Joe Henderson, Author at Florida Politics - Page 2 of 41

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

Voters around state say yes to local school tax increases

Voters in several parts of Florida approved tax hikes for local school programs and teacher raises, which could be encouraging news to backers of a proposed half-cent sales tax increase in November for Hillsborough County public schools.

By a 13-point margin, Lake County voters approved a property tax increase of .75 mills to help pay for additional school security, the Daily Commercial reports. A similar tax referendum in Clay County was approved by 53 percent of voters, according to WJXT.

The Sun-Sentinel reported that Broward County voters passed a property tax increase to give teachers a 6 percent raise. The money also will help pay for school security officers and student mental health care.

WLRN reported that Monroe County voters by a 60-40 margin gave a resounding thumbs-up tax to pay for security measures, while the Panama City News reported that Bay County voters extended a local sales tax for security and construction projects.

The Orlando Sentinel said 83 percent of voters approved an extension of a special property tax to help pay for teacher raises and school arts programs.

Joe Henderson: Ron DeSantis, Andrew Gillum wins are nothing less than astonishing

If Florida voters wanted a contrast in the election for Governor, they have it. The differences between Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis in the November election couldn’t be dramatic – and it goes far beyond the fact Gillum now stands one election win away from being the first black Governor in the state’s history.

He is a hard-left, progressive candidate who didn’t play it safe in the campaign and was continually overlooked, but he never went away. He shocked pollsters, pundits, and everyone but himself Tuesday night in winning the Democratic primary.

DeSantis is the anointed acolyte of Donald Trump who surged on the president’s endorsement and blew out Adam Putnam, the one-time heir apparent to the governor’s mansion, to secure the Republican nomination.

DeSantis had a 20-plus point lead in the polls leading to Election Day with his complete embrace of the president and his policies.

It is set up as a national referendum on the president, and maybe it was always going to be that – just not like this, though.

Gillum lagged well behind early in the polls. Even as he surged at the end behind a populist and positive message of change against the status quo, he was basically dismissed by the pundits.

DeSantis cruised in the closing days of the primary, seemingly at ease and assured.


He ran hard the entire way.

He didn’t have enough money, at least until a late infusion of cash from George Soros, progressive billionaire Tom Steyer, and Collective PAC, a group dedicated to electing African-Americans.

He didn’t have enough experience.

It wasn’t his “time” in 2018. Maybe later.

But something about his campaign connected with voters. His upbeat message, his unabashed progressive platform – it all worked and set up the November showdown against DeSantis and/or Trump, depending on how you view the race.

Yes, Florida politics rarely ceases to astonish, and we greet this morning with the news that the son of a bus driver is now the Democratic nominee for Governor.

Gillum never stopped believing, even if most others did.

Even as late polls showed Gillum was surging, he still trailed Gwen Graham by 5 points. She was trying to make history, too, by becoming the first woman to hold Florida’s top office.

So, what happened?

An endorsement by Bernie Sanders certainly helped. Gillum pushes a populist agenda – a $1 billion increased commitment to public education. Increased vocational training. A ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and bump stocks, and tougher background checks.

He will actually use the words “climate change” from the Governor’s pulpit if elected.

He proposes raising corporate taxes or, as he calls it, “ask the richest corporations to pay a little more of their fair share.”

It is a reliably progressively agenda, against what is sure to be a 180-degree opposite in DeSantis.

But let’s leave the policy wonk stuff for another day and focus on what we just saw.

While Gillum might have been mayor of Florida’s capital city, he still was largely an unknown through the rest of the state. He called himself the only “non-millionaire” in the race. It’s true he was out-moneyed by billionaires Philip Levine and Jeff Greene.

Graham had a famous last name; her father, Bob Graham, served both as Governor of Florida and in the U.S. Senate.

How could the son of a bus driver overcome that?

It started with a message that resonated. His Democratic rivals stressed many of the same points, but Gillum’s progressive and “why not now?” platform seemed to connect. Voters clearly saw him as the face and voice of change they were looking for.

It’s a remarkable achievement to get this far.

The journey isn’t done, though.

To break 20 years of Republican rule in Tallahassee, Gillum will have to convince a statewide electorate that he is more than a fresh face and more than just the latest face of history. It will be his challenge to prove he has answers as well as a great story.

Tuesday was a night for Gillum and his supporters to celebrate and reflect. They have accomplished something that wasn’t supposed to happen. They proved the experts wrong. They believed when few others did.

The son of a bus driver is the Democratic nominee for Governor in Florida.

