Sept. 18: Another sleepy Saturday or Insurrection 2.0 in DC and Southwest Florida?

The US Capitol and grounds in May 2021. Authorities are considering restoring the fencing in anticipation of a rally on Sept. 18. (Photo: Author)

Sept. 9, 2021 by David Silverberg

For most Americans, Saturday, Sept. 18 is just another date on the calendar, one more day in one more weekend.

In Washington, DC, however, authorities are bracing for a demonstration that could be a replay of the Jan. 6 rally and riot that nearly overturned the government of the United States. In Southwest Florida that protest will have an echo on a smaller scale but one that bears watching.

Washington, DC

The “Justice for J6 Rally” is intended to call for an end to prosecutions and the release of those who have been prosecuted and jailed as a result of the January 6 insurrection.

It was first announced by a group called Look Ahead America on July 30th. The group states on its website that its mission is to speak for disenfranchised Americans and “register, educate, and enfranchise these disaffected citizens.”

The group’s executive director is Matt Braynard, who previously served as the Donald Trump campaign’s director of data and strategy.

Matt Braynard (Image: LAA)

In a Jan. 29, 2021 letter to the US Justice Department in the immediate wake of the Capitol insurrection, Braynard argued that “Many of the protesters who entered the Capitol reasonably believed they had permission” and “we should not further compound the tragedy through vindictive and selective political prosecutions.”

Braynard is trying to overcome the images and opprobrium of the insurrection. He wants the Sept. 18 rally to be “laser-focused” on the issue of Capitol prosecutions and avoid the symbolism and disorder of the riot.

“Be respectful and kind to all law enforcement officers” Braynard urged would-be demonstrators in a 4-minute, 46-second video on the group’s website. “If they ask you to do something, please, do so.” He also urged rally-goers to stay in groups, notify the organization volunteers if there’s any trouble and not wear attire other than that related to the specific goals of the rally.

Nonetheless, extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are planning to attend the Washington rally, according to media reports. Capitol Police and security officials are already on alert and have been weighing whether to reconstruct the fence that surrounded Capitol Hill after the insurrection.

Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger told the Associated Press on Sept. 1 that his department was “closely monitoring September 18 and we are planning accordingly.”

According to Manger: “After January 6, we made Department-wide changes to the way we gather and share intelligence, internally and externally. I am confident the work we are doing now will make sure our officers have what they need to keep everyone safe.”

Despite Braynard’s efforts at non-violence and lawfulness, security experts are wary. Andrew McCabe, former Federal Bureau of Investigation acting director, warned in a CNN interview on Sept. 7 that the rally should be treated as a potentially violent threat.

“I think they should take it very seriously,” McCabe, a CNN contributor, told interviewer Poppy Harlow. “In fact, they should take it more seriously than they took the same sort of intelligence that they likely saw on January 5.”

But for law enforcement officers there are “a few factors leaning in their favor” this time, said McCabe. “You don’t have a sitting president actively fanning the flames and trying to get people to attend the rally. And on the other hand, it looks like, from all indications, our law enforcement partners are well prepared for this one. They seem to be taking the intelligence very seriously, which raises a question as to whether or not they did on January 6, but that’s another issue.”

Southwest Florida

Alfie Oakes takes aim. (Photo: Facebook)

Southwest Florida will be marking Sept. 18 with its own “Patriot Fest” at the rural North Naples farm of Francis Alfred Oakes III, known to the world as “Alfie,” owner and operator of Oakes Farms and Seed to Table market.

Oakes’ Patriot Fest is scheduled to feature a number of speakers including Rogan O’Handley, a conservative commentator who goes by the stage name “DC Draino;” Jack Prosobiec, a One America News Network commentator; and Anna Paulina Luna, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, where she lost in 2020 to Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.).

According to its announcement, Patriot Fest will feature food trucks and entertainment by politically conservative musician Jason Beale. It costs $20 to attend and $200 for deluxe tickets—although Eventbrite, which initially took reservations, decided to drop the event, refused to handle arrangements and refunded all the tickets it had taken.

As a committeeman in the Collier County Republican Party and a prominent conservative activist, not to mention a farmer and grocer promoting his businesses, Oakes is very much a local public figure. However, Oakes, who has become famous—or infamous, depending on one’s perspective—for his far right, Trumpist politics, fierce opposition to anti-COVID masking and vaccinations and pronouncements on social media, has gone to a level that merits special attention.

Starting in early August, Oakes openly called for rebellion against the US government and did not mince words: “I think the time has come for us to revolt against our tyrannical government,” he stated on Aug. 6 on Facebook.

Then, on Aug. 8 he posted a photo of himself firing an automatic weapon, writing: “I pray we have election integrity in 2022…. if we don’t we must prepare for the worst! Our second amendment right is specifically to revolt against a a tyrannical government! Prepare for the worst and pray for the best” [sic, no punctuation at the end of that sentence].

On Aug. 14 the thread continued: “Ivermectin beats Covid hands down! Anyone with the slightest bit of Critical thinking knows the government is screwing over the people! And nearly every crooked politician in DC is guilty of letting this happen! Time for the Revolution !!!”

Then, on Aug. 16, the threat became direct, aimed at civilian teachers: “These corrupt teachers unions are the enemy of our country and our citizens! We need to take them down by force!! ALL enemies foreign and domestic !!! Time for a revolution!”

As extreme as these expressions are, they can arguably count as free speech under the First Amendment. They can also be regarded as inflated by passion and hyperbole—except that on Aug. 20 Oakes dialed the volume up to 11.

The “We the People Fight Back” event in Naples, Aug. 20. (Photo: Facebook)

On Aug. 20 and 21, like-minded conservatives gathered, unmasked and undistanced, at the Naples Hilton to hold the “We the People Fight Back” event, an activist workshop and conference.

Among the speakers was Oakes, who posted elements of his speech on Facebook.

In a rambling address that veered from COVID to the nation’s founders, Oakes told his audience: “I’m telling you that my threshold of where this goes to, like, the next level is getting close for me.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be ‘before’ but if they try to steal the next election, the ’22 elections, I’m all in. We don’t want to talk about what that is but we have to be all in,” he said to cheers from the audience.

But it was his next sentence that merits particular attention: “I have enough guns to put in every single employee’s hands.”

Analysis: Evaluating the force

In a July 22 dialogue with a reader on Facebook, Oakes gave his employee workforce as 3,200 people. This no doubt includes farm laborers.

If his statements are taken at face value that would mean that Oakes is saying he owns the weaponry to arm 3,200 people. That’s the equivalent of three US Army battalions and two companies, a formidable force that could give any local—or even state—law enforcement agency a serious challenge. If true, it is by any measure a massive arsenal to be held in private, civilian hands.

When combined with his previous statements calling for revolution and the use of force against teachers, he is now talking about an unregulated militia that could threaten the security of the state.

Of course, that’s only if Oakes’ words are taken on their face as true.

In the past, numbers and accuracy have not been Oakes’ strong suit. For example, in a Jan. 10 Facebook posting, he put the size of the crowd at the Jan. 6 insurrection at “well over one million people” and then “1 1/2 million” and the number of leading rioters as “six or eight paid actors.”

Presumably he would be more accurate when it comes to accounting related to his business.

It sounds like he can command an imposing force. But even if, as he states, that he can put guns in the hands of all 3,200 employees it cannot be presumed that all employees, already facing the daily risk of working in an unmasked, anti-protective, COVID-denying workplace, would want to take on the additional danger of using lethal force against the United States in a rebellion led by Alfie Oakes.

Also, his comments don’t make clear whether he could mount a sustained operation. Nor does it make clear the quality or caliber of his weapons. Nor is it clear that he has the command, control, communications, logistics or support to make such a force effective in achieving its mission—whatever that mission might be.

Still, in an era when a single active shooter with a single magazine can tie down a town, a shopping mall or a public intersection, any armed rebellion can prove, to put it mildly, extremely problematic, as witness the siege of Waco, Texas in 1993.

At the very least, the situation bears monitoring.

A case of the maybes

At this point, nothing is foreordained for Sept. 18.

In Washington, DC, Braynard is calling for an orderly, disciplined and focused demonstration. In Naples, Oakes is throwing a party at his house.

So maybe all the fears are just alarmist. Maybe on Sept. 18, protesters in the nation’s capital will peaceably assemble to petition government for a redress of grievances. Maybe there will be no violence or insurrection.

And in Naples, maybe Patriot Fest will consist of good times, good food and speechifying. Maybe there will be no calls for armed revolt or acts of insurrection.

Maybe Sept. 18 will be just another Saturday in September.

Then again, maybe not.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Hurricane Katrina vs. Hurricane Ida: Two storms, two presidents and two very different responses

President Joe Biden is briefed by FEMA officials on the danger of Hurricane Ida. (Photo: White House)

Sept. 3, 2021 by David Silverberg

Hurricane Ida shrieked onto the Louisiana coast on Sunday, Aug. 29, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made a similar landfall in 2005.

Many observers have made comparisons between the two hurricanes. Both were monster storms that wreaked terrible destruction and damage. Both resulted in extensive human suffering. Both afflicted multiple states.

However, to date there’s been little comparison of the responses to the two hurricanes by the sitting presidents and their administrations.

Hurricane Katrina struck during the presidency of George W. Bush. Hurricane Ida arrived during the presidency of Joe Biden.

As similar as the storms may be, the responses could not be more different.

