An in-depth look and analysis of the political past, present and future of the family and the franchise
April 15, 2021 by David Silverberg
Floridians know Publix as a grocery store and a giant chain of supermarkets—but increasingly they’re coming to know it as a political force.
That’s because Publix’s political involvement keeps popping into the public spotlight in embarrassing and usually not terribly flattering ways.
Just how much of a political force is Publix in Florida and nationally? What is the nature of its political involvement and influence? What policies does it seek to influence or implement? Does it have an ideological agenda? And where is it headed?
Birth of a behemoth
According to its official facts and figures, Publix was founded in 1930 in Winter Haven, Florida, by George Jenkins, who implemented a variety of new techniques and practices in his grocery business. In 1940 he mortgaged an orange grove he owned to open a state-of-the-art “food palace” that became a destination supermarket. Unable to physically expand during the Second World War because of construction restraints, he began buying other chains. After the war, Publix boomed with the rest of the economy—and with Florida.
Jenkins had seven children: Howard, David, Kenneth, Delores, Carol (now Barnett), Nancy and Julie (now Fancelli). He died in 1996 at age 88.
Today Publix is a corporate behemoth with 1,270 stores in seven southeastern states. Of these, Florida has by far the largest number: 818. Georgia follows with 192 stores, then Alabama (80), South Carolina (63), North Carolina (49), Tennessee (49) and Virginia (19). The stores are supported by 11 manufacturing facilities and nine distribution centers. The entire corporation is headquartered in Lakeland, Fla.
Publix claims to be the largest employee-owned company in the United States and one of the 10 largest-volume supermarket chains in the country. It employs over 225,000 people and in 2019 had $38.1 billion in sales.
Clearly, a corporation of this size interacts with government at all levels, handling everything from permitting to inspections to regulation to taxation and beyond. With interests in seven states, that interaction includes legislation and elections, with financial support to a wide variety of candidates.
Any corporation with 225,000 employees, huge economic clout, interaction with thousands of vendors and millions of shoppers on a daily basis is going to have immense influence, if not outright formal government power.
The public is already aware of Publix’s political power. In May, 2018 following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., protesters led by student David Hogg lay down in supermarket aisles to oppose donations to Adam Putnam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and ardent National Rifle Association supporter. In response, Publix announced that was suspending its political contributions—at least for a while.
However, the most recent controversies are of a different nature and understanding them requires awareness of the distinction between the corporation and the family consisting of the descendants of George Jenkins.
All in the family
Nationally, Publix exerts its influence by donating to candidates through its Publix Super Markets, Inc. Associates Political Action Committee (PAC). It does this through the legal mechanisms and procedures administered by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and state election finance bodies.
However, members of the Jenkins family can donate to whatever causes they wish and as long as they do not involve candidate campaigns, they are free from campaign finance restraints. Although they may not be acting with the knowledge or approval of the Publix corporation, they are usually linked to Publix if their names make the news.
On Jan. 30, the Wall Street Journal revealed that daughter Julie Jenkins Fancelli contributed $300,000 to support the “Save America” rally that turned into the riotous attack on the US Capitol building.
The Publix corporation was quick to distance itself from Fancelli’s contribution, issuing a tweet that day stating: “Mrs. Fancelli is not an employee of Publix Super Markets, and is neither involved in our business operations, nor does she represent the company in any way. We cannot comment on Mrs. Fancelli’s actions.
“The violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a national tragedy. The deplorable actions that occurred that day do not represent the values, work or opinions of Publix Super Markets.”
The rally contribution was a personal donation by Fancelli, who has long been active in conservative Republican politics, according to OpenSecrets.org of the Center for Responsive Politics. According to that source, Fancelli was the 113th largest individual donor nationally during the 2020 election cycle, contributing $1,027,600 to Republicans.
In past elections, according to the FEC, she contributed to the 2012 presidential campaign of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). She also contributed to the US Senate campaigns of Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, the Republican National Committee and Republican organizations in Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Idaho and Vermont.
According to The Ledger newspaper based Lakeland, in 2020 Fancelli contributed $171,300 to a committee supporting President Donald Trump and her son, Gregory Fancelli, contributed $11,200 to a Trump-supporting committee.
