The multi-millionaire political candidates usually have extensive real estate holdings, business interests, stocks, bonds and cash in the bank, among other assets.
Then there are the regular-people candidates, with few assets to offset home mortgages, student loan payments, credit card debt and other liabilities.
All those candidates crisscrossing Florida have something in common: They’re campaigning for hundreds of political offices and must report their personal finances to the public as part of the process.
That usually involves revealing the assets and liabilities that make up a candidate’s net worth – for better for worse – raising myriad questions about how voters will respond to a candidate who is super rich, bogged down by debt, or just in-between.
Does the personal wealth of a candidate matter at all?
The Phoenix focused on financial disclosure reports for qualified candidates in the major statewide races — Governor, Attorney General, Chief Financial Officer, and Commissioner of Agriculture — finding wide gaps in net worth across candidates that may or may not sway voters.
Congressman Ron DeSantis, the frontrunner in the Republican gubernatorial primary, has few assets and the lowest net worth of the major governor candidates, both Democrats and Republicans — about $311,000, the state’s financial disclosure form states.
But he’s pulling in millions from campaign donors with the backing of President Donald Trump. (Keep in mind that a candidate’s personal wealth is not the same as the money coming in from fundraising.)
Attorney Ryan Torrens has his own law office and is running a grassroots campaign for the post of Florida’s Attorney General.
He reported zero net worth on his financial disclosure form, stemming for the most part from more than $200,000 in student loan debt for law school.
“I am an example, of what is wrong with our higher education system right now,” Torrens said. “Because someone wants to go into law and public service and doesn’t happen to come from a wealthy family, you end up in that situation (going into debt) and you can work for years and years and years to have positive net worth.”
Torrens said you don’t have to be independently wealthy to get your message out in a campaign.
However, wealthy candidates do have the ability to use some of their own personal wealth to put millions into their own campaign chests, as well as donate to other campaigns.
“I think that many voters are tired of the political system where elections can be bought,” Torrens said.
Ben Wilcox, research director at the Integrity Florida, a nonprofit watchdog and research organization, recalls when then-candidate and now-Gov. Rick Scott used money from his own personal fortune for his first gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
“Rick Scott put some $70 million of his own money into that first campaign. So he blew the roof off campaign spending for a statewide race in Florida,” Wilcox said.
“More and more of these candidates are willing to use a big chunk of their personal fortunes to run ads and become known in Florida,” Wilcox said. “It is almost reaching a point where that is the norm.”
Scott is now running for the U.S. Senate seat and has already put millions into that campaign.
In the 2018 gubernatorial race to succeed Scott, real estate developer and Democratic candidate Jeff Greene listed $3.3-billion as his net worth – the highest net worth of all candidates in all the Governor and Cabinet races.
The other main Democratic gubernatorial candidates reported the following net worth figures:
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, about $133-million; Winter Park businessman Chris King, $17-million; former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, $14.4-million, and Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, $334,200.
On the Republican side for governor, and in addition to DeSantis, is Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose net worth was reported as about $9.2-million.
Other candidates for governor, including those with no party affiliations or write-in candidates, reported net worth figures ranging from negative net worth, to less than $1,000, to more than $100,000 and up to $1-million.
But time will tell if that personal wealth matters in the voting booth.
Wilcox said: “I don’t know that it matters to everybody. I am sure that some people look at it as, if you have a lot of money, voters may or may not like that.”
At the same time, there will be voters “cautious about supporting a candidate that has little net worth or has a lot of debt,” Wilcox said.
One thing to know: Candidates fill out the financial disclosure forms and sign an oath that the information is accurate, with a signature of a notary included. But state elections division officials don’t check up on the numbers.
The division accepts the form and looks over it to make sure it is complete. “We have to accept the documents at face value,’’ said spokeswoman Sarah Revell.
Any complaints or violations of the financial disclosure laws are handled by the Florida Commission on Ethics, said spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman. If violations are found, penalties range from reprimands to fines to disqualifying a candidate from being on the ballot. Most people who are required to file, do so, and there are few complaints related to financial disclosure, according to the commission’s most recent annual report.
Still, the financial disclosures are important.
“The purpose of having disclosure forms is for transparency and to help bolster public trust in their public officials,” Stillman said. The forms, for example, can reveal potential conflicts of interest on the part of a public official, she said.
For the Chief Financial Officer post, incumbent Republican Jimmy Patronis reported net worth of about $6.5-million; Democrat Jeremy Ring reported $5.1-million and write-in candidate Richard Dembinsky reported $378,000.
In addition to Ryan Torrens in the Attorney General’s race, Republican Frank White reported a net worth of $4.3-million and Republican Ashley Moody reported about $3-million. Democrat Sean Shaw reported $744,800; and Jeffrey Siskind (no party affiliation), reported $2.1-million.
In the Agriculture Commissioner’s race, seven qualified candidates reported net worth:
The Republicans are Baxter Troutman, $29-million; Mike McCalister, $1.4-million; Denise Grimsley, $683,000, and Matthew Caldwell, about $156,000.
Democrats Jeffrey Duane Porter reported about $360,000; Nicole Fried reported $272,000, and Roy Walker reported $65,238.
To view financial disclosure forms for all other candidates, go to: http://dos.myflorida.com/elections/candidates-committees/information-about-candidates-campaign-documents-and-committees/
Search for each candidate, and then go to his or her list of campaign documents, which will include financial disclosure forms.