“Katrina conjures impressions of disorder, incompetence, and the sense that government let down its citizens,” Bush himself wrote in his 2010 memoir, Decision Points.

In contrast, to date Biden has shown himself engaged, focused and effective. His administration was on alert and moved into action immediately.

Southwest Floridians in particular should take note of all this. The region has been lucky so far this year in avoiding hurricanes and damaging storms but the season is by no means over. Some Floridians, their elected officials and their governor instinctively disparage the federal government and attack this president. But if a storm comes that flattens the Paradise Coast the way Hurricane Ida flattened the homes of Louisiana, they will be able to look to a federal government and a president that is ready, willing and able to help them—so unlike the situation in 2005.

It’s worth comparing key aspects of the two events to see how far we have come.

Run-up to the storm

In 2005 the Bush administration was certainly aware of the oncoming storm. However, Bush was on a month-long vacation at his ranch at Crawford, Texas. On the day Katrina made landfall he traveled to Arizona for a brief, airport tarmac greeting with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a town hall meeting at a resort and country club in El Mirage. He was promoting legislative changes to the Medicare program. He then went to California where he spoke before a crowd of military personnel at the Coronado naval base. Then he returned to Air Force One and flew back to his ranch.

In looking back in his 2008 memoir What Happened, Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary, was critical of the administration’s distant, almost lackadaisical approach: “The problem lay in our mind-set,” he recalled.

“Our White House team had already weathered many disasters, from the hurricanes of the previous year all the way back to the unprecedented calamity of 9/11. As a result, we were probably a little numb (‘What, another tragedy?’) and perhaps a little complacent (‘We’ve been through this before.’). We assumed that local and federal officials would do their usual yeoman’s work at minimizing the devastation, much as the more seasoned Florida officials had done the year before, and we recalled how President Bush had excelled at reassuring and comforting the nation in the wake of past calamities. Instead of planning and acting for the potential worst-case scenario, we took a chance that Katrina would not be as unmanageable, overwhelming, or catastrophic as it turned out. So we allowed our institutional response to go on autopilot.”

Sixteen years later, on Aug. 28, the administration was alert and mobilized for the storm. At the White House, Biden—who was at work—was briefed by Kenneth Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center on the storm itself. Along with Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he spoke with the governors of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to discuss their needs. He signed an emergency declaration for Louisiana in advance of the storm’s landfall.

Addressing the people of the area, he warned: “Pay attention and be prepared. Have supplies for your household on hand.  Follow the guidance from local authorities.  And if you have to move to shelter, make sure you wear a mask and try to keep some distance because we’re still facing the highly contagious Delta variant as well.”

Unengagement versus engagement

In 2005 Bush seemed detached and unengaged from Katrina and its impact. His decisionmaking appeared sluggish and reactive, always several steps behind events—as he himself admitted.

“The response was not only flawed but, as I said at the time, unacceptable,” Bush wrote in Decision Points. “As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

In 2021 the administration—and indeed, the whole federal government—mobilized to help the affected area with an impressive effort.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm FEMA delivered 4.5 million meals, 3.6 million liters of water, 250 generators and rushed additional ambulances into affected areas, according to official figures.

FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) immediately began helping disaster survivors, including providing grants to help pay for housing, home repairs, property losses, medical expenses and even funeral expenses.

A program called Critical Needs Assistance was activated by FEMA to give people left completely destitute $500. It reached 31,000 Louisiana households in the very first days after the storm passed.

Currently, the SBA is issuing low-interest loans to businesses, non-profit organizations, homeowners and renters affected by the storm. Federal officials in mobile units are helping victims apply for the assistance.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is helping families, aiding with mortgage payments and insurance as well as direct housing.

The US Army Corps of Engineers immediately began working to get houses into habitable shape and distribute tarps for damaged roofs. Some 134,000 tarps were provided by Sept. 2. The Corps also rushed in teams to aid with debris removal and temporary housing.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set up a 250-bed medical station in New Orleans, established a medical evacuation site at the airport and sent a team to a hospital in Thibodaux, La., the only fully-working hospital in its region.

Other federal agencies pitching in included the US Coast Guard, the Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau, which contributed personnel, vehicles, aircraft and watercraft.

Biden was also involved in coordinating electrical power restoration with energy company executives, authorizing military reconnaissance flights and the use of satellite surveillance to pinpoint problems.

In addition to these measures, federal workers immediately began clearing roads and restoring transportation and communications. Red tape is being cut and regulations streamlined.

All this effort is light years away from the response of 2005. It demonstrates what an activated federal government, with involved leadership, can accomplish in the face of a disaster.

Unseasoned versus seasoned

President George W. Bush tells FEMA Administrator Michael Brown he’s doing “a heck of a job.” (Photo: AP)

In 2005 FEMA was headed by Michael Brown, a lawyer, former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, a failed Republican congressional candidate and a Bush campaign operative.

While Brown’s qualifications were criticized after Katrina, in fact he had handled some major disasters while at FEMA, notably the Sept. 11, 2001 aftermath and the four-hurricane season of 2004. He began his federal service as general counsel for FEMA and rose from there, rising to  undersecretary, where he oversaw a number of internal FEMA offices like the National Incident Management System Integration Center, the National Disaster Medical System and the Nuclear Incident Response Team.

So Brown was hardly a complete novice when it came to disasters and emergency management.

But Brown was in way over his head during Katrina. Although Bush praised him for “doing a heckuva job,” FEMA’s inability to anticipate, react and organize the response resulted in a spectacle of chaos, deprivation and incompetence. Brown repeatedly gave television interviews in which he expressed ignorance of the most basic facts on the ground and the suffering of New Orleanians.

He was ultimately fired in the midst of the response and replaced with retired Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.  

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell (Photo: FEMA)

Today the administrator of FEMA is Deanne Criswell, a 21-year veteran firefighter. A member of the Colorado Air National Guard, she served in Iraq and Afghanistan. During a previous stint at FEMA she was leader of an Incident Management Assistance Team. She has tackled everything from wildfires, to severe droughts, catastrophic floods and even helped re-unite evacuated families 16 years ago after Hurricane Katrina.

Immediately before being appointed FEMA administrator by Biden, Criswell was New York City Commissioner for Emergency Management. There, she coordinated the city’s response to emergencies like blackouts, fires and power outages all while handling the COVID pandemic and working to prevent collapse of the healthcare system.

So when Hurricane Ida arrived, FEMA and the country had a seasoned, experienced and truly expert first responder at the helm, appointed by Biden. It is making a world of difference.

Flyover versus ground truth

President George W. Bush flies over a devastated New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2005. (Photo: White House)

An iconic image of Bush and Hurricane Katrina was Bush staring out the window of Air Force One, rigid and frozen as he gazes down at the destruction of New Orleans. He chose to fly over the destruction on his return from his vacation in Crawford to Washington, DC.

It was his first look at what the storm had done but the message it sent the nation was one of aloofness and detachment that seemed to sum up the entire federal response.

Bush later tried to make up for that impression. He visited New Orleans 13 times in the years that followed. He gave a speech from the city’s Jackson Square where he pledged $10.5 billion federal dollars for the city’s rebuilding.

But he never fully overcame that initial image of uninvolvement from the flyover.

“Bush needed to show that he was in control. But he also needed to show that he cared—that he understood the situation and shared Americans’ sense of horror and anger, that he was determined to do whatever it took to make the bureaucracy respond,” McClellan wrote. “The flyover images showed none of this. And while privately Bush was quickly becoming more engaged, it was too little, too late.”

Bush reflected in his memoir: “I should have urged Governor [Kathleen] Blanco and Mayor [Ray] Nagin to evacuate New Orleans sooner. I should have come straight back to Washington from California on Day Two or stopped in Baton Rouge on Day Three. I should have done more to signal my determination to help, the way I did in the days after 9/11.”

Biden, by contrast, made a point of visiting FEMA headquarters in Washington during the storm to talk to Criswell directly and thank the responders at FEMA and around the country managing Ida. As of this writing he is scheduled to visit New Orleans today, Sept. 3, to see the damage and hear from the officials and people on the ground about their needs and requirements.

President Joe Biden visits FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC in the runup to Hurricane Ida’s landfall. (Photo: FEMA)

Visiting the scene of a disaster is always a dicey decision for politicians. They don’t want to seem to be exploiting the tragedy or hindering the urgent response. At the same time they want to see the situation for themselves and show their concern—and also get credit for their leadership.

Many times their solution is to fly over a site as Bush did. It gives them an overview of the entire disaster and it can be useful. However, unless it’s combined with executive action and a genuine sense of caring for the afflicted, it can backfire, as it did in Bush’s case. It takes a skilled hand and good judgment to make a disaster visit work constructively, lifting the spirits of victims, while advancing the response.

But most of all, it takes a human being who actually empathizes with other human beings and wants to alleviate their suffering that makes leadership in a disaster effective.

Then, now—and tomorrow

More than just 16 years separate the responses to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ida. They are light years apart in presidential attentiveness, competence, care and reaction.

In his engagement and decisiveness and willingness to support the professionals and experts, Biden is demonstrating the presidential abilities that got him to the Oval Office. To some extent it is making up for the chaotic spectacle of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

More importantly and immediately, though, Biden’s involvement will have profound effects on the afflicted areas, which now stretch from the bayous of Louisiana to the subways of New York City. This was a monster storm and an epic disaster and it will take years to restore the damage it did. But by being engaged and mobilizing the entire federal government and its expertise, a start has been made just as the winds and rain are dying down.

