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May 25, 2016

Former prosecutor to run for Florida Senate against Gwen Margolis

via @DavidOvalle305

Former prosecutor Jason Pizzo is joining the crowded Florida State Senate race to represent Northeast Miami-Dade.

The six-person race among all Democrats includes Sen. Gwen Margolis, Florida Rep. Daphne Campbell and former Rep. Phillip Brutus. The newly configured district include coastal cities such as Aventura and North Miami Beach, as well as predominately black neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Overtown.

Pizzo, 40, spent more than four years as a prosecutor, leaving in November to go into private practice.

During his last 10 months at the state, Pizzo said, he helped lead a pilot project that embedded prosecutors and community-support staff with police in Northeast Miami-Dade neighborhoods hardest hit by gun violence.

The efforts resulted in more arrests in shooting cases, convictions at trial and even the targeting of slum lords and shoddy housing conditions, he said.

To begin his campaign, Pizzo lent himself $200,000. "I can speak my mind," Pizzo said. "I don't need to go ask for money. I'm not beholden to any lobbyists or special interest or old guard crusty bureaucratic B.S. If there is something to do, I'm going to make sure it gets done."

Pizzo, a graduate of New York University, Columbia University and the University of Miami's law school, is married with 10-year-old twin boys.

--DAVID OVALLE

Zika funding inaction frustrates Florida members of Congress

via @learyreports

With Congress set to go on -- another -- vacation, Florida lawmakers are worried about Zika funding. 

Sen. Bill Nelson today sent Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a letter urging him to keep the chamber in session.

"Though the House passed a stand-alone bill to provide a mere $622 million and the Senate attached $1.1 billion in Zika funding as an amendment to a larger appropriations package, we are still weeks away, at best, from passing a final bill out of Congress," Nelson wrote. "Without the passage of a stand-alone Zika funding bill by the Senate, there is no clear path forward. I have tried repeatedly to pass a bill to fund the Administration’s request and send it to the House. Unfortunately, each attempt was blocked. For these reasons, I ask you to exercise your power as the Senate majority leader to take up consideration of a stand-alone funding bill (S. 2843) to address Zika, and to even delay the Memorial Day recess if Congress needs more time to pass the bill."

Sen. Marco Rubio was on the floor Tuesday making a similar call for action. "For all of us as Americans but especially for all of us as elected leaders, It is long past due to take this virus seriously. Because the virus is not just serious; this virus is deadly serious and so far, I must say that congress is failing this test.”

Rep. Vern Buchanan is asking House and Senate leaders to appoint conference members to work out differences on spending measures.

"The cost of delay is unacceptably high," Buchanan wrote in a letter to Republican and Democratic leaders. "We are seeing the effect of this disease in Florida, where mosquito season has already begun. Currently, Florida has more than a quarter of all U.S. Zika cases. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this weekend that mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus are expected to enter the U.S. mainland and begin infecting Americans within the next 'month or so.' "

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Debbie Wasserman Schultz sided with medical marijuana proponents in a vote despite past opposition

DWSAPmug

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who has taken heat for her opposition to medical marijuana, quietly took a vote in favor of it last week.

In 2014, she opposed Florida’s constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana — a rare position for a South Florida Democrat — that led to a spat between her and wealthy trial lawyer John Morgan, who bankrolled the amendment. A similar measure will appear on the ballot in November.

In the past, as a Democrat in a safe liberal district, Wasserman Schultz faced no political repercussions at the ballot box for taking a position out of step with her constituents. But criticism about her stances carry more weight this year because she faces a well-funded Democratic challenger: Tim Canova, who supports medical marijuana.

That’s why her vote related to medical marijuana last week has drawn some attention.

On May 19, Wasserman Schultz joined all but five Democrats in voting in favor of an amendment to allow military veterans’ access to state medical marijuana programs, as first reported by Marijuana.com. A directive currently prohibits Veterans Administration doctors from filling out forms for state medical marijuana programs or discussing the use of medical marijuana with patients.

Keep reading here.

