Bound, part 3: A hometown Publix accounting
Publix and Publix heirs should take a long break from power politics and rebind themselves to shared American life and representative democracy. What a pleasure that would be, maybe even for them.
This is the third and final part of my “Bound” trilogy. Here are links to the first two:
A few days ago, news broke that Julie Jenkins Fancelli paid for most of the big Trump “Stop the Steal” rally that led to the feral coup attempt/lynch mob storming the Capitol on Jan. 6. According to reports, she collaborated closely with noted Sandy Hook-school-mass murder denier Alex Jones.
Mrs. Fancelli and her sister Carol Jenkins Barnett are both daughters of George Jenkins, founder of Publix. They are the matriarchs of the two most prominent Lakeland-based Publix-heir families.
Since 2016, Gregory Fancelli, who is Julie Fancelli’s son, has been a very generous political supporter of mine. LLCs (with funny names) that Gregory owns spent roughly $35,000 to support three of my campaigns for Polk County School Board — two primaries and one general election. This is entirely legal for reasons that escape me; but I don’t make the rules. In 2018, Gregory also donated to candidates I supported in that year’s School Board elections.
I’ve seen no indication that Gregory had anything to do with anything that happened after the presidential election — financially or otherwise. I do not regret or lament or rebuke his support of my campaigns in any way. He made zero demands or requests of me as an elected official, of any kind. Ever. His relationship with his mother is none of my business. To my knowledge, I have never met or seen Mrs. Fancelli.
Gregory’s contributions to my campaigns have already been widely reported as part of local campaign news coverage in 2016 and 2020. I’ve talked about them publicly plenty. I am grateful for his financial support of my ferociously pro-humane, pro-teacher, anti-useless testing approach to public education. He was my only truly large donor in a populist movement driven overwhelmingly by small dollars.
It’s impossible to know with precision what difference he made in my two winning campaigns — or my one losing campaign. But he made my campaigns easier to run and more formidable. There is no doubt about that.
Thus, given what happened in D.C., I do feel a need to account with some detail for Gregory’s role and money in my campaigns and how I used his resources. I want no confusion about where I stand from people who look to me for transparency and honesty. I haven’t spoken to Gregory about any of this because this article is about me. I’m writing it for people who read and trust me.
Far beyond the Fancellis
This article also concerns the wider experience of Publix and Publix-adjacent political money — in my campaigns, my community, and beyond. I’m not at all important; but the instincts and behavior of great power and wealth are fundamental to the future of our existence and development as a community and country.
After all, it was not a Fancelli who spent lots of money trying to convince my Polk County neighbors in the summer of 2020 that Billy Townsend is an anti-Trumper who threatens Trump voters, hates civics, encourages mass violence and government overthrow, and is also racist. [I am not remotely exaggerating that label; as you’ll see.]
It was high profile members of the Barnett family — Barney Barnett and Ashley Bell Barnett, Carol Jenkins Barnett’s husband and daughter-in-law. Barney has been an influential Publix and state leader for years. His name is on the Florida Southern College “School of Business and Free Enterprise.” The Barnetts were joined by Jeff Chamberlain, longtime senior vice president of facilities for Publix.
None of those people have ever had a substantive conversation with me, despite my repeated efforts. I’ve never even met Jeff Chamberlain. (If you doubt me on these efforts, I do chat regularly and pleasantly via text with Barney’s son/Ashley’s husband, Wesley Barnett. I actually talk with him much more — and more substantively — than I do Gregory.)
I wish more possessors of Publix power and Publix-adjacent money actually talked openly to their neighbors and fellow citizens and customers who might disagree with their shallow politics. I wish they tried to listen to them — rather than seeking to dominate or reward them from a regal distance, like monarchs. If they did, I wonder if our local, state, and national climate might change for the benefit of everyone — including Publix and its heirs.
The statement Publix and its heirs should have given
I don’t know anything about the details of Mrs. Fancelli’s involvement in the “Stop the Steal” rally, other than what I’ve read, which is the same stuff everybody else has read. Nothing I’ve read suggests that Gregory paid for any of the post-election shenanigans that culminated in a lynch mob storming the Capitol. Here’s the key excerpt from the Tampa Bay Times article, which is sourced to other papers.
