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December 17, 2016

Keith Ellison says Florida Democratic Party candidate Stephen Bittel understands need for 'deep organizing to win'



U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota has endorsed Stephen Bittel, a wealthy Coconut Grove donor and developer, in his quest to become the Florida Democratic Party chair.

Bittel confirmed that Ellison was backing him on Thursday. Bittel's team that is helping him seek the state party chair post issued a statement from Ellison today:

"I support Stephen Bittel's campaign because I believe that the future of the Florida Democratic Party is built on effective field campaigning, raising the resources to win down ballot and statewide races, and recruiting top flight candidates who recognize the strength of the party apparatus. We need to do deep organizing to win and Stephen gets that."  

Ellison is the frontrunner to become the next chair of the Democratic National Committee and Bittel gets a vote in that race.

Before Bittel can run for state party chair, he has to win his race for Miami-Dade state committeeman on Tuesday where he faces former state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay. About 500 Democratic activists are expected to participate in that vote Tuesday. The winner of that race is likely to win the state chair vote Jan. 14.

The race for the Florida Democratic Party chair has become nationalized with both Bittel and Bullard drawing support from national figures. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' organization, Our Revolution, is backing Bullard. 

Florida lawmakers want to maximize classroom learning


How much classroom time Florida students spend actually learning will be a major focus for key state lawmakers in charge of dolling out more than $23 billion for pre-K-12 education next year, and some of those overhauls could be further reductions to mandatory testing as well as tweaks to the school-year calendar.

The specifics are yet to be proposed and debated, but Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Sen. David Simmons, the new chairmen of the pre-K-12 budget committees in their respective chambers, are both approaching their new responsibility with broad ambitions. They also share a unified goal to direct more dollars and resources to classrooms, even if it means upending the status quo.

“We’re going to look at and review and have oversight on every dollar in that budget. I think it’s our responsibility to ask the questions,” said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican in his third term who has had — and will continue to have — major influence in advancing school choice policies. “We want to take a deep dive and make sure that we’re getting ever penny that we can to that classroom across the board, whether it’s a traditional public school, a magnet, a charter.”

Diaz and Simmons both this week suggested revisions to the school-year calendar could be on the table in 2017, such as potentially extending the school-day for students in failing schools and adjusting when standardized tests are administered during the year.

More here.

December 16, 2016

Sen. Bill Nelson says he's disappointed with Obama White House over Russian hacks



U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said he is disappointed in President Barack Obama’s administration for not saying and doing more about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election prior to the election and failing to launch a counter cyber attack against Russia to send a message.

During a meeting with reporters in Tallahassee, Nelson, a Democrat, said it is clear the White House knew Russian President Vladimir Putin had specific involvement and was trying to tip the scales for one candidate over another. Yet the White House was not explicit enough about bringing that out in the public before the election.

“I think that was a huge mistake on the part of the Obama White House,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the U.S. should have launched its own cyber response to make the Russians think twice in the future about trying to interfere again.

“I was struck that the United States had not done some counter cyber attack against Russia, which is a way of telling them don’t mess with us,” Nelson said.

Is a contract a trade secret? Corcoran says no, but did the bill passed last year say it is?

PitbullJust months ago, Gov. Rick Scott and legislators passed legislation to expand trade secrets and potentially keep more business deals with entertainers from public view.

The governor signed and all but seven Democrats voted for two bills that expanded the definition of trade secrets to allow more agencies to shield commercial and financial information from the public. The legislation took effect Oct. 1.

If the now controversial Pitbull contract hadn't already been signed, Visit Florida could have argued that the state law required it keep the contract details secret, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation who urged the governor to veto the bill.

"It would allow them to do exactly what Visit Florida did,'' she said. "If the amount of a contract is not commercial information, I don't know what is."

Pitbull's $1 million contract with the state has been under fire after House Speaker Richard Corcoran filed a lawsuit asking a court to order Visit Florida to release the details of the rapper's agreement to promote Florida beaches.

Pitbull then released the details of the contract on his Twitter feed and on Friday Scott ordered Visit Florida to make a series of changes designed to make its operations more transparent. Scott also ousted Will Seccombe, the head of the agency, who signed the deal.

But Petersen is not convinced that the governor's transparency order is really designed to allow the public access to expensive business deals.

"It's more about saving Visit Florida than about transparency,'' she said. "The hypocrisy is amazing.''

"This is the same governor that asserted he didn't use private email accounts, [and spent $700,000 to settle a lawsuit as a result], that lied to us for months about the existence of his transition team emails,'' she said.

"With the collusion of his general counsel, he fired [FDLE Commissioner] Gerald Bailey in violation of the Sunshine Law. I know it's cynical but I think he is saying; 'Legislature, you can't get rid of Visit Florida because I'm making them transparent.'"

Corcoran argues that the legislation had nothing to do with shielding contracts from public disclosure but strengthening the existing trade secret statutes.

