Nothing Conservative About This Race

Who is more conservative — state Rep. Mike Weinstein or former state Rep. Aaron Bean?

That’s the question facing voters in the Republican primary for the newly created state Senate District 4.

The race is about power, money and political favors, pitting two factions of the state Republican party against each other. Both candidates and their committees are spending bags of money for frequent television time to earn the right to return to Tallahassee. The job pays $29,697 a year, and the winner will fill the seat held by Sen. Stephen Wise, who can’t seek re-election because of term limits.

The winner of the Aug. 14 primary will take on two write-in candidates and Democrat Nancy Soderberg in the November general election. She’s a former ambassador from the Clinton administration and a distinguished visiting scholar at University of North Florida.

A game-changer in this year’s election is big donor influence, who aren’t held to the $500 limit when donating to an election committee.

Aaron Bean, a Nassau County businessman who’s a relationship development officer at Shands Jacksonville, and a partner in an insurance agency and a miniature golf course, has been waiting in the wings to run for the state Senate. He dropped out of the special election in 2009 to fill the senate seat vacated by Jim King of Jacksonville, who died in July 2009. Republican strongman John Thrasher was later elected to that post.

Thrasher and former governor Jeb Bush are supporting Bean’s effort to return to the Legislature. Both appear in TV commercials paid for by the Liberty Foundation of Florida, with Bush saying, “I’m very proud of principle-centered leaders like Aaron Bean.”

Many of Bean’s TV ads are funded by the Liberty Foundation of Florida, one of hundreds of groups known in the state as electioneering communications organizations (ECOs). According to the Florida Division of Elections, an ECO is any group “whose election-related activities are limited to making expenditures for electioneering communications or accepting contributions for the purpose of making electioneering communications.”

Candidates can accept only up to $500 per entity, but funds sent to ECOs aren’t considered contributions to or on behalf of the candidate.

Liberty has ties to House Speaker Dean Cannon, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and the GOP establishment. Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for Bean, said she had little to say about the ECO or the money behind those ads.

“Our campaign has nothing to do with those ads.”

Another ECO, Floridians for Ethics & Truth in Politics, has paid for some of Mike Weinstein’s television commercials, which state, “He is too conservative for Tallahassee but just right for Jacksonville.” Another commercial asserts that big power bosses in Tallahassee are trying to control a seat that belongs to Jacksonville.

A new Bean ad questions some of Weinstein’s votes in the Legislature, showing various types of people stating, “That’s not conservative.”

Some of Jacksonville’s most prominent businessmen have given large checks to another Weinstein ECO, Investing in Florida’s Future. Former Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver and Republican leader and businessman Tom Petway each gave $45,000 to the ECO. Michael Ward, CEO of railroad giant CSX, kicked in another $25,000, and business executive Peter Rummell added $20,000 more. Keystone Industries, a coal company which wants to open a shipping terminal at JaxPort, has given the committee $75,000.

Investing in Florida’s Future recently contributed $165,000 to Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics, according to figures from its website.

“The majority of support for the committee has been by individuals very committed to Jacksonville and individuals and companies I have had a long-standing relationships with,” Weinstein told The T-U in May.

Another big feature in the campaigns is endorsements. Jacksonville political consultant John Daigle, who knows both candidates through his work as a political reporter and two decades of running area campaigns, said he sees value in early endorsements.

“I always tell my candidates they are running two races — a fundraising race and a vote-capturing race,” Daigle said.

Endorsements are more powerful at first when donors are trying to gauge which way political winds are blowing and if their friends and colleagues support a potential candidate, he said.

Endorsing Bean are most of the Senate leadership, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association and elected leaders in some of Duval County’s smaller towns.

Bean was recently endorsed by state Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), former leader of the Christian Coalition of Florida. “Aaron Bean is the conservative Republican in the race for Senate District 4. He understands the need to continue to protect and strengthen Florida’s families and will do a stand-up job in the Florida Senate for Northeast Florida,” Baxley said.

Bean served in the Florida House and was chairman of the Duval County Legislative Delegation in 2008. He was chairman of the House Health Care Council, which handled all health care policy in addition to appropriations of about one-third of the state budget. Earlier, he served as both a commissioner and mayor of Fernandina Beach. He has served on the First Coast YMCA Board of Directors, Big Brothers Big Sisters and United Way.