Florida Dems snag Cory Booker as speaker for Broward gala

@PatriciaMazzei

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a man some people consider a possible Hillary Clinton running mate, will star at Florida Democrats' annual gala next month in Broward County.

Booker will keynote the 2016 Leadership Blue Gala on June 18 in Hollywood, the party announced Wednesday.

"As the largest swing state in the nation, Florida will play a determining role in stopping Donald Trump and returning the Senate to Democratic hands," Booker said in a statement. "While we know the work ahead won't be easy, I know Sunshine State Democrats are fired up and ready to deliver Florida for the third time in a row."

"As Mayor of Newark and in the United States Senate, Senator Booker's leadership has brought Republicans and Democrats together to get things done without compromising on the values which make our party and our nation strong," Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in a statement.

Todd Wilcox calls Social Security a 'Ponzi scheme'

@MichaelAuslen

17098319Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, Republican Senate candidate Todd Wilcox, told a conservative activist group last month.

In an April forum put on by the Republican Liberty Caucus of Central East Florida, Wilcox said there need to be changes made to Social Security, such as upping the retirement age for future generations of recipients and adding means testing. It was caught on video by a YouTube user named Amir Patel, likely a “tracker” sent out by a rival campaign to collect video of candidates’ every move.

“Social Security is a tax and an insurance program. It’s not a 401(k) program,” Wilcox said. “It’s a Ponzi scheme at this point, so if we don’t change the way we’re doing things, it’s going to go bankrupt.”

Wilcox, a defense contractor who lives in Orlando, isn’t the first Florida Republican to claim that a government entitlement program is a Ponzi scheme. In 2014, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, was caught on video telling college Republicans that Social Security and Medicare are both Ponzi schemes.

It became the centerpiece of an attack ad by Curbelo’s Democratic opponent, Joe Garcia, who lost the election.

That year, PolitiFact Florida rated Curbelo’s claim False. PolitiFact also rated a similar claim in 2009 by former Texas Gov. and two-time presidential candidate Rick Perry False.

In a Ponzi scheme, someone promises big returns on people’s investments, but they all come from future investors’ money — not from legitimate profits. Social Security, meanwhile, is more of a “pay-as-you-go” system giving current workers’ money to current retirees, PolitiFact wrote.

Wilcox, however, said in an interview with the Times/Herald that the comparison is fair because of the flow of money. If the program is not changed, he said, current workers — especially younger ones — may not receive the benefits.

He’s advocated for changes to the program that would affect younger workers.

“We can’t change the rules on seniors who are in the program now and are depending on it,” Wilcox said. “Those who are in their 40s now, and especially those who are younger, should not plan on it being what it is now.”

At the Republican Liberty Caucus event last month, Wilcox’s words resonated: He won a straw poll that night with 128 of 204 votes.

Wilcox is one of five Republicans running to replace U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. The other candidates are U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and developer Carlos Beruff.

Mystery donor cut $13.5 million to 'dark money' group that backed Marco Rubio

via @learyreports

A single, unnamed donor gave $13.5 million to a "dark money" nonprofit supporting Marco Rubio's presidential campaign -- and his or her identify may forever be a secret.

The donation was revealed in a tax document obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics, which unpacked how the money went to consultants with close ties to the Florida Republican, despite the group's supposed independence.

Immediate speculation focused on Norman Braman, who poured millions into a super PAC supporting Rubio.

Read the report here.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

CBO report says ending automatic Cuban refugee payments would save money

@PatriciaMazzei

It seems obvious, but now a nonpartisan report confirms it: Ending automatic welfare payments to Cuban immigrants would save the federal government money.

That’s according to the Congressional Budget Office, which analyzed proposed legislation by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Sen. Marco Rubio, two Cuban-American Republicans.

The CBO estimated the feds would save $2.45 billion over 10 years if recently arrived Cubans were no longer treated automatically as refugees deserving of food stamps and other aid. About $1.05 billion would be saved from 2017-21, and another $1.4 billion from 2022-27.

