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Profile: Sunshine State News

Sunshine State News was a participant or observer in the following events:

A heated battle is brewing in Florida over state constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, which if voted into effect in November, would create stricter rules for Florida legislators to follow while redrawing state districts. Proponents say that Florida’s electoral districts are gerrymandered to create a few districts “packed” with African-American voters, and large numbers of districts dominated by white voters. As a result, the white voters, who tend to vote Republican, are able to vote in majorities of Republican lawmakers to the Florida legislature, and the US Congress, year after year. The amendments would ban the practice of drawing political districts to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Amendment 5 pertains to legislative districts, while Amendment 6 deals with congressional districts. The political action committee (PAC) Protect Your Vote (PYV) is one of the most powerful and well-financed groups opposing the new amendments; the amendments are being pushed by groups such as Fair Districts Now, which proposed the amendments and secured enough backing for them to get them on November’s ballots. PYV, which portrays itself as nonpartisan, argues that Amendments 5 and 6 would make redistricting a long, expensive process and would in the long run result in a decrease in minority representation in Congress and the Florida legislature. However, an investigation by the Florida Independent turns up information that may call PYV’s motives into question. The head of the group is former Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Republican who left the position after state laws governing retirement changed. Browning retired before the new laws could take effect, that would have prevented him from retiring and then returning to his old job and essentially drawing two salaries at once. Browning was a strong advocate for the controversial 2005 Voter Registration Verification Law, the so-called “No Match, No Vote” law that forced new voters to submit identifying numbers to the state before they are allowed to vote (see September 17, 2007). The law effectively disenfranchised almost 8,000 voters, the majority of whom were African-Americans and Hispanics, and over three-quarters of whom were registered Democrats. PYV’s honorary chairman is Representative Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville), believed by critics to be against the amendments “solely to keep the large majority she enjoys in her district in order to keep her seat safe from challengers,” according to a report by Sunshine State News. Critics say Brown gives PYV a veneer of bipartisanship, but the organization is funded almost entirely by Republican donors and the steering committee is made up of three Democrats and 12 Republicans. Two-thirds of the organization’s funding—some $1.2 million—comes from the Florida Republican Party. The listed address of the organization, in Tampa, is an accounting firm, Robert Watkins & Company; Robert Watkins’s wife Nancy Watkins is a veteran Republican political operative. [Florida Independent, 10/6/2010; Florida Independent, 10/22/2010]

Entity Tags: Protect Your Vote, Corrine Brown, (Florida) Voter Registration Verification Law of 2005, Fair Districts Now, Florida Independent, Robert Watkins, Robert Watkins & Company, Kurt Browning, Sunshine State News, Nancy Watkins

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The conservative news outlet Sunshine State News notes that the conservative lobbying organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP—see Late 2004, October 2008, January 2009 and After, February 16, 2009, February 16-17, 2009, February 17, 2009, February 19, 2009 and After, April 2009 and After, April 8, 2009, May 29, 2009, July 23, 2009, July 27, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 10, 2009, August 14, 2009, October 2, 2009, November 2009, February 15, 2010, April 15, 2010, July 3-4, 2010, August 24, 2010, August 30, 2010, September 20, 2010 and August 17, 2011) is paying tea party leaders to serve as “field coordinators” in Florida in preparation for the upcoming Republican presidential primary. Reportedly, AFP is paying the tea party leaders $30,000 each to help increase AFP’s membership, and $2 for every new AFP member the tea party volunteers sign up at Florida polling stations on Election Day. According to an email from the West Orlando Tea Party organizers: “Americans for Prosperity has offered many local tea party groups an opportunity to collect a few dollar$ for our cause and it revolves around the January 31st primary. Anyone who volunteers from our group will net our WOTP group $2 for every person they ‘sign up’ for AFP which involves getting the name, address, and email of local voters at local polling stations that day. They will provide us with T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other handouts to recruit like-minded conservatives.” AFP’s Florida director Slade O’Brien says, “It’s an opportunity for tea parties to raise dollars for their organizations by helping AFP with an awareness and membership drive on Tuesday.” But critics say AFP is using the same tactics conservatives have accused the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) of using—“buying foot soldiers for election work.” Former AFP state director Apryl Marie Fogel says: “It’s reprehensible. Slade is doing things we would never have considered doing.… Incentivizing people with money is no different than what ACORN or other groups are doing.… This is the opposite of what AFP stands for.” AFP has already hired 10 coordinators, with plans to hire 10 more in the coming days. One coordinator in the Tampa area, Karen Jaroch, is a founding member of the Tampa 9/12 Project chapter (see March 13, 2009 and After), and she says that AFP’s involvement “might open some doors” to building a stronger movement. O’Brien denies that AFP is working on behalf of any particular Republican candidate, and both O’Brien and Jaroch deny that AFP is working on behalf of the Newt Gingrich (R-GA) campaign. “I don’t know any field coordinators for Newt,” Jaroch says. “One favors Mitt Romney and one supports Rick Santorum. I’m undecided.” The liberal news outlet Mother Jones notes that O’Brien is a veteran political consultant whose former firm, Florida Strategies Group, “specialized in Astroturf campaigns and ‘grass-tops lobbying.’” O’Brien worked for AFP’s predecessor, Citizens for a Sound Economy, in the 1990s. Mother Jones also speculates that the AFP drive is part of a Koch Brothers effort to construct a huge, nationwide database of conservative voters called “Themis” (see April 2010 and After). [Sunshine State News, 1/30/2012; Mother Jones, 1/30/2012]

Entity Tags: Mother Jones, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Apryl Marie Fogel, Americans for Prosperity, Karen Jaroch, Willard Mitt Romney, Sunshine State News, Themis, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, West Orlando Tea Party, Slade O’Brien, Citizens for a Sound Economy

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, 2012 Elections

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