Janelle Irwin Taylor, Author at Florida Politics

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

Kathleen Peters endorses Ray Blacklidge as her successor

State Rep. Kathleen Peters is endorsing Ray Blacklidge as her successor in House District 69, Blacklidge announced Monday.

Peters and Blacklidge are both Republicans. Blacklidge is running against Democrat Jennifer Webb for the seat covering west St. Petersburg and parts of mid-west Pinellas County.

Peters is not seeking re-election because she’s running for Pinellas County Commission to replace the late John Morroni who lost a long battle with cancer earlier this year.

“Ray Blacklidge is a solid leader I’m proud to endorse,” said Peters. “His background in the private sector and strong history of service to our community make him perfectly poised to be an effective voice for Pinellas County in Tallahassee. I am confident that he will serve us well, carry on my political agenda, and I urge all District 69 voters to support him.”

Blacklidge is an insurance industry executive and attorney who is running on a conservative platform that aligns with much of what Peters championed in her six years serving in the Florida Legislature.

Peters pushed a pro-business agenda in the house and supported school choice programs in K-12 education — both platforms Blacklidge supports.

However, Peters also brought some bipartisan priorities to the House including her stalwart efforts to increase mental health access to residents. Blacklidge says he supports mental health reform, particularly as it related to school safety.

During a recent campaign forum, Blacklidge said the answer to thwarting rampant school shootings was to increase mental health access, not by increasing gun regulation.

“I’m honored to have Representative Peters’s support,” Blacklidge said. “She has been an effective legislator for our area, and I look forward to continuing to work with her to provide our communities with effective and responsive representation.”

Peters’ district is a mostly even split between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans make up 36 percent of the district while Democrats account for 35 percent. Independents and other minor parties account for 29 percent of the district.

The district voted plus-3 for Donald Trump in 2016.

A recent poll has Webb leading Blacklidge by 15 points.

David Straz comes out with four early endorsements for Tampa Mayor

Tampa philanthropist David Straz nabbed four endorsements from a business group and three workers unions, the Tampa Mayoral candidate announced Monday.

The Northwest Florida Chapter of Black Women in Construction, United Food and Commercial Workers 1625, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 487, District 925 and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union 123 have all offered their nod to Straz, whose name graces downtown Tampa’s performing arts center.

“I’ve been meeting with groups across the city, and I’m humbled to receive the early endorsements of these organizations,” Straz said. “When I meet with these groups, I speak from the heart about my desire to make Tampa a better, stronger place to live, start and run a business and raise a family.”

The four groups cited Straz’s work ethic and character as two of the defining reasons they chose to back him in the crowded mayor’s race.

“David Straz has a commitment to the people of Tampa that is unsurpassed and inspiring. Job creation and growth along with citywide improvements in areas where the residents need it most are a few of the priorities David communicated to us. We feel that David Straz has the experience, work ethic and vision needed to move Tampa forward,” said Todd Vega, business manager of Plumbers & Pipefitters Local Union 123.

Straz has poured more than $1.5 million into his own campaign coffers and has spent a decent chunk of that on television ad buys introducing himself to voters as more than just a philanthropist.

The introduction to voters on issues will be a crucial endeavor for Straz who admittedly voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

The city of Tampa has historically favored Democratic mayoral candidates. Straz joined the Democratic Party in late April after announcing he was running to succeed incumbent Mayor Bob Buckhorn. He’s also since said he regrets voting for Trump and would not do so again.

Former Hillsborough Democratic Party Executive Director Mark Hanisee is running Straz’s campaign. Hanisee left his post with the local party to take the job with Straz.

Though Hanisee is a well known skilled fundraiser — he started with the Hillsborough party to raise funds after being voted out of office in Pinellas County — Straz has said he won’t accept contributions more than $500. As of the most recent campaign finance filings, Straz has held true to that promise.

Straz prides himself as a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” sort of candidate having built his fortune in the banking industry.

“We know David Straz will be a tremendous leader and steward of the working class. We offer our full endorsement and support to David Straz because of his honest character and incredible vision for the City of Tampa,” said Jim Junecko, business agent for IUOE Local 487.