They made history. But as the primary result proved, anyone who believes Andrew Gillum is satisfied with getting that far is mistaken.

Mike Beltran wins tough GOP primary in HD 57

Attorney Mike Beltran is the Republican nominee in HD 57 after his victory in Tuesday’s primary over challenger Sean McCoy.

HD 57 is currently represented by Lithia Republican Jake Raburn, who announced he was not running for re-election to devote more time to family and business.

Democrat Debbie Katt was running unopposed.

The Republican side of the ballot was quite the scrum, though.

Beltran sued McCoy for defamation following a mailer that accusing him of helping an illegal alien get out of jail and back on the streets.

Beltran, a Harvard Law School alum, called it a “defamatory hit piece” and said he was appointed to defend the client by a judge. Beltran said he asked for a 15-year sentence followed by deportation.

Raburn endorsed McCoy, a West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran.

“Sean’s record of service to his country and his commitment to our conservative principles makes him the best choice to serve our community in Tallahassee,” Raburn said.

“I know Sean will work tirelessly to fight for the conservative values we hold dear and protect our local agriculture industry to help grow our economy. With Sean McCoy in Tallahassee, District 57 will be in good hands.”

Katt, a software designer from Valrico, is a political newcomer.

Kristen Carlson - CD 15

Kristen Carlson tops Andrew Learned in Dem CD 15 race

Lakeland lawyer Kristen Carlson cruised to a solid victory over top rival Andrew Learned to secure the Democratic nomination for CD 15  in Tuesday’s primary.

Carlson took 53 percent of the vote, and Learned took 32 percent. Ray Pena was the third Democrat in the race, and he had 15 percent of the vote.

CD 15 covers parts of eastern Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties and is considered an uphill battle for Democrats, although the Cook Report moved it in July from “safe Republican” to “leans Republican.”

Democrats have targeted the district as winnable in their efforts to take control of the House. Carlson will face state Rep. Ross Spano in the general election on Nov. 6.

The campaign turned testy in the final days when Carlson, a former prosecutor, lobbed a charge of negative campaigning against Learned, a U.S. Army veteran and small business owner from Valrico.

He charged Carlson has received so-called “dark money” in the campaign and criticized her for giving campaign donations in the past to Republican candidates.

Learned has been campaigning for about a year, while Carlson joined the fray on May 2.

Learned received endorsements from the U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, Hillsborough Democratic Black Caucus, Democratic Progressive Caucus of Tampa Bay, and the Hillsborough LGBTA Democratic Caucus.

Carlson was endorsed by EMILY’S List, a national progressive organization designed to help more women win seats in Congress and state legislatures

Joe Wicker cruises past Ronda Storms in GOP HD 59

Joe Wicker cruised to a solid victory Tuesday night over long-time political face Ronda Storms to secure the Republican nomination in HD 59.

Wicker had 54 percent of the vote to Storms’ 46 percent.

Storms called Wicker to concede, saying she congratulated him and adding, “Obviously this is not the result I wanted, but God is good.”

HD 59 covers most of Brandon, as well as Valrico, Dover, Seffner, Riverview, Palm River and Clair-Mel City.

Wicker, a Brandon businessman and Army veteran, filed for the seat a day after incumbent Ross Spano announced his Attorney General bid, which he abandoned after deciding to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Storms, who served in the Hillsborough County Commission from 1998-2006, and later in the state Senate, was a surprise entrant into this race. She didn’t jump in until several months after Wicker’s announcement.

The race turned dirty down the stretch, with mailers attacking Storms that she said wildly misrepresented her views and actions.

One charge was that Storms voted to approve President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package, which she vehemently denied in a video on her Facebook page, later repeating that in an interview with Florida Politics.

“That is patently false,” she said. “I never – no, never – voted for President Obama’s stimulus package.”

She repeated that denial for another mailer that said she didn’t do anything about illegal immigration while in office.

“That is also patently false,” she said.

Wicker had to take a break from campaigning a week before the primary after his wife gave birth to what Wicker called on his Facebook page “our newest constituent” – 10-pound, 14-ounce Savannah Leigh Wicker.

Wicker explained his momentary absence by saying, “A man that cannot serve his family cannot serve the community.”

He had the endorsement of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and was endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times.

Ross Spano defeats Neil Combee with surprising ease in CD 15 GOP primary

Republican Ross Spano overcame the charge of dirty politics and a late snub by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd to win his party’s nomination primary Tuesday night in CD 15.

