The owner of some of Gainesville’s most popular Midtown bars donates big money to local Republicans.

Illustrations by Chloe Kuka.

On a humid Tuesday night in mid-October, a group of students were waiting by the pool tables in the Social, their backpacks slung over brand-new chairs made to look rusted. The smell of craft beer perfumes the air, but they’re not drinking: They’re discussing the NSA, the UN and are waiting for Ted Yoho.

After 15 minutes, they are greeted by an intern wearing khakis and a white cotton shirt that says “this is Yoho country” on the front. He leads the group — which included members of Young Americans for Freedom who held up the “I Stand With Kavanaugh” signs in Turlington Plaza during the confirmation hearings — to the bar’s rooftop balcony.

Red, white and blue balloons are weighted down on every table. One of the tables is occupied by the College Republicans, who are handing out red cozies; next to the table, a picture of grinning Yoho watches the proceedings from a banner, a collage of the first three words of the Constitution,  the state of Florida made out of an American flag and the representative’s name (Yoho will be 40 minutes late to the meet-and-greet).

“We want to engage conservative students on campus with the elections coming around,” said Nicholas Adams, a 20-year-old political science major and intern on Yoho’s campaign. “We wanted to introduce ourselves.”

There was another reason Yoho and his team were stumping at the Social that night: the owner is Rob Zeller, a local businessman known for several other midtown haunts, including Grog House and the now-closed Copper Monkey.

Aside from a 2011 run for the city commission, Zeller mostly keeps to himself and is rarely seen at his bars. But Zeller is one of the most notorious Republican donors in Alachua County, transforming the profit from his college bars into liquid gold for North Florida conservatives.

Since 2008, Zeller has poured over $32,000 into local conservative candidates (though they haven’t exactly been successful), according to the Alachua County Supervisors of Elections Office records. And from 2012 to 2018, Zeller has donated nearly $6,000 to Yoho’s campaigns, more than the National Rifle Association, according to records in the Federal Exchange Commission.

“People give to have access,” said Katy Burnett, a Democratic political consultant. “You want to be part of a class. You want to matter.”

“I know people who own small businesses in town and I’m not aware of them dumping that much money into local races,” said Susan Bottcher, a former city commissioner who ran against Zeller in 2011. “For the last 10 years, that’s a lot of money.”

Bryan Eastman, a local political consultant and owner of Everblue Communications, said that $32,000 is about the amount of money a candidate needs to raise to have a fighting chance in a city commission race.

“Most donors haven’t given more than $15,000 over the course of their lifetime,” Eastman said.

Zeller is part of what many local politicians and campaigners call Gainesville’s “donor class,” a group of wealthy individuals and business owners who can be counted on to pass money a candidate’s way and who, for one reason or another, are able to donate more than usual. (The Fine Print could not reach Zeller for comment.)

“People give to have access,” said Katy Burnett, a Democratic political consultant. “You want to be part of a class. You want to matter.”

This “donor class” exists despite a 2004 city and county campaign finance law that aimed to reduce the amount of money in local elections. The law, a result of a yearslong campaign, lowered the maximum contribution any individual person or business can give to a political candidate from $500 per cycle to $250.

But the law came with three significant loopholes, according to a 2015 study conducted by the LeRoy Collins Institute, a policy organization at Florida State University, and Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan research organization. Political action committees can still accept and spend unlimited amounts of money on a candidate’s behalf. Political parties, which can also accept unlimited amounts of money, can donate $50,000 directly to local candidates and spend as much as they want on advertising and in-kind donations, such as door-knocking or sign-waving.

The third loophole is that businesses are considered separate entities from their owners. This means that a business owner can cut a check for the maximum $250 contribution, and so can the business. This can be repeated for each separate business an individual owns, allowing them to exert a greater impact on local campaigns than the average citizen.

“There are ways all around this kind of thing,” said Marihelen Wheeler, who is running for county commission. “I could give [my son] the money and have him donate it for me. Nobody is gonna know that the money that came from my son’s checkbook isn’t from him.”

Zeller regularly donates the maximum contribution as himself and through six of the over 20 businesses he owns and operates in Alachua County, including Gator City Investments, A Gator Limousine, Meat Eat Play (also known as the Social), Copper Monkey and the now-closed Gator City and Dancing Boots. Zeller had even donated through his political consulting firm, Best Policy Corp.

Zeller is far from the only individual who has taken advantage of these loopholes. Phillip Pritchett, who owns Pritchett Trucking, frequently cuts $250 checks from himself and his business. So do members of the Fletcher family, who own Fletcher Construction, a building company.

“It’s pretty clear that you have to go to the construction companies to get the big money,” said Ward Scott, a local conservative radio talk show host who has also run for city commission.

Scott cited Clark Butler, the man behind Butler Plaza, as one of the biggest donors to Republicans in the early 2000s who was often able to get his subcontactors to donate to political campaigns as well.

