In what could signal the start of a shift in Republican politics, some GOP donors and officials in Florida are urging their political networks to consider some gun control measures and buck their party's longstanding refusal to even engage in the debate.
"I already have impressed upon people I talk to, the way the law is now is incorrect, it's wrong, it's a moral obligation to make certain changes to the law," said Ronald Krongold, a Miami-based board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, speaking with McClatchy several days after a gunman in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people in a school shooting. The interview also came hours before President Donald Trump moved to ban "bump stocks," which make semi-automatic weapons shoot much more rapidly.
Krongold said he's not issuing ultimatums, but that “this issue could influence who I support and who I don’t."
Major GOP donor Al Hoffman Jr., also of Florida, went further over the weekend, indicating to top GOP officials there that he would not support candidates or organizations that didn't back a new assault weapons ban, The New York Times reported.
Those remarks come as the Florida legislature scrambles to respond to last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that resulted in the deaths of 14 students and three faculty members over the course of six minutes. While there appears to be little GOP appetite for banning high-powered assault weapons —on Tuesday, the Florida House voted down a measure to even consider a bill that would ban them — incoming Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, is promoting a slate of other ideas. Those include a "gun violence restraining order" which could keep certain at-risk individuals from accessing firearms, as well as raising the age for purchasing and possessing semi-automatic firearms, and banning bump stocks. On the last measure, he has an ally in Trump, who announced Tuesday that he has asked the Justice Department to pursue regulations that would ban bump stocks.
For decades Florida real estate developer Al Hoffman has used his clout to elect conservative Republicans to office but the gun tragedy in Parkland has prompted him to add a new condition to that support: he refuses to back any candidate, including Republican Gov. Rick Scott, unless he actively works to pass a national ban on assault weapons.
In a letter to Republican party donors on Saturday, Hoffman laid out his ultimatum which was first reported in the New York Times. He asked them to support the cause and, in an interview on CNN late Sunday afternoon, he said he was getting some response.
"I have heard from a couple of them already and they are endorsing the concept totally and I am waiting to hear back from the others,'' he said. "But I believe we can achieve a movement consensus here and achieve our objective."
Hoffman, who was a leading fund-raiser for George W. Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said he raised over $600 million in those years for conservative Republican issues. But, he said, the tragedy at Parkland hit home.
"I was so blown away,'' he told CNN. His development company, WCI, had a "very close affinity with Parkland,'' where they built thousands of homes, golf courses, clubs and retirement communities in the middle to upper middle class community.
"I watched as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School start construction, get finished, opened and dedicated,'' he said. "So I've developed a personal affinity with the students."
When he heard of the tragedy, he said, "I felt my heart just drop. I felt like I was holding my heart in my hands."
He said he realized then that his efforts trying to persuaded elected officials to support "better guns laws" wasn't working and it was time to organize a movement of political donors.
To gun rights advocates, who say the problem is not what kind of weapon but who is using the weapon, he was dismissive.
"That was a totally preventable catastrophe,'' he said. "That gun massacre could have been avoided. That gun would not have been sold to that kid if he had gone through a background check and the authorities had the ability to take that gun away and take him into custody for examination."
Scott told CNN last week that "everything is on the table" and he will "look at every way that we can make sure our kids are safe."
But Hoffman said he is not interpreting that as support for an assault weapons ban.
"I love Rick Scott. I want him to run for Senate,'' he said. "I believe he is the best Republican that we could vote into office and I'm going to ask him to support that principle of banning assault weapons. That's the litmus test.
"If he does, I would be glad to support him and continue to raise money for him. If he doesn't, in all good conscience I don't see how I could vote for him. That's just the way it is. I hope he changes his mind."
As for the National Rifle Association and its political clout, he said, "I don't care about the NRA.''
He said he is an owner of a concealed weapon and believes in the Second Amendment but, "the NRA is not my party."
