Bob Sparks, Author at Florida Politics

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue.

If another SCOTUS opening occurs, will Charles Canady get a serious look?

According to Sen. Charles Grassley, the U.S. Supreme Court may need to fill another opening this summer. The Iowa Republican, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not name names, but rumors are swirling it could be the Court’s swing vote, 80-year-old Anthony Kennedy.

If that occurs, President Trump will go back to his list of 21 potential nominees, now numbering 20 after the elevation of Neil Gorsuch. Rumored to be on the short list before Gorsuch’s selection was Judge William Pryor of Alabama from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Diane Sykes of Wisconsin from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Judge Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

If those rumors are true, will those three again go to the top? How about some of the others? Also on the Trump list are Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady and Judge Federico Moreno from the Southern District of Florida.

The next nominee will be an appeals court judge or a state supreme court justice. Moreno and Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee are the only two not fitting that description. Moreno’s logical next step is a promotion to the court of appeals.

Will Canady receive serious consideration this time? He has similar educational training to the current Court.

All 9 current justices studied law at either Harvard or Yale (Ruth Bader Ginsburg started at Harvard, but earned her law degree from Columbia). Canady received his degree from Yale, while Pryor came from Tulane, Sykes from Marquette, and Hardiman from Georgetown. Gorsuch attended Harvard and Oxford.

As a former state legislator, four-term Congressman and General Counsel for Gov. Jeb Bush, Canady understands the separation of powers between the three branches of government. He was Chief Justice from 2010-2012 and along with Ricky Polston, comprise the Court’s reliable conservative minority.

If Gov. Rick Scott wanted to bend Trump’s ear about Canady, the President would certainly listen. There is no question Scott and Trump are of like minds on many topics in addition to jobs. Another Trump friend, Attorney General Pam Bondi, could do the same.

On the downside, Canady will be 63 years old in June. Next to Moreno (64) and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young, who is 65, Canady is the oldest on the list.

Pryor is 55, Sykes 58 and Hardiman is 52. The thought of having someone on the bench for 30 years is an appealing quality for a sitting president.

Confirmation hearings would certainly be lively. Millennials will not likely recall the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, but Canady was one of the House prosecutors. Would Democrats have fun with that?

How about being questioned by Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham? The South Carolina Republican was also one of the impeachment prosecutors (known as House Managers).

How juicy would it be for Canady to be tapped and for Charlie Crist to receive some credit for raising Canady’s profile? It was then-Governor Crist who appointed Canady to the Florida Supreme Court.

Perhaps Canady wound up on Trump’s list as a favor to Scott, or the president will actually give him a serious look. No one has retired yet, but that doesn’t stop playing the “what ifs” game in the meantime.

Electoral College vote a non-story unless Donald Trump is involved

Just like that, it was over.

In Tallahassee and around the country, 538 electors cast their ballots to officially elect Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.

Of course, they did. There was never going to be a different outcome. Never.

Florida’s 29 electors gathered in the Senate Chamber to do what everyone knew they would do. While protesters gathered in the fourth-floor lobby outside the chamber, all 29 ignored the noise, kept their pledges, and cast their votes for Trump.

I have never felt the desire to attend previous sessions because nothing earth-shattering would occur. Not that anything would be different this time, but I did accept an invitation to sit in the gallery to watch the proceedings.

There was a brief silence when House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues missed the roll call, but he was in the chamber minutes later.

Every four years the Electoral College goes through the same exercise with little fanfare. The only difference between 2016 and every other cycle was the manufactured fake news surrounding a normally routine one-hour ceremony.

This should not have even risen to the level of a story. Ok, maybe the obligatory interviews for a day or two with those who want no part of Trump.

But the every day, every hour, hysteria of the doomed-to-fail pipe dream of getting 37 Republican electors to flip? Should we mention that Trump led by 74 electoral votes going into Monday and officially won by 77?

While two did not vote for Trump, five Democrats decided Hillary Clinton was not for them. Not even Michael Moore’s offer to pay state fines could turn the trick.

Let us not take cheap shots at those who report the news. Instead, many need to be called out for continuing the charade, thereby giving false hope to those reaching for the unreachable.