At age 75, Straz also lacks the future political ambition other younger candidates in the race might have.

“We were very impressed with David Straz because he loves the City of Tampa and is not using the mayor’s office as a steppingstone to higher office,” Ed Chambers, president of UFCW Local 1625 said.

Straz will take on former Tampa Chief of Police Jane Castor, Tampa City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, small business coach Topher Morrison and community activist LaVaughn King.

Poll: Hillsborough transportation initiative poised to pass

Good news for All For Transportation: Hillsborough County’s transportation initiative should pass if the latest polling holds true.

In a St. Pete Polls survey, 48 percent of respondents said they would or have already voted yes on the All For Transportation referendum. Only 43 percent indicated they would or have already voted no.

The transportation initiative is Hillsborough County Referendum No. 2 on the Nov. 6 ballot. Mail-in ballots have already gone out to voters. The initiative would raise sales tax 1 percent to fund both transit and transportation improvements, county-wide.

Of those survey respondents who said they had already voted, 55 percent voted ‘yes’ on the transportation referendum while nearly 42 percent voted no.

Among those who still plan to vote, 45 percent said they would vote yes while 44 percent would vote no.

The issue is perhaps unsurprisingly enjoying more support from Democrats than Republicans. Of the 447 Democrats, 57 percent support the transportation referendum. Among the 388 Republican respondents, that number plummets to 38 percent.

The survey results come as the Tampa firefighters union endorsed the referendum because they say it would increase public safety.

The St. Pete Polls survey included 1,095 responses from likely voters in Hillsborough County. Respondents were selected at random. Those who said they weren’t planning to vote were not included in results. The survey has a 3 percentage point margin of error.

The survey also included another sales tax issue on the November ballot. The one half percent sales tax increase for the Hillsborough County Schools District shows overwhelming support.

Overall, 55 percent said they would vote in favor of the referendum, which would authorize the additional tax for ten years. Only 40 percent said they would or already had voted no.

The margin is even wider among those who already voted by mail. Of those, 61 percent voted yes and just 37 percent voted no.

Like the transportation referendum, support is more widespread among Democrats than Republicans with 66 percent of Democrats approving and 29 percent disapproving. Republicans favor the plan 40 percent while 53 percent reject the plan.

Businesses band together against offshore drilling

The Florida Gulf Coast Business Coalition is officially launching an alliance of coastal business owners and leaders opposed to offshore drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast. The group of businesses is formally announcing its partnership on October 16 at 10:30 a.m. at the Tradewinds Island Grand Resort on St. Pete Beach.

The Coalition represents more than 2,000 businesses, chambers of commerce and other associations. The group hopes to create a unified voice against any new drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and works to ensure no existing drilling moves any further inland.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is expected to speak at the group’s announcement. Robin Miller, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates will also speak.

Efforts under the Trump administration to expand offshore drilling threaten more than 300,000 jobs and $17.5 billion in gross domestic product associated with Florida’s Gulf Coast Fishing, tourism and recreation, according to the Coalition.

The Trump administration announced earlier this year its plans to open almost all U.S. waters to offshore drilling. The Department of the Interior’s a draft five-year program for oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf, the agency proposed the largest number of potential offshore lease sales ever, the Coalition said.

The group’s members include businesses and advocacy groups from the entire Gulf Coast.

The announcement comes as Gulf Coast businesses battle a different problem — red tide. Statewide efforts are ongoing to mitigate the effects of this year’s algae bloom, which has been one of the worst in recent history. Fish kills and toxins in the air are keeping visitors away from beaches and nearby businesses.

The state of Florida allocated $3 million for businesses affected by red tide and the federal government made small business loans available to help them recover. Researchers are also continuing work trying to understand why red tide occurs and how to prevent or mitigate it.

Shadowy group attacking Jennifer Webb in HD 69 race

A mysterious political committee has released an attack ad condemning Jennifer Webb, the Democratic candidate for Florida House District 69, for taking contributions from special interest groups, political insiders and lobbyists.

