Crist campaign should tread carefully when criticizing Scott about ties to U.S. Sugar

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For the first couple of days after the Tampa Bay Times reported that top Republican officials, including Governor Rick Scott, have enjoyed hunting trips to South Texas’ historic King Ranch thanks to the Sunshine State’s sugar industry, Charlie Crist’s campaign was notably quiet.

The Times analysis shows that in the last three years, U.S. Sugar paid nearly $100,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend fundraising trips. The destinations were not made public, but they all occurred within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.

As the story gained traction, Crist’s campaign ratcheted up its attacks on Scott for his role in the so-called scandal, emailing supporters with clips from editorial boards and columnists writing about Scott’s ties to U.S. Sugar. Crist himself avoided making a mountain out of the sugar molehill, probably because the former governor recognized his own vulnerability on the issue of being too close to Big Sugar.

However, on Friday, the “Scott Free Florida” arm of the Crist campaign did not mince words. In an email to supporters, it said that Scott, who in 2010 accused his Republican primary opponent of being “bought and paid for” by the sugar industry, is “bought and paid for by special interests.”

It’s doubtful Crist signs off on every email his campaign broadcasts, but he may want to review any future messaging his campaign communicates on this issue. Meanwhile, Crist’s campaign staff should tread carefully when criticizing Scott about ties to U.S. Sugar.

The biggest jewel in Crist’s environmental crown is his effort to buy U.S. Sugar for two billion dollars for Everglades restoration, which could not be finalized, but did result in the purchase of 26,000 acres. The legend fostered by Crist — he even wrote about it in his book — is that he had a Eureka! moment and summoned U.S. Sugar’s representatives to pitch them on the deal.

However, opponents of both Crist and U.S. Sugar portrayed the proposal as a bailout for U.S. Sugar, which was in financial difficulties because of low sugar prices and impending balloon payment on the financing of its new refinery. As for Crist having a Eureka moment, that’s not what these critics would have you believe.

Crist said in a 2010 New York Times investigation of the deal that he could not remember “the particulars” of when or how the idea had originated.

The truth is, there are only a handful of people who know how the U.S. deal really originated, and, with the exception of Crist and his then Chief of Staff, Eric Eikenberg, all of them work for U.S. Sugar.

Taunting U.S. Sugar, which is what Crist circa 2014 does in the email attacking Scott, makes Crist circa 2008 look bad and it is not without risks that seem hardly worth the gain.

At this point, all U.S. Sugar seems to have received from Rick Scott is the appointment of one of its allies to the Southwest Florida Water Management Board. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars less than what Crist was prepared to give it in 2008.

One final note, and it has to do with that appointment, which was the focus of a follow-up story by the Tampa Bay Times.

Scott’s appointee, Mitch Hutchcraft, was a consensus candidate among all stakeholders, including Eric Draper of Audubon, who wrote a letter of recommendation on Hutchcraft’s behalf. Hutcraft replaced Joe Collins of Lykes Brothers, another major player in Florida agribusiness; Collins was appointed by Crist. Collins replaced U.S. Sugar’s Bubba Wade, who was appointed by Jeb Bush.

This is not to defend the appointment of Hutchcraft, it’s just a warning to Cristworld not to go down this rabbit hole. Because if its allegation is that Rick Scott sold the SFWMD board seat to the enemies of the Everglades, that’s either abysmal ignorance or willful misrepresentation and ignores the fact that if Scott sold the seat most recently, Crist and Bush sold it before him. 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this post.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.