Southwest Floridians should take note and appreciate this. They may need that help next.


For a full history of past disaster responses, see the author’s book: Masters of Disaster: The political and leadership lessons of America’s greatest disasters.

For a detailed examination of the response to Hurricane Katrina, see:

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

After an awful August, can September be better?

Pro and anti-maskers make their battle over a Lee County mask mandate physical at the Lee County Public Schools headquarters in Fort Myers on Monday, Aug. 30. (Image: NBC-2)

Sept. 1, 2021 by David Silverberg

Starting today Lee County students and teachers will be required to wear masks for the next 30 days, a mandate imposed by that county’s school superintendent, Kenneth Savage.

It comes after a judge’s ruling against the governor’s mask mandate ban and a tumultuous school board meeting at the School District of Lee County headquarters in Fort Myers on Monday, Aug. 30, that resulted in violence and arrests.

It’s just part of a changed landscape—biological, political and environmental—in Southwest Florida and around the nation following an awful August.

Might September be better? What are the prospects politically and environmentally?

It’s time to take a survey, or a “tour d’horizon,” to use a French military term, of the challenges likely to confront us in the month that now looms ahead. Forewarned is forearmed.

COVID and consequences

In August, COVID-19 and especially its Delta variant took the lives of 25,408 Americans, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. Of those, 4,900 were Floridians.

The change of the calendar will not alter the challenge of COVID. What is more, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) executive order banning mask mandates having been overturned in court (although under appeal) the battle over school mask mandates will likely rage on.

A handful of significant local September dates loom as this situation proceeds.

  • Sept. 8: The Collier County Public School Board will hold its regularly monthly meeting. If a mask mandate has not already been imposed, the subject is likely to be discussed.
  • Sept. 14: The Lee County School Board will hold its regular monthly meeting and the mask mandate is likely to be debated again.
  • Sept. 30: Lee County public school officials and Board members will have to decide whether to renew the mandate.

Increasingly it appears that school authorities, simply cannot indulge and accommodate anti-mask and anti-vaxx parents and activists. With the danger to school-age children clear and present, mandates are being imposed by necessity regardless of the opposition by anti-mask parents—and the governor.

Another September date has significance beyond just Southwest Florida schools:

  • Sept. 20: Vaccination booster shots are expected to become widely available.

Climate and consequences

September is the most active month for hurricanes and tropical storms. Louisiana and the western Gulf coast are still digging out from Hurricane Ida and will be for months.

To date Florida has been spared the worst of the weather but there’s no telling if that will hold. It has been a very active Atlantic hurricane season.

Politically, natural disasters tend to favor incumbents if they handle them well. Floridians—in the Southwest and throughout the state—should watch their state and local officials’ response if the worst happens here. Are they focused, responsive and credible when the storm approaches? Do they sound the alarm responsibly with sufficient time for residents to prepare and evacuate? When the storm passes do they take action to aid the afflicted and work effectively with other governments (state and federal) to assist impacted areas?

In addition to the threat of storms, this year there is a red tide bloom that appears to be drifting southward from Tampa Bay. As of this writing it was reaching northern Lee County beaches and barrier islands.

Will the tide reach further south in September? There’s little that residents can do to stop it but business owners, restauranteurs and tourism-based enterprises need to prepare to cope with a blooming September. Local officials and representatives can prepare now to assist Lee, Collier and Charlotte county businesses if they’re hurt by the bloom.

Congress and consequences

For the US Congress, September is going to be a jam-packed month.

President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan and a $3.5 trillion budget already passed in the House will be moving toward final approval.

As part of its efforts to clean up the environment and combat climate change, the infrastructure bill holds promise of resources for Southwest Florida.

Southwest Florida Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) oppose both measures.  Donalds, who sits on the House Budget Committee, was particularly vocal in his opposition.

Two larger elements will complicate all congressional deliberations.

One is the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal. There is no doubt that the scenes of chaos and retreat will hurt Biden and impede passage of his domestic agenda. They have already created an opening for Republicans to attack him. Donalds and Steube joined a group of Republicans calling for Biden’s resignation, a publicity stunt that will go nowhere. (Interestingly, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) did not join the resignation movement.)

The other is the work of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack. As it proceeds with its investigation and hearings it will throw a spotlight on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump’s role in it and the role of his congressional allies.

None of the Southwest Florida congressmen appear to have played significant parts in the insurrection and attack on the Capitol, so they’re unlikely to be in the spotlight as enablers or accomplices. However, the involvement of other Southwest Floridians could emerge as the investigation continues.

Analysis: A better September?

For Southwest Florida, which is so far both intellectually and physically from Afghanistan and Washington, DC, the single overriding issue going into September is surviving and containing COVID. It is literally a matter of life and death.

A doctor attempting to attend the Lee County School Board meeting (right, in laboratory coat and mask) is shoved by an anti-mask protester. (Image: NBC-2)

As COVID has taken its relentless toll, the intensity and volume of COVID-precaution opponents has grown louder and more emotional. Ironically, as COVID-deniers are less able to rely on reason or data to oppose mask mandates, COVID precautions or vaccinations, they’re dialing up the fury to compensate. Instead of logic, they’ve offered rage; instead of argument, they’ve offered rants; instead of masking, they’re infecting.

If it were only their own lives at risk they could take their chances without harming others but they can’t. In ten days of school, 600 cases of new COVID infections were reported in Collier County, according to the Naples Daily News. A Lee County school system dashboard showed 2,655 cases, according to NBC-2 News.

The soaring rates of infection and the obstinate and increasingly emotional refusal of so many local residents to accept simple precautions like masks or vaccinations make the area a COVID Delta hotspot. In addition to the tragedy of the people who are going to be killed or permanently impaired by the disease, the area’s national reputation as a dangerous location is going to grow.

That reputation will have real, on-the-ground implications for the area’s businesses, tourism and hospitality.

September is usually a time when full-time residents flee the area. The heat is hottest, the storms are most likely and tourist season hasn’t started yet, so streets, restaurants and shops are largely deserted. For businesses, though, it’s also a time to start preparing for season.

If, under DeSantis, COVID continues to ravage Florida and if Southwest Florida’s COVID-deniers continue making as much noise as they are, the attractiveness of the Paradise Coast is likely to precipitously decline as a tourist destination and a place to do business.

On top of that, the hostility toward immigrants and efforts to curtail immigration that were begun during the Trump administration are bearing fruit, manifesting themselves in the labor shortage the area’s businesses are experiencing.

Add to that the likelihood of a major red tide bloom, the result of the Piney Point mining waste stack being pumped into Tampa Bay in April.

As of right now, far from a better September, Southwest Florida seems headed for a perfect storm of COVID, climate and controversy that will combine to hurt the area going into 2022.

But Southwest Florida residents and their leaders have some options: If they ignore the naysayers and anti-vaxxers, get vaccinated and receive booster shots, they might just flatten the COVID curve and at least make the region less of a hotspot.

If officials and local governments acknowledge the reality of climate change—which they are increasingly doing—they can prepare for the storms and algal blooms that are part of life in Southwest Florida. Preparedness, resilience and realism can go a long way toward mitigating the worst impacts of environmental instability.

If Southwest Florida’s representatives in Tallahassee and Washington, DC cease acting like two-dimensional, rigid, ideological cartoons and instead work for the actual good of their people and the region, they may actually win the state and federal support and assistance that the area needs to cope with the challenges ahead.

It’s a tall order and a lot of ifs. But hope springs eternal.

Liberty lives in light.

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The angst of August: Anti-vaxxers versus the ‘sensible center’ in Southwest Florida

Demonstrators protest a vaccine mandate for employees by the Naples Community Hospital on Aug. 1. (Image: WINK News)

August 12, 2021 by David Silverberg

August is the cruelest month in Southwest Florida. Every year there’s heat, humidity and hurricanes. For school-age children there’s the prospect of returning to drudgery in hot classrooms.

This year, though, there’s also the COVID Delta variant stalking the region, attacking the unvaccinated and driving a spike in severe hospitalizations.

For students, while entering a classroom might be a welcome relief from remote learning, there’s the added danger of COVID infection, heightened by resistance to masking by COVID-denying parents and an anti-mask governor. In one instance, one local parent of an 11-year-old left a school orientation that took place in a crowded cafeteria full of coughing, unmasked parents.

There’s no doubt that current stresses will change the politics of Southwest Florida. But what is the likely final result?

Deadly denial

Delta, Delta, Delta—it’s the one dominant story. But then, it’s literally a matter of life and death.

With the Florida Department of Health only issuing statistics weekly and those being highly suspect, local media and concerned citizens have to hunt for something resembling reliable numbers to see the extent of the contagion in their communities. (Two reliable sources are The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID Data Tracker).

It’s fair to say, though, that the state of Florida is experiencing a roaring contagion that, as of this writing, has led to it being widely characterized as the epicenter of the current outbreak.

Though the available vaccines have been shown to be effective, Southwest Florida remains a stubborn stronghold of anti-vaccine (anti-vaxx) sentiment.

That sentiment was in evidence at the beginning of July, when the Naples Community Hospital (NCH) sent a letter to employees encouraging them to vaccinate. That brought a strident anti-vaxx reaction.

“Look at this disgraceful letter that is being sent out by communist NCH to all of the employees that did not take Fauci’s experimental cocktail…” Alfie Oakes, the extremist conservative farmer and grocer stated in a July 9 Facebook post.

