Boy am I getting a fast-track political education! I reached the ripe old age of 67 remaining a political novice. Lots of friends and associates kid me about being so politically naive. It’s not that I don’t read a lot of newspapers and watch a lot of politics on the news. I haven’t missed a vote for a local, state, or national candidate since 1961 when I became 21. But voting was as far as I went for most of my adult life. I did start making political contributions when I became a director of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association (FADA) a few years back. I felt that as a director I had to set an example. I remember asking my fellow dealers why we were giving money to politicians whose political philosophies were anti-business and they answered “because he promised to help us”. How could I disagree with that logic? The car dealers contribute individually, to a national PAC (Political Action Committee), DEAC and to a state PAC, CAR PAC. FADA uses this money to contribute to the campaigns of those politicians who promise to help car dealers get their agenda enacted into laws in Tallahassee. The #1 agenda item in 2008 is SAVE OUR DEALER FEE. Monies raised from members’ dues and other fund raising methods pay the salaries of lobbyists who spend lots of time schmoozing, persuading, and influencing, by any legal means, the votes of Florida Senators and Representatives.
I guess you could call this period of time in my life, Politics 101. Now that I’ve taken a position against the FADA and begun advocating making the dealer fee illegal, I’m working on my advanced degree in Political Science. There’s no better teacher than experience and that is what I’m getting. I’ve been publically decrying the dealer fee for several years. I’ve told anybody who will listen that I think it’s wrong that Florida law allows and in some ways facilitates and legitimatizes car dealers in increasing the price (and his profit) on the price he quotes his customers in a manner that often goes undetected or assumed by the buyer to be an official fee.
I guess some of the folks who listened to what I had to say about the dealer fee called Ken Pruitt who is the President of the Florida Senate. Under the pressure of his constituents, he formed a committee to investigate the dealer’s fee. This was a bit awkward for Senator Pruitt because the FADA is a very big supporter of his. This was another lesson in my political education. No matter how much a politician accepts in contributions from an individual, company, or organization, the voice of his constituents will trump that influence. The Senate investigation was not a very good one. In fact, it relied heavily on the input of the FADA. The Senate committee did not talk to a single car buyer. Senator Jeff Atwater told me that he was quite disappointed with this obvious flaw in the methodology.
By the way, Senator Jeff Atwater has been “anointed” to be the next President of the Senate, replacing Ken Pruitt, if he wins re-election this year. The President of the Senate is arguably the most powerful politician in Tallahassee. Senator Atwater knows that he has his work cut out for him to win re-election. This is because we also elect the next President of the United States this November. Senator Atwater’s district is heavily Democratic but he’s a Republican. In presidential election years there is always a much larger voter turnout. Former Democratic state Senator Skipp Campbell is running for Jeff Atwater’s Senate seat. It’s going to be a very close race to see who gets elected, Jeff or Skipp. It might not take much to swing enough voters one way or the other. Virtually all registered voters buy cars and that means almost all of them pay a dealer fee if they buy their cars in Florida. I’ll just bet that if somebody let all of the voters in Jeff Atwater’s district know just what a rip off the dealer fee is, this might influence who they vote for in the next election. Jeff has appeared on my radio show, met with me in person, and talked to me often on the phone about this subject. He believes that the current law addressing the dealer’s fee needs to be changed. He strongly believes that there should be much better enforcement of the current law.
On the other hand, Skipp Campbell simply believes that the dealer fee should be made illegal…no ifs, ands, buts, or compromises. In a meeting with Skipp three weeks ago, he told me that, if elected, he would work hard to make the dealer fee illegal. This is in contrast to Jeff Atwater’s view that a compromise between the consumers and car dealers can be accomplished by modifying the existing law and improving its enforcement by the Attorney General’s Office. In my opinion this issue between the two candidates can be a great thing for the car-buyers of Florida.
We have another politician who has appeared on the scene, Senator Alex Diaz de Portilla from Miami. Senator Portilla is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, addressing issues like the dealer fee that affects consumers. Senator Portilla’s committee held a hearing to discuss the Senate Report on the Dealer Fee on Tuesday, February 19. I sent the chairman and all the other senators on his committee lots of information including my postings from this blog on the dealer fee and dozens of emails I have received from car-buyers who consider the dealer fee a “license to steal”. Chairman Portilla called me after the hearing and told me that he decided to table the dealer fee issue until the next committee meeting on Tuesday, March 4 at 1:15 PM. That is this coming Tuesday. He tabled the dealer fee issue because there were no consumers there to argue against it. But, he told me, the room was full of car dealers and their lobbyist. FADA had rallied the troops to defend their precious dealer fee. Senator Portilla saw no sense in hearing only one side of the debate and tabled it until this Tuesday. He has agreed to meet with me personally on Thursday or Friday, February 28 or 29.
I’m writing this column on Friday, February 22 and it won't be read in The Hometown News until a week later. It will be posted here on EarlStewartOnCars.com today. That gives me 11 days until the next Commerce Committee hearing to rally some car-buyers to sit alongside FADA’s car dealers and lobbyists. Only the loud, honest, voices of the voter’s of Florida can trump FADA. Will we be successful?
You can help me by calling and/or emailing Senator Portilla and the members of his committee:
Diaz de la Portilla