Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Incumbent Mayor of Delray Beach Shelly Petrolia topped dark money challenger Tracy Caruso by 157 votes out of over 12,000 cast in Tuesday’s elections. While the margin of victory might feel like the topic of this post, something Ms. Petrolia said following the election is even more shocking which is the subject we’ll discuss today.
“Petrolia said the question that should be asked is how Caruso could have lost with the bankroll of PAC money and dark money at her disposal” the Palm Beach Post reported on March 5, the day after election day. “‘It is difficult to compete when you are outspent 5-1,’ said Petrolia. ‘We believe that the total amount spent by Caruso will be more than $500,000.’”
The assertion that Caruso spent more than a half million dollars on a race for a city of fewer than 70,000 residents as of 2019 is a bold statement, especially since Caruso had raised less than half of that ($212,000) as of March 4 with just over $20k of that total coming from PACs and dark money.
The intent of this post is not to question the veracity of Petrolia’s claims but rather to reflect on how they could be true and why that’s a problem for our electoral process. This requires a lot of parsing to fully understand.
The first distinction that needs to be made is one the mayor correctly makes in her statement: the difference between PAC money and dark money. PAC committee comes from political committees with names that clearly identify what they are, such as Caruso raising $1,000 in December 2020 from the Palm Beach Police Benevolent Association PAC. The West Central Alliance is not against these types of contributions. Caruso raised $4,000 total from obviously named PACs.
The dark money comes from committees, more often called PCs for political committees than PACs, with righteous names that contribute to each other to hide the source of the donor funds. Some real PCs that contributed to Caruso this cycle were named “People for Ethical Government,” “A Bolder Florida” and our personal favorite based on its specificity of platforms contrasted with its ambiguity of donors “Commitment to Opportunity, Action, and Community Health.”
In total as of March 4, Caruso had raised $18,500 from these essentially shell PCs. Most of this came immediately after she filed and is likely from her husband, state rep. Mike Caruso, who would have the ability to access these funds from the practice that runs rampant at the state level.
WCA is committed to keeping this from trickling down to the local elections which is why we took an interest in this race. In fairness to Caruso, Petrolia did take $500 in dark money herself although this PC was from a Delray address whereas Caruso’s PC contributors were from Miami, Tallahassee, Tampa and other places outside of the city.
So where does the additional $238,000 Caruso spent since March 4 come from to make Petrolia’s claim of $500,000 spent a reality? Some would be in what was raised and spent in the days following the filing of those reports.
However, what Petrolia is probably referring to is electioneering communication. WCA did not have a presence on the ground in Delray so we don’t know if dark money paid for advertising on Caruso’s behalf, but this would be a fast way to account for the remaining quarter of a million dollars that would validate Petrolia’s claim.
When the sponsor of the bill the Alliance advocates for, Sen. Joe Gruters, was running for his first election as a state representative, this is the type of dark money challenge he faced. A sole PC, the Committee to Protect Florida, paid for 12 mailers against then-candidate Gruters. He won his election by 385 votes out of 22,000 - a proportion similar to Petrolia’s victory.
The Alliance has reached out to Petrolia’s campaign email with an interview request and we intend to ask about electioneering communication as it is one of the most detrimental parts of dark money committee spending’s influence on local elections.
The anonymous nature of hiding behind righteously named committees destroys civilized election discourse while the unlimited funding from donors who can’t be held accountable for the influence they are funding makes the repetition nearly avoidable to the public.
Congratulations to Mayor Petrolia for both succeeding in the face of nameless influence and having the courage to call out the underhanded tactics at play.