A spurned donor, a frayed party, and a surprisingly divisive issue

Marc Caputo, Politico

The low-budget ad, with only three hits on cable for $305, was a typical hit piece for Americans for Safe Access, an under-funded special interest group looking to push its agenda on the cheap. “Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz thinks it’s okay for medical marijuana patients to go to federal prison,” a narrator intoned as unflattering pictures of the Democratic National Committee chairwoman flashed on screen.

But it was what happened next that caused a political feud that has roiled the early waters for Florida’s 2016 US Senate race: Wasserman Schultz decided to blast back, issuing a press statement complaining that a medical marijuana initiative then on Florida’s ballot could lead to “abuse, fraud and accidents.”

That initiative wasn’t even the focus of the ad. But Wasserman Schultz’s criticism stung one of Florida’s leading Democratic fundraisers, John Morgan, who was bankrolling the ballot initiative. Just two years earlier, Morgan had raised more than $100,000 for her. But from that point forward, Morgan has been a furious critic, sparking a feud that has shadowed her consideration of a possible Senate run, confounded Florida Democrats, and raised questions about the political acumen of one of the party’s top leaders.

Morgan, a sharp-tongued Orlando trial lawyer who relishes fights in and out of the courtroom, immediately struck back and called his one-time ally “despised.” She didn’t respond. And the medical-marijuana initiative was narrowly defeated in November.

But now, Morgan is readying his amendment for the 2016. And if Wasserman Schultz runs for statewide office at the same time, he’s determined to defeat her in a primary, likely against fellow U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

Party loyalists remain somewhat surprised by Wasserman Schultz’s opposition to a medical marijuana initiative that’s widely popular among Democrats, but they’re more struck by her apparent political tone-deafness in allowing a feud to develop with a renowned attacker like Morgan, especially since he once supported her.

“It was a quasi-parlor game over the summer: what the hell is she doing?” said Kartik Krishnaiyer, a member of the Democratic Party in Broward County, Wasserman Schultz’s home base. “All of it went away, but then last week, it all came back.”

The renewed sniping came to a head Thursday when Morgan and Ben Pollara, the political director for Morgan’s People United for Medical Marijuana group, said Wasserman Schultz’s office offered him a deal: stop criticizing her and, in return, she’d support his new constitutional amendment. Morgan produced an email chain indicating such an offer was made.

Wasserman Schultz’s office declined to comment to POLITICO about the alleged deal but, after the story went viral, she told her hometown paper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, that there was no quid pro quo and it was all a misunderstanding.

The congresswoman’s office says she views Morgan’s latest amendment more favorably because he changed it to close loopholes.

And she’s extending an olive branch.

“John Morgan has been supportive of many Florida Democrats throughout the years, and hosted a fundraiser for me in 2012 that raised $112,000,” she said in a written statement. “While I am always truly appreciative to have support from people like John, I make policy decisions based on my principles and the issues before me, and nothing else. As I have for 22 years as a state and federal legislator, when an issue evolves, I let people on both sides of it know that my door is always open. That will never change.”

But Morgan, who once brought together friends and clients for a fundraiser for her at his house, said he still mistrusts her.

He said he still has “no idea” why she opposed his amendment in 2014 or why she decided to go public with that opposition. The initiative garnered 57.6 percent of the vote – but failed because it fell short of the 60 percent voter-approval threshold needed for passage of a Florida constitutional amendment. Democrats and independents favored the proposal by supermajorities, but Republicans opposed it by a supermajority, dooming its passage. Poor voter turnout in liberal-heavy South Florida helped lead to its defeat.

“I just don’t know why she did it,” Morgan said by email. “She does nothing for nothing. She stands for nothing. Except DWS.”

When Wasserman Schultz opposed the amendment, she laid out her reasons in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, explaining that she was for “evidenced-based medical-marijuana treatment.”

“Pertaining to the ballot initiative in Florida, I have concerns that it is written too broadly and stops short of ensuring strong regulatory oversight from state officials,” she said. “Other states have shown that lax oversight and ease of access to prescriptions can lead to abuse, fraud, and accidents. Also, given Florida’s recent history in combating the epidemic of ‘pill mills’ and dubious distinction as having among the highest incidents of fraud, I do not believe we should make it easier for those seeking to abuse the drug to have easy access to it.”

Wasserman Schultz issued the statement to the Times after a reporter asked for a comment about the amendment. That inquiry was made following a report in another newspaper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, about Wasserman Schultz’s numerous votes against various medical-marijuana and drug-decriminalization amendments in Congress.

With each drug-related vote, her office has explained that she’s not strictly against medical marijuana but instead opposes tying the hands of law enforcement or encroaching on federal powers.

