Betty Castor

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–As the primary races for a wide-open U.S. Senate seat heat up in Florida, a political activist is charging EMILY’s List, the Washington, D.C., political-action committee, with illegally coordinating campaigns with the Democratic front-runner, Betty Castor.

Lori Glasser, a supporter of U.S. Congressman Peter Deutsch, the Democratic rival closest in the polls, has filed a Federal Elections Commission complaint against Castor and EMILY’s List. Glasser–who is pro-choice and also supports much of Castor’s political agenda as well as that of EMILY’s List–says she’s doing it because she’s tired of membership groups from outside the state influencing elections in Florida.

“I’m not happy it’s EMILY’s List,” Glasser told Women’s eNews. “But I made up my mind four years ago that the election was stolen from us, and I don’t want another outside agency influencing Florida’s election again . . . I’m sorry it’s EMILY’s List.”

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, popularly known as the McCain-Feingold bill, restricted the amount of “soft money” contributions from membership organizations to federal candidates. But a federal tax provision allows groups to raise unlimited funds to support a candidate as long as they don’t give the money directly to a candidate or work with them on the message or the timing of the message.

The Deutsch campaign is also considering filing a complaint, a spokesperson said.

Allegations Denied

Both EMILY’s List and the Castor campaign deny the allegations.

A Castor campaign spokesperson said well over $1 million can be attributed to EMILY’s List supporters. That’s almost half of Castor’s entire campaign war chest.

In addition, EMILY’s List has bought about $800,000 worth of television commercials supporting Castor in major media markets in the state.

“There was no coordination at all. We saw (the TV commercials) just like everybody else did,” Castor spokesperson, Matt Burgess, told Women’s eNews.

The controversy is expected to have little impact on the election. It could take the Federal Election Commission more than a year rule on the complaint, but both EMILY’s List and the Castor campaign could face civil and criminal penalties if the FEC’s investigation confirms the allegations. No Castor campaign contributor, including members of EMILY’s List, has been accused of giving more than the federal limits.

According to a Mason-Dixon poll conducted this week, Castor was leading, with 45 percent of the vote to Deutsch’s 31 percent. If she wins, Castor would be only the second woman–after Paula Hawkins–elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida. Only 14 women currently serve in the U.S. Senate.

Winner Take-All Primary

The crowded field of four Democrats and eight Republicans will be thinned out in an Aug. 31 winner-take-all primary, before the party victors face off in November. U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a popular Democrat who is retiring after an unsuccessful bid for the presidency, currently holds the seat.

Graham won the seat in 1986 after beating the one-term Republican incumbent, Sen. Paula Hawkins of Winter Park. With their party only barely in the majority in the state, Democrats are eager to hold onto the seat.

EMILY’s List spokesperson Ramona Oliver wouldn’t confirm how much her organization has contributed, saying the money is sent by individual contributors, not by the organization itself. By “bundling” the contributions so they go directly to the candidate and are disclosed by the candidate, the organization avoids federal laws prohibiting groups with hidden contributors from running television ads promoting candidates within 60 days of an election.

The group makes it a policy not to disclose how much it steers to candidates, she said.

EMILY’s List is currently supporting 19 female candidates in U.S. House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns and has supported more than 300 candidates in its 20-year history, Oliver said. The group has helped elect 11 women to the U.S. Senate as well as 55 female members of Congress and seven female governors.

“Betty Castor is a very strong candidate, and EMILY’s List members are extremely excited and energized in supporting her,” Oliver said. “She is a strong leader and ran a strong campaign focused on how she can solve problems.”

Supreme Court Precedent

In the sworn complaint, Glasser cites U.S. Supreme Court precedent that showed there need not be an express agreement between campaigns working together for there to be illegal coordination of the campaigns. She charges that Castor’s campaign cut back its media buys in the markets where EMILY’s List bought TV spots promoting Castor’s achievements during her tenure as state education commissioner, when she put together a health plan for poor children.

Glasser also charges that former EMILY’s List employees are now working on the Castor campaign.

The Deutsch camp, meanwhile, has been promoting the congressman’s 100-percent pro-choice voting history and his push to expand research using embryonic stem cells to combat diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

In an interview, a campaign staffer said Deutsch has been raising more money from within the state than Castor has.

“Congressman Deutsch is raising money from the voters in Florida and has received a substantial amount,” said Deutsch spokesperson Roy Teicher. “We do not have a special interest PAC that’s campaigning on our behalf.”

In response, Oliver defends the group’s efforts and says EMILY’s List shouldn’t be characterized as an out-of-state or outside organization as Glasser and the Deutsch campaign charge. About 10,000 of its 93,000 members live in Florida, she said.

“We’re Floridians, we’re Pennsylvanians, we’re individual men and women who are focused on the goal of getting good women candidates elected,” Oliver said.

In the Republican primary former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez and Bill McCollum, a member of congress for 20 years who lost four years ago to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, are in a dead heat, according to the latest polling data. McCollum is best known for being one of the leaders in the impeachment push against President Bill Clinton, who was acquitted by the Senate.

Martinez, who is getting a lot of White House support, has a better chance of beating Castor than does McCollum, according to the Mason-Dixon poll. Republican insiders are so sure Martinez can carry it off that they have scheduled him for a short speech on the final night of the GOP convention, just two days after the primary, according to National Review political reporter John J. Miller.

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist in Tallahassee, Fla.

For more information:

EMILY’s List:

Betty Castor for U.S. Senate:

Peter Deutsch: U.S. Senate:

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