The Venice-based Citizens for Florida Prosperity Political Committee paid for the ad — not Webb’s opponent, Ray Blacklidge. It’s chaired by a Katie Morris of Quincy, who couldn’t be reached. 

Webb and Blacklidge are running to replace Republican Kathleen Peters, who is leaving state office to run for the Pinellas County Commission. She leads Blacklidge by double digits, according to a recent poll. 

The ad is absent specifics, but an on-screen visual, while a narrator talks about Webb accepting special interest funding, shows a figure growing to $100,000.

That number is not correct, according to the most up-to-date data in the Florida Division of Elections’ campaign finance database.

Webb’s political action committee, Putting Community First, has raised less than $30,000. Of that, about $9,000 is from lobbyists, outside groups or special interests.

Webb’s campaign has raised $267,000 through more than 1,400 contributions. The average amount of those contributions is less than $200 and the majority come from local donors.

Lobbyists, political interest group and political committees accounted for less than $60,000 in Webb’s campaign fund. Altogether, that’s less than $70,000. (Those figures were also calculated liberally by including local companies that many might not consider special interest groups.)

Blacklidge is filling his campaign and political committee coffers with generous donations from the insurance industry and Tallahassee insiders.

Of the $60,000 in Blacklidge’s political committee, more than $45,000 came from insurance-related businesses and groups. No surprise there, as Blacklidge is an insurance executive and lawyer who has an ownership stake and is a board member in one of his campaign’s largest donors, the Jerger family of companies, according to his own campaign bio on Facebook.

Blacklidge’s campaign fund has raised $275,685 with an average donation of $726 from less than 400 donors. Of that, more than $50,000 is from the insurance industry.

During a recent campaign forum moderated by this reporter, Blacklidge said he would not participate in any negative campaigning. Though he did not approve the ad’s content, he also declined to comment on it.

In fact, Blacklidge was initially unaware of the ad. Florida Politics provided him with a recording of the ad as well as campaign finance documents showing that the fundraising figures represented in it were inaccurate.

In an email after reviewing those items, Blacklidge said, “I really can’t say anything about something I have not approved or have any control over.”

The ad goes on to accuse Webb of accepting donations from groups that “tried to stop pay increases for teachers, pushed policies that would enrich health care corporations at the expense of consumers and supported job-killing regulations for small businesses.”

It added, “not to mention the fat government contracts at taxpayers’ expense.” The ad did not offer references for those claims.

Florida Politics tried to reach the Citizens for Florida Prosperity group at the only number listed in public documents. That number went to the CPA firm that the committee’s registered agent, Eric Robinson, works for.

Robinson is a Sarasota County School Board member and prominent member of the GOP who frequently runs or serves as treasurer for GOP political committees.

He came under fire earlier this year after investigators discovered Robinson had fallen victim to Nigerian scammers who talked him out of about $120,000 from Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s PAC, which he ran.

The Webb attack ad ends by cautioning voters not “to get caught in the Jennifer web,” a play on words based on the candidate’s last name.

Ready for business: Charlie Crist opening campaign HQ

Congressman Charlie Crist is launching his official re-election campaign Saturday, and he’s opening a new campaign headquarters at 10 a.m. 

The office is located at 5100 First Avenue North, St. Petersburg.

After the opening, the campaign is hosting a canvassing event with volunteers to knock on doors to help get out the vote in Pinellas County.

At 2 p.m. Crist will host his 2nd Annual Community Block Party and BBQ at Dell Holmes Park with food and games for families.

The campaign will also collect canned goods for Feeding Tampa Bay to help Floridians affected by Hurricane Michael.

Crist is a Democrat representing Florida’s Congressional District 13 covering parts of St. Pete, Seminole and mid-Pinellas. He’s running against Republican George Buck, a retired academic and firefighter.

Buck is facing a tough climb against Crist who is a seasoned campaigner and skilled fundraiser. Crist has raised more than $3 million and has more than $2 million on hand. Buck has raised less than $20,000 and has less than $2,000 on hand.

The district leans slightly Democratic after redistricting shifted boundaries to include downtown St. Pete. Crist defeated former Congressman David Jolly, then a Republican, by just three points in 2014.

