Who is behind the well-financed political committee Floridians for a Fair Shake (FFFS)?
FFFS, a shadowy 501(c)(4) with a local name but a Washington, D.C. address doesn't have to disclose its donors. So it is lashing out hundreds of thousands of dollars -- maybe far more than that since the group's effort launched in April -- to take down a pair of Republican congressmen -- Vern Buchanan in CD 16 and Brian Mast in CD 18.
It's championing two fronts -- taxes and health care -- making Buchanan and Mast the enemies of Florida citizens on both.
Among its bold claims: The ONLY Floridians who got a tax cut are millionaires, billionaires, or rich corporations. Not remotely true. But the message is big, brief, slick -- and effective.
Easy to see why Buchanan's opponents want him out. The Longboat Key resident serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which crafted the new tax law. He has touted the law as an economic stimulus that will have broad benefits. With the retirement of Rep. Ileana Ros-Leitinen, Buchanan likely will be the most powerful, and thus most influential, member of the House's Florida delegation.
The attack ad, which cost FFFS $603,718, is stunning in its deception: “Most Americans will pay more in taxes” under the legislation Buchanan championed, it says. It cites a Dec. 18 report from the Tax Policy Center to justify the statement. But that same report found the legislation will reduce taxes for the vast majority of taxpayers over the next decade, and by about $1,600 on average in 2018.
The Tax Policy Center does predict that 53 percent of taxpayers will pay more in 2027. That’s because “almost all individual income tax provisions would sunset after 2025.” So, no tax hike for several years.
Both Buchanan and Mast also were targets of a July 4 airplane-banner fly-over along crowded beaches in their districts, blaming them for "the failed Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act."
Floridians for a Fair Shake also posted a press release to demean Brian Mast -- same deception as the Buchanan ad with a different twist: “ICYMI: CONGRESSMAN BRIAN MAST IS OK WITH WALMART MAKING BILLIONS FROM TAX BREAKS WHILE YOU GET ... NOTHING.” Highlight: “Here’s what Floridians are getting: — 0 — Zero, zilch, nada. The bottom 60% of Floridians receive $360 in 2019, but if Congress extends the #TrumpTax that number drops to zero.”
Democrats have identified Mast's seat as winnable.
After the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland -- where Mast used to live -- he broke dramatically from the Republican playbook by calling for sweeping restrictions on guns. Conservative voters and activists were outraged and Republican Party leaders were left anxious over the prospect of a more challenging re-election for the freshman congressman.
What Mast's new position did was attract two primary challengers, in particular Mark Freeman of Stuart, a very pro-NRA physician and retired lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve.
Mast himself is a former Army sergeant who lost both legs and a finger when a bomb exploded under him in Afghanistan.
Besides incumbency, Mast has a significant financial head start. He raised $777,000 in the first quarter of 2018 and had more than $1.5 million in cash in his campaign account. But what the Dems are counting on is a costly primary victory for Mast, one that forces him to burn some of the money he otherwise would be able to save for the November general election. One of two Democrats awaits, Lauren Baer or Pam Keith, leading the blue party to believe they have a real chance to knock off the Port St. Lucie congressman.
What we know about who is behind Floridians for a Fair Shake isn't a lot, though many Washington operatives link the group to the Democrats' biggest donor, billionaire hedge fund trader Tom Steyer. Steyer spent a whopping $87 million on Democratic candidates and causes in 2016 and endorsed Hillary Clinton. He now has "done a 180" on party moderation, dumped the Clintons and is all-in for the ultra-progressive message of Bernie Sanders, including single-payer health policies.
To that end, Steyer, who chairs the Fair Shake Commission on Inequality in California, just released a new report in partnership with the Center for American Progress, proposing a host of progressive policies to address inequality.
"We believe Floridians for a Fair Shake is part of a network of Steyer's Fair Shake Commission offshoots," a White House insider told Sunshine State News on condition of anonymity. Steyer's office, however, would neither confirm nor deny the connection.
The group's communications director is Stephen Gaskill, a political operative with firm Democratic ties.
Gaskill played down his Democratic ties in an interview with the Sarasota Herald Tribune. He said his group "is not aligned with any party" and is only focused on educating voters.
“We do not support candidates; we talk issues,” he said.
According to the Herald Tribune, some Floridians for a Fair Shake employees have ties to the Democratic Party. Gaskill runs his own public relations firm. The firm’s website describes him as “a veteran of Democratic politics.”
“Stephen has held senior communications roles in the Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry presidential campaigns,” the site says.
Gaskill told the newspaper the bulk of the group’s funding comes from a group called Protect Our Care, which says on its website that it is a “coalition of groups leading the fight against Republicans’ ongoing efforts to repeal and sabotage health care.”
Max Goodman, Buchanan's campaign manager, replied with this: “Dark money groups that hide in the shadows while attempting to deceive the public are why so many people hate politics.”
Wrote the Herald Tribune, "In response to questions about who is supporting Floridians for a Fair Shake, Gaskill released a list of six advisory committee members. They include Bradenton author Bonnie Friedman, a former federal government employee who wrote a book about her struggles navigating the health care system on behalf of her husband. Bill Sauers, president of the progressive advocacy group Florida Alliance of Retired Americans, also is advising Floridians for a Fair Shake." Planned Parenthood Alliance also advises FFFS.
FFFS advisory members' names are in black-and-white. Names of those writing the checks are not.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith