“We’re Really, Deeply in Trouble”: Top Donor Shuns Florida Republicans Over Their Stance on Guns

He’s devoting his time, money, and energy to banning assault weapons instead.

Former ambassador Al Hoffman Jr. in his office in his South Florida home.Kara Voght/Mother Jones

Few Republicans have succeeded in their quest for statewide or federal office in Florida without Al Hoffman Jr.’s help. The self-made real estate magnate has invested millions of dollars in the GOP over the last half century, and he’s attracted millions more as the finance chairman for the Republican National Committee and the campaigns of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother, former President George W. Bush. “I’m a conservative Republican, always have been and always will be,” he explains.

Such loyal hustle has its rewards: In 2000, Republicans chose Hoffman to cast the historic and decisive electoral vote for President Bush after the Supreme Court halted the state’s ballot recount. Bush later appointed him ambassador to Portugal—a post typically reserved for high-profile donors—during his second term. At the end of the Bush administration, Hoffman returned to Republican fundraising as chair of Marco Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign, helping the candidate rake in over $21 million in his first run for federal office.

But during the 2018 midterms, 84-year-old Hoffman is holding onto most of his cash. After the February school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Hoffman vowed not to give any money to candidates who don’t support an assault weapons ban—something for which only a handful of lawmakers in Hoffman’s party have voiced support. (Since the shooting, Hoffman has only donated to Florida Republican congressmen Brian Mast and Carlos Curbelo, both of whom have voiced support for Hoffman’s position.)

His decision was uniquely personal: Hoffman had been the lead developer of the Parkland area, and his constant presence at the town’s zoning meetings fostered a close bond between him and its residents. (Hoffman had even attended the Stoneman Douglas’ groundbreaking and dedication.) As he watched the tragedy unfold on TV from his office at his North Palm Beach home, Hoffman thought of his two teenage children safe in their classrooms at a high school just 40 miles from Parkland. “But for the grace of God, it could have been my kids,” he said.

After announcing his own pledge to half a dozen prominent Republicans—including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the state’s current leader and Senate candidate Rick Scott—via email, Hoffman recruited nearly two dozen like-minded GOP kingmakers from across the country, including fellow former RNC finance chairs Mel Sembler and Howard Leach, to take a similar stance. They created Americans for Gun Safety Now!, which advances a six-point platform that also includes establishing universal background checks and raising the gun purchasing minimum age to 21. (Its members have adhered to their campaign funding promise with varying degrees of success.)

Now, Hoffman aims to extend his influence even farther: His group has teamed up with Ban Assault Weapons Now, a group with a similar mission led by Parkland Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat, to establish a state constitutional amendment that will ban assault weapons in Florida by way of a 2020 ballot measure. If successful, Hoffman wants to go state by state to achieve the same ends—an approach that national gun safety groups have also taken in the face of congressional inaction on the issue.

A strong moral compass may guide Hoffman’s leadership on the issue, but so does his fear for the long-term sustainability of the GOP. Republican lawmakers’ inaction on gun policy worries him. He thinks they’ll lose voters who agree with conservative principles of less government and lower taxes but also agree with Democratic candidates about gun safety. “We’re in trouble,” he told me. “We’re really, deeply in trouble.”

I met with Hoffman at his home last month to talk about the new focus of his work, in the very same office where the former ambassador had learned of the school shooting that spurred his mission. The space itself is a shrine to a bygone era of American conservatism, but it contains evidence of his new activism: On a set of shelves crowded with photos of him with members of the Bush family and a plush GOP elephant doll with “Jeb!” embroidered on the side are laminated press releases from Everytown and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. We spoke for an hour about guns, the Republican Party, and what he means when he says, “I’ve just got to keep going on this.”

Mother Jones: Tell me a bit about your vision. Earlier this year, you wanted to ban assault weapons at the federal level, correct?

Al Hoffman: We started on that basis, but then we founded this coalition with, essentially, the Democratic group—Ban Assault Weapons Now. Gail Schwartz [a leader of BAWN] called me—she wanted to see if there was a way we could work together. So we’ve jumped over now from getting federal legislation to, for now, banning assault weapons in Florida. From there, it’ll to move from state to state.

Think about it: Over 100,000 people are shot every year, and about 35,000 of them die. How can we stop that? If we can stop just one terrorist from taking that gun and shooting and killing a number of people, we would have succeeded. So if we pass that law, it will save lives in the first year, the second year, and, possibly over a generation, we can make a huge difference. 

I consider this as my last hurrah. I’ll devote whatever time and energy I have. I’m sure it will take years to do this, but I’ve got time now, so I can hopefully make an impact during what time I do have left.

MJ: What, logistically, will it take for you to author a constitutional amendment and put it on the ballot in 2020? 

