Lakeland First’s Big Spending Has Changed City Elections

Info Graphic: John Pitts

The fifth win by a candidate endorsed by a Lakeland-centered political action committee illustrates a new model for winning city campaigns: more focused, more professional and much more expensive.

By the time Chad McLeod could claim victory over Carole Philipson, his opponent for the open at-large seat in the 2019 city commission election, each campaign had raised roughly the same amount: just over $56,000 for Philipson and just under $55,000 for McLeod.

McLeod

But McLeod had a $60,000 edge provided by Lakeland First, a PAC founded in 2017 by some of Lakeland’s most prominent business leaders.

So far, the PAC’s endorsees are undefeated.

Sara Roberts McCarley’s victory in the special election last January made Lakeland First endorsees a majority on the seven-member governing board. After McLeod was sworn in last week, commissioners’ backed by the committee now hold a supermajority.

The McLeod-Philipson race also demonstrated the group’s ability to shepherd its preferred candidate through an open, competitive race against an arguably more well-known candidate with a longer history in the city. 

It’s impossible to know the effect of each dollar spent by a campaign, and Philipson said she doesn’t presume that it would have made a difference in her 55-to-45-percent loss, but she said her campaign couldn’t keep up with the flow of direct mail and digital ads. 

Philipson

“You can’t (compete),” the former hospital executive said. “I tried with the limited funds we had, I didn’t have an extra $40,000 to buy that stuff. I went door-to-door, I got on the phone with voters. I didn’t have the money to boost with social media.”

She saw digital ads for her opponent attached to web searches of her own name as particularly hard to swallow. 

“I don’t know how you compete with a group that will spend $40,000, or $40,000-plus, to get a seat,” she said. “When someone wants a seat that badly, how do you compete with that?”

She said it’s an ugly change to the local political landscape. 

“It’s a shame,” she said, “it’s a shame for Lakeland just a few people will control what happens.”

For its part, Lakeland First’s only goal is to see proven, pro-business leaders elected to the City Commission, Chairman Will Harrell said, and the group will interview any candidate who inquires.

When asked about where he has any concerns about the effect of increasing the cost to run a competitive campaign in a small election like Lakeland’s, he said he wasn’t worried. 

“I think it’s the world we live in now you have to go to the voters where they are now,” Harrell said. “It does not seem like the older methods of (getting a message out by) newspaper endorsements and journalists at every event is a reality anymore.” 

But ultimately “I think it still comes down to the candidate and the candidate’s message. I think we’ve seen in several elections recently, the candidate who has won is the candidate who has worked the hardest to get their message out to voters. I think that’s paramount.” 

Philipson said she did the work, trod the shoe leather, but in the end a major money disadvantage makes it an uphill battle. 

And, she added, she had seen the view from the hilltop: Until McLeod entered the race, she said she had been all but assured by some group members that she was going to get the Lakeland First endorsement. She even met with Lakeland First’s Sarasota-based political consultant. She provided emails and documents from those meetings to LkldNow. 

A budget document, sent from the consultants in March, indicates Lakeland First was prepared to spend almost $68,000 to support Philipson. That was, until it wasn’t.

The budget document:

Carole Philipson campaign budget from Political Insights Inc.

View a larger version of the campaign budget document

Though the candidate changed, the Lakeland First messaging didn’t, she said. 

“There was a great similarity for what they sent out for Chad,” she said. “They had a plan then for what they wanted to focus on, and then they just used those for him.” 

Ultimately, Lakeland First spent less than that to assist McLeod. It also shifted strategy by degrees, spending less on direct mail advertising and more on digital media and ads, but the budget proposal provides context to the state campaign filings that give only a broad glimpse at the spending strategy.

Who is Lakeland First

Like the smaller PACs active in Lakeland’s elections, Lakeland First does not release its member list, make its executive committee known or provide details about fundraising, strategy or spending, other than the information required by state election finance laws. 

