“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.”