At the end of July NCH changed its encouragement to a requirement for employees.

On Aug. 1 anti-vaxx demonstrators gathered outside NCH in North Naples to protest the hospital’s mandatory vaccine policy.

Rather than cowering before the protests, NCH hit back in a defiant riposte:

“The NCH Medical Executive Committee unanimously endorsed NCH Healthcare System’s new vaccination policy on Friday. NCH leads the region in implementing this policy in order to take steps to further safeguard the health and wellbeing of our staff and patients. The new COVID variants are much more transmittable and at least 5x more contagious than previous COVID variants. Over 90 percent of COVID inpatients are unvaccinated and 100 percent of ICU patients are unvaccinated. We are seeing younger people sicker and this has become an unvaccinated pandemic.

“NCH is a leader in SWFL with this decision. However, we are seeing the vaccination support among large employers outside of healthcare like Google, Publix and Disney. NCH joins more than 75 health systems nationally who now require employees to be vaccinated. The Mayo Clinic is requiring all employees to be vaccinated by September 17.”

NCH’s dismissal of the anti-vaxxers and the rising defiance of the Lee and Collier County school districts to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) prohibition of mask mandates indicate a quiet determination by Southwest Floridian officials to respect science and follow health protocols. They are taking stands regardless of opposition, no matter how emotional the protests or how highly-placed the political dictates from Tallahassee.

For a politically conservative region it’s a rare instance of dissent that may have a lasting impact.

Desperation and fragmentation

Alfie Oakes takes aim: “I pray we have election integrity in 2022…. if we don’t we must prepare for the worst!
Our second amendment right is specifically to revolt against a a tyrannical government!
Prepare for the worst and pray for the best.” (Photo: Facebook)

As the Delta variant proves its reality and the country forges ahead under President Joe Biden, the pronouncements and protests of local Trumpers and anti-vaxxers are sounding more strident and desperate.

The next local Trumpist event takes place on August 20 and 21 in Naples—the days before what has been a rumored reinstatement of the former president on Aug. 22.

The event is the “We the People Fight Back Event” scheduled to be held at the Naples Hilton Hotel. Twenty-five far-right conservative speakers are on the program, although unannounced speakers have been known to show up for such occasions.

“America is in a state of emergency with a radical Democrat leading us further into the dark abyss as he rips out every thread of Conservative values that is woven into the fabric of our nation,” proclaims the event’s website. “Cowering to the liberal left isn’t an option and hiding in fear of cancel culture will not save the future of our country.”

The event is organized by former Republican congressional candidate Christy McLaughlin of Ave Maria, along with John DiLemme, founder of the Conservative Business Journal. It promises 25 speakers including McLaughlin and Oakes. It also has 10 business sponsors.

But despite being listed as a speaker at the Hilton, Oakes also felt the need to organize his own one-day “Patriot Fest” to do essentially the same thing—or perhaps the Hilton event wasn’t extreme enough. His Fest is scheduled for Sept. 18 at his farm in Naples and has four business supporters and 10 speakers including Shemane Nugent, wife of extreme conservative musician Ted Nugent. In April Nugent announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 a week after playing before an unmasked crowd at Seed to Table.

The Hilton event charges $247 to attend and $124 per night to stay at the hotel. Oakes is charging $200 for VIP tickets and $25 general admission for his one-day event.

Oakes, however, faced a unique problem: “the liberals at eventbrite [sic] just unpublished our Patriot Fest and refunded everyone’s tickets because apparently a bunch of patriots getting together doesn’t follow their ‘community standards,’” he complained on Aug. 6 —leaving him to scramble to find a new way to collect admission fees.

Oakes has called vaccines “Fauci’s poisonous cocktail” and guests at such gatherings are unlikely to have been vaccinated.

While not explicitly stated, neither the Hilton conference nor the Patriot Fest is likely to require masks, distancing or take any other COVID precautions.

They should be the superspreader events of the season.

Analysis: The rising sensible center

In the short term, given the transmissibility of the Delta variant and its lethality, much of the hard-core anti-vaxx population is likely to self-select itself out of existence in the coming days.

From a strictly political calculation, this will mean fewer conservative voters and a diminution of extreme anti-vaxx agitation as these voices are permanently silenced.

But the really interesting phenomenon in Southwest Florida is seeing relatively apolitical people and officials who might have previously acceded to the passion and insistence of extremist activists begin to resist, however quietly and subtly.

This was also in evidence in July when the Collier County Commission voted down a “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance that sought to nullify federal authority in the county, despite vocal support by a small core of residents.

All these are indications that the old Trumpist trinity of denial, dismissal and delusion is being demolished.

The stakes are so high and the consequences are so dire that thinking people simply can’t go along to get along any more. After all, going along with a far-right, extremist anti-vaxx agenda is a death sentence.

Bit by bit, mask by mask, shot by shot, vote by vote, decision by decision, what former general Colin Powell once called “the sensible center” is reasserting itself.

All this will find political expression at the voting booth in 2022. Will this sensible center have enough heft, enough persistence and enough memory to vote for sane and science-supporting candidates and parties?

DeSantis, his political allies, the Trumpers and the anti-vaxxers are betting that in the year, two months and 27 days before the 2022 election the pandemic will be over and the vast mass of voters will forget the death and disease currently ravaging Florida. Instead, like amnesiacs, voters will celebrate anti-science, anti-health policies as great economic successes.

It is as though Florida is a casino and DeSantis and the COVID-deniers are playing a poker game with Death as the dealer, using Floridian lives as chips.

They may think the odds are in their favor. But more likely, as in any casino, the house always wins.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

How many hard-core anti-vaxxers are in Southwest Florida?

A Collier County, Florida resident receives the second shot of the Moderna COVID vaccine in February 2021. (Photo: Author)

July 23, 2021 by David Silverberg

The COVID-19 Delta variant has begun its grim swing through Southwest Florida as it has throughout the rest of the nation and the world, taking aim at the unvaccinated.

“The Delta variant is more aggressive and much more transmissible than previously circulating strains,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters at a briefing yesterday, July 22. “It is one of the most infectious respiratory viruses we know of, and that I have seen in my 20-year career.”

In Collier County, Florida, as of July 22, the COVID infection rate was running at 8.4 percent, according to the Naples Community Hospital (NCH), well above the 5 percent considered safe for reopening.

In Lee County, Florida the 14-day rolling average positivity rate is at 22 percent, approaching last July’s peak, according to NBC-2 News. Lee Health, the county’s largest health provider, has re-activated its COVID-19 Incident Management team due to the spread and influx of new cases.

(Unfortunately, since the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) stopped issuing daily COVID statistics, the Florida Department of Health is no longer the prime authoritative source of the latest information regarding the spread of the disease.)

Getting vaccinated is the best defense—and yet, despite all the convincing, cajoling, coercing or complaining, the media coverage and the pronouncements of doctors and health care experts from the top of the government pyramid to grassroots family practitioners, there is a hard-core, die-hard population who absolutely will not get shots.

Why they’re so adamant is less important than trying to determine how large a population they represent because as the summer wears on and the Delta variant spreads, they are likely to start filling the hospitals and the intensive care units (ICUs) and spread the disease to other unvaccinated people.

How many of these hard core anti-vaccinationists (anti-vaxxers) are in Southwest Florida? How many are likely to need urgent care? How can the health systems of Southwest Florida prepare for what is already an influx of cases?

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of scientific polling and surveying in Southwest Florida. Hospitals and health care systems can only measure the number of cases that come in already infected. So making a determination has to rely on more anecdotal indicators.

Fanning the flames

Perhaps the region’s leading and most vocal anti-vaxxer is Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III, a farmer and owner of the Seed to Table market in North Naples. From the beginning of the pandemic he characterized COVID as a “hoax” and a “sham.”

A sign on the front of Seed to Table. The pictures are of Collier County commissioners who voted for a mask mandate in July 2020. (Photo: Author)

Oakes is now well-known throughout Southwest Florida for his extreme political positions and his adamant resistance to masking and vaccinations. He has written Facebook posts that have created enormous controversy on a variety of issues and led to canceled contracts for Oakes Farms.

But whatever one thinks of Oakes’ anti-vaccine posts, his following and the responses to his posts do provide a potentially useful snapshot of the possible size of the anti-vaxx population, although this is, of necessity, a very rough estimate. Oakes’ Facebook page is followed by 14,520 people, according to Facebook, and lists 4,939 friends

A prime example of Oakes’ following came on July 9. Oakes cited a letter sent to employees of NCH by the hospital’s vaccination administrator encouraging employees to get vaccinated and listing places in NCH where vaccines were available.

“Look at this disgraceful letter that is being sent out by communist NCH to all of the employees that did not take Fauci’s experimental cocktail…” Oakes wrote on his Facebook page. The post received 192 comments, most supportive of Oakes.

A posting yesterday, July 22, displayed a banner: “Imagine if there was a 99.7% chance you wouldn’t get cancer, But you were forced to go on chemo just incase…” [sic]. That post received 184 comments.

(When reader James Snyder pointed out: “Taking medical advice from a produce salesman is probably not a good idea FYI!” Oakes responded: “Taking advice from someone who has 3200 employees with over 8000 patrons coming through daily and not a single employee dying… and very few getting sick for more than a few days.. Everyone eating healthy and living happy without fear and without masks loving one another enjoying their lives for the last year and a half may be someone you should consider taking advice from….Just sayin’.” It is also worth noting that musician Ted Nugent tested positive for COVID a week after playing a packed, unmasked performance at Seed to Table.) 

