Brendan Farrington, Author at Florida Politics

Brendan Farrington

Tale of 2 parties: Florida GOP high, Dems low ahead of 2018

The state Republican and Democratic parties met two miles from each other Saturday, their first meetings since Donald Trump carried Florida in November’s election, but the atmosphere and enthusiasm were worlds apart.

As both parties chose their leaders, it was easy to see which has more confidence heading into an election cycle when the governor’s office and all three Cabinet seats will be open. Republicans were aglow in victory after Trump stunned many political observers by winning the state Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, Democrats held a contentious election to choose a new chairman with little talk about this past election.

“How good does this feel? We defied the mainstream media, we defied conventional wisdom, defied the pollsters,” Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told GOP county chairs. “Right across town, Democrats are having their election and they’re not feeling near as good.”

As both parties prepare for 2018, Republicans are focused on how to build off the momentum Trump built with voters who traditionally haven’t been part of the political process while Democrats elected wealthy real estate developer and major party donor Stephen Bittel as chairman in hopes of ending two decades of futility at the polls.

“Donald Trump got a lot of people off of the couch and got them involved. It is our job at the Republican Party of Florida to harness all of that passion, all of that energy, and keep them in the game,” said state GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who was easily re-elected. “And when we do, and mark my words we will do it, we will cripple the Democrat Party for a generation.”

After the Democrats elected Bittel, a group of protesters stood outside the meeting room holding signs that read, “SHAME,” ”This is not the party of the people” and “People over $$.”

Still, Bittel tried to paint the best picture of the party’s future.

“We have had an under-resourced operation in Florida for a long time. That changes, starting today, and we will build a different kind of party, I’m a different kind leader and we will change things,” Bittel said. “I grew up in Florida in an era when we won everything. I’m looking forward to that era again.”

But Bittel, 60, grew up more than four decades ago, and there’s a new generation of Democrats who have rarely seen victory.

Florida hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1994. They’ve lost 14 of the past 15 Cabinet races. And despite Democrats’ success in passing a ballot initiative that requires political districts to be drawn in a way that doesn’t favor parties or incumbents, Republicans maintain huge majorities in the Legislature and hold 16 of Florida’s 27 U.S. House seats.

Republicans appear better situated heading into a critical state election. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the three GOP Cabinet members, including Putnam, are leaving office because of term limits. Also in 2018, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is seeking a fourth term, and it’s widely thought Scott will challenge him in what could be Nelson’s toughest re-election yet.

But despite under-performing again in 2016, Democrats think 2018 can be different. Democratic strategist and former state party political director Christian Ulvert pointed at several pluses. First, Nelson, the one consistently successful Florida Democrat since 2000, will be on the ballot.

“This year, we have a potential for Bill Nelson setting the tone, to really set the stage from the top down,” Ulvert said.

He also said the party has a rich field of popular city mayors who could be on the ballot for statewide races, including Fort Lauderdale’s Jack Seiler, Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach’s Philip Levine, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum.

Putnam, who is likely to run for governor, warned Republicans that despite their successes, the party cannot become complacent.

“We can’t get arrogant and cocky and lose our way,” Putnam said. “We can’t take anything for granted.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Husband’s cancer is a factor in Gwen Graham’s decision to run for governor

Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham says she wants to run for governor, and she plans to run for governor. But there’s one very important factor that’s weighing on her decision: her husband has cancer.

“Every part of me wants to run for governor, that’s what I feel passionate about, that’s what I know I need to do for the state of Florida, but things happen in life that could take me off that path. I hope not,” Graham said Wednesday evening while conducting her last “work day” as a congresswoman — helping sell Christmas trees at an outdoor stand.

The work days were a signature of her father Bob Graham‘s time as Florida governor and a U.S. senator. Like her father, she spends time experiencing different jobs as a way to reach out to constituents and voters.

She decided not to seek a second term in Congress after the Florida Supreme Court ordered new congressional districts be drawn so that don’t favor incumbents or political parties. Graham’s district became far more Republican and she decided to explore a 2018 run for governor rather than risk re-election.

She sounded a lot like a candidate when talking with reporters outside the Christmas tree stand, saying she plans to campaign in all 67 counties and discussing her campaign strategy. But she said she’s waiting to see how treatment progresses on her husband Steve Hurm‘s prostate cancer.

“He absolutely wants me to run. He’s very supportive of that and I couldn’t do it without him by my side,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it without him by my side.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott is leaving office in 2019 due to term limits. Among other Democrats believed to be considering a run are Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and trial lawyer John Morgan. Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is also considering a run.

