Joe Henderson, Author at Florida Politics

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. I covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. I also was the City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. I served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. I have numerous local, state and national writing awards. I have been married to my wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and have two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

Joe Henderson: House just made life a lot more difficult for public school boards, teachers

It’s a good thing the Florida House of Representatives wasn’t in session when Columbus wanted to sail the ocean blue.

Lawmakers would have passed a bill prohibiting the trip because science hadn’t yet proven that the earth was round. Oh, there were those crackpots who said it was, but the representatives of the day would have known better than to let those poor sailors would right off the edge of the flat planet into oblivion.

Alas, the House is in session now and voted 94-25 Thursday in favor of a bill that has been called a science denier’s dream. HB 989 has been pitched as a way for parents to challenge those terrible things in their children’s textbooks, like, you know – reality.

The language of the bill requires that textbooks “be research-based and proven to be effective” along with being “accurate and factual.” It allows residents – not just parents of school kids – to challenge what is being taught in public classrooms.

What’s wrong with that?

That depends whether you embrace fact-based facts or, as someone once said, alternative facts. And that’s the landmine in this bill.

Supporters of the bill, introduced by Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican, say this will make it easier for parents to weed out objectionable material. They say local school boards will still have the final say over what textbooks are used.

However, you can expect those boards to spend time dealing with issues like the one reported by the Orlando Sentinel. It told of an affidavit filed by Lynda Daniel of Martin County, who was peeved about a textbook used in an Advanced Placement course.

She wrote that she was opposed to: Presentation of evolution as fact … The vast majority of Americans believe that the world and the beings living on it were created by God as revealed in the Bible.”

Actually, a 2014 poll by Pew Research said that 65 percent of Americans believe in evolution, although 24 percent of that number believe it was guided by a supreme being. But what’s a fact among friends, right?

There are already plenty of alternatives for parents who don’t like what they see in public schools. They can home school. The number of charter schools is expanding.

My goodness, if they live in Southwest Florida their children could attend the Mason Classical Academy – the charter school which Byron Donalds helped found.

But no.

Since this bill would widen the pool of potential objectors to what is being taught, how long until someone shows up demanding that the Civil War be henceforth called The War of Northern Aggression?

How long until they try to force teachers to say it wasn’t about slavery, when all anyone has to do is look at the various articles of secession by southern states to prove that it was?

Literature could become an endangered species. I mean, Romeo and Juliet promoted teen suicide and defiance of parents, didn’t it?

And forget about presenting Muslims as human beings entitled to the freedom of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Supporters of this bill will tell you none of that will happen. They say this is legitimate oversight. All I know is, life is about to get more difficult for public school teachers, administrators and board members. That’s a fact.

Joe Henderson: What damage could follow as Frank Artiles’ rant reverberates around the globe?

The damage wrought by state Sen. Frank Artiles’ racist rant has ripples that extend far beyond the seats of power in Tallahassee.

All it took to confirm that was to type his “Senator Frank Artiles” into Google. Within seconds, a collection of stories popped up that confirms how much impact the bile from his bigoted psyche had when he called African-American colleagues … aw, you know what he said by now.

You know what else though?

Readers who follow the BBC‘s U.S. and Canada site now know. They know about him from the Houston Chronicle. The Washington Post wrote about it. Minneapolis. Oregon. The Daily Mail in London. It was even news in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

If I wanted to dig deeper, I’m sure I could have found stories about this in many, many other places.

So, consider this: While Gov. Rick Scott is campaigning to spend $100 million on VISIT Florida to market the state for tourism, the word is going out through media that our state senate has a racist member.

That’s gonna leave a mark.

Artiles, as I write this, is defiant beyond belief. Not only does he say he won’t do the right thing and resign, but he seriously says he will run again when it’s time for re-election. I doubt it will ever come to that, but you never know.

