Debbie Wasserman Schultz Has a Sweet Tooth and It’s No Laughing Matter
Tim Canova, candidate for the Democratic primary in Florida’s 23rd Congressional District, and Professor of Law and Public Finance at Nova Southeastern University, Shepard Broad College of Law, in Davie/Fort Lauderdale.
My opponent, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, doesn’t want you to know that she is part of the problem. She says that any criticism of her environmental record is “laughable.” She wants you to believe that only Republicans like Florida Gov. Rick Scott are really to blame for the toxic algae bloom which has left a swath of bacteria, disease, and death in its path from Lake Okeechobee all the way to the Florida coastlines. I visited the Saint Lucie River and Estuary last weekend and I was sickened by what I saw. Manatees and fish stranded in the filth, gasping for air and dying. It’s no laughing matter at all and neither is Wasserman Schultz’s record.
Unfortunately, Wasserman Schultz’s response to the crisis is to divert attention and blame to others. She doesn’t want voters to see that she’s been taking lots of campaign contributions from the Big Sugar companies and other agribusinesses that have created this environmental crisis by polluting Lake Okeechobee with chemical fertilizers, particularly phosphorous and nitrates, and pesticides. Nor does she want us to know that she has voted for huge subsidies for the sugar industry and other agribusinesses, as well as for delays in cleanups, while failing to deliver federal funds for any real solution.
Big Money from Big Sugar and Agribusinesses
Let’s start with the campaign contributions from Big Sugar that have flowed for years to Wasserman Schultz, Rick Scott, and so many other Florida politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike. As of her most recent FEC filing, the largest corporate donor to Wasserman Schultz’s campaign was the Fanjul Corporation, a massive, multinational sugar empire that has been repeatedly linked to exploitative labor practices characterized as “modern-day slavery.”
Actually, Wasserman Schultz has taken over $133,000 from Big Sugar companies in the past eight years, with those donations increasing dramatically over time, from $6000 in 2004 to $20,200 to date for the 2016 cycle. In this election cycle, she has so far taken $38,900 from the Agribusiness industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
And it’s not like Wasserman Schultz has even needed all this money. Prior to this year, she had never been challenged in a primary, while running in a safely Democratic district. Perhaps she has helped steer Big Sugar money to other members of Congress to help grease her rise in the party establishment. And as chair of the Democratic National Committee, she overturned President Obama’s 2008 ban on corporate lobby donations to the DNC, opening the door wider to enhancing Big Sugar’s political clout.
Wasserman Schultz Dithers and Delays Needed Reforms
As a member of Congress, Wasserman Schultz has voted, on multiple occasions, for hefty federal subsidies to the sugar and agricultural industries. These subsidies — more than $100 million a year to the two largest sugar companies — are some of the worst forms of corporate handouts in America today, with taxpayers propping up industries that now threaten to drown much of South Florida in endless pollution.
Wasserman Schultz blames Gov. Scott, who she says has “dithered, delayed and derailed responsible steps to restore our famed Everglades.” But her own record of dithering and delay goes back much further than Scott’s. As a member of the Florida Senate, Wasserman Schultz voted in 2003 for an amendment to the Everglades Forever Act that delayed Big Sugar’s deadline to clean up the Everglades for years and placed a greater burden on ordinary taxpayers for cleanup costs, rather than making polluters pay.
Wasserman Schultz has lauded her vote to appropriate funds for relatively minor Everglades restoration projects, such as some bridges on the Tamiami Trail, so far south of Lake Okeechobee as to be completely insignificant to the problem now confronting us. She also lauds her vote to restore the same dikes that have diverted immense amounts of filthy water from Lake Okeechobee west through the Caloosahatchee River toward Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, and east through the Saint Lucie River toward Stuart.
