Discover more from Public Enemy Number 1
Degenerate high school, pt 1: meet the geniuses behind the grifting of Jefferson County and the birth of Public Enemy Number 1
Ralph Arza, Randy Nielsen, and the hilarious mediocrity and unearned money of Big Charter and the Florida political consultant class.
Between July 29 and August 11 of 2020, a political organization called “Conservatives in Action” sent another political organization called “Florida Education News” $210,000 in political contributions in the lead up to the August primary election.
The top contributor to “Conservatives in Action” — $47,000 — was “School Development HC Finance LLC.” This LLC shares a Miami address — 6340 Sunset Drive — with Somerset Charter and Academica. Somerset is the charter school company owned by private education consulting giant Academica that is cutting and running from Jefferson County after failing miserably as the first lavishly state-funded charter “School of Hope.” Academica employs Republican state Sen. Manny Diaz, who helped engineer the failed Jefferson takeover.
Another big “Conservatives in Action” big contributor — $29,500 — was SMART Management LLC, which acts as management company for the BridgePrep Charter chain that the Florida Charter School Alliance’s (FCSA) Ralph Arza worked hard to muscle into Polk County. (More on that in part 2.) Charter Schools USA, the company founded by Jon Hage, an FCSA board member, also spent $20,500 on the “Conservatives in Action” pass through to “Florida Education News.”
Between July 23 and Aug. 13, “Florida Education News” used “Conservatives in Action” money to pay a business called “Public Concepts LLC” $215,477. Some large portion of that money — perhaps all of it — went to campaign mailers in Polk County and Orange County. (It may have spent more elsewhere; but I’m not aware of it.)
On its IRS reports, “Conservatives in Action” lists its contact person and records custodian as longtime Republican political consultant Randy Nielsen. Guess who is also a “Public Concepts LLC” partner.
Man, am I ever in the wrong business.
The two Public Enemies Number 1
What did Nielsen’s firm, known for direct mail attack ads, produce with all that Big Charter cash strained through two different pseudonymic nesting doll political holding companies?
LOL. Karen Castor Dentel is an elected School Board member in Orlando’s Orange County, which borders Polk County — my county. She’s sister to Congresswoman Kathy Castor. And she’s daughter to the illustrious Betty Castor, who, like Bob Graham and Bob Martinez, was a stalwart of a better version of Florida than this griftopia short-term rental of a state we inhabit at the moment. Here is a good Orlando Sentinel column from Scott Maxwell about Karen’s race and the mailers. Key excerpt:
There were a lot of nasty campaign attacks this season.
But few were as bizarre as the for-profit charter school industry’s attempt to kick a respected teacher off the Orange County school board — and replace her with someone with a background in porn.
Here’s the front side of my “public enemy” mailer. Note the “Florida Education News” circle.
No professional honor among grifters
If I were School Development HC Finance LLC — or any other entity working out of 6340 Sunset Drive in Miami — I would think Randy Nielsen ripped me off. If I were spending that money on a supposed “A-list” consultant, I would expect some differentiation and creative effort.
Instead, Randy Nielsen was soooooo lazy with all that Big Charter money he paid himself that he didn’t even bother to come up with different attack lines for Karen and me. Randy Nielsen used “Public Enemy Number 1” for two different people who live roughly 40 miles apart. Same fonts. Same tagline. Same design.
He gets points for altering the color scheme a little, I guess.
But my favorite part: Nielsen hyped my opponent and Karen’s with the exact same word-for-word description.
[William Allen/Jonathan Hacker] is the champion we need for our children. He is committed to doing all it takes to make sure our kids have the best opportunity to succeed.
Come on, man.
If this is the quality control charter companies demand from their highly paid political contractors, are you at all surprised they failed so miserably at doing real “public school” duty in Jefferson County?
Big Charter’s people are neither bright, nor dedicated, but they have effectively attached themselves to a very large flow of money. And the soft bigotry of low consultant expectations is a terrible thing.
[FWIW: my mailer contains two open, easily provable lies. I want to *reform,* not end voucher schools. That would admittedly kill the 85 percent or so that are open, horrid grifts today. And I opposed arming teachers, not the armed guard “Guardian” program, which I voted for. The mailer also makes reference to a discredited and shameless one-man “whisper” campaign by a disgruntled and bitter former mayor of Lakeland, who happens to be a black Republican. I helped defeat him years ago over an ugly police sex scandal; and he never got over it. That’s life.]
Ralph Arza, “director of government relations”
I have always found these mailers hilarious; but I had never before bothered to do the work of tracking down the actual genius who created them.
