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June 18, 2018

Democrat Nikki Fried officially launches campaign for Agriculture Commissioner

Nikki Fried, a lawyer from South Florida, speaks to the camera in a video announcing her campaign for Agriculture Commissioner. | YouTube screen capture

While it was no secret Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer Nikki Fried was going to run as a Democrat for Commissioner of Agriculture, she officially launched her campaign Monday morning with a video announcement.

Fried filed her campaign paperwork last week.

A longtime advocate for expanding patients' access to medical marijuana, her video focused largely on that issue as well as the Department of Agriculture's role in background checks for concealed carry permits.

READ MORE: Why does Florida’s agriculture department handle concealed gun permits? The NRA wants it to.

"There is no clearer example of our broken government than medical marijuana and this deadly weapon," Fried says in the video, over images of an assault rifle being fired in slow motion. "One helps sick and dying Floridians and is over-regulated and the other one is used to terrorize our schools and our communities and is barely regulated at all."

READ MORE: Adam Putnam’s office stopped reviewing concealed weapons background checks for a year because it couldn’t log in

However, many don't typically think of the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services having direct authority over medical marijuana. Since voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing medical marijuana in 2016, the state Department of Health and the Legislature has crafted its rules and regulations.

A court recently struck down the Legislature's ban on smoking medical cannabis, which it had argued could be used as a "backdoor attempt" to move to recreational use.

But Fried explained that the Commissioner of Agriculture has oversight over pesticides used for growing marijuana in Florida as well as the food safety rules surrounding medical edibles. Eventually, she sees total legalization in Florida's future.

"As the state moves toward potential legalization then it just becomes a crop," she said to the Times/Herald.

"The growing of cannabis as well as industrial hemp are the next cash crops in the state of Florida," especially after Florida's issues with citrus greening, she added.

Fried will be running against two other Democrats in the Aug. 28 primary, Jeffrey Porter and R. David Walker. Her GOP opponents are Baxter Troutman, a former state House member from Winter Haven; Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring; Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers; and Plant City businessman Mike McCalister, a retired Army National Guard and Reserves colonel.

In response to the announcement, Brian Swensen, spokesperson for Caldwell’s campaign said: “We have all known Nikki Fried as a long time lobbyist and Tallahassee insider," adding that her call for increased regulations on guns "proves the importance of having the Republican nominee be an unwavering defender of the 2nd Amendment. Matt is the only candidate to consistently have an A+ NRA rating and he will not compromise."

Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Grimsley's campaign, said the former state senator "is focused on her campaign and winning the Republican primary. We look forward to a spirited campaign with the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be.”

June 16, 2018

Mayor Levine: Four years of accomplishments, conflicts and self-promotion

Levine0095 JAI

Shortly after voters made him mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine gave his campaign strategist a garish poster with the strategist's comically smiling face mounted atop the rippled body of warrior Spartan King Leonidas.

Standing before a bloody battlefield, political consultant David Custin carried in his hands two severed heads. One belonged to a vanquished mayoral opponent, and the other to Levine’s predecessor, a 74-year-old woman.

It was supposed to be funny — a gag gift. But all jokes have a little truth to them, and Levine didn’t spend $2 million of his own money on his inaugural political campaign just to go-along-to-get-along at City Hall.

Instead, Levine stormed his way into City Hall five years ago pushing a big-picture agenda that several campaign insiders say was always intended to promote plans for higher office. He paradoxically slayed the political establishment with an assist from Bill Clinton, and steered Miami Beach's cumbersome government in directions that won international acclaim but at times also favored his political aspirations and financial assets.

In slogging his way to Democratic front-runner in the race for governor, Levine has campaigned heavily on his tenure as mayor. And everyone seems to agree: What Miami Beach got during four years of Levine is what Florida will get if he ends up winning four years as governor.

“He was a force of nature,” said Frank Del Vecchio, a prominent gadfly. “He was the best mayor and the worst mayor, simultaneously.”

More here.

June 15, 2018

Rick Scott fires back in lawsuit over early voting on campus

Gov. Rick Scott's administration fired back in federal court Friday, seeking to undercut a League of Women Voters lawsuit over early voting on college campuses.

The League last month sued Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, whose office in 2014 interpreted state law to exclude state university buildings from a list of sites available for early voting.

Florida allows early voting at elections offices, city halls, libraries, fairgrounds, civic centers, courthouses, county commission buildings, stadiums, convention centers, government-owned senior centers and government-owned community centers.

But buildings on state college and university campuses? No. Democrats tried to include them as early voting sites, but Republicans blocked the proposal.

Scott's lawyers asked the federal court to step aside and let the case be decided by a state judge.