Artiles is now a cancer, both in the Senate and on the way Florida presents itself to the world. Even if just a small percentage of the people who read this story change their minds about visiting Florida or moving businesses here, the economic damage wrought by Artiles’ unhinged tongue could be considerable. We have to do it better in the South.

There are racists in every part of this nation, but whenever something like this occurs in the South it just reinforces the notion that we’re a bunch of redneck yahoos still fighting the Civil War. We have our share of those for sure, but we’ve done a pretty good job of reducing their number.

Then, along came Sen. Artiles. Can’t you just hear the tittering tsk-tsk around the globe as the weight of judgment comes down on 19 million people because one guy shot off his mouth?

Don’t believe me?

Just go to Google.

Joe Henderson: There’s only one ethical course for Senate to take. Ethics? Oh, wait …

If you’re keeping score (and I know you are), Tuesday was a bad day for the Florida Senate. That august body served up a double serving from the “This Is Why People Hate Politicians” buffet.

There was the eye-popping, ear-insulting, are-you-kidding-me story that Sen. Frank Artiles employed the vilest racial insult to describe a pair of African-American colleagues, including the n-word. He called one of them a “f—— a——,” a “b—-” and a “girl.”

He doubled down over adult beverages late at night (senators, take note of the setting and time) to complain to a couple of colleagues that Senate President Joe Negron rose to that position because “six n——-” in the Republican caucus had elected him.

Artiles says he is really sorry.

On that point, he is correct.

Artiles has requested time to formally apologize on the Senate floor, but his speech ought to consist of just four words: “I’m sorry, I quit.”

But there was more Senate buffoonery. The Associated Press reported that the Senate will not consider the sweeping ethics reforms proposed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran on how the Legislature conducts business.

That kills, for now, Corcoran’s gambit to require lawmakers wait six years after they leave office before registering as a lobbyist in Tallahassee

“The Senate has shown us they have expressed zero interest in holding elected officials accountable and draining the swamp,” Corcoran told reporters.

Negron’s comeback?

“The Senate is very committed to the highest ethical standards and we believe that the ethics rules we have in place should be enforced,” he said.

I’ll translate: blah, blah and furthermore, blah.

So, you may ask, how are ethics and racist gutter talk by a sitting senator related?

It goes to perception.

The public already thinks politicians are slimy offspring from a zombie apocalypse. Call me crazy, but I don’t what happened here is going to change that.

Get a hundred people in a room and at least 99 of them would say they don’t like politicians, don’t trust them, and that they’re all on the take.

The last part of that is not true, of course, but the Legislature has helped create its image problem by doing just what the Senate has planned for Corcoran’s bill: closing its eyes, covering its ears, and going “la la la la la la, NOT LISTENING!”

So, as a public service, I offer this bit of sage advice to members of the Florida Senate.

However sincere Artiles’ forthcoming apology might sound (I’m thinking choked-up speech and tears will be involved), don’t accept it. Make it clear that the only acceptable action is his immediate resignation. If he is still in the Senate by the close of business today, that’s too long.

It’s the only ethical choice.

Oh … wait. Ethics. My bad.

Joe Henderson: Richard Corcoran’s invite to Bill Nelson a stick in Rick Scott’s eye, maybe more

There were all kinds of messages being sent to Gov. Rick Scott late last week at the Florida House of Representatives.

The one from Democrat Bill Nelson, a three-term U.S. senator, can be summed up in two words: game on.

Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran had his own two-word message for the governor. I think I’ll leave it at that. Is loathing too strong a word for how those two feel about each other?

Whatever the interpretation of the message, the invitation to Nelson from Corcoran to address the House was intriguing, given that Nelson could face Scott in a bare-knuckle brawl for the 2018 senate race.

It gave Nelson some free airtime on a no-lose issue at a time when Scott’s poll numbers are surging.

His effusive praise of Corcoran for the courageous stand he’s taken with all of those children who are all buriedat the infamous Dozier School for Boys in north Florida” allowed Nelson to look like someone willing to work with everybody for the greater good.