Most of this falls in the lap of the major networks and national outlets. They were looking for history by fomenting hysteria.

History tells us that a similar attempt failed 16 years ago, when a Republican lost the popular vote, but had more electoral votes. Many might remember political consultant Bob Beckel trying to find two “faithless” electors to flip from George W. Bush to Al Gore in 2000.

If Beckel could not coax or coerce two souls to “vote their conscience,” then finding 37 this year would be comparable to climbing Mt. Everest in Bermuda shorts.

For this exercise in futility, or fake news, good people were subjected to a barrage of intimidating calls and emails. This includes all 29 of Florida’s electors.

Some in other states received death threats. The national media focus was on flipping the electors, not the tactics used by some of the activists.

When the gambit rose to this level, many wonder why President Barack Obama did not issue a statement that might de-escalate the dangerous rhetoric. With electors’ lives being threatened, where is the Justice Department? Federal crimes were being committed.

The media’s conduct surrounding all things Trump faces continuing bipartisan scrutiny. Republicans backing other candidates in the primary, along with the candidates, were frustrated their message could never break through the haze of all Trump, all the time.

Trump opponents were sick of all of the free media he generated. The New York Times estimated Trump earned nearly $2 billion in free media during the primary season. It was off the charts during the general election.

Trump is a ratings magnet. He was responsible for even MSNBC to draw its best numbers during the fall.

This likely explains the hysteria surrounding faithless electors. There will be plenty of opportunities both before and after January 20, 2017, for other Trump-inspired ratings opportunities.

There is a rumor he wants to climb Mt. Everest in Bermuda shorts.

Tallahassee residency case becomes statewide issue

Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox lives in the City of Tallahassee. While that should not come as man-bites-dog news, it’s not that simple in Florida’s capital.

The residency of the former Tallahassee Mayor and Florida Democratic Party Chair was challenged in court by Dr. Erwin Jackson, a frequent city government and Maddox critic. Maddox maintains two domiciles; a rented home within the city limits and another larger residence outside the city, which he owns.

The home outside the city limits was put on the market in 2012 while Maddox was a candidate for the Commission and was put on the market again as he sought re-election this year. Jackson points to that and questions other indicators he says makes the case Maddox lives in the home outside the district.

Second Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled in Maddox’s favor on three occasions only to be overruled and scolded for “abuse of discretion” by a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal (DCA). After Dodson had recused himself, colleague Karen Gievers drew the short straw and was assigned the case.

In her 28-page ruling, Gievers said Jackson “has offered neither documents or testimony that establish Maddox’s legal residency on August 30, 2016, at the time of the election was somewhere other than the North Adams Street (city) address.”

She further ruled the “overwhelming credible evidence” shows Maddox lives in the city and that he did not try to “game the system.”

Gievers addressed several questions posed by Jackson and his legal team. Among those were the registrations of vehicles registered to Maddox using the county address between 2000 and 2015.

All eight were changed to the downtown address during calendar year 2016. Gievers admitted the registration changes were “not as timely as the statutes provide,” but that fact still does not prove residence on a particular date.

For the record, Maddox is registered to vote in Precinct 1302 according to the Leon County Supervisor of Elections. His rented home in the city is within that precinct, allowing him to answer in the affirmative whether he voted for himself.

The DCA had given a deadline of December 6 for the lower court to make a ruling. Unless they find some procedural error, this should put the Maddox residency matter to rest.

But there is one other matter still percolating within the legal system. The City of Tallahassee has asked the Florida Supreme Court to overrule the DCA hold that local governments should have the final say on residency.

The DCA held the Tallahassee City Charter is subservient to state law, but local governments wish to protect their autonomy to decide who meets the criteria established by their respective charters.

This is a big deal to them. When I published the first article on this topic, I heard from a former Jackson County Commissioner in total agreement with the City’s position.

On Monday, the Florida League of Cities, representing more than 400 communities around the state, turned this into a statewide matter. They, too, are asking for the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in.

“The League’s membership has a significant interest in the question before the Court in this proceeding,” they wrote in their filing document. “The governing documents of many of the League’s members contain provisions that, like the provision at issue here, authorize municipal councils and commissions to be the judges of the election and qualification of their members.”

