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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 26, 2003 16 years ago

Politics: Out in Front

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It's early, but George W. Bush is dominating presidential campaign fundraising - nationally as well as on the Gulf Coast.

Politics: Out in Front

It's early, but George W. Bush is dominating presidential campaign fundraising - nationally as well as on the Gulf Coast.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Long before this season of giving just ended, another season of giving was well underway. It's called the political season.

Not a single vote has been cast for a 2004 presidential candidate at an actual polling place yet. But Gulf Coast residents have been stating their preferences with their checkbooks.

Through Sept. 30, they gave $1.8 million directly to presidential campaigns, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission data gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C.

If dollars were votes and it was up to Florida's Gulf Coast to decide, George W. Bush already might be printing up the invitations for his second inaugural ball. The Republican president was the overwhelming favorite through September with the locals. His $1.4 million haul was 81% of all the presidential campaign cash collected from Pasco to Collier counties.

Who are the region's attorneys, bankers, real estate developers and other businesspeople spending their hard-earned cash on?

Some of the names on the president's local list not only donate to the cause themselves, but also urge others to do the same. They're putting their money where their mouths are.

They carry their own titles inside the Bush campaign hierarchy, depending on how much they bring back from family, friends and business associates. Those who each commit to raising $200,000 are called "rangers." Those who bundle up $100,000 a piece are "pioneers."

Two Bush rangers named Al have been active in Florida Republican circles for years: Real estate developers Alfred S. Austin of Tampa and Alfred Hoffman Jr., chief executive of WCI Communities Inc. in Bonita Springs. Former Gov. Bob Martinez, now managing director of government consulting at Tampa law firm Carlton Fields PA, has also been riding the range looking for money for Bush. All three have personally given $2,000.

Mere pioneers include Naples tax attorney Joe B. Cox, Bradenton banker George Trammel Hudson, Naples builder Fred Pezeshkan, and certified public accountants Robert I. and Nancy H. Watkins of Tampa. They're each also down for $2,000.

"It's easier to raise money for an incumbent, that's number one," says Nancy Watkins, whose CPA practice coincidentally specializes in helping political candidates comply with federal and state campaign finance laws. "And we're finding that people believe in this president's policies and they like his initiatives."

The rank-and-file Bush backers make up an impressive roster, too. In the real estate industry alone, there's Lee E. Arnold Jr. of Clearwater, Richard A. Beard III of Tampa, Patrick K. Neal of Bradenton and Melvin F. Sembler of Treasure Island. Arnold advises the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, on Florida water issues. Beard and Neal have been appointed to state boards while Sembler is U.S. ambassador to Italy.

Tampa's Outback boys - steakhouse chain founders Robert D. Basham, Tim Gannon and Chris T. Sullivan - gave to George W. Bush. Hooters co-founder Edward C. Droste of Clearwater shows up with a $2,000 check. Executives from troubled TECO Energy Inc. are also represented, with Chairman and CEO Robert D. Fagan, Chief Financial Officer Gordon L. Gillette and General Counsel Sheila M. McDevitt on the Bush donor list.

The names of the just plain prominent dot the Bush contribution list as well. Bradenton retailer Robert M. Beall, Florida Attorney General Charles J. "Charlie" Crist Jr. of St. Petersburg, former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo of Tampa, Raymond James Financial Inc. Chairman Thomas A. James of Largo, and New York Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner III of Tampa kicked in to the Bush war chest.

But there were a few surprises. A couple of high-profile lawyers have given to Bush, even though the president is partial to tort reform.

C. Steven Yerrid, best known for helping Florida win an $11 billion settlement from tobacco companies for smoking-related medical expenses, contributed to the president's re-election. That's despite the Tampa plaintiff's attorney briefly suing Jeb Bush in 2003 for letting legislators dismantle an anti-smoking campaign funded with some of the settlement money that Yerrid helped secure for the state.

Another odd fellow in is James L. Wilkes II. His Tampa law firm Wilkes & McHugh PA has made its reputation suing nursing homes. Like Yerrid, Wilkes gave $2,000 to Bush.

But Yerrid and Wilkes also gave $2,000 each to U.S. Sen. John Edwards.

Although Bush has raised more than four times the combined total raised by the Democratic field, Edwards is receiving more per contribution on the Gulf Coast. His average local contribution is $1,513.

A trial lawyer, Edwards is drawing most of his local money from fellow members of the bar. Ten of Edwards' donors are affiliated with the Wilkes & McHugh law firm, which bundled up $20,000 for the North Carolina Democrat's run for the White House.

Regular television viewers might be familiar with some of the other names on the list of givers to Edwards. Personal-injury lawyer Larry Beltz of St. Petersburg's Beltz Ruth Magazine Newman & Kohl PA gave to Edwards as did two Tampa lawyers with Morgan Colling & Gilbert PA. Beltz Ruth and Morgan Colling & Gilbert advertise heavily on TV.

Behind the $86,250 that Edwards has raised for his candidacy, John Kerry is second on the Gulf Coast among the Democrats with $71,300. A Kerry campaign spokesman says Tampa attorneys Barry A. Cohen and Chris Hoyer have been two of the Massachusetts senator's biggest fundraisers in the Bay area.

Multiple Kerry donations have come from Cohen's firm, Cohen Jayson & Foster PA, and the Tampa office of the Foley & Lardner law firm. But it's not all lawyers. The family of former recreational vehicle dealer Donald W. Wallace gave $4,000 to Kerry.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, first in many pre-primary polls, was third in Gulf Coast fundraising among Democrats, as of Sept. 30. Dean appears to have the most contributions from academics, artists and retirees.

But there are business owners who've sent checks to Dean. St. Petersburg marine industry insurer Lisa R. Gladstone and Tampa financial planner Laura Waller were among them.

Presidential campaign donations

(On the Gulf Coast through Sept. 30)

CandidateTotal donationsAverage donationShare

George W. Bush$1,439,069$1,42681.2%

John Edwards$86,250$1,5134.9%

John Kerry$71,300$8914.0%

Howard Dean$63,700$4493.6%

Joe Lieberman$51,700$9232.9%

Richard Gephardt$25,750$8311.5%

Wesley Clark$21,950$8131.2%

Dennis Kucinich$6,255$6250.4%

Lyndon LaRouche$5,650$3530.3%

Carol Moseley Braun$200$2000.0%

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

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