Corcoran came across that way as well, just in case he decides to run for governor in 2018.

Unless …

Corcoran decides to go after Scott for the GOP nomination.

Say what?

That speculation is gaining traction, given the Republican field for governor likely can be winnowed down to “Adam” and “Putnam.”

As a senate candidate though, Corcoran could be the darling of cost-cutters everywhere. He has stood in the legislative doorway to block Scott’s favored programs for business and tourism incentives.

Republicans consider Nelson vulnerable and will pour every nickel they can into the effort to unseat him. And Corcoran is amassing quite a reputation for changing the way business is done in Tallahassee.

It won’t be easy.

Even though a lot has changed since Nelson swamped Connie Mack IV by 13 percentage points in 2012 and much of it hasn’t been good for Democrats, he has made sure to shore up the home front while in office.

He frequently returns to the state to touch base with voters and was a vocal advocate for congressional funding to combat the Zika virus and to address the environmental mess known last summer as the algae bloom.

Just as Republicans will roll out the war chest to unseat Nelson, so Democrats likely will spend what it takes to keep an important seat from going into GOP hands.

That brings us back to Corcoran’s invitation to Nelson. It was a sharp stick in the eye of the governor, one possibly designed to fuel the kind of speculation we have in this column.

Corcoran, a crafty chap, undoubtedly knew that.

He got his wish.

But if his aim is to run against Nelson eventually, why give his rival the chance for free feel-good publicity?

Because he could.

Joe Henderson: Betsy DeVos sends clear signal that student loan borrowers won’t get a break

If you are struggling with student loan debt and thought you might get a break, think again.

This week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos quietly issued a decree reversing actions by President Obama to ease the burden of people struggling to pay off those loans. It focused on the servicing companies that collect loan payments for the U.S. Department of Education. Her action might have gotten lost in the bigger debate of the deteriorating bromance between President Trump and Vladimir Putin and viral videos about United Airlines, but it is certain to affect more people directly.

Basically, loan contracts had gone to companies that could prove they were better at making borrowers pay up.

When thousands of borrowers began defaulting on their loans, Obama changed the guidelines to favor companies that would work with people struggling with mountains of debt after college while they were still trying to establish a career.

Loan officials griped that the new requirements were expensive and took up too much time. DeVos’ action signals a return to a more aggressive style of collection.

In a letter to James Runcie, who heads the Federal Student Aid office, DeVos said: “We must create a student loan servicing environment that provides the highest quality customer service and increases accountability and transparency for all borrowers, while also limiting the cost to taxpayers. We have a duty to do right by both borrowers and taxpayers … to acquire new federal student loan capabilities that will provide borrowers with the tools necessary to efficiently repay their debt.”

According to the Institute for College Access & Success, Florida ranks low among states with an average student loan debt of about $23,000 for the Class of 2015.  But with more than 2 million outstanding loans, government statistics from 2014 showed student borrowers in the Sunshine State were on the hook for more than $61 billion.

More than 14 percent of the loans were in default, according to DOE statistics.

Student loan debt nationwide is estimated at $1.4 trillion, more than credit cards and auto loans, and second only to home mortgages. According to MarketWatch.com, the debt increases by $2,726 per second.

It’s clearly a significant problem, and with a new administration (and attitude) in Washington it means more aggressive steps to collect on those loans.

DeVos’ action was the first step.

The next?

You can probably guess.

Joe Henderson: Rick Scott’s approval rating climbs because the economy trumps everything

The steady increase in Gov. Rick Scott’s approval rating has reinforced the notion that if voters have a job and the economy seems to be humming along, other things don’t matter much.

The latest poll, released this week by Morning Consult, put Scott’s approval number at 57 percent. Considering that he stood at 26 percent in 2012 according to Public Policy Polling, that’s downright miraculous.

That same PPP poll five years ago included a forecast that Scott would lose a then-theoretical matchup with Charlie Crist by 55-32 percent. Scott was declared to be the most unpopular governor in the country.

