Joe Henderson, Author at Florida Politics - Page 3 of 16

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: Aramis Ayala should follow law in death penalty case, not try to make it

I’m not a big fan of the death penalty.

I think having condemned inmates spend 20 years or more on death row while their appeals play out thwarts the argument that is a deterrent. Inmate Douglas R. Meeks, for example, has been awaiting execution since March 21, 1975.

He is one of 16 inmates who have been on Florida’s death row since the 1970s.

And keeping inmates locked up 23 ½ a day in a cramped cell with no air conditioning for the entire time they’re awaiting execution is borderline inhumane.

By the way, I’ll concede that the people on death row committed inhumane acts in the first place.

Having said that, State Attorney Aramis Ayala in Orlando was wrong on multiple levels when she announced she wouldn’t seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing Police Lt. Debra Clayton and his pregnant ex-girlfriend.

Gov. Rick Scott did the right thing Thursday with his order that took the case away from Ayala and gave it another state attorney who will pursue the death penalty if Loyd is found guilty.

In a statement, Scott said: “I want to be very clear, Lt. Debra Clayton was executed while she was laying on the ground fighting for her life. She was killed by an evil murderer who did not think twice about senselessly ending her life.”

Ayala referenced several of the factors I mentioned as a reason for not seeking the death penalty in this emotionally charged case. The trouble is, it is her job to follow the law — not make it. If this were a 50-50 decision under existing law, then yes, she could decide not to go for death. But it’s not even close.

If we’re going to have the death penalty, then cop killers go to the head of the list. It is the duty of people in Ayala’s position to prosecute those offenses to the full extent of the law.

There are valid reasons lawmakers should consider abolishing the death penalty, but that’s their call. Death penalty opponents praised Ayala, but that missed the point. What they should be doing is bringing public pressure on legislators.

Just so we’re clear, they also should pick a better case to make their point than one involving the murder of a police officer.

Ayala made history in January when she was sworn in as Florida’s first African-American State Attorney. She made history this time for a different reason. She may not like the death penalty, but it’s part of the job.

Joe Henderson: Miami trial shines light on smuggling Cuban baseball players to U.S.

It is not unusual when a Major League Baseball team signs a Cuban defector. There is a lengthy list of players who fled that island nation so they could barter their skills for the considerable cash that comes with playing in the United States.

Usually, those stories have been treated as valiant escapes from a repressive government and the search for a better life.

A trial that concluded Wednesday in a Miami courtroom though painted a different story. Instead of something heroic, the way some players escaped was judged to be a felony.

The trial pulled back the curtain on how that process works — or at least worked in the case of agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada. Both men face five years in prison after being found guilty of smuggling Cuban players to this country in return for receiving a big chunk of their contracts that could total in the millions of dollars.

The Miami Herald reported that Hernandez and Estrada deceived the U.S. government into granting visas to two dozen Cuban players. The players were transported by what the Herald called “an underground pipeline” that included Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Testimony showed Hernandez and Estrada paid off boat captains and falsified immigration documents. In return, they charged players up to 30 percent of their contracts.

Players include Leonys Martin, who signed a $4.8 million contract this season with Seattle, and Jose Abreu, who signed a $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox in 2013. Abreu testified that he ate pages from his fake passport and washed it down with a Heineken beer while on a flight from Haiti to the United States.

He admitted he was traveling illegally because, he told jurors, “If I had not been there on that particular day, the deadline, then the contract would not be executed and would no longer be valid. We had to be in Chicago to sign the contract.”

By contrast, defense attorney Jeffrey Marcus told jurors players in Cuba might receive as little as $20 per month.

In addition to showing what risks players are willing to take to achieve their baseball aspirations, it highlights the still-thorny relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Immigration hawks have been pushing to roll back attempts by President Obama to normalize relations with Cuba. Last spring, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first MLB team to play a game on that island when they defeated the Cuban national team.

That move generally was hailed as a breakthrough in relations between the two nations. This trial showed that reality remains something different.