Fancelli is not the only progeny of George Jenkins to make political contributions.
David Jenkins, the youngest son, who spent most of his adult life in San Francisco away from the family business, also contributed during the 2020 cycle—but his were perhaps obligatory $5 contributions to the official Publix PAC.
By contrast, daughter Carol Jenkins Barnett was deeply involved in the 2020 Georgia campaigns of Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue for the US Senate. The Carol Jenkins Barnett Family Trust gave $100,000 to a super PAC called the Keep America America Action Fund. The super PAC could spend unlimited amounts of money on issues rather than candidates and it pushed hard for a Republican victory in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections. Barnett also contributed $100,000 in her own name to the Georgia Senate Battleground Fund, $10,000 to Perdue Victory Inc., $2,800 to the Perdue for Senate campaign and the same amount to the National Republican Senate Committee.
In North Carolina she contributed $2,800 to the re-election campaign of Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).
Barnett had better luck in North Carolina than in Georgia: Tillis kept his seat while Loeffler and Perdue were defeated.
But the FEC filings only cover federal races. Jenkins family members and in-laws have contributed to numerous other state races and political causes. (More on that below.)
The Publix PAC, in contrast to the family, is a structured, regulated, institutional organization that donates to candidates to advance the company’s interests, even if family members in management have a disproportionate say in its decisionmaking. (For example, Howard Jenkins served as chief executive officer of Publix from 1990 to 2001.)
“The Publix PAC is nonpartisan, and we strive to support pro-business candidates that foster free market principles,” Maria Brous, Publix’s director of communications, told the Ledger in a 2016 article. “Members of the Publix PAC meet and decide how to disperse its money.”
The 2018 Parkland shooting protests in Publix supermarkets forced a re-think of Publix PAC’s donations and it suspended them for a year. When they resumed in 2019 they were more balanced and bipartisan.
A review of 2020 election cycle FEC filings and a search of OpenSecrets.org reveal disciplined, commerce-motivated donations to a wide variety of candidates, PACs and partisan political organizations. The Republican and Democratic House and Senate campaign committees each received equal amounts of $30,000.
In the 2020 election cycle, the PAC spent a total of $531,700, of which $377,500 went to candidate campaigns (as opposed to going to other PACs or national party organizations).
While it contributed to candidates on both sides of the aisle, the giving was not equal: $237,000 or 62.78 percent went to Republicans while $140,500 or 37.22 percent went to Democrats.
The same rough percentage held true for Publix PAC’s donations to 88 House candidates, with giving split in favor of Republicans by 56.63 percent to 43.37 percent for Democrats. When it came to Senate candidates, though, the percentages were much more lopsided: in 24 Senate races, Publix PAC favored Republicans by 84.43 percent to 15.57 percent for Democrats.
Overall, the patterns of Publix PAC’s contributions during the 2020 cycle were fairly typical for a large corporation seeking to advance its commercial interests and maintain its influence in areas critical to its success. Its giving was selective and strategic, with what appear to be long-term goals in mind. It overwhelmingly favored incumbents rather than challengers or newcomers. It largely remained mainstream and there were no contributions to extremists like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) or Lauren Boebert (R-3-Colo.). (It will be interesting to see if this pattern holds now that they’re incumbents.)
It is clear that both the family and the PAC had a deep stake in Georgia’s Senate election and contributed extensively to Loeffler and Perdue.
Interestingly, the PAC also made a heavy investment in North Carolina, where the chain is expanding, and gave heavily in state-level races.
Also, as noted previously, there is no evidence of direct investment in President Donald Trump’s campaign by the PAC, at least not to organizations bearing his name.
60 minutes of misery
In December 2020 Publix made four $25,000 contributions to the Friends of Ron DeSantis committee, two on Dec. 7 and two on Dec. 31.
It was an unusual contribution, coming as it did between the 2020 election and long before the 2022 Florida gubernatorial election. Also, it is not clear whether the contributions came from the PAC or the company itself.
When Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced on Jan. 5 that Publix supermarkets would be distributing COVID vaccines, politicos and the media made an immediate connection to the political contributions.
The timing aroused suspicions. The law draws a fine line between political contributions for broad issues and individual candidate campaigns versus direct payments in return for specific official actions; in other words, a quid pro quo. The latter constitutes bribery.
