Melissa Ross, Author at Florida Politics

Melissa Ross

In addition to her work writing for Florida Politics, Melissa Ross also hosts and produces WJCT’s First Coast Connect, the Jacksonville NPR/PBS station’s flagship local call-in public affairs radio program. The show has won four national awards from Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). First Coast Connect was also recognized in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014 as Best Local Radio Show by Folio Weekly’s “Best Of Jax” Readers Poll and Melissa has also been recognized as Folio Weekly’s Best Local Radio Personality. As executive producer of The 904: Shadow on the Sunshine State, Melissa and WJCT received an Emmy in the “Documentary” category at the 2011 Suncoast Emmy Awards. The 904 examined Jacksonville’s status as Florida’s murder capital. During her years in broadcast television, Melissa picked up three additional Emmys for news and feature reporting. Melissa came to WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. Married with two children, Melissa is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism/Communications. She can be reached at

Meet the African-American filmmaker and historian who is Donald Trump’s NE Florida field operative

One thing about Duval County — it sometimes defies easy stereotyping.

That’s certainly true when you consider the fact that the Northeast Florida Regional Director for the Donald Trump for President campaign is Derek Boyd Hankerson.

Hankerson, who is of Gullah Geechee heritage, is an African-American documentary filmmaker, author and historian in addition to his political background.

He’s also the GOTV Director for Wisconsin congressional candidate Paul Nehlen.

“My career started at 18 when I was staff at Reagan – Bush ’84,” Hankerson tells Florida Politics.

“I worked for the late Lee Atwater, and also worked with Ed Rollins, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and many others. I left President George W. Bush‘s administration in 2001 after serving in his transition team and presidential campaign as an Advance Representative. Unfortunately, my dad died in 2001 and I moved home to Florida to be close to my mother. Traditionally, in past presidential campaigns I’ve been based in D.C., but for this presidential campaign I’m based in Florida due the importance of the state – it’s a must-win.”

“As an American I humbled and honored that Mr. Trump hired me to run his northeast Florida region.”

Hankerson declined comment on the racial dynamics of Trump’s campaign.

His polling among African-Americans (and other nonwhite groups) is at historic lows, although Trump disputes some of those numbers.

Paula Bartlett on uphill battle against Ronnie Fussell: ‘the entire community should be outraged’

Jacksonville attorney Paula Bartlett readily admits she’s a political outsider.

But the Democratic candidate seeking to oust Duval Clerk of Courts Ronnie Fussell is starting to generate some grassroots support, mainly in the form of small donors, in her campaign to reopen the Duval County Courthouse wedding chapel.

Fussell (and a few other Florida clerks) controversially ended the long tradition of affordable courthouse weddings in Jacksonville a day before same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court last year. The wedding chapel, which was specifically designed for the new courthouse, is now used as an “overflow room.”

“As an attorney and as a citizen, any time a particular group is targeted and excluded from access to the the court I am enraged, and quite frankly, the entire community should be enraged,” said Bartlett.

“We have to continue this tradition. It’s not only hurting the LGBT community, who is the clear target, but it harms the entire community.”

Bartlett, who has never held elective office before, also criticizes Fussell’s management of the clerk’s office, pointing to a recent auditor’s report that finds internal accounting difficulties and what she calls an unwieldy website.

But it’s her vow to reinstate the courthouse wedding chapel that’s her campaign rallying cry.

“We have an elected official who is supposed to be a trustee of people of this county, who is refusing to perform a service because he doesn’t want to perform the service for a specific group of people. It’s the same argument that was used against mixed-race couples back before that was determined to be clearly unconstitutional. This is the same issue. It’s an equal access issue.”

To be clear, unlike Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, Fussell’s office is following the law, and will issue a marriage license to any couple who wants to tie the knot. It’s the tradition of performing marriage ceremonies in the courthouse that ended in 2015 — for both straight and LGBT couples.

Fussell, a local political insider who has a big cash advantage in the race, said at the time that some of his staff felt uncomfortable performing same-sex marriages and that he himself believed marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Whether Bartlett gains any traction in this little-watched race will come down to how successfully she can frame the debate of this election as one rooted in embracing the reality of marriage equality and equal access to the courthouse.

“If you believe that everyone should have meaningful access to the courts, you need to make an investment in my campaign. I’m a political outsider. I don’t have access to the insider money. But I’m getting lots of small donations, some as little as $5, from people who can’t even afford to donate to my campaign, but believe we need a change.”


Wes White calls for DOJ investigation of Angela Corey

On the heels of a damning new report, 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney candidate Wes White is calling for a Department of Justice investigation into incumbent State Attorney Angela Corey and her office for what he calls a “systematic and systemic violation of the law.”

White’s move comes as Folio Weekly reports Corey apparently kept it quiet that former Medical Examiner Dr. Margarita Arruza was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease while conducting autopsies that played a role in dozens of criminal convictions under Corey’s purview.