Joe Henderson: ‘Shy’ Rick Scott needs to pipe up on Medicaid expansion

Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t been shy about sharing his feelings on the Affordable Care Act. Like any good Republican, he hates it. He wants it to go away.

Now that Republicans have a legitimate proposal on the table to replace Obamacare, though, Scott has gone into stealth mode on the subject. In an Associated Press story, the governor did the Rick Scott Shuffle when asked for his reaction to the plan now being debated intensely in Washington.

Scott said he was glad there is “good conversation” happening on the subject. Not exactly a stop-the-presses comment.

He even met recently with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is pushing a plan that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said could leave up to 24 million Americans without health insurance.

Would the governor like to let us mere mortals in on what was discussed? People in Florida will be greatly affected by whatever finally becomes law, especially if it has a significant impact on Medicaid.

Florida depends heavily on federal money for Medicaid funding, and under the plan being discussed more than 4 million residents here would see their benefits reduced. That probably suits budget hawks in the state House just fine, but wouldn’t be good for many of the state’s elderly and low-income residents.

That’s where Scott needs to pipe up on this subject. In 2014, remember, he went to war (and lost) with the House over Medicaid expansion. Scott pushed for it; now-Speaker Richard Corcoran was intractably against.

Given his background as a hospital administrator before he went into politics, there are few people in the state better versed on health insurance than Scott. He could help frame the debate if he chose.

He certainly hasn’t been shy about making his opinions known recently on other subjects. He has been outspoken about his trying to save Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. But now that the health care debate has intensified, we get crickets from the governor.

Curious.

Joe Henderson: After Enterprise Florida fight, Rick Scott has little political capital left

Rick Scott went to Tallahassee in 2011 as an outsider. He often has operated like one as well, and not always in a good way.

In a private company, stubborn employees can get fired for standing up to the boss. In politics, though, defiance can be considered a virtue. Eventually, people who vow to run government like a business learn you can’t just issue orders and expect things to get done.

Real democracy can be a free-for-all.

That brings us to the current state of affairs in the capitol city, a time that has the seen the governor behaving less like a CEO and more like a politician trying to win friends and influence people.

To save his most-favored Enterprise Florida agency, the governor put a public campaign that included visits, robo-calls, videos and a public mocking of House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

It didn’t work, at least not yet.

The House dealt the governor a stinging rebuke last week with by passing HB 7005 – or what Scott calls “job-killing legislation” – by an overwhelming 87-28 vote.

Scott responded with a statement reading in part, “Many politicians who voted for these bills say they are for jobs and tourism. But, I want to be very clear – a vote for these bills was a vote to kill tourism and jobs in Florida.”

Everyone waits now to see what happens in the Senate, where Jeff Brandes has a bill that would keep Enterprise Florida but with much greater state oversight. Scott, meanwhile, is keeping up the pressure.

His office sent out eight news releases Monday within 19 minutes touting job gains in cities around the state. He made sure to credit the embattled jobs agency.

It was easy for Scott to get his way when he arrived in Tallahassee on a populist wave, promising to produce jobs and get Florida out of the Great Recession. He certainly wasn’t the only political leader in the land who favored subsidies to jump-start the economy.

Now that those jobs have been created – Scott claims more than 1.3 million overall so far – the mood in Tallahassee has shifted away from what Corcoran calls “corporate welfare.”

That has forced the governor into a defensive posture that he clearly isn’t used to and hasn’t shown evidence yet of mastering.

Meanwhile, the Commerce and Tourism Committee is set to consider a bill from Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa to repeal a program designed to make it easier for pro sports franchises to get state money for stadium projects.

Scott signed that bill in 2014, although an aide was quick to correct me recently when I called it a “pet project” of the governor’s. But, the governor obviously supported the measure and in a statement at the time said, “This sports development program will allow franchises to expand in Florida, and create more jobs and opportunities for Florida families.”

Times have changed, though, so I doubt the governor will spend any political capital now to save that pot of state money for professional sports franchises.

With all his chips in the middle of the table for Enterprise Florida, he likely won’t have much of an appetite to fight for sports teams. Judging from the way things are going, lawmakers probably wouldn’t listen anyway.

