The Vitter photo was posted Sunday. By Tuesday, Scott’s campaign couldn’t remember a thing about the New Smyrna Beach affair. Huh? What $25,000 private gator hunt?

Canceling the fundraiser also saved Scott’s staffers the pain of explaining to sure-nuff gator hunters how the governor’s rich buddies were able to scarf up so many state alligator-hunting permits. For regular folks, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds a lottery in which “everyone will have the same chance of being awarded a permit.” The commission reports about 10,000 applicants clamor for 5,000 alligator hunting permits issued each year. The gov’s exclusive gator hunt would no doubt generate 5,000 angry votes for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Of course, there’s a third possible reason the governor decided to grant New Smyrna Beach alligators a reprieve from his mob of liquored-up, gun-toting campaign contributors. However unintentionally, Florida’s attorney general had just come up with an even more brilliant fundraising scheme. Something more to Florida’s liking.

Last week, Pam Bondi persuaded Scott to postpone the execution of a brutal rapist and woman-killer named Marshall Lee Gore, who had been scheduled to die last Tuesday. It seems Gore’s appointment with the death chamber conflicted with her rather conventional eat-and-greet reelection campaign fund-raiser that night in Tampa.

The request was granted by the same governor who earlier this summer signed a constitutionally questionable law, the “Timely Justice Act,” to limit Death Row appeals because, he explained, delays bring “a crushing burden of uncertainty to the victims’ families.”

Gore’s killing was rescheduled for Oct. 1, when the attorney general’s calendar will be unencumbered with the crushing burden of fundraising. However, when this explanation reverberated around the state’s media, the postponement didn’t seem such a savvy political move for either the governor or the attorney general.

Those voters irritated by the average of 13.2 years that murder convicts spend on Florida’s Death Row as their appeals wend through the courts (although less than the national average for capital cases) were stunned that these two champions of the quickie death penalty would grant a particularly infamous murderer another 20 days of existence so Pam could grovel for campaign contributors.

Nor was Gore’s stay of execution quite the act of compassion apt to win over the anti-death-penalty chunk of the electorate.

Bondi apologized while Scott disowned responsibility for the reprieve faster than Johnny Manziel can sign an autograph. Scott told reporters, as if an execution were a mundane bureaucratic exercise, “My office had a request from the Attorney General’s Office to postpone the execution, and so they made a decision to postpone it, and anything else you’d have to ask the attorney general.”

But it must have occurred to Scott, just two days after he had scuttled his unseemly alligator hunt, that Bondi had stumbled onto a lucrative fundraising scheme much more tailored to the taste of Florida voters.

Last year, Florida handed out the death penalty to 21 defendants, more than any other state, even Texas (just a tepid nine capital convictions in 2012). Six states have repealed capital punishment since 2007, bothered by the inequities in meting out the death penalty and by the post-conviction DNA acquittals. But Florida has gone quite the other way. We do love our executions.

Scott’s crack reelection team must have realized Bondi’s miscalculation. She should have staged the two events, the execution and the fundraiser, simultaneously.

With 405 prisoners on Death Row, and 135 of them qualifying for a rush job under the Timely Justice Act, the governor’s operatives could sell scads of $25,000 exclusive death chamber tickets to Tallahassee lobbyists and fat-cat contributors. Surely an exclusive seat at a lethal injection would capture the essence of his reelection campaign better than a private alligator hunt.

Tuxedos optional. BYOB. Space is limited. Make out your checks to “Let’s Get to Killing.”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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