Spano, a two-term member of the Florida House, defeated former state Rep. Neil Combee 44 to 34 percent. He will now face Democrat Kristen Carlson in the general election.

“I want to thank the voters in CD 15 for making me their Republican Nominee,” Spano said after his win. “I’m proud of the campaign we ran and I look forward to continuing with momentum into November as I meet with more supporters and discuss more ways to improve the quality of life for the residents of District 15.”

CD 15 covers parts of eastern Hillsborough, Polk, and Lake counties. It had been represented by Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross, who announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election.

The Republican race turned ugly in the final stages when Combee charged Spano with attempting to buy votes in possible violation of federal election laws.

At issue was a late tactic by the Spano camp to offer 5-cent rebates for each gallon of gas drivers purchased at Lakeland gas station, designed, they said, to show the impact of a gas tax increase Combee voted for during his time as a Polk County Commissioner.

Combee issued a statement blasting Spano’s “blatantly illegal attempt to bribe voters” and added that the gambit “does our party a disservice and reminds people more of Venezuela than Valrico.”

The Spano campaign shot back that there was nothing underhanded about it. They implied they were considering filing a defamation lawsuit over the charge.

The total amount given out one nickel at a time was $145; the largest amount to a single motorist was $1.65, or 33 nickels.

Spano also overcame charges by Judd, the popular and outspoken Polk Sheriff, that he wrongly suggested he had Judd’s endorsement in the final week of the campaign.

“He used my picture and a quote from a press conference, then mailed it to thousands of people, giving the false impression I’m supporting him,” Judd said. “I’m not supporting Ross Spano.”

Judd said he wasn’t supporting any candidate in the primary.

Other Republicans vying for the seat included Sean Harper, Danny Kushmer, and Ed Shoemaker,

State Sen. Tom Lee had considered joining the fray but decided to stay in the Senate.

Joe Henderson: After Florida primary election, time to swing back to the middle

Whatever results from Tuesday’s Florida primary election, we can be sure of one thing — the people who decide the primary’s outcome won’t be the ones who determine the winners in November.

That’s a flaw in Florida’s primary system that becomes increasingly apparent. Voters can only cast ballots for offices like the Governor if they are registered with a major party. There are about 13 million registered voters in Florida, and of those nearly 3.5 million have expressed no party affiliation.

While that shows a refreshing independent streak, it also freezes those people out of any say who gets nominated. Oh, they can still vote on local issues in the primary, including judgeships and some nonaffiliated local offices, but not the big stuff.

A system like that forces moderate candidates to run hard to the left or right in the primary because it’s understood that only the most dedicated voters will turn out for that. They are the ones most likely to have hard-line views about what they expect from their party’s nominee, and that forces candidates to sometimes go to extremes to show those folks they have the necessary chops (see Putnam, Adam).

After the primary fun, it’s often a shift back to moderation for the nominees.

After appealing to the hard-core voters in the party well enough to secure the nomination, the battle for those 3.5 million voters who will decide the election, as well as those registered with a party but didn’t vote in the primary, forces the conversation back to the middle.

Is this really the best way to conduct business, though?

In the Democratic primary, in particular, candidates made promises to the base that will be extremely difficult to keep if they eventually are elected.

Philip Levine, for instance, promised to raise teacher pay by $10,000 — a laudable sentiment, but likely impossible to accomplish without a significant tax increase and, well, you know how that goes.

Gwen Graham vowed to ban assault-style weapons by executive order. It sounds great, and she said the Governor has the authority to that. I would imagine significant numbers of other people, including many who are lawyers, likely would disagree.

Andrew Gillum, on his platform page, pledged he would “work to rebuild Florida’s education system so that we can make sure our kids are ready for Kindergarten earlier. By third grade, 100 percent of kids in our state should be reading at grade level and as they progress, learning critical thinking skills to compete.”

Absolutely a marvelous idea. He proposed a $1 billion additional investment in public schools to help make that happen, along with raising teacher pay, rebuilding crumbling schools, and so on. That sounds like a lot of money, but it wouldn’t even pay for the teacher raises he’s talking about.

Then there is Ron DeSantis, leading the polls for the GOP nomination.

He isn’t saying much at all unless the sentence can somehow be framed to include the words “Donald Trump.” I don’t know if you heard, but Trump endorsed DeSantis. At least for the nomination, that figures to be the only platform he needs.

Well, after the primary is done we’ll hit the reset button and watch as the pendulum swings toward those voters, possibly in the millions, who haven’t made up their minds. After all, they are the ones who will decide the election, and history suggests they can be hard to please.

