GOP Turmoil, Climate Change and Fair Districts in Florida Have Big Sugar Scrambling

Based on simplistic polls that rank "the environment" as a low order of voter concern, most pundits overlook the complex tangle of taxpayer v. special interests, regulatory capture, and water pollution that is profoundly irritating the political status quo in the United States. Take Florida, one of the key electoral states, for example.

Rainfalls in January deluged much of South Florida. January is supposed to be dry season, but Lake Okeechobee filled to dangerously high levels, four to five times the average. To maintain public safety downstream of the Lake's dam, water managers began dumping billions of gallons a day of toxic water into rivers flowing to both Florida coasts. The extreme weather was a sign of climate change, and it arrived at an inopportune time for the Florida Republican party.

The nascent civic movement called Bullsugar had been quietly building when the historic rains propelled it forward with the public. Its message: buy Big Sugar lands south of the lake to solve the problem of excess toxics wrecking rivers, estuaries, the Everglades and Floridians' quality of life.

Out of 450,000 acres of sugarcane grown south of the Lake, scientists believe about 100,000 acres is necessary to create water storage sufficient to the task of cleansing and limiting the massive pulses to both Florida coasts and to protect the Everglades and badly diminished Florida Bay.

For decades, corporate welfare embedded in the federal Farm Bill has enriched a few sugar barons, including the Fanjul's Flo-Sun empire and U.S. Sugar Corporation owned by the charitable Mott Foundation based in Flint, Michigan. The guaranteed profits of this monoculture crop, sugarcane, ensure a political status quo in the state capitol, Tallahassee, that organizes like a medieval fortress. Lobbyists staff the ramparts and legislators huddle behind thick walls where public dissent cannot be heard.

Bullsugar.org and SWFL Clean Water Movement seemingly rose from nowhere, like a Florida Arab Spring, organizing through the one driver of public opinion Big Sugar cannot control through advertising budgets: social media.

During February and March, leading up to the Florida GOP presidential primary, social media brimmed with video clips and photos of massive fish kills and scenes of devastating pollution, energizing a fury in Republican strongholds that doesn't show up in public opinion polls because GOP strategists don't poll for that, convinced environmental concerns are not Republican issues.

Also, Big Sugar, its allies in state government and the GOP believed the opposition to be defined by traditional environmental groups: Florida Audubon, the Everglades Foundation, and Sierra Club. They didn't realize how every day, billions of gallons of toxic water were piling up behind a dam of public outrage.

A strong case can be made that the presidential hopes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both favored sons of Big Sugar, were washed away by January's historic rainfall. The subsequent pollution devastated primarily Republican districts. None of the highly paid consultants and lobbyists in the Republican echo chamber heard what was coming.

Big Sugar drives state water policy at the expense of taxpayers. Its influence in Tallahassee is not just legendary, it is atmospheric. A fraction of money generated through corporate welfare serving Big Sugar billionaires is used to fertilize liberally the political landscape at the county and state levels so that industry-favorable terms are always available.

That is one reason that special interests like Big Sugar fought so long and hard against Fair Districts; a legal battle waged for years that began winding up as historic rains began filling Lake Okeechobee in dry season. Republicans were forced to capitulate in state court and accept a state redistricting map essentially drawn by their opponents; the Florida League of Women Voters. The GOP spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and untold contributions by special interests to the state party, to maintain the status quo.

Although Fair Districts prevailed in time for the 2016 election cycle, Democrats had a small chance in November to take a majority in the state senate and the Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio, a Republican, in the upcoming election cycle.

Donald Trump changed all that.

Big Sugar abhors uncertainty. Its privileges through the Farm Bill and control of the Florida state legislature and Congress have never been seriously challenged. In 2015 Trump came perilously close to landing a blow against Big Sugar when he held up to the mirror the loss of jobs from Nabisco, the Oreo manufacturer, to Mexico.

Even Grover Norquist had railed against Big Sugar's corporate welfare, but Trump hadn't been briefed or perhaps he didn't land the punch on purpose. The GOP's Florida priorities kept Big Sugar's protectionism in place and forced American jobs making cookies and candies to Mexico and Canada.

For USA Today, James Bovard wrote at the time, "... sugar policy is one of Uncle Sam's most successful job destroyers. The Commerce Department estimated a decade ago that "for each one sugar growing and harvesting job saved through high U.S. sugar prices, nearly three confectionery manufacturing jobs are lost." Since 1997, sugar policy has zapped more than 120,000 jobs in food manufacturing, according to a study by Agralytica, an economic consulting firm. More than 10 jobs have been lost in manufacturing for every remaining sugar grower in the United States."

While Trump was railing against jobs lost to low-cost labor nations, the audience for Bullsugar was sprouting in Florida. Its videos and posts were being viewed by hundreds of thousands.

Bullsugar substantially contributed to Rubio's failure in March to carry Florida in the March primary. Rubio didn't just lose. He was defeated so badly by Trump, his political future is in doubt. At the time, Rubio refused to even consider how much his unqualified support for Big Sugar cost him.

"What's frustrating for those of us who support Marco Rubio is that he has always tried to work outside the box, he's never been an establishment guy," said Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist and Rubio fundraiser to International Business Times. "There's a frustration that Marco's message has not resonated as well this time." There was frustration because Marco Rubio wasn't paying attention: Bullsugar.

Big Sugar was convinced it had winners in the Republican presidential primary; not one, but two sons of Florida. Jeb Bush had proven his mettle as governor, pushing a bill into law sought by Big Sugar in 2003 that was subsequently overturned by a federal court, resulting in a billion dollar charge to taxpayers. (Defying credulity, in 2014 Gov. Rick Scott proclaimed it his victory.) Rubio's rise owes to his availability as an opponent in the 2010 Senate race against Charlie Crist, who had infuriated the powerful Fanjul billionaires when he struct a deal with U.S. Sugar Corporation to buy 187,000 acres of its lands.

Only a year ago, one of two Florida-based politicians had a better than even chance to deliver a GOP candidate for president who was in Big Sugar's pocket. Both flamed out, thanks to Donald Trump.

For special interests like Big Sugar, who have so carefully cultivated the playing field in American politics, the outcome was shocking, and it got even worse.

Trump is not only a wild card, GOP insiders are deeply worried that his upcoming campaign for the November election could seriously damage the election chances to maintain majority control in the US Senate and legislatures in states like Florida. For Big Sugar, that would be a catastrophic outcome.

For all these reasons -- Donald Trump, climate change and Fair Districts -- Big Sugar has launched an unprecedented media campaign against Bullsugar and the demands that the state and federal government do the unprecedented: take land out of sugar production and use it to the benefit of taxpayers who have been choking on the inequities of state water policies.

In Republican strongholds like Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie County's -- where the ravages of pollution on real estate values and quality of life continue to take a very serious toll -- Big Sugar is carpet bombing its messages through daily full page newspaper ads and nightly advertisements on television news. It is reaching to the Florida Keys, where local officials are facing a public furious with the decimation of water quality and algae blooms.
Big Sugar has also launched personal attacks against its opponents through surrogates it has cultivated to appear as though unconnected to its cash flows and it has rallied the public relations of state government agencies like the South Florida Water Management to its cause. These are predictable responses based on Big Sugar's primary driver: to make as much money as circumstances will provide until conditions change.
At some point in time Big Sugar will decide that the moment of its maximum political leverage has arrived and, with it, the opportunity to extract maximum value for its vast acreage that hold the key to solving the state's water woes. That moment could be just around the bend, but it won't come without Big Sugar testing the durability of its aging and predictable strategies to keep Florida in its grip.