The Donalds Dossier: PACs and the race for re-election

Part 2: A deep dive into the PACs behind Rep. Byron Donalds

Rep. Byron Donalds speaks while Rep. Steve Scalise looks on. (Photo: Office of Rep. Donalds)

June 23, 2021 by David Silverberg

“The PACs didn’t get me elected,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) said during a March 30 interview at Alfie Oakes’ Seed to Table market.

That statement is not true; political action committees (PACs) were very heavily involved in getting Donalds elected in 2020, as demonstrated in Part 1 of this deep dive into Donalds’ PAC support. Ideological super PACs played an especially big role in his 2020 primary victory.

What is more, they and other PACs are already making contributions to his 2022 re-election campaign—and by so doing shaping the nature of the midterm election as conducted in Southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island.

Some of Donalds’ 2022 PAC contributors were contributors in 2020. Their contributions bear scrutiny because they both illuminate Donalds’ corporate and ideological backing and explain his policy positions even if he himself said that he ignores the concerns of his PAC backers.

Nonetheless, some of the PAC contributions stand out in different ways.

The PAC spending reported in this article was, to the best of this author’s ability to determine, legal and compliant with existing law. This article is based on public information. No criminality or impropriety is alleged or implied. The full 2021-22 PAC list can be seen and downloaded on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) website.

Water, oil and Scalise

Politicians form their own PACs and donate to each other’s campaigns. This helps build bonds and relationships that serve them well once they’re elected. These networks help them pass legislation or advance in the party leadership ranks.

These kinds of donations were especially important during Donalds’ 2020 primary campaign when he was in a tight and uncertain race against well-funded opponents.

One primary contributor of particular significance was Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.).

Scalise was significant on a number of levels: He was (and remains) House Minority Whip, the second highest leadership position in the Republican caucus. A contribution from him was a vote of confidence and a boost from the official Republican House establishment.

But Scalise had a particular connection to Southwest Florida. During Francis Rooney’s 2016 to 2020 service in Congress, Scalise posed a particular obstacle to Rooney’s efforts to prevent oil exploration and exploitation off Florida’s Gulf shore. Like the Paradise Coast, Scalise’s Louisiana district is dominated by shoreline and wetlands—but unlike Florida, it is home to an extensive offshore oil exploration and exploitation industry.

This has led Scalise to be such a spokesman for the oil industry that one trade publication was led to ask if he was the “oil industry’s best friend in Congress.”

It also led to a memorable exchange between Rooney and Scalise when they were on the House floor together and Scalise told Rooney that the oil industry would object to his efforts to keep the eastern Gulf off-limits to exploration. In an address to a private group at the Alamo gun range and store in Naples on May 30, 2018, Rooney related what happened next:

“I was on the House floor with Steve Scalise and I got in his face and I said, ‘You’re telling me that the industry won’t go for protecting the Eastern Gulf in Florida?  What industry are you talking about?  I’m talking about tourism. I’m talking about why we’re all here, okay? Just because Louisiana is a pit, doesn’t mean we want to become a pit. Okay?’” 

In the 116th Congress, neither man got what he wanted: Scalise never opened the eastern Gulf and Rooney never closed it.

But Rooney retired in 2020 and Scalise stayed in Congress—and got another shot with Byron Donalds.

That second shot came in the form of two Scalise-related committees contributing to Donalds’ primary campaign: Scalise for Congress and his Eye of the Tiger PAC. In 2020, Scalise for Congress contributed $4,000 to Donalds so he could retire some of his primary election campaign debt and Eye of the Tiger PAC contributed $10,000.

The issue of oil drilling in the eastern Gulf is now largely moot. President Joe Biden campaigned against new offshore drilling and implemented that promise through an executive order issued a week after he took office. He even stopped the sale of oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that President Donald Trump had permitted. Even Trump retreated from Gulf oil exploitation during the election campaign, issuing an executive order on Sept. 8, 2020 putting Florida waters off limits for 10 years.

So the issue of eastern Gulf oil exploitation is off the table for the moment and will likely stay that way for the rest of Biden’s term and possibly beyond.

But that has not dampened Scalise’s support for Donalds. Already in the first quarter of 2021 Scalise for Congress contributed $2,000 to Donalds’ re-election campaign and Eye of the Tiger PAC contributed $5,000.

Those totals will undoubtedly rise in the days leading to the mid-term election, intended to buy Donalds’ loyalty both to the oil industry and to Scalise personally.

Big sugar

The sugar industry, or “big sugar” as it’s widely known in Southwest Florida, has vital interests in federal actions. Its cane fields are in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee, and much of the harvest is processed there. Issues of pollution, runoff and water management are fundamental to its operations—and the source of considerable environmental criticism.