What changed?

The economy. Duh!

Scott still has the singular focus he brought to Tallahassee as an outsider in 2011. We all remember what the economy was like then as the nation tried to recover from the Great Recession.

Scott’s game plan of offering business incentives to attract jobs has been unrelenting. He has targeted regulations that he says strangle job growth.

While his disregard for environmental laws proved disastrous last summer when guacamole-like runoff from Lake Okeechobee became national news, voters appear inclined to overlook that as long as they have a steady paycheck. That’s how Scott got out of controversies that included the messy dismissal in 2014 of Florida Department of Law Enforcement chief Gerald Bailey. That was handled so poorly that even Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a member of Scott’s cabinet, claimed he was “misled” by the governor’s staff.

Scott also had to spend more than $1 million in taxpayer money to settle seven public records lawsuits because of his penchant for operating in the shadows.

Even the ongoing battle with Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran over two of Scott’s major programs for business development and tourism promotion — Enterprise Florida and VISIT FLORIDA — hasn’t hurt the governor. If anything, it seems to have enhanced his standing with voters.

All of this would seem to bode well for his expected challenge for Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat in 2018. Scott’s approval number has inched above Nelson’s, which is significant (maybe).

A lot can happen before that Senate race; remember the poll that said Crist would easily beat Scott for governor. Scott is closely aligned with President Donald Trump, and there is no way to tell how that will impact the race.

And while the economy is doing well and Scott is reaping the benefit now, everyone would be advised to remember another campaign from the dusty past as an example of how quickly things can change.

Republicans circulated a flier saying their candidate for president would ensure “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

That was in 1928. The candidate was Herbert Hoover. He won with 444 electoral votes. A year later, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression changed everything. Just four years after his landslide, Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose electoral college total was 472.

Translation: Things look good now, but don’t get cocky.

Joe Henderson: Democrats may finally get the message that they need, well, a message

Florida Democrats have become such a non-factor in state politics that the real drama frequently becomes which faction of the Republican party will prevail on a given issue.

Think about it.

We have had knockdown, drag-outs between the GOP-controlled House and Senate. This year the main event has been the ongoing feud between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

It’s almost like Democrats don’t exist.

Republicans have long had a consistent message of tough on crime, lower taxes and regulations, gun expansion and job creation. Democrats, on the other hand, basically have campaigned on the “Vote For Me Because I’m Not Him (or Her)” but, guess what? They may finally be getting the message that they need, well, a message.

“What we have to do is convince them that voting for us will make a difference in our lives,” Tallahassee mayor and declared Democratic candidate for Governor Andrew Gillum told the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida in Tampa recently.

And in one of the best lines of the still-young campaign so far, Gillum told that crowd Democrats wouldn’t win 2018 by being “Republican-lite.”

Businessman Chris King, the latest declared Democratic candidate for 2018, kicked off his campaign by telling the Orlando Sentinel, “The challenge for the Democrats, I think, is to offer something different, something authentic.

Authentic, eh?

What would that look like?

How about explaining why Medicaid expansion is important because it could actually lower health care costs in the long run. Or maybe, uh … it’s just the right thing to do?

Explain what happens if we don’t take care of the environment. Under Scott, the GOP has gutted many environmental protections and the Legislature often mocks any attempt to protect the land we inhabit. Don’t just say “GOP, BAD!” though. Democrats need to explain why their way is better.

Oh, and there is transportation. Democrats have really dropped the ball there. So explain that the GOP vision, as put into practice by the Florida Department of Transportation, calls for a steady increase in the number of toll roads while rejecting any attempt at effective mass transit. You think people really want that?

Show the growth numbers expected in Florida over the next 20 years and present a vision of what the state will look like if the only transit option is to build more roads. That approach worked extremely well for Democrat Pat Kemp in last November’s election for the Hillsborough County Commission, by the way.

See how easy this is?