Local political consultants say this “donor class” doesn’t directly influence local government policy, which is more dependent on the inner workings of the city or county bureaucracy. But donors will gain access, said Alex Patton, a local political consultant who owns Ozean Media, a Republican consulting firm.

“If you’ve got somebody who has raised $5,000 for you or $10,000 for you and they call you, their phone call gets returned,” Patton said.

Patton said that it’s not just free money that can create access. It’s free labor.

“If somebody organizes an entire neighborhood and walks 500 homes, I’m gonna return their phone call too,” Patton said. “I think people often forget that part of it. Somebody that walks a neighborhood for you in 90-degree heat, they get their phone call returned.”

Some donors may not own multiple businesses they can donate from but have a community of people who, once they see that person’s name in the financial reports, will also donate to a candidate.

“If that person has connections and can get more people to donate, they’re also considered politically valuable,” Burnett said.

 While Democrats say the 2004 law favors businesses and wealthy individuals, Republicans argue the law actually favors Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by over 35,000 registered voters, according to the county supervisor of elections. Since there are more Democrats, Republicans argue there’s a bigger pool of potential donors to draw from.

“I’m not running another city commission [race]. I’m not wasting my money,” Patton said. “It’s unwinnable.”

It still seems like Republicans can outraise Democrats. Scott Costello, who is running for county commission district 2, has raised $48,796 as of press time compared with his Democratic opponent, Marihelen Wheeler, who has raised $45,349.

Though Costello is not running as a Republican, local political consultants say one look at his financial reports will tell you about all you need to know. Zeller contributed the max contribution, as did Gator City Investments, Grog House and Meet, Eat, Play. Phillip Pritchett, Pritchett Inc., Fletcher Construction and members of the Fletcher family have also donated the maximum contribution.

“These local races are not watched very heavily, and it’s a fairly small turnout,” Eastman said. “There’s not big news stories about it, so money ends up playing a much larger role in these elections.”

Campaign managers and political consultants say this law has increased the amount of money in local elections that comes from “dark money,” political action committees that don’t have to disclose who their donors are. For example, the Chamber of Commerce’s PAC, Gainesville Regional Business, donates thousands to candidates and local political initiatives.

“I’ve often fantasized that I should take one whole wall in my house and do the yarn,” Bottcher said. “But that’s basically what it takes to show all these connections that are happening underneath it. It’s scary.”

But certain Democrats note that this may not be cause for concern. “As a rule, not all PACs are evil,” Young said.

Wheeler said that she accepts PAC money from groups she’s politically aligned with, like the AFL-CIO, National Nurses United, the Sierra Club and the local teachers union.

“Everybody makes a big deal out of PAC money and I’ve know some people who say they don’t take PAC money at all,” Wheeler said. “But I do because we have to have the money …Things are so expensive … We’re having to rethink this PAC thing to at least say we accept PAC money from the groups that we support and believe in.”

Wheeler said that money may be even more important for candidates running in the rural areas of North Florida, something she knows from personal experience. Backcountry highways and dirt roads aren’t canvass-able, and electronic methods of voter contact aren’t as reliable if you can’t get service. The easiest way to contact people is through mailers, which Wheeler said can run between $6,000 to $9,000 per printing.

“These local races are not watched very heavily, and it’s a fairly small turnout,” Eastman said. “There’s not big news stories about it, so money ends up playing a much larger role in these elections.”

“Hopefully [Democrats] don’t go to the dark side and go to the corporate and industrial world that depends on these politicians,” Wheeler said. “It may come down to a time where, if we really want good people in there, we may have to hold our nose. … Until they take big money out of the game, which the Republicans will never do, I think the Democrats will always be a little behind.”

Meanwhile, city and county races are getting more expensive each year.

“It’s sort of an arms race,” Eastman said. “If one candidate raises more money, then you need to raise more money to keep up with them.”

Eastman and others say that raising the most money doesn’t guarantee that a candidate will win, but that candidates do need to raise money if they want to be viable competitiors. Money is important because it goes directly to voter contact, Eastman said, from things like yard signs, mailers and Facebook ads to pricey TV and radio commercials.

Patton said that candidates often underestimate how much time they have to spend raising money during the campaign.

Once you file, Patton said, “you welcome yourself to the world of political campaigns and you dial for dollars and you have lunch for dollars and you have meetings for dollars and you have coffee for dollars.” 

Young pointed out that the amount of time a candidate has to spend raising money campaigning often precludes working class folks from running for office, even on the local level.

“It takes a lot more work to raise a lot of money locally. People can’t just write a $1,000 check,” said Kristen Young, a local political consultant. “You have to really engage potential contributors and call them and contact them personally. You can’t just send a link and expect people to give.”

A bartender who worked at Copper Monkey in midtown in 2016 said that Zeller wasn’t quiet about his politics, even at a business that caters to a diverse college. 

“It seemed like Rob was catering to [the College Republicans] as opposed to making it more open,” they said. “Would he do that for the young Democrats?” •