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April 18, 2016

Palm Beach congressional candidate files for St. Pete seat


Democrat Dwight Dudley has drawn a Republican challenger for his St. Petersburg-based House seat: A South Florida congressional candidate and advocate for the disabled named Joseph "JB" Bensmihen.

The former CEO and owner of Boca Home Care Services, Bensmihen filed for the seat Friday using a St. Petersburg address, but less than a year ago, he declared candidacy for a South Florida congressional race.

Bensmihen filed to challenge U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, according to the Federal Elections Commission.

State lawmakers must live in their district but do not have to prove residency until after the election.

Bensmihen, 47, was born with spastic cerebral palsy and has advocated for the disabled since he was 12, according to his campaign website.

Dudley has held the Pinellas County seat, which leans Democratic but is competitive, since 2012. In 2014, he beat Bill Young, the son of former congressman CW Bill Young, with 53 percent of the vote.

Proponents of Cuba engagement to launch Miami Spanish-language radio program

Obama US Cuba


Opening a new front in their political push for closer U.S.-Cuba ties, proponents of Cuba engagement are taking to the medium that for decades has voiced the most strident opposition to their cause: Miami's Spanish-language radio.

The hour-long paid program will debut Tuesday on WQBA-AM (1140), a local station owned by media giant Univision. For its inaugural show, CUBAHORA -- a play on words that translates to "Cuba Now" or "Cuba Hour" -- will feature an interview with former U.S. Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American Republican who favors normalized relations with the island. Though the program is paid advertising, Tuesday's interviewers will be WQBA anchor José Alfonso Almora, a trusted voice among listeners.

Lengthy paid programming is not unusual on Spanish-language radio, especially during election season, when candidates or their Hispanic surrogates seek to reach older Cuban-American voters who reliably cast ballots (the programs include a disclaimer). But a weekly slot to push the pro-engagement position might still surprise listeners used to anchors with a more hardline editorial bent. Notably, the program won't air on the higher-rated -- and more conservative -- Radio Mambí, WQBA's sister station and Univision's local Spanish-language flagship. (WQBA was once so focused on its Cuban-exile listeners it called itself "La Cubanísima," which loosely translates to "the very Cuban.")

The program is paid for by Cuba Now, a nonprofit group that advocates among other things for lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Its executive director, Ric Herrero, will provide commentary alongside Almora.

Continue reading "Proponents of Cuba engagement to launch Miami Spanish-language radio program" »

Former Miami U.S. attorney had asked Justice Department to investigate Carnival cruise to Cuba


Before Carnival Corp. announced Monday it would postpone its upcoming cruise to Cuba if Cuban-born Americans couldn't buy tickets, it faced political pressure from all sides -- including, as it turns out, from a one-time Miami federal prosecutor.

Former U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez had asked the Justice Department last week to investigate whether Carnival's trip would violate civil-rights protections. He had tried to book passage on the cruise and was told he couldn't because he was born in Cuba.

"I thought that was pretty outrageous," he said. "It kind of just hits you, like, 'Whoa, what do you mean I can't? I'm a U.S. citizen."

The cruise company had originally planned to set sail even if the Cuban government continued to prohibit Cuban-born Americans from traveling to the island by sea. It now intends to postpone the May 1 voyage if Cuba doesn't lift its decree before then.

"Smart," Martinez said Monday.

Last Thursday, he wrote Attorney General Loretta Lynch. He's yet to get a response but said he knows his letter got read by some DOJ folks.

"That the U.S. civil rights laws prohibit national origin discrimination should not be surprising to anyone, least of all to a major U.S. business, such as Carnival, with its operational headquarters based in Miami, Florida. And yet, that is exactly what Carnival is doing," he wrote. "Shamelessly, Carnival tries to absolve itself from its illegal conduct by pointing its finger at the Cuban Government and blaming it for its discriminatory laws. But, it is Carnival that is playing the role of the Cuban Government police, doing its dirty work by enforcing the Cuban Government's discriminatory laws. Carnival is willing to play that role for business reasons."

In a statement Monday, Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said he expects Cuba to change its regulations.

"We want everyone to be able to go to Cuba with us," he said.

Read Martinez's letter: Letter

Donald Trump wrongly blames Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush for Florida's winner-take-all primary


Donald Trump has been on a tear accusing the Republican establishment of rigging the system to hurt him, despite the fact that he leads the delegate count in the primaries.