Management of Lake Okeechobee falls to the US Army Corps of Engineers and there is constant debate and contention regarding water quality and responsibility for maintaining it. This deeply affects not only the Everglades, which protect the inhabited areas of the Paradise Coast and the 19th Congressional District and affects the area’s supply of drinking water. It also determines pollution and algae levels in the Caloosahatchee River that runs through Fort Myers and past Cape Coral. On the cleanliness of these waters rests its tourism industry and the health of everyone living along the river and the Gulf. (To the east it also similarly affects the communities along the St. Lucie River.)

In 2020, Donalds received $5,000 each from the American Crystal Sugar Company PAC and the United States Sugar Corporation Employee Stock Ownership Plan PAC.

For the 2022 election, Donalds has already received $5,000 for his primary race from the American Crystal Sugar Company PAC.

This year a new sugar donor entered the fray: the sugar industry’s American Sugar Cane League PAC, consisting largely of sugar cane farmers, which has contributed $1,000 to his primary race.

In an effort to show concern for water purity efforts, Donalds has been making visits to Lake O and attending various briefings, providing photo ops.

A different kind of insurance

The insurance industry is investing extensively in Donalds. As a heavily regulated industry with numerous interests in a wide variety of legislation and regulation, insurance companies and lobbies have long been very active politically, donating to a wide variety of lawmakers at all levels and in all states. In the 2020 election the industry spent $152 million to influence legislation, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Donalds sits on House subcommittees that have a direct impact on insurance issues. One is the House Oversight and Reform Committee where he sits on the economic and consumer policy subcommittee. But his other assignment may have even more of an insurance industry impact. On the House Small Business Committee, he sits on the Economic Growth, Tax, and Capital Access Subcommittee, and the Oversight, Investigations, and Regulations Subcommittee—and the key word in that title is “regulations.” Also, he has been a vocal and vociferous opponent of the Affordable Care Act

It explains the insurance industry PAC investment in his campaign.

  • CIGNA Corporation Political Action Committee: $1,000

Cigna Corp. is a major health insurance provider. It was ranked the 13th largest US corporation in the 2020 Fortune 500 list by total revenue, which was estimated to be $38.5 billion that year.

Insurance trade PACS include:

  • Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, Inc. Political Action Committee: $5,000
  • National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies PAC: $1,000
  • The Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers Political Action Committee: $1,000

Prepping for 2022

Other PACs contributing to Donalds in 2021 are, in addition to those already mentioned:

Ideological PACs

Founded in 1994, this PAC states on its website it is “on a mission to expose the Liberal Lies [sic] to minority voters all across America. With your help, Black America’s PAC will reclaim Black voters to the Republican Party by electing minority Republicans to national office and destroying the Liberal Lies that keep minorities voting for Democrats who do NOT share their values.”

The PAC was founded and is headed by Alvin Williams who worked on the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1987. He later worked at the Republican National Committee and advised candidates on African-American issues for a variety of campaigns.

In the 2020 election, this PAC contributed $1,500 to Donalds’ campaign.

This is an ideological PAC that attempts to elect conservative Republicans. This is the first time it has contributed to a Donalds campaign.

Other politicians

  • Building America’s Republican Representation PAC: $2,500

This is a PAC affiliated with Rep. Andy Barr (R-6-Ky.)

  • Building Leadership and Inspiring New Enterprise PAC: $2,000

This is a PAC affiliated with Rep. Blaine Leutkemeyer (R-3-Mo.). Leutkemeyer, like Donalds, voted to decertify the results of the 2020 election.

  • Jason Smith for Congress: $2,000

This is a committee affiliated with Rep. Jason Smith (R-8-Mo.). Smith is the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, on which Donalds serves. Like Donalds, Smith voted to decertify the 2020 election. Of particular note, while on the House floor on Jan. 17, 2019, when Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-29-Calif.) was presiding, Smith shouted “Go back to Puerto Rico!” at House Democratic members.

Corporate PACs

  • CGCN PAC: $1,000

This is the PAC of CGCN Group, a conservative Washington, DC-based lobbying firm that provides “outreach to key policymakers,” gathers “strategic intelligence” and offers “a full suite of tools for media and grassroots communication to influence the policies that affect our clients.” One indication of its orientation: Most recently it made Peter Ventimiglia a partner after he worked seven years at Koch Industries where he was a primary architect of its communications strategy.

  • JM Family Enterprises, Inc. PAC: $1,000

JM Family Enterprises is a diversified automotive company. As its website puts it: “Our principal businesses focus on vehicle distribution and processing, finance and insurance and retail vehicle sales.” The company was launched in 1968 when the founder, Jim Moran, became Toyota distributor in five southeastern US states, including Florida. Its PAC contributed to Donalds’ 2020 campaign.

  • National Association of Realtors Political Action Committee: $1,000

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

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