But, those documents can identify the companies, if not the particular individuals, which are donating to the election fund. Here, where the money is contributed by a company, LkldNow has also listed the business leaders likely involved in the decision:

  • Barney Barnett, $55,000. Vice chairman of Publix Super Markets. 
  • Land One Properties, $30,500. Brian Philpot, president. 
  • Jack Harrell Jr., $30,000. CEO of Harrell’s, LLC. 
  • Brian Philpot, $25,000. CEO of Land One Properties
  • Highland Equities, $21,000. Bob Adams, president; Joel Adams, vice president.
  • Highland Enterprise Group, $10,000. Joel Adams, director; Bob Adams, director. 
  • Noreen Fenner, LLC., $7,500. Principal of PAC Financial Management.
  • Aspyre Properties, $6,000. Wesley Beck, president. 
  • Jeff Chamberlain, $5,500. Retired senior vice president of Publix Super Markets. 
  • Gregory Masters, $5,000. Owner of Southern Homes. 
  • David Hallock Jr., $3,000. Managing shareholder of Lakeland, Gray-Robinson.
  • Lakeland Land Company, $1,000. Seth McKeel, president. 
  • Baron Realty, $1,000. Cory Petcoff, president. 
  • Ralph C. Allen Revocable Trust, $500. Chairman of Allen & Company. 
  • Callie Neslund, $500. Director of government affairs, The Mosaic Company.
  • Miller Enterprises of Polk County, $500. Richard Miller, principal. 
  • Will Harrell, $500. Director of corporate compliance and government affairs, Harrell’s, LLC. 
  • Chris Bailey, $300. Director of state government affairs, Charter Communications. 

Philipson said the Lakeland First interviewers she met with included Will and Jack Harrell, Chamberlain, Barnett and Neslund. Philpot, she said, was expected at the meeting but did not attend. 

Among the names are many stars of Lakeland business, and though not directly related, most of the Lakeland First donors are members — and several have been senior leaders — of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, a private business advocacy group that founded Catapult, a business incubator. 

The first foray

Lakeland First emerged to social media in June 2017 with a series of Facebook posts that said little but were magnets for “likes,” priming the algorithm for the political ads that would come. 

  • “Like & Share if you think children should learn practical skills,” went one caption attached to a photo of a man holding a boy with a paintbrush so the tyke could reach the unfinished part of a wall. 
  • “Like and Share if you Love Lakeland,” said another over an image of Hollis Garden. 
  • “Like and Share if you want to keep taxes low,” a green ceramic pig seemed to say.

In the weeks that followed, Lakeland First made its first three endorsements: for Bill Mutz, Scott Franklin and Stephanie Madden. Lakeland First passed on the Southwest District race that saw Michael Dunn win the open seat.

On the Facebook page, the three endorsees’ photos started to run, the images matching a format that is instantly familiar to the American body politic, as seen in a document from Lakeland First’s campaign consultant

There’s the one where the politician is foreground ahead of a tastefully blurred but recognizable Lakeland backdrop, looking at the camera as if to seem like the two of you are old friends crossing the awkward middle distance to make an embrace.

There’s the one where the candidate is looking 30 degrees to the side of the camera.

And there’s the constituent greeting photo, all smiles and handshakes like the candidate just told a joke about swans and everyone is just delighted.

Based on the Lakeland First’s political consultant’s campaign photo guide provided to Philipson (which came with an email warning about the datedness of the 1994 document), candidates should also aim to get some photos alongside “ethnics.”

For 2017, Lakeland First spent around $94,000, though the specific boon granted to each candidate is unknown to LkldNow. Most of the cash was spent on political consultants, but mailers comprised a nearly $20,000 chunk. Digital services, presumably including creative work and ads, was another $13,000.

Madden, Franklin and Mutz — now commissioner, commissioner and mayor — said they had little interaction with Lakeland First after the endorsement interview and a meeting with the group’s political consultants, Sarasota-based Political Insights Inc. 

“There was autonomy that was separate and apart from candidates,” Mutz said, and not all the advice was heeded.

Mutz said he was advised he should try to raise $120,000 for his four-way race. 

“I told him I would not raise $120,000,” Mutz said flatly.

Another recommendation gone unheeded was for Madden to tone down her wardrobe a hue or two, perhaps by embracing the modern low-contrast uniform of the political woman, she said. 