Jackson and his legal team responded on Friday while Maddox and the City responded to the Supreme Court on Monday.

No matter whose side one takes in Jackson v. Maddox, it is probably a good thing to have some clarification. There are good reasons for the communities to set their own standards. There are also good reasons to be on the lookout for circumstances where the Establishment is protecting its own.

Merry Christmas from Tallahassee or Leon County, whichever applies.

Update: On Wednesday, the Florida Supreme Court issued the following order:

“It appearing that Respondent, Dr. Erwin D. Jackson, has declined to seek review of the circuit court’s ‘Order on Pending Motions and Non-Jury Trial/Final Evidentiary Hearing, and Final Judgment,’ that the district court has lifted its stay, and that Respondent, Scott Maddox, has been sworn in as a city commissioner, Petitioner (the city of Tallahassee) is hereby directed to show cause by 3:00 P.M. on Thursday, December 8, 2016, why the petition for writ of prohibition should not be denied as moot. Respondents may serve a reply by 3:00 P.M. on Friday, December 9, 2016.”

Critic hits Leon County’s Scott Maddox right where he lives

Former Florida Democratic Party Chairman and statewide office candidate Scott Maddox is involved in another political fight this Thanksgiving season. Though elected to another term on the Tallahassee City Commission, he was blocked from taking the oath of office earlier this week.

Maddox, who served as FDP Chairman from 2003-2006, is facing a legal challenge to his official residency. The question going back and forth through the Leon County courts and the First District Court of Appeal (DCA) is whether Maddox officially lives within the city limits of Tallahassee, a fundamental requirement of the city’s charter.

Similar complaints about residency crop up around the state from time to time, usually among candidates whose district lines were re-drawn putting them outside their district. Nothing usually comes of these other than news stories, but Maddox is facing a persistent local critic in Dr. Erwin Jackson.

Jackson filed suit in the Second Judicial Circuit in September claiming Maddox is ineligible to serve because he actually lives outside the city limits. According to the filing document, Maddox, an attorney, lists his residence as a rented office building in downtown Tallahassee.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit brought by Erwin Jackson on his third attempt to discredit me,” said Maddox, who was the Democratic nominee for Commissioner of Agriculture in 2010. “This one will be thrown out like all of the others have been.”

The City of Tallahassee intervened and asked that they, Maddox’s colleagues, have the final say in determining his eligibility. Judge Charles Dodson agreed.

Jackson went to the DCA, where a three-judge panel unanimously reversed Dodson, saying “the proper forum for Jackson’s post-election contest is in the circuit court.”

The three-judge panel consisted of Charlie Crist appointee Lori Rowe, a former Executive Deputy Attorney General; Rick Scott appointee Scott Makar, a former Florida Solicitor General; and another Scott appointee, Susan Kelsey, an experienced appellate lawyer.

Dodson did not appear to take the reversal well. The DCA order to Dodson to hold a hearing used the term “immediate” before the word hearing.

He took them literally. Dodson held a hearing almost immediately and ruled in favor of Maddox. Jackson and his legal team were outraged by the fact they had little time to prepare.

This is “a miscarriage of justice,” Jackson said. “An appeal will be immediately forthcoming.”

Again, the DCA overruled Dodson, this time with a bit of a hand slap. The judges said the lower court “abused its discretion” in the way it handled the hearing.

Monday was swearing in day for the Commission and Dodson gave the go-ahead for Maddox to take the oath of office pending the residency review. The DCA stepped in by again overruling Dodson and blocking Maddox from taking the oath of office “pending further order from this Court.”

Jackson is also seeking the removal of Dodson from the case. To be reversed three times on the same case, called a hat trick in hockey, is not a good thing.

The parties are now arguing the date on which a public official is eligible. Jackson argues legal residence means Election Day, which in this case was August. The Maddox team argues November 21, or swearing in day.

To a non-lawyer observer, like this writer, that would seem to acknowledge there could be a problem if you are arguing “when” as well as “if.”

To be fair, Jackson is a relentless critic of city government. Sometimes they deserve the scrutiny, like the recent proposal to raise property taxes by 27 percent.

