May 18, 2016

Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart pushes back on White House over Zika funding

@PatriciaMazzei

Count Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart among the Florida Republican members of Congress skeptical of President Obama's request for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to combat Zika.

"I believe we need to provide and spend every dollar needed for Zika prevention, treatment, and response programs, and not one penny less," Diaz-Balart said in a statement to the Miami Herald.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a compromise measure setting aside $1.1 billion to fight the mosquito-borne virus, with both Florida senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, reluctantly voting in favor. The two men want the full $1.9 billion.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, is considering a $622 million funding measure the White House has threatened to veto as inadequate. Obama's press secretary, Josh Earnest, specifically called out Florida Republicans in the House on Tuesday for failing to push for more money.

Diaz-Balart stressed that the $622 million proposed in the House is in addition to the $590 million already set aside this budget year for Zika efforts (from money that had been allocated to fighting Ebola).

"This will total almost $1.3 billion to combat Zika this fiscal year alone," he said in his statement. "Congress has a responsibility to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent effectively, unlike the fiasco that happened with the 'shovel-ready' projects. Once the Obama administration provides full details as to how they will spend these funds, we can then determine what if any additional resources are required."

Diaz-Balart's fellow Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo told the Herald last week he supports Obama's request, though he hasn't taken a lead in pushing for it. The third local GOP member of Congress, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, did not respond to requests for comment.

May 17, 2016

White House calls out Florida Republicans in Congress over Zika funding

@PatriciaMazzei

The White House on Tuesday pressured Florida's 17 Republicans in Congress to say publicly whether they support $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus.

Press Secretary Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama would veto a House of Representatives bill that would provide far less money -- $622 million -- and referred again to support for the full $1.9 billion from Florida's Republican senator, Marco Rubio. Florida has more confirmed Zika cases than any other state in the country.

"The Republican senator from the state of Florida has indicated that the Congress should act expeditiously to pass the $1.9 billion funding proposal that our public-health experts say is needed," Earnest told reporters. "I think it'd be interesting to understand exactly what position the 17 other Republicans from Florida who represent the state in the Congress think of this."

Some of them have already come out in favor of Obama's request, including Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota and Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami (Curbelo drew some Democratic criticism for not being very vocal about his position).

On Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee sent Republican Speaker Paul Ryan a letter -- signed by more than 120 House Democrats -- urging the GOP to accept Obama's request.

Rubio said on the Senate floor Tuesday he's "concerned" about the House's reluctance to approve the full $1.9 billion. The Senate later signed off on a bill to fund $1.2 billion toward fighting the mosquito-borne virus.

"I'm glad that there has finally [been] some movement and that something's happening, but I'm really concerned about the direction their own funding measure is going," he said. "Their funding measure isn't even $1.1 billion, it's $622 million and, quite frankly, that's just not going to cut it."

 

President Obama is coming to Miami to raise money for Democrats

@PatriciaMazzei

President Barack Obama will be in Miami next month to ask wealthy Democratic donors to open their checkbooks to the political party ahead of the November election that will determine Obama's successor.

To lure donors to the June 3 dinner, the Democratic National Committee is billing the event as perhaps Obama's final Miami fundraiser as president.

"This may be the last time President Obama visits Miami as a sitting President, making it a truly special event," reads an invitation obtained by the Miami Herald. The fundraiser was first reported by Saint PetersBlog.

"This is a great opportunity to support the DNC and ultimately stop Donald Trump from reaching the White House in 2016," the invitation says.

 Though it doesn't say so on the invite, the dinner will take place at the Coconut Grove home of attorney Robert Rubenstein.

To attend and get a photo with the president, donors must contribute $10,000 per person. To "co-host" the event -- which usually comes with more access to the president -- they must contribute $33,400 per couple.

Obama headlined a similar fundraiser for the DNC a year ago in Coconut Grove, unofficially kicking off Democrats' presidential fundraising season.

May 16, 2016

South Florida cops receive Medal of Valor from President Obama

via @lesleyclark

WASHINGTON -- Of course Mario Gutierrez and Niel Johnson say they were just doing their jobs.

But in the eyes of the public – and of the president of the United States – Gutierrez, a Miami-Dade County police officer, and Johnson, a North Miami police officer, are heroes. And now with the Medal of Valor to prove it.

“It’s been said that perfect valor is doing without witnesses what you would do if the whole world were watching,” President Barack Obama said Monday as he bestowed the valor medal, the highest national honor awarded to a public safety officer, on the two South Florida police officers and 11 other honorees.

The officers, Obama said, all saved the lives of strangers and demonstrated courage “not in search of recognition,” but instinctively.

“We’re so grateful that they were there, some on duty, others off duty, all rising above and beyond the call of duty,” Obama said. “To a person, each of these honorees acted without regard for their own safety. They stood up to dangerous individuals brandishing assault rifles, handguns and knives.”