The savings give Curbelo and Rubio a new selling point for their bill, which they filed to curtail abuse by some Cuban immigrants who send the money back to the island. GOP leaders in Congress — particularly House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — have said they’re not interested in taking up immigration legislation. With the CBO report in hand, Rubio and Curbelo might have better luck pitching their proposal as a way to save money.

More here.

Planning for 'the big one': not a hurricane, an election

Nearly six months before Florida chooses the next president, the people who count votes in Florida are deep into planning how to do it right while anticipating everything that could possibly go wrong.

County supervisors of elections are meeting at a beachfront hotel in Clearwater, discussing how to improve voter outreach, adapt to better technology and reduce the potential for political mischief. One of the first panel discussions was entitled "Long lines, long ballots and long hours -- a presidential year."

The conference follows Florida's record turnout in the March 15 presidential preference primary, which has prompted state officials to predict that statewide in November could exceed 80 percent in a year when congressional and state Senate districts have been redrawn. Secretary of State Ken Detzner will soon roll out a voter education toolkit that will ramp up the use of social media to connect with voters.

The unprecedented chaos that followed the 2000 presidential election in Florida has taught voting to anticipate what could go haywire. In a presevtation to supervisors, Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections, described one "unusual" aspect of this year's election.

It's a proposed constitutional amendment by the Legislature, dealing with a solar energy tax break, that will appear on the Aug. 30 primary as Amendment Number 4. (The other lower-numbered amendments will all appear on the November ballot).

"It may create some confusion for your voters," Matthews said. "You're going to have to expect that one."

Florida saw a record-high turnout in the March presidential preference primary, and Secretary of State Ken Detzner's office will roll out a voter education toolkit next month that will ramp up the use of social media to connect with voters.

"We're ready," said Martin County Supervisor Vicki Davis.

IMG_5388Florida is fertile territory for vendors looking to sell products. Clear Ballot, a Boston company, markets ClearAudit, a tool to audit vote totals rather than conducting manual audits. The technology is in use in 13 counties, including Bay, Broward, Leon and Nassau. A company kiosk shows the many dizzying ways (photo at left) that voters in Tallahassee marked ballots in a close 2012 election for an obscure soil and water conservation district that required a recount. 

Even Theresa Lepore is at the conference. Sixteen years after the recount, the former Palm Beach County elections supervisor says she's still stopped constantly by people who want to talk about the "butterfly ballot" central to the 2000 meltdown. Lepore is a consultant for Democracy Live, a vendor that develops electronic ballots for overseas and military voters and voters with disabilities.

 

Rick Scott silent on other surgeon general applicants

@MichaelAuslen

Last week, Gov. Rick Scott announced interim state surgeon general Dr. Celeste Philip would take on the job full-time, but he and his office won't say whether they sought other applications for the job.

Asked whether he considered other candidates, Scott told reporters in Miami on Tuesday that he was pleased by Philip's work since taking on leadership of the Department of Health after her predecessor, Dr. John Armstrong, was not confirmed by the Florida Senate.

"Dr. Phillips has done a great job at the Department of Health, and she did a great job there while John Armstrong was there," Scott said. "And so I appointed her the interim when John left, and she's done a great job."

The Times/Herald asked his spokespeople the same question last week, and they have not responded with an answer.

Scott can hire anyone who meets basic requirements -- like being a medical doctor with public health experience -- as surgeon general and secretary of DOH, and there is no public component of the hiring process. The Senate has final confirmation authority and must act on Philip's appointment by the end of the 2018 legislative session.

An internal hire, Philip was previously the deputy secretary of health responsible for Children's Medical Services, as well as HIV and other communicable diseases -- both areas about which senators raised questions in Armstrong's confirmation hearings.

She became interim surgeon general March 11 at the end of the legislative session and was also acting surgeon general last fall when Armstrong took time off to undergo treatment for colon cancer.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

May 24, 2016

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: 'Venezuela is on the verge of total collapse'

@PatriciaMazzei

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday to blast Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his administration.

"To put it simply, Mr. Speaker: Venezuela is on the verge of total collapse," Ros-Lehtinen said. "And what an impact that will have throughout our hemisphere. It is not a matter of if. It is a matter of when."