Andrew Gillum, left, and Richard Corcoran, right, with debate moderators Troy Kinsey of BayNews 9 and Gary Fineout of AP.
The fight of the century? It was more like the hype of the century.
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum staged their highly-promoted debate over illegal immigration in Tallahassee on Tuesday night.
Gillum, 38, is an announced Democratic candidate for governor and would be the first African-American to hold the state's highest office. Corcoran, 52, is a Republican state lawmaker from Land O'Lakes who's expected to run and who challenged Gillum to a faceoff three weeks ago.
Corcoran repeatedly called illegal immigrants a threat to public safety, and Gillum accused Corcoran of exploiting the issue in a TV ad to stir racial and ethnic divisions, and demanded Corcoran take the ad off the air.
"Richard's Corcoran's Florida? I don't want my kids to grow up in it," Gillum said in his closing statement. "We're bigger than that. We're better than that."
In his closing, Corcoran knocked on a wooden lectern to suggest a police officer knocking on a door and telling parents that a child has been killed by an illegal immigrant.
"A completely and utterly needless and unnecessary death. Nobody should experience that," Corcoran said.
Throughout the debate, Corcoran defended his support for a law that banned so-called sanctuary cities. But after passing the House, the bill (HB 9) quickly stalled in the Senate.
Their 45-minute debate, live-streamed on the candidates' Facebook pages, took place in a sterile TV studio in Tallahassee with no live broadcast and no studio audience.
Both men stuck to talking points and played to base supporters. Their encounter touched on Jim Crow laws, Trayvon Martin, and Japanese internment camps and deaths of multiple women in cases involving undocumented immigrants.
It was a theatrical warm-up act for a pair of ambitious politicians who have never run for statewide office. It drew a crowd of two dozen reporters and gave both men what they crave the most: free media coverage.
Corcoran and Gillum don't have very much in common, but they are mired deep in political obscurity. A recent poll by the University of North Florida found that 78 percent of voters have not heard of Corcoran and 81 percent have not heard of Gillum.
Gillum repeatedly criticized Corcoran's TV ad that shows a teenage girl stalked and shot by a hoodie-wearing male attacker. Corcoran did not respond and instead accused Gillum of refusing to take a position on a "sanctuary state" bill in the House.
The debate was mostly about a Corcoran priority, HB 9, that sought to prohibit so-called "sanctuary cities" in Florida that refuse requests by federal authorities to detain undocumented immigrants who otherwise would be released.
After passing the House, the bill headed to a disinterested Senate, where two Miami-area Republicans, both Hispanics, blocked a committee vote.
Gillum called America a nation of immigrants and noted that Corcoran himself was born in Toronto where his father worked for the U.S. State Department).
"I don't have anything against Canadians, by the way," Gillum said.
"I'm not an immigrant. I'm a natural born American citizen," replied Corcoran, whose parents were World War II veterans. "To say I'm an immigrant is you playing politics and using perjoratives in the worst possible way."
They battled over words. Corcoran chided Gillum for using the term "undocumented immigrants" and said they should be called "illegal aliens."
"Illegals is not a noun," Gillum shot back, accusing Corcoran of trying to "dehumanize" immigrants.
— With reporting by Elizabeth Koh and Emily L. Mahoney
A screen grab from a video Richard Corcoran tweeted in preparation for the debate
Surely Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, intended to generate buzz with his explosive first campaign ad last month, but he's getting extra bang for his buck with a debate scheduled for Tuesday night with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
After Corcoran released an incendiary TV ad in late January that depicted a white woman being shot in a suburban Florida neighborhood by an "illegal immigrant," Gillum, who is running for governor as a Democrat, criticized him via Twitter. Corcoran then challenged him to a debate over the issue. Corcoran has repeatedly called Tallahassee a "sanctuary city" and has made this issue a centerpiece of the 2018 session in a classic Trump-era appeal to Republican base voters.