Maddox, to his great credit, was an opponent of the outrageous property tax plan and argued against other increases. He sounded like a conservative.

At the same time, it is understandable for elected officials to become frustrated, especially if they truly believe they are doing the right thing.

Maddox remains confident, perhaps with good reason, he will prevail. The residency challenges usually go in the favor of the candidate.

Jackson certainly isn’t going away, whether or not Dodson is relieved of command. He is 100 percent certain he has a case.

Stranger things have happened as this year’s elections demonstrated.

We will know soon.

RNC’s ground game behind Donald Trump deserves more credit for Florida victory

Plenty of congratulations are going out to the Donald Trump campaign, which is well-deserved. Others unhappy with the outcome are expressing other sentiments.

Several pundits are in the process of analyzing and pronouncing “winners and losers.” In Florida, the lists on both sides are long, but not necessarily complete.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Adam Smith correctly mentions Trump’s Florida director Susie Wiles and most certainly grassroots workhorses, like Deborah Cox-Roush on the winners side. Though not mentioned, the Republican Party of Florida did what they could with the limited funding available to them.

Few, if any, are including the Republican National Committee (RNC) on the list of winners. This is a major oversight.

Chairman Reince Priebus, Co-Chair Sharon Day of Broward County and the entire organization played a monster role in the Trump victory. (Full disclosure: my firm was a consultant to the co-chairman in the previous election cycle.)

The “experts” gave Trump little to no chance. Many mocked the notion of a “silent army” of voters ready to be mobilized. The polls indicated a Trump “movement” was nowhere on the horizon.

Trump had no realistic chance to win Florida, many believed, because he had no get-out-the-vote ground game. He supposedly had only a handful of field offices while the Hillary Clinton campaign had more than 50.

In reality, Trump was on equal footing, or better, with the Clinton campaign in Florida when it came to a ground game. That will come as a surprise to those who analyze elections and campaigns.

Because of the RNC, the Trump campaign had 65 GOP Victory Offices in Florida at their disposal and working on his behalf. Working out of those offices were 1,773 staff members paid for by the RNC.

These staffers were not just making telephone calls. They were making incredible numbers of voter contacts during the cycle.

Day makes it clear the measurement of voter contact is not the same as it was in previous cycles.

“We had 6.5 million voter contacts,” said Day. “Not doors knocked on or flyers left on a doorknob. Actual contacts with targeted voters.”

She also made it clear that this was not just an election-year effort. It was part of a 50-state strategy born from the famous autopsy report issued after the 2012 elections.

“We have funded people on the ground since 2013,” she said. “The RNC committed $175 million toward building a ground game.”

Between the RNC, state, and local efforts, nearly 300,000 voters were registered in diverse communities since 2012, reducing the partisan voter registration gap by nearly 86,000 voters. On election night, Trump’s share of the Hispanic and African-American vote was up slightly over 2012, but that made a difference.

While the focus of this discussion is on Florida, it is worth repeating the RNC was at work in the other states. It is difficult to imagine winning blue states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and possibly Michigan, without such an effort.

“Donald Trump understood the common people and he connected,” added Day. “But he could not have won” without the strong ground game that was built and deployed.

There were plenty of winners and losers on Tuesday night, but outside of Trump, there was none bigger than Priebus, Day, and the Republican National Committee.

No wonder Priebus will be the White House chief of staff.

Down-ballot races throughout Florida provided some interesting results as well

With so many high-profile races going on in Florida, other contests were on the ballot, but under the radar. Florida Politics pointed out 10 of those down-ballot races to watch with backgrounds on each.

While not as momentous as Donald Trump winning Florida, these races were interesting in their own right.

Miami-Dade County Mayor

Republican Mayor Carlos Gimenez went from a confident incumbent to someone battling to keep his job. He and many others thought he could win another term on Aug. 30.

In the end, he was forced into a runoff with Raquel Regalado. After a judge threw out a challenge to Gimenez’s place on the ballot, the race was on.

On Tuesday night, he earned a clear victory over Regalado, garnering 55 percent of the vote. Regalado earned 44 percent. The margin of victory was nearly 100,000 votes.

