Elections

How a dot-com millionaire became a social media crusader against solar amendment

Who favors and who opposes solar Amendment 1?

Amendment 1 will be voted on during the November 8 election.
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Amendment 1 will be voted on during the November 8 election.

Meet Jonathan Taylor. He’s one of those wealthy internet start-up whizzes who wrote software in high school, moved to Silicon Valley, made it rich during the dot-com surge, and created and sold two businesses. He has moved back to his roots in Florida and, at 45, is a self-described “mentor/investor” based in the Orlando suburb of Maitland.

Until two weeks ago, the only political thing Taylor had ever done, he says, was vote. But when he got “irritated about the confusion over Amendment 1,” he decided to personally finance his own internet marketing campaign to “get the reality about the amendment out” and urge people to reject the utility industry-backed amendment that creates a new barrier to competition.

“The language reads pro-consumer when in reality it’s pro-confusion,” said Taylor, a “former Republican” who says he is now “sort of without a party.”

“I have many intelligent friends who are pro-solar, who just didn’t understand the realities of Amendment 1. It’s pretty amazing, actually.”

Taylor has given himself a budget of $100,000 and, using his years of online marketing expertise, developed social media ads on Twitter and Facebook, created a website landing page called FloridianSolar.org, paid for boosted posts and called out the utility-financed political committee for breaking Google’s online advertising rules.

In two weeks, his tracking software indicated that his efforts had reached five million voting-age Floridians. His personal posts, on his company’s Entrenext website, reached three million Facebook users and has had more than 55,000 shares and 32,000 likes.

Taylor makes a point of noting that he is not affiliated with Floridians For Solar Choice, the solar industry-backed political committee opposing Amendment 1.

“However, I sure like what they’re saying,” he says on his website. The amendment uses the popularity of solar to embed new language into the Constitution that can be used to raise fees on solar users and establish a barrier to competition for the monopoly-owned utilities.

By law, Taylor’s effort must be reported by the political committee — about $36,000 in in-kind contributions reported last week and another $45,000 this week, said Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, who works with anti-Amendment 1 political committee.

Taylor’s effort is one of dozens of “organic efforts by people who are coming up with their own ways to encourage people to ‘vote no’ on Amendment 1,” Glickman said.

She has photos of people who have converted used campaign yard signs to Vote No on 1 signs, volunteers who are running phone banks, and a woman who made buttons featuring “a wolf in sheep’s clothes” — the label Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente gave the amendment in a court ruling.

Companies have posted information on their business sites; Florida crooner Jimmy Buffett has recorded a video; the Clearwater band Stone Marmot has recorded a song, and they have all done it at no expense to the opposition campaign, she said.

The promoters of the amendment, Consumers for Smart Solar, are financed primarily by the state’s investor-owned utilities. The group spent nearly $22 million promoting the amendment and running television ads. A telephone robo call from singer Pat Boone, is also sponsored by the 60-Plus Association, which is funded heavily by the Koch brothers.

By contrast, the Floridians for Solar Choice raised and spent $1.6 million in an unsuccessful attempt to put a rival amendment on the ballot.

Taylor said his internet campaign also revealed that Amendment 1 backers may not have been playing by Google’s rules. He found that every Google search about the amendment produced two or three different ads, from different accounts, all pointing to content by Consumers for Smart Solar, the utility-supported political committee that is promoting the amendment.

It was a violation of Google’s online advertising rules because it drives up the price, intentionally crowds out all the ad positions and creates “an unfair advantage,” Taylor explained. “There is no reason to have multiple ads and try to take all the ad positions, because people just click on one of them. They have this big war chest and they are spending it to minimize people’s exposure.”

Taylor said that in his 15 years working on online marketing, “I’ve never seen anyone abuse the Google advertising ability in that way. It’s been banned since the very beginning of search advertising. It’s just cheating.”

Taylor said he took a screenshot, mentioned it on Facebook and then he and others reported it to Google. This week, the multiple ads were down. Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for Consumers for Smart Solar, denied that their ads had been “reported, flagged or taken down by Google.” She also defended the need for multiple accounts.

“With our opponents regularly spreading misinformation, we want to ensure that voters find factual information when they search for answers about Amendment 1,’’ she said. “Using different ads allows us to send voters to the right place with the specific answers to their specific search or question.”

Bascom was not aware of Taylor, or that his effort was self-financed and reported. She suggested he was operating as a “dark money group.”

“Once again, we are operating in a fully transparent way, and you continue to give the benefit of the doubt to those who are not,” she said. “It’s the work of these groups, not our committee, that are increasing the cost of online advertising and crowding out his efforts.”

Taylor said he doesn’t own any stock or investment in any solar company -- although when he discovered that inventor Elon Musk owns a part of the solar installment firm, Solar City, he divested his stock in Musk’s company, he said.

He tells readers, “unfortunately I don’t even have a solar system on my house right now. I had one two houses ago, but I haven’t had time to research putting one on my new house.” Taylor also said he has “nothing against power companies” but he doesn’t like it “when companies try to fool me with misleading causes.”

In his research, he said was frustrated to learn that utilities take federal subsidies for their operations but “they don’t want you to have them for solar.”

Taylor, who admits he drives a Tesla because it’s “fast as hell,” says he’s not doing this “because I believe in green energy at any price.”

“I do it because I believe solar will be the most cost efficient way to generate power in this country in the future,’’ he said. “Clearly, the power companies see this, too.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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