AH: I’ve got to raise a lot of money and get signatures—around 800,000 of them. We have until February of 2020 to do it, so we don’t have a lot of time. I’m going to have to raise a lot of money from people who feel the same way—you know, Bloomberg, Everytown, and others. It’s going take millions of dollars—probably about 8 to 10 million bucks to get this through.

We’ve worked with Everytown. They’ve been advising us on the language and the terms of the constitutional amendment. They’ve been most helpful, because in Florida, we’ve got to refine the amendment down to a single-purpose-issue type thing, so we want to phrase it in a way that meets those requirements. We’ll be through with it in the near future, and then we can start collecting petitions pretty quickly after that.

MJ: Very few GOP lawmakers have signed onto the so-called “common sense” gun safety legislation your group advocates. What are your thoughts about the dynamics at play when it comes to Republicans and guns?

AH:. We’re really, deeply in trouble. There are all these politicians who are for an assault weapons ban in principle, but then they won’t take a stand because they’re scared to death. And so, I dumped them in a way. I’ve gotten to, “How can we work together in a truly bipartisan and apolitical way to effect a change that is critically important?” Some of our donors are anti-gun, but they’re Republican. Their issue is: Who do you vote for who is anti-gun and running for office, if you want to vote Republican? Or do you just sit out and not vote? You know, I’m going to vote Republican, and I’m going to vote my heart, and I’m going to vote for those candidates who I think I can still convert.

And what I find very interesting is that there’s been a very, very strong effort to register 18-year-olds to vote. They’ve registered them now, because these are all kids who primarily registered to vote against gun violence. And if gun violence is not on the ballot, they might just as well be liberal and vote Democratic.

MJ: What do you think keeps Republicans from being on the same side of the gun safety issue as you? Is it as simple as the NRA’s influence?

AH: Some of it, but not much. You know, the NRA gave Marco Rubio more than $3 million so he could get elected as a senator. But most of these guys who are running only get $1,000 or $5,000 a year from the NRA.

For the life of me, I cannot see why the NRA sees a big difference between our support for the Second Amendment rights and their support for Second Amendment rights. I truly believe that we share a common bond: The right to carry and bear arms. We’re not going to take issue with the free right of everyone to own a pistol or a long gun or a shotgun. That’s fine. I own a concealed-weapon permit. I’ve had one for 35 years—I only had one missed opportunity to use it.

But by gollies, doesn’t everybody know that assault weapons are lethal and designed to kill people? How can they be designed to do anything else? They say, ‘Well, we only use them for target practice or shooting deer.’ Well, these kinds of guns and the magazine capacity and the type of bullet are very high speed, high velocity, very lethal. Bullets penetrate easily. Because it’s a small caliber, it decelerates upon impact. So if it enters the body, it will decelerate and stop within like three or four inches, but what it does as it’s decelerating is shred and tear everything apart. It kills that way.

MJ: Are there Republicans who have been on board?

AH: Carlos Curbelo is against them. And Brian Mast, a congressman who was in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s a double amputee. He’s used those weapons a lot, and he said they are military-style tactical weapons that are extremely lethal and designed to kill and that they should not be used in this kind of environment.

MJ: Have you gotten any traction with Republicans running for statewide office in Florida, like Ron DeSantis or Rick Scott?

AH: I talked to Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis. I like them very much as Republicans, but they’re not dealing with this gun violence issue, and they can’t deal with it until after the election because they’re sort of tied up in themselves.   

There were six points I wanted to see happen after the Parkland shooting: Raise the age for gun purchases to 21, provide support for mental health, support the Second Amendment, background checks for all gun sales, limit the capacity of magazines to no more than 10 rounds, but ultimately ban assault weapons. Scott [who is currently Florida’s governor] passed the first three. I told Rick that he did a great job and won a lot of goodwill on that. But I can’t get him to support the ban yet, because he says it’s such a hot issue. He said, “We can’t do anything about it until after the election.” He told me he’d consider it for the next cycle. He said, “Send all the information you got about it. I’ll look at, I’ll start thinking about it.” I’m hoping that I can still get him over to the other side, but I’m not going to do a fundraiser for him.

And I had the same conversation with Ron DeSantis. I just can’t do a fundraiser for him yet. I hope that I get them over so I can raise money for them.

MJ: When do you think Republicans might start to see things your way?

AH: I don’t believe that we’re going to get any traction on this between now and the election. It’s going to be the next cycle after that—2020. That’ll be the big one, because guns could be a big issue in a presidential election. I believe that’s when it’s going to be a defining issue for all of us, particularly in Florida, where it’ll be voted on as a constitutional amendment. Our polling shows overwhelmingly that both Republicans and Democrats want to ban assault weapons. So I believe that’s the fundamental ethical goal we can subscribe to without worrying about whether it’s the right thing to do or not. And it is, of course, the right thing to do.

This interview has been edited for both length and clarity.