Another potential indicator of the anti-vaxx population’s size came during the Collier County Commission debate on July 13 over a failed “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance. The proponents claimed to speak for 5,000 residents, based on a petition in favor of the ordinance.

While the ordinance concerned the Bill of Rights, it was based on an earlier petition launched in April by The Alamo gun range and store to pass a “Second Amendment Preservation Act.” As of this writing, that petition attracted only 1,338 signatures.

While worry over guns and rights is hardly the same as fear of vaccinations, the concerns overlap somewhat among these residents, so it may be something of an indication of the size of the anti-vaxx population in Collier County.

While Lee and Charlotte counties also have anti-vaxx populations there are fewer indicators for the size of their anti-vaxx cohort.

Based on these extremely rough and unscientific indicators, the number of hard-core anti-vaxxers in Southwest Florida may range from the mid-hundreds to perhaps the low thousands.

We’ll all know soon enough as the ICUs fill up.

The history of anti-vaxxing

An English cartoon from 1802 lampoons fears of the smallpox vaccine.

In their rejection of scientific evidence, today’s anti-vaxxers join a long line of past opponents.

Opposition to vaccinations predates the practice of vaccination itself. Before there were vaccines, doctors in Africa, China, India and the Ottoman Empire practiced “variolation”—inoculating an uninfected person with pus from someone with smallpox to induce immunity.

However, in the West, particularly England, it was Dr. Edward Jenner’s use of cowpox in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to create immunity to smallpox that led to what is now called vaccination—and created the first controversy over its use.

“Pro-inoculators tended to write in the cool and factual tones encouraged by the Royal Society, with frequent appeals to reason, the modern progress of science and the courtesy subsisting among gentlemen. Anti-inoculators purposely wrote like demagogues, using heated tones and lurid scare stories to promote paranoia,” according to the 2019 book Let’s Talk Vaccines, by Dr. Gretchen LaSalle.

Ever since then, opposition to vaccination has waxed and waned, usually paralleling epidemics and pandemics. England imposed mandatory smallpox vaccinations in 1853 for infants up to three months old and then extended that in 1867 to children up to 14 years. These laws imposed penalties for failures to vaccinate.

The mandates faced fierce resistance and riotous protests. While an 1896 commission studying the vaccines found that they prevented smallpox, it recommended removing the penalties and an 1898 law provided for exemptions for religious or conscientious objectors.

In the United States, despite the presence of an Anti-Vaccination League founded by a visiting Briton in 1879, there was a widespread acceptance of vaccination. This was bolstered by the 1905 Supreme Court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which upheld a state’s right to mandate vaccines. Today it remains the precedent for state vaccine mandates.

Between 1920 and 1970 American scientific breakthroughs produced highly lauded vaccines against diphtheria, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella and their administration was widely accepted by the public.

Beginning in 1982, however, the public consensus began to fray, with the national airing of a television documentary, “DPT: Vaccine Roulette” that emotionally alleged ill-effects from a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine. Although the documentary detailed what were known to be side-effects from the vaccine and long-term study reported no permanent ill-effects, it began an anti-vaxx movement that gained momentum over the years as celebrities, lacking any medical education or training, joined the anti-vaxx chorus.

In 2014 anti-vaxx sentiment led to resurgence of measles, prompting the state of California to remove parents’ options to opt out of measles vaccinations. The measles problem has persisted to the present.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, though, has overshadowed all other vaccine fears. The first COVID vaccines were announced by Pfizer and BioNTech in November 2020 and have since received Food and Drug Administration approval.

As of this writing 339 million Americans have received vaccine doses and 162 million, or 49.3 percent of the country has been fully vaccinated.

Southwest Florida resistance

In Southwest Florida resistance to all vaccines was already causing concern prior to the pandemic.

In March 2019 the national measles resurgence prompted local NBC2 News to ask: “Is the anti-vax movement impacting Florida’s vaccination rates?

It found that vaccine hesitancy was prompting an increase in the number of religious exemptions being requested by parents of schoolchildren at the state level. In the 2017-2018 school year the state of Florida was aiming to have 95 percent of all kindergartners vaccinated against measles. Religious exemptions jumped to 2.4 percent, 10 percent more than 10 years previously.

In Collier County the religious exemptions went from 2.6 percent in 2015-2016 to 3 percent in 2017-2018.

So clearly there was a growing, although still small resistance to vaccinations prior to the COVID pandemic. But then, when the pandemic began hitting the United States in a big way in 2020, the political controversy over the response mounted exponentially, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s dismissal of the COVID danger.

Trump’s denigration of all responsible media reporting as “fake news” and his attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also served to reduce acceptance of COVID information among segments of the population. This led to reliance on anti-vaxx rumor and conspiracy theories, spread in many cases on social media.

In Southwest Florida this manifested itself in resistance to mask mandates, fed in particular by individuals like Alfie Oakes and Byron Donalds, then a Republican congressional candidate, who opposed masking in person every time a mask mandate was debated. He caught COVID in October 2020 but recovered and was elected to Congress in November.

Liberty and death

While Southwest Florida is widely acknowledged as politically, socially and culturally conservative, the extreme brand of Trumpist conservatism now includes rejection of science and vaccinations. Given the properties of the COVID-19 Delta variant, a refusal to vaccinate appears to be a virtual death sentence but there are people who hold out—and will continue to do so come what may. They disbelieve all journalistic reporting on the pandemic, they reject all public health efforts and many feel that any precautions of any kind infringe on their personal freedom and liberty.

They bring to mind Virginia patriot Patrick Henry who in 1775 said: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

He was thinking of a line of patriots facing a line of redcoats. Those Americans had a better chance of surviving a musket volley than anti-vaxxers do facing the Delta variant today.

They may think anti-vaxxing brings liberty—but they’re much more likely to get death.


To read more about the history of vaccine resistance:

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

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

The Donalds Dossier: Martyr or mere minion? Clashing with the Congressional Black Caucus

Rep. Byron Donalds reaffirms his support for Donald Trump on Trump’s 75th birthday, June 14. (Photo: Office of Rep. Byron Donalds)

June 18, 2021 by David Silverberg

Is Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) a martyr—or a mere minion of the Republican Party and Donald Trump?

That’s the decision the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has been facing when considering Donalds’ application to join the 56-member congressional caucus.

Donalds first applied to join the group when he took office in January. Since then his application has been pending, with no word on its fate.

Kadia Goba (Photo: BuzzFeed)

Then on June 9, reporter Kadia Goba of BuzzFeed News reported that Donalds was being blocked from joining the group in the article: “The Congressional Black Caucus Is Blocking A Black Republican From Joining The Group.”

Donalds has been exploiting the snub to charge that the CBC is anti-Republican.

“The Congressional Black Caucus has a stated commitment to ensuring Black Americans have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. As a newly elected Black Member of Congress, my political party should not exempt me from a seat at the table dedicated to achieving this goal,” Donalds told NBC News.

But the CBC answered with a statement of its own: “The Congressional Black Caucus remains committed to fighting for issues that support Black communities, including the police accountability bill, protecting voting rights, and a jobs bill that helps our communities,’ stated an unnamed spokesperson, who did not mention Donalds by name. “We will work with those who share our values and priorities for the constituents we serve.”

So is Donalds a martyr as he claims? Or is this alleged snub just a result of the positions he’s taken and the values he holds?

A CBC primer

An outgrowth of the civil rights movement and the election of Black representatives in the 1960s, the Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1971 with 13 members, according to its official history.

It was embattled from the beginning. President Richard Nixon refused to meet with the group and so they boycotted his 1971 State of the Union address, generating national headlines. When he relented and met with them in March of that year, they presented him with 61 recommendations to eradicate racism and assist the Black community. Unbeknownst to them, members of the group were on Nixon’s “enemies list.” Following the breaking of the Watergate scandal, CBC members were among the first representatives to call for Nixon’s impeachment in 1974.

President Richard Nixon meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Cabinet Room on March 25, 1971. Nixon is seated at the center left of the table. (Photo: National Archives)

Throughout its history the CBC fought for civil rights, voting equity and against apartheid in South Africa. Its members included Barack Obama, then the Democratic senator from Illinois.

“On the challenges of our times…on the threats of our time…members of the CBC have been leaders moving America forward,” Obama said at a 2015 CBC dinner. “Whatever I’ve accomplished, the CBC has been there. I was proud to be a CBC member when I was in the Senate… .”

In the current 117th Congress, the CBC has 56 members, all Democrats.

In addition to Donalds, there are two other Black Republicans in Congress: Rep. Burgess Owens (R-4-Utah) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). Neither is a member of the CBC.

Clashing positions

On its website, the CBC lists a variety of policy priorities for the 117th Congress. Three are very broad: fostering constructive dialogue, informing citizens of the impact of federal policies and mobilizing the next generation of black leadership.

But when it comes to more specific priorities, Donalds has taken directly contrary positions:

  • The CBC is fighting to expand voter access. Donalds has vigorously defended voter suppression laws in Georgia and Florida, calling the For the People Act (House Resolution 1) “the radical takeover of our elections.”
  • The CBC has championed criminal justice and policing reform. Donalds voted against the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
  • The CBC is committed to “investing in and defending the public education system.” Donalds has attacked public education and, along with his wife, has a long history of championing non-public education initiatives. He argued in a tweet during Biden’s State of the Union speech: “You don’t improve the quality of education (or anything) by making it free. You improve quality through competition.”
  • The CBC favors the Affordable Care Act, stating it is necessary “to ensure millions of Americans retain access to affordable, quality healthcare, and retaining investments in minority health clinics to combat health disparities.” Donalds has long attacked it, saying during his campaign that: “Obamacare is a thinly veiled attempt at a government takeover of the health insurance delivery system, ultimately leading to a single-payer socialist system.” 