The DoE/Jefferson charter failure and bid-rigging scandal — so inseparable from the incompetence and grifting and self-regard of Big Charter — sent me looking because of its deep personal and political connection to the endlessly entertaining Ralph Arza. Here’s a full Ralph rundown.
I was not remotely surprised to find that Somerset and Academica of Jefferson infamy share an address with the largest contributor to “Conservatives in Action” and those mailers.
To recap what I’ve written before: Ralph Arza is a convicted criminal witness tamperer, who was too racist for Ron DeSantis, who is also the government affairs director for the Florida Charter School Alliance.
In that role, Ralph acts with the blessing of FCSA board members like Patricia Levesque (who runs Jeb Bush’s education foundation, which is Florida’s real DoE); John Kirtley (father of Florida’s utterly failed and fraudulent voucher school program); and Jon Hage, (founder and chair of the Charter Schools USA charter chain.)
As I noted before, Charter Schools USA spent $20,500 on “Conservatives in Action” in 2020. So it helped pay for those undifferentiated mailers about Karen and me. Do you think it’s doing differentiated instruction in classrooms?
Ralph Arza is also a good friend of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran — and has free access to him at the Florida Department of Education. Corcoran used the word “friend” with me directly, when I asked him about Ralph in person in 2019.
Moerover, as I understand it from my interactions with him — and those of other people — Ralph Arza is the main guy who gathers all that Big Charter money and tells the Randy Nielsens of the world who to target or support with their mediocre, lazy mailers. But that’s just my understanding. I can’t scientifically prove it.
All in all, Ralph is like the Forrest Gump and/or Zelig of Florida charter and education grifting. If something shady is going down, Ralph will pop up eventually. We’ll come back to that in part 2, which will walk you through Polk County’s experience with Ralph Arza in recent years, including his “advocacy” for BridgePrep Charter School and its SMART Management company and the subsequent PAC windfall for Polk board members Kay Fields in 2018 and Lori Cunningham in 2020.
Here is the Nielsen mailer that all that Big Charter political cash bought for Polk School Board member Lori Cunningham at the same time in 2020 it was naming both Karen Castor Dentel and me Public Enemies #1. Note the circle.
But first …
The cool kid table at degenerate high school
I found this bit of hilarity about Randy Nielsen from an old Peter Schorsch post back in 2014. Schorsch is the great Florida chronicler of the glamorous lives and courtier intrigue of Florida’s consultant class.
Here is Florida’s most well-known “twofer”: Randy Nielsen and Rich Johnston, the owners of Public Concepts, an award-winning West Palm Beach political consulting firm. Founded in Florida in 1991, the duos outfit now operates in 25 states.
These guys can be found when Googling ‘Florida campaigns’ or ‘public polling’ or ‘direct mail’. And while it may not always be the most popular item in the mailbox, if you live in Florida, you’ve seen their infamous attack-ads.
“Randy Nielsen is one if the craftiest in the business,” says Strategic Image Management’s Anthony Pedicini. “Trusted by some of Florida’s titans of industry, Randy has made a career out of employing timely and well thought out strategies that often make the difference between winning and losing.”
The Pedicini reference is particularly funny. He pops up from time-to-time in my limited social media world to pound his chest. I once told him on Twitter: “Not all of us think of this as cool kid table at degenerate high school.”
I have no way of knowing if Randy Nielson sat himself down in front of a big Mac screen building those mailers himself with InDesign. I suspect not. And I don’t know if he has his own in-house mail operation — or if he sends mailers out through a third party.
I do know that mailers, “crafty” or otherwise, are expensive, especially in Polk where School Board members run countywide. How much of that $215K in “Florida Education News” money got spent on the attack mailers against Karen and me and the mailer support for Lori Cunningham?
Tens of thousands at least. Possibly the whole kit and kaboodle, depending on how many households they targeted.
Did Big Charter get ripped off? You decide.
So what did Big Charter get for its 200K-ish investment in Randy Nielsen and his crafty strategy of naming two people Public Enemy Number 1 at the same time?
Well, Karen Castor Dentel destroyed her guy, a former methamphetamine addict, 72.5 to 27.5. Lori Cunningham won her race comfortably; but she was going to win anyway, most likely.
And then there’s me. It’s true I lost narrowly 52-48. But it wasn’t “Florida Education News” that mattered. I lost for three basic reasons:
I went toe-to-toe in public with Polk County media star sheriff Grady Judd over arming teachers — and won. We did not arm teachers. We all agreed to an armed guard compromise called “the Guardian Program,” which I literally voted for. Randy Nielsen lied on his mailer and said I didn’t. But that didn’t matter. My winning confrontation with the sheriff was very public and cost me some votes with people who adore him. It is also my proudest moment in public life.
