Friday, April 12, 2024

Endorsement wars & other news and notes

Endorsement Wars

Last week, voters received two mailers supporting incumbents Dennis Frisch and Earl Starkoff in the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District election. The mailers were labeled as political advertisements “paid for by BocaWatch PAC.”

Sounds straightforward, right? Actually, it’s anything but straightforward. There’s quite a story behind the mailers. Here it is:

• Start with Al Zucaro. He’s chairman and treasurer of BocaWatch PAC and publisher of the BocaWatch website. BocaWatch had endorsed Frisch and Starkoff.

But as Zucaro acknowledged in an interview Monday, the money for those mailers didn’t come from BocaWatch. It came from Protect Florida Families, a political action committee that donated $10,000 to BocaWatch last Friday.

• Who is Protect Florida Families? Public Concepts, a West Palm Beach-based political consulting firm. The PAC and the company share an address. Many of the PAC’s expenditures are to Public Concepts.

• Why does Protect Florida Families care about the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District? Good question.

Protect Florida Families’ main work is financing elections for the Legislature – almost always to Republicans — and churning money through similar generically named political organizations.

U.S. Sugar Corp., is a big donor to Protect Florida Families. So are many of the usual companies and trade groups that have business before the Legislature.

• Does Zucaro know why Protect Florida Families gave him that money? He said no. Zucaro said Public Concepts “initiated” contact with BocaWatch “about that race,” adding that the $10,000 also paid for an automated telephone message in support of the proposal to change how Boca Raton fills council vacancies. BocaWatch supports that proposal.

The story gets more interesting when you consider what Zucaro posted last week on the BocaWatch website.

• Craig Ehrnst is running against Frisch. Last week, Ehrnst touted an endorsement from the Voters Coalition of Palm Beach County Political Action Committee. The group also endorsed Erin Wright, who is challenging Starkoff.

• Zucaro called the endorsement “a sham, a political sleight of hand to deceive the voters.’ “ Zucaro said Ehrnst should be “ashamed” of promoting it. Now let’s examine how Zucaro chose to trash the endorsement.

• The original Voters Coalition of Palm Beach County and its associated PAC disbanded. The chairman of the new Voters Coalition PAC is West Palm Beach lawyer Leonard Feuer. The treasurer is Mary Brandenburg.

Though Zucaro wrote that the new PAC had “no reported financials,” documents filed with the Supervisor of Elections office show that Brandenburg started the group this month with $25,000 of her own money. Most of it went for the countywide mailer that offered endorsements in most races on today’s ballot. Because the PAC is registered only in this county, it can’t endorse outside the county.

Then Zucaro called Feuer and Brandenburg “political operatives sometimes working for Cornerstone Consulting, a political consultant firm headed up by Rick Asnani, a political operative with ties to Boca Raton politics.” In our interview, Zucaro claimed that Feuer is Cornerstone’s lawyer. Asnani said Feuer “has never been hired by our company for any legal work.”

Brandenburg, Asnani said, is a former client, “and we have occasionally referred business to each other. She has not worked for my firm, nor I for hers.” Brandenburg runs a consulting/public relations firm called Connection Strategies.

• Why does Zucaro care about Cornerstone? Zucaro said he wrote the post because the Ehrnst endorsement “offended me.” Zucaro said he remembered how the old Voters Coalition interviewed candidates and held meetings. True enough. And BocaWatch did interview the beach and park district candidates.

Still, Cornerstone is working for none of the beach and park district candidates. In the 2014 mayor’s race, however, Cornerstone worked for Susan Haynie, who defeated Anthony Majhess. His consultant was Public Concepts.

Haynie told me Monday that she plans to use Cornerstone for her re-election campaign in March. Zucaro not only has criticized Haynie, sources have said for months that Zucaro has shopped himself as a possible challenger. If that didn’t happen, BocaWatch almost certainly would back any challenger.

By injecting itself into the beach and park district race, Public Concepts could be positioning the company for a role in the March elections and seeking to raise BocaWatch’s credibility. I called Randy Nielsen of Public Concepts on Monday, but the call had not been returned as of deadline for this post.

