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122 posts from June 2018

June 29, 2018

In crowded Republican race for Ag Commissioner, candidates flaunt their backgrounds, immigration stances

Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, raised $189,485 in April, with $10,000 coming from U.S. Sugar. [New York Times]

KISSIMMEE — Polished campaign videos, speeches about growing up in a farming family and supporting the Second Amendment were in full supply on Friday when the Republican candidates for Commissioner of Agriculture spoke at the Sunshine Summit.

Immigration was a major element of the conversation. Current officeholder Adam Putnam, who's running for governor, has been heavily criticized by his opponent, Ron DeSantis, for his previous opposition to e-verify and his support of the unsuccessful bipartisan immigration overhaul bill presented by the "Gang of Eight" in the 2013 Congress.

In his Friday morning speech, retired Army Colonel Mike McCalister rattled off a long list of proposals he would enact as commissioner, including offering concealed carry licenses to veterans free of charge, adding more local produce to school lunches, developing a program to feed homeless veterans and creating more agency cooperation to improve Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, receiving mild applause at best.

Then he pivoted to immigration.

"On a separate note, we need to enforce our immigration laws and we should have no more free education, free health care and free food for people who are here illegally while American citizens pay the freight," he said, to hearty cheers from the audience.

Baxter Troutman, a former state representatives from Winter Haven, was campaigning in Miami and did not appear in person. His wife, Rebecca, appeared on his behalf and tried to distinguish him from the pack via his background.

"He is the only who has really lived 'agriculture' for his whole life," she said."Baxter grew up living 'agriculture,' working with his grandfather, his uncles and his father and his mother."

State Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers spoke next, and started with criticizing NAFTA and illegal immigration.

"It is an enormous travesty that we have allowed this problem to fester for 40 years," he said. "We have to have a secure border. Priority No. 1."

But he too, used that as a hook to discuss other issues.

"Maybe 5 percent of people in this state actually work every day in some way in the agriculture industry so people say, 'Why do I care about Commissioner of Agriculture?'" he asked the crowd. "This is the Commissioner of Dirty Jobs. … It means overwhelmingly the commissioner is responsible for small business in this state."

Outgoing state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, on the other hand, touched less on issues and more on her biography, showing a video featuring photos of her on her family's farm as a child. Despite the fact that she has been serving in the state Legislature since 2004, in the video she said Tallahassee is "broken" because there are too many politicians, and she is here to "shake things up."

Grimsley highlighted her upbringing in "Florida's heartland," complete with traditional values like Christian religion and gun ownership.

She was the only candidate to mention the top Democratic candidate, Nikki Fried, who is a prominent medical marijuana advocate.

"The Commissioner of Agriculture has been held by a Republican for 20 years," Grimsley said. "Be careful: There is a strong Democratic opponent in this race. She will be well-financed and it's important we keep control of this important cabinet position."

Florida Education Association ready to sue over union decertification portion of HB 7055

Virginia Ducksworth, center, joined the United Teachers of Dade in January 2017 as the union protested the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

By Jeffrey Solocheck

The Florida Education Association is about to make good on its pledge to sue the state over new law that makes it easier to decertify teacher labor organizations.

It announced Friday its plan to  file suit Monday against the measure, which passed in the spring as part of the controversial education omnibus HB 7055. Its goal is to stop implementation of the rule, which requires unions to have half of all eligible participants become paying members or face loss of their collective bargaining role.

"My locals are all going to be over 50 percent," FEA president Joanne McCall told the Gradebook on Friday. "This is about equity and fairness, and being targeted and singled out."

Lawmakers applied the new rule only to teacher organizations, and not to any other public employee groups.

Related: Florida teachers on edge as new law threatens their unions 

Incoming legislative leaders said they were not surprised by the legal maneuvering.

"I can't remember a time where I've been in the Senate where we did not have one lawsuit or another over education or education funding," said incoming Senate president Bill Galvano.