Kissimmee Mayor

Jose Alvarez and Art Otero survived a highly contentious primary. These two sitting county commissioners squared off on Tuesday.

When the votes were counted, Alvarez rolled to a fairly easy victory. With 11 of 12 precincts counted, he had an insurmountable 63 to 37 percent lead.

Otero was a solid candidate, but helping Alvarez was the endorsement of the two labor unions representing the region’s theme park and hospitality workers.

St. Cloud Mayor

This race pitted a pastor against the community’s deputy mayor. Pastor James Nathan Blackwell wound up defeating Jeff Rinehart in a reasonably close race.

Blackwell earned 56 percent of the vote, but his election may have been in doubt earlier when he got into some trouble for talking politics from the pulpit.

In the end, he survived the legal challenge as well as the challenge from Rinehart.

Orange County Commission

The Orange County Commission District 5 race was an intense battle between the incumbent Ted Edwards and Emily Bonilla. The race was dominated by an issue involving projects on Lake Pickett.

When the votes were counted, Bonilla, an environmental activist, upset Edwards and won the seat. Her margin of victory was more than 11,000 votes out of more than 78,000 cast, translating to a 57 to 43 percent victory.

Tampa City Council

The Tampa City Council District 7 race was a free-for-all involving six candidates. This made it unlikely any candidate would earn a majority, which is precisely what happened.

Jim Davison advanced to a runoff with Luis Viera. Davison earned 30 percent of the vote while Viera came in with 22 percent.

Davison was put in the hot seat when he received a $1,000 contribution from the local Republican Party, which is forbidden for municipal candidates. He returned the contribution.

Orlando GudesAvis Simone HarrisonGene Siudut, and Cyril Spiro divided the remaining votes.

Pinellas County Commission

Charlie Justice was looking to keep his District 3 seat on the Pinellas County Commission. He faced a strong challenge from Republican retired businessman Mike Mikurak.

Mikurak hammered Justice on his positions on zoning and environmental issues. He nearly pulled off the upset.

When the votes were counted, Justice had a narrow 52-48 percent victory. His victory allows the Democratic Party to keep a 4-3 majority on the commission.

Leon County Superintendent of Schools

Democratic incumbent Jackie Pons was challenged by former friend Rocky Hanna in a bitter race for Leon County Superintendent of Schools. Hanna, a former member of Pons’s administration, ran against him as a no party affiliate.

A controversial television ad against Hanna backfired against Pons, prompting some prominent supporters to abandon him. Hanna built on his record generated during his successful tenure as principal at Tallahassee’s Leon High School.

When the votes were counted, Hanna rolled to a convincing victory over Pons and two other candidates. Hanna earned 54 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Pons. Patricia Sunday and Forrest Van Camp split the remaining 10 percent.

Leon County Sheriff

This race involved four candidates, three of which switched party affiliations during the campaign. Incumbent Mike Wood, running as an NPA, was challenged by former Tallahassee police chief Walt McNeil, a Democrat, as well as Republican Charlie Strickland and NPA Tommy Mills.

McNeil described the incumbent Wood as “Rick Scott’s sheriff.” Wood was appointed by the governor following the death of longtime Sheriff Larry Campbell.

McNeil won the race by earning 46 percent of the vote, while Strickland and Wood gained 25 and 24 percent, respectively.

Jacksonville slots referendum

Supporters of CR 1, which would allow slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities, were placing their bets on the ability of increased gambling to increase jobs.

Apparently, that argument won the day because 54 percent of Duval County voters voted to approve the measure.

One hurdle remains. The Florida Supreme Court is considering a case that would decide whether a countywide vote for slots is constitutional.

Monroe County Zika Initiative

The fight against Zika was put before Monroe County voters on Tuesday. Residents were called on to weigh in on deploying genetically modified insects.

The measure was a non-binding poll and not a mandate. When the votes were counted, 57 percent voted in favor of the idea.

While not binding, three of the mosquito control board members said before the election they would take the public’s view into account before moving forward.

Is Donald Trump on his way to winning Florida?

Donald Trump may be on his way to winning Florida. Is that really possible?