Crist and his predecessor have something in common — they both dumped the GOP. Jolly announced earlier this month he had changed his party affiliation from Republican to no party affiliation.

Crist formerly served as Governor as a Republican but switched to a Democrat after leaving office. He wrote a book about his transition called “The Party’s Over.”

The congressman has been spending a lot of his time before officially launching his campaign attending events supporting Andrew Gillum for Florida Governor and Tampa Bay area Democratic state candidates.

There hasn’t been any polling on the Crist-Buck matchup, but long before campaigning for the midterms began a poll showed Crist beating Jolly in a rematch and Jolly has much broader name recognition and fundraising prowess than Buck.

Tyndall AFB

Members of Congress to feds: Speed up Tyndall recovery

In a rare moment of bipartisanship during a fierce campaign season, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson joined Panhandle Congressman Neal Dunn to send a letter to the Department of Defense urging them to expedite repairs at Tyndall Air Force Base.

The base was critically damaged during Hurricane Michael.

The storm made landfall Wednesday near Mexico Beach, southeast of Panama City. Tyndall is directly in between the two cities and was in the path of Michael’s eye.

The Air Force described the damage sustained as “catastrophic.” High winds shredded hangars that were housing fighter jets.

An F-15 on display was flipped on over onto the ground. Vehicles were tossed around the parking lot. Even brand-new roofs were ripped from buildings.

The group of two Republicans and a Democrat explained that the base is home to the F-22 Raptor, the nation’s premier air-to-air fighter jet that ensures American military dominance in the skies.

The base also is home to the 601st Air Operations Center that serves as the front-line defense against threats to homeland security and conducts critical relief efforts after natural disasters like Hurricane Michael.

“The base serves a critical role in protecting and promoting U.S. national security interests and it is vital that we rapidly repair infrastructure and restore operations in the wake of the storm,” the group wrote.

The trio requested “consistent, immediate and detailed communication of the funding and support needed to repair infrastructure, restore operations and provide for local service members, civilians and their families.”

The storm made landfall as a strong Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph around the eyewall. That’s just 2 mph less than a Category 5, according to the Saffir-Simpson scale. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit north Florida.

Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were left without power as others suffered devastating wind and flood damage.

Jeff Vinik personally endorses Hillsborough transportation initiative

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik took a rare step into the public and political spotlight Friday.

He penned an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times urging voters to approve Hillsborough County Referendum No. 2, the county’s transportation and transit initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“Having studied this issue for over three years alongside fellow business and community leaders, I realized this might be our best shot,” Vinik wrote.

“Our best shot to reduce traffic and give people more time with their families. Our best shot to prevent tragic bike and pedestrian fatalities. Our best shot to expand our transit network. Our best shot to invest in ourselves and our future.”

The All For Transit Referendum would increase Hillsborough County sales tax 1 percent from 7 to 8 percent. It would raise $230 million a year — $9 billion over 30 years — for both transit and transportation projects.

“It was balanced and pragmatic: road improvements, congestion reduction, pedestrian and bike safety, transit options and technology upgrades like traffic-light timing,” he wrote. “All of this to serve the entirety of Hillsborough County, so every single citizen in every single neighborhood will benefit.”

The citizen-led group that authored the referendum and gathered more than 50,000 voter signatures to put it on the ballot, made sure this effort differed from failed referendum attempts.

The 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward measure failed and suffered criticism from detractors that it lacked detail and was too transit heavy.

The similar was true for Pinellas County’s 2014 Greenlight Pinellas initiative. That plan focused on a light rail route connecting St. Petersburg, mid-Pinellas and Clearwater. It would have also funded enhanced bus service and new buses.

But voters in parts of the county that don’t tend to use transit didn’t see the value in using their tax dollars to fund service in other areas.

The latest effort tackles all of those problems. It includes a detailed framework for how the money can be spent. A little less than 55 percent would go to the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City as well as Hillsborough County to fund much-needed road resurfacing, pothole repair, traffic congestion relief and other road projects.

The rest, 45 percent, would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority for transit enhancements.