"But I mean what I said (during a Friday panel): If you focus on the student, then all forms of education are important," Galvano continued. "I believe in traditional public schools as well, I've raised money for public schools in my private life. That's important to me, in my father's name. But at the same time they have to back away from that institutional view and start looking at the student view, and I don't think the suit will be successful."

Incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva questioned why the FEA becomes so concerned when choice enters the education system, whether for educators or students.

"They must have a special interest of their own that they're trying to protect," Oliva said. "It doesn't surprise me that they're filing a lawsuit and chances are over the next few years they're going to have many more reasons to file lawsuits if choice and education are problems for them."

The FEA battled the proposal from when it first became a stand-alone bill, through its inclusion in HB 7055. It won some, but not enough, support from Republicans who also viewed it as unfair.

The concept narrowly passed the state Senate, where it had been expected to falter. Supporters suggested that if the unions wanted to represent all teachers in contract talks, they should be able to prove that the majority supported the union.

Related: Teachers' unions say House Republican bill puts them at risk

Lawyers for the FEA threatened to sue from the moment the bill passed.

Ron Meyer, who will represent the association, said in the past that the plan had constitutional flaws and would not withstand court scrutiny. He is scheduled to hold a press conference on Monday to discuss the details of the suit.

McCall said she expected the case to focus on three legal points, but she did not have specifics. Meyer was not available for comment Friday.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, one of the bill's chief proponents, said he had no problem with the FEA's plan.

"I'm never offended if someone decides to file a lawsuit for legal interpretation," Baxley said.

He explained that he backed the measure as a way to ensure that the organizations bargaining on behalf of all teachers really speak for the entire work group, and districts are negotiating with the right people.

"I was accused of union bashing," he noted. "In fact, I don't know what we've done. I might have helped further the union" if more members join to support the effort.

When the bill passed, McCall said, 17 local teacher organizations fell under the 50 percent membership threshold.

As of last week, she said, four had surpassed the level, and three were within a percentage point. Six were "very close" but have several months before they must renew their state registration, and the remainder have more than a year to meet the mark because they renewed before the law change takes effect July 1.

Times/Herald reporter Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.

Bikers for Trump ride into town for GOP debate, shouting support for Ron DeSantis

Bikers for Trump members pose for a photo at the Republican debate in Kissimmee. | Emily L. Mahoney, Times/Herald

KISSIMMEE — In the sea of about 1,000 suits, high heels and pearls at Thursday night’s debate between the top two Republican candidates for governor, a small group stood out. They were wearing leather.

It wasn’t just their appearance — a handful of members from Bikers for Trump whooped and heckled from the audience during the nationally televised debate, even shouting answers to questions about deporting undocumented immigrants before the candidates started speaking,

The bikers said they rode their bikes from the Panhandle down to Kissimmee Thursday morning to attend the debate after they were specially invited by Ron DeSantis’s campaign. They posed for photos and said they were welcomed by all.

“I think watching DeSantis tonight was like watching Donald Trump and Hillary. I think Ron actually walked all over Adam Putnam,” said R.C. Pittman — though his friends call him “Casper” because he doesn’t have any tattoos on his pale skin. He’s a seventh-generation northwest Floridian, and said he was the national president of Bikers for Trump.

Bikers for Trump is a national organization of about 3,500 bikers that rose to prominence in 2016, making their presence known at Trump rallies across the country and even at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, typically an event catered to insiders and elected officials.

According to its website, the group was started “to connect patriotic bikers” and “to inform voters” and explicitly says on its website that it does not endorse violence, “nor do we endorse confrontations with paid protestors.”

The Florida chapter has about 350 members. Pittman said he’s attended more than 70 rallies and debates across the country, he said, putting 75,000 miles on his motorcycle.

“The only time I was out of place was when I went with Gov. Scott to Jackson County,” Pittman said, chuckling. “The (organization he addressed) in Jackson County is 90 percent women over 80 years old and I walked in there with a group of bikers and scared the hell out of them.”

