Volusia County: Influence, Power and Access

“It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

The War Prayer, Mark Twain

When I was a kid back in the 1970’s every evening my family would gather around the old Zenith and watch legends like Chet Huntley, Frank McGee and Walter Cronkite report the news and opine on the latest shenanigans from Washington.

I would sit in the family room on the freshly raked shag carpet (remember raking your carpet?) and split my attention between the black-and-white images on the set and the maniacal ravings of my father, an ultra-conservative former Marine Corps officer, who would sit in the same spot on the couch each night – still wearing his suit and tie – drinking Dewar’s scotch and railing at the news of the day.

In fact, these nightly sessions formed my earliest geo-political views and gave my dad and I a life-long bonding point – for instance, we both hated George McGovern, and for most of 1972 I was convinced my family was moving to Mexico City if Nixon lost the White House.

No matter what else was going on in our lives, after dinner we sat down together to watch, discuss and interpret the nightly news.  Invariably, our conversation would turn to the issues of the day, and my father would use images from the broadcast to underscore why, for instance, I would never wear bell-bottom pants, or all the reasons why the United Nations was the greatest force for evil in the world.

There was a little comic relief too.

Remember when we used to elect colorful characters to high office in this country – then follow the lawn dart trajectory of their political careers like a bad soap opera?

Guys like Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills and his infamous tryst with stripper Fanne Foxe, or Jim Traficant of Ohio, whose horsehair toupee looked something like a rabid raccoon coiled precipitously on his head.

Those were the days.

You knew the bastards were crooked to their very core, but there was an entertainment value there that could not be ignored.  Hell, when Traficant was released from federal prison in 2009, over 1,200 people turned out to welcome him home – complete with a lavish banquet featuring an Elvis impersonator.

Over 30,500 Ohioans voted for him – as a convicted felon – in his 2010 Congressional race.

Or how about that randy South Carolina Congressman John Jenrette, husband of Playboy model Rita Jenrette, who made up the Washington “power couple” who allegedly had a late night romp – in flagrante delicto – right there on the Capitol steps?

Classic.

One of the best of these lovable scoundrels was Michael “Ozzie” Myers, an oafish Pennsylvania Democrat who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976.

When he wasn’t fist fighting in Washington-area bars, Ozzie was busy gorging himself on cash bribes from fancy Arab sheikhs (who just happened to be undercover FBI agents engaged in a public corruption sting known as “Abscam.”)

During the federal investigation, agents captured a grainy videotape of Congressman Myers making the ill-advised but infinitely true statement, “Money talks in this business and bullshit walks.”

Indeed.

Now, no one ever accused me of being the sharpest knife in the drawer – I’m dull-normal at best, most likely “feeble minded” on the Stanford-Binet scale – so I have to read and research everything I can find on a given topic before forming even a semi-educated opinion.

But when someone tells me “money talks” – I get that.  Clear as fine Swarovski crystal, baby.

Especially when it comes to the political process.

From the earliest days, I suspect our Founding Fathers knew in their hearts that our democratic system – one in which the majority elects a select few to represent their interests – was ripe for exploitation and corruption.

I’m sure, like us, they hoped for the best but expected the worst.

As our system of governance matured, it became increasingly apparent that the people get what they deserve in terms of the quality and integrity of their elected representatives.

In 1877, President James Garfield wrote:

“Now more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress.  If that body be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption.  If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.  If the next centennial does not find us a great nation, it will be because those who represent the enterprise, the culture, and the morality of the nation do not aid in controlling the political forces.

At some point, the “one person, one vote” concept just didn’t fit the bill for a small but well-heeled segment of our society.  The wealthy needed a way to insert cash and “in kind” services into the political process as a means of securing influence and access to the halls of power.

After all, most politicians won’t accept an open-handed bribe – but when it comes to campaign contributions – well, that’s just a perfectly legal portal for civic-minded folks interested in good government to do the right thing.

Nothing wrong with that – the cost of doing business.  Right?

Right.

Hell, it’s become a rite of passage in this country.  You remember the first presidential candidate you ever voted for – and the first dollar you ever contributed to a political campaign.

In my view, our campaign finance system has become the front door of quid pro quo public corruption, and most power brokers and influence peddlers don’t even bother to hide their involvement anymore.

In a system that is utterly corrupt, the working theory has always been that its best to do as others do – anything else would only draw attention, and who needs that, eh?

The process for financing political campaigns at all levels transcends party or ideology, and any attempt at reform is doomed from the start – usually by the very elected officials who rely on huge sums of money for their political survival.

It’s like asking a hungry pig to cut off his own slop spigot – not likely.

In Volusia County politics, the practice of purchasing governmental influence, power and access has become so ingrained in our process that it is rarely even discussed anymore.  We just accept it, knowing full-well that each election cycle the same oligarchy will carefully hand select the make-up of our county council, city commissions, school board, etc.