One of the states where leaders are out to get him is Florida, he says. The state’s March 15 primary was "winner-take-all," which means all of the delegates went to one winner, who ended up being Trump.

"You speak about what’s unfair, so in Florida you had 99 delegates," he said in aspeech in Rome, N.Y. "And Jeb Bush had it set -- Jeb Bush or Rubio, both of them. They had it set so that the winner takes everything, because they wanted to make sure that I didn't get anything."

Did Bush and Rubio set the Florida primary for winner-take-all because they wanted to prevent Trump from getting any delegates?

Republican officials did hope a winner-take-all primary would benefit Bush or Rubio, but Trump gets some of his key facts wrong. Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.

Photo by the Associated Press.

Senate super PACs sitting on $3 million


In the race for Florida's open Senate seat, super PACs backing would-be Marco Rubio successors are stockpiling funds.

Among the four Republicans and one Democrat with super PACs supporting them, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy's -- Floridians for a Strong Middle Class -- raised the most in the last three months, according to Federal Election Commission reports, bringing in $405,000 and entering April with $841,346 on hand.

But U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis has more money, about $1.2 million, sitting in the bank. Fighting for Florida Fund, which supports the Ponte Vedra Beach Republican, raised $240,000 from January to March.

It's illegal for campaigns to coordinate with super PACs, but the committees align with one candidate and are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts.

FloridAmerican Conservatives, which backs U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, brought in $171,000 and has $272,629 cash on hand.

The committee backing Republican Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, called Reform Washington, raised $80,000 to have $740,497 on hand.

And Manatee County homebuilder Carlos Beruff raised no money in his newly minted super PAC, called Lets Clean Up Washington.

Two candidates do not have super PACs. They are Republican Todd Wilcox, a defense contractor from Orlando, and U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando.

Florida Supreme Court chief justice to attend White House forum


Jorge-Labarga-2015Jorge Labarga, the chief justice of Florida's Supreme Court, is participating at an event at the White House on Tuesday to promote ways to help low-income Americans seek justice through the court system.

Labarga is one of six state chief justices invited, the Florida Supreme Court said in a news release this morning.

Speakers at the event include U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston and John Levi, the chairman of the Legal Services Corp., which is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans and a co-sponsor of the non-partisan forum. After the forum, a reception at the U.S. Supreme Court will include remarks by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

It's the second year that Labarga has participated.

“I am eager to once again bring Florida’s perspective to this critically important national conversation,” Labarga said in a statement. “And I look forward to hearing about initiatives and innovations elsewhere that we may very well want to explore here in Florida.”

Access to civil justice has been one of Labarga's top priorities as head of Florida's judicial branch. In 2014, he created the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice -- which is researching ways to bring down barriers that keep poor people from seeking the help of the courts in matters such as child custody and landlord-tenant disputes.

“The lack of meaningful access to civil justice is so critically urgent that I believe it can be fairly described as a crisis," Labarga said.

He praised attorneys and legal groups that work to help people who can't afford a lawyer, but he said, "the simple truth is that the gaps in access to civil justice are bigger than the legal community. We are grappling with a societal problem. And it needs a societal answer.”

The forum will be live-streamed at

State Senator Greg Evers files to run for Congress


state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, won't seek re-election and instead has filed to run for Congress in a Florida Panhandle district that already includes six other Republican candidates and two Democrats.

Among those Evers will be competing against is State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Destin, who announced last month that he would abandon his state senate campaign and instead run for the 1st Congressional District. That seat became an open seat when U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, announced he would not see re-election. Miller had been in Congress since 2001.

Evers had originally filed for re-election to the State Senate in October of last year. But on Saturday, Evers filed a statement of candidacy for Congress with the Federal Election Commission. Evers has been in the Florida Legislature since 2001. He was a House member from 2001 to 2010. Since 2010 he has been in the Florida Senate.

Besides Evers and Gaetz, other Republicans who have filed to run for the seat include: Brian Wayne Frazier,Richard Eric Gazlay, John Mills, Cris Dosev and James Zumwalt.

National, state teachers unions endorse Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate


The state's largest teachers union and its two national affiliates are endorsing Democrat Patrick Murphy in Florida's U.S. Senate race.