The Republican Governors Association is already preparing for a potential Graham candidacy, wasting little time after this year’s election to begin attacking Graham in news releases. The association called Graham “just another Washington politician.” Graham hadn’t held elected office before winning her House seat two years ago.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

It’s likely to be a close election in Florida, again

Another close election in Florida? Count on it.

Through Friday, 2,268,663 Democrats and 2,261,383 Republicans had cast ballots by mail or at early voting sites – a difference of 7,280 in favor of Democrats. Overall, more than 5.7 million Floridians have voted, or nearly 45 percent of those registered. That far surpasses 2012 totals, when 4.8 million Floridians cast ballots before Election Day.

As early voting was set to end in 51 of Florida’s 67 counties Saturday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump once again were campaigning in the Sunshine State. Their running mates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence and other top surrogates have been frequent visitors in the state that’s a must-win for Trump’s presidential campaign.

“How many of you have already voted?” Clinton asked a crowd in Broward County. The response was enthusiastic cheers. “OK, so that means you’ve got time to get everybody else to get out and vote, right?”

Earlier in Tampa, Trump told supporters at a rally that 66 of the state’s 67 counties supported him in Florida’s primary last March.

“Florida is just a place I love – my second home, I’m here all the time. I might know Florida better than you do,” Trump said. “I see maybe more enthusiasm right now than I did (in March).”

Florida’s 29 electoral votes are the biggest prize in Tuesday’s presidential election among states that could swing to either candidate. In 2000, Florida set the standard for close presidential elections when George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes out of about 6 million cast. It took five weeks to call the election in the state that determined the presidency.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was campaigning across north Florida Saturday, starting with an event at a Pensacola Beach bar. He’s being challenged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

Unlike Murphy, Rubio has avoided campaigning with his party’s presidential nominee. While he supports Trump, he has condemned his words and behavior.

Murphy attended a Broward County rally with Clinton and later planned to attend a St. Petersburg concert with singer Jon Bon Jovi and Kaine.

While only 16 counties will continue early voting on Sunday, they are some of the state’s largest, including Democratic strongholds of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Democrats were planning “souls to the polls” events encouraging African-American churchgoers to take advantage of the last day of early voting in the counties where polls will be open.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

ACLU asks court to continue to block abortion waiting period

A lawyer representing an abortion clinic told the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday that the state’s 24-hour waiting period would significantly restrict a woman’s right to abortion and asked justices to continue blocking the law until a lower court can decide whether it’s constitutional.

The delays could lead to victims of domestic abuse being forced to forgo an abortion, or cause additional emotional distress for women who have a doomed pregnancy, said Julia Kaye, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing a Gainesville clinic. She said it could also mean the difference between using drugs to end a pregnancy rather than surgery.

“Women think long and hard about this decision and take it very seriously,” said Kaye. She added that if woman aren’t ready for an abortion, they can already wait before deciding whether to go through the procedure. “This law actually only impacts the women who are already ready, the women who do not want or need to delay their procedure any longer.”

The state attorney general’s office argued that the law doesn’t create significant burdens for women and the waiting period is necessary because the decision can’t be undone.

“The waiting is not because it’s a medical procedure; it’s a waiting period because it’s an irreversible, life-altering decision on the order of things like marriage, divorce, giving up your child for adoption,” said Denise Harle. “There is a societal interest in people entering into those decisions with due deliberation.”

Gov. Rick Scott signed the waiting period into law last year and it was quickly blocked by a lower court after the ACLU sued. But an appeals court lifted the injunction in February and the law was in effect until the Supreme Court temporarily blocked it two months later. The court is now deciding whether the injunction should stay in place while the lower court hears the initial lawsuit.

Justice Barbara Pariente pointed out that the state doesn’t require a waiting period for hysterectomies, vasectomies and other medical procedures.

“There’s not a waiting period after you decide that you’re going to lose your breast through a mastectomy – that you’ve got to wait another 24 hours before you go through that procedure, not that you haven’t thought about it up until that time,” said Pariente, who is a breast cancer survivor. “It’s not neutral and that’s my concern.”

After the hearing, Kaye said the law did create problems for women in the two months it was enacted.

“We got to see some examples of how harmful it is,” Kaye said. “Women suffered. Women missed work and wages they would not have otherwise had to lose, women experienced sickness that could have been avoided and women experienced and received a very clear message from the state: They are not capable decision makers.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Will Donald Trump bring Marco Rubio down in Florida?

