Florida’s Party Bosses Have a Choice: Sugar or Water

Quick, name the Florida politicians–Democrat or Republican–whose leadership on clean water policy makes them true champions. To be fair, there are a few legitimate champions in office today. Why aren’t there more?

Sugarcane in Florida's EAA

A recent Politico article describes the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) avoiding some uncomfortable questions after November. Here’s a big one: “Who’s our champion on water issues?”

This doesn’t mean, “Who’s got talking points?” It means, How has party leadership addressed Florida’s water crisis and the political failures that jeopardize human health, the economy, and a National Park?

The answer: Very, very carefully, and without ever, ever mentioning the word “Sugar.”

The problem is, voters noticed. As Floridians learned more about the sugarcane industry’s influence over water management decisions, politicians’ silence spoke volumes about where they stood. When yet another record-setting sugarcane crop came with dead animals lining the beaches and residents unable to breathe near the water, candidates’ sugar addictions turned into voting issues.

Neither party is immune. But the success of high-profile Republicans openly opposing sugar interests–including Governor Ron DeSantis and Congressman Brian Mast–spotlights Democrats’ struggles to do the same. (One exception: Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel Powell seems poised to emerge as a different kind of Florida Democrat, with a sugar-free approach to water management and Everglades restoration.) Mast’s and DeSantis’ actions after getting elected make the point even sharper.

No lawmaker has done more than Mast–in his freshman year in the House–to force agencies to acknowledge how Florida’s water management has picked winners and losers for decades, prioritizing sugarcane production over human health and every other consideration. And somehow it took DeSantis only a handful of days to confront the South Florida Water Management District’s longstanding loyalty to the sugar industry. As a candidate, he’d been winning on this issue since the last summer. 

“Adam is basically the errand boy for US Sugar,” DeSantis told a cheering crowd during the worst of Florida’s toxic blooms, turning his primary against presumptive nominee Putnam into a referendum: Sugar or water. Voters chose water.

DeSantis went on to face Andrew Gillum, who picked an outspoken critic of sugarcane’s political influence, Chris King, as his running mate. They looked like a match on this issue, but somehow the Gillum campaign rarely talked about sugar. Again, voters noticed.

Meanwhile Putnam’s presumptive replacement, Matt Caldwell, gladly stood as the sugarcane industry’s choice for agriculture commissioner, even running anti-Bullsugar ads. Nikki Fried’s campaign may have been laughably underfunded, but her refusal to take sugar money gave voters a choice in this race. Enough of them chose water.

Bill Nelson couldn’t give voters that choice after years of industry funding. Ironically his reluctance to confront the role sugarcane played in one of the worst water crises in state history cost him a chance to distinguish himself from an opponent whose policies directly contributed to Florida’s toxic summer. The outcome didn’t matter to the billionaire sugarcane families that backed both sides, but it mattered to FDP and national party leadership. As a result, sugar looms as the biggest, most awkward part of the conversation that state officials don’t want to have.

Florida democrats have a sugar problem. So do Florida Republicans. Voters are questioning leadership and loyalties, and the problem has repercussions that go far beyond individual elections.

For example, no state faces a bigger threat from climate change. As a lack of clean freshwater depletes coastal defenses and accelerates saltwater intrusion into drinking water reserves, South Florida is locked in a losing battle with rising seas. Science is clear on how to combat this: increase southward flows to bring the Everglades back to health. The sugarcane industry is blocking that solution, and therefore so are the Florida lawmakers it finances–on both sides of the aisle.

Politicians have managed to sidestep this conflict with vague claims of support for Everglades Restoration, but that excuse is providing less cover as progress stalls. In 2017 the National Academies of Sciences estimated that the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was 100 years from completion. Telling voters to wait a century for the solution is no different than denying the problem, and it puts Florida’s party bosses at odds with their national organizations.

And voters notice. As our water crises get more horrific and hurt more communities, it’s harder for both parties to hide their sugar problems. That doesn’t automatically mean we’ll get better choices, though.

Individual champions might distance themselves from state parties and stand up to the sugarcane industry, just as a handful did in 2018. But those candidates will always run uphill, against all the money and influence that billionaires and machine politics can generate. As the conflict escalates, Florida’s state organizations will only get weaker and less relevant in the national conversation, which is fine with sugarcane growers; but it’s exactly the opposite of what national party leadership wants, and exactly why FDP officials were headed to the woodshed after last fall’s elections.

Again, Florida Republicans are facing the same issues.

This awful crisis of leadership presents an opportunity, though, in the form of a choice. Florida’s political party leaders can take a hard look in the mirror and start weaning themselves off of their sugar addictions and begin rebuilding voters’ trust ahead of 2020. Or they can sit tight and stay dependent on a politically agnostic special interest, and stand by as their organizations slide further into national irrelevance on their watch.

Or more simply: sugar or water.