NRA cash sparse in Florida pol­i­tics

Since 2005, no can­di­date has re­ceived any money

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Sweeney | Staff writer

In Florida, a state with a rep­u­ta­tion for gun-friend­li­ness, the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion hasn’t given money to any state can­di­date for 13 years.

A re­view of cam­paign fi­nance records for the NRA Po­lit­i­cal Vic­tory Fund, the gun-rights group’s po­lit­i­cal arm in Florida, shows it do­nated reg­u­larly to can­di­dates from 1996 un­til 2002, then just a hand­ful over the fol­low­ing three years. The last two can­di­dates to get money from the NRA — $500 each in 2005 — were Florida House can­di­date Marti Co­ley and Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Charles Bron­son.

Af­ter that, the NRA still reg­u­larly do­nated $10,000 once or twice a year to the Repub­li­can Party of Florida and cam­paign com­mit­tees tied to main­tain­ing House and Se­nate ma­jori­ties for Repub­li­cans. But af­ter 2010, those checks stopped as well.

As the cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions fiz­zled out, spend­ing on mail­ers and ads sky­rock­eted, up to a high of about $1.6 mil­lion for tele­vi­sion, ra­dio, In­ter­net and mail ads in­de­pen­dent of any po­lit­i­cal cam­paign in just the five weeks prior to the 2014 midterm and gov­er­nor elec­tions. Since then, the numbers have been less strato­spheric — about $400,000 in 2016.

“In all my ca­reer, I have never seen a dol­lar bill walk into a vot­ing booth and vote, but peo­ple do,” said Mar­ion Ham­mer, the NRA’s lob­by­ist in Tal­la­has­see. “The NRA has peo­ple and we vote.”

It’s those votes, not do­na­tions, that the NRA counts on for its po­lit­i­cal clout. The group lets mem­bers know where politi­cians stand through a rat­ing sys­tem, pub­lished an­nu­ally, based on their votes, pub­lic state­ments and re­sponses to a ques­tion­naire.

The NRA’s na­tional po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tee con­tin­ues to give to fed­eral elected of­fi­cials from Florida, in­clud­ing U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio and at least a dozen of the state’s Repub­li­can con­gress­men. And the NRA Foun­da­tion gives in other ways, in­clud­ing $126,000 to the Broward County School District for its JROTC pro­gram, an As­so­ci­ated Press report found. Af­ter the Stone­man Dou­glas shoot­ing, the district said it would no longer ac­cept money from the group. Ac­cord­ing to Ham­mer, do­na­tions at the state level stopped for prag­matic rea­sons.

“We stopped giv­ing cash con­tri­bu­tions be­cause ev­ery time we gave a con­tri­bu­tion to a can­di­date, the me­dia ac­cused NRA of buy­ing leg­is­la­tors,” Ham­mer said. “Of course, when the Florida Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Florida Re­tail Fed­er­a­tion, the Florida As­so­ci­a­tion of Re­al­tors, the Florida Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, Teach­ers Union, or the AFL-CIO gave the same amount or more, they were never ac­cused of buy­ing any­body.”

That’s not the case in other states. Cam­paign fi­nance records from states with a strong NRA pres­ence, in­clud­ing its head­quar­ters in Vir­ginia and the gun-friendly state of Texas, show state po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tees af­fil­i­ated with the NRA mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions as re­cently as 2017, the lat­est year for which data are avail­able.

Ham­mer has been an out­sized pres­ence in Tal­la­has­see since 1974, when she be­gan a four-year run as a vol­un­teer lob­by­ist for the NRA be­fore go­ing pro in 1978. She has re­mained the group’s im­pla­ca­ble de­fender in Florida since then, along with serv­ing as the NRA’s first fe­male pres­i­dent, from 1995 to 1998. She has been a con­stant pres­ence in the cap­i­tal and has pushed the state to adopt gun-rights pro­tec­tions that have be­come mod­els in other states guided by Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tures and gov­er­nors, in­clud­ing 2005’s Stand Your Ground law.

The NRA — and the politi­cians who take money from the or­ga­ni­za­tion — have been the fo­cus of #Nev­erA­gain stu­dents’ ac­tivism ahead of the Novem­ber elec­tion.

Dur­ing de­bate over the school safety and gun ac­cess bill passed by the Florida Leg­is­la­ture this year, Ham­mer ap­peared be­fore ev­ery com­mit­tee that heard the bill. Sur­rounded by gun­con­trol ad­vo­cates who had turned up to the Capi­tol en masse for the de­bates, Ham­mer would walk to the podium through boos and cat­calls, telling law­mak­ers that the NRA “sup­ports pro­tect­ing our kids” but that “We do not sup­port the gun con­trol pro­vi­sions of this bill,” call­ing them “noth­ing more than an at­tack on the Sec­ond Amend­ment rights of law-abid­ing peo­ple.”