[Julie] Fancelli, a part-time Lakeland resident, reached out to far-right talk show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones about helping fund a Jan. 6 event and ultimately contributed $300,000 to the rally through a former fundraising representative for the Trump 2020 campaign. The money helped pay for the majority of the $500,000 rally where former president Donald Trump spoke and incited attendees to march to the Capitol, preceding the riots, the Journal found. Fancelli did not respond to the newspaper’s multiple requests for comment...
…According to the Miami New Times, Fancelli and her two children contributed to federal maximum amount of money to Trump’s reelection campaign in 2019, contributing around $171,000 to Trump Victory. The Wall Street Journal reported she gave more than $980,000 to an account for both the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign in the 2020 election cycle.
Paying for the rally does not make Mrs. Fancelli culpable for the attack on the Capitol, nor does supporting Trump make Gregory responsible, in any way, for the rally or Stop the Steal stuff. Lots of Trump and Biden supporters supported me. I always tried to campaign across the divide, no matter who people supported. That’s the only way we’ll ever save public education and the country as a whole, through cross-partisan, cross-tribal connection and respect for human dignity.
But it’s important for me to say the following to everyone who has ever read me or engaged me in public life. Indeed, this is the statement Publix and its heirs should have released already:
Funding that “Stop the Steal” rally shows a profound lack of respect for the fellow citizens with whom Mrs. Fancelli shares a representative democracy. There was no fraud in this election to speak of on either side. Public servants performed very well under stressful circumstances. No one “stole” anything. The very conservative courts made that clear over and over again. Rudy Giuliani’s face-melting gibberish made that clear. Outside of three key states, the overall election was not even close by historical measures.
Mrs. Fancelli may think she was attacking gutless politicians somehow or fighting for something noble; but she was actually attacking a very clear majority of individual Americans, whose consciences and lives matter as much as hers. She was attacking a hell of a lot of loyal Publix customers and employees in Georgia, for instance.
On a more personal level, Mrs. Fancelli was attacking me — and my family — in a way that encourages physical harm. If the Q mass execution fever dreams ever come to pass, I suspect they’ll come looking for me. The Barnetts and their friends have already clearly identified me as a prominent Polk County “anti-Trump” public figure to target. Here’s an example:
So this isn’t abstract. The risk is small; but, as the Capitol lynch mob showed, it’s more than zero. Ask famous Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who teamed up with the Barnetts politically in 2014 to temporarily keep medical marijuana illegal — a stand that accomplished nothing except inflicting an extra two years of human harm on some people.
Sheriff Judd announced just before Joe Biden’s inauguration the arrest of one of his deputies. Sheriff Judd provided texts showing deputy cheering on the Capitol lynch mob enthusiastically and calling for executions — in which the deputy seemed eager to participate — of elected officials and police and military the deputy didn’t like. Here’s my full account, including Sheriff Judd’s reluctance to name the heroic fellow deputy who turned in his colleague, presumably because it’s unsafe for Judd to name him.
To have someone of Mrs. Fancelli’s stature and resources in society funding that mania, financing the eruption of mass slander — in which people who voted like me are casually called thieves or traitors or cheaters — in front of a giant lusty mob fantasizing about hanging Mike Pence and shooting Nancy Pelosi “in her friggin’ brain” and raping female lawmakers and heckling survivors of school shootings and executing “Democrats” at scale…
…well, I just hope she didn’t really understand what she was doing.
The Publix heirs on the other side
Yet, as I noted, it wasn’t Julie Fancelli, but Barney Barnett and Ashley Bell Barnett and Jeff Chamberlain whose money paid for the more intimate and community-based mass slander in the ad above and in this one:
The Barnetts spent at least $35,000 on this type of electioneering in 2020, funneled through noted Lakeland Christian School alum Will Harrell’s “Citizens for Polk Education” attack PAC. Here’s the listing of the full roster. It’s a who's who of (mostly inherited or married into) money in Polk County.
All of that money, flatteringly, was aimed at me — and it helped deliver a narrow (52-48) defeat in my re-election.
I do find it interesting that Will Harrell’s Barnett-funded PAC cares so much about “overthrowing the government” as a political issue that it felt the need to lie shamelessly about it in a local School Board race.