“That wouldn’t have been me,” Madden said, and people would know it. Further, against the photo guide’s recommendations, she dared to wear patterned frocks in campaign photos.

In his meeting, it wasn’t deep electionioneering theory, Franklin said. 

“It was more of a little strategy session,” he said; “it was basically an advice session.”

One takeaway was how to design yard signs.

When asked about the increasing intensity of Lakeland First’s participation, Harrell said the spending and the campaign assistance is decided on a candidate-by-candidate basis.  

Money in politics, writ small

After Dunn resigned from his seat after shooting and killing an alleged shoplifter in his store in 2018, Lakeland First went back to work to assist McCarley, who was easily elected in the three-candidate special election in January 2019. 

For that abbreviated campaign season, Lakeland First spent more than $39,000 in a little more than a month, mostly on mailers. 

McCarley, who is known in Lakeland’s business society but has spent her career in nonprofits, the money represents two competing realities, she said. 

One, the amount of money in politics is often excessive and in a different world could be put to a much better use; and two, campaigns aren’t free.

“Direct mail costs money,” she said. 

“In this environment today, fortunately or unfortunately — I run a nonprofit and I would much rather have that money to go to the nonprofit — but it costs money to get name recognition; it costs money to run ads,” she said.

She, like the other four commissioners interviewed by LkldNow, seemed surprised at the dollars spent in each of the last three elections.

“Do I agree with it? No, I work in the nonprofit, but there’s no way around it,” McCarley said. “I think it’s a societal issue.” 

With the amount of cash in politics in general, she said she is concerned the barriers to a serious run for office may keep good people out of office. 

“I think there is so much talent in the world, and politics are so daunting,” she said. “We (the United States) were built for normal people to run for office.”

McLeod, like McCarley, said money is an unfortunate part of running for office. 

“In an ideal world, I think you could run a campaign that didn’t take as much money and resources, but as we go back to trying to reach people beyond that core group (of highly involved citizens) — it’s expensive,” he said. 

“I think it’s something candidates need to know; fundraising is a big part of it,” he added. He said he dreaded the idea of raising the $35,000 to $40,000 he expected it would take to run his campaign.  

“It was just something I had to come to terms with,” he continued. “It’s a challenge and it can stretch you as a candidate … I tell people dont let it discourage you necessarily. It can be done and it’s a lot of work, but it is part of the process.”

Mutz said prudence should play into the equation. 

“I think it behooves all of us to minimize spending,” the mayor said. “What ought to help us win more than anything is our track record.” 

But he’s also not a doomsayer about the erosive quality of cash on the foundations of Lakeland City Hall. 

“I worry less about that than I have confidence in people having good judgment, and I mean citizens,” he said. 

“Our citizenry makes wonderful decisions,” he added, noting in particular last November’s rejection of a City Charter amendment that would have made it possible to sell Lakeland Electric. 

Franklin says in other political races, PAC largesse has brought a lot of liabilities.

The biggest smears in the higher echelons of American elections seem to come from PACs, Franklin said, so when someone is campaigning on your behalf, without your direct approval, it can be a bit concerning, he said. 

“Thankfully it didn’t happen on my race,” he said, adding, “None of them (in Lakeland) have gotten nasty.”

But one day he expects “somebodys going to lose a race for something that has their name on it that they didn’t have anything to do with.”

LkldNow asked the retired naval aviator if he could sense a sea change.  

“I hope we haven’t turned a page now and that’s become the new norm in every Lakeland election,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s necessary. I think going door to door and meeting people and all is important.” 

Strings theory

Since its founding, Lakeland First has spent more than $198,000 on Lakeland City Commission races, according to the state’s campaign finance ledger. 

With it, the PAC has purchased the services of Republican-aligned electioneers, printers, accountants and ad agencies with Tallahassee chops (campaigning firms rarely work both sides), but what else has it bought? 

The five Lakeland First-endorsed officials said they understood the potential public perception. The first four endorsees said they’ve never been leaned on to make a vote one way or another.