Joe Henderson: ‘Stand Your Ground’ lacks common sense, legalizes lethal impulse

Supporters will argue that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is vital to individual safety, but the measure never took judgment and common sense into the equation. It legalizes impulses that can be deadly.

On Friday morning in a Dade City courtroom, Judge Susan Barthle ruled that retired Tampa police officer Curtis Reeves’ impulse when he shot Chad Oulson to death after an argument didn’t convince her that he was in sufficient fear for his life.

This clears the way for the 74-year-old Reeves to stand trial for second-degree murder. He could win acquittal there if a jury of his peers find his story more believable than the judge. Fox 13 in Tampa reported she wrote in her ruling, “The physical evidence contradicts the defendant’s version of events.”

Reeves’ version of the fatal afternoon when his argument with Oulson got out of control can be summed up in a statement he made last week during his testimony: “At that point (in the argument), it was his life or mine.”

I can’t crawl insides Reeves’ head and neither can you to know if he was using “Stand Your Ground” as a ready-made excuse after realizing what he had done. But I can say that this tragic situation is exactly what people who oppose this law warned could happen – and likely will happen again.

There is a proposal in the Legislature to make prosecutors prove a defendant didn’t feel threatened.

Imagine the havoc that could unleash.

This law assumes that anyone under duress will be cool enough under pressure to use lethal force only to save themselves or their family from a real threat. This isn’t a movie set though, where James Bond calmly dispatches three or four bad guys trying to kill him and then orders a martini, shaken not stirred.

In the real world, a jittery old man in a darkened movie theater decides a younger, larger man is out to kill him when the two started arguing over cellphone use (before the film started, by the way).

There is no doubt Oulson could have handled the situation much better, but so could Reeves. Either one could have walked away, and we never would have heard of either man.

But no. We have “Stand Your Ground” and its false premise that every situation like this could be lethal. How can you tell? It makes the shooter the victim.

Judge Barthle didn’t buy that argument.

If the looney bill that would force prosecutors prove a defendant didn’t feel threatened ever becomes law, though, judges may have no choice but to buy it next time.

Joe Henderson: Bob Buckhorn made the right call not to run for Governor

Bob Buckhorn is a gregarious, ambitious and determined man, and I think he would have made a fine governor for the state of Florida. He certainly ranks among the best mayors the city of Tampa has ever had.

But I also believe he made the right call when he announced in an email to supporters Thursday morning that “I am not planning to be a candidate for Governor in 2018.”

Now, saying “I am not planning …” does leave a little wiggle room in case Democrats come storming to his door, but that is not likely to happen. There could be several viable options for Dems in 2018, including Orlando attorney John Morgan, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham.

But Buckhorn wasn’t kidding in that email when he said, “I have a job I love.” In his case, that was not the usual politician-speak for “I’ve sized up the field and decided I have no chance.”

Tampa has had some fine mayors dating back more than 40 years — people like Dick Greco, Bill Poe, Sandy Freedman, Bob Martinez, Pam Iorio — and none of them wanted the job more than Buckhorn. He loved saying that Tampa had its “swagger” back. Trust me on this; no one has more swagger than he does.

And Buckhorn came along at the right time, too. When he assumed office in 2011, the city’s knees were buckling from the Great Recession (Iorio deserves credit for how she guided Tampa during that time). But Buckhorn moved ahead with an ambitious plan to reshape downtown from a dead place where the streets didn’t wait until 5 p.m. to roll up.

There are so many things going on now that the biggest downtown problem is a lack of parking.

That’s not to say the mayor hasn’t had issues. Not everyone approved of the military-style security Buckhorn championed that turned downtown into a fenced-off encampment during the 2012 Republican National Convention. And when Buckhorn decides he wants something, he tends to bulldoze any opposition that raises a peep of protest.

He didn’t make a lot of friends in the African-American community, either, when a Tampa Bay Times report about the disproportionate number of black bicyclists stopped by local police led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Buckhorn defiantly supported the police on that issue.