Weinstein has deep roots in Northeast Florida, including two unsuccessful campaigns for mayor. He was the chief financial officer for Jacksonville mayors Ed Austin and John Delaney. He served as executive director of Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. He was president and CEO of the Jacksonville Super Bowl Committee and is a past president of Take Stock in Children, a statewide nonprofit for underprivileged children.

First elected to the House in 2008, Weinstein was re-elected in 2010. Weinstein has secured endorsements from Susie Wiles, political consultant and campaign manager for Gov. Rick Scott, a host of current and former Jacksonville city councilmembers, Florida Tea Party leader Patricia Sullivan and the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

Daigle said Thrasher and Bean are generally aligned with Jeb Bush and the education reform agenda of the former governor. That agenda includes positions opposed by many public school advocates and teacher union leaders who support Weinstein.

“Mike has a diverse coalition of supporters,” Daigle said. “Along with local business groups and Tea Party leaders, he has teachers and firefighters working hard on his behalf.”

Weinstein, 63, aligned himself with Scott and was a founder of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, saying he opposed Gov. Charlie Crist and supported U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Weinstein decided to run for the Senate after he and fellow House member Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville) were drawn into the same district because of redistricting.

There have been past reports that Bean and Thrasher had reached a deal in which Bean would decide not to run when the Senate District 8 seat became open upon King’s death, in exchange for another Senate seat later.

Bascom, who was a spokesperson for the Bean campaign after earlier working in Thrasher’s campaign, said that’s not true.

“I have spoken to both Senator Thrasher and Aaron Bean … and they said no deals were made,” Bascom said. “When Sen. King passed away, the timeframe for then-SD8 was expedited significantly and Aaron decided that due to the shortened time period and the decision by his friend and mentor, John Thrasher, to enter the race, that he would rather wait and run for the seat later being vacated by Wise. Aaron made the decision on his own, based on those factors.”

Bean is seen as the candidate of the Senate and House leadership, and Weinstein is seen as more of a candidate with local ties.

Political observers say the race for the vacant Senate seat could become one of the most expensive in state history, with each candidate spending about $900,000.

Marcella Washington, an FSCJ political science professor, said she’s been watching the campaign.

“I don’t see much difference,” she said of the GOP contenders. “Bean may be younger. Weinstein is probably more on the moderate side,” referring to Weinstein’s Tea Party credentials.

When the general election arrives, it may be necessary for the Republican candidate to reach out to the more moderate members, though it appears that the far right is controlling the party, Washington said.

“If you want to be a Charlie Crist in the Republican Party, forget about it,” she said, referring to the former governor, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate against Rubio after switching his party affiliation to Independent.

“It will be a battle over who is the most conservative,” she said.

Democrat Soderberg faces a daunting battle to win the election in the horseshoe-shaped district where Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one. The district includes Nassau County and parts of Jacksonville, including the beach communities.

“She may not win it, but she will bring some kind of balance to the debate,” Washington said.

Daigle said he does not know how Soderberg will do against the Republican candidates.

“She is a smart lady with great credentials and zero political experience,” Daigle said.

Susie Wiles, Weinstein’s longtime friend and colleague, gave him an early endorsement. Wiles said Weinstein has sometimes run afoul of the leadership in the Legislature. “The problem with Mike is that he is truly a maverick,” Wiles said. “He follows his conscience and his brain. He is a little more moderate than some.”

She also had good things to say about Bean. “He is a nice guy; he has great values. He [has convictions], and he was steady as a legislator when he was in the House before,” Wiles said.

Former mayor and current University of North Florida President John Delaney, rumored to be a candidate for University of Florida’s presidency being vacated by retiring Bernie Machen, endorsed Bean and then retracted his endorsement when he learned Weinstein was in the race.

Delaney and Weinstein worked together under former State Attorney Ed Austin, and Weinstein later worked for Delaney when he was mayor of Jacksonville. “I’ve got to go back to neutral,” Delaney said.

Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford also pulled his endorsement because of his longtime relationship with Weinstein.

A study released in January by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that political endorsements by prominent Republicans would provide little help for GOP candidates in primaries and may even be a liability in a general election campaign.

While much of the study dealt with endorsements from national political figures, the report did show 16 percent of respondents would be more likely to be swayed by an endorsement by their state’s governor, the same percentage as those who would be less likely.

The figures were about the same as the endorsement of a local newspaper: 13 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by a paper, while 12 percent said they would be less likely.

Ministers, rabbis and priests held more sway than many other endorsers: 19 percent of the respondents said they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate supported by their church leaders, while 9 percent would be less likely.