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Dark Money may Decide Delray Beach Election Today

Voters in Delray Beach wake up at high noon as the showdown for mayor between incumbent Mayor Shelly Petrolia and challenger businesswoman Tracy Caruso concludes today. Mayor Petrolia received $500 in untraceable committee money while Ms. Caruso took in $18,500 as of the most recent reporting.

Caruso’s husband is the district’s state representative, which is the most reasonable explanation for the influx of dark money. The addresses from the committees were from all around the state.

She raised at least $1,000 from Tampa, Tallahassee, Miami, Coral Gables and Jensen Beach located in Martin County. Delray Beach is in Palm Beach County.

In total, Caruso has raised $212,495 to Petrolia’s $137,992.90 as of the most recent report through March 4. The real discrepancy, however, comes from spending where Caruso has used $187,642.03 through March 4, $50k more than Petrolia has raised, and Petroila has only spent $57,611.27, accounting for roughly 42% of her total.

The City of Delray Beach is under 70,000 residents with far fewer being registered voters. An even smaller percentage are people who will turn out in elections outside of normal November dates. This number can be variable depending on the municipality but typically runs between 12% and 25% turnout.

According to the Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections website, there are 50,911 registered voters in Delray Beach as of this February. Turnout is likely going to be between 6,110 and 12,728 voters. In the two way race where a 50%+1 vote is needed, this means candidates are trying to reach a vote goal of between 3,000-6,350 voters.

This means Caruso, who has accepted close to $20,000 in untraceable committee money, felt the $195,000 she had raised from real sources was insufficient to reach a vote goal of fewer than 7,000 people and thus openly accepted the out of county dark money.

In essence once the final reports are released and the last votes are counted, this is going to be over $200,000 spent on roughly 5,000 votes.

Most of my readership is in Citrus County where I live so I will apply some context. Our population here is roughly 150,000 residents with nearly 120,000 registered voters. This would be like one of our countywide commission races raising over $420,000. Currently, most raise between $30,000 and $120,000. We did have one commission race in 2020 that bolstered $90,000 raised with about $30,000 in additional dark money expenditures on the candidate’s behalf.

The West Central Alliance is dedicated to passing legislation prohibiting committee-to-committee expenditures creating an untraceable trail of fund transfers known as dark money. A common practice at the state level, this dark money raises our awareness when it is used at the local level in either city or county elections such as today’s election in Delray Beach.

There are some key differences between what is happening in Delray and what happened here in Citrus in 2020 that prompted the formation of the Alliance.

The first is that the dark money is being given directly to the campaign in the form of contributions in Delray. In Citrus, dark money made electioneering expenditures on the campaigns behalf.

We have not checked the expenditure reports of the contributing committees to see if they are also making expenditures but none have been reported in the press and they usually are, though they weren’t here in Citrus.

The second is that numerous committees are giving to a single candidate whereas in Citrus it was one committee spending on behalf of one candidate. Caruso has collected her nearly $18.500 from 20 different committees whereas our commission candidate received $30,000 worth of mailer expenditures from one committee.

This is likely explained by friendly state representatives using their committees to contribute to their colleagues’ wife’s campaign whereas in our case it was a single state legislator directing his influence in our local elections.

Regardless of the reasoning, dark money is bad for our democratic process and state legislators from Tampa and Tallahassee have no reason to get involved in local city elections. This would be clearer if the same transparency laws that Florida champions were stretched to include committee-to-committee expenditures.

We will continue to follow this race in post-election analysis and be sure to stay part of the conversation on the West Central Alliance social platforms.


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