Miami-Dade County

Secretive Democratic donors flex political muscle in South Florida

Win Florida, a nonprofit under the Florida Alliance umbrella, has pumped $600,000 into the race between Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R, left) and Jose Javier Rodriguez (D, right).
Win Florida, a nonprofit under the Florida Alliance umbrella, has pumped $600,000 into the race between Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R, left) and Jose Javier Rodriguez (D, right). Miami Herald

A secretive network of Democratic boosters intent on shifting Florida’s politics from right to left has set its sights this election season on South Florida, where years of groundwork have helped create conditions that left several Republican incumbents vulnerable.

Through affiliated nonprofits and political committees, the Florida Alliance spent more than $1 million this summer backing liberal causes and blasting Republicans, particularly those in districts painfully redrawn this year to be more competitive. Nowhere have these efforts been more evident than in Miami-Dade County, home to several of the Alliance’s biggest donors and swing races where its actions could sway the vote.

“We want to win. And we want to invest our money in races where we think we can make a difference,” said Terranova Corp. chairman Stephen Bittel, an Alliance member and prominent Democratic donor out of Miami Beach.

We want to win. And we want to invest our money in races where we think we can make a difference

Stephen Bittel, Win Florida vice chairman

With little fanfare and heavy support from organized labor, members have spent years building a political network in Florida that runs independent of the party and supports everything from voter registration drives to political campaigns. Much of their operations are based out of “dark money” 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which under tax law can fund political causes without disclosing donors.

The system is modeled after the Democracy Alliance, a national group established more than a decade ago to steer and focus donations from wealthy donors like George Soros to specific liberal causes. The group’s secrecy makes it impossible to document all its spending, but a Miami Herald review of state and federal elections data shows Bittel, Alliance leader Christopher Findlater and affiliated nonprofits Win Florida and Florida Watch Action have given $5.3 million to political campaigns in the last decade. (By comparison, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson alone has spent $7 million since 2014 fighting medical marijuana.)

Bittel, whose Miami Beach office is the unofficial Alliance headquarters according to Politico Florida, calls the organization “an effort to level the playing field,” and says its donors have altruistic motives. But critics bristle at the notion that Democrats, who so often blast conservatives for their ties to big political donors, are only giving money to political causes for the greater good.

What they are doing is everything that is wrong with politics

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami

“What they are doing is everything that is wrong with politics,” said state Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, whom the Alliance has attacked over her financial ties to for-profit charter school giant Academica as she campaigns in a tight race to win a rejiggered district. “They are hiding who’s giving money, and they are hiding to whom they’re giving money.”

The Alliance hasn’t exactly been a secret in political circles. But it has shirked the spotlight while helping union leaders organize public efforts like the Pink Slip Rick Scott campaign against Florida’s governor in 2011 and affiliated donors backed ballot efforts around the state. It wasn’t until this year, as the 2016 election season began to display its strengths and weaknesses, that the Alliance began to find itself under the microscope.

The timing of the attention has much to do with the slow-evolving consequences of the fair districts constitutional amendments six years ago that ended the practice of drawing legislative boundaries to favor incumbents in state and congressional races. Those amendments, passed by voters and heavily supported by Findlater, among others, led to years of litigation before resulting this year in the redrawing of districts in a way that benefited Democrats in the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.

Insiders say that much of what the Alliance effectuates is behind the scenes and unrelated to the perpetual campaign cycle. Democratic political strategist Ben Pollara, the consultant running the United for Care medical marijuana campaign in Florida, put it this way: “Somebody has to focus on the forest. To do that, we can’t get swept up in what’s happening every two years.”

But with some Republican legislators suddenly running in newly drawn districts and vulnerable in a presidential election sure to draw high Democratic voter turnout, the group has turned up the heat through political and advocacy campaigns. They have attacked several legislators through a nonprofit called Florida Strong, most notably Miami-Dade Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.