But this debate is anything but typical, as Corcoran technically isn't running for governor yet because he has not announced his candidacy. What's more, the debate will center around "sanctuary cities," which the Florida House tried to ban in a bill that has severely stalled the Senate anyway.
Even still, Tuesday night will be an opportunity for both candidates, neither of whom are early front-runners, to get their messages out and highlight their firmly held ideologies — which are essentially complete opposites.
The debate is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. and last 45 minutes. It's being held in Tallahassee and will be broadcast on Facebook Live at both Corcoran's and Gillum's Facebook pages.
Follow the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau's coverage for related stories and analysis during and after the debate.
At Dunedin High School, classmates knew him as a super jock and a brilliant student.
At Yale, the baseball coach barely hesitated naming the former team captain when an interviewer in 2002 asked if he ever managed someone of presidential material.
Now running for Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, 39, has won the backing of President Donald Trump, billionaire donors across the country, and by many accounts is the most likely Republican nominee to lead America's third-largest state.
"I'm getting calls from people who are supporting Adam Putnam for governor, but they also want to give to Ron," said Nancy McGowan, a conservative activist raising money for DeSantis in the Jacksonville area. "And people tell me, 'I've committed to Adam, but I think Ron's going to win, and I'd like to talk to him.' "
DeSantis' personal story helps drive the buzz. Dunedin's Little Leaguer went from Yale to Harvard Law, becoming a decorated military lawyer who deployed with the Navy Seals in Iraq and was elected to Congress.
Since entering politics six years ago, DeSantis has bounced from race to race, leaving few tangible accomplishments over his steady political rise as a Fox News favorite and pitbull Trump defender. Even some admirers question his credentials for governor and think he's more attuned to the ideological battlefield of Washington.
The son of a nurse and a Nielsen TV ratings box installer is following the lessons he learned in 1991 leading his team to the Little League World Series: Set big goals, and then leave it all on the field in pursuit of them.
If he weren't running for governor, Rep. Ron DeSantis could be counted on to vote against the sprawling, two-year budget deal before Congress.
Conservative groups — including the Freedom Caucus DeSantis helped found and the Club for Growth that was key to him becoming a congressman — have mounted opposition to the deal.
"The House Freedom Caucus opposes the deal to raise spending caps on discretionary spending by nearly $300 billion over two years," read a statement. "We support funding for our military, but growing the size of government by 13 percent adds to the swamp instead of draining it. This is not what the American people sent us here to do."
But DeSantis is running for governor and the deal carries numerous benefits for Florida, not least of which is billions in disaster relief.
Imagine if DeSantis were to vote against help for the citrus industry. It would hand Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam a sharp attack point in the GOP primary.
Then again, voting for the deal would raise questions of DeSantis' fealty to the conservative cause.
His office did not respond to a question Thursday on how he'd vote.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott hasn't decided whether he'll run for Bill Nelson's U.S. Senate seat this year, but if he does a new poll suggests the race will be a photo finish.
A poll conducted last week by Jacksonville-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy shows Nelson with a 45 percent to 44 percent lead over Scott, with 11 percent of voters undecided. Nelson's one percentage point lead is within the poll's four percentage point margin of error.
Scott received a slight bump in Mason-Dixon's poll in October after Hurricane Irma, but little has changed in the four months since as Scott finishes up his last legislative session in Tallahassee while Nelson tries to forge an immigration deal and a disaster relief bill for Florida in Washington.
Nelson has the advantage among Democratic, women, black and Hispanic voters while Nelson leads with Republican, white and male voters. Nelson has a 33 percentage point lead in Southeast Florida while Scott maintains big leads in North Florida and Southwest Florida. Scott leads Nelson by six percentage points in the crucial I-4 corridor in Central Florida though Nelson leads Scott by five percentage points in Tampa Bay. Scott has both a higher favorability and unfavorability rating compared to Nelson. Only three percent of Florida voters don't recognize Scott while Nelson is unknown to 12 percent of voters.