In a Jan. 14 report on Spectrum News 13 in Orlando, Brous, the Publix publicist, denied that there had been any quid pro quo.
Saying that while the company did not discuss political contributions, she stated it was “important that I clarify that the connection being implied is absolutely incorrect.
“As a Florida-based company with more than 750 pharmacies throughout the state, Publix is well-positioned to serve as a partner in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to Florida’s residents,” Brous wrote in an e-mail to reporter Pete Reinwald. “Our large footprint, infrastructure and distribution network across the state, as well as our experience with administering the flu vaccine (and other vaccines) and online scheduling technology, gives us the capability to efficiently deploy the vaccine. That expertise is critically needed at this time.”
DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice was equally adamant that there had been no quid pro quo: “the insinuation” of a connection between the contribution and the Publix vaccination program “is baseless and ridiculous,” she told the station.
But, as is said in the news trade, the story had “legs.” It just wouldn’t go away.
Combined with the fits and starts and controversies over the rest of Florida’s vaccine distribution, the Publix donation eventually caught the attention of CBS’ venerable news show, “60 Minutes.”
On April 5, “60 Minutes” reported on the Florida vaccine rollout in a segment titled “A Fair Shot,” produced by Oriana Zill de Granados and presented by correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi.
The segment looked at the totality of Florida’s vaccine distribution, focusing on its confusion and inequities. In due course it came to the Publix contributions.
“So why did the governor choose Publix?” asked Alfonsi. “Campaign finance reports obtained by 60 Minutes show that weeks before the governor’s announcement, Publix donated $100,000 to his political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.
“Julie Jenkins Fancelli, heiress to the Publix fortune, has given $55,000 to the governor’s PAC in the past. And in November, Fancelli’s brother-in-law, Hoyt R. Barnett, a retired Publix executive, donated $25,000.
“Publix did not respond to our request for comment about the donations.
“Governor DeSantis is up for re-election next year.”
Alfonsi interviewed state Rep. Omari Hardy (D-88-Palm Beach).
“I imagine Governor DeSantis’s office would say, ‘Look, we privatized the rollout because it’s more efficient and it works better,’” she said.
“It hasn’t worked better for people of color,” responded Hardy. “Before, I could call the public health director. She would answer my calls. But now if I want to get my constituents information about how to get this vaccine I have to call a lobbyist from Publix? That makes no sense. They’re not accountable to the public.”
Alfonsi pointed out that “Distributing vaccines is lucrative. Under federal guidelines, Publix, like any other private company, can charge Medicare $40 a shot to administer the vaccine.”
DeSantis vehemently denied that Publix was selected based on its political contributions when confronted directly by Alfonsi at a press conference near Orlando.
“Publix, as you know, donated $100,000 to your campaign,” she said. “And then you rewarded them with the exclusive rights to distribute the vaccination in Palm Beach County.”
“So, first of all, that—what you’re saying is wrong,” responded DeSantis. “That’s—“
“How is that not pay-to-play?” she asked.
DeSantis continued: “—that—that’s a fake narrative. I met with the county mayor. I met with the administrator. I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County and I said, ‘Here’s some of the options. We can do more drive-thru sites. We can give more to hospitals. We can do the Publix.’ And they said, ‘We think that would be the easiest thing for our residents.’”
While Publix did not respond to “60 Minutes’” questions when it was doing its research, it did provide a statement after the story appeared:
“The irresponsible suggestion that there was a connection between campaign contributions made to Governor DeSantis and our willingness to join other pharmacies in support of the state’s vaccine distribution efforts is absolutely false and offensive. We are proud of our pharmacy associates for administering more than 1.5 million doses of vaccine to date and for joining other retailers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to do our part to help our communities emerge from the pandemic.”Publix Super Markets
DeSantis and his administration have continued to vehemently deny that there was any quid pro quo. Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s emergency management director, emphatically denied the premise of the story and in a tweet said he told “60 Minutes” it was “bullshit.”
