Corruption in Southeast Florida

28 01 2009

by Kartik Krishnaiyer

Recently we’ve seen three Palm Beach County commissioners of note arrested and charged with serious crimes. Mary McCarty the latest to fall was not only a powerful county commissioner but had been the chair of the local Republican Executive Committee as recently as the 2002 election cycle.

Palm Beach County is an area I’ve worked in extensively. I’ve also worked in every other corner of the state at some point or another. But from my vantage point Palm Beach County as well as Broward¬† County have been exceedingly corrupt when compared to the rest of Florida for a few key reasons.

1- Lack of ideology. Most everyone in southeast Florida is a Democrat. Those who are Republicans are willing to a large extent to act like Democrats when they need to.  Broward County in particular has suffered from being a one party area where the Democrats are more corporate than liberal. What has happened is that in competitive two party areas the Democrats are a liberal party and the GOP a conservative one. But in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, the Democrats have become more of a big money party than anything. Primaries in this area which are tantamount to election are often decided by personality or likability rather than on any pressing issue.

2- The influence of developers who worked through political channels to overbuild the area. Their greed and desire for access has made Democratic politicians approve developments and commercial projects that true liberal democrats would reject. Suburban counties run by Republicans like Seminole County and Martin County have held development in check for years despite pressure from developers. Yet urban Broward and Palm Beach run by ostensibly liberal Democrats have built their counties out.

3- Urban Politics. Most politicians in Broward and Palm Beach County came from the Northeast where corruption is tolerated and good ole boy networks are actually worse than the South. (Despite the media perception: let’s not forget the major media outlets save CNN are all based in New York and tend to glorify that area and its public officials.)

One wonders why Democrats have been so tentative about confronting Speaker Ray Sansom. Those who have challenged him have been from outside south Florida like Senator Charlie Justice or Representative Scott Randolph. The bottom line is Sansom’s behavior which may be considered a conflict of interest in micropolitan Northwest Florida, is typical in urban south Florida.

The Palm Beach County Commission in fact protected Mary McCarty for years while she engaged in more blatant conflicts than Sansom has. Democrats and Republicans alike on the commission did not blow the whistle on something that was painfully obvious to outside observers and I had conversations about with Democratic leaders as early as 2000. But it seemed while some Democratic leaders genuinely were concerned others had allied themselves with McCarty’s South PBC Republicans, who could be best described as “Democratic Lite.”

You’ll find in Palm Beach County more Democrats who publicly support Republicans in contested elections and vise versa than in any other area of the state. Political deal making between members of the two parties is a regular occurrence. Party labels are blurred and ideology is non existent. If you’re looking for a playbook to create an environment for corruption, Palm Beach County and to a lesser extent Broward County have followed it. It’s little wonder the rest of the state wants little to do with the area.