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Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, a candidate who has never held elected office, so badly wants a South Florida congressional seat that she’s pumped more than $2.3 million of her own money into the campaign.
The figure is staggering. It’s $1 million more than seven other Democratic candidates combined have raised — and more than any other congressional candidate in the country has put into their own campaign in the first six months of 2021.
And, Cherfilus-McCormick said in a telephone interview, she’s prepared to put in more — up to another $1 million — if needed.
“I’m not trying to buy a seat at all,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. “I have never played the political game of trying to buy people or anything. It’s always been a ground game and a people-centered campaign. But … I knew that other campaigns were going to take money from different donors and lobbyists.”
The source and extent of Cherfilus-McCormick’s wealth isn’t clear. The Miramar resident is CEO of Trinity Health Care Services, a home health agency also based in Miramar. Cherfilus-McCormick hasn’t filed legally required financial disclosures that show a candidate’s income, assets and liabilities.
Trinity Health Care Services received $2.4 million from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to publicly available databases, including one maintained by the investigative news organization ProPublica.
Cherfilus-McCormick said there’s absolutely no connection between the money she gave to her campaign and the company she leads receiving the federal aid. “There’s nothing dishonest about me,” she said.
Cherfilus-McCormick is running to represent the Broward-Palm Beach County 20th Congressional District, one of poorest congressional districts in the country, with median household income far below the state and country.
The vacancy was created by the April 6 death of longtime Congressman Alcee Hastings, but Cherfilus-McCormick had challenged him twice before in Democratic primaries and had decided to run again before he died.
The 20th District is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the winner of the party’s Nov. 2 primary is almost guaranteed to win the Jan. 11 special election.
“I don’t believe that money wins campaigns,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. But her self-funding stands out.
OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics, fond 355 active House candidates who raised $250,000 or more from all sources during the first six months of 2021, senior researcher Douglas Weber said.
By contrast, only 11 candidates in the country put $250,000 or more of their own money into their campaigns from Jan. 1 through June 30. Cherfilus-McCormick’s $2.3 million makes her by far the biggest self-funder. Republican Steve Fanelli is in second place, putting a total of $645,000 into his Pennsylvania congressional campaign.
For the entire 2019-2020 election cycle for the entire 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, OpenSecrets reported seven candidates spent more than the $2.3 million Cherfilus-McCormick has put into her race.
“She’d hardly be the first person of wealth who used that wealth to make themselves a viable candidate,” said Kevin Wagner, a Florida Atlantic University political scientist. “Sometimes if you’re not well-known, personal wealth might be the most viable way to establish yourself in the race.”
Money doesn’t guarantee success. Of the seven big self-funders in the 2020 House races, three won and four lost.
“It’s an astounding amount of money,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst at the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based newsletter Inside Elections.
Assuming she actually spends the money — sometimes candidates put in money to attract attention and don’t spend it — it will have a bigger impact in this year’s special election than it would have in 2020, Rubashkin said, because there isn’t competition for attention from the presidential contest and other elections.
Also noteworthy: The $2.3 million is a lot more than what the campaign suggested a few weeks before she put in most of the cash. A May 5 press release announcing an event at a campaign office in Sunrise said Cherfilus-McCormick “expects to spend more than $1 million in this competitive race.”
PPP loans were designed to help businesses pay their employees despite the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cherfilus-McCormick said the loans to her company were forgiven because they were used as intended: to keep people employed and pay them through the darkest days of the pandemic.
“If we used PPP loans for the campaign, that means I wouldn’t have been able to pay all the employees that we have. All of our PPP loans were forgiven because we used it all to pay our staff,” she said. “No one’s been laid off.”
The first loan, in May 2020, reported 450 jobs. The second, in April 2021, reported 285 jobs.
Cherfilus-McCormick laughed when asked about the similarity in amounts: $2.3 million of her money she put in the campaign and $2.4 million the company received in PPP loans. She said there is no connection whatsoever.
Wagner said he’d be surprised if other candidates don’t talk about her company receiving PPP loans. “If you’ve put a lot of money in the campaign and you have taken PPP loans, that’s going to be an area that other candidates are likely going to point out,” he said.
Cherfilus-McCormick, who is 42 and has a law degree, said she has the money to spend on her campaign. “I’m a CEO. I’ve been working in this capacity for more than 10 years, and so it’s my personal funds,” she said.
She hasn’t filed financial disclosure reports required under the Ethics in Government Act once a candidate for federal office raises or spends $5,000. The Federal Election Commission tells candidates to follow the rules published by the House Ethics Committee.
“We’re going to be filing that,” she said. “I know that we’re preparing our documents for that.”
Other than public attention, there is downside for candidates to file the documents, so some don’t. The financial disclosure portal run by the Clerk of the House shows Cherfilus-McCormick, who unsuccessfully challenged Hastings in the 2018 and 2020 Democratic primaries, didn’t file disclosures for either of those campaigns, though she did file for two extensions of the deadline in 2018.
Among the other candidates in the primary to succeed Hastings, Bobby DuBose, Elvin Dowling, Barbara Sharief and Priscilla Taylor have filed disclosure reports. Dale Holness has filed for an extension. Omari Hardy and Perry Thurston haven’t filed, records show.