“I said this before and I’ll say it again,” he stated in another tweet. “[Publix] was recommended by [Florida Division of Emergency Management] and [Florida Department of Public Health] as the other pharmacies were not ready to start. Period! Full Stop! No one from the Governor’s office suggested Publix. It’s just absolute malarkey,”
The story came under fire from all sides, including from Democrats and fellow journalists. Florida newspaper editorials, right-wing media and even publications and news outlets overseas condemned it as “innuendo,” a “smear,” and “false.” Floridians finally had something to unite them.
For its part, “60 Minutes” issued a lengthy statement and explanation saying that it did its research and stood by its story.
What was undeniable regardless of the substance of the story was that the political Publix had emerged into the national spotlight.
On Monday, April 12, The Paradise Progressive, as part of the research and due diligence for this article, reached out by e-mail to Maria Brous, Publix communications director, and Allison Penn, treasurer of the Publix PAC, asking the following questions:
- How much of a political force is Publix in Florida and nationally?
- What is the nature of its political involvement and influence?
- What policies does it seek to influence or implement?
- Does it have an ideological agenda and mission?
Regarding the “60 Minutes” report, the e-mail posed the following questions:
- What was the reason that Publix contributed $100,000 to the DeSantis campaign fund in December 2020?
- Why were the contributions made at that particular time (between elections)?
- Why were they made in those particular amounts?
- Were the contributions made at the request of the DeSantis campaign committee or at the initiative of Publix?
To date, no acknowledgment or response has been received. None is expected.
Analysis: Publix in the public space
One thing that must be said about the Publix contributions to Friends of Ron DeSantis: no one is covered in glory about this; not the journalism and not the response, which seemed clumsy and woefully inept.
How could any sentient observer fail to draw parallels between political donations made one month before a major announcement like the one of the vaccine rollouts at Publix supermarkets? How dense would people have to be not to conclude—however erroneously—that there was a relationship? This is what is known in political slang as “bad optics”—or in this case, spectacularly bad optics.
But for its part, “60 Minutes” failed to produce a smoking gun—or in this instance a smoking e-mail or a smoking source—that could definitively nail down a quid pro quo. It was as though they connected all the dots of a puzzle but just couldn’t draw the one line that finally completed the picture.
While the text of the segment was very careful in its presentation, its context was, as its critics charge, full of insinuation and implication rather than factual confirmation. If it had been less emphatic in its allegations it would have sacrificed its emotional impact but would have been more accurate.
This has given DeSantis the chance to play the part of the injured party and continue a Trumplike crusade against the media.
“I know corporate media thinks that they can just run over people,” DeSantis announced after the story aired. “You ain’t running over this governor. I’m punching back and I’m going to continue to do it until these smear merchants are held accountable.” He added, “That’s why nobody trusts corporate media. They are a disaster in what they are doing. They knew what they were doing was a lie.”
But DeSantis himself is hardly a paragon of truth and virtue. He has followed a Trumpist playbook throughout his governorship. While that approach may please hard-core, right-wing voters, as it did for Donald Trump, it also leads to questions about his own veracity and truthfulness in everything from the state of the pandemic, to the numbers of infections, to the distribution of vaccines. If he had a reputation for principle and probity, his protests would have more credibility. But that’s not a hallmark of his governance and his words of defiance sound like they came straight out of Donald Trump’s mouth.
As for Publix, it may have a policy against discussing political contributions but in this instance it badly needed to explain why these particular contributions were made at this particular time. Had its spokespeople done so, Publix might have at least made clear that there was no quid pro quo. To date, there has been no explanation of these contributions, assuming that they were made independently of any gubernatorial action—and Publix’s blanket denial, while impassioned, has been less effective than it might otherwise have been.
(One can only speculate that the contributions were made at the very end of the year to meet some tax or regulatory deadline or pump up the DeSantis campaign going into 2021.)
The “60 Minutes” report may be a blow to DeSantis and Publix but it’s not the main story. In fact, it’s only a sideshow.
The disappearing middle
Publix presents itself as a grocery and a supermarket. It certainly is that—but it is now also a political player and like it or not, it is increasingly being judged by political criteria and not just by the groceries it sells.
In days gone by, companies that wanted to be politically active but not offend large numbers of retail customers made their political preferences known through discreet financial contributions to favored causes and candidates. In a larger sense, they operated in an environment that treated political perspectives as intellectual differences of opinion that could be discussed and debated and reasonably resolved in a constitutional framework. They could work their political influence without losing consumer loyalty, damaging their brands or breaking the law.