Continue reading "Is a contract a trade secret? Corcoran says no, but did the bill passed last year say it is?" »

Secret deal with Pitbull costs state tourism agency head his job


Secret terms of a contract with Miami music star Pitbull to promote Florida beaches has cost the head of the state’s tourism agency his job.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Friday called for Visit Florida’s CEO Will Seccombe to resign, even while noting that Florida has had record tourism in each of the last 4 years that Seccombe has led the agency.

“The mission of Visit Florida is crucial to the economic growth of our state and Will Seccombe has played a major role for many years in helping Florida attract record numbers of tourists,” Scott said in a letter to the chairman of the Visit Florida board of directors. “However, the major changes outlined above require new leadership and ideas at the agency, and I believe it would be best for the future efforts of Visit Florida for Will to step down and allow new leadership to come in at this critical time.”

Scott praised Pitbull in the letter for his “devotion to our great state.”

On Thursday, Pitbull released terms of the secret deal on Twitter, showing he made $1 million from Visit Florida to promote the state on social media, in a music video and at live concerts. He released the contract after Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran sued the music star’s production company to force him to release the details.

Seccombe had refused to divulge the contract, saying part of the deal with Pitbull prevented release of the details which the musician claimed to be a “trade secret.”

Seccombe said earlier this week that he would never do another deal without disclosing the contracts, but insisted it was a smart contract because it help Florida reach millions of Pitbull’s fans with a message that Florida’s beaches are cool.

"The strategy behind that was dead on," Seccombe said.

But Scott said Friday that it was "ridiculous" that Visit Florida would not be transparent in its spending. In addition to calling for Seccombe's ouster, Scott has requested Visit Florida set new policies and procedures to assure they are open and sharing details of their organization with the public.

Visit Florida's budget since 2009 has grown $29 million to $78 million since 2009. In that same time period, the state's visitors jumped from 82 million to 106 million.

The deal with Pitbull paid the performer:

• $250,000 in July 2015 for a "talent fee" and use of his name and likeness.

• $250,000 after he completed a music video for Sexy Beaches that included footage of Florida beaches and a social media hashtag promoting Florida.

• $100,000 for cutting a 10 to 15 second intro as part of a "Conquering Florida" video series Visit Florida uses to promote the state.

• $100,000 for six "Florida Pit Package" sweepstakes that would include travel packages to Florida.

• $300,000 for promoting Florida on social media platforms at least two times a month with the hashtag #LoveFL.

Bill Nelson: Stephen Bittel 'would bring a lot to the Florida Democratic Party'

Nelson_bill 121616


Florida's top Democratic elected official says he's a fan of Stephen Bittel as a future leader in the Florida Democratic Party but his praise stops short of a formal endorsement.

Talking with reporters in Tallahassee on Friday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was delicate in how he answered questions about the future of the state Democratic Party -- the fate of which rests on the outcome of a special Miami-Dade party election on Tuesday.

"I'm trying to keep a low profile and let the party process work its will, because the minute that I stick my head out then people are going to say I'm trying to influence the election," Nelson told reporters. "I can tell you that Stephen Bittel is a personal friend and he would bring a lot to the Florida Democratic Party."

Bittel, a Coconut Grove developer, and former Cutler Bay state Sen. Dwight Bullard are competing for the position of Miami-Dade County Democratic Party committeeman. The special election on Dec. 20 comes after Bret Berlin stepped down earlier this month four days after being re-elected, making way for Bittel. The winner of the Bittel-Bullard contest will likely become the next state party chairman.

MORE: "With Florida Democratic Party in balance, lowly Miami-Dade race goes national"

Nelson praised outgoing state party chairwoman Allison Tant for having done "a remarkable job" leading the party and raising money while facing a Republican governor and Republican-controlled Legislature.

"It's very hard under those circumstances for the chair of the party to raise the money, and yet she has still done an exceptional job in the face of huge huge odds," Nelson said. "Going forward, I see that Stephen Bittel is someone that I know personally who could continue that excellent job."

"And beyond that, I better not get into it," Nelson said, declining any comment on Bullard.

Nelson also wouldn't touch on the political maneuvering that's made the way for Bittel to have a shot at Miami-Dade Democratic committeeman.

"I can only repeat to you what I know is happening," he said. "There is now a race for the state committeeman position in Miami-Dade County, and in order to be eligible for running for state party chair under state party rules, you have to be either a party chair, a vice chair or state committeeman or woman to run. That's my comment on that. I just don't know how that election is going."

Don't slash tourism budget over Pitbull deal, key senator warns




It would be a huge mistake for Florida to slash its tourism marketing budget just because of one ill-advised deal with pop music star Pitbull, a key state senator with influence over the state budget says.

For sure, Visit Florida made a mistake in striking a $1 million deal with the Miami music celebrity - then keeping it secret - to promote the state’s beaches, State Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala said. But the Clearwater Republican said in light of the shaky economy, the worst thing Florida could do is slash tourism marketing.

“What has kept our whole financial outlook from softening up has been our strong tourism economy,” Latvala said.

On Thursday, state economists said economic growth from construction has slowed, but record tourism has helped make up for that and kept the state from slipping into a worse financial situation.