He said he’s known Congressman Matt Gaetz’s family for years — calling his mother a “lovely woman” — and so the group provides a Harley-style escort to Gaetz with a minimum of 10 bikes every time he’s campaigning in the Panhandle. They’ve only recently begun supporting DeSantis, Pittman said, but they like what they hear from him.

And the news that Harley Davidson is moving some its production overseas? They don’t believe that’s Trump’s fault, despite the fact the announcement came the same month he slapped on steep steel and aluminum tariffs on the EU, Mexico and Canada, prompting steep tariffs on the U.S. motorcycles in return.

“Harley was going to leave before the tariffs,” said Debbie Liston, the group’s Northwest Florida chapter’s vice president who was also at the debate, wearing an American flag bandana with her leather vest. “They were looking to leave anyway to find cheaper labor and ship them back so they’re using the Trump tariffs as an excuse.”

June 28, 2018

Andrew Gillum gets the financial backing of another billionaire in Florida governor's race


In his quest to beat three millionaires and a billionaire in the Democratic primary for Florida's governor, Andrew Gillum now has two billionaires behind him.

Late Thursday, Tom Steyer's NextGen America announced that it's endorsing Gillum and plunging $1 million into his campaign, including a $500,000 donation from Steyer to Gillum's political committee, Forward Florida. The political organization called the money an "initial investment," and said it's also provided 50 organizers as part of an effort to help Gillum with his field, digital and mail operations, specifically those targeting voters under the age of 40.

"As we battle for the heart and soul of this nation, Andrew Gillum is the kind of leader we need on the front lines,” Steyer said in a statement.“He’s someone we can trust to do the right thing, to put the people before the powerful, and who is unafraid to stand up for justice, now when we need it most. Those who are willing to act courageously and stand up for what is right, are those who will shape the political landscape of the country, and that’s why we’re taking this unprecedented step to make sure Andrew is representing the Democratic Party in November.”

NextGen's relationship with Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, goes back to Gillum's time as executive director of the Young Elected Officials Network. The endorsement of Gillum is a continuation of a NextGen political effort in Florida this election cycle that began in March when the organization announced it was spending $3.5 million to register and engage young voters.

Gillum already had the endorsement of George Soros, a billionaire Democratic donor, who along with Steyer got a shout-out Thursday during a Fox News gubernatorial debate when Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam said the two men are trying to hijack Florida politics.

They are, at the very least, hoping to push Gillum ahead in the polls and help him make up a financial disadvantage against his four Democratic opponents, Gwen Graham, Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine.

"Honored to have @NextGenAmerica & @TomSteyer’s support in this race! They’ve been fighting for our Democratic values all over the country, & we can’t afford to be patient anymore," Gillum tweeted Thursday night. "The time for bold, audacious change is now & I know we’re ready to deliver it in August & November."

Congressional candidate says NBC Miami rejected campaign ad over Spanish content


This article has been updated to include a statement from NBC6

Matt Haggman, a Democrat running for Congress in Miami, ripped NBC's Miami affiliate Thursday after he says they refused to run a campaign commercial because it includes 10 seconds of his wife speaking Spanish. But the station says his facts are all wrong.

According to Haggman's campaign, he purchased air time on the station recently in order to run a 15-second commercial. But Brian Svoboda, an attorney representing Haggman's campaign, says the campaign was told by its media buyer that WTVJ "would not run the advertisement because of a general policy that disfavors Spanish-language advertising."

"There is no permissible basis for your station to refuse this advertisement," Svoboda wrote Thursday in a letter addressed to the station's general manager. "Refusing the ad because it shows a woman speaking Spanish would not only be a prohibited form of content-based censorship; it would also show deep disrespect to the large Spanish-speaking audience with whom Mr. Haggman seeks to communicate—as well as to Ms. Linares, Mr. Haggman and their family.

In this case, the commercial mostly features Haggman's wife speaking in Spanish, though he speaks in English toward the end. Haggman is one of five Democrats running to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as the U.S. Representative over Florida's 27th congressional district, a coastal Miami district where Hispanic voters make up the majority. Every campaign that has gone on air so far is running English and Spanish-language ads.

