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.
Bullsugar and allies on Florida’s Gulf coast 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 devastating primarily Republican districts, and a rising awareness centered on social media sites like Bullsugar.org and SWFL Clean Water Movement.
None of the GOP high paid consultants and lobbyists in the Republican echo chamber saw 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. Thanks to subsidies in the Farm Bill, perpetually renewed by Congress, sugar farmers extract hundreds of millions in profit a year. A fraction of that money is used to fertilize liberally through the political fields 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 by fact and law to capitulate in state court to a state redistricting map basically drawn by its 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, the consequence to Big Sugar would not have been immediate. Democrats had only a small chance to win a majority in the state senate or to take the Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio 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. Trump came perilously close to landing a blow when he held up to the national mirror the loss of jobs from a midwest candy manufacturer. Even Grover Norquist had railed against Big Sugar’s corporate welfare, but Trump hadn’t been briefed and he didn’t land the punch. Trump didn’t understand how the GOP’s Florida priorities kept Big Sugar’s protectionism in place and forced midwest jobs 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 making cookies 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 colors 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 entire political rise was due 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 spreading its messages in daily full page newspaper ads and nightly advertisements on television news. It is even 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. It is a predictable response 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 the 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.