Of the seven polls taken in the past week, Trump leads in three surveys, each by four points. Hillary Clinton leads in three of them, each by one point.

In what may be another ominous development for Democrats, Florida is into its second week of early voting and the GOP is either even or slightly ahead among all ballots cast. Democrats won the early voting sweepstakes by more than 130,000 ballots in 2012.

The numbers before last week’s FBI bombshell, but after a steady drip of WikiLeaks releases, show Florida was already trending Trump’s way, putting the race at a dead heat. A deeper look should boost the hopes of Trump and his supporters.

The Real Clear Politics average has Trump with a statistically insignificant one-point lead overall in Florida. The New York Times/Sienna poll, completed on the day the news of the FBI investigation broke, puts Trump ahead of Clinton in Florida 46-42 in a four-way race that includes Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

To gauge the legitimacy of any poll, those interested will look at who is being polled before either accepting or rejecting the results and then figuring out how to spin the positive or negative results. One of the first lines of attack is the breakdown of the samples by party.

In the New York Times poll, 34 percent of respondents were Republicans, while 32 percent were Democrats and 31 percent independents. Democrats will question this breakdown just as Republicans questioned the recent ABC/Washington Post daily national tracking poll that surveyed nine percent more Democrats and Clinton leading by 12 just 10 days ago.

Serious pollsters are projecting the turnout for an election, which is why the party breakdown is seldom equal. The New York Times/Sienna survey is a rare example where more Republicans are projected to turn out.

The ABC/Washington Post tracking poll published Wednesday, has seen a Trump surge and now has him tied nationally 46-46. The poll sample has eight percent more Democrats than Republicans.

If that represents a trend in the battleground states, Trump could be riding a wave. While it is true that polls only constitute a moment in time, the final week before an election is not a good time to be on the wrong side of your surfboard.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist Florida poll, released one day before the New York Times survey, showed Clinton with a 45-44 lead. The sampling included 39 percent Democrats and 37 percent Republicans. Squawking about that is hard.

A puzzling statistic does emerge from this poll. Among those surveyed who indicated they had already voted, Clinton led 54-37. Of those, who have not voted, Trump leads 51-42.

It would be no surprise to see Republicans turn out in greater numbers on Election Day. They did so in 2012, but not enough to overcome President Obama’s advantage in early voting.

What is difficult to comprehend is the 17-point Clinton advantage in ballots already cast. Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would not be alone in finding that illogical. Here is why.

First, as of Wednesday morning 17,000 more Florida Republicans than Democrats had mailed in or cast their ballots. Second, nearly 900,000 independents or no party affiliates (NPA) had voted. Third, independents are favoring Trump by 45 to 33 percent in the NBC survey.

On the day the survey was published, Republicans held a 6,000- ballot advantage with another half-million NPAs received. The poll showed 88 percent of Republicans support Trump and 89 percent of Democrats support Clinton. With all of these numbers from their own poll, from where would a 17-point gap emerge?

Democratic strategist Steve Schale understands there is trouble. In Wednesday’s daily update, he sounded the alarm to his party. To those who have not voted, the message was “Mail back your freaking ballots, people.” He also took the time to debunk a Florida poll purporting to show Clinton up by eight points in the state and collecting a 28 percent GOP crossover vote (but maintains Clinton is slightly ahead).

For those who wish to keep up with the daily tracking of the early vote, PR maven Kevin Cate has a fabulous tool called Florida Turnout that provides a daily progression of pre-November 8 balloting.

A week is an eternity at election time. Anything can happen. Any shoe can drop, including one worn by Trump, but something unimaginable three weeks ago is now possible.

Remember that all of this was going on before the latest chapter of the Clinton email episode. That can’t help.

Yes, Donald Trump could actually win Florida.

Bob Sparks: The unconstitutional burden of voter registration deadlines

Floridians now have an extra week to register to vote. The State of Florida, according to a federal judge, has set up “unconstitutional” firm deadlines for voter registration, which must be remedied.