Guns? Democrats have ceded that and related issues like Stand Your Ground to Republicans, mostly because (I believe) they cower in fear at that the National Rifle Association will come after them hard for saying we need to bring common sense to the Gunshine State.

Psssst. The NRA will come after you anyway, quivering Democrat. So, take on that fight, loudly. Go after Stand Your Ground and the GOP’s latest pitiful move to force prosecutors to prove a shooter didn’t feel threatened when pulling the trigger.

Democrats are going to have to shout such things from the rooftop, with clarity and determination. It won’t be easy. Republicans have controlled the microphone for a long time now while Democrats have curled up in the corner with nothing to say.

Are they up for this?

Time will tell, I guess.

Joe Henderson: Newest strategy in war on drugs could look a lot like the old strategy

A story in Sunday’s Washington Post focused on a new strategy that is being put in play by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the fight against drug abuse. It sounds like a return to the old strategy that was discarded because it was costly and largely ineffective, but the current administration likes to play hardball in all things.

So, welcome to the newest war on drugs.

Such a development is always going to be of interest here in Florida, where illegal drugs have long been a major problem. According to the Post, Sessions has elevated Steven H. Cook to one of the top posts in the U.S. Department of Justice.

His mandate is to undo most of the changes enacted during the Obama administration that reduced lengthy mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Cook, a former police officer and federal prosecutor, believes the harsher the drug penalty, the better.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the while the Post story was making news, Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell posted a Facebook video that is getting lots of attention.

Flanked by four deputies wearing face masks and Kevlar vests, Grinnell warned, “To the (heroin) dealers, I have a message for you: we’re coming for you. Enjoy looking over your shoulders, and constantly wondering if today’s the day.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2015 opioid-related deaths surpassed gun deaths for the first time. Much of that is attributed to people who become addicted to powerful painkillers like OxyContin, a prescription drug that has been described as essentially synthesized heroin. The demand for that and similar drugs helped create the so-called pill mills fueled addiction. Interstate 95 in Florida was considered part of the drug transportation superhighway as traffickers moved the product up and down the coastline.

Obviously, it’s a significant problem. Would a return to tougher law enforcement help?

Prisons are already bulging with drug offenders. There are about 81,000 inmates serving federal terms for drug violations, representing 46 percent of the total prison population. That includes more than 12,000 inmates incarcerated in Florida.

On the state level, drug offenders account for about 14.5 percent of Florida’s prison population. That’s compared to 55 percent who are locked up for violent crimes.

The state estimates it costs $19,577 per year to house an inmate, and Florida law requires that inmates serve 85 percent of their sentences.

For those who think locking up violators for decades will solve the problem, consider the case of Ronnie Music, Jr. of Waycross, Ga., who won $3 million in the Georgia lottery in 2015.

This month he was sentenced to 21 years in the federal pen for his role in a multistate methamphetamine trafficking ring that was being financed partly by his lottery winnings and was being run out of a Georgia prison.

Music got a few years shaved off his sentence because he dropped a dime on another inmate who was running a meth ring out of a California prison.

I guess sending more inmates to prison doesn’t curb the problem either. From the look of things though, the new administration is ready to put that theory to the test.

Joe Henderson: Lawmakers seizing chance to expand gun use under cover of “Stand Your Ground”

Numerous studies have shown Florida’s gun-totin’ “stand your ground” law doesn’t work.

The Journal of American Medical Association recently reported, “The removal of restrictions on when and where individuals can use lethal force was associated with a significant increase in homicide and homicide by firearm in Florida.”

By significant, it meant a 24.4 percent increase in homicides and a 31.6 percent jump in gun-related killings from 2005 through 2014.

Opponents have attacked the study as flawed.

Here is what’s really flawed.

Since this is Florida, a woman named Marissa Alexander, who obviously should have had the legal shield of “stand your ground” was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011 for firing a gun at her then-husband during a domestic dispute. It was not the first time the couple quarreled, and her attorney argued she had been the victim of abuse.

