In almost every election year, there are some events that appear startling and mundane at the same time.
One such sensational, or ho-hum, story broke last week when NBC News reported that as Gov. Ron DeSantis formally announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, some high-level officials in his administration were sending text messages to lobbyists, suggesting they might want to contribute to his campaign.
This caused a bit of a stir because the senders of the texts are not campaign staffers, but taxpayer-paid public employees, and the people being solicited are not just your typical deep-pockets donors but professional lobbyists who make their living by getting the government to do things for their corporate clients.
Neither the DeSantis staffers nor the lobbyists would be so crass as to mention it out loud, but the solicitation was done while the $117 billion state budget was awaiting the governor’s signature. His line-item veto power enables DeSantis – literally with the stroke of a pen – to kill spending items those lobbyists spent 60 days (or more) wheedling into the budget.
Or the governor can make their consulting fees look like money well spent.
NBC noted there was a little icon on the texts that could note who gave and who passed. The story didn’t identify anyone, but quoted some lobbyists saying they felt a tad compelled to open their checkbooks.
At the same time, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that some legislators were being asked to endorse DeSantis for president while the budget requests, and other bills important to their districts, were pending on the governor’s desk. There was no direct threat but the lawmakers felt pressured, the paper said.
There are two ways to look at this, depending whether you see DeSantis as the bold new champion of the Republican Party – or the hell spawn of Beelzebub.
It might be a shakedown, like mobsters saying, “Oh hey, nice little package of bills you got through the House and Senate this year – be a real shame if anything happened to ‘em, y’know….”
Or perhaps a more jaundiced attitude among political pros might be more like, “Hey, these lobbyists are making millions by getting the state to do stuff for their rich clients, so where else are we gonna go for money?”
Unless it’s a blatant quid pro quo – “Gimme $10,000 or I’ll veto your client’s tax break” – what NBC discovered is probably not illegal. It’s not uncommon for staffers, even high-level aides, to do political odd jobs for their bosses on their own time and with their own facilities. It’s only unethical when your opponent does it.
But where to draw the line between persuading and fleecing?
I asked Mac Stipanovich, a retired lobbyist and former Republican insider who was chief of staff to Gov. Bob Martinez 30-some years ago. A little horse trading and favors among friends – getting somebody a job, or a new roof on your high school gym – are part of the game, he said – within reason.
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“I implicitly threatened members with budget vetoes or with not appointing their preferred choices to the bench during session, in order to secure their votes on pending bills in which we had an interest — as I am sure every chief of staff in history has done,” Stipanovich said.
“But I never used the power of the Executive Office of the Governor to pressure a member for an endorsement or a donor for money,” he added. “I would suggest the former is hardball politics and fair play, while the latter is abuse of power tantamount to corruption.”
Of course, the distinction between hardball and corruption, like so many things in a campaign, is in the eye of the beholder. Candidates need to avoid even the appearance of sleaze, so DeSantis would be wise to erect a very large, wide, impenetrable wall between the job he has and his campaign for the job he wants.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Florida Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.