"A state court, interpreting state law, can decide the case on narrow, statutory interpretation grounds and, perhaps, avoid any constitutional issues," the state's brief said.

The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, who has ruled decisively against Scott in two previous voting rights cases.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are nine students at UF and Florida State.

One of them, Megan Newsome, an astrophysics major, wrote an op-ed column in the Gainesville Sun last November that got the attention of Guy Cecil, the head of a Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, which supports the lawsuit against Scott's administration.

Scott's legal brief dismissed claims by students that they faced parking and logistical hurdles that makes it harder for them to vote early.

"Having to go one mile off campus for college-aged voters who have a history of actually voting in elections cannot impose a constitutionally cognizable burden or serve as the basis for a plausible claim for relief," Scott's lawyers wrote.

The lawsuit stems from a decision by Detzner's office in 2014 to reject a request by the city of Gainesville to use the Wayne Reitz Student Union building at UF as an early voting site.

With the student union off-limits for early voting, the closest early voting site for UF students is the county elections headquarters, which is 1.2 miles from campus.

READ MORE: Florida's early voting ban on campus challenged in court

As governor, Scott signed into law restrictions on voting that Democrats claimed was a voter suppression tactic to depress liberal turnout for the 2012 election when Obama sought re-election.

Scott signed a subsequent law in 2013 that expanded the hours, days and locations of early voting. The Reitz Union can be used as a polling site on election day. The question in the suit is whether it can be used for early voting, which is growing in popularity throughout the state.

Nelson offered this man up for a judicial position. Now he’ll vote against him.

Bill Nelson

via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson said today he will vote against a judicial nominee he offered up to the White House along with Sen. Marco Rubio, a remarkable turn that raises questions about Nelson's own vetting process as he tried to put the focus on the state's Judicial Nominating Commission

"Because of the information brought up by the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will vote against the confirmation of Allen Winsor," the Florida Democrat said in a statement that provided no specifics.

His office would not elaborate on the record.

Nelson and his staff interviewed Winsor, who has opposed same-sex marriage, before his name was submitted to the White House, along with a list of other candidates. A spokesman, Ryan Brown, would not answer questions about that vetting.

Nelson's statement punts to the JNC.

"For years, Florida's two senators have relied on a bipartisan Judicial Nominating Commission to select our state's judicial nominees. This system, which was designed to take politics out of the process, only works if Florida's two senators agree to respect the commission's choices and jointly send the names they choose to the White House for consideration. This is exactly what we did in the case of Allen Winsor."

Winsor, picked to succeed U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle for a spot in the Northern District of Florida, was approved along partisan lines by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday and was sent to the full Senate for consideration. Democrats objected over his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Winsor was among the named Nelson and Rubio offered to the White House in December.

"We received the following unranked list of finalists on November 15, 2017: Martin Fitzpatrick, Jan Shackelford, Kent Wetherell, and Allen Winsor. We have separately interviewed the finalists. Subject to further review of their records and background, we are submitting them to you for the president's consideration," a letter read.

That means the White House picked Winsor.

As Gary Fineout of the Associated Press reported, Winsor is currently a Florida appeals court judge, but before he was appointed to that job by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, he worked as solicitor general for Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Winsor was in that role when he defended Florida's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages that was eventually struck down. He was one of the lawyers who argued in a legal brief for the state that recognizing same-sex marriages from other states would "impose significant public harm" and that the state has a legitimate interest in defining marriage as between a man and woman.

Scott, who is challenging Nelson for Senate, issued a statement through the campaign.

"Bill Nelson is so partisan that a small group of out-of-state democrats can force him to vote against a Floridian that he interviewed, recommended and supported," spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said. "Despite claiming to be independent, Bill Nelson's own actions show that when democrats like party boss Chuck Schumer say 'jump,' Nelson's only question is 'how high?'"

Rubio in 2013 held up a judicial nominee — after submitting a JNC approved name to the Obama White House –amid objections from Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, now chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Republicans blindsided by Trump opposition to immigration plan



House Republicans who spent months carefully crafting an immigration reform plan found themselves not rounding up votes on Friday but refreshing their phones to see if a presidential tweet would blow up the entire effort.

President Donald Trump had just thrown a wrench in months of immigration talks, saying in an early morning interview with Fox News he "certainly won't sign" the all-GOP compromise immigration bill.

As a result, House Republicans who had planned votes on two immigration bills next week went home unsure what would come next. The House does not plan to return to Washington until late Tuesday.

Don't fret, Republicans said, the president will surely clarify his remarks.

"I think if we get that clarification then I think we're still good to go," said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington, one of the Republicans who had earlier considered forcing a series of immigration votes on the House floor against the wishes of GOP leaders.

Three hours later, the tweet came.

