As Thomas Paine wrote in The Crisis, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” American politics are roiling with everything from an insurrection at the Capitol to a feverish attempt to make voting more difficult for American citizens in a majority of states. And yet Florida still takes the cake.
Florida continues to distinguish itself with some of the strangest political scandals. The influence that Florida sugar companies have on state politics have inspired both a novel and movie. As I have pointed out, in real life that sugar money has gone national and was poured into a super PAC that funded the failed Trump reelection campaign. Florida is also home to one of the worst judicial political scandals in history, forcing justices of the Florida Supreme Court to resign over bribery involving dog racing.
Not content with that history of ignominy, Florida is basking in new political sleaze. On March 18, ex-State Sen. Frank Artiles was arrested in Miami for his alleged role in bankrolling at least one fake candidate during the 2020 election. Artiles’s home was also raided by police. As former gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham tweeted, “FYI, the @FloridaGOP have been orchestrating these ‘shill candidate’ schemes for years. This time they got caught.”
According to a warrant published by local press, Artiles allegedly paid candidate Alex Rodriguez to run as an independent because he had a confusingly similar name to the incumbent Democratic candidate who also had the last name Rodriguez (his full name is Jose Javier Rodriguez). The Democrat lost the race and asked for the election to be investigated in his concession speech. Prosecutors found that the allegedly bogus candidate did no campaigning and yet pocked around $50,000 from Artiles, and now both are facing felony counts including Florida campaign finance violations.
Incumbent Rodriguez lost the election by just 32 votes, and the “shill” candidate Rodriguez got 6,382 votes, arguably changing the outcome. Some Democrats in Florida are calling for the Republican who won the seat through this trickery to resign so that there can be a special election to fill the seat.
As the Miami Herald reported, Artiles allegedly bragged about getting Alex Rodriguez, a former registered Republican, into the race. One of the reasons that Artiles might have been overconfident about getting away with this gambit is the $50,000 was paid through a dark money conduit called Proclivity Inc. The plot thickens because after the 2020 election according to Politico, Proclivity Inc. changed its name to Grow United Inc.
Press reports indicate that Artiles may have executed this trickery in more than one election. In the other Florida Senate race with a bogus candidate named Jestine Iannotti, the candidate was white but the campaign sent out mailers with a stock image of a black actress and then targeted the mailers at Democratic voters. Just like in the Alex Rodriguez case, candidate Jestine Iannotti did not campaign at all. The Orlando Sentinel indicates that prosecutors are investigating this second race too.
This Florida scandal has a link to broader national trend of the explosion of dark money in politics. As Open Secrets recently reported, on closer inspection the 2020 election, which initially looked like it had a low level of dark money, only had a low level of reported dark money. The group now estimates that $1 billion in dark money was spent in the 2020 cycle. This doubles the amount of dark money that was spent over the previous decade in a single election.
But these state races at issue in the Artiles scandal matter for national politics as well, since who is in charge of the Florida legislature will redraw congressional district maps based on the 2020 Census, and Florida is poised to get more representation in Congress. Further, on the state legislative front, Florida has followed the regressive trend of rolling out restrictions on voting.
Politics is wild enough without fake candidates being run for partisan advantage. Hopefully the message gets out that hoodwinking voters is no way to build trust in democracy. Another lesson to be learned is Florida should tighten up its campaign finance disclosure rules so that the next person tempted to pull a scheme like this is disincentivized by the sunlight.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.