Latvala said Visit Florida has mostly done a good job in marketing the state and growing both the number of tourists and attracting tourist who spend more, thus helping Florida’s economy. In each of the last five years, Florida has set records for the number of tourists. One bad deal shouldn’t result in a retreat from an agency that has been producing results, Latvala said.

“I didn’t ever understand why we were using him,” Latvala said of the Pitbull deal.

Since 2009, the Florida Legislature has increased Visit Florida's budget from $29 million to $78 million. During that same period the number of visitors to Florida grew from 82 million to 106 million and visitor spending it up $30 billion.

New Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran has threatened to zero out Visit Florida’s entire budget and has questioned whether taxpayers paying for marketing is truly a proper role of government. The Pitbull contract has added to the tension. Visit Florida had refused to release the contract publicly saying it was a trade secret to protect Pitbull. Corcoran sued Pitbull earlier this week, and Pitbull responded by releasing the details of the $1 million contract on Twitter.

The House’s sudden outrage over Visit Florida is “puzzling” Latvala said. He said in each of the last two years (when Corcoran was the House Appropriations chairman), the House proposed increasing Visit Florida budget by millions more than what the Senate suggested. Now he said the House is apparently reversing course on their own philosophy.

Corcoran said Visit Florida’s budget increases were a tradeoff in years past, and not necessarily something he supported. He said accomplishing other conservative goals required having to “swallow tourism promotion funding for a year or two.”

“But, just because we fund something one year doesn’t mean we’ve given up the fight,” Corcoran said.

Visit Florida officials say the money to Pitbull, a British soccer team and a race car team are all based on market research and trying to grow its share of international tourists and millennials that are increasingly harder to reach through traditional marketing programs. But those deals have also produced some of the harshest criticism who worry the agency is getting to loose with taxpayer money and taking too many risks.

Trump plans to spend Christmas in Mar-a-Lago

@PatriciaMazzei @anitakumar01

President-elect Donald Trump will head to his Palm Beach estate Friday night, with plans to remain there through the Christmas holiday.

According to Trump's transition team, Trump and his family could stay at Mar-a-Lago for two weeks -- for both Christmas and New Year's -- though the president-elect's schedule is known to change.

Mar-a-lago is expected to serve as a "winter White House" of sorts for Trump during the administration. Most of the high-level transition has taken place at his Manhattan home base, Trump Tower.

Trump's "thank you" tour will hit Orlando on Friday and Alabama on Saturday.

Miami Gardens Democrat wants to ban concealed guns at Florida arts centers, theaters



Concealed firearms and other weapons are already banned from more than a dozen specific places in Florida, like polling sites, schools or sporting events.

And while conservative lawmakers want to take some locations off that list in 2017, one Miami Gardens senator thinks an addition is needed.

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon filed legislation this week (SB 170) that would ban concealed weapons from "any performing arts center or legitimate theater."

Braynon said the inspiration for the bill came from his experience serving as a board member overseeing the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.

"You see all these events -- whether Pulse or the movie theater (in Aurora, Colo.) -- places where people are gathered and you know what time they're going to be there, maybe we need to be more vigilant, more cautious," Braynon said.

A permit is required to carry a concealed firearm or weapon in Florida. Nearly 1.7 million people have such permits.

In Florida's Republican-led Legislature, proposals to open up gun-owners' rights to carry are more commonly considered and supported than ones like Braynon's that could restrict those rights.

Nonetheless, Braynon said he's optimistic his bill could get consideration and that his Senate colleagues will view his proposal as reasonable and one that's in line with existing Florida law.

But one key Republican senator said Braynon's proposal is already a non-starter.

Continue reading "Miami Gardens Democrat wants to ban concealed guns at Florida arts centers, theaters" »

Trump returns to Florida on 'thank you' tour



President-elect Donald Trump returns to Florida today for his first pubic event in the state since it helped him win the presidency last month.

Trump is set to speak at a campaign-style rally at the Central Florida Fairgrounds in Orlando at 7 p.m. as part of his USA Thank You Tour. Vice president-elect Mike Pence will be on hand as well.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi are scheduled to appear at the rally. State Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who co-chaired Trump's Florida campaign, will be master of ceremonies.

Bondi is considered a likely pick for a White House job. Friday morning, Scott said he hoped the attorney general would remain in Florida.

"Pam Bondi's a friend. I hope she doesn't leave," Scott said. "If she does, I know she'll work hard and will do a good job but my goal is that she not leave."

The USA Thank You Tour has brought the president-elect to battleground states key to his election night victory. And Florida's 29 electoral votes were critical to that win.

Trump made dozens of appearances in Florida during the campaign, pushing hard to take a must-win state that voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. With polls showing him neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in Florida in the final days of the campaign, Trump won by 112,911 votes.

For the most part, the tour events have been similar to Trump campaign stops. However, he has made news at some of them. In Cincinnati on Dec. 1, Trump announced that he would appoint retired Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense.

--Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed reporting.

Photo: Then-candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Sarasota on Nov. 7, the day before winning the presidential election. (Loren Elliott, Tampa Bay Times)