When you’re in a job like this one, though, you’ll be judged on your overall score. On his watch, the long process of building Tampa’s Riverwalk finally went from concept to reality. It already is the signature landmark in the city.

He streamlined much of the bureaucracy on things like the permitting process. That helped speed his vision for transforming downtown into an urban dwelling center rather than just a place where people went to work.

He once famously quipped that infrastructure was the most important thing for city mayors, so while things like new firehouses and stormwater drainage improvements didn’t make headlines, those projects did make life better for citizens. He has been a champion for public spaces, and the Water Works park on the north side of downtown is a jewel.

He was an out-front supporter of Hillary Clinton for president, so there was speculation that he would have been off to Washington had she won. We’ll never know that for sure, just as we’ll never know if as governor he could have successfully worked with what likely will remain a Republican legislative majority in Tallahassee.

Here is what we can say, though. This decision not to run clears a lot of things off his plate and allows him to concentrate on the city he loves. I would imagine development on the west side of the Hillsborough River will be one of his priorities in the two years he has left in office.

And barring something unforeseen that can’t be controlled, he will hand the next mayor a city that has changed for the better. Not a bad legacy, eh?

Just imagine huge can of worms opened by religious liberty bill

The Hillsborough County public school district has straightforward rules in its student handbook about religion.

It says students can talk about religion, practice their religion, can be excused to observe a religious holiday, and – most important for the context of our discussion today – decide for themselves whether they want to participate in things such as student-led prayer or other practices.

The basic rule is this: If students lead the religious activity – fine. If teachers or administrators take part – not fine.

Districts in Miami-Dade and Orlando have basically the same policy.

Apparently, that’s not good enough for the state Senate Education Committee, which Monday approved SB-436. It’s a measure designed to protect religious liberty, except that such liberty already exists. The 5-2 vote was along party lines, of course; five Republicans said yea, two Democrats were naysayers.

A statement released by Senate President Joe Negron after the education committee did its work, was a clear indication of what he has in mind.

The statement said: “Freedom of Religion is a central right protected by our Constitution. This legislation makes it clear that the State of Florida stands for religious liberty and will take the steps necessary to protect the free speech rights of public school students, parents, teachers and school administrators.”

A statement released by state Sen. Dennis Baxley was even more to the point.

“We should be encouraging, rather than preventing our students from expressing their religious convictions,” Baxley said. “This legislation safeguards Freedom of Religion by protecting our students from being discriminated against based on the free expression of their religious ideals in spoken word or prayer, attire, school assignments and extracurricular activities.”

I can see worms crawling out of that just-opened can by the thousands – assuming this bill passes. Let’s play a game called “just imagine.”

Just imagine the bill passes and a teacher or administrator decides freedom of speech includes preaching the gospel in class or over the school public address system. What gospel would that be?

What happens when a Muslim student takes offense and demands classroom time to offer prayers to Allah along with equal time at the microphone?

Just imagine a Jewish kid goes, “Hey, wait a minute …”

Let’s get really absurd and just imagine a Satanist wants the same freedom. Can’t happen, you say? It already has – in 2014 at the state capitol, not far from where this current bill was being fast-tracked through committee.

Satanists demanded to erect their own holiday display to counter a Nativity scene by a Christian group.

So why do this at all? It seems like obvious pandering to me.

There is nothing already on the books that says kids and teachers can’t pray in public schools. I imagine many of them already do as the SAT tests are passed out. They can read the Bible during breaks. I have heard from parents, though, who say that even these student-led actions can put a lot of pressure on their kids to conform.

Don’t believe it? Try sitting out a “voluntary” public prayer sometime and see the looks you get. But they’re going ahead with this bill and I wouldn’t be shocked if it became law – at least until it is overturned in the courts.

This has been touted as bill that will protect Christians from alleged persecution. Baloney.

Real persecution is what Christians face in places like Cuba, China and many Middle East nations. Real persecution is being dragged from your home and flogged or executed for your belief.

The stuff these lawmakers are talking about doesn’t qualify.