In time, they all said separately, they hope their votes and their positions from the commission chamber makes their independence clear.

“Their support did not come with any strings,” McCarley said. “Their support was, ‘We trust you; we know we’re probably not going to agree on everything.’ You want to pick the person who most aligns with you, but it’s not going to be 100 percent.”

McCarley points to her recent dissenting vote against a downtown development deal to build an office building and parking garage, a deal supported by the LEDC.

She said she disagreed with the structure of the deal and with the closed-door negotiations that led to being brought to the commission fully formed, a departure from earlier, more open bid processes like the ones for Mirrorton and NoBay Village.

“I’m a process person, so for me the process has to be consistent and equitable,” she said. 

Franklin said he agreed he didn’t care for the process that led to the development deal, but not enough for him to vote it down. He says he wants the next agreement to be constructed under more transparency.

“I don’t like how the sausage was made this time,” he said. 

On the question of political influence, “if there’s any influence — and I don’t think it’s influence — but if someone’s contributed you’re probably going to hear and listen to their concerns. I’m always wanting to hear the whole story; I’ve never been a shoot-from-the-hip decision maker.” 

Franklin said he hasn’t heard from anyone in Lakeland First since before the election. 

“Honest to God I couldn’t even tell you who’s in it now,” Franklin said.  

Mutz said his ears are similarly open, but said there are no favors being sought. 

“The LEDC is a voice like the Chamber (of Commerce) is a voice like the neighborhood associations are a voice. We want to hear them and those voices will be weighed,” he said.

An earlier version of this article misstated that the City Commission had rejected a plan proposed by LEDC President Steve Scruggs to significantly expand the city’s spending on development and business recruitment incentives. The commission in fact created a $500,000 per year fund for those purposes. The details of how that money will be offered are still in the works, City Manager Tony Delgado said. 

Harrell, the Lakeland First chairman, declined to engage with the question about influence, saying it amounted to responding to rumors. 

It is also worth noting that since at least the 1990s, Lakeland has traditionally elected commissioners supportive of growth, urbanization and business recruitment. Small business owners have typically represented a majority of the board. 

While far from bringing the kind of campaign spending Lakeland First has at its disposal, the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce’s political arm also has a strong win rate with a similar taste in candidates, its choice between McLeod and Philipson notwithstanding. It’s the one commission seat in which the two organizations diverged since Lakeland First was founded.

It is impossible to say what influence Lakeland First has had in changing the demographics of the board otherwise. 

Harrell said Lakeland First does not actively recruit candidates to run for office, and each asked by LkldNow said they came upon the idea independently. He said endorsed candidates do not have to be Republicans (McCarley has no party affiliation, the rest are registered Republicans) and there is no age limit. McLeod is 37, Philipson 71. 

But, aside from a penchant for M surnames (Mutz, Madden, McCarley, McLeod), the group does seem to support younger candidates than have been typically elected to the board. As a result of the five elections, the commission is now younger, more likely to have children at home and are more likely to be day-to-day leaders in their businesses.

Campaign symmetries

The five campaigns assisted by Lakeland First have not relied on cutting-edge campaign strategy, but often hit marks for professional presentation missed by less experienced candidates.

Voter data

Each of the five Lakeland First endorsees used WebElect, a set of phone-accessible campaign tools that identifies areas with high concentrations of “super voters” and helps route walking paths through neighborhoods for multiple teams. WebElect is a firm focused on Republican campaigning at the state and federal levels, but seems to have no issues working for campaigns in nonpartisan races. 

A plan for mailers

“It always surprises people the effectiveness of mailers in this world of digital media,” McLeod said. “Mail pieces, I think those were the bulk of our outreach.” 

There can be some kinks, however. Philipson reported that a number of her mailers were held up by the U.S. Postal Service, and when finally delivered, ended up arriving together and destroying the effect of a steady stream.

McCarley also said an official voting reminder sent to voters from the city contained wrong voting information. A quick mailer helped mitigate the damage from that mistake, she said. 