Like Zucaro, some candidates who didn’t get the new PAC’s endorsement criticized the use of the Voters Coalition name and pointed out which candidates who got endorsements also are Cornerstone clients. The singular problem for Zucaro, however, is that $10,000 he took from Public Concepts.

So when Zucaro refers to “political operatives with unknown political agendas,” he overlooks the “operatives” whose money made BocaWatch look like more of a political player than the group might be. And we don’t know what agenda is behind that $10,000 from political operatives with ties to Boca Raton politics.

And furthermore

Here’s another note about BocaWatch PAC:

Before that $10,000 from Protect Florida Families, the PAC had not received a contribution for 10 months. Indeed, the PAC had raised only about $19,000 since its formation in late 2012.

Of that $19,000, almost all of it came from a tiny group of sources: Zucaro and his wife, Yvonne Boice; the Townsend Place condo and Boca Beautiful, whose president lives in Townsend Place; the Golden Triangle and Riviera homeowners associations; Wasp Mobile, which operates BocaWatch’s website; and Andrea O’Rourke, the BocaWatch editor who is running for the city council seat of term-limited Mike Mullaugh.

Zucaro said he has not been trying to raise money. OK, but from my observations BocaWatch purports to speak on behalf of the whole city. Based on that list of donations, however, BocaWatch represents only a small portion of the city.

Final thoughts

And here’s a final thought about the dueling endorsements:

Zucaro said the choice to back the beach and park district incumbents came down to just him, Andrea and George O’Rourke and James and Nancy Hendrey. All are critics of the current city council; Zucaro and the Hendreys have been especially strident. Since Ehrnst and Wright tend to side with the council in the dispute between the city and the district, BocaWatch’s endorsement was predictable.

So one could argue that the BocaWatch endorsement of Frisch and Starkoff was as “bogus” as the Voters Coalition’s endorsement of Ehrnst and Wright. Even when special-interest groups make endorsements, they have agendas. Police and fire unions, for example, stress better salaries and benefits for their members.

Brandenburg acknowledged in an interview that she and Feuer didn’t conduct interviews. They attended forums, followed newspaper coverage and read candidates’ websites. Feuer did not participate in judicial endorsements. His wife, Samantha Schosberg Feuer, is a circuit court judge. Cornerstone, Asnani said, worked for her campaign.

Brandenburg said she started the PAC to highlight races like those for judge that are farther down the ballot. “There’s no funny business,” she said. “There’s no money shifting between groups. It’s my money, and there’s no attempt to conceal anything.”

Whatever the criticism, Brandenburg said the group would expand its work and make endorsements for the general election.

Time to move on

However the beach and park district race comes out, it’s clear that there have been two slates.

One, of course, is the incumbents: Frisch and Starkoff. The other is Ehrnst and Wright. Their campaign themes have been the same, and on Monday fliers for both candidates were delivered simultaneously at my house.

After this unusually contentious campaign there will remain the urgency of making the relationship between the district and the city less contentious.

Mizner 200

The next big project in Boca Raton’s development pipeline is Mizner 200. The condo project would replace Mizner on the Green, the rental complex on Mizner Boulevard across from Royal Palm Place.

In an email, Acting Development Services Deputy Director Jim Bell told me that Mizner 200 “is tentatively scheduled” for the Sept. 22 meeting of the city’s planning and zoning board. Bell added, though, that the staff report on Mizner 200 is not complete. So there is not yet a recommendation for the board. Nor has the item been advertised for that meeting.

Bell said if Mizner 200 does make the Sept. 22 agenda, the staff report would be available “around” Sept. 16. The redesigned, slightly smaller project could include as many as 384 units, though the architect said the working number could be closer to 340.

Senate races

The Tampa Bay Times has identified the most expensive state Senate races in Florida. Two of them are in Palm Beach County.

Spending in District 31, which includes portions of south county, has topped $2.1 million. That’s the highest total in the state. State Rep. Irv Slosberg has put roughly $1.5 million of his own money into the race.

At roughly $1 million, District 30 is the sixth costliest. The district includes the northeastern portion of the county. Again, it features a self-financer. Trial lawyer Michael Steinger has loaned himself almost $700,000.

The salary for a state senator is less than $30,000.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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