But as medical marijuana became more popular and spread to more states, congressional opposition to the issue started to soften and, in 2014, the so-called “Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment” passed for the first time – in a GOP-controlled House – to keep the federal government from enforcing U.S. cannabis prohibitions in medical-marijuana states.

Wasserman Schultz voted no.

That’s when Americans for Safe Access struck. Staffers cut the ad on in-house computers, narrated the ad itself, and accused Wasserman Schultz of wanting to imprison sick people. A PolitiFact Florida analysis later determined the attack line was “Mostly False.”

Americans for Safe Access bought just three early-morning MSNBC cable spots, flagged it for Florida reporters and then sat back and watched what would happen.

“It’s a common tactic: You make an ad, alert the press and hope for earned media coverage to get your issue out there and your donors engaged,” said Steph Sherer, the founder and executive director of the group. “This went far further than we ever thought it would.”

First the Sun-Sentinel reported about the ad. Then the Tampa Bay Times got Wasserman Schultz’s comments. Then the Miami Herald got ahold of Morgan, who fumed that the DNC chair was “despised … an irritant … irrelevant.”

The blow-up pleased the Republicans trying to defeat the amendment because the DNC chair was echoing their talking points. The DNC, meantime, issued a press statement that made sure to point out Wasserman Schultz was not saying this in her official capacity as party chair.

“To have the DNC separate itself from its own chair over medical marijuana was remarkable,” Sherer said. “This was the best $305 we ever spent.”

The long-term implications for Florida Democrats, however, have less to do with medical marijuana than a rupture between a woman who is arguably their highest-profile leader and a man who is one of their leading fundraisers and power brokers.

At 58, Morgan is widely viewed as generous to his friends and allies. But he punishes what he sees as disloyalty. And he views Wasserman Schultz as disloyal, especially because of the March 12, 2012, fundraiser for her, at which his attorneys and some of their clients chipped in $112,000.

Morgan made a fortune leading one of the top personal-injury law firms in Florida, Morgan & Morgan. In Tampa Bay and Orlando, his ads soliciting clients blanket the airwaves and billboards. In recent years, he’s extended his entrepreneurial spirit to politics.

He was often spotted at high-dollar fundraisers for President Barack Obama and counts Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, as a friend. Morgan is also close to Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, Bill Nelson. Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who, running as a Democrat, lost to Gov. Rick Scott by just 1.08 percentage points in 2014, is a lawyer in Morgan’s firm.

While Crist was running against Scott, Morgan proposed his medical-marijuana initiative. Republicans suspected he was trying to help Crist. And, indeed, they shared a pollster: John Anzalone, who also polled for Obama.

But there was little evidence on the campaign trail that Crist and the medical-marijuana amendment group, People United, were working in concert. Morgan said he was pushing the amendment – to which he committed $4 million of his own money – because his brother Tim Morgan uses medical marijuana. Tim Morgan became a paraplegic in a diving accident when he was young.

“I’m doing this to help people, not help any political party or candidate,” Morgan said.

Morgan’s sense of medical marijuana as a show of compassion to those with painful illnesses or disabilities is shared by many Democratic activists and donors.

Max Meyer, an Orlando chiropractor who contributed $500 to Wasserman Schultz’s campaign account back when Morgan was raising money for her, said he understands her feelings about drug abuse. But he couldn’t understand the opposition to Morgan’s amendment in 2014.

“Something like this would weigh on a future decision by me to vote for her or contribute again,” Meyer said in a telephone interview.

The infighting is disturbing to some state Democrats who feel that Wasserman Schultz could be their strongest general-election candidate against the Republicans, whether or not Senator Marco Rubio gives up his seat to run for president.

Despite Crist’s close finish in the 2014 governor’s race, the rest of the Democratic statewide candidates were blown out. Republicans control the state Senate and have a super-majority in the state House of Representatives. Democrats feel the need for more issues to rally around, rather than fight over.

“It was hugely disappointing and unexpected when a national Democratic leader comes out of the blue and undermines healthcare for sick and dying patients. It has an effect,” said state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who has pushed medical-marijuana for years in the GOP-led Legislature, which is slowly taking up the issue now.

“Having said that, as we’ve seen Republicans modify their position and show compassion, this is an opportunity for her to do the right thing,” Clemens said.

If nothing else, the feud between the two influential leaders posed a problem for party elders Friday when Tant, the state Democrats’ chair, and former Crist running mate Annette Taddeo held a conference call to bash Rubio. But reporters inevitably asked about the friction between Wasserman Schultz and Morgan, thereby stepping on the Democrats’ hoped-for-purpose of the call.

“I’m just disappointed. I’m just disappointed,” Tant said, according to The Palm Beach Post.

“All of it. It’s saddening to me that it’s occurring,” she said. :He felt very passionate about that issue. He pumped his personal fortune into it. I’m sure that he feels very strongly about it…That’s between the two of them.”