But even though Alexander fired what essentially was a warning shot and she didn’t hit him, a judge ruled that she didn’t meet the burden of proof that her life was in danger. Her original sentence was over-turned on appeal and she has since been freed, but not until she spent nearly six years in custody.

Obviously, she never should have been sent to prison. She has a legitimate reason to lobby, as she has, for a change currently sailing through the Legislature. It essentially would reverse a state Supreme Court ruling that shooters have to prove they were in grave danger. Prosecutors would now have to prove a shooter didn’t feel threatened instead of the other way around.

Had that change been in place six years ago, Alexander likely would never have spent a day behind bars.

Beware of unintended consequences though.

Assuming this seismic shift in SYG becomes the law and survives court challenges, it opens the floodgates for others to shoot first and claim fear later. Shooters wouldn’t have to prove their life was in danger. They would just have say they thought it was.

What possibly could go wrong?

A judge in the highly publicized case of SYG recently ruled that retired police officer Curtis Reeves couldn’t prove lethal force was necessary when he shot and killed Chad Oulson during an argument at a movie theater.

Under this change, the judge probably would have had no choice but to side with Reeves. How would a prosecutor even try to prove that someone wasn’t afraid for their life?

As Jim Rosica of Florida Politics reported, Democrats are railing against the change. He quoted Rep. Kamia Brown, an Orlando Democrat, as saying domestic abusers might see this as a green light “to finish the job.”

She added, “Why not go all the way … there won’t be anyone around to dispute” that the shooter wasn’t standing their ground.

Instead of tweaking the law to cover situations like the one Alexander faced, lawmakers appear determined to seize the chance to expand gun use in Florida.

Surprised?

Didn’t think so.

Joe Henderson: Sen. Bracy’s heart might have been right, but his numbers were wrong

You can legitimately argue that the executive order by Gov. Rick Scott removing Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala from 21 more potential death penalty cases was blatant over-reach. For the record, I wouldn’t automatically agree but I can see that side of the argument.

We all know what a firestorm Ayala created when she decided not to seek the death penalty for alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd. Scott came down on the side of outrage and in a stunning turn he ordered that the case go to another prosecutor. He doubled-down on that – well, 21nd down – with his most recent decree.

That prompted state Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, to blast Scott in an op-ed published in the New York Times. He was making strong arguments why the governor’s actions are wrong, at least up to the point where he wrote this paragraph:

“As a black man, I see the death penalty as a powerful symbol of injustice in which race often determines who lives and who dies, especially in Florida. The state has the second-largest number of death row inmates in the country, after California, and African-Americans are grossly over-represented on Florida’s death row.”

Fact check, please!

Actually, there are 143 black males on death row compared to 214 white males. And when it comes to the total number of executions carried out since the capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, Texas is the runaway leader with the number of people put to death with 576. Florida is fourth (behind Oklahoma and Virginia) with 92.

As for the butcher’s bill, those executed include 57 white males compared to 29 black males. Both women executed in the state also were white.

His heart might have been in the right place, but being so far off on the numbers totally undercuts Bracy’s argument.

Public sentiment is turning against the death penalty because it’s obviously not the deterrent its supporters claim. It’s strictly about society’s need for vengeance. If the state were to decide to do away with it in favor of locking murderers up and never letting them out, that would be fine by me.

I might make an exception for anyone who murders a police officer, but that’s about it.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not my call. Florida has the death penalty and if there ever was a case where it should be in play, it’s the one involving Loyd. If the law is going to be changed, that is done in the Legislature. While I appreciate and maybe even agree with Ayala’s argument about the futility of capital punishment, it’s her job to prosecute crimes like the one Loyd allegedly committed to the full extent of the law.

Yes, a prosecutor can exercise judgment in deciding what to course of action to take. I believe she was wrong, though, by basically saying she won’t seek the death penalty because she doesn’t like it.  If that’s her heartfelt belief, she should consider a career change – maybe defending accused murderers instead of prosecuting them.

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