By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca and former Commissioner Ken Keechl approach their upcoming race for the commission like a child approaches the first day of school — with anxiety and trepidation.
Both fear a re-run of their slash-and-burn campaign of four years ago when the upstart LaMarca, a Republican, toppled Keechl, a Democrat, from his District 4 commission seat. Now Keechl wants the seat back.
The two spent a combined $763,106 during the 2010 campaign as they tried to drown their opponent in a flood of negative ads. A third candidate, Chris Chiari, spent roughly $65,000, mostly his own money and was not considered by either LaMarca or Keechl a serious challenger.
LaMarca blasted Keechl in a mailed ad emblazoned with a newspaper headline reading: “FBI Arrests Broward County Public Officials.” Keechl was attacked for his role as a “Ponzi scheme attorney” for having a client who was later found to be operating a fraud.
Keechl branded LaMarca a “criminal” for his drunk driving arrest in college and for being the target of an investigation into a political complaint by the State Attorney’s Office while he was a Lighthouse Point city commissioner. The probe ended without charges.
“I don’t want it to happen again. It wasn’t right. I feel sorry for my wife. She didn’t like the person they painted me to be,” LaMarca said.
“I anticipate he will come after me,” Keechl said. “He has surrounded himself with people who play hardball politics, people who believe politics is a contact sport.”
NEGATIVE ADS EXPECTED
Negative advertising could be expected in races like the county commission, according to Jim Kane, an adjunct political science professor at the University of Florida who has both held office and worked as a lobbyist in Broward during the past four decades.
“They are used because they work, especially in down-ballot races like county commission where many voters have little knowledge of the candidates. They are a way to define a candidate before the voter has any way to define the candidate themselves,” said Kane, a contributor to Browardbeat.com, a political website owned by the author of this story.
On Tuesday, a third candidate entered the District 4 race. Ben Lap is best known as a Democratic fundraiser, but neither LaMarca nor Keechl consider him a major factor at this point.
As of Dec. 31, 2013, incumbent LaMarca had more than triple the money to run ads than challenger Keechl. Including personal loans and in-kind contributions, LaMarca had $131,343 compared to $41,773 for Keechl.
That’s a stark reversal from the race four years ago when Keechl was the incumbent. He raised $614,801 that year, compared to LaMarca’s $148,305.
“Incumbents get more money because they have a vote on the commission,” Kane said.
Keechl isn’t worried about lagging in contributions.
“I am fortunate that I can always put in my own money,” he said.
Keechl contributed roughly $180,000 to his victorious commission campaign in 2006, when he was the challenger. He spent only $500 of his own money in 2010, when he was an incumbent. For an open seat in 2012 in a different commission district, Keechl spent about $1,500 of his own money on a losing campaign in a race where there was no incumbent.
“An incumbent always has access to a lot more money. I will have six figures to spend in this race and will be competitive,” Keechl said.
KEECHL AND BAIL BOND INDUSTRY
While most of those doing business with the county and their lobbyists are funneling money to incumbent LaMarca, Keechl is getting help from one special interest – the bail bonds industry.
Keechl’s connections include Wayne Spath, the president of Brandy Bail Bonds in downtown Fort Lauderdale and a long-time leader in Broward’s bail bonds industry.
The bail bonds industry has been a major supporter of Keechl since January 2009, when he backed a move by the County Commission that curtailed the county’s pre-trial release program.
Although the vote was 7-2, Keechl was an influential voice on the subject because he is an attorney and because of his membership on the Broward Public Safety Coordinating Council. The result of cutting back the county’s pre-trial release program meant a larger number of defendants are held in jail to await trial and must use bail bonds to be released.
Spath’s $500 donation was the first contribution to Keechl’s current campaign. Spath also held a fundraiser for Keechl in September.
In an e-mailed invitation addressed “Dear Colleague,” Spath wrote members of the bail bond industry to say, “I had the opportunity of working with Ken on the Public Safety Coordinating Council on jail overcrowding along with other issues. Ken understands the criminal justice system and we need your help in order to get Ken elected on the Broward County Commission.”