Joe Henderson: This Legislative Session has the chance to be one of the most significant in Florida’s history

We already know the 2017 Legislative Session that opens Tuesday in Tallahassee is likely to be contentious, but aren’t they all? Big-league politics is a contact sport.

No one will deny the battle between Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran over spending priorities makes for good political theater (not to mention headlines). When the two most powerful Republicans in the state engage in public spats the way these two have, it does tend to attract attention.

There is a bigger story brewing, though. If lawmakers pass most of what has been proposed, it could become one of the most significant sessions in Florida’s history.

Corcoran’s ambitious package of legislative and lobbying reforms could fundamentally change the way business is done in Tallahassee. Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron worked out a budget compromise Friday that makes a good start on what Corcoran has vowed to accomplish.

Corcoran scored big with a rule requiring all projects added to the budget must be paid for with one-time money. That ends the practice of annually recurring expenses on the base budget, which Corcoran complained hamstrung future legislatures.

This likely will end that time-honored House and Senate tradition of flooding the budget with last-minute additions that can add hundreds of millions in costs. Now, no projects can be added to the final budget that weren’t included in the original plans by the House and Senate – although we can be certain some legislators will try to find ways around that.

Negron released a statement after the compromise praising Corcoran lauding the enhanced “accountability and transparency” in budgeting.

That new policy alone would make this an especially significant session, but there are additional measures that could fundamentally change everyday life for Floridians more directly.

There are bills that, if passed, would greatly expand the number of public places where Floridians with concealed weapons permits could legally carry their guns.

The ongoing fight in Washington over the Affordable Care Act could have big implications here, especially if Congress turns Medicaid into a block grant program where states would receive a set amount of money.

Lawmakers are going after the state Supreme Court after justices issued rulings they didn’t like. That could lead to the imposition of term limits and blur the line of separation between legislators and the judiciary. Corcoran’s fingerprints are all over this one, having vowed to “reign in” the court for “legislating from the bench.”

There is a push to issue civil citations to juveniles who commit minor offenses, allowing them to avoid a police record. Others are getting on the bus for mandatory free-form play time in elementary schools (we used to call that recess back in the day). Another bill would take aim at cities like Tampa, where Democratic Mayor Bob Buckhorn hasn’t embraced the aggressive tactics to corral undocumented immigrants.

Yeah, the Scott-Corcoran public feud over the governor’s love for business incentives and promotional spending for tourism has been entertaining. It also has deflected attention away from other items on the agenda that arguably are more important.

That changes Tuesday when the session officially opens and lawmakers get busy on a 60-day reshape on Florida. This is the main event.

Game on.

Easy call: St. Pete Cty Council to set Al Lang referendum

If all issues before the St. Petersburg City Council were as easy as the once members will consider Thursday morning, anyone could do the job.

The Council has a vote scheduled to set a referendum on a plan to privately renovate Al Lang Stadium. That’s so a bid by Tampa Bay Rowdies’ owner Bill Edwards to obtain a Major League Soccer franchise for the city can continue.

If the vote is anything but yes, the Council will have lost an opportunity that likely will never come again. A “no” vote also would prove members have lost their minds.

Even though Edwards would pay the $80 million stadium renovation, the city wisely requires voter approval of anything on this scale that goes along St. Petersburg’s lovely waterfront.

(For what it’s worth, Edwards also has said he will pay the cost of the proposed May 2 special referendum).

There is no risk for voters.

The Rowdies already play at Al Lang as members of the United Soccer League. Edwards’ plan to renovate Al Lang into an 18,000-seat stadium worthy of the much more prestigious MLS hinges on the Rowdies becoming one of four expansion teams the league plans to add as soon as August. His plan wouldn’t even enlarge the downtown stadium footprint that already exists.

If the city’s bid is not successful, there will be no renovation.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said cities interested in expansion must meet three key criteria:

— A strong local ownership group that has the money to invest in infrastructure and build the sport in their market. Edwards certainly checks that box.

— A market that has shown strong fan support for soccer and located in a desirable spot. That box gets checked with a giant Magic Marker.