Azzura retired in 2010. The Folio piece alleges Corey failed to disclose to opposing counsel knowledge that Arruza was showing signs of dementia, a charge Corey’s office denies.

White, who currently trails in the fundraising race for the office of state attorney behind Corey and another former prosecutor-turned-candidate, Melissa Nelson, will hold an afternoon news conference outside the ME’s office, his campaign says.

“Over a dozen homicide cases tried by the Office of the State Attorney may be overturned because Angela Corey failed to disclose that the former medical examiner, one of the State’s chief witnesses, was mentally incapacitated while she performed autopsies and/or testified regarding the cause and manner of death of homicide victims,” says White, who says he’ll also seek an investigation of Duval County Circuit Court Judge John Guy, who served as a prosecutor under Corey during the time frame when Azzura’s autopsies could theoretically be questioned.

“The repeated failure of Corey and Guy to disclose to defense counsel that former Medical Examiner Margaret Arruza suffered from a debilitating memory loss, is a disgrace and a miscarriage of justice. Ultimately, killers may find their way back onto the streets of Jacksonville; nothing can more accurately reflect the utter lack of judgment of the state attorney and her incompetence to hold the position of chief law enforcement officer. Corey has lost the confidence of the people of Jacksonville and should step down and resign from office,” says White.

Whether the feds will decide to look into the practices of the 4th Circuit SAO, (as they are into the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office) is an open question. Certainly Corey isn’t the first prosecutor to be accused of discovery violations or withholding exculpatory evidence.

That said, Public Defender Matt Shirk says he’ll seek to vacate some of the convictions Corey’s prosecutors won during Azzura’s last years performing autopsies for the circuit. Litigation will be expensive, and the controversy is likely to generate even more bad publicity for an incumbent facing a challenging re-election bid.


‘The Committee’ airs nationwide this week, documents anti-gay discrimination at Florida universities

A new documentary film airing nationwide on dozens of PBS stations this week shows Florida’s gay community was targeted long before the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

The sordid tale of Florida’s infamous McCarthyesque witch hunt of suspected gay and lesbian students and professors at state universities is told in the new Emmy award-winning documentary, “The Committee.”

The film was produced by students in the Burnett Honors College at the University of Central Florida, and takes a blunt look at the activities of the so-called Johns Committee, a secret Cold War-era group dedicated to expelling gays and lesbians from the state’s college campuses.

“Even though I’m from Florida, I didn’t know that this had happened until a colleague in our history department told me about it,” says co-director Dr. Lisa Mills, a UCF associate film professor.

In 1956, state senator and former Florida governor Charley Johns organized the Legislative Investigation Committee to look into what it termed “subversive activities.”

The Johns Committee, as it was popularly known, investigated everything from state colleges to civil rights groups and suspected communist organizations.

But by 1961, its main focus was to identify and remove suspected homosexual teachers and students from Florida state universities.

“All they wanted to know were the names of people,” says the Rev. Ruth Jensen-Forbell, who was a 19-year-old Florida State University student when she was interrogated for 17 hours by the committee.

Today she is senior pastor of a mostly LGBT congregation at First Coast Metropolitan Community Church in St. Augustine. Near the film’s end, she is depicted conducting a same-sex wedding in Jacksonville in the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Jensen-Forbell tells the filmmakers she was not given an opportunity to eat, drink or use the restroom during her long-ago ordeal as a student, and was so traumatized she dropped out of college.

“They kept asking me, ‘Did you have relationships with other women? Did you see anybody doing this or that?’ And they were pretty graphic in what they said. It was almost like there was a deliberate attempt to keep me longer and longer so I’d be more tired. And I just kept saying ‘no’ because I hadn’t done anything. But I was afraid of everything. Who I talked to, what would happen next. I ended up not going to classes, dropping out, getting an incomplete, and I was put on academic probation. Because they said you can’t be a lesbian and attend a state college.”

The film features interviews with another victim of the committee, Chuck Woods, and an interrogator, John Tileston Sr., a retired member of the University of Florida Police Department.

Also interviewed is former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who was a UF student when the committee was acting. Graham talks about how the committee’s work upset his fellow students, and caused Florida’s university system to lose national standing.

The Johns Committee finally faded from influence with the 1964 publication of its infamous “Purple Pamphlet,” a report by the panel on suspected gay and lesbian activities on campus. It featured explicit material and the public turned against the committee’s work.

“It reminds me of the witch hunt we’re on right now in terms of our Muslim community,” says Mills. “We just can’t allow these sorts of witch hunts to happen, no matter who is the victim at the time. Let me point out that at UCF, one of the first organizations to come out and support our LGBTQ community after the mass shooting at Pulse was the Muslim Student Association. They were right there on Sunday reaching out to try to help.”

“I think that Orlando has really come together now around this incident. It’s always good to look back and be reminded of our history so we don’t repeat it.”

