“Mr. News-Journal, meet Mr. Reality. I’m so glad you guys finally had the chance to get acquainted.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reporter Seth Robbins’ excellent piece, “Money Game” – “Six wealthy donors gave large infusions of cash in record-setting Volusia race” – in Sunday’s Daytona Beach News-Journal.
For the first time, in a long time, the News-Journal peeled back the gauze on the singular issue that has plagued Volusia County politics like a festering chancre for years.
We ill-fated masochists who observe regional politics with a critical eye have long understood that the Volusia County economy is essentially based on the same tight group of uber-wealthy power brokers passing the same nickel around.
Unfortunately, with increasing frequency that nickel originates from our tax dollars.
Last October, just before election day, I wrote that the outsized influence of the economic elite on Volusia County politics is best exposed during periods of transition. In times of political change, the behind-the-scenes work of cheap fixers and bagmen, like county manager Jim Dinneen, are more difficult to conceal.
By all known metrics, the 2016 election season was arguably among the weirdest on record, but it confirmed my suspicion that Volusia County truly is a mini-oligarchy, controlled exclusively by a core of powerful insiders who buy and sell political candidates – and ultimately shape public policy – through unnatural infusions of cash and personal influence.
What mystifies me is why we continue to tolerate it?
Clearly, there are many residents who have, over time, given up and come to accept this bastardized form of governance – and still others who simply owe their soul to the company store.
Let’s face it, a significant number of people either work directly for companies under the control of the Volusia Triumvirate of Mortenza “Mori” Hosseini, Lesa France-Kennedy and J. Hyatt Brown – or are employed by their subsidiaries and contractors.
That list includes, but is not limited to, Daytona State College, Halifax Health, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, ICI Homes, International Speedway Corporation, and a host of insurance, banking and financial services corporations.
This insidious influence begins each election cycle when Hosseini, France-Kennedy and Brown – joined by other wealthy players like Consolidated Tomoka, George Anderson and Theresa Doan – inject huge sums of money into the campaigns of hand-select candidates for local offices through their countless corporate interests, political action committees, and often shadowy business alliances.
In some instances, they hedge their bet by donating simultaneously to different candidates in the same race.
Now, why would someone do that?
Look, these individuals did not accumulate massive personal wealth without the ability to control their environment, and that is exactly what the political influence they purchase provides.
It also places them at the very nexus of public funds and private interests, and buys them a chip in the incredibly lucrative game of corporate welfare masquerading as economic development enticements.
In the News-Journal’s article, my old friend Mike Scudiero – a highly respected hand whose understanding of the art and science of political campaigns is infinitely more advanced than my own – is quoted as saying it was “baseless speculation that the large infusions of cash seen in the District 4 race were intended to sway council votes.”
Sorry, Mike – I did a spit-take with my Folgers Breakfast Blend when I read that one.
“People should not expect that it is going to be the new norm,” he said. “What happened is that it became an arms race between a couple of well-to-do business folks.”
You don’t need an MBA from the Harvard Business School to understand that one does not invest large sums of money without expecting a return. After all, the road to the poor house is paved with the bones of those who ignored the simple analytical formula – Net Profit v. Cost of Investment.
No, these individuals have not become incredibly successful by shoving money down a rabbit hole expecting a bean stalk to rise into the heavens where the golden goose resides. These are extraordinarily smart and savvy businessmen and women who are very adroit at building – and keeping – personal and corporate wealth.
In short, they understand that you don’t last long in business throwing good money after bad.
Now, I don’t have J. Hyatt money, but when I spend what little I have, I expect something in return.
I’m funny that way.
How about you?
Let’s face facts: 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 every time.
In the end, that is what they consider an appropriate return on investment, and given the astronomical amount of “economic incentives” that our elected officials have showered upon this exclusive group in recent years, I would have to say they’ve done extremely well on the risk/reward scale.
Is what we experience in Volusia County quid pro quo bribery – dollars for political favors?
I don’t know. But it has a whiff of shit about it.
What I do know is 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.
Why would a few uber-wealthy power brokers spend a small fortune to support select candidates for local elective office?
In my view, that question was best answered by the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute at the NYU School of Law that seeks to improve our democracy and system of justice:
“There is a growing disconnect between average citizens and elected officials. Part of the blame lies with a campaign finance system that unfairly stacks the deck in favor of the few able to give exceptionally large contributions.”
4 thoughts on “Volusia Politics: Return on Investment”
Well stated argument, my friend, and thanks for the kind words. In my defense, let me clarify what I was saying on two counts, especially when you bear in mind this article has been in the works since November, when I first gave the interview on the subject.
On the “baseless speculation”, I was referring to the idea that everyone (for months, dating back as far as July/August) has been trying to guess what particular issue or vote might be at stake that would cause these individuals to spend so highly on a district council seat. Like everyone, I concluded that it was not any one particular vote they were interested in, as there was nothing significant upcoming that would cause such largesse on two sides of a race like this. So I said it was baseless speculation to say what the sole reason might have been (either behind the money spent on Heather’s behalf or Al’s) for this to be occurring in this campaign. To correctly speculate on this issue, you basically have to ask yourself what issue would separate Hyatt Brown and George Anderson? I can tell you having been involved in the race, I knew of no such issue and have yet to come up with a valid thought on it in the months after.
As to my quote on it not being the new norm, I stand by that. I doubt we will see that type of spending again in a county council race for the next 5-10 years. It was costly, and it was far greater than we have ever seen. I think everyone involved in that race wants to hit the reset button on the spending going forward. Even though you are likely correct in thinking they can afford this, it was a bloody race and these individuals attracted attention to themselves for being involved. I don’t think they were comfortable, given that it was such a localized race. I’ll bet you a ham sandwich there is no race on the 2018 ballot (at the local level) that attracts anywhere near the $500,000 this one did. The open council at-large seat could get interesting, but even that will come in under the Post/Smith race. I’ll guarantee it.
Nonetheless, as always, a good read and I’m glad I could help provide a little fodder. Just hope the mess from the Folgers wasn’t too severe 🙂
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is this the reason that the number of voters in this county is so miserably low…I’m starting to think “why bother” and not just the local elections
What I want to know from this Johnny-come-lately, click-and-paste article, from the brochure fondly known as the News-Urinal, is why now some hundred days post-election(!) we are getting well worn information about the same ‘problem people’ and the undue influence their money affords them?
The ill-timing cannot be for an award from the Press Club, because as long as you are a member in good standing, it seems everyone gets an award anyways; plus nothing groundbreaking is revealed here than a half dozen readily available websites can, do, and will show you. So why now? What gives??
For me this torturous hand-wringing ‘news article’ could have been most helpful for the uninitiated BEFORE and DURING the last local election. Just sayin…
For me, on that day and no other, when Volusia County finally gets a rag that does HONEST investigative journalism —doing what the press is supposed to do keeping government accountable— things here will never ever change towards the better.
Until that glorious day, I sadly believe, the same ham-handedness will continue forever.
I have been alive for over 77 years now
I have learned that wealthy Folks spend their money to get more wealthy or more pleasure.
Voters need to realize this for things to improve for everyone,
Not just the wealthy Folks.
In my very short political career, I know that when you have a meeting for a large donation, you cannot honestly say you don’t remember any details of meeting.
We need to improve Volusia for everyone.