The large amount of money makes people in the political world look at her campaign, who didn’t before.
“That’s the only thing that would get people to look at the campaign,” she said. “That’s the unfortunate nature of politics. We’re still the same people, still grassroots. But the money automatically makes people look at it.”
The money has allowed Cherfilus-McCormick to gear up a robust campaign earlier than the other candidates.
By June 30, the close of the reporting period, she’d already spent more on her campaign — $367,664 — than any of the other candidates had raised, on hiring staffers, a texting service ($11,000 in June alone), digital advertising and video production.
And she’s bought TV advertising.
AdImpact, a company that tracks advertising purchases, said Cherfilus-McCormick spent $27,417 on cable TV advertising in Broward and Palm Beach counties in June. In July, AdImpact numbers show, she more than doubled her spending on cable — and added broadcast TV channels in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale TV market. She booked a total of $75,355 of commercial time for July.
“If you’re a candidate that isn’t already well-known in the district, early television can help, because you want to shape the perception of you as a candidate and get it out to as many people as possible,” Wagner said.
Spending money on broadcast TV in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market is notable for a candidate in a Broward-Palm Beach County district. Broadcast TV time on those stations is extraordinarily expensive, and the vast majority of the people who see the ads don’t live where they could vote for Cherfilus-McCormick.
But buying ads on programs like the WPLG-Ch. 10 and WFOR-Ch. 4 Sunday morning public affairs shows and WTVJ-Ch. 6 news programs, which Cherfilus-McCormick did, is a way to get a candidate noticed by people who closely follow politics. The campaign said its cable ads were on news channels CNN and MSNBC, and on BET and OWN, which have large Black audiences. Most of the registered Democrats in the 20th District are Black.
Reports filed in July with the Federal Election Commission show that Cherfilus-McCormick lent her campaign a total of $2,310,007 in the quarter that ended June 30.
Candidates typically don’t donate outright to their campaigns, instead putting in the money as a loan, which allows for the possibility that it will be paid back. Sometimes that happens; often it doesn’t.
Fundraising from other sources brought in a total of $99,401 in the three months that ended June 30, a figure that would put her in the middle tier of people running for the seat. Cherfilus-McCormick was a candidate for the entire quarter; most of the other candidates entered the race midway through the quarter, after Hastings died.
The other seven Democratic candidates who reported raising and spending money during the second quarter raised a combined total of $916,000.
Cherfilus-McCormick isn’t the only self-funding candidate in the 20th District.
Campaign finance filings show Sharief, currently a Broward County commissioner and owner of South Florida Pediatric Homecare, put $230,000 into her campaign through June 30. (Like Cherfilus-McCormick, Sharief had decided to run for the congressional seat before Hastings died.) Thurston, a Broward state senator and lawyer, has loaned $100,500 to his campaign.
Sharief said she isn’t deterred by Cherfilus-McCormick’s financial advantage. “Money’s never won races,” she said. “You can put money into a race, but it’s about your message resonating.”
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Holness, also a current Broward County commissioner, declined to discuss Cherfilus-McCormick’s funding. “We’re doing OK. The campaign is doing good. We’re going to work hard and we’re going to outwork everybody else. OK?” he said.
In 2018, the first time Cherfilus-McCormick challenged Hastings in the Democratic primary, she received 26% of the vote. In 2020, she received 31% of the vote against Hastings.
Cherfilus-McCormick said those campaigns were a serious effort to get to Congress, not an attempt to get campaign experience and develop some name recognition.
“I was running because I knew we need to get the change done,” she said. “I was really running to win.”
In campaign filings, she reported spending $13,541 of her own money on the 2018 campaign and lending $50,000 to the 2020 effort — a fraction of what she’s put into the 2021 race.
Prosperous candidate promises prosperity
Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who’s put $2.3 million of her own money into her campaign for Congress, wants the government to send a $1,000 check every month to any adult earning less than $75,000 a year.
A website promoting the “People’s Prosperity Plan,” and Cherfilus-McCormick’s, features a large block of type proclaiming “$1,000 A MONTH FOR YOU.”
The plan would cost, by the candidate’s own estimate, $2.2 trillion. That’s equivalent to what the Congressional Budget Office estimates all individual and corporate income taxes will total in the current fiscal year.
Cherfilus-McCormick said she’d start paying for the program with a $400 billion “automation tax” on employers that eliminate jobs because they’re shifting to automation and a $200 billion “data tax” on sales of private information.
Bullet points on the website also suggest a $1 trillion value-added tax, which would operate like a national sales tax; a $300 billion “wealth tax,” and a $250 billion tax on carbon, emissions of which contribute to global climate change.
Even though the proposal is exceedingly unlikely to become law, it’s the kind of thing that could win her support from some voters, said Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University.
Cherfilus-McCormick dismisses questions about whether it has any chance of becoming reality. She pointed to the temporary, monthly payments that just started going to families with children.
“There’s been some other people who are naysayers, some other candidates who are saying I’m selling pipe dreams. But it just goes to show you why our district is in poverty,” she said. “I’m the only one who has the audacity to dream different, and do something different. But that’s how I’ve been successful in my personal life. So I’m not afraid to put forth a bold policy.”