In an interview, Spath denied his support for Keechl hinged on his past vote, although he said he had a problem with the way the pre-trial detention program was being operated before it was changed by the County Commission with the help of Keechl.
“People were getting out (of jail) who had no business getting out,” Spath said.
Keechl reported $7,225 in contributions the day after the fundraiser. To date, he has received $2,100 from contributors who identify themselves as part of the bail bonds industry.
Keechl described the bail bonds industry as “friends,” but LaMarca has another take on the contributions.
“He supported an issue that the bail bondsmen wanted,” LaMarca said. “That is the only reason they have supported him now.”
LAMARCA AND BUSINESS LOBBYISTS
LaMarca refused to comment on his own contributors, who include dozens of people who do business at the county. They include lobbyists Stephanie Toothaker, Robert Lochrie III and John Milledge; groups like the Broward Builders Political Action Committee; and companies like Weekley Asphalt.
As if to highlight that contributions to the GOP commissioner are about business rather than partisan politics, several of his contributions come from lobbyists with weighty Democratic credentials – former College Democrats of America national president Bernie Friedman and former Broward Democratic Chair George Platt.
Besides District 4, three other seats on the county commission are also being contested this year.
The qualifying period for candidates in each of those contests is from noon June 16 to noon June 20.
District 4, which was redrawn since the 2010 election when LaMarca won, contains roughly 8 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans in the district. The Democratic majority offsets the removal from the district of Wilton Manors, home to many gays, which could have hurt the openly-gay Keechl.
Keechl lives in Wilton Manors, but said he’s planning to move to a new location within District 4’s new boundaries.
It may appear that Democrat Keechl has a big advantage, but that’s not necessarily the way it will work out. Democrats tend to vote in lower numbers than Republicans.
Political science studies have “shown that Republicans are more likely to turn out and are more likely to stick with their party’s nominee, especially in down-ballot races where they know little else about the candidate other than the party label,” said Kane, the University of Florida professor. “Any down-ballot race where the advantage for Democrats is less than 10 percent, generally speaking, is competitive.”
BROWARD OVERWHELMINGLY DEMOCRATIC
Kane’s analysis reflects why the District 4 race, where Democrats have less of an advantage than in any of the eight other Broward commission districts, is shaping up to be the only real contest in the Nov. 4 general election. The reason: the county is so overwhelmingly Democratic that District 4 in northeastern Broward is the only place where there are enough Republicans in upper-income neighborhoods along the beachfront to comprise a voting bloc.
In contrast, this year’s races for a trio of other commission seats heavily favor Democrats, and are expected to be decided in the Aug. 26 primary.
Three candidates have announced so far for District 2, now held by term-limited Commissioner Kristin Jacobs. They are: Coconut Creek City Commissioner Lisa Kohner Aronson, lawyer Mark D. Bogen and former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Charlotte Elizabeth Rodstrom.
In that North Broward district, Democrats hold a 31 percent advantage, so most political observers believe the race will be decided in the primary.
District 6, where Commissioner Sue Gunzburger is also being forced out by term limits, the announced candidates are former Hollywood City Commissioner Quentin “Beam” Furr and State Rep. Joseph “Joe” Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. Democrats have a 32 percent advantage over Republicans in the southeast Broward district.
Democrats’ advantage is even higher in District 8 – which stretches from Miramar and Pembroke Pines to West Park and western Hallandale Beach along Broward County’s southern border – where there are 38 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans.
The two announced candidates, both Democrats, are incumbent Barbara Sharief, who now has the title of county mayor, and Alexandra P. Davis, a West park city commissioner.
Meanwhile, despite their concerns, the District 4 race between LaMarca and Keechl is moving towards a negative campaign.
Keechl vowed to “tell voters who their county commissioner is.”
In turn, LaMarca said he will “not sit back” quietly and “let him pound me.”
Said Kane said, “One person’s ‘defining their opponent’ is another person’s negative advertising.”