Monday, March 05, 2007


Some old habits just don't go away. This piece from Saturday's St. Petersburg Times (reprinted in this morning's Lakeland Ledger) reminds us of that oh so clearly.

For a number of years there has been talk about building a toll road connecting Southwest Florida with Jacksonville. While that still may come to pass, the idea at present has been scaled down a bit. The plan now is to build what would be known as the Heartland Parkway from eastern Fort Myers to the Polk Parkway near Auburndale and onward to near Orlando.

One of the Florida Senate's most powerful Republicans, J.D. Alexander (R - Lake Wales) heads a company which owns Blue Head Ranch, a 62,000 acre piece of land through which the road would go. Alexander has seeking favour for the Heartland Parkway by forming a lobbying group which includes some of the state's most powerful real estate names which also own property along the proposed route.

While Alexander, who is a grandson of the late multimillionaire agricultrual and cattle baron Ben Hill Griffin, Jr. (former Congresswoman Katherine Harris, and current Congressman Adam Putnam are also relatives), says he has not been involved in the project, corporate records show he has several past and present links to the lobbying organization which is pushing for the road.

- Its president is Renee Dabbs, who works at a Tampa political consulting firm called the Victory Group. Records show Alexander paid the firm more than $90,000 during his 2004 campaign. The firm handles corporate communications of a company partly controlled by Alexander.

- A citrus grower named Bryan Paul is listed as director. Paul did business with Alexander, who sold Paul citrus from 2000 to 2004.

- Last year, Nancy Watkins was listed as HEART's treasurer. Watkins, a Tampa accountant, is listed as the treasurer for Alexander's fundraising committee, Floridians for Better Government, which has raised more than $341,000 since 2000.

Alexander said he may have recommended the Victory Group to HEART and told Paul to get involved with the group. He said he had no role in Watkins' involvement.

But he did recommend the man who would become HEART's public face, Rick Dantzler.

The two Polk County men know each other well. Dantzler, a Democrat, left a state Senate seat in 1998 in a failed bid for governor and then lieutenant governor. Dantzler is also an attorney for a company with strong ties to Alexander.

His duties at HEART include meeting with landowners, environmental groups and editorial boards to explain the group's position.

On Wednesday, Dantzler met with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board and said HEART had the same goal as the general public: responsible long-term growth that can preserve the environment.


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