The Mason-Dixon poll was conducted statewide by telephone from January 30 to February 1 and included a total of 625 registered Florida voters.
Scott is expected to make a decision on the Senate race after the 60 day legislative session ends.
Republicans currently control 51 U.S. Senate seats, and beating Nelson, Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, would go a long way towards Republican control of the upper chamber of Congress in a year where Democrats are expected to make gains.
Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday that the threat of Russian interference in elections is not over and faulted the Trump administration for not imposing further sanction.
"As the 2018 midterm elections are now only months away, there is no time to lose in countering Russian influence through multiple means," the Florida Democrat, running for re-election this year, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis.
"Because Russian influence is conducted largely through cyberspace, National Mission Teams (NMTs), part of the U.S. Cyber Command's Cyber Mission Force, should be ordered to prepare to engage Russian cyber operators and disrupt their activities as they conduct clandestine influence operations against our forthcoming elections. The mission of these forces is to defend the Nation, including critical infrastructure like our election systems, from foreign attack and we urge the Department of Defense to consider employing them as soon as possible."
Most leading candidates for governor, including a non-candidate who acts like one, have staked out positions on Amendment 4, the November ballot initiative that would restore voting rights to most convicted felons in Florida.
Florida is one of three states, and by far the largest, that permanently strips convicted felons of the right to vote. Candidates up and down the ballot will be forced to take sides on the issue of whether an estimated 1.5 million people who committed felonies and did time should be given that right -- excluding murderers and sex offenders.
Republicans say no. Democrats say yes. There’s an outlier: The one who won’t take a stand is U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Palm Coast, who announced his candidacy Monday. When asked by The Miami Herald’s David Smiley, DeSantis said: “I haven’t looked at it yet, but I’ll look at it.”
The front-running Republican candidate, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, does not favor Amendment 4, which supporters call “Say Yes to Second Chances.” He said he would consider automatic restoration of voting rights only in nonviolent cases.
“Nonviolent offenders ought to have an easier path to restoration of rights,” Putnam said. “Violent criminals do not deserve the same. Terrorism, manslaughter and kidnapping are treated as nonviolent crimes in this proposal, and that’s not something I can support.”
Putnam voted for a major policy shift in 2011 that requires felons to wait five years after leaving prison before they can ask the state for restoration of civil rights. It can take a decade or longer to get a hearing.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, is not an announced candidate for governor. But by launching an incendiary TV ad on immigration Monday, he has left little doubt about his plans and has created a situation unheard of in modern Florida politics: The only person running TV ads in the governor’s race is not a candidate.
Corcoran’s a no. He said the recidivism rates for offenders soon after leaving prison is a concern. “I think they also have to have some sort of re-entry into society and show us that they can be good contributing members of society,” Corcoran said in a recent interview. He said he’s not sure how long that period should be.
All four major Democratic candidates -- Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Chris King and Philip Levine -- support restoring voting rights to felons. Here are excerpts from all of their campaigns.
Gillum: “Everyone should vote yes on Amendment 4. Floridians who have paid their debts deserve a second chance and they should have a voice in our state’s future. Our current system for rights restoration is a relic of Jim Crow that we should end for good.”
Graham (on Twitter): “This is what democracy looks like! Rights restoration on the ballot is an amazing accomplishment by @FLRightsRestore and grassroots activists across the state. ... Floridians believe in second chances.”
King: “I have faith that most Floridians believe in second chances and will join me in enthusiastically voting for the amendment ... If you have paid your debt to society, your right to vote should be restored.”
Levine: “With this amendment, we are one step closer to equity and justice for all in Florida ... We are a state of second chances. This is an incredible milestone.”
A young, red-haired woman walks through a suburban neighborhood, smiling and texting, until "an illegal immigrant" in a hoodie turns around to shoot her, as the camera pans straight down the barrel.