More here.

Miami-Dade's GOP mayor won't make presidential endorsement

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@PatriciaMazzei

Miami-Dade County’s highest-ranking Republican in office, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said Monday he’s staying out of the presidential race and won’t publicly endorse a candidate.

“I’m supporting Carlos Gimenez for Miami-Dade mayor,” he said on the Spanish-language Univision network’s Radio Mambí, a local station.

Host Bernadette Pardo reminded Gimenez that there will also be other races on the ballot. But the mayor, who has golfed with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, still refused to pick a side.

“I’m not going to make a statement about anything,” he said. “I’m the mayor of Miami-Dade County. I’m focused on being the mayor of Miami-Dade County.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald staff

In emotional plea, Miami congresswoman and family push for transgender rights

@PatriciaMazzei

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her husband joined forces with their son in a new campaign to promote transgender rights and acceptance.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen is a transgender man. His parents -- the longtime congresswoman and former Miami U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen -- are the face of a new public-service announcement created by the advocacy group SAVE.

From el Nuevo Herald videographer Jose A. Iglesias:

Take a look at the PSAs, in English and Spanish:

Former Miami-Dade commissioner's life ends in gunfire

via @LDixon_3 @glenngarvin

WAYCROSS, GA. -- Jimmie Burke’s life was a careening roller coaster that started with him picking cotton on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, spun him up to the pinnacle of political power in South Florida, and then dumped him back where he started, a dead-broke ex-convict limping home to the hardscrabble little South Georgia town where he grew up. Yet through it all, he never lost his giddy certainty that the world had dealt him a winning hand.

“He was a happy-go-lucky guy, affable, never seemed to be angry or depressed, no matter what,” recalls Miami attorney H.T. Smith, his friend and law-school classmate. “Through all the divorces and legal scrapes and even jail, he kept smiling.”

Burke’s luck finally turned indisputably bad a week ago when he called police in Waycross to report a domestic dispute with his sixth wife, Sonia. By the time they arrived, the cops say, the 68-year-old Burke was dead of gunshot wounds and his wife was in the throes of a drug overdose. She remains in jail on murder charges.

It was a sad and startling end for a man who is inevitably described by friends, whether they knew him for four years or 40, as amiable, affable and appealing. His friends in Georgia, who knew Burke as a struggling businessman rather than a once-powerful politician, are no less disconcerted than their Miami counterparts. They never heard him complain about anything.

“He was just so busy doing everything,” said Lamar Deal, who worked at both a small newspaper and a local theater group in Waycross that he and Burke launched. “If I was one-tenth the man he was, I’d count myself very lucky."

More here.

May 15, 2016

White House to award highest honor to South Florida cops

via @ChuckRabin

A Miami-Dade County police officer who stopped a man from setting a gas station on fire and a North Miami officer who shot a man after a wild car chase and shooting spree, will receive the nation’s highest public safety honor at a ceremony at the White House on Monday.

It was October 2013 when Miami-Dade police officer Mario Gutierrez spotted Domique Jean, 51, acting erratically at a Shell Gas station on LeJeune Road near Miami International Airport. As Gutierrez approached, Jean tried to set a gas pump on fire. The two struggled. Gutierrez was stabbed, and Jean was shot dead.

In April 2015, North Miami officer Niel Johnson confronted an armed Frantzy Armand outside an apartment complex in Sans Souci. During the shootout, Aramnd was shot. He survived. But before he was subdued, Armand stole a cop car, got into a shootout with an officer and led police on a wild chase north and then east, while shooting and injuring two unsuspecting car drivers along the way.

On Monday in the East Room of the White House, the two officers will receive the prestigious Medal of Valor from President Barack Obama. It’s the highest national honor awarded to a public safety officer.

--CHARLES RABIN

May 14, 2016

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla had special guests at his state Senate campaign launch, too

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@ByKristenMClark

The contentious Florida Senate race for District 37 in Miami-Dade County has attracted big guns for both the Democratic and Republican candidates.

Last week, Democratic state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez had help from both U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Senate candidate and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, at his kick-off fundraiser.

But just three days later, it turns out, his Republican opponent -- current state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla -- quietly had many special guests of his own at a similar event.

Diaz de la Portilla's campaign announced Friday that it had held a kick-off party for the senator's re-election bid on May 6.

The campaign said it was held at Casa Juancho, a Spanish restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, and featured a "standing room-only crowd comprised of more than 200 friends and family."

Among the guests in attendance, the campaign said: Miami Republican U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart; state Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton; outgoing state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami; Miami-Dade County Commissioners Barbara Jordan, Rebeca Sosa, Xavier Suarez, Javier Souto, Steve Bovo and Sally Heyman; and City of Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo.

Image3"Miguel has shown a unique ability to effectively represent our entire community. We need him in Tallahassee, fighting and delivering results for all of us," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement provided by Diaz de la Portilla's campaign.

