by David M. Reutter
Calling it a victory in the battle against mass incarceration, activists within the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) won passage in July 2018 of a resolution banning donations from private prison companies, their affiliated political action committees (PACs) and lobbyists.
The resolution was adopted during a gala fundraiser, at which FDP chair Terrie Rizzo and other leaders also passed resolutions condemning the Trump administration’s imprisonment of immigrant children across the nation. Yet the effort to restrict cash from the private-prison industry had to overcome opposition from many older, more entrenched party officials, who sought to kill the activist’s resolution.
“I think the whole thing was just a sign of the hypocrisy of the leadership of the party,” said Rachel Gilmer, an activist with Dream Defenders.
The Miami-based group is devoted to fighting racial profiling in the state’s criminal justice system and overturning Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which shielded private security volunteer George Zimmerman from criminal liability in the 2012 murder of unarmed Sanford teen Trayvon Martin.
Noting that U.S. Representative Val Demings opened the meeting by saying “we need to stand up against Trump’s family separation and hard-line immigration policies,” Gilmer lamented that “some people think it’s OK to speak out against such policies while at the same time being deeply in bed with a company that works with politicians to put more people in jail.”
“The moment is one where you have to ask: If you are taking these contributions, does it mean you are in support of these policies the administration is enacting that enrich these companies?” agreed Bob Libal, who serves as executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based non-profit dedicated to fighting against works “prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation and criminalization.”
The 2016 platform of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) included a promise to “fight federal, state, and municipal contracts with for-profit prisons and private detention centers,” which the party made “in order to end family detention.” Yet the DNC, its Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and several congressional Democrats have accepted donations from private prison operators and lobbyists affiliated with them.
Campaign finance records show that through May 2018, 23 congressional Democrats received a total of $52,750 in campaign donations from CoreCivic and the GEO Group during the 2017-18 election cycle. DCCC accepted $10,000 from the GEO Group PAC in November 2017 and over $350,000 from four lobbyists associated with CoreCivic or the GEO Group.
The nation’s largest private prison operator, Nashville-based CoreCivic, also maintains two jails in Florida. The GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, operates six other Florida prisons.
Republicans take in far more from the private prison industry than do Democrats. In the 2018 election cycle, 58 Congressional Republicans accepted $337,200 from private prison operators, their PACs or lobbyists. The Republican National Committee accepted $242,500. CoreCivic and the GEO Group also donated $250,000 each to President Trump’s inauguration fund. The GEO Group is the target of a lawsuit over an allegedly illegal $225,000 contribution to a PAC affiliated with Trump’s 2016 campaign.
After an August 2016 report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) found privately-operated prisons both less safe and no more costly than those run by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the Obama administration announced an end to the federal government’s business with them. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would follow suit in detention centers operated for its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. As a result, both CoreCivic and the GEO Group saw their stock prices fall dramatically.
BOP has not moved to reverse the “roll-off” of its contracts with the private prison operators, But with the Trump Administration now aggressively rounding up and placing undocumented immigrants in privatelyo perated detention facilities, the firms have seen their fortunes rebound. ICE has doled out $128 million to CoreCivic in 2018 and another $186 million to the GEO Group.
The presence of the firms in Florida – along with the jobs they offer – was not the reason FDP had trouble resolving to reject their cash, though. There was also the fact that many Democratic candidates rely on funds from the DNC, which continues to accept contributions from “prison profiteers.” FDP Executive Director Juan Peñalosa, who supported banning contributions directly from private prison operators, opposed banning money from affiliated PACs or lobbyists. Calling the latter two provisions “extremely problematic,” Peñalosa warned that adopting them would cut off important sources of revenue.
“If we adopt the [clauses], we are saying that we cannot accept money from the DCC or a few other major Democratic PACs,” he wrote in an email to other FDP leaders.
The provisions banning money from entities associated with private-prison operators were then stripped from the resolution ahead of the gala fundraiser. FDP Treasurer Francisca Manes called out party leaders for the change and demanded that a total ban on private prison money be re-inserted. That call passed, and a final vote was held on the resolution.
But first, Craig T. Smith, former White House political director under President Bill Clinton and a prominent volunteer on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, made a procedural maneuver by calling for a quorum check. The 30-minute delay was not successful in killing the resolution, and with a weighted-voting tally, it passed with 774 votes in favor to 61 opposed.
“Now more than ever, Democratic Party leaders must lead with our values,” said Juan Cuba, chair of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party and the resolution’s sponsor. “That includes a complete rejection of the political influence of immoral industries like private prisons. I’m proud of the Florida Democratic Party and I hope the DNC follow suit.”
After FDP passed its resolution, two prominent Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation announced they would also swear off donations from private prison operators and their affiliated PACs and lobbyists. Former Governor Charlie Crist, whose district covers St. Petersburg and parts of Clearwater, was joined by former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, whose district stretches from the northern suburbs of Miami-Dade County across southern Boward County.
But another Democratic House member from Florida couldn’t get away from her ties to CoreCivic fast enough. A July 2018 report for the Young Turks Network by journalist Alex Kotch uncovered the firm’s stock in the portfolio of Rep. Lois Frankel, whose district covers central Palm Beach County. Explaining she had previously been unaware of the purchase made by her financial adviser, Frankel liquidated her stake four days later for $6,827.
By comparison, Kotch reported that Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana bought $250,000 of the company’s stock in January 2018.
The same month that FDP passed its resolution, the California Democratic Party foreswore contributions from private-prison operators and their affiliated PACs and lobbyists. Democratic politicians in other states made similar pledges, including House members Eric Swalwell and Karen Blass of California, Ted Lieu of Hawaii, Danny Davis of Illinois, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, David Price of North Carolina, Filemon Vela of Texas and Denny Heck of Washington. New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján rejected the contributions for his own campaign, though he accepted them on behalf of the DCCC, which he leads.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she rejected the contributions, too. Fellow Democratic senators Chris Coons of Delaware, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico also pledged to reject the contributions or donate them to charity. New York Sen. Kristin Gillibrand said she not only would reject private-prison cash but also called for ICE to be abolished – a cry echoed by fellow New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running to represent a Queens district in the U.S. House.
But two Demoratic House members from Texas stand by their decision to accept private prison industry donations. Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose district stretches from suburban San Antonio to the Mexican border, joined the representative from the adjacent district, Vincent Gonzales. Both men cited as a reason that private-prison operators are major employers in their districts. Both are also members of the “Blue Dog Coalition” of conservative Democratic representatives.
“It does not matter who is in charge of the facilities, whether it is the government or the private sector,” said Gonzales. “Whoever can do a superior job should handle the particular facility.”
“I have never allowed a contribution of any size to influence my opinion, period,” insisted Cuellar, whose district contains a stretch of I-35 with so many privately-run ICE facilities for immigrant detainees that Grassroots Leadership’s Libal called it “Detention Alley.”
Other Democrats not yet refusing the contributions include Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who accepted cash from CoreCivic in 2018. Though he hasn’t pledged not to take private-prison cash, Sen. Ron Wyden of Washington has not accepted any such donations since 2016. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown have not accepted any since 2014. California Sen. Diane Feinstein has not taken any since 2012, and neither has now-former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.
“Certainly both parties have been guilty in presiding over the expansion of mass incarceration and the expansion of immigrant detention,” Libal said. “But [the Trump administration] has forced [elected officials] who were quiet or complicit about the injustices of previous administrations to take a stand, if for no other reason than not to be associated with it.”
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