There are two words that keep coming up in Florida’s U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Marco Rubio and Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy: Donald Trump.

One of the strongest arguments Murphy is making in his underdog campaign to defeat Rubio is the failed presidential candidate’s support of the billionaire TV reality star. At rallies, in interviews and most notably during debates, Murphy has repeatedly made the Rubio-Trump connection.

“When Donald Trump goes low, Marco Rubio is right there with him,” Murphy said to cheers at a recent Hillary Clinton rally. “Marco Rubio claims he’s going to stand up to Donald Trump if he’s elected to president. Really? Really? How exactly is Marco Rubio going to do that if he can’t even stand up to him as a candidate? Donald Trump boasts about sexual assault, and Marco Rubio looks the other way.”

There are stark differences between the candidates on guns, health care, foreign policy, economic issues and abortion, and presidential politics injects another major issue into the Senate race, as each campaign hopes to use voter dissatisfaction with the top of the ticket to hurt the opposition.

“I’m totally unhappy with Marco Rubio,” said Judith Lyons, 68, a Democrat and retired massage therapist from Tallahassee. “All the nasty things throughout the whole (presidential) primary season between the two of them was just so horrible, and he’s still willing to vote for (Trump). It’s a political move for him.”

Rubio seems to be maintaining support from Republicans, even those who are abandoning Trump. Diana Font is a lifelong Republican who is going to vote for Clinton and also Rubio. She said he’s a “man of the people” who meets with constituents.

“I wanted him for president!” said Font, 57, who is the executive director of the local Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. “I’m proud of him. I’m proud of what he’s done.”

Rubio, 45, instantly became the front runner in the race when he decided to seek a second term at the last minute after previously stating he wouldn’t. That made a more difficult path for Murphy, 33, who was still relatively unknown despite announcing his candidacy more than a year earlier. Rubio and outside groups that support him have far outspent Murphy and groups that support him.

Murphy, 33, even loaned his campaign $1 million late in the race for television ads, money that was needed after Washington groups pulled money it help Murphy, moves that upset Florida Democrats who saw Murphy closing the gap with Rubio. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled out of the race and the Senate Majority PAC also canceled its remaining $10 commitment to Murphy, but then last week transferred at least $1 million to Floridians for a Strong Middle Class, a super PAC backing Murphy.

Rubio and outside groups supporting him spent $18.8 million in television ads in October, compared to $8.7 million by Murphy and outside groups supporting him, according to Ashley Walker, who runs the Murphy super PAC. Rubio and his allies have $4.7 million in ads reserved for the final week of the race, compared to $3.3 million in ads reserved by Murphy and the PAC supporting him.

Murphy received a big boost from President Barack Obama, who has used Florida rallies to criticize Rubio, particularly for supporting Trump.

“Marco Rubio said this was a dangerous con artist who spent a lifetime – spent a career – sticking it to working people,” Obama said at an October rally in Miami. “Why does Marco Rubio still plan to vote for Donald Trump? Why is he supporting Donald Trump?”

Despite Rubio’s name recognition and money advantage, Murphy has remained close in recent polls, a sign that Rubio has lost his shine with Florida voters after the bitter presidential race and attacks that he ignored his job as senator to pursue higher ambitions.

Murphy is a two-term congressman who has been attacked for embellishing his resume. He has said his work as a certified public accountant and as a small business owner help him. But while he worked for an accounting firm in Florida, he wasn’t a licensed CPA in the state, and his environmental cleanup business was set up by his wealthy father.

Like Murphy, but to a lesser degree, Rubio has infused presidential politics into his campaign, pointing out that Murphy unequivocally supports Clinton.

“If Congressman Murphy is willing to trust Hillary Clinton 100 percent, he’s in rare company,” Rubio said during a debate. “The job of a U.S. senator is not to blindly trust a president because they happen to be from your own party.”

While Murphy is sharing stages with Clinton and Obama, Rubio is distancing himself for Trump, who often called Rubio “Little Marco” during the presidential campaign. Yes, he supports him, but he says he stands by statements he made during the presidential campaign. Rubio doesn’t campaign with Trump, continues to denounce his words and at an October state GOP dinner, he didn’t mention Trump once in a half-hour speech even though he spoke after Trump running mate Mike Pence.

Still, regardless of the issue, Murphy has repeatedly mentioned Trump when talking about Rubio. During the only two Senate debates, Murphy mentioned Trump by name 28 times, or roughly once for every two minutes of speaking time he had.