District 37 represents much of the city of Miami and stretches south along the coast to include Coral Gables, Key Biscayne and Cutler Bay. It leans Democratic and is heavily Hispanic.

Diaz de la Portilla and Rodriguez, both of Miami, officially launched their campaigns a couple months ago, but their fundraisers marked the start of what's expected to be a heated election season this summer and fall. The race is already starting to bring in a lot of cash, with Diaz de la Portilla holding the edge over Rodriguez, as of April 30.

Diaz de la Portilla, one of the Florida Senate's more moderate Republicans, hopes to hold on to his seat. But through Rodriguez, Democrats are eyeing District 37 as one of a few seats they could pick up in November to narrow the Republican majority in the chamber.

"If you're from this diverse community, you get it: We work together for the common good," Diaz de la Portilla said in a statement Friday. "I am thankful for all the support I have received and look forward to continuing to work in Tallahassee for the entire community."

Photos courtesy of Miguel Diaz de la Portilla's re-election campaign

Bob Graham lends big name to tiny Miami Lakes campaign

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@PatriciaMazzei

The black-and-white photograph on the mailed flier harkens back to another area. The candidate for Florida governor with dark hair smiles and waves as he holds a massive thank-you sign. Longtime Miamians would recognize young Bob Graham's face anywhere.

But what's it doing on a political mailer in 2016?

Lending his big name to a tiny political campaign.

Graham is everywhere these days in Miami Lakes, the town his family helped found on land owned by his family's Graham Companies. There's mailers and door-hangers and automated telephone calls -- all paid for by the Graham Companies -- featuring the Democratic former governor and U.S. senator. He urges a "Yes" vote on a slew of changes to the town's charter.

In the campaign pieces, Graham explains his involvement -- unusual for someone of his stature -- by saying he wants one of the charter amendments in particular: the one that would require a majority vote -- and not just a plurality -- to elect the town's mayor. 

"This issue is personal to me," Graham writes in a letter printed on one of the fliers. "I finished second in the 1978 campaign for governor. Because Florida had a Majority Vote election, which required a majority of Florida voters [sic] support to be elected, there was a run off. I was then elected and had the honor to serve you for 8 years."

The town's sitting mayor, Michael Pizzi, who could be most hurt by the charter changes, called Graham's involvement unbecoming.

"I'm a great admirer of a lot of the things that Sen. Graham has done," Pizzi said. "But I just think something like this, it's a little too heavy-handed. Putting his pictures on door-knockers and robocalls, I just think it's a little bit beneath the dignity of the offices he held."

With a majority-vote rule, Pizzi could lose re-election later this year. Pizzi faces several opponents in the Nov. 8 election, making it unlikely he can clear a 50 percent-plus-1 majority. Force Pizzi into a runoff, and a united opposition -- perhaps led by the deep-pocketed Graham Companies -- could make him lose. Other charter changes would limit some of the mayor's authority.

Graham, who was unavailable Friday because he was in Los Angeles to appear as a guest on the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, told the Herald on Saturday that his support for the charter amendments has nothing to do with Pizzi.

"I have not had a conversation with the mayor on those issues, and I don't see this as a personal issue," he said. "It's in the best interest of the community."

Graham said Miami Lakes -- which he remembers from the time it was a dairy farm -- has never had a similar charter election, and his concern is for the town's long-term governance.

Pizzi is a divisive figure who beat back federal corruption charges in 2014. He has butted heads with the powerful Graham family before. He recently proposed a moratorium on any new development and voted against a project on a Graham Companies property, and he opposes a planned "mega mall" on another Graham Companies tract.

"I don't think the Graham Companies should use their power to try to overwhelm the voice of the average residents," Pizzi said, "and I think that's what they're trying to do here, and it's kind of scary."

A local political committee, Concerned Voters of Miami Lakes, has been advertising against the charter changes, and a Tallahassee-based, pro-business PAC, Save Our Constitution Now, has been pushing for them.

But it's Graham who appears to have made the biggest splash. The Graham Companies' political muscle includes The Miami Laker, a company-owned newspaper published twice a month that has prominently displayed its vote-yes stance.

"THE TRUTH behind the Special Election misinformation campaign," reads the top headline of the May 6 edition, which blasts the Concerned Voters' campaign. (Sample inside headline: "Graham Companies provides sponsorship and volunteers for Habitat for Humanity home.")

Miami Lakes resident Esperanza Reynolds , a Pizzi supporter, opposes the charter revisions because she doesn't want more power in the hands of unelected city administrators. But she called the intense campaign from both sides "strange" and Graham's interest "puzzling," even though she added, "I think the world of him."

"His family, that we look up to, telling us what we should be doing?" she said. "I'm not sure what's in it for them."

This post has been updated with Graham's comments.