This is what Donald Trump destroyed with his absolutism and zero-sum approach. He always judged the world as either pro or anti-Trump and treated every political conflict as an absolute win or an absolute loss. When he was declared the loser of the 2020 election he incited an insurrection to negate those results and criminally attempted to destroy the legislative branch of the United States government.
For corporations this approach eliminated the reasonable middle ground they used to be able to occupy. It has also eliminated their discreet application of influence. It is particularly hard on a large, consumer-based, center-right company like Publix that fit into a comfortable, bipartisan, pro-business middle ground.
That middle ground is now gone; Donald Trump shattered it.
Even with Trump out of office, the Trumpist zero-sum approach lingers. It can be seen in Georgia, where Republicans on the losing side of the 2020 election rewrote voting rules to suppress voting and with it, any possible future Democratic victories. That has put Georgia-based companies in a difficult spot and companies like Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and Major League Baseball have taken highly publicized actions to express their disapproval.
Publix is in a particularly tough spot in the Peach State: it can’t just up and leave like Major League Baseball did, even if it so wished and it would be unwise for it to endorse suppression of democracy. Its Georgian stores and facilities are a major part of its business and it has to depend on consumer goodwill from all segments of society and political persuasions. At the same time both the company and the family were deeply involved in promoting a different outcome than they got in the runoff election, so the company’s political preferences are obvious to all. Both PAC and family have sensibly refrained from publicly expressing an opinion on the voter suppression law and no one, to this author’s ability to determine, is demanding that Publix take sides—yet.
Raising awareness and drawing distinctions
After the Fancelli donation to the Trump rally came to light there were some calls for a boycott of Publix stores in Florida but the talk has not amounted to anything to date. It did, however, throw into high relief the differences between the family and the PAC.
While the distinction between individual or family political activities and Publix PAC and corporate activities is very clear in legal and constitutional terms, it is not clear in the popular mind or in the media. When Fancelli’s personal donation was made public it was lumped together with the Publix corporation as was her and Hoyt Barnett’s contributions to DeSantis.
Two realities govern Publix’s politics. One is the distinction between the family and the corporation. This is especially important given that Publix is an employee-owned corporation, so economic measures like boycotts against the company hurt employees and employee-owners at the lowest rungs of the organization. If activists dislike a Publix action or position, they have to be very certain whether the action was taken by a family member as an individual or the company as a corporate entity. The same goes for future media coverage.
Secondly, in the past, outside of Lakeland, neither the media nor the public was paying particular attention to the family’s donations or activities. However, with the Trumpist hyper-politicization of all American life, people are doing so now. To the degree that Florida has a royal family the Jenkins family is it and like any royal family the behavior of one member affects the standing and perception of the institution as a whole. Now both the Jenkins and the PAC are in the national political spotlight—and staying there.
The future of Publix politics
For the sake of political shorthand the Publix corporation as an institution can be characterized as a Republican business establishment of the center-right. By and large the family can be characterized as hard-right Republican with Fancelli standing out as the family Trumper.
In a Florida context, both the family and the company are Republican pro-DeSantis.
In a Georgia context, the family is extremely conservative Republican. What else is one to make of a donation to an organization called “Keep America America?” (As opposed to what?)
There is no doubt that in doing what it really does—providing food, products and services to the public—Publix is one of the best supermarket chains in the country. It is by all accounts and observation a well-managed, well-organized, effective, conscientious institution that makes a real—and in the case of vaccines—vital contribution to the health and welfare of the communities where it operates.
Of necessity it has been involved in politics and when involved, regardless of what one thinks of its political orientation, it participated in a legal, responsible, constitutional way. After its 2018 pause, as a corporation its goals appear to be primarily commercial rather than ideological.
Will it stay that way? Only time will tell but it would be a wise course to follow.
As a political player Publix will continue having to ride political pressures and cope with tough stories and embarrassing incidents that potentially interfere with its core mission of providing food to the public. These are likely to multiply and intensify with time.
Publix is unlikely to ever go back to being just a supermarket again. In the future, shopping there may be a pleasure—but it will not be a carefree one.
Liberty lives in light
© 2021 by David Silverberg