‘No Big Sugar’ campaign hopes to sour politicians on industry political donations

Florida’s powerful sugar industry spends millions to buy influence in the halls of power.

Today begins a new campaign to make that money toxic.

In conjunction with a broad array of environmental groups, companies and political leaders on both the right and left, VoteWater has launched our No Big Sugar Money campaign, a landmark effort to end the influence of Big Sugar money in politics.

The goal is to show that campaign cash from the self-serving industry — which donated $11 million to Florida campaigns in 2020 and another $6 million so far this year, according to the Miami Herald — is a liability rather than an asset. Political leaders don’t need it to win, and can better represent their communities when they’re not beholden to Big Sugar’s money.

“For too long, Big Sugar has bought too much influence in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.,” said Gil Smart, VoteWater’s Executive Director. “Their sway over water management decisions in south Florida has contributed to toxic algae blooms on Florida’s east and west coasts. The pre-harvest burning of the sugarcane fields has inflicted immeasurable harm on vulnerable Glades communities.

“It’s time for a change.”

The campaign launch was covered in a May 11 story in the Miami Herald, with additional media coverage expected to follow. “The power of the state’s sugar companies to influence state and federal legislators through campaign contributions is the focus of the VoteWater effort,” the story noted.

But the industry, the Herald reported, “is facing more friction than it used to on Florida’s political landscape.”

The initial vehicle for the VoteWater campaign is an online open letter and pledge asking political leaders to reject both direct and indirect political contributions from Big Sugar. Candidates and public officials can take the pledge to root out toxic sugar influence from their campaign, while advocacy groups, businesses and the general public can sign the open letter to show support and solidarity.

Supporters of the effort include The Center for Biological Diversity; Florida Conservation Voters; Sierra Club Florida Chapter; the Florida Council of Churches; Friends of the Earth; Muck City Black Lives Matter; Florida Clinicians for Climate Action; Progress Florida; and Stop the Burn Go Green.

Political leaders who have taken the pledge include U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican from Florida’s 21st District; and state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat representing Orlando in the state House.

Patagonia, Florida Keys Outfitters and The Angling Company are among businesses backing the initiative.

While Big Sugar has long used political contributions to ensure compliant legislators on both sides of the aisle at the state and federal level — and encouraged the fiction that sugar industry donations are a key to winning — a landmark election last fall in Florida’s 20th Congressional District proved that narrative wrong.

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who in a previous run for office called out Big Sugar by name, saying the industry “has silenced legislators by donating large amounts to their campaigns,” won without taking Sugar money during the campaign. This, even though the 20th Congressional District encompasses western Palm Beach County — literally Big Sugar’s backyard.

In the past, free-market advocates who opposed the lavish handouts to the industry via the Farm Bill have led the fight for reform, with support from confectioners and other companies that are forced to pay a higher price for American-made sugar. But American politics have changed; with the emergence of broad-based social justice movements, growing concern about damage to our natural resources and rising anger over political corruption, we now have an unparalleled opportunity to build a diverse, bipartisan coalition far larger — and far more effective — than ever before.

“The sugar industry does not have the right to demand Florida’s environment kneel to their wishes,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast. “As representative of the Treasure Coast and the Palm Beaches, I will not let them make backroom deals that poison our waterways or starve Florida’s Everglades.”

“I’ve dedicated my career in public service to fighting polluters who hurt Floridians and our environment,” said Democratic Florida Representative Anna V. Eskamani. “Change is possible when more elected officials stand up to one the most powerful industries in the state and say no to their practices of polluting our air and water.”

The industry has come under fire from recent reports detailing the harm caused by the burning of sugarcane fields before harvest, which sends plumes of smoke and black ash toward communities of color in the Glades region.

“In my community, toxic chemical ash from burning cane falls on baby showers, on weddings, on funerals — and on our children’s faces every day. That’s our tragic reality in 2022, and it’s been that way for generations,” said Robert Mitchell, a founder of Muck City Black Lives Matter. “This campaign is the best shot we have had at proving that point in a long time, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”