The walls of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee are lined with nuanced portraits of leaders who left a lasting legacy. Jeb Bush, the “e-governor,” is depicted with his BlackBerry alongside. And Dempsey Barron, the Panhandle rancher who dominated the Senate for two decades, is shown on his horse.
Considering how secret money and shady candidates continue to corrupt our politics, the Capitol should also find wall space for Alex Rodriguez, a 55-year-old South Florida mechanic who ran for the Florida Senate in November and lost.
Alex who? That’s the point. Until now, no one knew this unknown candidate who has left an indelible mark on Florida politics.
The question is whether the fraud he helped perpetrate in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 will spur election law reform. So far, the signs are not encouraging. Florida’s legislative leaders have yet to express a smidgen of outrage. Neither has Gov. Ron DeSantis, who went on national TV to trumpet the prospect of fraud in the presidential election.
Is it because Florida’s fraud helped to unseat an incumbent Democrat?
Alex Rodriguez, the shadow candidate, ran against an incumbent with the same last name, Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, and appropriated the senator’s signature issue: climate change. Though he had no website and no noticeable campaign, the ghost candidate managed to nab 6,382 of the more than 215,000 votes cast in the race — enough to tip the balance to Republican Ileana Garcia, founder of a group called Latinas for Trump, who won by just 32 votes.
If what happened here isn’t criminal, it should be.
Consider: Rodriguez, the unknown candidate, lived in Boca Raton, yet ran for a top state office two counties away. On his voter registration form, he said he lived in Boca, though he listed an address in Miami-Dade’s Palmetto Bay when he filed to run.
Here’s the horror. Florida does nothing to ensure that candidates are truthful on their filing papers.
Enter intrepid WPLG Channel 10 reporter Glenna Milberg, who knocked on Rodriguez’s door.
“I’m looking for Alex,” she told the man who answered. “Is he around?”
“Uh, no. He’ll be back tomorrow, though,” replied the candidate, pretending to be someone else.
Milberg later found a photo that proved she’d been lied to. She also found the shadow candidate has an arrest record for grand theft and was deep in debt, “which begs the question of where the money funding Rodriguez’s run for Senate came from?”
Voting records show Rodriguez was a Republican until the day he registered as No Party Affiliation and entered the race against Sen. Rodriguez. The timing was suspicious, but a loophole in state law allows it. For while you must wait a year after switching political parties to run for office, there’s no such restriction if you switch to NPA.
Next, a mystery donor gave the former Republican’s campaign $370,000 for mailers with a decidedly pro-Democratic message. The flyers said Rodriguez would be an enemy of “party line puppets in Tallahassee who can’t fix health care, won’t fight climate change and refuse to speak truth to power.”
Who’s in power? Republicans.
As Milberg and Politico reported, the mailer was sponsored by Our Florida, a political committee whose address is a UPS store in Miami. Its only contribution — $370,000 — came from Proclivity, a “social welfare” organization whose address is a UPS store in Atlanta.
And that’s not all. Proclivity is not registered to do business in Georgia. Neither is it registered as a Florida political committee, though it was clearly trying to influence a Florida election.
Do Florida leaders really see no need for action?
Milberg’s investigation revealed Rodriguez to be a shill candidate, planted in the race to confuse voters and take votes meant for Sen. Rodriguez. Miami-Dade prosecutors are nosing around, but a dark money source with an out-of-state address might be beyond reach. The candidate, meanwhile, has hired a lawyer who won’t let his client talk.
Rodriguez was not the only shadow candidate in Florida Senate elections, by the way. Two other NPA spoilers ran for seats in Miami-Dade and suburban Orlando, though neither Celso Alfonso nor Jestine Iannotti influenced the outcome. According to published reports, both also received donations from committees funded by Proclivity.
At a minimum, lawmakers should close the loophole that allows partisans to create a veneer of independence by registering to run as NPAs at the last minute. Better yet, they should address dark-money operators who hide behind a nonprofit shield and an out-of-state mail drop. And if motorists must show proof of residency, such as an electric bill, to get a Florida driver’s license, shouldn’t state Senate candidates be held to the same standard?
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, told reporters recently that Republicans had nothing to do with Alex Rodriguez, but we heard no motivation to keep such a deception from happening again.
If Republicans fail to address Florida’s election fraud, let them look over their shoulders in the next election for an opponent with the same name and a pile of dark money.
Fool us once, shame on us. Fool us twice, shame on you.
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