March 21, 2021
Pearl River I read with great interest the news reports of arrests in the Miami, Florida area over election shenanigans that were the undoing of a Democratic legislator from the area. A former Republican state legislator, acting now as a campaign consultant and operative for Republican candidates, reached out and found a friend who owned a house in the incumbent’s district and induced his buddy to run with the payment of $50,000 in order to siphon off enough votes to help the Republican candidate he was supporting to succeed. This resulted in the Democrat losing by thirty-two votes.
That wasn’t the end of the story though. Police arrested them both on three third-degree felony charges related to violating campaign finance law, including for conspiracy to make campaign contributions in excess of legal limits, making those excess contributions, and false swearing in connection to an election.
In old school election politics this might fall somewhere between a dirty trick and a shrewd campaigning tactic. It is probably a surprise to many of the old pols to find that you can get caught up in a legal web these days given campaign laws. I’m not sure what lessons they might learn other than being more careful though, since the Florida Republican party and the winning candidate still pretty much commented, “so what?” to the whole affair. There is no minimum sentence for a third-degree felony in Florida, but there is a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison. There is also a maximum fine of up to $5,000. Depending on the crime, the court may order the defendant to pay restitution to the victim. I’d bet that probation is the worst of what they’ll face.
All of this reminded me of the many mornings I spent in the early 1970s sitting in the back of the Walgreens on Main Street in Little Rock, Arkansas visiting with veteran political campaigner and architect of Wilbur Mills career and election success, Max Allison. Roger Mears, before becoming county judge, was a regular along with gaggle of others who would come and go to hear the stories and ask for advice.
One of his classic stories involved the machinations that he engineered to try to derail the campaigns of arch-segregationist Jim Johnson for governor. A standard device in his toolbox was running candidates with the same name in the election to confuse voters into pulling the lever for his Johnson, rather than the real Johnson. This worked well and was pretty much common practice in elections in Arkansas and other southern states in the 1940s and 50s, as campaigns tried to exploit any advantage along with the lower literacy rates and information dispersal in politicking at the time.
Were these faux candidates given money to run like the Miami situation? Allison always left as much out of a story as he put in a story. He would complement you on your ability to work “the political equation” for the correct answer and to follow what he called the “fine hand behind the news.” I had little doubt that there were inducements involved, most likely a job in the county, some state agency, or some contracts now or in the future, but cash money might have been at play as well. These tactics were out in the open after all, and there were no laws of any degree that regulated bare knuckles campaigning then, just as there are really very few today as well, as we see constantly in modern political life.