POLITICO Florida // Matt Dixon
TALLAHASSEE — State Rep. José Félix Díaz this year raised more than $530,000 in political cash from donors who directly lobbied bills assigned to the committee he chairs, a dynamic that highlights one of Tallahassee’s busiest intersections: politics and policy.
As chair of the House Commerce Committee, Díaz has overseen a wide range of industries that are fertile fundraising territory, including gaming, insurance and a wide array of businesses interests. The powerful committee was created this year when House Speaker Richard Corcoran put a range of issues previously overseen by two committees under one committee umbrella, a move that also upped its fundraising potential.
Shortly after the 2017 legislative session, Díaz also announced his candidacy in the special election for Senate District 40 against Democrat Annette Taddeo. Because it’s the only race in an otherwise quiet summer, the campaign is getting national attention as both parties test messages and strategies headed into 2018.
Díaz says campaign contributions don’t impact how he votes or runs his committee.
“In today’s political climate, voters and donors are looking for normal people who work hard and serve for the right reasons,” Díaz said. “I have always been one of the top fundraisers in the Florida House, even before I was named to my first committee.”
But his fundraising prowess is a prime example of how donors direct campaign contributions to lawmakers most influential in their policy successes or failures.
“When you hold the gavel on one of those committees, you literally hold the financial well-being of those interests or companies in your hand,” said one veteran lobbyist. “The story you are doing is just one example of that.”
“No large company executive wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’d like to make a large contribution of money to someone’ on principle,” the lobbyist added.
POLITICO Florida reached out to several lobbyists and former members for this story. None agreed to talk on the record due to fear of retribution from legislative leaders or because they don’t want to cross Díaz, who is seen as ascendant in Republican circles.
“My many donors know that a donation to my campaign is a donation in favor of good government, plain and simple,” the Miami Republican added.
One former lawmaker who sat on high-profile committees, however, said campaign contributions often find members with powerful posts.
“We didn’t as much fundraise as we did fund-collect,” the former lawmaker said.
This year, Díaz’s committee played host to huge food fights over session-defining bills having to do with gambling, liquor distribution and workers’ compensation, among other issues. Each was the subject of lengthy committee meetings.
“We have brought the insurance and banking universe with us today,” joked state Rep. Danny Burgess (R-Zephyrhills), before presenting the workers’ comp bill during a much-watched April 4 meeting of Díaz’s committee.
A large swath of the business and insurance industry mentioned by Burgess is now on the finance reports for Díaz’s campaign or Rebuild Florida, his affiliated political committee. Companies or associations registered to lobby on that specific bill have given nearly $200,000 to Díaz’s campaign or committee since he was named Commerce chairman in December. The bill passed Díaz’s committee but ultimately died in the final days of session.
Overall, this year donors — directly registered to lobby bills assigned to the Commerce Committee — gave $531,000 to Díaz’s campaign or committee. Those came from, among other interests, the insurance companies, banks, retailers, theme parks, gas station owners and liquor distributors. Each had top-tier policy priorities that needed to pass Diaz’s committee.
A committee assignment is a key factor, but not the only one when donors consider whom to help. Pressure from legislative leaders, who support Díaz, as well as future political aspirations and past relationship building, can also be contributing factors.
“I strongly believe that my fundraising prowess stems directly from my fair dealings and good reputation as a young professional and legislator,” said Díaz, who added that a political contribution “does not and never will mean a vote in favor of or against any issue.”
Another example of donors raining cash on an issue Díaz helped shape is the so-called liquor wall. That was a fight over whether to repeal a state law that requires a separation between the sale of hard liquor and other goods. The issue pit stores like Walmart and Target, which supported the bill, against ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and Florida Independent Spirits Association, which wanted the bill killed.
It became one of the most heavily debated and lobbied issues of the 2017 legislative session. During the March 22 meeting of Díaz’s committee, nearly 30 interests expressed an opinion on the legislation, many of whom had also given to Díaz’s committee or campaign. His campaign and committee raised $95,000 from those directly registered to lobby the bill. It eventually passed but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Because Díaz has left the House, his chairmanship of the House Commerce Committee has been given to state Rep. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton). He is not considered as prodigious a fundraiser, but the dynamic will not end for those with business before the committee.
“If you know you are going to be a constant on the agenda,” said another veteran lobbyist, “you have to give until it hurts, frankly.”