State Rep. Melony Bell’s daughter is married to Publix heir Wesley Barnett. Wesley’s dad, Barney Barnett, is the richest, most powerful guy in Polk County. One day at a legislative hearing in early 2020, Melony Bell declared that I should be removed from office just for existing. I’m “disruptive,” she said, without giving an example of said disruption. I published a video of her statement; and a lot of people laughed at her online. She first pretended she wasn’t talking about me; and then she had to go on TV to admit she was and retract it. It was humiliating for her; and she got very mad at me for having the nerve to post that she said the governor should remove me from office. And her daughter got mad, too. That led to the creation of a whole different PAC of folks — a who’s who of the Polk County establishment and traditional powerbase — who spent $82,000 on a bunch of silly digital ads calling me a racist who hates Trump voters and civics. [Not an exaggeration.]
What was much more important to the campaign than the money or the dumb ads was the signal sent to the entire Polk County “leadership” class, across ideology or party, that Mr. Publix really wanted me beaten. That cost me some votes and created a very powerful establishment wind in my face.
The racist “whisper” campaign I mentioned above, in which no one ever accused me of a racist act. But there were some people who did not want me to do any basic oversight of our superintendent, who happened to be black. That cost me some some support among black voters, with whom I had done very well in 2016. I think I’ve since repaired that relationship with my post-School Board work; but again, it’s hard to prove scientifically.
In the end, I experienced political erosion from what people consider left, right, and center alike. (Those words actually have no meaning; but that’s a different discussion.) And it was enough to barely beat me.
As an elected official and/or public leader, you often make people mad when you push them in public to use power more wisely or justly. And that’s what I did. I ducked nothing in my four years. I had a really good run of success, which has included a significant upgrade at superintendent because of my commitment to good faith oversight. The district is much better off for having me on the board for four years, which even the folks in the Barnett PAC will agree to if you ask them privately.
I already teamed up unofficially with several of them — including Wesley Barnett — to smash Lakeland’s Q-Anon/January 6th apologist mayoral candidate. Indeed, this background is for the benefit of my non Polk readers. Here in Lakeland/Polk, this backstory is ancient history. But it’s important to keep the historical record accurate.
How’s “Public Enemy Number 1” working out for Big Charter and Ralph Arza and Richard Corcoran?
It’s also important understand that not a single education idea or position mattered at all in my race. My record didn’t matter. It was a pure local referendum on me, personally, driven almost entirely by the hurt feelings of different strata of local Polk power, which is unaccustomed to direct, constructive critique.
To create that referendum, they had to spend a lot of money on lies about me — personally. That’s always a vulnerability of treating political power or public trust as a serious calling — not cynical degenerate high school.
Randy Nielsen calling me “Public Enemy Number 1” at the end of the campaign with Big Charter’s money was maybe the silliest lie. And the most valuable and fun for me.
Because here’s the thing about spending big money to brand somebody as Public Enemy # 1. You brand them as Public Enemy Number 1. You elevate their importance.
Big Charter announced to the world that I’m its most formidable enemy — along with Karen Castor Dentel — who they can’t touch in her seat anyway. That was flattering and helpful, especially in narrow defeat.
Indeed, if I’d won re-election, Big Charter and whomever else would have me bogged down in attritional, inconclusive, cultural trench warfare with the Hannah Book Bannahs of the world. I would have no time or space to rain fire on Saga Stevin or climb into the gurgling belly of the DoE/Jefferson scandal.
Instead, both the local folks and Big Charter spent maybe $150K combined to elevate my importance and cut me loose. They turned me into a cavalry with a platform to raise hell on their flanks. And they gave me an awesome brand name to put on my Substack. So who do you think is having more fun right now?
LOL. That block happened just a week or so ago. The titans of Big Charter can dish it out, but not take it. And if I ever attempt to make any money off Public Enemy Number 1, I probably ought to pay Randy Nielsen and Ralph Arza and Big Charter commission on the free marketing they gave me.
But I won’t.
Instead, I’ll just ask them: how’s that working out for you?
Here’s a full list of “Conservatives in Action” contributors — heavy on development and charter school interests — here.
Baroque properties — $5,000
School Development HC Finance LLC (shares same address as — $47,000
SMART Management LLC — $29,500 (Close tie to Ralph Arza and Polk County here)
Highland Beach RE Holdings Inc. — $5,000
MG3 OP LP — 20,000
MIR Properties — $5,000
One on One Learning — $5,000
Charter School Associates — $10,000
P and T Construction — $23,000
Red Apple Development — $20,5000
Robert William Stork Rev Trust — $5,000
Charter Schools USA — $20,500