I assume they will deploy massive ads against politicians that can’t bring themselves to admit their master lost the presidential election. I assume they’ll publicly encourage senators to convict ex-President Trump in the impeachment trial. Overthrowing the government is bad, after all. You’ll have to decide whether or not to laugh at my assumptions.
In any event, I believe this group also paid for a Facebook ad describing me as Polk County’s “number 1 never Trumper;” but I don’t have a screenshot of that one. I do have a screenshot of the one in which they called me “racist.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
You can judge for yourselves how easily all those insults fit together within the same person.
And if you’re wondering about the granular accuracy of Billy Townsend is an anti-Trumper who threatens Trump voters, hates civics, and encourages mass violence and government overthrow and is also racist, I should address it for the record: the first part of that message (the anti-Trump part) is mostly true; all the other parts are the worst kinds of lies. The quotes are blatantly cut up and twisted from this essay I wrote in 2016, which was literally urging unity. The ads convey the opposite of my obvious meaning. Here’s my record on racial justice. It’s good.
And I worked hard to connect with Trump voters — like all voters — and fight for the idea of a real-world common civics, rooted in public education, that might help all of us emerge from this ugly spiral too many have embraced.
Gregory Fancelli’s resources helped me share that platform, which is the actual Billy Townsend, more widely than I could without them. He helped the real Billy Townsend reach Polk County neighbors who didn’t otherwise know me. You may or may not find that ironic, given what happened in DC. I just find it true.
No strings and no agenda but challenging the local leadership club
If you’re a supporter of mine, I want you to understand that Gregory Fancelli never asked anything of me as an elected School Board member. He provided campaign resources without any strings.
Only one issue in which he had any remote involvement — a minor administrative land issue related to the Academy Prep school — ever came before the elected board in even the slightest of ways. I did not know about Gregory’s support of Academy Prep until days after the board voted. He had made a point not to lobby for it. The vote was unanimous and uncontroversial anyway.
I don’t actually remember asking Gregory to contribute to my campaign in 2016. We knew each other from my support of his strong mayor initiative. I think he appreciated my outspoken work on its behalf, when very few other public people were willing to do so. When I jumped in the School Board race late and called or emailed to tell him, I think he supported me spontaneously, without my having to ask. But he may remember it differently.
I reached out to Gregory in Spring of 2020 during my re-election and said something like, “if you want to do it again, now is probably the time.” I’m a pretty prideful person; and I hate asking anyone for money. I’m very sheepish when I do it, especially for myself. I tried to give him an out, if he wanted it. Again, he may perceive it differently.
I did directly ask Gregory to support board candidates I supported in the 2018 school board cycle. But in my experience, Gregory makes up his own mind about things. I don’t know if I had any role in persuading him other than making introductions.
Personally, I would say that Gregory and I are friendly, but not friends. We don’t talk regularly or confide in each other. I think I’ve only spoken to him once since the presidential election. And it wasn’t about the presidential election.
The vast majority of my interactions with Gregory over the years have been related to political, not personal, issues. But I find him fun, with a subversive sense of humor. I think that subversive and provocative sense of humor rubs some people the wrong way, particularly local people of power and status that annoy him.
Gregory’s also a very talented developer of property. And the vast majority of what he does is not ostentatious. He builds and manages nice neighborhood housing that he rents at reasonable rates. That’s how it’s supposed to work in a free market economy. By several accounts I’ve heard, he’s been an incredibly generous landlord during COVID, although I don’t have precise details.
I think the City of Lakeland has made a mistake over the years in not to trying to work more closely with Gregory, as it has with other groups, to develop beneficial projects with his capital and record of success. But that’s just my opinion; and it’s not very well informed. So take it with appropriate skepticism.
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that Gregory and I share a perception that political and economic leadership in Lakeland and Polk County is too often an insular and closed club, to which Gregory himself has largely been an outsider, despite his capital.
I think Gregory’s outsider status in local politics and leadership circles is a driving force for his political contributions, which are very idiosyncratic. And I suspect that’s how he and I connected.
The Publix heirs on the opposite side
I don’t have any particular insight into the cousinly relationships of the Fancellis and Barnetts.