Quality photos

In its proposal for Philipson, Lakeland First’s consultant budgeted $750 for photography including portraits and headshots, an asset often missed by more homespun campaigns and a missed opportunity when free, “earned media” like newspapers request a “mug.”

Traditional fundraising

Though getting a huge boost from Lakeland First, each of the successful campaigns also led the field or kept par with their opponents’ campaigns. Successful campaigns tend to spend the first months of the season quiet, except in the well-appointed homes of Lakeland’s political donor class, and sometimes missing public forums to do so.

Enlisting social circles

Madden cleared an incumbent and three other candidates in the first round of voting in 2017, avoiding a runoff. To assist in her race, Madden enlisted help from families met through schools and particularly through the Junior League, where she has longstanding relationships.

Light on policy

Infuriating for reporters and policy wonks, Lakeland’s most successful political campaigns don’t ever seem to be about anything. Winning candidates in recent years have instead focused on biography and presented a few uncontroversial positions as a platform: low taxes, great services and clean streets. 

Broad front advertising

McLeod, who runs a public relations firm, used his readily available resources to make a podcast, a first in Lakeland elections. 

“How much did it move the needle? I think that’s something campaigns are left to try to figure out,” he said, but it was low cost and he enjoyed doing it. He said in an episode he is considering continuing the podcast into his term. 

A bigger question is about digital ads. McLeod and other candidates said it was hard to say whether they were as effective, dollar for dollar, to direct mail, but Lakeland First has increasingly shifted spending toward digital media and it’s worth noting that progression in future races. Lakeland First’s digital spending may also reflect its spending in digital expertise, which would free the campaign’s account for tried-and-true direct mail. 

“I wouldn’t discount the effect of that” digital spending, McLeod said. “It has an effect but it may be hard to quantify, but the retail politics are still very important.” That is, shaking hands and knocking on doors. 

Lakeland First’s “The Only One” Facebook ad near the end of the race:

The future of Lakeland’s campaigns

With access to deep pockets and a willingness to spend it, Lakeland First appears it will continue to be a market maker in Lakeland elections and a harbinger of a maturing political landscape. 

“I do think it speaks to where Lakeland is in 2020,” McLeod said. “I do think you’ll naturally see more of these kinds of efforts.”

He and other commissioners also said he hopes there will be renewed interest in municipal government. 

As Franklin said it, the real spark for creating Lakeland First wasn’t about finding the right cookie cutter to shape candidates, but to encourage qualified people to run at all. 

After returning to Lakeland after retiring from the Navy in 2000, Franklin said he came home to a city in stagnation. 

“It just seemed like everything came to a stop,” he said. “I don’t know why that was. … We got the sense we had gotten overly bureaucratic at City Hall, where we used to be a ‘can-do’ city. There was a sense Lakeland was missing opportunities where other communities were passing us by.” 

But still, among his social and professional circles, nobody wanted to sit on the commission.

“A lot of the people in the group were involved in the political process before Lakeland First but they weren’t organized,” McLeod said separately. “The sense I got from them from the first meeting back in the spring, they said, ‘We are business and civic leaders and we want Lakeland to be successful.’”

A catalyst for Franklin came in 2015, when the incumbent Keith Merritt suddenly dropped from the race shortly before the close of qualifying. 

“It really bummed me when Tiger (Bill Read) ran unopposed for his seat,” Franklin said. “Everyone says it’s so important, but no one is running.” 

With Lakeland First, and the conversation surrounding it, “it sort of made it cool again to be willing to (run for office),” he added. 

There is clearly work to be done on that front. 

Though 2017 saw a bumper crop of contenders — 15 for four seats — 2019 seemed like a return to normal with Phillip Walker winning his third term without competition and Bill Read easily defeating the nontraditional campaign of his opponent with little effort.

When asked whether any candidate not endorsed by Lakeland First has a chance, most contended that money was important, but it wasn’t everything; they pointed to 2017’s unsuccessful $1 million campaign, financed almost entirely by developer Gregory Fancelli and opposed by Lakeland First, to change Lakeland’s form of government to an “executive mayor” form.

Ultimately, it comes down to voters, they said. Otherwise, Lakeland would have a strong mayor.

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