— A stadium plan that league calls “a proper home for their fans and players while also serving as a destination for the sport in the community.”

Check. Check. Check.

While St. Petersburg has struggled to support the Tampa Bay Rays, this is a different animal. MLS teams play only a 34-game season, which means 17 home games versus 81 for the Rays. That makes individual games more of an event than a single baseball game.

The Rowdies were third last year in attendance among 12 North American Soccer League teams, averaging about 5,800 fans per game. Edwards already has sounded the bugle charge to the business community and others about greatly increasing that total if the MLS lands here.

I believe the support will be there.

I believe St. Petersburg is a perfect spot for an MLS team and Edwards has a strong plan to make it happen.

All that Council members need to do is say yes to keep this moving forward.

Easy call.

Marco Rubio wimps out on town halls. Are we surprised?

As we saw during the last campaign, Marco Rubio can be awfully good at not showing up. His latest no-show has nothing to do with his attendance in the U.S. Senate, though. Now, he doesn’t want to show up at town hall meetings because people might be rude.

“They’re not town halls anymore, and I wish they were because I enjoy that process very much, going back to my time as speaker of the house. I hosted over a hundred idea (meetings) around the state,” he said in an interview with CBS4 in Miami.

“But the problem now is – and it’s all in writing, I’m not making this up – what they want is for me to organize a public forum. They then organize three, four, five, six hundred liberal activists in the two counties or wherever I am in the state.”

No, he isn’t making it up.

He is, however, wimping out.

Are we surprised?

Yes, those forums do offer those pesky Florida liberals a rare opportunity to remind Republicans that a whole lot of people want their representatives to protect health care coverage.

This is not some political talking point, either. For these folks, it’s emotional and personal, so they do heckle, they shout, they boo and they are loud. That bothers Florida’s very junior U.S. senator – although it didn’t bother him in 2010 when he was swept in by the tea party wave that wrote the book on heckling, shouting, booing and doing that at high volume.

As a first-time senate candidate, it was OK to be supported by disruptors. Those rallies took place around the country, organized at the grassroots level through websites like the Tea Party Patriots. The plan was to put the “riot” in patriot.

It worked. Rubio was elected.

Facing angry constituents didn’t stop U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis from showing up recently at multiple Pasco County meetings, nor has it stopped many of Rubio’s house and senate colleagues from facing the 50 percent of the country that doesn’t agree with them.

But not Rubio. Change of heart, I guess, after an opposition group now called Indivisible, which supports Democrats, copied those tea party guerilla tactics. The group has a game plan called “A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.” It’s available on the internet for all to see.

In his interview, Rubio said, “They then, according to the document, they get there early and take up all the front seats. They spread themselves out. They cheer when the questions are asked. They are instructed to boo no matter what answer I give.

“They’re instructed to interrupt me if I go too long and start chanting things. Then, at the end, they’re instructed not to give up their microphone when asked. It’s all in writing in this Indivisible document.”

That’s sort of true, but also sort of not.

Indivisible supporters are indeed told to get there early, sit in the front, spread out. They also are instructed to “be polite but persistent, and demand real answers.”

It adds, “MoCs (members of Congress) are very good at deflecting or dodging question they don’t want to answer. If the MoC dodges, ask a follow-up. If they aren’t giving you real answers, then call them out for it. Other group members around the room should amplify by either booing the congressman or applauding you.”

Rubio is awfully good at deflecting and dodging. He gets into trouble when strays from the talking point. In a friendly town hall, that’s OK. In a hostile setting, he might get exposed (further) as a lightweight or, as then-candidate Donald Trump liked to call him, “Little Marco.”

CBS4 host Jim DeFede started to ask, “So you don’t believe these are real …”

“They’re real people,” Rubio quickly said. “They’re real liberal activists and I respect their right to do it, but it’s not a productive exercise. It’s all designed to have news coverage at night saying, ‘Look at all these angry people screaming at their senator.’”

So instead the story becomes, look how their senator runs and hides.

Yeah, that plays well.

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