This story was originally published by ProPublica.
A city commissioner race in Florida provides a window into how the sugar industry cultivates political allies, who help protect its interests.
Last year, the Florida Legislature was in the midst of an extraordinary push to protect the state’s farming industry from lawsuits over air pollution.
Supporters argued that the legislation was critical to protecting Florida’s agricultural businesses from “frivolous lawsuits.” But some lawmakers were skeptical, noting that residents of the state’s heartland who were bringing suit against sugar companies would feel their case anything but frivolous. At issue was the practice of cane burning, a harvesting method in which the sugar industry burns crops to rid the plants of their outer leaves. Florida produces more than half of America’s cane sugar and relies heavily on the technique, but residents in the largely Black and Hispanic communities nearby claim the resulting smoke and ash harms their health.
So, on a Wednesday morning in March, lawmakers heard testimony on the new bill. In a committee room in Tallahassee, Joaquin Almazan stepped to the microphone as a newly elected city commissioner in Belle Glade, the largest city in the sugar-rich Glades region, where the smoke drops “black snow
” on residents throughout every burning season.
Almazan had won his seat just one week before the hearing. His victory was also a victory for the sugar industry, a political powerhouse that employs more than 12,000 workers in the area during harvest season. His rival, Steve Messam, opposed cane burning and sought to end the practice.
In a small town of 8,000 voters where political campaigns are generally sleepy, the contest emerged as the marquee race in an election for three seats on the city commission, contributing to record turnout and fueling big spending. In fact, each side raised more than $16,000, making the March election the most expensive in at least 15 years, according to an analysis of campaign finance records by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica, which examined documents going back to 2006. That’s five times the amount of money typically raised by city commissioner candidates, after adjusting for inflation. While Messam relied on mostly small donations from more than 200 donors, Almazan tapped a much smaller pool of 40 contributors, with much of his campaign money coming from sugar and farming interests.
Those industry donors were among more than two dozen entities that gave identical amounts to candidates running for the two other city commission seats. Like Almazan, the two favored contenders in those races supported the sugar industry’s methods, saying that ending cane burning would lead to devastating job losses.
At the same time, political action committees aligned with the industry spent thousands of additional dollars to influence the election, with one group promoting business-friendly candidates and another attacking Messam.
The local campaign, which was underway while major legislation was pending before the state Legislature, provides a window onto how the industry cultivates political allies in the Glades who, in turn, help protect its interests in Tallahassee.
“A voice that is for or against the ag industry is 10 times more powerful coming from the Glades area than someone who is from outside the local area,” said Rick Asnani, a West Palm Beach-based political consultant, explaining the industry’s investment in local elections. “It is absolutely appropriate and logical that an industry is going to protect their industry, their reputation and their backyard.”
And indeed, once elected, Almazan emphasized his lifelong residence in the Glades when he asked lawmakers to support the bill.
“It’s sad, as we’ve seen too many times previously: Wealthy, out-of-town, so-called environment special interest groups are claiming to know what’s best for our community,” he told lawmakers. “In fact, they repeatedly argue against our city, our best interests, and repeatedly advocate for other solutions that will only bring us economic destruction, unemployment and food insecurity, and shutter local businesses.”
His testimony and that of other elected officials and residents in the Glades in support of the legislation would lead several Democrats to withdraw their objections, and the proposal sailed through the Legislature.