Asked about police relations with the black communities? Murphy mentioned Trump. Middle East policy? Trump. Women’s issues? Trump. Cuba? Trump.

“A noun, a verb and Donald Trump. That’s his answer to everything,” Rubio said.

Surrounded by alligators, Matthew cleanup goes on in Florida

Sure, lots of people in St. Augustine are picking up branches and leaves after Hurricane Matthew blew through town. But only a few are doing it surrounded by alligators.

That’s what Jim Darlington and Amie Mercado were doing on Sunday, raking up debris in an alligator pit with the enormous reptiles just a couple of feet away, including one who opened its mouth wide as Mercado approached. That was part of the unusual cleanup at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, where trees and limbs fell into alligator lagoons and crocodile pools, and enormous African storks were taken out of the bathrooms where they rode out the hurricane.

All in all, the zoo – one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions and the only place in the world that displays every species of crocodilian – fared well during the storm. However, fears of what could have been were certainly on people’s minds.

“We were all hunkered down listening to the news, and of course everybody is on social media, and sure enough a rumor started that there are alligators out – hundreds of alligators were out,” Darlington said, who said the 123-year-old zoo was inspected by state wildlife officials immediately after the storm passed and before employees were allowed back in. “The walls were still standing. There weren’t alligators running around.”

To prepare for the storm, cobras and other venomous snakes put in drawstring bags, placed in secure containers and then those containers were placed in other containers. Storks were rounded up and placed in bathrooms. Parrots and other birds were caged and alligator hatchlings were crated and placed in a secure building.

“We had to get very creative with where we put animals to make sure they were in the best housing condition for 48 hours that we could possibly give them,” said Gen Anderson, the zoo’s bird and mammal curator.

Storks were put in the bathrooms, where sinks were left dripping.

“Each stork was in a separate bathroom, the floors are really easy to clean and they had a water source. They seemed comfortable,” Anderson said.

Crocodiles and alligators weren’t moved – but the water levels in lagoons and pools were lowered by half to make sure flooding didn’t get too high. Darlington said the surge ended up a bit higher than he expected, but no animals escaped.

“They just stay hunkered down,” Darlington said. “The animals just stay in the pools. In bad weather, they’re not out running around freaking out like a bunch of ostriches or something, they just want to stay in the water.”

The biggest hit to the zoo was its zip line, which visitors take to zoom over the alligators and crocodiles, dipping down to within about 30 feet of the creatures. Several limbs where the lines run came down. While the zoo hopes to open Tuesday, the zip line will take longer to repair.

Republish with permission of the Associated Press.

Marina owner post-Matthew: Dodged a bullet? No, it dodged us

Marina owner Joe Taylor has a different take on whether Florida dodged a bullet during Hurricane Matthew.

“We stood still. It dodged us. But we’re grateful,” the 81-year-old Taylor said.

Taylor and his wife were in their second home in Portland, Oregon, last Wednesday when forecasts of widespread devastation sent him rushing to Florida to protect his life’s work: the 260-boat marina he built on Camachee Island, between an Atlantic barrier island and the historic former Spanish colonial city of St. Augustine.

“We looked at the TV, I looked at my wife, she looked at me and we started looking at flights,” Taylor said.

The marina, neighboring condos and a string of homes sit on a narrow spit of land 8 feet above the water. It is surrounded by marshes in the salt water bay. The marina docks boats ranging from 20-footers to a 133-foot yacht. It was full when the storm hit.

Taylor was determined to stay in a waterfront condo during Friday’s storm, until worried family urged him to stay at his inland home. It wasn’t easy leaving the business he built four decades ago. He returned while winds were still howling, gusts were still hurricane strength and the rain was pounding hard.

“When it hits your face and stings like a bee, you know you’ve got strong wind,” he said.

When the storm surge receded, none of the boats were damaged. There was minor ramp damage he said would be easy to fix and a lot of cleanup.

Taylor got updates during the storm from Cindy Dillard, a marina employee whose family lives on one of the boats. Dillard, her husband Troy and 16-year-old son Noah stayed on their boat until about 9 hours before Matthews’ eye was directly offshore. Then they moved to the condo, fearful their floating home would be lost.

“You couldn’t see from one side of the marina to the other,” she said.

When the eye passed, the winds calmed enough that they could see a dock had broken loose and lines to others loosened up and the boats were about to be blown into docks as the wind shifted directions. She and her husband scurried to secure lines while being pelted with rain.