To be clear, I’m reasonably certain I am the reason the Barnetts opposed and attacked me, not Gregory (or the candidate they nominally supported.) It’s most likely about Ashley Bell Barnett’s personal grudge. This gives the backstory, if you care at all.
In any event, it’s safe to say the heirs of George Jenkins didn’t agree on me in 2020. That’s about all I know with any certainty about the family dynamics, except that the Barnetts are the ultimate insiders in Polk County/Lakeland society and political economy. And Gregory’s not.
It’s also safe to say that all Publix heirs knew my political point-of-view and approach. I’m a very open, public person. Gregory Fancelli and I were always very clear with each other: he was a staunch Trump supporter; I was not. He knew that quite well when he backed me; and I knew that about him. He supported me nonetheless, despite probably taking some heat for it.
And I happily deployed his resources in 2020 to try to overcome the lies and the viciously divisive pro-Trump public message that different Publix-adjacent money funded. Again, those lies included that I was somehow responsible for youth “calling for the overthrow of the our government.”
And lest anyone pile on too much about Mrs. Fancelli’s spending, I know many “good progressives and liberals” who were as eager for Gregory’s money as Ron DeSantis and Trump. A number of them came to me, as if I could deliver it. Same goes for the Barnetts and the people they support politically, I suspect.
To rework Field of Dreams, “If you own the money, they will come.”
Wealth that dehumanizes everyone
I truly wish the extremely wealthy had much much less influence over our day-to-day lives. But wishing makes nothing so. Unlike the Q dwellers, I do not live in a fantasy world. The extremely wealthy will continue to have great impact on our daily lives in a myriad of ways.
But that does not mean I envy them as people, particularly those who have inherited extreme wealth they did not earn. I suspect people rarely tell any of them the truth about anything — from the morality of what they do to the quality of what they produce. Late American GameStop capitalism generally looks at people of great wealth as capital first and human beings second, if at all. It has no incentive to be honest with them.
That’s because when you control $8.8 billion as a family in American capitalism, you can literally determine life and death at scale. Financial capital is the key determiner of life and liberty in America. Thus embodying capital means people see you as existence itself. That’s a very distorting, undignified, and dehumanizing way to live, for the supplicant and the capital alike. But it really never stops for capital. There’s always somebody, myself included, with an idea about how to use your wealth. And if you ever lose the wealth, which is very hard to do in America, expect crickets from all your supposed admirers.
I would not want that life.
On the other hand, the extremely wealthy do seem to want it this way. They certainly have more direct, immediate power to change it than anybody else. And they’re not changing it. Believe me when I say I would love to help them change it.
Ideally, I could convert them to a politics that helps develop dynamic community capacity rather than strip-mining it and then using the profits to build monument parks and signature buildings as public consolation. (Ask Lakeland Police how easy it is to hire and keep good, experienced officers with what the city pays, while a $100 million-plus of Bonnett Springs Park rises in the background. And don’t get me started on the teacher supply.)
Absent a conversion, it would be great just to convince extreme wealth not to fight other, less wealthy or famous people’s efforts to build public and self-governing capacity. That alone would help.
In just the last few years, the Barnetts, particularly, have used their wealth and power to fight: enhanced public transportation; lifting prohibition of medical marijuana; and building a more humane, better funded public education system. I don’t really know why, other than some vague aversion to the rabble or to taxes that wouldn’t even register in the money machine that is Publix.
Blunt conversations bind better than boycotts
By my very rough count, my adult household has spent about $300,000 at Publix. That’s roughly $1,000 per month for 25 years. Only my mortgage compares as a lifetime expenditure.
I cite this because I think it makes for interesting scale in comparing Publix-adjacent political spending around me and others. But I also cite it to illustrate the folly of boycotting Publix, as one hears a little these days.
I haven’t spent $300,000 with Publix out of charity or loyalty or endorsement of its politics. I’ve spent it because Publix is better at business than its competitors and has embedded itself in the daily rhythms of my life. It’s a smart, well-run organization within a larger sector that comes with a guaranteed customer flow. It’s made itself the most convenient and “pleasant” (not cheapest) way for my family to feed itself.
Now multiply that by millions and millions of households.
