Three commissioners and the mayor took part in a TV ad supporting challenger Frank Chapman. YouTube Video
By Tim Pallesen
The winner in Boca Raton’s city election credits his victory to an unprecedented TV commercial in which his four fellow council members asked voters to support his opponent.
Anthony Majhess believes the commercial backfired and won him the March 13 election with 56 percent of the vote over challenger Frank Chapman.
“A lot of the community was absolutely shocked by it,” Majhess said. “They didn’t want to see a council that always voted 5-0.”
Mayor Susan Whelchel, who spoke for the council in the TV ad, said she was motivated to do the commercial after seeing how much money firefighter and police unions from outside the city were contributing to Majhess’ campaign.
Whelchel criticized the role that political action committees — or PACs — played in Boca Raton’s election.
“I’ve never seen a municipal campaign before that had so much outside influence,” Whelchel said. “Super PACs are known on state and national levels, but they are rarely seen a little municipal election.”
“You just don’t know where the money is coming from and who is behind it,” she said.
Ironically, the TV ad that featured Whelchel and council members Susan Haynie, Constance Scott and Michael Mullaugh was paid for by a Tallahassee-based PAC called Restore Florida. The mayor said she’s never heard of it.
Restore Florida isn’t mentioned in Chapman’s campaign contribution reports. But the PAC itself listed two contributors for the $55,000 commercial in a separate report required by state law.
Ken Griffin, a billionaire who heads the Citadel hedge fund, gave $35,000. The Chicago Tribune reported three days before the election that Griffin and his wife have given $1.5 million to Americans for Prosperity, a super PAC that’s become a lightning rod for advocates of campaign finance reform because it doesn’t disclose its donors.
Griffin, who grew up in Boca Raton, declined to comment for this story.
Marc Bell, the CEO of a Boca-based company that owns Penthouse magazine, gave another $20,000 to Restore Florida. He is considering a run for the U.S. Congress in District 22, which covers portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Bell said he was asked to contribute by Boca Raton developer Mark Guzzetta. “He called me up and asked if I would give some money and I said OK,” Bell said.
Guzzetta clarified that he contacted Bell only after a Chapman campaign worker first called him. “I told Marc that maybe I’d do it if you do it,” recalled Guzzetta, who then chose not to donate his own money.
Restore Florida wasn’t the only Tallahassee-based PAC involved in Boca Raton’s election.
Another named Voters Response spent $28,378 to send mailings, make phone calls and set up a website to criticize Chapman’s past business dealings.
Voters Response listed three other PACs — Floridians for Preserving Sight, Save Our Internet Access and Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth — as contributors in its report.
David Ramba, the Tallahassee attorney for all four PACs, declined to comment.
“A lot of money was dumped into the race on both sides from outside interests that aren’t clearly identified,” said County Commissioner Steven Abrams, a former Boca Raton mayor. “It’s when they start dredging up past histories on both sides that voters get lost.”
The $237,539 spent in the election averaged $34.70 per voter.
PAC money began flowing into the campaign last December when the county firefighters union contributed $1,000 to Majhess, a county firefighter and incumbent on the council.
Majhess’ contribution reports show he collected more than $7,000 from police lodges and firefighter PACs from Miami to Jacksonville. Individual firefighters living outside Boca Raton gave him another $2,500.
The flow of money raised concern that fire and police unions were trying to influence the election to negotiate more favorable pension benefits during a difficult economy, Whelchel said.
“Firefighters are my friends,” Majhess said in defending the contributions. “First responders shouldn’t be villainized. They want to be part of the solution.”
Chapman, an attorney specializing in personal injury, real estate and bankruptcy, loaned himself $50,000 to launch his campaign in January. Voters Response, the first Tallahassee-based PAC, began spending money against him in February. Chapman responded by giving his campaign another $30,000 in early March.
“I never expected the race to be as contentious as it was, with money coming from outside Boca,” Chapman said.
Money for the TV commercial featuring the mayor and three council members wasn’t raised until a week before the March 13 election.
“I didn’t engage in the election until I realized that Tallahassee was engaged,” Whelchel said.
“High-powered PACs aren’t the best way to weigh the issues,” she said. “They put the voters in muddy waters.”
Boca City Council members watch as Anthony Majhess is sworn in by the Rev. Ricki Gardner. Susan Haynie was reappointed deputy mayor. Constance Scott was sworn in, too, and reappointed as chairwoman of the CRA. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star