Joe Henderson: John McCain set example too few lawmakers follow

Florida leaders and lawmakers from both parties were quite properly lauding John McCain’s, decency, public service, bravery and integrity following his death Saturday after battling brain cancer.

You would expect no less. The show of respect was good and proper for someone of McCain’s stature.

It would be even better if all of them actually followed his example and put country over party.

McCain knew that someone wasn’t evil just because they saw politics differently than he did.

There was a basic decency about him that incredibly was mocked as weakness by far too many people. Take Arizona Republican Kelli Ward, for instance.

Ward is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, and she was no fan of John McCain. But when his wife announced Friday that he was suspending treatment for brain cancer, Ward and a campaign staffer engaged in a most disgusting conspiracy theory.

According to The Arizona Republic, when the staffer asked if the announcement by McCain’s wife was “just a coincidence,” timed to take away publicity from a planned campaign bus tour by Ward, she responded on her Facebook page, “”I think they wanted to have a particular narrative that they hope is negative to me.”

She took it down later and replaced it with a statement of condolence following McCain’s death on Saturday, but the damage was done. Screenshots of the initial exchange boomeranged around the country.

Ward, of course, blamed the media.

What does this have to do with Florida?

Maybe more than we realize as voters head to the polls for Tuesday’s primary elections.

Florida’s politics can be just as whacked as what’s going on in Arizona. Republicans in the Legislature have basically abandoned any pretense of working with Democrats for a balanced agenda. They wouldn’t consider statewide Medicaid expansion, no matter if it hurt the neediest among us. They have tried to tell us we need to be terrified if someone doesn’t look like us.

They stripped public-school budgets. They attacked the teachers union.

It’s worth recalling that McCain cast the decisive vote that kept his party from repealing the Affordable Care Act.

We used to think that wacko conspiracy theorists lived in their mother’s basement or in a cave somewhere, but now one of the foremost spreaders of conspiracy sits in the Oval Office, and Donald Trump’s approval rating in Florida is better than in most places.

After the slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it was suggested that some of the student survivors were actually paid actors.

The Hillsborough County GOP organization posted a link to the mysterious “QAnon” social media site, which promotes Trump as a soldier in the battle against the “Deep State” trying to run him out of office. The link was later taken down, but why give that stuff any credence at all?

In Okaloosa County, Republican County Commissioner Graham Fountain routinely spreads anti-Muslim sentiments on social media, warning that if we elect any of them than Sharia law will follow.

Too many people actually believe that.

For too long, this kind of bile has been celebrated as “straight talk” by people who probably look back lovingly on the days of Sen. Joe McCarthy. That’s how we wind up with a serious candidate to become one of just 100 U.S. Senators suggesting the original “straight talker” John McCain timed his death to hurt her campaign.

Our social media feeds are filled with lies and distortions.

Our candidates think it’s enough to wrap themselves in the flag and platitudes, and if a media outlet comes up with a damaging story, well, you know the answer to that. Just shout “fake news” at the top of your lungs and go on about your day.

The question isn’t whether you’re red or blue. Most of us live in the middle anyway, but the pandering by candidates, at least in the primaries, is always to the extreme edge.

I don’t vote strictly red.

I don’t vote strictly blue.

I don’t expect to agree with every position a candidate holds.

I vote for common sense.

Alas, it is getting harder to find.

Joe Henderson: The “real” Adam Putnam shows up, but too late?

In the final days of his campaign for the Republican nomination for Governor, Adam Putnam has come across as the person a lot of people always thought he was.

It’s too bad he kept that person hidden for so long.

His ads now are low-key and sincere, a departure from the strident tone he set at the start and stayed with for far too long.

He is back to being the kind of person you’d like to have live next door: Friendly, smart, can dominate a room without being overbearing.

But, somewhere early in the campaign, that guy got put on the shelf. The reasoned, principled conservative was replaced by a shrill imposter who left people shaking their heads and wondering what happened to the man they knew.

Maybe Florida’s wacky primary system convinced Putnam he had to show that he, too, could be just as loud as the next guy to appeal to the hardcore Republican voters, those most likely to turn out for a primary election.

It wasn’t enough to say he supported the Second Amendment and leave it at that, he had to shout that he was a “proud NRA sellout.”

Likeability was always a major strength for Putnam by people from both political parties. But for months, he routinely blathered on about the “liberal media” and came across as a divider, not someone interested in uniting.