The Florida Education Association threw its support behind the Jupiter congressman with an announcement Monday morning in Palm Beach County. The FEA represents over 140,000 teachers and school support professionals in the state.

President Joanne McCall said, at the FEA's recommendation, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers back Murphy's U.S. Senate bid, too.

"We support Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate because he has proven time and time again wholehearted commitment to education and Florida’s teachers and education staff professionals," McCall said. "Patrick has stood with our teachers, education staff professionals, parents and students when it mattered the most. He knows that there is nothing more important to Florida's children's futures than a high-quality education."

Murphy said he'd continue to support fully funding education including Title I and Head Start programs, better teacher pay and universal access to pre-K education, as well as backing away from high-stakes standardized testing.

"We’re setting back an entire generation. We’ve got to make sure we’re moving toward debt-free education," Murphy said during his remarks.

Murphy has racked up establishment endorsements during the course of his bid for Marco Rubio's open U.S. Senate seat. Other union support includes the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Florida Teamsters, among others.

His primary opponent -- fellow U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando -- has also gotten support from some unions, including the Communications Workers of America.

Dozen more apply to be Florida's next insurance commissioner


Twelve more people have filed to be Florida's next insurance commissioner since Gov. Rick Scott and Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater deadlocked over the issue last month, but there are no indications either is closer to agreeing on a successor to longtime commissioner Kevin McCarty.

On March 29 at the last meeting of Florida's 4-member cabinet, Scott and Atwater could not agree on a single candidate for the job. Under state law, the elected CFO and governor must both agree on who the state's insurance commissioner will be. With no resolution in sight, the Cabinet agreed to re-open the application process with an eye toward trying against to vote on an insurance commissioner at their next meeting, which is on April 26.

At the last meeting, Atwater recommended state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, for the position, which pays up to $200,000 a year. Scott refused to agree with Atwater and has instead supported Pinellas County resident Jeffrey Bragg for the position.

Bragg, a former U.S. Treasury official who ran the nation's terrorism risk insurance program under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told the Times/Herald that he's still pressing forward hoping to get the position.

"I do remain interested in the position," said Bragg, a Safety Harbor resident.

Hager, vice chairman of the Florida House Banking and Insurance Committee and a former Iowa insurance commissioner, isn't giving up either. In an interview on Friday, Hager said he's "100 percent committed" to getting the position.

McCarty announced earlier this year that he is resigning as Florida Insurance Commissioner effective May 2. McCarty has been the insurance commissioner for more than 12 years.

Hager and Bragg were the only two candidates out of the original 55 that the cabinet agreed to bring in for a final interview at their March 29 meeting.

Besides Bragg and Hager, those 55 candidates included top state insurance regulators from Missouri, Nevada, Illinois, Alabama and Tennessee. Of the 12 latest candidates, most have private insurance market experience but none have lead another state's insurance commission office, though one candidate, Michael Bownes served for 16 years as general counsel for Alabama's Department of Insurance. Four candidates on the list currently work in the upper ranks of Florida's Office of Insurance Regulation, including McCarty's chief of staff Belinda Miller, chief actuary Eric Johnson, and deputy commissioners Rich Robleto and David Altmaier. Those four were all interviewed privately by Atwater, but none were brought back for a public interview at the March cabinet meeting.

Rep. Lake Ray interested in Ander Crenshaw's congressional seat


An outgoing state House member from Jacksonville says he's exploring a bid to replace Ander Crenshaw in the U.S. Congress.

Republican State Rep. Lake Ray announced his plans on Twitter this morning to campaign for Florida's Fourth Congressional District seat.

"We need to make sure NE Florida is well-represented," Ray wrote. "This congressional race will be about experience. We can't afford to have someone learn on the job."

Every hour for 10 hours today, Ray plans to tweet accomplishments "that will demonstrate why I am exploring this run."

Ray was first elected to the Florida House in 2008; he faces term limits and can't run for re-election. Before his time in the Legislature, he was on the Jacksonville City Council from 1999-2007.

Crenshaw, 71, announced last week that he wouldn't seek re-election to Congress after serving eight terms in office.

Several Jacksonville-area legislators have been named as possible candidates in the race to replace him.

As of Monday morning, only one person had filed with the Federal Election Commission for the open seat: St. Johns County Commissioner Bill McClure, a Republican who runs a health care technology company in St. Augustine.