"The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda," Trump tweeted. "Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration. Go for it! WIN!"

Trump's tweet didn't acknowledge the most important part of any deal for Republicans like Miami Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart: a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as young children.

Democrats hate the all-Republican immigration deal hatched this week. Staunch conservative Republicans are balking at the deal, too.

The deal now hinges on Trump's support, or lack of it.

"This bill will be difficult to pass with Republican votes only unless President Trump says that he is considering supporting it, that might be good enough, even if he doesn't say I will sign it," said Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "If you're a Republican and you're facing a challenging political environment and the president who is very popular in your district, not mine, says that he's against this bill why in the world would you vote in favor of it?"

Read more here.

June 14, 2018

Nelson up with first Spanish-language ad

Bill Nelson

via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson has released his first Spanish-language ad, which will begin today on Facebook and Twitter and other digital platforms, the campaign said.

It follows Gov. Rick Scott's latest Spanish-language ad, one tied to the World Cup. And like Scott, Nelson shows off his bilingual skills in the spot. It highlights Nelson's voyage into space.

The campaign did not say how much money is behind the ad.

Politico today reported on Nelson's struggle with name ID among Hispanics, another worry for Democrats.

Watch Nelson's ad below: 

Here's Scott's ad:

GOP immigration bill overturns policy of separating families who cross the border


@kateirby @alextdaugherty

Republicans crafting an immigration bill want to overturn a contentious component of President Donald Trump's border enforcement strategy: Separating parents and children who cross the border together.

Children who cross the border with their parents can only be released back to their parents, even if that would mean putting the family in a detention facility, under immigration legislation being drafted by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Its text, released Thursday, would require that officials place children who crossed the border with a parent or legal guardian only be placed with that parent or guardian, not any other relatives or foster settings.

"In no circumstances shall an alien minor who is not an unaccompanied alien child be released by the Secretary of Homeland Security other than to a parent or legal guardian," the text reads.

The 293-page bill, a compromise between Republicans looking to reform immigration law and the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is likely to face a House vote next week. It's possible the bill will be amended before a vote next week.

Under the recently announced zero-tolerance policy of President Donald Trump's administration, children and parents (or legal guardians) who cross the border together are separated. That's because the adult is at least temporarily placed in a detention facility, while current law says children have to be placed in the "least restrictive" setting.

The zero-tolerance policy, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April, charges all adults who cross the border unlawfully with a crime, even if they're seeking asylum.

The policy has gained widespread attention in recent days with dozens of demonstrations planned around the country to protest separating children and their parents.

Read more here.

Once ‘wrong’ on issue, Rubio now wants to protect students who can’t pay back student loans


Marco Rubio 3


Saying he was wrong to once support legislation that hurt workers who defaulted on student loans, Sen. Marco Rubio today introduced a bill with Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren to prevent states from suspending professional licenses from borrowers who are delinquent.

"Difficulty repaying a student loan debt should not threaten a graduate's job. It makes no sense to revoke a professional license from someone who is trying to pay their student loans," Rubio said in a news release with his liberal colleague. "Our bill would fix this 'catch-22' and ensure that borrowers are able to continue working to pay off their loans."

The Protecting Job Opportunities for Borrowers (Protecting JOBs) Act "would prevent states from suspending, revoking or denying state professional licenses solely because borrowers are behind on their federal student loan payments," according to the release. "The bill achieves this goal by using the same statutory structure that requires certain members of the Armed Forces receive in-state tuition as a condition of the states' colleges and universities receiving certain federal funds under the Higher Education Act."

Said Warren: "State governments punishing people struggling with student loans by taking away drivers' and professional licenses is wrong. These policies don't make sense, because they make it even harder for people to put food on the table and get out of debt. I'm glad to work with Senator Rubio to make sure borrowers can work to pay off crushing debt and build a future."

Rubio carried heavy student loan debt into his Senate career and used proceeds of a book deal to pay that off.

Two Miami Republicans play key role in immigration compromise

Curbelo (1)


Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo walked into House Speaker Paul Ryan's office on Tuesday, intent on solving 20 years of immigration inaction in 70 minutes.

They got close.

An effort by the Miami Republicans to force a series of immigration votes in defiance of Ryan came up short, and a faction of Republicans including Diaz-Balart and Curbelo who want to find a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants known as Dreamers were forced to compromise with conservative Republicans.

The compromise is a yet-unreleased bill drafted by Ryan that includes a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for cuts to visas doled out through a lottery and to the family members of immigrants, along with $25 billion for border security. 

"There are things that I really dislike in the bill but I think there has been a very good-faith effort to do something that can hopefully pass," Diaz-Balart said. "My ideal, preferred option is to do a bipartisan bill on this, but we don't have that option."