The CBC also favors a variety of reforms that are part of President Joe Biden’s plans for jobs, families and recovery from the pandemic. This includes increasing tax rates on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, improving infrastructure and increasing the minimum wage. Donalds has opposed all of these both verbally and with votes.

Additionally, the CBC hailed President Joe Biden’s election after it was informally declared on Nov. 7, 2020. “We show up every election season because to us there is nothing more important than leading this nation to its highest ideals: liberty and justice for all. Today’s victory is a testament to this,” it stated in a press release.

Donalds voted to invalidate that election and has never publicly accepted Biden as president. He continues to pay homage to Trump, most recently by playing golf with Trump and celebrating his 75th birthday on June 14.

Donalds argues that he simply has different ideas and that, as “steel sharpens steel,” his presence in the CBC would make it stronger. As its statement made clear, however, the CBC doesn’t agree.


Sidebar: Love and cash from Mia Love

Mia Love in 2017. (Photo: James McNellis/Wikimedia)

Donalds is certainly not the first Black Republican to clash with the CBC—and he has been financially supported by one who once vowed to dismantle it.

In 2012 Mia Love, a Black Utah Republican running for Congress, told the Deseret News: “Yes, yes. I would join the Congressional Black Caucus and try to take that thing apart from the inside out.

“It’s demagoguery,” she said. “They sit there and ignite emotions and ignite racism when there isn’t. They use their positions to instill fear. Hope and change is turned into fear and blame. Fear that everybody is going lose everything and blaming Congress for everything instead of taking responsibility.”

Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, had served as mayor of the Utah town of Saratoga Springs. She lost her bid for Congress in 2012, then won in 2014 and represented Utah’s 4th Congressional District.

When she entered Congress, Love softened her rhetoric and joined the CBC, saying that “change must come from the inside out.”

However, although she was a conservative Republican, Love couldn’t bring inside change to the Republican Party under Donald Trump. In 2016 she called on him to withdraw from the race after the Access Hollywood tape was released and refused to support him in the election. Once he was elected, she opposed his steel and aluminum tariffs and criticized his anti-immigration stands.

In the 2018 election, Love lost to Democrat Ben Adams by 694 votes. Trump gloated in a speech: “Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia.”

She hit back at him and Republicans in a scathing concession speech. “The President’s behavior towards me made me wonder: What did he have to gain by saying such a thing about a fellow Republican? It was not really about asking him to do more, was it? Or was it something else? Well Mr. President, we’ll have to chat about that.”

She also observed: “Because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts, they stay with Democrats and bureaucrats in Washington because they do take them home – or at least make them feel like they have a home.”

In 2020, Love’s political action committee, Friends of Mia Love, gave Donalds $5,000 for his primary run and $5,000 for his general election campaign, according to Federal Election Committee records.

Whether Love’s support continues, given Donalds’ fealty to Trump, remains to be seen.


Analysis: Color and convenience

When Donalds ran for Congress in his 85 percent white district he barely mentioned race and emphasized his undying and fanatical Trumpism. He had to get his voters to look past the color of his skin and he did. It was an undeniable accomplishment but perhaps less surprising in a post-Obama era than it would have been before.

Donalds went to Congress as a proudly “politically incorrect” extreme rightwing ideologue, deliberately defying expectations of a Black politician. In Congress he has worked to advance Trumpism, the Republican agenda and hewed closely to the conservative catechism.

So it seems a bit disingenuous, at the very least, for him to suddenly profess outrage at his exclusion from an organization that has race at its core, which is unanimously Democratic and is overwhelmingly liberal. Why should he want to be part of a club that stands for everything he’s been bashing his entire political career?

In fact, it seems as though Donalds’ application to join the CBC was something both sides forgot about until reminded by BuzzFeed.

Donalds is clearly exploiting the CBC’s obvious snub and using it to challenge the legitimacy of the CBC and bash Democrats. He’s made the rounds of right-wing media with his complaint and finally broken into some mainstream national coverage by portraying himself as the injured party.

In the past the CBC hasn’t discriminated against Black Republicans so much as it has shunned members of Congress who opposed its positions—all of whom happened to be Republicans.

In fact, based on their political positions, Donalds has more in common with the so-called “sedition caucus” of members who voted to decertify the election than he does with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. And it would be extremely naïve to believe that the CBC would soften his stances on its key priorities or that he could change them from inside. This is not a debate about values; this is Donalds pushing for prominence on behalf of his ideology and serving the Republican Party and leadership.

On one point and one point alone, Donalds has a legitimate complaint: He should not be snubbed. His application should be considered and voted up or down and the reasons for the final vote publicly explained, whether it is approval or rejection.

Of course, if he can’t join that congressional club he could join the club at Mar-a-Lago—if Trump is in a mood to receive him.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Water warning: The politics of red tide, algae and lessons from the Big Bloom

Demonstrators demanding action to combat red tide protest a campaign appearance by then-Gov. Rick Scott in Venice, Fla., in 2018. (Image: Indivisble SWFL)

May 26, 2021 by David Silverberg

–Updated May 27 with new link to Stafford Act

This summer Southwest Florida seems headed for a Big Bloom on the order of 2018’s disastrous summer.

Blue-green algae is flowing down the Caloosahatchee River as a result of Lake Okeechobee water releases.

Red tide is blooming in the Gulf of Mexico. This year there’s the added threat of blooms as a result of the dumping of millions of gallons of polluted water to relieve pressure on the Piney Point wastewater pond, or “stack” near Tampa. This has likely fed blooms in that area that could drift southward.

People living along the Caloosahatchee are already breathing the toxins and smelling the stench. Red tide alerts have been issued along the beaches.

All disasters—and harmful algal blooms (HABs) are disasters just as much as hurricanes—have political implications. What will be the political impact if there’s a big bloom this year? Were any lessons learned from 2018 and are they being applied? How will Southwest Florida’s politicians react this time around? And can anything be done differently—and better?

Recapping 2018

In 2018 Southwest Florida experienced an extremely heavy concentration of river algae and Gulf red tide at the same time. It went on for roughly a year, first appearing in October 2017 and then intensifying and peaking in the summer of 2018, finally breaking up in the late fall.

Red tide is naturally occurring in the Gulf and had appeared and broken up before without any major impact on the region. River algal blooms had been minor inconveniences. This was not expected to be any different.

But these blooms lingered and intensified. In contrast to 2017, which had seen Hurricane Irma and lesser storms in the region, there were no major storms in 2018, which may have allowed the blooms to fester. The extremely heavy rainfall of 2017 may have been a contributing factor. The precise relationship between tropical storms and algal blooms remains unclear.

The Big Bloom didn’t just ruin a few peoples’ beach time or boat trips; it was significantly damaging to the area’s economy. It became a national story that dampened tourism and reduced hotel occupancy. Based on surveys filled out by area businesses, 152 or 92 percent of surveyed business owners stated they had lost business due to the red tide in the Gulf. Of them, 126 or 76 percent stated they had lost $500,000 or more. Others estimated losses between $20,000 and $2,000.

The bloom was also a serious health hazard to those who lived along waterways and had no means of escape.

Authorities at all levels were slow to recognize the blooms as a disaster or their magnitude and respond in any way. In addition, it was an election year, so elected officials were distracted by their need to campaign.

At the federal level, Donald Trump was president so environmental issues were ignored or had a low priority.

Then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) was running for the Senate. He had been a strenuous denier of climate change and avoided dealing with environmental questions. Scott banished the term “climate change” from the official vocabulary in Florida state government.

Then-Rep. Francis Rooney, representing the area from Cape Coral to Marco Island in Congress, was largely engaged in supporting Scott while running his own re-election campaign, so he was distracted as well.

Furthermore, the area’s elected officials, media and a good portion of the politically active population simply denied or ignored the impact of overall climate change on the region and its possible role in the disaster.

While the bloom was at its worst in the summer and early fall of 2018, officials were largely helpless. No official edict or action could stop the bloom. While the voters would not allow the incumbent candidates to completely ignore it, candidates did their best to minimize it or distract voters away from it. Late in the crisis Scott declared an emergency and made a paltry $13 million available to the affected businesses.

After the election was over, Rooney took the lead in attempting some kind of response. In May 2019 he pulled together a conference of all the affected region’s elected officials and four relevant federal agencies to attempt a discussion of the HABs and future response. It was briefly attended by the new governor, Ron DeSantis (R), who in contrast to Scott, made environmental issues a priority.

Unfortunately, the conference, held at the Emergent Technologies Institute of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), was closed to the public, so the full extent of its discussions, conclusions and decisions will never be known publicly.

Rooney did report out some of the discussion in an op-ed that ran in local newspapers under different titles.

After establishing that federal response to HABs was inadequate and uncoordinated with local authorities, participants concluded that the relevant federal agencies needed to be more aware of HABs as potential disasters and keep local jurisdictions informed of their formation and potential impacts. In addition to agencies that have direct, line responsibility in the event of a HAB like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had roles to play.