The bill passed, and the NRA is now su­ing in fed­eral court over a por­tion of the bill that re­stricts gun sales to peo­ple un­der 21 years of age.

The day af­ter the school safety bill passed the Florida House and was sent to Gov. Rick Scott for a sig­na­ture, Ham­mer sent an email blast to Florida NRA mem­bers.

“Yes­ter­day, in one of the most de­spi­ca­ble dis­plays of bul­ly­ing and co­er­cion, the Florida House voted 67 to 50 to pass an un­con­sti­tu­tional bill that vi­o­lates Sec­ond Amend­ment rights and pun­ishes law [abid­ing] cit­i­zens for the ac­tions of a men­tally ill teenager who mur­dered 17 peo­ple af­ter Florida of­fi­cials re­peat­edly re­fused to get him the help he needed,” she wrote. “Only 19 House Repub­li­cans stayed faith­ful to their oath of of­fice and up­held their sworn duty to ‘sup­port, pro­tect, and de­fend the Constitution.’ ”

She listed all 19 state rep­re­sen­ta­tives be­fore adding, “Fifty-five (55) Repub­li­cans be­trayed their oath, broke their word to con­stituents and caved to bul­ly­ing and co­er­cion. We will share their names with you later. Now, you must con­tact the Gov­er­nor and tell him to veto the bill and force the Leg­is­la­ture to do it right — re­move the gun con­trol and fo­cus on mak­ing our schools safe.”

The NRA has had suc­cess in Florida at hin­der­ing the ca­reers of politi­cians it sees as traitors. For­mer state Rep. Charles McBur­ney, a Jack­sonville Repub­li­can, had an A rat­ing from the NRA as of 2014, ac­cord­ing to Vote Smart, a non­par­ti­san re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion that com­piles in­for­ma­tion on po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates. Termlim­ited out of of­fice in 2016, McBur­ney tried for a judge­ship. But as chair­man of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee that year, he had killed a bill that made a change to the state’s Stand Your Ground law that was fa­vored by the NRA but not by state pros­e­cu­tors.

A let­ter-writ­ing cam­paign to Scott en­sued af­ter Ham­mer sent an­other email to NRA mem­bers, writ­ing that McBur­ney had “ar­ro­gantly put his blind am­bi­tion to be­come a judge ahead of your con­sti­tu­tional right of self-de­fense and your ba­sic fun­da­men­tal right to the pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence.”

Scott passed over McBur­ney for the judge­ship.

Although it no longer do­nates to politi­cians, the NRA Po­lit­i­cal Vic­tory Fund, the com­mit­tee that Ham­mer serves as trea­surer of, has not shut its doors. Since stop­ping po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions in 2010, the com­mit­tee has con­tin­ued to make reg­u­lar pay­ments to di­rect-mail com­pa­nies, most fre­quently the Fred­er­ick, Mary­land­based ven­dor ProList.

ProList does not of­fer the name of clients on its web­site, but among the four suc­cess sto­ries dis­cussed in the “case stud­ies” sec­tion of its web­site is “The lob­by­ing arm of a lead­ing civil rights as­so­ci­a­tion [that] has his­tor­i­cally faced ma­jor chal­lenges to the con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected free­doms of its mem­bers.”

“Re­cently in one month, we com­pleted nearly 100 projects with this client with­out mak­ing a sin­gle er­ror,” the site re­ports. “We be­lieve that ev­ery­one has cer­tain in­alien­able rights — most im­por­tant of all, the right to high per­for­mance di­rect mail.”

The NRA does not give out of­fi­cial mem­ber­ship numbers. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre has touted five mil­lion mem­bers at con­fer­ences in the past, but stateby-state break­downs are un­avail­able. But given the amount of gun own­ers in Florida — there were more than 1.8 mil­lion con­cealed carry per­mits is­sued as of March 31 — the reach of Ham­mer’s emails could be con­sid­er­able.

And a lot is at stake. Democrats are try­ing to reach a ma­jor­ity in the Florida Se­nate, which has been in Repub­li­can hands since the 1994 elec­tion. At the fed­eral level, Gov. Rick Scott is now run­ning for U.S. Se­nate af­ter sign­ing the school-safety bill the NRA op­posed. And sev­eral U.S. House seats are in play due to the re­tire­ment of Repub­li­can rep­re­sen­ta­tives Ileana Ros-Le­hti­nen and Den­nis Ross and the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of Car­los Curbelo, a Mi­ami Repub­li­can in a district that leans Demo­cratic.

Asked whether she would use di­rect mail and email blasts against Scott or any of the state leg­is­la­tors who voted for age lim­its on gun sales, Ham­mer re­sponded, “We don’t re­veal our strat­egy to the me­dia or any­one. … We don’t talk about who we are and what we will do. We just do the right thing.”

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