Florida’s billionaire Democrat says he’s put $5M for other candidates into a PAC

Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Greene
Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Greene cjuste@miamiherald.com

Billionaire developer Jeff Greene says he’s made a down payment on his promise to help carry other Democrats into office this November as he campaigns to become Florida’s next governor.

Having already poured at least $29 million into his own campaign, Greene told the Miami Herald that he’s deposited $5 million into the Florida Defense Fund, a political committee created July 31 by Greene attorney Stuart Grossman. Greene says he’ll use the money to help candidates in competitive races around the state, in particular state Senate campaigns as Democrats hope to take back the upper chamber in Tallahassee for the first time in two decades.

But it’s not a final commitment. There may be more money to come — or less.

“My hope is that we really do have a blue wave and they don’t need anything from me,” Greene said in an interview.

Greene filed a form of solicitation announcing his plans to funnel money into the Florida Defense Fund one day after its creation, but doesn’t appear to be coordinating his efforts with Democratic leaders. Incoming Senate minority leader Audrey Gibson, for instance, said she was caught off guard this weekend when she saw a Greene commercial talking about plans to help raise money for Senate Democrats.

“I saw an ad of his just yesterday about contributions to Senate campaigns and I found it interesting,” she texted The Herald. “I was unaware that any Senator was receiving funds and that he had not reached out to ask me about any seats.”

Greene’s contributions were made after the most recent fund-raising reports were due with the state, so they’re not publicly available yet in Florida’s Division of Elections database. But the website for Greene’s PAC shows his $5 million contribution Monday, along with another quarter-million he donated over the last three weeks. The website shows about $235,000 in expenses, all but $1,000 of it to direct mail firm Street Smartz Consulting.

He said he’s given money directly to Senate candidates in races the party hopes to sweep and take control of the chamber, including David Perez, a firefighter and former spokesman to past Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas who’s expected to face Republican state Rep. Manny Diaz in a battle over an open Hialeah-area Senate seat. Greene also said he sent contributions to Democratic Attorney General candidate Sean Shaw and candidate for Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

“I’ve gotten to know these folks a little bit,” Greene said when asked why he isn’t running his money through the Democrats’ House and Senate victory funds. “In general, I’d rather be in control myself of where these funds go.”

Greene’s contribution to the PAC follows weeks of promises to spend his money on other Democrats — a pledge that some in the party viewed cynically given that roughly $195,000 that Greene has given personally to other Democrats over the last eight years has paled to the more than $50 million he’s given to his own campaigns. Greene reported his net worth at $3.3 billion in June.

Green said in an interview that he didn’t want to make a big show of the money he placed in the PAC, even though he’s been campaigning to help down-ballot candidates almost since the inception of his campaign. He said he felt like he had to promote the account because his opponents were openly questioning whether he’d make good on the pledge.

“I said at this point I have no choice but to do it during the [primary] campaign,” he said.

So far, the only interaction voters appear to have had with Greene’s political committee is through an ad that featured a slate of candidates that seemed to suggest that black lawmakers were endorsing the gubernatorial candidate. Greene’s campaign said the pamphlets were not intended to suggest an endorsement, and were “developed and distributed by local community organizers.”

But some lawmakers condemned the advertisement.

“This is not official at all and it is disrespectful,” Sen. Bobby Powell wrote Sunday, posting one of the ads for a “Palm Beach County Democratic Ticket” on Facebook.

Greene’s contribution to his PAC doesn’t require him to spend money at all, and he has suggested in the past that his promise to fund other candidates is contingent upon his winning the nomination Aug. 28. He told Miami-Dade Democrats last week that he’ll contribute money to other candidates regardless of the outcome, but suggested Monday that his level of commitment still depends on whether he has a campaign to run in September.

“If I’m the head of the ticket,” he said, “of course I’ll be much more intimately involved.”

Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.