Haggman issued a statement calling the decision disappointing.

“This policy, which is unique among television stations in our area, is outdated, inherently discriminatory, and simply does not reflect Miami values," he said in a statement issued by his campaign. "Political speech is among the most protected of all free speech. I call on WTVJ to reverse this misguided policy and join with all other Miami-based news outlets in running our ad unabated.”

But Thursday evening, an NBC6 spokesperson said in a statement that Haggman's campaign was completely wrong, and that the ad would run as early as Friday.

"The Haggman campaign’s information is inaccurate," said the statement."We do accept Spanish-language ads, and NBC6 accepted the Haggman campaign’s ad.”


Report: Here's how Florida lawmakers, including Marco Rubio, ignited America's heroin crisis

The Palm Beach Post is out with a devastating series of stories about Florida's role in America's heroin crisis, citing little-seen data and interviews with officials from around the country.And few people look worse in it than Florida legislators - including Marco Rubio - for waiting a decade to crack down on dirty doctors and pill mills.

Post investigative reporter Pat Beall writes that their failure to act fed the nation's appetite for pills, making the nation's heroin crisis that much worse when Florida finally cracked down, in 2011.

(Full disclosure: this reporter worked on the series while at the Post.)

The stories are filled with fascinating nuggets about the history of Florida's opioid crisis and how it was viewed by officials in other states.

There's a lot to unpack, and the entire series is a must-read (seriously, click on it), but here are three highlights:

1. Marco Rubio killed a critical prescription drug monitoring program over "politics."

Florida had the chance to implement a program that would track overprescribing by doctors - considered a "silver bullet" against pill mills - but one person blocked it in 2002, early in the opioid crisis, according to the Post:

“And there was one person who was responsible,” said former state Sen. Burt, now an Ormond Beach insurance executive. “And it was Marco Rubio.”

A rising state lawmaker in 2002, now-U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio had the clout to make or break the legislation. He had been one of two state House majority whips and was on the fast track to becoming House speaker.

Rubio didn’t kill the 2002 bill out of opposition to prescription monitoring.

It was politics.

That year, Rubio favored a bill changing the Miami-Dade County charter, which failed to pass because of a single “no” vote in the Senate. Burt cast the vote.

Angered by what he saw as Burt’s betrayal, Rubio killed the prescription drug monitoring bill.

“When I found out he broke his word, it made the choice easy,” Rubio told The Miami Herald.

It's not clear whether the bill would have passed the Legislature anyway, and Rubio was hardly the only one who stood against it - lawmakers didn't roll out the program until 2011.

From 2002 to 2011, 35,000 Floridians would die after taking prescription opioids, the Post writes.

2. Kentucky went berserk when Rick Scott considered stopping the drug monitoring database in 2011.

Gov. Rick Scott considered stopping the database's rollout in 2011, and officials in Kentucky nearly lost it.

As much as 60 percent of the illicit oxycodone in Kentucky state flowed from Florida, the Post writes, and Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo proposed erecting billboards at the Florida line: “Welcome to the Oxy Tourism Capital of the World.”

Federal lawmakers tried to intervene:

U.S. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, also from Kentucky, twice wrote Scott. “Canceling Florida’s prescription drug monitoring program is equal to firing firefighters while your house is ablaze,” he wrote.

And a small-county Kentucky sheriff was convinced Scott was on the take, and was warned to be quiet about it:

In Greenup, an infuriated Cooper told a reporter, “In my opinion, (Scott’s) getting money from somewhere. He has to be.”

A few days later, recalled Cooper, “A lieutenant with the state police I’d been talking to down there called me, said, ‘Man, just a head’s up: I wouldn’t come to Florida.'”

The database was saved by Attorney General Pam Bondi, who convinced Scott to leave it alone.

3. Florida's drug database curbed overprescribing - and led to heroin deaths across the country.

Much has been made about the arrests of pill mill doctors, but the Post's reporting suggests that the prescription drug monitoring program was the real reason that prescription opioids became hard to come by.

