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If Waldman's a Dem, What's With the GOP Cash?

Coconut Creek Commissioner and state House candidate Jim Waldman claims that his heart is with the Democrats, but a look at his campaign contributions shows that his wallet is being stuffed by Republicans.

One of the lawyer's chief financial backers, private college heavy Arthur Keiser, is a major GOP donor who last year gave $5,000 to the Freedom Project, a PAC with a mission to "expand the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives."

Another contributor is Mark Guzzetta, a Boca Raton businessman and longtime Bush family crony who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican politics. And still another is Fernando Roig, a Republican lawyer and Jeb Bush appointee who has pumped $2,000 into the campaign.

Throw in $3,500 from former security company CEO Donald L. Smith, another big GOP donor. You also have to count Waldman's brother Andrew and other family members, who have contributed at least $6,000 to his campaign and are also members of the GOP.

And there's another Republican who has given $10,000 — Waldman himself. OK, he's a registered Democrat now, but he used to be a Republican, before changing parties in 1992 at age 34. The move coincided with his campaign for office in the Democrat-rich city of Coconut Creek.

Judging by his campaign chest and his history, Waldman appears to be another in Broward's long and storied tradition of Republicans who wear Democrats' slightly cheaper suits to help them gain office. Men like Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle and Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom. And some party purists are opposing Waldman on that basis, saying he won't fight for the Democratic side on important issues like health care and education.

"Waldman talks about how he can get along with Republicans when he gets to Tallahassee, but I don't want candidates who are Republican-light," says Jack Shifrel, an area leader for the Democratic Executive Committee who oversees Waldman's Coconut Creek turf.

Waldman says Shifrel is just upset over a dispute the two had about campaign money more than ten years ago. He says he doesn't spend much time on party politics because he's too busy serving his constituents in Coconut Creek. As for his campaign's Republican money, well, he gets cash from people he knows, and a lot of them, including his relatives, happen to be in the GOP.

"I know what's involved in running for office," Waldman pronounces, "and what's involved is raising money."

So far, he's certainly raised money like a Republican. With four months still to go before the September 5 primary vote, he's already raised a whopping $140,000. His opponent, Amy Rose, is closer to $60,000.

While Waldman plays up his experience as a commissioner and his ability to work with Republicans to bring benefits to the district, Rose characterizes Tallahassee as a battlefield between the parties.

"It was only 15 or 20 years ago that the Democrats had the same ratio of control over the Legislature that the Republicans have today," says Rose, who is a former president of the Broward Young Democrats. "The way the Republicans turned the tide was by sending people up there who were going to make sure on every issue they support the Republican Party. And that's the kind of Democrats we need today to get control back of the Legislature."

What issue is she concerned about?

"Private school funding, for one."

OK, she went there. Rose is talking about Waldman's ties to Keiser, a recently converted Republican who owns a giant private college business, Keiser College, which has 13 campuses and is now making a major push into the online teaching business.

Keiser has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians over the years, including at least $60,000 to the Republican Party of Florida since 2002. He has good reason to do so — his business rides on government assistance to students, a lack of government regulation, and other crucial political issues that can make or break his college.

Back in 2000, his wife, Belinda, a registered Democrat, ran for the same state House seat against fellow Democrat Mark Weissman. Of the $312,000 she raised, $197,000 was her own money. Her defeat came in part because there was a perception that she was trying to buy her seat (along with a revelation that she'd contributed to a PAC controlled by Newt Gingrich).

But the loss did little to slow the Keiser political machine. Belinda continues to chair Broward Days, a three-day affair that sees local politicians travel to Tallahassee in an attempt to influence the Legislature. The family has also had well-connected lobbyist Russ Klenet and former state legislator Ron Greenstein on its payroll.

No politician, however, has benefited more from Keiser than Waldman. Not only has the chancellor contributed at least $5,000 to Waldman's campaign but for years, Waldman has served as his right-hand man, representing his college and other business interests.

Waldman says he's no Keiser puppet, but he does shower almost absurd praise on his beloved boss. "Art Keiser is a one-issue individual, and that issue is to make education accessible to everyone and better for everyone, and that is all he is concerned about," the lawyer says. "If you know Art Keiser, money is the least of his interests. He has no interest in acquiring money."

Waldman, though, is definitely interested in acquiring campaign money. And Keiser's new political persuasion certainly doesn't help the candidate's argument that he's a true Democrat.

Waldman says that he grew up a Republican and that his move to the Dems in the early 1990s had nothing to do with political expediency. He claims his ex-wife — lobbyist and political operative Aleida "Ali" Waldman — convinced him to make the switch on ideological grounds.

"I changed because I was married to a very hard-core Democrat who used to continually comment to me about my registration," he says. "She said that I should switch because I believe in all the things that the Democratic Party believes in."

Interestingly, Ali Waldman is today far from a "hard-core" Democrat. After divorcing Jim in 2000, she immediately took up with land baron Ronnie Bergeron, a Democrat who has supported many Republicans, including Jeb Bush and U.S. Senate candidate Bill McCollum. One of Ali's closest friends and political allies is Republican state legislator Ellyn Bogdanoff, a fellow member of an informal political women's group, the so-called Steel Magnolias.

Most recently, Ali and boyfriend Bergeron have thrown money (at least $8,500) and their political weight behind Republican frontrunner Charlie Crist in the governor's race.

And they're also backing Jim Waldman, giving him a total of $2,000 between them.

"[Bergeron] had absolutely nothing to do with my divorce," Waldman says. "And the fact that they're dating — I have no animosity. As long as he treats her well and as long as she's happy, I'm happy."

It's either proof that the candidate is magnanimous or that, in Waldman's world, nothing but nothing trumps cash and politics, which are often one and the same.


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