Even among Florida’s political chattering class, the name "Bernie Fensterwald III" likely never crossed anyone’s lips until he qualified to run against Republican Speaker-in-Waiting Chris Sprowls last week. Under normal circumstances, an unknown Democratic challenger to a future speaker would be nothing more than a nuisance to Republicans (assuming they retain control of the House), but Bernie Fensterwald's ability to self-fund his campaign could turn Chris Sprowls into the next Chris Dorworth.
In late June, Fensterwald filed his financial disclosure form, causing Tallahassee insiders to inhale so sharply that it temporarily lowered the downtown air pressure. The filings reveal that Sprowls' personal net worth is a piddly four-thousandths of a percent of Fensterwald's own: $82,000 for Sprowls, versus $19.8 million for his Democrat challenger.
"I'll spend what I feel comfortable spending," is all Fensterwald will say. Then, in a sly tone, he adds, "I'm getting a little help from the Florida Democratic Party."
Republicans are understandably nervous about what a full-blown campaign from a well-off self-funder might mean for other candidates across the state.
Tongues were wagging late last week about the potential fallout.
"How much is this guy willing to spend?" asked one Republican strategist who is familiar with the methods used to legally downplay a candidate's net worth. "His financial disclosure shows he's got $14 million in a trust fund, and most of the rest is tied up in company assets. But all he's got to do is convert a portion of that trust fund to cash. If he does that, there's gonna be trouble for more than just Chris Sprowls."
The question being asked in Tallahassee is whether or not Bernie is in it to win it.
"Yes," Fensterwald says. "'He's not good for Pinellas county, (Sprowls) is ambitious, and so he’s good for that. I look at him as taking the Marco Rubio track, and we all know how that turned out.”
But beyond taking a few cutting shots at Sprowls and posting the required paperwork that made his eye-popping net worth public, Fensterwald is playing his cards close to his vest. For example, he refuses to name any specific campaign consultants advising him.
"I have a group of folks who are advising me, they are probably not well known to folks in Tallahassee."
On the subject of fundraising, he chooses his words carefully.
"I’m raising money and the next financial disclosure will be much different."
Pressed further, Fensterwald riffs on the media's obsession with money in politics.
“One of my observations about the political press is that it’s all about the money. I’ve lived in Virginia, I’m visiting in Delaware today. And so I’m also familiar with retail politics. If you see two candidates up here that even talk about how much money they’ve raised, that’s a big day. But the number one thing in Florida is how much money everyone has raised. I don’t know if that’s symptomatic of the problem, but the amount of money that candidates are raising in Florida is absurd. It’s Citizens United on the state level.”
Calling himself "Bernie 2.0" in an obvious hat-tip to Bernie Sanders, Fensterwald is no stranger to politics. His father, the late Bernard Fensterwald, Jr., was a defense attorney whose clients included James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., and former CIA officer James McCord, Jr., one of the five arrested in the Watergate break-in. The father-son duo practiced law together in Virginia for 11 years.
He says he decided to run for office when Sprowls voted in favor of fracking, threatening Pinellas County's tourist industry.
"I thought it was crazy. Here you have a county with $8 billion in tourism, why would Sprowls promote something that would inject 500 or so chemicals into the ground and threaten that?"
In a district that has been competitive in the last two cycles (Democrat Carl Zimmerman won in 2012, and Sprowls edged him by just 5 points in 2014), a candidate with the ability to self-fund could radically alter the electoral landscape.
Couple that with the unknown impact of having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket and Sprowls will not only have to work hard to maintain the seat, but could need additional resources.
According to campaign finance records, Sprowls campaign is sitting on $140,000 in cash on hand, while his PAC, Floridians for Economic Freedom, has about $330,000.
While that would normally be a lot of money, it pales in comparison to what Fensterwald might be willing to spend. And if that happens, Sprowls' "Fensterwald problem" becomes a problem for a lot of other Republican house candidates, too.
Richard Corcoran's House campaigns account, while well funded compared to the Democrats, only has a finite amount of money, and a lot of candidates to help. An expensive race to protect Sprowls - which will almost certainly become a top priority - could drain substantial sums from other Republican incumbents facing tough re-election battles. The fallout could be far-reaching enough that Bob Cortes, Mike Miller, Shawn Harrison, John Couriel and Manny Diaz Jr. could all be affected.
For those Republicans, and others, Fensterwald has a message. Perplexed by the idea of electing legislative leaders years in advance, he relishes the idea of upsetting the apple cart: "He (Sprowls) stepped over others in his class. I don’t know how many people were elected with him, but he walked all over them to get on top of them."
Given Fensterwald's financial situation, he's in the perfect position to shake up the Republican status quo. But is he willing to spend what it takes to make Sprowls and his fellow Republicans "feel the Bern?"