Diaz-Balart is a veteran of past immigration negotiations, but Curbelo wasn't in Congress when the House decided not to vote on a comprehensive immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013. Curbelo initiated a petition last month that would have forced a series of votes on four immigration bills, a gambit that put the immigration issue back on the front burner after the lack of a court decision on the fate of Dreamers in March pushed the immigration issue to second-tier status.

"Think about where we were a month ago," Curbelo said. "We're about to get major immigration legislation to the floor."

The immigration legislation, which doesn't exist as a bill yet, is a compromise among Republicans. Democrats aren't likely to support the bill even though a small group of far-right Republicans will likely vote against the compromise legislation.

"It’s now clear the only way Republicans will consider miserly relief for some Dreamers is if the proposal guts legal immigration, turbocharges deportations, builds a wasteful and unnecessary wall, and intensifies the torture of asylum seekers at the border," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a left-leaning immigration group. "Any member of Congress who says they stand for Dreamers cannot in good conscience support these bills."

Read more here.

What is Scott and Cabinet's approach to questions at Department of Revenue? Not my problem

Florida Cabinet KeelerThe state agency charged with collecting taxes purged the top employees at the Division of Property Tax Oversight, left positions vacant for months, filled the positions with people close to the governor and refused to provide a reason.

Should the public have confidence in the tax agency?

The agency staff wants employees to avoid building a records trail and encouraged behavior that requires them to conduct business primarily face to face or by phone.

How is that transparent and accountable?

DOR requires each employee to sign a gag order prohibiting them from providing any information to the media.

Is that a violation of the employees' First Amendment rights?

DOR removes the visitor parking spaces at agency headquarters and replaces them with tow-away zones, reserved parking for executive staff.

How is that in the public interest?

Gov. Rick Scott and the three members of the Florida Cabinet, who oversee the Department of Revenue, had an answer to those questions Wednesday: not my problem.

"DOR is overseen by the governor and other members of the Florida Cabinet. The governor, like them, expects the department to follow all laws and act in an ethical and transparent manner,'' said McKinley Lewis, Scott spokesman, in an email response to a series of questions Wednesday.

The governor and Cabinet, all Republicans, asked no questions of DOR Executive Director Leon Biegalski Wednesday as he appeared before them and asked for approval of his agency performance review and three routine rules changes. It is the same treatment they have given Biegalski since he was appointed in April 2016, the hand-picked choice of the governor.

This key agency answers to the governor and Cabinet, but they don't ask many questions

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, hand-picked by Scott to replace former CFO Jeff Atwater, has never publicly contradicted Scott. Attorney General Pam Bondi has also not demonstrated an inclination to be independent of the governor. And Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has often sparred with the governor for the last seven years, mostly behind the scenes, has also now avoided any public conflict. He hopes to be on the November ballot with the governor who is running for U.S. Senate.

Since Beigalski last appeared before the Cabinet in March, he has ousted top employees and kept positions vacant for months to make room for Scott's staff. After the Herald/Times reported the shake up, one of the appointments from the governor's office, Thomas Adams, took a $5,000 pay cut and left to work for Patronis.

After the Wednesday Cabinet meeting, the Herald/Times asked Scott to explain why he had confidence in the agency.

"We do reviews of Leon. I can get you a copy of that record,'' he replied, before cutting off questions.

The Herald/Times then posed the following questions to the communications offices for Scott, Putnam, Bondi and  Patronis to get them to elaborate on their reasoning.

Bondi and Patronis did not respond. Lewis provided the above response and Putnam spokesperson Jennifer Meale said: " The executive director is charged with managing the department, and the governor and Cabinet will hold him accountable for its performance."

Here are the questions for which we did not get answers:

* How has the governor been assured that actions are being taken to ensure that there is proper training given to the remaining staff in the PTO section that reviews property appraiser and property tax budgets -- since they do not have anyone with slightly more than a year of experience?

* Please explain how it is not a violation of a state employee's First Amendment rights for DOR to prohibit them from being allowed to have a conversation on background to inform a journalist? 

* Please explain how it is acceptable that DOR is allowed to avoid the creation of public records trails? 

* What will you do if the agency has a misguided employee who is engaged in illegal or unethical conduct at work and, because the agency discourages creating a paper trail of controversial issues, the practice makes it difficult to apprehend and find evidence against them? 

* What deterrence is there to inappropriate behavior if an agency requires employees NOT to rely on emails, has prohibited them from keeping substantive meetings off the calendar, and encouraged behavior that requires them to conduct business primarily face to face or by phone?

* Please explain why it is acceptable that DOR removes the visitor parking spaces at agency headquarters and replaces them with tow-away zones reserved parking for executive staff?