The offending statute is 97.055 Florida Statutes that says voter registration “must be closed on the 29th day before each election and must remain closed until after that election.” (emphasis added)

In this matter, the 29th day was Oct. 11. In a shrewd move, the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) sought an injunction to suspend the provisions of Florida law due to violations of the federal “Voting Rights Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

As most anyone paying the slightest bit of attention now knows, the FDP prevailed. The defendants, Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner, did not contest the lawsuit.

Scott played it by the letter of the law and refused to extend the deadline, prompting the lawsuit. Even in ruling Florida law erects “unconstitutional obstacles” to voting, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker opined “it appears Defendant Scott lacked the authority to extend the deadline.”

In other words, despite having two years to register, the Florida Legislature created unnecessary barriers to voting by having firm deadlines. Walker pointed out some states allow registration to take place on Election Day.

Walker put forth a confusing statement on page 11 of his order. He states that “In no way, can Defendants argue that there is some sort of limitation that requires them to burden the constitutional rights of aspiring voters.”

Did he not say within the same order that Scott “lacked authority to extend the deadline?” Detzner is an appointee of Scott, meaning he would have even less authority.

Had the FDP included the Florida Legislature as defendants, Walker’s statement would make more sense.

The purpose here is not to criticize Walker. Indeed, last year I praised this Barack Obama appointee’s restraint and deference to the Legislature in a case involving the Florida Education Association and teacher evaluations.

It is at this point that everyone should pause to remember those who have lost homes, livelihoods, perhaps even a loved one to Hurricane Matthew. To some of those, getting their lives back together is their highest priority right now. Others genuinely want to cast a ballot.

Matthew notwithstanding, the letter of the law reflects the peril of waiting too long to register. The law was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in good faith to help maintain some order, not keep anyone from voting.

To be fair, there were some silly steps taken in the past such as limiting the mechanism for early voting.

Judge Walker’s passion for going the extra mile for potential voters is noteworthy, but all too often the passion of judges far exceeds that of such “voters” themselves. There are those of us who believe judges should give due deference to state laws passed in good faith.

But thanks to Judge Walker, there is another week to register voters. Republicans have the same opportunity to add supporters as do Democrats.

That being said, voter registration should have ended on Oct. 11 as the duly-enacted law stipulated. Natural disaster clauses could have been implemented for future elections.

Now that all of this has been settled for this year, it is time to get back to attack ads and poll tracking.

Being a Charlie Crist appointee will not determine the fate of Mary Thomas

Whether or not one is following the GOP primary for Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, it is getting a lot of attention both inside and outside of the Panhandle. The winner will succeed Democrat Gwen Graham, who chose not to seek re-election in a Florida Supreme Court-inspired redrawn district.

Attorney Mary Thomas is under assault in paid broadcast media. Try going on the internet without seeing an ominously silhouetted picture of Thomas charged with the sin of being a “Charlie Crist Republican” and “Charlie Crist appointee.”

The issue stems from Thomas serving in the Department of Community Affairs while Crist was governor. Michael Moline has written a must-read piece on her furious attempts to get the television ad pulled.

First, here is the truth about this silly argument: The governor appoints agency secretaries. Agency secretaries tentatively appoint agency management.

The governor’s chief of staff can, and does, block some tentative appointments. The secretary is part of the governor’s administration. Therefore, the secretary’s appointments are part of the governor’s administration.

The ads will not be pulled because Thomas was indeed appointed by Crist, who was responsible for his entire administration. She should feel free to criticize her opponents or Crist, but serving the public in the Crist administration will not determine whether she wins or loses.

Who is paying for these ads her supporters want to be pulled? Neither of Thomas’s opponents, former U.S. Attorney Ken Sukhia nor Dr. Neil Dunn are responsible.

For their part, Thomas and supporters are doing their best to link Dunn to Crist. The Club for Growth is running ads against Dunn and whatever connection he might have with the former governor. Sukhia is offering himself as the serious choice while Thomas and Dunn bicker.

So, who is bankrolling this fourth quarter broadside against Thomas? The ESAFund, which stands for Ending Spending Action Fund, is trying to sway this race away from Thomas.

ESAFund is not a huge player. The District 2 race is their first venture into Florida politics.