For his part Rooney introduced two pieces of legislation: one to classify HABs as major national disasters so that local businesses and residents would get disaster relief, and another to ensure that HAB monitoring and response were not interrupted by government shutdowns. Neither bill passed into law during the 116th Congress.

He also introduced changes to help with HABs to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the massive, comprehensive congressional bill that covers all water infrastructure, which was signed into law at the very end of 2020.

What’s different in 2021

There has been considerable change on many fronts since the Big Bloom of 2018 that may help with the response if there’s a big bloom this year.

Monitoring, reporting and information

A major, obvious change from 2018 is the amount of information available to the public on the state of algal blooms in general, which also translates into more information about local blooms. This is a vast improvement over 2018 when such information was either unavailable or fragmentary.

Government agencies and jurisdictions established websites on HABs after 2018.

(A full list of public links regarding Southwest Florida HABs is at the end of this article.)

This year there are also mechanisms for local jurisdictions to share information with federal agencies, enabling much better monitoring of HAB outbreaks and providing a much more comprehensive view of both national and local situations than was available in 2018.

Gubernatorial and state involvement

In 2018 then-Gov. Rick Scott’s hostility to environmental issues and solutions was infamous and came back to bite him during the Big Bloom.

Gov. Ron DeSantis got off to an early and very popular start when he took office in 2019. He dropped the hostility to science, creating the position of Chief Science Officer. He boosted funding for Everglades restoration and dismissed the South Florida Water Management District Board for a sweetheart lease with the sugar industry. He also dropped Scott’s prohibition on using the term “climate change.”

The DeSantis administration also established Protecting Florida Together, a Web portal for monitoring and communicating environmental and water quality information to the public. While heavily promoting the governor, it provides useful and presumably accurate data on the state of algal blooms and red tide.

This alteration in gubernatorial attitude is a sea change from 2018. Simply having a state administration that is aware of environmental issues can provide some public confidence that solutions are being sought, which was not previously the case.

Federal expertise

Another sea change was the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, who ran a campaign that took environmentally-friendly positions on major issues. Since his inauguration Biden has made major efforts to boost environmentally-friendly policies and combat climate change.

Biden’s climate team is particularly expert in water issues. Michael Regan, the current EPA administrator, is especially familiar with HABs, having confronted a major bloom in North Carolina, where he served as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. In July 2019 he canoed the state’s rivers to see the bloom for himself.

If this year’s algal bloom rises to the level of EPA administrator for action, Southwest Florida officials will be working with an EPA head who intimately knows and understands the problem.

Upgrading and modernizing US drinking, wastewater and stormwater systems is a major aspect of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan. While it may not directly impact this year’s blooms, over the longer term it will address the underlying conditions that lead to the blooms, hopefully mitigating or eliminating them. However, it is still in negotiation between the White House and congressional Republicans.

Locally, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has already attacked the plan as simply being the Green New Deal in disguise and for proposing new taxes on corporations and the extremely wealthy to pay for it.

Legislation

It is on the legislative front that there has been the least amount of progress in coping with HABs in general or this year’s potential bloom in particular.

In 2019 then-Rep. Francis Rooney proposed two pieces of legislation to deal with HABs: The most important one was the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act, which consisted of a three-word amendment to The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which would add HABs to the official roster of major disasters eligible for federal aid. This would make Southwest Florida businesses and residents eligible for a variety of federal support if businesses or livelihoods are damaged by a bloom.

Rooney’s bill went nowhere during his term in office and there is no renewal in the offing.

The second proposal was the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act, which would ensure that HAB monitoring by federal agencies would continue despite any government shutdowns, a situation less urgent than under Donald Trump. That bill too went nowhere during Rooney’s tenure. It was reintroduced by Donalds on March 17 as House Resolution 1954 and as of today it remains in committee awaiting consideration.

Legislation can’t stop a bloom while it’s happening—but it can mitigate the harm from one and protect people from indirect effects in the future. However, there has been no progress on this front to date and Southwest Florida will go into a 2021 bloom as unprotected legislatively as in 2018.

Analysis: Progress and challenges

Make no mistake: there has been progress on coping with algal blooms since 2018.

There’s been much more research into the nature and causes of blooms and efforts to mitigate their causes, like Lake Okeechobee pollution and phosphates flowing into local waterways.

A big step forward was the founding of the Water School at FGCU on March 22, 2019. This is a major addition to the university, dedicated to researching and examining all aspects of water. While still being developed it’s in a position to make a major contribution to fighting the blooms this year, providing timely and detailed information to officials at all levels and the public at large

In addition to the governmental and legislative measures, localities have been experimenting with technological fixes to contain or eliminate river algae. Public health authorities are far more aware of the health impacts of algal toxins and their dangers.

Even if this year’s bloom blossoms into a crisis on the order of 2018’s, politicians now have precedents to inform their behavior, unlike the example of Rick Scott, who as governor and a Senate candidate fled from red tide protesters in Venice during a campaign swing.

But the lessons of the past don’t just apply to political campaigning and the quest for higher office; they also have to assist in managing the disaster itself.

As a general rule, disasters favor incumbents. A sitting governor, mayor or public official can be seen as vigorous and commanding if he or she appears to take charge. But an official also has to deliver real results. People may not remember a good disaster response but they never forget a bad one.

For businesses, that means being assisted with disaster recovery funding, which is why amending the Stafford Act is so important.

And perhaps the greatest lessons to be taken away from the 2018 Big Bloom are the intangible ones: that big blooms are dangerous; they’re damaging; they really hurt people and businesses; they can be economically devastating; they need to be taken as seriously as any hurricane; they need to be monitored and, to as great an extent as possible, countered early; and all jurisdictions have to coordinate and cooperate in their responses.

Also, algal blooms, like the pandemic, don’t discriminate between political parties or persuasions. Algal toxins and their consequences affect everyone equally.

So Southwest Florida is somewhat better prepared and knowledgeable than it was in 2018 if there’s a big bloom this year.

But as always with disaster management, there’s still a long way to go.


Further resources:

Federal:

NOAA (Current conditions):

CDC (General information): Harmful Algal Bloom-Associated Illness

EPA (General information)

State:

Local:

Lee County

  • While Lee County has a red tide and algae bloom status website, it is badly out of date—in fact, it seems to have frozen in 2018 and refers to Rick Scott as governor. Nonetheless, for the record, it is at: https://www.leegov.com/waterqualityinfo.

Cape Coral

Collier County

City of Naples

  • While the Naples City website links to the Collier County information, it also provides a phone number for recorded updates on conditions in Collier County: (239) 252-2591.

Non-Profit, non-governmental advocacy organizations

For a deeper dive into the political aspects of disaster response see the book Masters of Disaster: The Political and Leadership Lessons of America’s Greatest Disasters on Amazon Kindle.

Liberty lives in light

©2021 by David Silverberg

The Donalds Dossier: A deep dive into the PAC pool

Part 1: A look at the super and corporate PACs that elected Rep. Byron Donalds

Tim Ritchie (left) and other central Florida environmental activists protest the dangers of Mosaic mining “stacks” during a demonstration on May 7, 2019 at Florida Gulf Coast University. The Mosaic PAC was one of the contributors to Rep. Byron Donalds’ 2020 election campaign. (Photo: Author)

120 days Byron Donalds has been in office

May 3, 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.

Rep. Byron Donalds

The remark invites much closer examination because Donalds was perhaps the candidate most dependent on political action committees (PACs) ever to run for federal office in Southwest Florida. And while PACs may not have cast votes themselves, their money made all the difference. This was certainly true in his primary race when he faced eight other Republican candidates, some of them better known and far better funded.

Further, an examination of Donalds’ PAC backing in the 2020 election cycle illuminates the positions he has taken on various issues and his priorities as a member of Congress.

A quick PAC primer

Anyone can form or join a PAC. At their most fundamental level, PACs are simply organizations of people who pool their money to support and contribute to candidates and political causes. However, they are independent of individual candidates’ election committees or political party organizations. They register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and record their donations and expenditures according to its procedures.

PAC spending is legal and proper when done within the framework of federal campaign finance regulations. It is done under the oversight of the FEC and the filings are publicly available. This is a result of reforms enacted after the 1974 Watergate affair, when large sums of unknown provenance were used for illicit reasons.

PACs are not allowed to demand or request specific actions by a public official in return for specific contributions. Their spending is broader and more generalized.

The PAC contributions to Donalds’ campaign can be broken down into different categories: super PACs; corporate PACs from individual companies; trade and professional association PACs; leadership and candidate PACs from sitting officials or other candidates; party PACs from the Republican Party; and ideological PACs promoting a political position, in this case conservatism in general.

This article will examine super PAC and corporate PAC spending to elect Donalds. A future article will look at leadership, trade and ideological PACs.

The PAC spending reported in this article was based on public information and, to the best of this author’s ability to determine, was legal and compliant with existing law. No criminality or impropriety is alleged or implied.

Super PACs

Ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision, “super PACs” have been allowed to spend unlimited funds on issues rather than for the benefit of specific candidates. These super PACs are not allowed to coordinate their activities with candidate campaigns and must make their decisions independently.

That said, super PAC spending can considerably benefit a candidate and that was certainly the case with Donalds.

According to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political spending based on FEC filings, Donalds benefitted from $1,153,991 in independent spending by conservative, ideologically-driven super PACs.

