California environmentalist shakes up Florida race

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A California billionaire environmentalist is pouring millions of dollars into the Florida governor's race to buy television ads attacking Gov. Rick Scott as a friend of polluters and utility companies, giving the campaign of Democratic front-runner Charlie Crist a boost as polls show a tightening race.

Former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has put both Scott and the Florida Republican Party on the defensive, prompting them to hit back with their own ads attacking Steyer as a hypocrite. They have also sent letters threatening television stations with lawsuits if they carry the ads, which Scott's lawyers say are misleading and defamatory. So far, one Fort Myers station has stopped running them.

Steyer's so-called "super PAC," NextGen Climate, set off the blitz of attack ads more than a week ago. One ad targeted Scott's environmental record, including campaign contributions of $200,000 from oil interests that profited from permits to drill in Florida. Another ad criticized Scott over a state law that allowed Duke Energy to charge customers for nuclear power projects that have since been cancelled.

While they don't mention him by name, the ads benefit Crist, who is getting in effect millions of dollars in donations. A spokesman for Crist said that the former governor has met with Steyer and welcomes his support. Polls show Crist and Scott in a tight race.

The ads are scheduled to run until the end of the month in the Tampa Bay area, southwest Florida and in Palm Beach County, according to station files posted by the Federal Communications Commission. While NextGen would not say how much it planned to spend, it noted that Steyer has said he'll spend whatever it takes to succeed.

Steyer, a major Democratic donor who has hosted President Barack Obama, is often painted as a liberal version of the conservative, big-spending Koch brothers.

But Steyer's spending revolves around one theme: changing policy to combat climate change. NextGen has organized for years against the Keystone XL pipeline project and spends liberally to get politicians elected who support his environmental goals.

Still, some have accused Steyer of hypocrisy because of his former investments in fossil fuels.

Farallon Capital Management, the fund he once co-owned, invested in coal mining projects that are projected to produce greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.

In a blog post in June, Steyer said those investments occurred at a time when climate was not "on my radar." His aides said he had a scheduling conflict Monday and was not available for comment.

With $50 million of Steyer's money, NextGen wants to raise $100 million total this election season to spread around key races in seven states.

While so far it appears the group has fallen far short of that goal, NextGen is moving strongly into Florida with a field program to motivate voters and the ads. The group's prime reason for targeting Scott is his refusal to accept climate change, which researchers say could lead to massive flooding in Florida over the next decade as sea levels rise. During his first campaign in 2010, Scott said he was skeptical of climate change. This year, Scott said "I'm not a scientist" when asked about it.

"As a climate denier who refuses to accept basic scientific fact, (Scott) has put Florida's communities, infrastructure and economy directly in harm's way," NextGen spokeswoman Suzanne Henkels said. "(We) will hold Gov. Scott accountable for his extreme anti-science position and highlight the important choice voters face in November."

Scott's campaign responded with its own ads branding NextGen's accusations as "fiction."

"Charlie Crist's allies don't live by the truth, or the facts," said Matt Moon, the Scott campaign's communications director. "They are lying and our campaign is putting any station airing this ad on legal notice that it would be a violation of the law to air Charlie Crist's allies' latest work of fiction."

Scott's campaign contends for example that it never "took a nickel" from the company that has sought drilling permits.

But campaign finance records confirmed that Let's Get to Work, a political organization backing Scott's re-election, did accept four checks of $50,000 each from members of the Collier family -- which owned mineral rights on land near the Everglades on which drilling was permitted -- in early 2013.

The ads mentioning Duke contend that Scott did nothing while the company collected "billions" from consumers. The law that authorized the fee that Duke has been collecting was actually passed in 2006 when Jeb Bush was governor. Scott did sign into law last year a measure that scales back what utilities can collect but it did not require them to refund any of the money that has been paid for the two cancelled nuclear plants.