Hoping to win coveted seat in Congress, candidates pour millions of their own money into campaigns

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Oct 30, 2021 9:00 AM

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As voters decide who will serve as South Florida’s next member of Congress, two of the leading candidates have fueled their campaigns with millions of dollars of their personal money, allowing them to far outspend other candidates.

By far the biggest self-funder is Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who has put in $2.1 million of her own money into the campaign, allowing her to spend about as much promoting her candidacy as the other five leading candidates combined.

She’s received less in campaign contributions than any of the other candidates.

Barbara Sharief is also spending heavily on her own campaign. Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission shows she’s put in at least $926,000.

None of the other top-tier candidates — Bobby DuBose, Omari Hardy, Dale Holness and Perry Thurston — comes close.

A total of 11 candidates are on the ballot for the Democratic nomination in the 20th Congressional District. The Broward-Palm Beach County district is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the primary is tantamount to winning the election. Primary day is Tuesday; voting-by-mail and in-person early voting is underway.

One common factor among the two major self-funders: Both Cherfilus-McCormick and Sharief lead home health care companies.

Their personal financial resources have helped them communicate their messages to voters in a contest likely to have an exceedingly low turnout, meaning that swaying a relative handful of people could make the difference between winning and losing.

Barbara Sharief at a Century Village Democratic Club event on July 25, 2021. She has put $926,000 of her own money into her campaign for Congress.

Barbara Sharief at a Century Village Democratic Club event on July 25, 2021. She has put $926,000 of her own money into her campaign for Congress. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

One use of their money: television advertising, including spots on broadcast TV stations in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market.

It’s a strategy often seen as a luxury in this kind of race. Unlike cable, where ad spending can be highly targeted, spots on the Miami-Fort Lauderdale stations are expensive and only reach voters in the Broward part of the district — and the vast majority of viewers don’t even live in the district.

Data from the ad tracking firm AdImpact showed that as of midweek, Cherfilus-McCormick had bought $741,000 worth of broadcast and cable ads in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce television markets, starting in June.

Sharief’s ad spending totaled $402,000, AdImpact said. Her first spots started in May.

In October and the first two days of November, the closing weeks of the campaign, AdImpact’s data show they’re even on TV spending, with Cherfilus McCormick devoting about $268,000 and Sharief about $261,000.

Thurston has spent about $73,000 on TV and DuBose has spent about $30,000.

Cherfilus-McCormick, a lawyer, is CEO of Trinity Health Care Services, a home health care company. Sharief, a nurse practitioner with a doctorate in nursing practice, is owner and CEO of South Florida Pediatric Homecare.

Both live in Miramar and both planned to run before the April 6 death of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, whose seat they’re hoping to fill.

Sharief, a former Miramar city commissioner, is currently a Broward County commissioner and has served two terms as county mayor. Her base is largely the moderate-centrist part of the Democratic Party. One of her most prominent endorsers is Congresswoman Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach.

Cherfilus-McCormick, who has never held elected office, unsuccessfully challenged the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings in the 2018 and 2020 Democratic primaries. She’s hoping to win votes from the progressive wing of the party, and one of her earliest endorsers was Marianne Williamson, the unsuccessful 2020 presidential candidate.

Cherfilus-McCormick’s campaign reports show multiple loans and some repayments, leaving her with a net total of $2,094,090 invested in her campaign.

As of Oct. 13, Cherfilus-McCormick had raised $117,649 from others and spent $1,795,285.

Sharief’s has put $926,000 into her campaign. She had raised $139,462 and spent $693,293 as of Oct. 13.

Details about the candidates’ fundraising and spending come from reports filed with the Federal Election Commission covering financial activity through Oct. 13. During the final weeks, large contributions must be reported within 48 hours.

The largest late-campaign amounts in FEC reports are $341,000 from Cherfilus-McCormick and $170,000 from Sharief, who also received $25,500 from Elect Democratic Women, a political action committee founded by Democratic congresswomen and chaired by Frankel.

Sheila Cherlifus-McCormick has lent $2.1 million of her own money to her campaign for a South Florida congressional seat.

Sheila Cherlifus-McCormick has lent $2.1 million of her own money to her campaign for a South Florida congressional seat.

As of Friday afternoon, the FEC database showed reports filed through Thursday that covered contributions and candidate loans through Tuesday.

Candidates can spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their candidacies; most is reported as “loans” from the candidates to their campaigns. Candidate loans don’t have to be repaid, and often aren’t.

In recent days the Service Employees International Union has spent about $100,000 on behalf of Holness.

Independent groups can also spend on behalf of candidates, though the 20th District contest has seen relatively little outside money. Because of the way campaign finance law works, sources of outside spending from super PACS — such as $178,000 from Florida Democratic Action on behalf of Hardy disclosed this week — aren’t public until after the election.