Of these the two most active were Club for Growth Action, which spent $1,383,647, and Americans for Prosperity Action, which spent $203,613 to indirectly benefit Donalds.

Both super PACs focused on conservative issues that benefited Donalds, particularly in the hotly contested primary contest when he was up against much better funded candidates.

While these were the most generous super PACs, some others worthy of note are the National Rifle Association ($4,451) and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action ($1,184), which advocate against gun restrictions, and the National Right to Life Victory Fund ($3,396), which opposes abortions.

Other super PACs indirectly contributing to Donalds’ election were, in descending order of contribution:

  • Honesty America Inc: $138,131
  • Concerned Conservatives Inc: $85,706
  • Protect Freedom PAC: $80,187
  • Trusted Conservatives: $46,138
  • American Liberty Fund: $37,553
  • New Journey PAC: $32,230
  • Conservative Outsider PAC: $17,769
  • Club for Growth: $9,272
  • Guardian Fund: $6,941
  • Friends of Mia Love PAC: $6,045
  • FreedomWorks for America: $2,500
  • House Freedom Fund: $1,486

Corporate PACs

According to the FEC, the Donalds campaign received donations from 39 corporate PACs directly to the campaign and so were subject to campaign finance limits.

Corporate PAC contributions are usually made with the intention of advancing business agendas, shaping regulation or legislation and ensuring access to a lawmaker.

These PACs can be grouped into subcategories.

Big sugar

The American Crystal Sugar Company PAC and the United States Sugar Corporation Employee Stock Ownership Plan PAC each contributed $5,000 to Donalds’ 2020 campaign.

Florida sugar companies have in the past worked to ensure continuation of sugar subsidies, ward off foreign competition and oppose labor and environmental regulations that could complicate or add cost to their operations.

Big oil

Exxon Mobil Corporation (Exxonmobil PAC) and Marathon Petroleum Corporation Employees PAC (MPAC) contributed $1,500 and $2,500 respectively to the Donalds campaign.

With potential reserves of oil in Florida beneath both public and private land as well as possible deposits offshore, Florida has long been of interest to oil companies. Environmental groups and organizations have opposed this exploration and exploitation because of its potential harm to the natural environment of Southwest Florida, especially the Everglades.

There is new legislation in the current Congress to prevent offshore oil exploration. While Donalds’ predecessor, Francis Rooney, was a leader in opposition to offshore oil exploitation, Donalds has followed the lead of Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-16-Fla.) who introduced the Florida Coastal Protection Act (House Resolution 2836) on April 26. (For past coverage of this issue see: “Trump, Biden and Florida’s Gulf shore oil war.”)

Big mining

The Donalds campaign received $1,000 from The Mosaic Company PAC (MOSAICPAC).

The Mosaic Company is a phosphate and potash mining company headquartered in Tampa. Its mining products are used extensively for agricultural fertilizer throughout Florida and the world.

This April, headlines appeared in Southwest Florida warning that a retention pond or “stack” full of contaminated water from mining operations was threatening to burst and flood the surrounding area at Piney Point, Fla., near Tampa. Engineers began frantically pumping millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. This raised fears that pollution would lead to a severe red tide this summer and drift down to the Paradise Coast.

The stack was created by Mosaic’s mining operations, which had ceased at Piney Point in 2001, leaving the wastewater to sit in the stack.

While this year’s crisis has been declared over and the leaking stopped, it was not the first such leak from a Mosaic mining operation. The company successfully contained a 2019 leak but a 2016 sinkhole from mining operations threatened to pollute the Florida underground aquifer on which the population of the state depends for its drinking and irrigation water.

Big tobacco

Reynolds American Inc. PAC (RAI PAC) contributed $1,000 to the Donalds campaign. Reynolds American is an indirect, wholly owned subsidiary of British American Tobacco PLC and produces the Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Newport, Camel, and American Spirit cigarette brands as well as Grizzly chewing tobacco, Vuse vapor products and Velo nicotine lozenges and pouches. Along with other tobacco products, its mentholated tobacco products may soon be banned by the federal government.

Other notable corporate PACs

Koch Industries, Inc. PAC (KOCHPAC) contributed $5,000 to the Donalds campaign during the 2020 election cycle. These are the companies owned by the well-known Koch brothers, Charles and David (who died in 2019). They funded a wide variety of extreme ideological causes and organizations.

(Two excellent books that delve into the Koch brothers’ activities and past are Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty by Daniel Schulman and Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.)

Bloomin’ Brands, Inc. PAC contributed $5,000 to the Donalds campaign. Bloomin’ Brands is the company behind such well-known Southwest Florida restaurant franchises as Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Outback Steakhouse.

Publix Super Markets, Inc. Associates PAC, contributed $5,000, the most it gave to any Southwest Florida candidate. The Publix political role in Florida was covered in depth in The Paradise Progressive article “Publix: Where politics bring no pleasure.”

Other corporate PACs were, in descending order of contribution (the FEC lists some twice):

  • National Association Of Realtors PAC: $10,000
  • National Automobile Dealers Association PAC: $10,000
  • Nextera Energy, Inc. PAC: $8,000
  • American Bankers Association Pac (BANKPAC): $5,000
  • Deloitte PAC: $5,000
  • Nextera Energy, Inc. PAC: $5,000
  • The Geo Group, Inc. PAC: $5,000
  • AFLAC PAC: $3,500
  • LPL Financial LLC PAC: $3,500
  • AT&T Inc./Warnermedia LLC Federal PAC (AT&T/WARNERMEDIA FEDERAL PAC): $3,000
  • KPMG Partners/Principals And Employees PAC: $3,000
  • AFLAC PAC (AFLAC PAC): $2,500
  • American Bankers Association PAC (BANKPAC): $2,500
  • Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. PAC (ABC PAC): $2,500
  • Chubb Group Holdings Inc. PAC: $2,500
  • Comcast Corporation & NBCUniversal PAC – Federal: $2,500
  • JM Family Enterprises, Inc. PAC: $2,500
  • Regions Financial Corporation PAC: $2,500
  • United Parcel Service Inc. PAC: $2,500
  • Wells Fargo and Company Employee PAC (also known as Wells Fargo Employee PAC): $2,500
  • PriceWaterhouseCoopers PAC I: $2,000
  • Protective Life Corporation Federal PAC (PROTECTPAC): $2,000
  • The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Action Committee for Rural Electrification: $1,500
  • Akerman LLP PAC: $1,000
  • Discover Financial Services PAC: $1,000
  • Grayrobinson P.A. PAC: $1,000
  • Jackson Holdings LLC and Jackson National Life Insurance Company Separate Segregated Fund: $1,000
  • Liberty Mutual Insurance Company – PAC: $1,000
  • Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc. PAC (MMCPAC): $1,000
  • Protective Life Corporation Federal PAC (PROTECTPAC): $1,000
  • Rock Holdings Inc. PAC: $1,000
  • Teco Energy Inc. Employees’ PAC: $1,000

Analysis: Chicken or egg?

As is clear from the listings above, PACs played a major role in Byron Donalds’ election.

Donalds is an intensely ideological representative of the extreme right, so it’s hard to say to what degree PAC contributions shaped his public positions or to what degree his public positions attracted PAC contributions. It’s a chicken-and-egg question.

What is clear is that super PAC spending made him competitive in the primary but once he was the nominee and widely regarded as likely to win the general election, the corporate PACs jumped in, trying to ride on a candidate bandwagon they regarded as a sure bet. At that point their contributions were less important for fueling his campaign and more important for ensuring that their lobbyists would have a foot in the door of his congressional office—and that he would listen.

Certainly, Donalds’ disinterest in the 19th District’s local water and environmental issues, which was quite striking during his campaign, fit in well with the corporate interests of the sugar, mining and oil PACs, whose companies have caused pollution, destruction and despoliation in the past and may do so again in the future. That said, his cosponsorship of HR 2836 is commendable.

Nonetheless, while Donalds has taken some cosmetic actions toward showing attention to vital, local environmental issues, they have mostly been superficial and shallow, chiefly photo ops and grip-and-grins. As importantly, he has vocally and consistently opposed the relief bills that would speed distribution of vaccines to the people of the 19th District, provide them with financial relief amidst pandemic-related hardships, stimulate the local economy and improve the area’s infrastructure.

To date, the corporate and super PACs have largely gotten what they paid for: a member of Congress who has loudly championed commercial and ideological interests in pursuit of his own ambitions while overlooking local environmental and public health concerns—all while claiming his PAC donors have no effect on his thoughts, statements or actions.

554 days (1 year, 6 months, 5 days) to Election Day.

To come: The trade, leadership and ideological PACs behind Rep. Byron Donalds

The Paradise Progressive will be on hiatus until May 13.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Publix: Where politics bring no pleasure

An in-depth look and analysis of the political past, present and future of the family and the franchise

A typical Publix supermarket near Jacksonville, Fla. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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

George Jenkins, 1930

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.

The first Publix location, taken in 2014. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The Publix headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., 2012. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/John O’Neill)

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.

The May 25, 2018 protest by Parkland students in Coral Springs, Fla., against Publix donations to gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam. As a result of the protest Publix immediately announced that it was suspending political contributions for a year. (Image: CBS4 Miami)

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.

Julie Jenkins Fancelli

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 Purdue 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 Purdue 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.)

Publix PAC

Publix PAC’s political contributions by party. (Chart: Open Secrets)

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

The December Publix contributions to Friends of Ron DeSantis. (Image: 60 Minutes)

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

Pay-for-play?

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