In a sign that the Alliance doesn’t just toe the party line, it has also gone after Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon for a lobbying job the Democrat took representing the University of Southernmost Florida, owned by the now-shuttered and infamous Dade Medical College.

This is about creating a counter-balance to the overwhelming influence of big corporations

Carlos Odio, executive director Florida Alliance

“This is about creating a counter-balance to the overwhelming influence of big corporations who stood in the way of policies most Floridians need and want,” said the Alliance’s executive director, Carlos Odio, a former Obama White House aide and son-in-law of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey. “Corporate interests have a lot of money at stake and they won’t hesitate to bring down people who challenge them. There is no transparency on the corporate side.”

But it’s not as if the Alliance — which some in the party refer to as ideologues — is itself a bastion of transparency.

For instance, in its efforts to support state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez’s campaign against Diaz de la Portilla, the Alliance has pushed close to $600,000 through the nonprofit Win Florida into a political committee called South Florida’s Future, which then gave most of the money to the Florida Democratic Party. Odio would not discuss the donors who have given to Win Florida, which when created in December listed among its directors SEIU union executive Alphonso Mayfield, Florida Education Association policy director Jeff Wright, and Miami attorney and major progressive donor Neal Roth.

Bombarded by Alliance and Democratic party attack ads labeling him as the “lobbyist of the year,” Diaz de la Portilla and the Republican party have sought to turn the tables by accusing the senator’s opponent, Rodríguez, of being bankrolled by “dark money” and special interests. Diaz de la Portilla and the party are currently airing a TV commercial that claims Rodríguez is bankrolled by an “insurance tycoon,” a veiled and vague reference to Findlater, former owner of NetQuote, which established an online market for insurers.

“There’s a lot of hypocrisy in my opponent’s campaign. The bulk of his campaign is being financed by special interest money, run by dark money groups that hide their contributors,” Diaz de la Portilla said.

Meanwhile, in a highly ironic move, somebody created a dark money group to attack the Alliance through a web-based campaign. Citizens Against Corruption rails against the Alliance and depicts Findlater and Roth as influence peddlers, with Odio as their “henchman.”

Attempts to reach Roth and Findlater were unsuccessful. Last week, Findlater changed his Facebook bio to read “Net entrepreneur advocates fair elections, election finance reform, [with] no personal gain in return.”

Rodríguez’s political consultant, Christian Ulvert, said the group is not a part of the state representative’s campaign, but South Florida residents communicating important messages to voters. “They care about their community,” he said.

Bittel, the Terranova chairman, said Win Florida’s goal is to return Florida to the days when Democrats were in power. If so, the Senate District 37 campaign may end up as a litmus test for its efforts. While the group has little-to-no control over voter registration, the district is competitive in part because of its efforts six years ago, and money from Win Florida has allowed Rodríguez to keep up with Diaz de la Portilla’s financial advantage.

But the group has also been undercut by defections.

This summer, Roth and Mayfair were withdrawn as directors of Win Florida as SEIU and the Florida Justice Association — heavy donors to Democratic efforts — backed Diaz de la Portilla instead of Rodríguez. The AFL-CIO, another prominent Alliance donor, has stayed neutral in the race, perhaps detracting from the Alliance’s resources and ability to spend greater amounts against Diaz de la Portilla or fund messaging in other races, such as Debbie Murcasel-Powell’s campaign against Miami Sen. Flores, who was also endorsed by SEIU.

The rift over the endorsements, while real, doesn’t appear to be bleeding over into other areas of the state. For instance, Florida For All, another Alliance political committee that has received more than $400,000 from Win Florida, also received $200,000 last month from AFSCME, which is part of the AFL-CIO.

Regardless of the outcome, Bittel said the Alliance will continue to be active in the state — and for all the right reasons.

“We don’t make more money if one side wins,” he said. “None of our donors have any interests in the outcome of our elections other than we want to make our community and state stronger.”