The most recently available reports posted by the Center for Responsive Politics show they have raised about $4 million this cycle. The biggest beneficiary so far is New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, who has received $1.2 million in assistance. ESAFund has also spent nearly $300,000 against Ayotte’s opponent, Maggie Hassan.

Perhaps an ominous note comes from Kansas where ESAFund spent more than $750,000 attacking Republican Congressman Tim Huelskamp in his primary race against Roger Marshall. They also kicked in nearly $400,000 on behalf of Marshall, who handily defeated the incumbent Tea Party stalwart.

A million dollars in a predominantly rural district is a big deal. They must see similarities in the Florida Panhandle.

Who is putting up the money behind ESAFund? Marlene Ricketts kicked in the most with $850,000.

Ricketts is the wife of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and the mother of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. The Ricketts family owns the Chicago Cubs.

Wrestling moguls Vince and Linda McMahon donated $250,000. Miami Worldcenter co-developer and Delray Beach resident Bill Powers ponied up $50,000.

Crist may be running for Congress from St. Petersburg, but his presence still looms far too large in North Florida.

Donald Trump campaign shakeup — will it be enough?

Donald Trump and his campaign are sending a signal with the announcement of Steve Bannon as campaign CEO and Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager. Aside from the clear message that his is a campaign in trouble, it also provides a clear picture of a major focus of his campaign going forward.

That focus is to make the election about Hillary Clinton and not Donald Trump. So far, Trump’s world-class lack of discipline has kept the spotlight on himself.

There can be little doubt that Bannon has been brought on board to change that dynamic. If the candidate will cooperate and refrain from responding to criticism from Gold Star families, it will be interesting to see if this move works.

“It’s an expansion at a busy time in the final stretch of the campaign,” Conway told The New York Times.

Bannon is fairly well-known in conservative circles as the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, the media outlet liberals love to hate. Even some conservatives were unhappy with Breitbart’s softness for Trump during the primaries.

No one is talking about Bannon’s accomplishments as a conservative filmmaker, but they should. His skill in that area will make him invaluable to Trump. That is if the candidate will cooperate.

Bannon’s most recent work is the film version of Peter Schweizer’s New York Times best-selling book, Clinton Cash. The findings of Schweizer and his team at the Florida-based Government Accountability Institute (co-founded with Bannon) have given Trump and Republicans fodder for op-eds and TV ads for months.

(Full disclosure: I represent a group from Japan that translated and published Clinton Cash in that country.)

The book and the film chronicle the questionable donations to the Clinton Foundation from foreign governments doing business with the U.S. while Clinton was Secretary of State. Clinton is clearly vulnerable to political attacks on the activities of the Foundation.

Millions of dollars have come into Foundation from some governments which operate on the notion that being gay is punishable by death. Or women are not even second class citizens.

Those are in addition to the almost daily revelations provided by the release of still more emails.

For those who like to fall back on the notion that only Fox News is talking about this, think again. The Boston Globe, no conservative organ, published an editorial Wednesday calling for the Foundation to stop accepting donations. Now.

These should be the gifts that keep on giving for Trump. Instead, his instinct has been to talk about Clinton and President Barack Obama being the “founders of ISIS” during his most recent Florida swing.

This is the state of the playing field as Bannon enters the game. If Bannon can keep Trump on message, a huge undertaking, we should expect television and online ads taking the most devastating snippets from the film. His imprint will be on other ads as well.

Conway brings campaign experience, including decades as a pollster. She is also a frequent guest pundit on political shows.

We will soon see if Trump puts his faith in his “core four” of Bannon, Conway, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates. If Conway becomes the most frequent spokesperson, then despite denials, Manafort’s role has likely changed.

Manafort is under scrutiny for his role in helping the pro-Russian government in Ukraine (at the time) direct undisclosed payments to U.S. lobbying firms. This dynamic will make him unable to effectively represent the campaign in media interviews, especially the Sunday shows.

How does the Trump campaign talk about the Clinton Foundation while its campaign chairman is being peppered with questions by those seeking to create a moral equivalence between the two? The answer: by keeping the chairman under wraps.

This is clearly Trump’s last chance to be relevant. It may already be too late, but with an opponent as flawed as Hillary Clinton, anything is possible if the focus stays on her.

Only in America.

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