“When we look back at when the line (of heroin admissions) started going up, the prescription monitoring database is the inciting event,” Dr. Hansel Tookes, a former ER doctor-turned-professor at the University of Miami, told the Post.

And Florida's crackdown was felt across the nation:

Little-noticed DEA reports and federal court records show that by 2010, South Florida was a reliable oxycodone supplier to users and traffickers not only across the Southeast, but also in the New England, Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions, an area encompassing half the United States.

And when Florida finally began shutting down its pill mill pipeline, users and addicts there did exactly what users and addicts did in Florida: They turned to heroin.

Academic studies, news reports and government agencies all have lauded the success of this state’s overdue efforts to shutter its pill mills.

None has documented — or even suggested — what The Post found: East of the Mississippi, as Florida-supplied oxycodone began disappearing, deaths tied to that and similar drugs started falling.

And simultaneously, deaths linked to heroin started rising.

Really, there's lots more to the must-read series.

And as a reminder, Florida  lawmakers still have not done much to help with the heroin crisis.


Incoming Florida House Speaker Oliva backs DeSantis


The incoming speaker of the Florida House has announced that he's endorsing Ron DeSantis for Florida governor, giving the Palm Coast congressman the backing of one of the three most powerful men in Tallahassee.

Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, cited DeSantis' military service and his record as one of the most conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives in endorsing him Thursday morning ahead of a Republican Party of Florida gathering in Orlando, which will include the first debate between DeSantis and GOP frontrunner Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. 

"Ron's commitment to this country and the values that made her great are second to none. Beginning with his service in Iraq alongside SEAL Team 1 through his time in Congress, Ron always puts America first," Oliva said in a statement. "He's a tax cutter, budget hawk, education reformer, and the rarest of elected officials in Washington, a demonstrated conservative. Florida has consistently shown what conservative governance can do for our schools, economy, job creation, and quality of life. We must continue that legacy of conservative leadership and Ron DeSantis is the candidate we can trust to do that.”

Endorsements typically do little to move the needle in campaigns. But Oliva's decision to side with DeSantis could give the candidate inroads in Miami ahead of the August primary. Both he and Putnam - who has the backing of current House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes and dropped out of the governor's race in May - are from North Florida.

The endorsement also allows Oliva, who as head of the House Republican caucus is in charge of electing and re-electing a GOP majority in the 120-member House, to send the signal to candidates that they should embrace the Trump wing of the party.

Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Playing with fire: Rick Scott, a raging inferno and a $50,000-a-head fundraiser

Thirty-six homes and 800 acres are reduced to charred rubble. Residents of a close-knit, hardscrabble community are left without food and shelter. As they assess their lives in 95-degree heat, all they have are questions.

It's the result of a raging wildfire Sunday that decimated part of Eastpoint, a fishing village south of Tallahassee renowned for its oysters. It wasn't a lack of rain. It wasn't lightning. It was a prescribed burn run by a vendor hired by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that went seriously wrong and cost people their homes, pets and worldly possessions.


(Photo courtesy Capitol News Service)

"Accidents happen, but they should own up to it," Arlene Thompson of Eastpoint told the Tallahassee Democrat. "They're not going to get away with this."

Resident April Dalton told the paper: "Children and families are homeless now because someone did not do their job."

Two years ago, FWC hired Wildlands Fire Service in another example of the state privatizing a public safety function. Amid the fallout, the agency has begun an investigation and suspended prescribed burns. Director Eric Sutton said: "We will take proper steps to ensure accountability."

Who's accountable?

One place to start is with the seven political appointees on the wildlife commission who hired the vendor. Every one of them is a close friend of Gov. Rick Scott.

Serving as a wildlife commissioner is a plum appointment. The FWC board is an extension of the governor's office and always has been, so this is also Scott's problem.

At a time when he's asking voters to put him in the U.S. Senate, Scott went to Eastpoint Monday and his office quickly posted a photo of him meeting with the local sheriff. At the Times/Herald's request, Scott issued a statement Wednesday that said he expects FWC to "do a thorough investigation to get all the facts and urges them to hold people accountable … He will fight to make sure everything is done to help these families fully recover."

