A nasty contest for governor has become even nastier with accusations that Republican Gov. Rick Scott's supporters tried to intimidate donors at a private home by photographing their licenses plates and videotaping their arrival for a fundraiser benefiting Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist.
About 200 people attended the Tuesday night event at the home of Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant. When they arrived at the home in an upscale, secluded neighborhood, they were met by Republican Party of Florida and Scott campaign staff holding anti-Crist signs and dressed in prisoner costumes.
The guests were then photographed and videotaped getting out of their cars or walking into the event and some license plates were photographed, Tant said.
"It was some sort of silly attempt to intimidate," said Tant. "Taking pictures of license plates — that's ridiculous. If they want to know who was at my party, they can look at the financial report and they can look at my Facebook page."
Campaigns from both parties use trackers to videotape candidates and the people who speak for them with the hope of catching the opposition in a flub that can be used against them. Last month, Michigan newspapers reported Republican Party staff wore eyeglasses with secret cameras to record a fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer. And it was a tracker who famously captured 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney telling guests at a private fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans "believe they are victims" entitled to government support.
But it's usually not the guests that campaigns are trying to track.
"I've never had a tracker follow me. It was somebody right at the entrance to the driveway so they clearly got everybody that came in," said Gil Ziffer, a Tallahassee city commissioner who has been to many political fundraisers at private homes. "I've never been to an event before where I've experienced that."
And protests aren't unusual either. Last week a group called Florida For All that opposes Scott handed out hand sanitizer outside a Scott fundraiser at a Tampa restaurant with the message to his supporters that they should clean their hands of dirty politics.
The difference, though, is the group sought publicity for their protest by sending out a press release ahead of time. And it was held on a busy Tampa street where drivers could see the display — not a private home on a cul de sac with no drive-by traffic. The Scott campaign didn't expect any reporters to be at the Crist fundraiser and didn't make reporters aware of their plans.
The Scott campaign wouldn't answer questions about its strategy, which many of the guests found confusing.
But Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said, "Charlie Crist has a history of fundraising with Scott Rothstein, Jim Greer and other convicted felons, so it's no surprise he would want to keep his fundraisers secret."
Rothstein is currently serving 50 years in prison for running a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. Greer, a former chairman for the Republican Party of Florida, was recently released from prison after pleading to guilty to stealing money from the state GOP.
And Crist did not keep the fundraiser a secret as he invited an Associated Press reporter to cover it.
"I'd love to know their thinking behind it because it was very weird," said Rachel Pienta, adding the man who took her picture told her he was hired by the state GOP. "To me it was kind of, 'Whatever. What are you hoping to accomplish with that?' It's a private home. People live there. It's a neighborhood where people live — it's not like it was at a ballroom."
Tant said what was more distressing was that her developmentally disabled son was frightened by the protesters in prison garb at the end of their driveway.
"I had to contain my son's anxiety. I just had to get his fears under control," she said. "He's usually excited when we're having a party. It was scary for him."
Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Susan Hepworth responded to an email asking about Tuesday's event by saying that a Crist staffer videotaped her doing television interviews while Hepworth followed Crist's book tour last year.