United We Stand, Citizens United We Fall

It’s been six weeks since our obscure April 3 Election Day (yes, it’s over for all of you who missed it) and looking back there are a few key lessons to be learned already. First, big money in politics is ruining politics at every level.

Mayor Dyer, with his commanding 11,000+ votes in an election that saw historic low voter turnout in a city with over 130,000 voters, spent somewhere around $1 million just to keep his job. That’s right, his campaign spent nearly $500,000 itself, the Florida Democratic Party funneled nearly $200,000 to Dyer’s campaign to pay for staff and canvassers with in-kind contributions, the state party also paid for numerous very expensive mailings on behalf of the Mayor, and Dyer had a Super PAC raising and spending unlimited amounts of money. Whew…oh let’s not forget, the Chamber of Commerce paid for standard mailings, billboards and the like for the Mayor too.

The truth is clear in Florida politics: money still buys – er, wins the vote. But that leads to the second key lesson: both parties are soiled when it comes to big money in politics. The Democratic Party has shifted on precedent, history and values to play the big money game to the core. We’ll just pretend growing ambitions of Dyer, Rod Smith and others play no role in this new behavior. But let’s not kid ourselves, the Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce invented this game and legalized it with Citizens United.  Oh can you wait: soon Rod Smith, the FDP and the local Democratic Party will attempt to call out and cry about Super PAC spending during the 2012 elections after having served the role of funnel for the Chamber of Commerce this April. Voters won’t fall for the hypocrisy so spare us, Chambercrats. Both parties have been infiltrated now.

But I digress – because all this leads now to the BIG lesson: money in politics pays. Why spend $1 million to keep your job? In short: the city budget, the deals, the promises, the power and yes, the invitations – but also the holes. That’s right, the budget holes, the gaps, the dropping bond ratings and don’t forget the big spending projects that continue while our city has no credit. These are things you don’t want to fall into the wrong hands after you and your buddies have been in power for nearly a decade. Especially not with future self-ambition involved.

The possibility of changing the narrative that we are really a well-managed city, in the way that our Mayor has held it together this long, to one exposing we are potentially on the verge of bankruptcy due to sweetheart deals and shoddy financing is dangerous to Big Money. Orlando is not building reserves; we’re eating them to stay afloat on debt. The city’s budget crisis and budget shortfalls are well-known – quoted shortfalls exceed $50 million. And they will worsen, in large part due to these huge pension deficits. Why? Think of the pension deficits as if they were household debt. When debts become too big, problems compound, and you end up paying interest on interest. In this economy, there’s simply no plausible way for Orlando to get the return needed to not go further in the hole for years to come – simply put, we can’t afford our police and fire pensions which now push Police & Fire spending to 55% of our entire city budget (yet crime is up).  On the bonds, the outlook is negative from Moody’s to Fitch and only Wastewater Bonds are AAA, the rest range from B to AA2.  It’s like Orlando is at best “passing but on the verge of failing.” Hmm, wonder if any of these bonds fund any of our pensions? Not even Buddy will be able to run for Governor if the books aren’t clean.

In the words of a former local Orange County Democratic Party Chair on my recent run for Mayor, “you ran a perfect model campaign, and sometimes that just isn’t enough.” That’s right, we hit 25,000 homes door-to-door with a real message (remember, that’s more houses than people voted). We called 35,000 on the phone – and not with daily robo calls like the Mayor, but with real volunteers. We dominated online and social media and we made the news more than any other candidate.  But it wasn’t enough because we only raised around $16,000 – nowhere near the Mayor’s $100 per vote minimum needed to win here in Orlando. They weren’t going to risk everything and their money proves that.

So where does this all take us? In so many ways it takes us all the way back to…Occupy. That’s right, the movement that erupted over money in politics nationally and took our little town by storm. And while they’re still figuring it out themselves, the point is they were right. Money in politics stinks. It doesn’t mean we all have to “occupy” physically, but it does mean we all have to act and demand more. It means we can’t keep letting incumbents squat in positions of power while the 99% suffer from their policies.

Money in politics is why people are disengaged. It’s why only 15% of our city came out to vote and why people just don’t care anymore.  All we, the people, want are fair elections and a fair chance but it’s simply not possible with our broken status quo – and well, everyone seems to know. That’s why so many stay home. At the end of the day, big money in local politics is why Mayor Dyer is still in office.

We should expect nothing less than status quo unless we act. Remember the words of Mayor Dyer to the Orlando Sentinel regarding his Super PAC: “Everyone is doing it.” You know, collecting unlimited amounts of money outside the contribution limits and reporting requirements. That doesn’t make it right. But it means everyone is doing it and the rest of us need to wake up.  For starters, don’t keep giving any more of your money to any incumbent until real reform is enacted. They don’t need it anyway remember, they have Disney, or Mears, or the DeVos family, or…

Follow the money… you’ll find we the people were the real losers the whole time. So, are we the people going to do something about it? For one, I’m going to continue building the community I believe in because I know people make politics work, not big money. United we stand, Citizens United we fall.

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