He couldn’t just shrug and say he still supports the policies of Donald Trump even after the president endorsed Fox News darling Ron DeSantis.

He had to keep tilting at that windmill with ill-advised Twitter messages like the one where he welcomed the president to a recent rally in Tampa – only to have Trump refer to DeSantis that night as “a true leader, a proud veteran, my great friend, a tough, brilliant cookie.”

He looked desperate.

Now, DeSantis has a 23-point lead in the final St. Pete Polls survey, and Putnam is facing the possible end of his political career after Tuesday’s primary.

Yes, it’s legitimate to say it might not have made any difference what kind of campaign Putnam ran, given Trump’s support of DeSantis. Trump likes DeSantis because, as a member of the U.S. House, he was critical of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of the president.

As Putnam learned, that’s all a lot of voters needed to hear.

The harder Putnam chased those voters, the farther away he seemed to be from the person that people thought they knew. Did that scare off undecided voters?


Add the outcry over donations his campaign received from Publix in the wake of the Parkland slaughter, followed by revelations that the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which Putnam currently leads, mishandled thousands of concealed weapons permit applications.

All the while, DeSantis was doing his best Aaron Burr impression from the musical “Hamilton”: Not saying much, smiling a lot, and riding that Trump endorsement to build what looks like an insurmountable lead for the nomination – potentially turning the general election into a statewide referendum on the president and his policies.

Trump does have strong support in many pockets of Florida. But in many ways, Adam Putnam is Florida.

He’s a small-town guy from Bartow.

He is a Gator.

He represented his district in Congress.

He knows how state government works.

And I really do think that if a miracle happens and he wins the primary, we would see a much different candidate in the general election.

I’ll bet on some level, many Democrats would concede that they are happy to take their chances against DeSantis because Putnam would have been formidable.

We’re getting a glimpse of that candidate now. He is working the room, so to speak – shaking every hand, making every person he meets feel like they’re important and he understands their needs and concerns. He is not surrendering; give him that much.

Did that candidate show up too late? Even if he had, would it have made a difference against the Tweeter-in-Chief?

Maybe not. But at least it would have been the real Adam Putnam.

Hillsborough GOP chief tells candidates to ‘immediately cease and desist’ negative campaigning

Negative campaigning works, right?

Obviously it does, but we don’t have to like it. That’s why Hillsborough GOP Chairman Jim Waurishuk sent a straightforward message to his party’s local candidates.

The retired U.S. Air Force colonel wants, no, demands … oh, I’ll let him tell it.


The capital letters are his, by the way. They appear in a letter he sent to all Hillsborough GOP candidates telling them to knock off the mudslinging during the primary campaigns.

And in case the message didn’t get through, he added, “As Republicans, we are better than this … let’s end it once and for all!”

I caught up with him Thursday afternoon and asked him to amplify his reasons for sending that letter. He was happy to do so.

“We have gotten so many calls, emails and text messages to our office from voters who are upset with the negative campaigning,” he said. “They want something done about it.”

It has been a feisty time for Republican candidates in the county.

In the HD 57 race, Michael Beltran filed a lawsuit against rival Sean McCoy over a negative mailer that said he helped an illegal alien guilty of murder “get out of jail and back on our streets.”

HD 59 between Joe Wicker and Ronda Storms has turned muddy as well. Storms blasted recent mailers from Wicker’s camp as inaccurate, including one that was Photoshopped to show her in a lounge chair with a bag of potato chips at her side.

But no, Waurishuk said the letter wasn’t about any particular campaign. It was about trying to set a tone of civility.

“As chairman and board members, we have to stay out of the primary races,” he said. “We can’t show favoritism.”

Any political consultant will tell you, though, that going negative works — even if violates Ronald Reagan’s sacred so-called 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican.

It also should be noted that attack ads aren’t the sole property of either major political party. Democrats have proved over the years that they, too, can fling mud with the best of them.

Voters say they hate it, but they respond to it, which is why negative ads will always be with us. Depicting your opponent as a spawn of Satan will win out every time over a lengthy position paper and sober discussion of the issues.

And with targeted direct mailing, sending a dagger through an opponent with a slimy ad is easier and more effective than ever.

Good luck trying to stop it.

“That’s true,” Waurishuk said. “There’s not a whole lot you can do. There’s no legislation for this, and then there are the PACs and special interests. If you tried to get a law through about it, you get into First Amendment issues, and lawyers would fight it all the way to the Supreme Court.”

A good ol’ tongue-lashing isn’t against the law, though.

Will it work?

Well, we can dream.

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