No, this isn’t a horror movie — it’s a new campaign ad released Monday morning by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
“This could have happened to any family, anywhere,” Corcoran says in the voice-over. “Incredibly, some Tallahassee politicians want to make Florida a sanctuary state.”
The explosive ad minimizes any remaining doubt about Corcoran’s potential run for governor, something he has said he will decide after session is over in March. It also debuted on the day Ron DeSantis, the favorite for President Donald Trump and Fox News, announced a bid for governor that will shift the race for the Republican nomination to the far right, where immigration will be a red meat issue for primary voters.
Corcoran’s political action committee, Watchdog PAC, has already spent $95,560 to run the 30-second spot more than 700 times on Fox News channels this week in cities in north and central Florida, including Jacksonville, Pensacola, Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg, according to media tracker NCC Media. James Blair, chairman of the PAC, said that was only the first round but declined to comment further on the campaign’s ad strategy.
While intended to shore up support among the GOP’s conservative base, the ad alarmed immigration experts who said it stokes racial fears.
“It’s very interesting the actors they put in that ad, the victim is a white woman, the perpetrator is a male with dark hair, a mustache or facial hair so one could argue they’re trying to create this image of the Latino man that’s suspect,” said Elizabeth Aranda, a professor of sociology specializing in immigration at the University of South Florida. “They’re using that same stereotypical imagery in this ad, placed in a suburb, trying to send a message that everyone’s at risk here when the data doesn’t support it.”
Numerous studies have found that immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S.-born citizens. A 2013 research study published by a University of Massachusetts-Boston professor found that crime rates are lower among first-generation immigrants than they are among the rest of the American population.
Additionally, the magazine Governing compared immigration data to crime stats and concluded communities with higher shares of undocumented immigrants were more likely to have lower violent crime rates.
Corcoran has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a centerpiece issue of the 2018 legislative session by pushing HB 9 through the House in its opening week. The bill would prohibit any kind of “sanctuary city” policies that restrict local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws, and would punish officials for voting in favor of sanctuary policies with hefty fines or removal from office.
There is no legal definition of a “sanctuary city” but it generally refers to a city where the local jail does not call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents about detainees they suspect to be undocumented and hold them until ICE arrives.
The bill will face tougher opposition in the Senate but could become a major bargaining chip as Senate President Joe Negron tries to bargain for more higher education funding, among other things.
Monday’s ad provides Corcoran the narrative to justify the legislation.
In the ad, Corcoran evokes the story of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old woman who was allegedly shot in the back and killed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in July 2015. The immigrant, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate of Mexico, had been deported and reentered the U.S. multiple times. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump seized on the story as an example of what happens in sanctuary cities like San Francisco.
In the case, Garcia Zarate’s defense argued that he had accidentally shot the gun and Steinle had been killed by a ricochet. The facts are disputed but he was acquitted of homicide and was sentenced this month to the time he has already served awaiting trial.
On Monday, Corcoran said that he believed this was a responsible ad.
“What it says is that the No. 1 role of government is to protect its people and its citizens,” he said.
Corcoran has said previously that Florida has two “sanctuary cities:” St. Petersburg and Tallahassee. Both Democratic mayors of those cities, Rick Kriseman and Andrew Gillum, dispute that claim.
Gillum, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, was quick to pounce on Corcoran’s ad. Through a spokesman, he characterized the ad as “race-bating” and said that Corcoran “ought to be ashamed of himself.”
But in a display of the polar opposite dynamics in today’s GOP, neither DeSantis nor Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, another candidate for governor, spoke out against the ad’s message.
William Berry, a political science professor at Florida State University, said the ad shows Corcoran is playing his typical “hardball.”
“He knows his constituents and this is probably an appealing ad for them,” he said. “I think this is an issue that’s big for him politically, certainly in the case that there’s a Republican gubernatorial primary, he’s … moving things to the right in terms of discussion.”