Now, money doesn’t necessarily ensure the outcome of elections – sometimes candidates get whipped who outspend their rivals – but that’s a rarity.

Big money stacks the deck in favor of certain candidates and it fundamentally skews the playing field.  You have to pay to play, and the massive campaign accounts of some local candidates are simply mind-boggling.

We have already seen several viable and very qualified candidates drop out of important local races citing “personal reasons.”  I suspect these exits have more to do with the candidate’s fear of not attracting sufficient resources in an environment where a powerful few give obscene amounts of cash to their anointed ones.

For instance, County Council candidate Al Smith has collected close to $40,000; Carl Persis, candidate for the Volusia County School Board, has amassed over $92,000 and County Chair candidate Ed Kelley has almost $74,000.  In fact, several county candidates have over $100,000 in the bank.

One candidate, Lisa Lewis, who is running for the rather innocuous Supervisor of Elections post, collected $10,000 in one day from various corporate entities, all listed at the same Beville Road address of Mori Hosseini’s ICI Homes and Intervest Construction.

And that’s the common thread.

When you review the individual campaign finance reports, you find that the bulk of these contributions originate from the same individuals – or corporate entities controlled by them.

Now, who am I to tell you – or J. Hyatt Brown – that you shouldn’t donate your hard earned money to the candidate of your choice.  After all, local elections are all about supporting friends and neighbors who stand up to serve, and that’s a noble endeavor.  Like you, I will continue to provide financial support to candidates who I feel best represent my interests.

There are issues that are important to me – beach access, crime, quality public amenities, growth management, the protection and conservation of our natural resources – and if a candidate is like-minded, then they get my financial support, and my vote.

However, there is a point where I draw the line.

A few hundred bucks to the good of the cause is one thing – ten thousand dollars to a single county council candidate is something completely different.  When campaign contributions become more about ensuring commercial self-interests – rather than financing healthy, issues-based political races – the process becomes dysfunctional.

Look, I may be a nut-job, but I’m not naive.

Modern political campaigns cost money – it is essential to getting the candidate’s message out.  There are the ubiquitous yard signs to purchase, media advertisements, t-shirts, bumper stickers, brochures and meet & greets.  These cost money – and those who have the largest war chests have the ability to simply out pace their opponents on the campaign trail.  Especially late in the game.

In my view, the infusion of big money – and I mean big money – into individual local campaigns by a few exclusive insiders who have proven time-and-again that their motivations are purely self-serving is wrong.  It tips the balance in favor of a select few extremely wealthy corporate interests in an environment where the average per capita annual income is around $24,000.

The net-net of these large investments to ensure the outcome of local races is the very foundation of the “benevolent dictatorship” I keep belching about.

As I’ve said before, people like J. Hyatt Brown, Lesa France-Kennedy, and Mori Hosseini are highly successful for one reason only – they don’t spend a dollar without knowing exactly what the return on that investment will be.

These are extraordinarily smart and savvy businessmen and women who are extremely adroit at building – and keeping – personal wealth.  You don’t need an MBA to understand that you don’t last long in business throwing good money after bad.

I don’t know about you, but when I spend money, I expect something in return.

In this case, the local donor class make massive campaign contributions with the full knowledge that their personal, civic and professional interests will outweigh those of John Q. Public each and every time.

What do you think they consider an appropriate return on their investment?

The 1976 United States Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo, defined the standard for quid pro quo corruption as, “The reality and appearance of improper influence stemming from the dependence of candidates on large campaign contributions.”

In an effort to more narrowly define that language, in the 2014 landmark ruling by the court in McCutcheon v. FEC, which essentially eliminated aggregate limits on campaign spending, corruption was redefined as “a contribution to a particular candidate in exchange for his agreeing to do a particular act within his official duties.”

Is what we experience in Volusia County quid pro quo bribery – dollars for political favors?

I don’t know.

I certainly hope not.

What I do know is that whenever deeply ingrained political insiders consistently infuse huge sums of cash into the coffers of pre-selected candidates, it undermines the fundamental right of the average citizen to participate in the political process in any meaningful way.

After all, our democratic system is based on the very concept of equality.

I also know that when these very same powerful insiders appear – individually or en masse – in the Volusia County Council Chambers, invariably – and I mean 100% of the time – the issue, project or development they support is handed to them on a gilded platter.

Now, I may be crazy, but I’m not a fool.  And neither are you.

As you prepare to cast your ballot this summer, ask yourself this: Why would a few uber-wealthy power brokers spend a small fortune to support select candidates for local elective office?

Why?

Because maybe old Ozzie was right.  Ultimately, in the business of politics, money talks.

 

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