Will Special Interest Money Win the Day in Elahi, Saunders Race?
Democrats in District 49 have a clear contrast in their race between Joe Saunders and Shayan Elahi on August 14, unlike in many of the primaries occurring across Central Florida this primary year. The differences have less to do with what they stand for, both are progressives; emphasizing closing corporate loopholes, funding public education, and civil rights issues. The difference between these two candidates has more to do with how they have handled this election.
Elahi was the first to file for the newly drawn district in East Orlando where he has called home for the past 24 years. Saunders followed shortly after, although he lived a full 45 minutes from the district and had never lived within its boundaries.
Elahi is a very well known civil rights attorney in the area, taking on some of the biggest issues in Central Florida. Most famously, he defended those who were being arrested for feeding the homeless in downtown last year and got the charges dropped. He has been featured on CNN, BBC World News, NPR, and was even called a “patriotic volunteer” by Keith Olbermann for his work in the community. Saunders didn’t have these kind of credentials, but he does know how to raise money, as his job since graduating from U.C.F. in 2005 has been fundraising for LGBT issues.
After raising $50,000 in his first quarter Saunders had all but written off Elahi. Hosting fundraisers from the LGBT community across Florida and collecting from numerous special interests, Joe clearly believed that money would buy his way to victory. He started using his own 527 to skirt financial laws called the “Florida Fairness Alliance,” which he officially solicited as his personal piggy bank super PAC. At a fundraiser in St. Petersburg, Saunders told a group of potential donors, “I’m in a primary but we’re not too worried about it . . . we’re strategizing for the general.”
While Saunders was hosting fundraisers from rich donors, Elahi was putting boots to turf in East Orlando. Knocking on thousands of doors across the area and talking with voters, Shayan was running a truly grassroots campaign talking about the issues. By the end of the second fundraising quarter, Elahi showed he had what it took to be a serious contender, raising more than almost any other Democrat in Central Florida, all special interest free.
That’s when people began to pay attention, and Elahi started picking up the endorsements from all across the spectrum: Public Defender Bob Wesley, Central Florida political heavyweight Dick Batchelor, The U.C.F. Professors Union, and in a particular blow to Saunders’ LGBT credentials, long time LGBT activist, Jeff Horn.
By the time Saunders realized what was happening, Elahi and his group of young volunteers had already knocked on every Democratic house in District 49 and were preparing to go for their second pass. Mail ballots had already been sent out, and Saunders hadn’t even ordered yard signs yet.
Although Saunders showed quite a bit of promise at the beginning, it looks as though he may have been taken down by the old Greek downfall of “hubris.” However, playing catch up is a lot easier with $100,000 in special interest money and your own 3rd party 527 at your disposal.
It will be interesting to see how this race turns out.