Scott's FWC appointees include political allies such as Gary Lester, the vice president of community relations at The Villages, a retirement community that's a crucial Republican power base in statewide elections; Sonya Rood, wife of John Rood, a former ambassador to the Bahamas and former chief financial officer of the Republican Party of Florida; and Mike Sole, an executive of Florida Power & Light's parent company and former top state environmental regulator.

The Tampa Bay Times has reported that Scott's selections for these coveted appointments had no wildlife experience.

In his two campaigns for governor, Scott received more than $25,000 from five board appointees including $13,000 in two checks from Commissioner Robert Spottswood.

Yet another Scott appointee to the FWC is Gary Nicklaus — the son of that Nicklaus, as in Jack, the Golden Bear, a long-time Palm Beach County resident. While Eastpoint residents were still sifting through the rubble on Wednesday, the golfing legend threw a fund-raiser for Scott's Senate race, and a listing as a host cost a donor $50,000. That money would go a long way in Eastpoint right now — and those are hardly ideal optics for any political campaign.

Wildlands, the vendor, submitted an invoice for $26,400 for a prescribed burn that became an inferno. The invoice was among the documents that FWC posted on its web site, along with a certificate of liability insurance showing that Wildlands had a policy with a $2 million limit for each occurrence and a $5 million umbrella policy.

"All was OK," company owner Doug Williams wrote in longhand on a fax transmittal sheet June 20, before the fire. "Received some rain Monday night." Efforts to reach Williams on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Scott's Division of Emergency Management said it was sending 27 state troopers and mobile driver license van to Eastpoint and is helping with meals on wheels and a shelter at a church. The state also is sending adjusters to help residents file claims for living expenses.


Fox News in real life: Sean Hannity to campaign with Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz

Sean hannity
Sean Hannity | YouTube screen capture

Ron DeSantis has already become a near-daily fixture as a guest on Fox News. But next week, Fox News is instead coming to Florida.

On Monday, July 2, Florida Congressmen DeSantis and Matt Gaetz will be joined by Fox News host Sean Hannity for three campaign events in Fort Myers, Tampa and Pensacola, the campaigns announced Wednesday.

All three campaign stops will be made on the same day.

DeSantis is running for governor and Gaetz is running for reelection in Congress.

DeSantis's team called it a "statewide tour" in their campaign email announcement, even though it does not include South Florida.

Hannity endorsed DeSantis on his show in January.

June 27, 2018

Internal Taddeo poll finds she starts reelection campaign with double-digit lead


The campaign for Florida Senator Annette Taddeo released a poll Wednesday that suggests the Democratic incumbent enjoys a substantial advantage over Republican attorney Marili Cancio as they begin their campaigns.

The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling just as Cancio was getting into the race two weeks ago, found that Taddeo would have pulled 49 percent of the vote compared to Cancio’s 32 were the campaign held in mid June. Cancio, who only filed her campaign papers June 12, fared slightly worse than a generic Republican candidate would in running versus a generic Democrat.

The left-leaning firm polled 400 voters in the district with live, bilingual callers. The poll has a margin of error of 4.3 percent.

As with all internal polls, the results should be viewed with some skepticism. It’s worth noting that the poll slightly over-valued Democratic voters and slightly undervalued Republican voters when compared to overall district registration and was conducted before Cancio had begun campaigning.

But the findings -- including a Donald Trump approval rating of 38 percent -- support the idea that Senate District 40 in west Dade is Taddeo's to lose.

Cancio's campaign consultant, Jose Luis Castillo, declined to comment on the poll Wednesday evening But he said Cancio is getting a good reception as she begins her campaign.

"Marili Cancio has dedicated her life to improving and making better and stronger communities. She’s widely known as a person who seeks to find common ground and solutions, delivering results through her involvement in higher education and participation," he said. "She’s working hard. She understands the issues that matter to our community."