Publix is also a good company to work for, by virtually all accounts. I’d be happy for any of my kids to work there. Along with public schools and socialist Lakeland Electric utility, it is the economic foundation of Polk County life.
So while I may be a little more inclined to hit an Aldi these days if it’s nearby, I’m not so inclined that I intend to go far out of my way to inflict harm on myself or my family or community. Any political points I might make will be entirely lost in culture war side-taking and impose zero financial or lifestyle impact on the practitioners of the politics being boycotted.
I’d rather appeal to the conscience and sense of community Publix likes to show the public — and see if it responds.
“Working together” vs. “Taking down names and kicking ass”
I’d rather ask this: what are you even getting, Publix and Publix-adjacent money, from your increasingly toxic political brand? What is the payoff?
Do you actually mean any of this?
Key words from the video: “It’s not always going to be perfect, but together, we’ll make it through this. So let’s be safe. Let’s be calm. Let’s be kind.”
Can you explain why you pay for the ad and sentiment above and then fund this guy, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama? See below:
Here he is at the Jan. 6th rally Mrs. Fancelli paid for, exhorting the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and assorted lynch mobbers. “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” Will we see that on a Publix Christmas ad next year?
How is Mo Brooks reconcilable with: “It’s not always going to be perfect, but together, we’ll make it through this. So let’s be safe. Let’s be calm. Let’s be kind.”
You paid for both, Publix. So which is it? “Working together” or “taking names and kicking ass” of your fellow Americans and customers?
What exactly do you get out of helping one political party rile up people who openly fantasize about killing many Publix customers and employees because of their imagined politics?
If you’re a Publix heir, what exactly do you get out of supporting politicians that openly hate the non-Republican sources of your wealth and capital? Even in Polk County, your home, 44 percent of voters didn’t share your presidential politics and preference. What is your message to us?
“Working together?” How?
I mean, you surely put my $1000-plus per month in the bank over all these years. If America’s youth were supposedly calling for the “overthrow” of the government, and I was the reason, and that was a problem for you, wouldn’t you have rejected my debit card?
And if “overthrow the government” and “working together” are, in fact, important issues to you, Publix and Publix-adjacent money, perhaps you ought not to fund the party dominated by people who openly fantasize about overthrowing the government and executing opponents.
Maybe get back to Business 101 and Citizenship 101
The greatest shame about all of this, by far, is the murder of police protecting democracy, the death of others, the defiling of the Capitol, and the terror inflicted on the lawmakers we the people sent there to do our public work.
But there’s a lower level shame: the Fancelli family is, in reality, a very generous, non self-promotional supporter of public education.
The Fancelli family provides a scholarship to Polk State College to a fifth grader at every public school in Polk County. The Fancelli family quietly helped support the Crystal Lake Elementary public community school program. The Fancelli family is the driving force behind the Academy Prep private school, one of the very very very few voucher schools that actually tries to deliver an elite private school experience to kids with little or no capital. If all voucher schools were held to that standard, there would be no state voucher programs — just the occasional Academy Prep supplement to public education.
And then, of course, there was Gregory’s strong support of the most aggressively pro-public education politician and writer in Florida in a generation.
But try Googling “Fancelli” these days — or for the rest of eternity — and see if any of that comes up first, if at all. We’ll see what eventually comes up when you Google “Barnett” or “Publix.”
I see that as a sad consequence of how extreme wealth and power has unbound itself almost completely from the self-governing rhythms of a shared, healthy society — even unbound itself from its own good deeds in service of that society.
And for what?
If Publix and Publix-adjacent money had given nothing politically to anyone for the last 25 years, what impact would that have had on the $300,000 my household spent with them. Would I have spent less? Probably not. Would they have kept slightly less because of taxes? Maybe. Would all the heirs still be feted citizens and Ba-zillionaires? Yep. Would the COVID era still have provided a giant windfall amid great suffering? Yep.
Would Publix still be a great business, fundamental to the fabric of Polk County and Florida? Yep.
So maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world for families or companies to aspire to. Maybe they ought to consider making that their goal.
Taking the next 25 years off from politics, so you can rebind yourselves to shared American life, might even prove to be a pleasure, for everybody.