“We’re really thrilled with how things turned out,” Dillard said.

As is Taylor, who had visions of Hurricane Hugo, which devastated Charleston, South Carolina in 1989, tossing boats into the city. Had the storm surge been 5 feet higher, as some predictions suggested, boats would’ve been in downtown St. Augustine.

“We could do all we could do, but it would have been beyond our control how high that surge would be,” he said.

Republish with permission of the Associated Press.

Wet and wild: New Jersey teens drive 1,000 miles for Matthew

As millions of people were being warned to evacuate, two 18-year-old storm chasers packed food and snacks and drove nearly 1,000 miles from New Jersey to Florida just to watch Hurricane Matthew roll past the nation’s oldest city of St. Augustine.

“I have an obsession with severe weather, snowstorms, hurricanes tornadoes, anything crazy that most people wouldn’t go towards,” Lucio Bottieri of Jackson, New Jersey, said Friday. “I’ve been obsessed since the 2005 hurricane season when there was storm after storm after storm.”

That’s when he was 7. While he rode out Hurricane Sandy at home four years ago, this week was the first time he’s traveled to see a hurricane.

“My mom was really against my trip. I had to keep talking to her to calm her fear,” he said.

Most of his friends thought it was a bad idea, too. Except Bailey Lilienkamp.

“He’s not a weather nut like me, just a good friend,” Bottieri said. “Nobody was willing to make the journey with me, and he didn’t hesitate to come. Bailey’s mom was worried. Not quite like my mom.”

They packed canned food, snacks, bottled water and a first aid kit, and left early Thursday morning, driving straight through to St. Augustine as the storm closed in.

Meanwhile, an estimated 2 million people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were being warned to evacuate.

As winds and rains from Matthew battered the coast on Friday, the teenagers stood by a seawall at the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century Spanish fort. Saltwater blasted into the air and hard, driving rain pelted them. Soon, too much water was coming in, and they decided to go back to their hotel room for a quick break. They planned to venture out again just as the strongest winds were approaching the city.

Bottieri said he chose St. Augustine because he thought it would be safer than points farther south along the Florida peninsula.

“I thought too far south would have been too bad, because I’ve never really done this before and it was supposed to be a little easier here,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t get too bad for the sake of the people who live here, but I hope it gets a little worse.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Florida primaries eyed: Representation of few, or the many?

It took just 14,496 votes to win his closed Democratic primary for one of Florida’s 27 congressional seats. Now Darren Soto is virtually assured of going to Capitol Hill, unlikely to face a strong Republican challenge this November in his safely Democratic district.

The state senator snared the votes of just 2 percent of the Orlando area district’s 750,000 residents, beating three other candidates in last month’s closed-party, winner-takes-all primary. Only registered Democrats could cast ballots in Soto’s race and the small percentage of them likely decided the contest before the general election.

It’s a scenario repeated regularly in Florida’s state and congressional races in districts firmly controlled by one or the other of the two major parties. Now such outcomes are prompting calls to reform Florida’s primary system so more voters have a say in who represents them.

“That’s a question that comes up often,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the Florida League of Women Voters. Her group is studying the primary system and will make recommendations next year to lawmakers on broadening the electoral process.

Florida is one of only nine states with a strict closed primary system, which prevents independent and minor party voters from casting primary ballots. Proponents say political parties should have the sole say in who they nominate, but critics say closed primaries exclude a large swath of voters, particularly as the number of independent voters grows.

Until 16 years ago, Florida primaries weren’t even over until a candidate won a ballot majority. If no primary candidate received at least 50 percent plus one vote, the top two met in a runoff to decide who reached the general election.

But then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush eliminated the runoff in 2002, a year he was seeking re-election and two years after his brother George W. Bush carried the perennial swing state by 537 votes in a famously chaotic presidential election. Jettisoning the primary runoff was part of reforms aimed at making Florida elections run more smoothly.

The impact on Sunshine State politics was immediate.

In 2002, political newcomer Bill McBride won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno by 0.4 percentage points in a three-way race. Many believe Reno would have defeated McBride in a runoff and gone on to face Bush. And in 2010, now Gov. Rick Scott won the Republican nomination with only 46 percent of the vote though a runoff could have overturned the results.

And this year, state Rep. Matt Gaetz is a lock to represent northwest Florida in Congress after capturing just 36 percent of the vote in a seven-way Republican primary, meaning 64 percent of voters wanted someone else in Washington from their firmly GOP district. It’s a decision that essentially excludes Democrats and independents.