According to numerous scientists and policymakers, to truly address this crisis will require allowing the waters of Lake Okeechobee to flow south into the Everglades, where natural marshland and plant life, such as bulrush and hydrilla, would filtrate phosphorous and other toxins. But literally standing in the way of this solution are the large sugar farms south of the lake. In 2008, then Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced a massive deal, under which Florida would purchase 187,000 acres of land and facilities from the sugar companies for a fair market value of $1.8 billion, and convert such land into marshland and reservoirs.
When the state was not able to find the money to make this happen, Florida voters approved Amendment 1 in 2014 — with 76 percent of the vote statewide — to use hundreds of millions of dollars a year in real estate taxes for conservation and land purchases. Yet, Gov. Scott continued to protect the Big Sugar companies — eager to keep their annual federal subsidies — by diverting those Amendment 1 funds to other purposes and projects.
On the campaign trail, I have heard a number of apologists for Debbie Wasserman Schultz suggest that we need to keep her in Congress because of her seniority, power and influence. Incredibly, she has not used her influence to introduce any legislation to fund these land purchases. In fact, she has failed to cosponsor the Everglades Land Acquisition Act of 2016, which was introduced by Rep. Curt Clawson, a Florida Republican, and would appropriate $500 million for the land purchases that had been contemplated by the Charlie Crist plan. Last week, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson called for a similar solution: eminent domain proceedings. Wasserman Schultz’s response was apparently to remain silent and go away on a cruise.
Unfortunately, Wasserman Schultz’s delay and dithering is characteristic of her record as a legislator. Last year, she missed more votes than anyone else in Florida’s U.S. House delegation and she has one of the highest absentee rates in Congress. And her record is not any more impressive when she is in attendance. In 2015, she introduced only five bills, among the lowest number in the House; and not one of her bills ever got a committee vote or made it to the floor of the House — the lowest among the Florida delegation, among House members serving 10 years or more, among House members with safe seats — in fact, among all Representatives.
Wasserman Schultz’s inaction certainly serves the interests of the Big Sugar and big agribusinesses that have lined her campaign war chests for years. Why sell your land to the state for an important public purpose when you can stay in business and receive hundreds of millions of dollars a year in guaranteed federal subsidies — supported by Wasserman Schultz and so many other incumbent members of Congress.
An Even Bigger Crisis: Our Drinking Water
Unfortunately, the stakes of Wasserman Schultz’s inaction are even greater. The rising sea levels from climate change have increased the salinity of South Florida’s aquifer. Without replenishing the natural water flow from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades — the so-called River of Grass — and Florida Bay, the very quality of our drinking water could be imperiled, and we could be facing a crisis of enormous proportions in the years to come — the kind of crisis that leads to a migration and internal refugee catastrophe.
Wasserman Schultz claims to be acting for the environment while saying that I’m just all talk. She has tried to deflect attention from her own record by suggesting I’m not a real Floridian. True, I grew up in New York — on the Great South Bay on the south shore of Long Island — as did she and so many of my neighbors here in South Florida. But apparently unlike Wasserman Schultz, I have enjoyed the ocean and waterways of South Florida as a certified scuba diver and sailor for more than two decades. I love the beauty and majesty of our waterways, seashore and coral reefs, and I am alarmed by the growing threat to their existence. I know very well that so much of our economy in South Florida is based on tourism and recreation, industries that have already been greatly harmed — along with real estate — on Florida’s Treasure coast and the Sanibel Island area by this pollution. If the dark waters of the algae bloom continue to migrate south along the coastline, it may not be long before we feel the pain right here along our own beaches and waterways in my home district.
These issues are of enormous proportions and they merit debate. But Wasserman Schultz has dodged debates in this campaign. In fact, she has never had to debate a primary opponent in her entire Congressional career. She is clearly afraid to debate because she cannot defend her record of bathing in corporate money and ignoring the interests of her constituents and neighbors.
It’s time for Wasserman Schultz to realize that there’s more to politics than serving corporate interests and her own career advancement, that life and livelihoods are now at stake. Voters should tell her that this is not a laughing matter.