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Money — and accusations of dark money — dominate the Tallahassee election cycle

 Tallahassee City Hall
WFSU Public Media
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Tallahassee City Hall

The amounts of money raised in the local election cycle are unprecedented --almost $2 million for the city and county commissions alone. And that’s just the dollars we know about. In the final week before Election Day, the money’s getting darker than ever.

Follow the money. The money is flowing. And accusations of dark money are flying -- meaning donations that can’t be traced because they went to a nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors.

“I followed the money.” Bugra Demirel is the chairman of Grow Tallahassee’s political action committee, which describes itself as pro-growth and pro-economic development. The PAC supports Mayor John Dailey, Tallahassee City Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox and Dr. David Bellamy, who is challenging City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow. Demirel did the research and found a chain of four PACs to which familiar names have contributed.

“Surprisingly, I was able to see Jeremy Matlow’s personal contribution to one of these PACs," he said. "I’m not sure why, because he does have a campaign account where he can deposit this money to, but it looks like he decided to deposit it to a PAC.”   

Demirel also points to a chain of PACs that received donations from Bob Lotane, Ann VanderMeer and Max Herrle, all of whom are connected to the progressive blog Our Tallahassee. The Green Advocacy Project in California sent $50,000 to entities controlled by Herrle. Matlow gave $20,000 to a PAC called Florida Young Democrats, which he says was money well spent.

“I grew up in poverty in Tallahassee, and the people who live in the neighborhoods I come from don’t have money to give to campaigns," he said. "They don’t have the resources to fight back against special interests. So I’m glad that I am able to, and happy to do it.”  

In the last days before the August 23rd primary, we can see the money being spent: TV, texts, fliers. Some of the texts are racist and homophobic.

As of August 14th, Matlow’s opponent, Bellamy, had raised $290,000, the most of any candidate in this cycle and more than twice what Matlow has. Dailey had raised roughly $260,000 -- the second-highest amount and more than twice what his opponent Dozier has.

“Every donation I have ever received, I always, as the law states, report every penny of donation, and we report every penny of every expenditure we’ve ever made," said Dailey. "Full transparency. Anybody can go to the Supervisor of Elections office and see who has donated to my campaign.”

Adner Marcelin is running against Williams-Cox for Seat 5. He’s raised about $38,000 and she’s raised about $110,000.

“But when you look at the contributors to her campaign, it’s not individual donations," he said. "She has a overwhelming large majority of PCs, PACs, developers and special interest money, as well as Boosters funds that have made up the majority of her campaign finances. And it shows where she stands on the issues and who she stands for."

Williams-Cox says she won’t discriminate against those who want to give to her campaign. She’s received 44 contributions of $1,000, the maximum allowed. Ten of those came on the same day, April 25th. That’s shortly after the joint city-county Blueprint Commission voted to fund stadium repairs and improvements at Florida State University’s Doak Campbell stadium.

“So, I think people recognize who I am, and I think they appreciate the work that I’ve done," she said. "And I cannot tell them not to contribute to my campaign -- I will not. And I’ve said this: If there is a way that I can get my message out without money, then let me know what it is, and I’ll do it.”  

Tracking money from one political committee to another is tricky. For instance, several candidates have the same treasurer and address -- Andrew Gay at 1427 Piedmont Drive East. He’s the treasurer for Dailey, Bellamy and Leon County Commissioner Nick Maddox. He’s also the treasurer for a PAC called Progress TLH, which in turn received $20,000 from a statewide PAC called Truth & Transparency Inc. Among the donors to Truth & Transparency Inc. is Trulieve, Inc., which gave $55,000 during the 2020 election cycle.

Trulieve is one of the nation’s largest medical marijuana operators. Its CEO, Kim Rivers, is married to businessman J.T. Burnette, who was convicted of bribery last year, along with former Tallahassee mayor Scott Maddox. Both men are currently in prison.

Demirel says the bitterness of the election is why the money is pouring in.

“This election cycle became so divisive and so personal that folks are not scared of coming out and writing big checks anymore,” he said.  

Meanwhile, the racist and homophobic texts that have surfaced in the primary’s final days also contain charges of candidates’ using dark money. The texts drew statements from both sides. Grow Tallahassee’s PAC posted on August 12th, “This afternoon, the Jeremy Matlow campaign sent out a mass text message insinuating certain claims about our organization. Moments later, Kristin Dozier’s campaign made similar allegations. These misleading accusations have no base, and certainly do not represent the truth. That is precisely why they are not making a direct claim -- which would trigger legal action against each one of these campaigns.”

Bob Lotane is the publisher of Our Tallahassee and one of the donors in the chain of PACs that Demirel cited. He scoffs at the accusations.

“Now that the more progressive candidates have had to find ways to scrap and scramble to get money under perfectly legal means and have to avail themselves of that while these guys can write multiple thousand dollar checks, suddenly it’s dark money," he said. "This was not dark money in the past. This was the way they funded and won campaigns in Tallahassee. And now that we’re trying to do something just to stay close to them under legal means, it’s suddenly dark money.”

This close to the election, it’s hard for voters to follow the money. But nonpartisan watchdogs recommend it highly. You can start at www.leonvotes.gov and click on Candidates, Elected Officials, and Campaign Finance.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Margie Menzel