by Jason Garcia
Updated 5 yearss ago
In the summer of 2014, the family behind The Villages, the retirement community that straddles three counties in central Florida, came through for Gov. Rick Scott in a big way.
With the Republican governor in the midst of a tough re-election race, members of the Morse family injected more than $100,000 into Scott’s campaign via at least 36 checks, each for $3,000, the maximum allowed under state law. The checks came from Gary Morse, the family patriarch, billionaire founder of The Villages and Republican Party fundraiser — along with his spouse, his children, their spouses and an assortment of corporate entities with names like Lazy B Cattle, a hunting ranch, and 44A Partners, apparently named after a local highway. (Employees and contractors of The Villages wrote even more checks for Scott, most of which were delivered at the same time.)
A few months later, in October 2014, Gary Morse passed away at age 77. The Villages’ involvement in politics hasn’t been the same since. The Morse family is giving less money to candidates and engaging less in campaigns, say some local leaders in Lake, Marion and Sumter counties and campaign consultants around the state.
Campaign-finance records seem to bear that out. They show that The Villages and its subsidiaries and affiliates donated roughly $220,000 to candidates, committees and causes during the 2016 election cycle. That was the lowest amount the company and its family have donated in Florida in more than a decade, since the 2000 cycle. No one in Gary Morse’s immediate family wrote a personal check to a state candidate, the first time that’s happened since the 2004 elections. (Family members have continued to write checks to a limited number of federal candidates, who are prohibited from accepting donations from corporations; but their cumulative federal donations have declined, as well.)
Gary Morse was a committed conservative, and the vast majority of the contributions he, his family and his companies have made over the years have gone to Republican candidates and GOPleaning groups. The Villages and the Morses together contributed more than $1 million to state campaigns in the 2004, 2006 and 2010 elections cycles; Gary Morse once wrote a $500,000 personal check to the Republican Party of Florida. A continued slowdown in donations from the family would be a significant blow for Florida Republicans.
A spokesman for The Villages, which has grown to a population of more than 150,000, declined to discuss the company’s political involvement.
Theories vary as to why the company’s political activity has lessened. Some think Villages CEO Mark Morse doesn’t have the same passion for politics that his father had.
Another theory is that the company has achieved its major regulatory goals. The Morses’ generosity has earned them plenty of open doors in Tallahassee, where lawmakers have over the years helped the company with everything from growth-management rules and hospital licensing to transportation infrastructure and golf-cart laws. It has been similarly successful on the local level: About a decade ago, The Villages successfully pushed for countywide elections for seats on the Sumter County Commission; three people on the five-member board are now residents of The Villages.
Al Butler, one of the Sumter commissioners who lives in The Villages, says one reason the company may be spending less on elections is that there haven’t been that many competitive campaigns. “I think if there was a contested election, I’m sure they’d step up,” he says.
The company still has plenty of influence: Rick Scott this spring chose Gary Lester, a vice president at The Villages, as one of his 14 appointees to the Constitution Revision Commission, which will propose constitutional amendments for the 2018 ballot.
And it continues to be involved. The company donated $100,000 this year to the political committee of Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican running for governor. Locally, The Villages recently applied for comprehensive plan changes for more than 4,500 acres in Wildwood, says Mayor Ed Wolf. “They’re working as hard and aggressively as they ever have right now,” he says.
But the company clearly isn’t as aggressive overall as it has been. Last fall, the seat in state Senate District 12 — which includes The Villages — came open and drew a pair of Republican House members. One was Dennis Baxley, a funeral director from Ocala, and the other was Marlene O’Toole, a retired resident of The Villages since 1992 who had represented the community in the House since 2008. The Villages kicked off O’Toole’s campaign with $11,000 in bundled contributions but ultimately did not spend as much on her behalf as campaign strategists expected. Baxley won with ease.