September 9, 2021

If they didn’t already know it, neighbors of L. Gale Lemerand are learning about his political support of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Lemerand, a well-known Daytona Beach business tycoon and philanthropist, is the target of a text-messaging/social media campaign being undertaken by a Washington political action committee that is decidedly anti-DeSantis. 

The nonprofit 314 Action — founded in 2016 to support STEM professionals as candidates — launched the campaign late last month targeting not just Lemerand, but three other donors who have given more than $4 million combined to DeSantis’ political committee. The geotargeted messages claim DeSantis’ COVID-19 policies are partially responsible for nearly 47,000 deaths, particularly the latest delta variant surge.

Officials from 314 Action say the messages are the most direct way to hold accountable big-money donors of officeholders it labels anti-science, including DeSantis. But Lemerand — who lives on the beachside in Daytona Beach — says he learned of the campaign from a friend who’d received one of the messages and won’t be shamed.

“I take it with a grain of salt,” Lemerand said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The liberals these days don’t have much they can hang their hat on. They don’t have anything new to say. As far as I’m concerned, and my acquaintances are concerned, we think we’ve got the greatest governor in the United States.”

Lemerand has contributed $515,000 to DeSantis since 2018.

The 314 Action PAC has also set its sights on the neighbors of DeSantis donors Isaac Perlmutter of Palm Beach, David MacNeil of Fort Lauderdale and Bernard Marcus of Delray Beach.

“For us, it’s accountability behind the contributors who are bankrolling these governors and their anti-science agendas,” said Joshua Morrow, executive director of 314 Action. “You can’t give a $2.5 million contribution and not feel responsible for DeSantis’ COVID policy. … It’s about holding the donors of certain governors accountable. Which they should be.”

“We wanted to make sure these donors, when they go around their neighborhood to the grocery store or when they go to their country club … that the folks there know they are responsible for these agendas,” Morrow said.

314 Action has steadily built its funding from $5 million in 2018 to $25 million in 2020, helping, among others, Mark Kelly and John Hickenlooper of Arizona and Colorado, respectively, win Senate seats. “Our goal this cycle is to spend $60 million,” Morrow said. 

Lemerand has ‘never seen that type of politics before’

Lemerand, 87, started a successful insulation subcontracting company and when he retired from that, he became an investor in another industry, co-founding Stonewood Holdings and putting money into more than two dozen restaurants. His business success has led him to become a major donor to the University of Florida. The Lemerand name not only graces the road where the Gators’ football and basketball stadiums are located, but also buildings in Gainesville and on the campuses of Daytona State College, Bethune-Cookman University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“There’s so many people moving out of states like California and New York and the Northeast in general to Florida, and I think a lot of it has to do with Gov. DeSantis’ policies,” Lemerand said.

While 314 Action says DeSantis “has refused to listen to science,” Lemerand argues DeSantis supports vaccinations and masks.

“But he wants to allow us Americans to make our own decisions and not be dictated to,” he said.

Florida’s approach to governing during the pandemic has been better than other states, Lemerand said. As for a campaign targeting his friends and neighbors, Lemerand added: “I’ve never seen that type of politics before. It hasn’t been very effective.”

‘Scarlet letter’ of campaign donations 

Ryan Gravatt, CEO of Raconteur Media, an Austin, Texas-based firm that specializes in digital media political campaigns, said the campaign appears to have two goals: One tagging DeSantis donors with a “scarlet letter,” and making the donors think twice about supporting the governor in the future, and two, negative-campaigning against DeSantis himself.

The PAC might also be hoping to land a “bank shot,” Gravatt said, by generating some donations of its own.

“It is pretty unusual to be calling out somebody’s neighbor like that,” he said. “We’ve done this in the past with direct mail to get out the vote by saying things like, ‘Your neighbors have already voted. Why haven’t you?'”

Gravatt said text messaging in politics became a more frequent approach in 2016. “Voters thought it was novel and wanted to start a conversation with whoever was sending the text,” he said. “But the novelty wore off. … I think voters are getting tired of the sort of intrusiveness and on top of that, the toxic style.”

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