It was a runoff that helped primary runner-up Bob Graham into the governor’s office in 1979.

Eventually a three-term U.S. senator, Graham avidly supports resurrecting the runoff primary. He said the current system often encourages election of the most extreme candidates among both major parties. He said primary reforms could make representation more moderate, in line with the views of most voters.

“The question ought to be not whose convenience are we serving, but what makes democracy work best and gives the people the opportunity to have persons in office who represent the broadest consensus,” said Graham, who now runs a University of Florida center for greater citizen engagement with government.

Only 11 states still have some form of a runoff primary, mostly in the Deep South. Louisiana, California and Washington state have all-inclusive primaries where the top two vote earners advance to the general election, 15 states have open primaries and nine states allow independent voters to choose which primary they’ll vote in.

People are increasingly open to changing primary systems because they don’t like current options that contribute to partisan extremes in Washington, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a non-partisan Washington-area group that seeks to make voting more representative.

“There are different approaches that make sense for different states. There’s more openness in the reform world to not have a one-size fits all model,” he said.

Ion Sancho, elections supervisor in Leon County that includes Florida’s capital of Tallahassee, was first elected in 1988 aided by a primary runoff.

He agreed more voters should have a say in who’s elected, but isn’t espousing a return of the second primary. Instead, he said all candidates should be put on a primary ballot regardless of party and all registered voters, including independents, should be allowed to vote. The top two candidates would face off in November.

That notion doesn’t appeal to Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell, who chairs the House committee that considers election issues. He prefers the idea of voters picking their first two choices in a crowded primary. If no candidate wins a majority, then the second choice of voters are weighed to determine a winner.

Changing Florida’s primary system would require legislative action or a change in the state constitution through a ballot initiative.

“I’m not afraid to try to tinker with it,” Caldwell said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Rick Scott to get first state Supreme Court pick

Florida Supreme Court Justice James Perry announced Monday he is stepping down Dec. 30, which will give Gov. Rick Scott his first opportunity to begin reshaping a court that has frustrated Republicans on issues ranging from political maps to protecting doctors from lawsuits.

Perry, 72, is forced to leave the court because he’s reached the mandatory retirement age. Scott will almost certainly appoint a more conservative justice to replace him, though he didn’t give details about what he will look for in a justice.

“What I do is try to find the candidate that I believe will uphold the law and be humble in the process,” said Scott, who repeated several times that he wants a justice to “uphold our existing laws.”

Republicans have seen the current court throw out several priorities in recent years, including caps on medical malpractice lawsuit awards, caps on lawyer fees in worker’s compensation cases, an effort to protect developers from lawsuits, and congressional and state Senate political maps approved by the GOP-dominated Legislature.

The court also told Scott he overstepped his boundaries by ordering state agencies to freeze rulemaking and submit planned regulations to his office for review and approval, and earlier this year it put a 24-hour waiting period for abortions on hold while it reviews the law.

“I’m pleased that a conservative governor is in a position to be able to move the court more toward the right,” said Republican Sen. Rob Bradley of Fleming Island. “We’ve seen some activist decisions over the past three years that are very concerning to many of us in the Legislature.”

Perry was appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to the state Supreme Court in 2009. He was the fourth black justice appointed to the court.

Florida law requires that justices retire once they turn 70, although they can serve out their term if that birthday falls in the last three years of their six-year term.

Scott must choose an appointee from a list provided to him by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, but Scott appoints a majority of the nine-member commission and has stocked it with conservatives, including a former Republican Party of Florida lawyer, a woman who is a veteran of several Republican political campaigns, two lobbyists with strong GOP ties and Jesse Panuccio, who served as Scott’s general counsel and ran the Department of Economic Opportunity as Scott’s appointee.

Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon said he will take a wait and see approach to Scott’s pick and hope for the best.

“Even if something is not good for me, the law is the law is the law is the law. He has the right to do that,” Braynon said. “We’ve seen his appointments before. We probably know what kind of appointment he’s going to go for.”

Republicans have made it clear they’re not happy with the court. Four years ago, the state Republican Party actively tried to get three justices voted off the bench, calling them “extreme” and “too liberal.”

And two years ago, Republican lawmakers asked voters to pass a constitutional amendment that would have given Scott the right to appoint three justices who will retire on the same day Scott’s successor is sworn in, rather than allow the incoming governor appointment their replacements. The measure failed.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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