But the language is vague enough that individual communities can use the revenue in ways that best suit their needs.

Vinik also weighed in on the potential return on investment that comes when a community has a quality transportation and transit network.

“This dividend comes in the form of shorter commute times, filled potholes, greater access to jobs, wider mobility options including transit, and safer streets for everyone. This plan would deliver all that in addition to helping grow our economy and preparing Hillsborough for the 700,000 new neighbors we will meet in the coming years. It is a local investment that can only be spent within Hillsborough County, yet every visitor to our county will help pay for it.”

Vinik joins a growing list of groups and individuals endorsing the All for Transportation plan. The list includes The Tampa Bay Times, La Gaceta, Visit Tampa Bay, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, South Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.

His support is not a surprise: Vinik has personally, and through his companies, given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the initiative since it launched.

Airbnb ‘significantly expands’ Open Homes Program for Michael evacuees, relief workers

Airbnb again expanded it Open Homes Program for residents displaced by Hurricane Michael as well as relief workers in town to assist with recovery efforts. The program provides free temporary housing in participating hosts’ homes.

The activation zone now includes three states – Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina – and has been expanded to include all of Georgia and most of Alabama and Florida.

As part of the program, Airbnb hosts agree to open their homes free of charge and the company also waives its part of the usual fees as well as state and local taxes.

Airbnb expanded its zone in Florida as close to Bay County and Florida’s western coastal communities as possible to provide easy accommodations for residents affected and relief workers helping.

In Alabama, rooms and homes are available in Mobile, Montgomery, Dothan and Auburn/Opelika areas. Biloxi and Gulfport areas in Mississippi are also accepting evacuees.

All of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina are included in the activation area.

More than 800 Airbnb hosts are participating.

People looking for a place to say can find available listings on Airbnb’s Hurricane Michael website. Residents in areas not impacted by the storm within the activation area can also register there to become a host.

The listings are available until October 29, but hosts do not have to participate for the entire period. This response began October 8, before the storm hit. Airbnb is continuing to communicate with emergency management officials in Florida, Alabama and Georgia and is beginning to reach out to officials in North and South Carolina and will continue expanding its activation area if the need arises and if local officials request it.

Airbnb’s disaster relief program launched in 2012 following Hurricane Sandy and has since become a global program to help connect willing hosts with people displaced by disaster.

The company has responded to more than 250 disasters worldwide since its inception including Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Gordon.

Kathleen Peters puts politics on hold to collect hurricane relief supplies

State Rep. Kathleen Peters is pausing her campaign to focus on collecting supplies for people in north Florida devastated by Hurricane Michael.

Peters is employing her team to help with gathering supplies from donors.

“For the next several days, my team and I will focus on collecting much-needed supplies for those impacted by Hurricane Michael,” she said. “While Pinellas County was spared from devastation, our neighbors to the north were not; now we must come together to help our fellow Floridians.”

Peters is currently the House District 69 Representative covering parts of west-central Pinellas County and is running for Pinellas County Commission against Democrat Amy Kedron.

Peters is specifically targeting bottled water, Gatorade and diapers. Emergency management officials told her those items were most in need.

Donors can drop donations off at Peters’ St. Pete office located at 6798 Crosswinds Drive, Suite C-102 from October 11-13. Drop off hours are from 9-5.

Peters is hosting a cookout during those hours Saturday to thank residents for their donations.

Peters isn’t the only local lawmaker to collect supplies for people displaced by Michael. Rep. Janet Cruz announced Wednesday she would be collecting items as well.

Michael made landfall on Mexico Beach in the Florida panhandle near Panama City as a strong Category 4 hurricane. Sustained wind speed around the eyewall was 155 mph, only 2 mph less than a Category 5. It was the strongest hurricane ever to hit north Florida.

More than 100,000 Florida residents are still without power, and much of Bay County in the Florida Panhandle is in ruins. People who weathered the storm described trees snapping in the wind. A viral video posted on Twitter showed storm surge completely submerging homes, with only their roofs above water.

Four people have died including an 11-year old girl. Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis worries that death toll will wind up being much higher as search and rescue efforts continue this week.

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Image via AP.

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