Spending that hadn’t shown up in public records as of Friday afternoon includes:

  • The political action committee 314 Action, which tries to get people with science backgrounds elected to office, said Thursday it was running a “five-figure” digital advertising campaign supporting Sharief in the final days of the campaign.
  • The super PAC Democratic Majority for Israel placed an ad in the Wednesday edition of the weekly Jewish Journal newspaper urging people to vote against Hardy. (Jewish Journal is published by a subsidiary of the Sun-Sentinel Co.)

Other political committees and unofficial organizations often operate with little notice.

Cherfilus McCormick, via her SCM Consulting Group, contributed $173,000 to a state political action committee, Leadership In Action, from May through September. State campaign finance records show her contributions account for 79% of what the PAC took in during those five months. It’s spent almost everything it received.

Strategists and Democratic Party leaders see these six as the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination to fill the vacancy created by the death of the late Congressman Alcee Hastings. From top left: Omari Hardy, state representative of Palm Beach County; Barbara Sharief, a Broward County commissioner; Dale Holness, a Broward County commissioner; candidate Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick; Perry Thurston, a state senator from Broward; and Bobby DuBose, state representative of Broward County. (Sun Sentinel Staff and courtesy art)

Strategists and Democratic Party leaders see these six as the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination to fill the vacancy created by the death of the late Congressman Alcee Hastings. From top left: Omari Hardy, state representative of Palm Beach County; Barbara Sharief, a Broward County commissioner; Dale Holness, a Broward County commissioner; candidate Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick; Perry Thurston, a state senator from Broward; and Bobby DuBose, state representative of Broward County. (Sun Sentinel Staff and courtesy art)

After the self-funding by the two financial leaders, there’s a significant drop-off. The other four leading candidates, all men, haven’t put in anything close to the amounts Cherfilus-McCormick and Sharief spent on their own campaigns, and none have been able to raise enough to offset the self-funders’ financial advantages.

Candidate Dale Holness, a Broward County commissioner, has served one term as county mayor and is a former Lauderhill city commissioner. He works in real estate.

Holness’ campaign has reported raising $582,152. But a chunk of that money can’t legally be spent in the primary because it was given by donors who’d given the maximum contributions. He’s reported spending $331,979 as of Oct. 13, when he also reported a deficit of $52,613.

DuBose, an insurance adjuster and former Fort Lauderdale city commissioner, reported $419,082 in contributions through Oct. 13 and spending of $300,271. His campaign had $118,811 in cash on hand.

Hardy, a former Lake Worth Beach city commissioner and former classroom teacher, is running as the most progressive candidate, reported raising $172,406, spending $110,020, and a campaign bank balance of $57,837.

DuBose, Hardy and Holness didn’t report giving or lending any of their own money to their campaigns.

Thurston, a state senator, raised $287,128, lent his campaign $170,500 and spent $443,984, leaving him with balance of $13,144.

On Oct. 14, he loaned his campaign another $24,000, bringing his self-funding total to $194,500.

Five other candidates are on the ballot. Three had reported raising, spending and lending money to their campaigns as of Oct. 13.

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Elvin Dowling reported raising $42,218, lending his campaign $40,565, and spending 76,839. Phil Jackson reported $20,840 in contributions from others, $42,490 in contributions and loans to himself, and $28,494 in spending.

Priscilla Taylor, a former Palm Beach County commissioner and state representative, raised $56,010, lent her campaign $26,225, and spent $70,435.

Emmanuel Morel and Imran Uddin Siddiqui didn’t report, which usually means a candidate has not raised or spent much money.

In the waning days of the campaign, the candidates were still raising and spending money. Holness was promoting a “Let’s Get Holness to Congress reception,” billed as a “final fundraiser | networking opportunity” on Thursday night at the Grand Palace Ballroom in North Lauderdale.

20th Congressional District

The 20th District, stretching from Miramar in southwest Broward to Riviera Beach in northeastern Palm Beach County, encompasses most of the African American and Caribbean American communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

It takes in all or parts of Belle Glade, Cloud Lake, Fort Lauderdale, Glen Ridge, Haverhill, Lake Park, Lauderdale Lakes, Lauderhill, Loxahatchee Groves, Mangonia Park, Miramar, North Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Pahokee, Palm Beach Gardens, Parkland, Plantation, Pompano Beach, Riviera Beach, Royal Palm Beach, South Bay, Sunrise, Tamarac, West Palm Beach, Wellington and Weston.

The partisan voting index from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district as D plus 28, which means it performed 28 points more Democratic than the nation during the past two presidential contests.

President Joe Biden won 77.2% of the 2020 presidential vote in the district. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton received 79.8%.

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