Editor’s Note: Martin Dyckman also reviewed a recent book about the Johns Committee, “Communists and Perverts Under the Palms,” by Stacy Braukman, in the Summer 2015 issue of INFLUENCE magazine. That review is available to read here. Go to page 23 of the issue.

Duval County Public Schools selling laptops for $50 to narrow ‘digital divide’

In a large, urban school district like Duval County — where fully half the kids in the public schools are on free or reduced lunch — poverty is real, and widespread. The achievement gap remains stubborn and formidable.

And one of the many obstacles kids in poor districts have to learning is the infamous “digital divide,” which has been an issue in low-income Northeast Florida households for years.

Later this summer, the Duval County Public Schools will attempt to narrow the divide with its DCPS Laptop Recovery Program. Students will be able to purchase a used but fully functional laptop for $50. Employees of the school district can get one for $75.

We’ve had an infusion of new laptops,” says Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

“Three years ago we were at 3-to-1 as far as device-per-student. Now we’re at about 1.5-to-1. And we’ve had to move out a lot of our older computers and laptops,” he told WJCT. “They’re fully functional.”

Vitti says use of the laptops will increase student access to blended learning and online educational resources. It’s also revenue for the school district, which currently sends old technology devices to a recycler for $20 bucks a pop.

The program should launch in late summer or early fall. Each month a new high school will be used as a Saturday pickup site.

After a series of news cycles dealing with everything from lawsuits over transgender bathroom access in schools, to controversy over testing, and more, the laptop program is an easy layup for Vitti and should prove very popular.


City of Jax ‘Dear Orlando’ postcard campaign criticized as tone-deaf

Expressions of sympathy and support from Jacksonville’s political leadership in the aftermath of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting massacre are falling flat with North Florida’s LGBT community.

“It was a bias-motivated attack against a gay bar to kill LGBT people,” said Jacksonville attorney and activist Jimmy Midyette.

“When leaders neuter expressions of sympathy of that fact — the fact that the shooter went to kill the people he hated — it is feckless and dehumanizing. It continues the work of the shooter to silence our voices and to leave us fearful and alone in the dark. Why is that so hard to understand?”

Midyette points to the fact that the Jacksonville City Council’s recent moment of silence and resolution expressing sympathy about the shootings made no mention of the shooter’s apparent motive or the specific group of people targeted — LGBT citizens who were in an openly gay club.

For the record, here’s an excerpt: “A resolution expressing the City of Jacksonville’s deepest sympathies to the victims of the horrific shooting in Orlando and expressing the city’s solidarity with the City of Orlando.”

Meanwhile, an image of a postcard showing Jacksonville’s support for victims of the Orlando tragedy is also drawing criticism.

Visitors can write postcards to the shooting victims and their families starting on Monday at all Jacksonville public libraries. The city will mail the cards July 30, the International Day of Friendship.

However, like the City Council resolution, the “Dear Orlando” postcard campaign also does not reference the LGBT community. Instead, the postcard message reads, “Dear Orlando — You are a city long celebrated for magic, wonder and fun. With the love, support and sentiments of millions around the world, you will smile again. One Jacksonville for One Orlando.”

From Jax LGBT advocate Kerri Kidder: “So our city council in Jacksonville Florida has a 49-second moment of silence AND passes a resolution about the Orlando act of terror, AND our mayor sends out a written press release, but none of them make mention of the words LGBT, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender, in the entire meeting, press release and/or written resolution? I am so sad and disappointed. I weep for our city. Our city still continues to marginalize us even when we needed them the most. We are still treated like second-class citizens here. We are again swept under the rug.”

“While the massacre at Pulse is a tragedy for our nation, our State, and the City of Orlando, it is first and foremost a horrific attack on the LGBT community and this fact should not be minimized or omitted in future statements that are meant to be supportive, said Dan Merkan, Chair of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality.

“We encourage our city leaders to engage in direct dialogue with our LGBT and Latino communities that have been most impacted and who are grieving. We’re grateful for all of those that have reached out and supported the LGBT community at this time with their condolences, support and prayers; however, we are disappointed that City leaders have not acknowledged in statements or resolutions in response to the Orlando massacre that this was clearly a hate-motivated attack against LGBT and Latino people.”

The issue, say North Florida LGBT citizens and activists, is especially painful for them, given the long battle in Jacksonville to pass an updated human rights ordinance or HRO, banning discrimination against LGBT people in the areas of jobs, housing and public accommodations. Jacksonville remains virtually the only large American city that has not yet provided these legal protections.

Mayor Lenny Curry has said he does not believe an expanded HRO is necessary. Meanwhile, Jacksonville City Councilman Tommy Hazouri, himself a former mayor, says he’ll try again in September to pull together 10 votes on the 19-member council to pass the HRO, which failed by one vote back in 2012 during the Alvin Brown mayoral administration. Brown was criticized at the time for not taking a public position on the matter.

Tommy Hazouri on Lenny Curry: ‘I’m sure the mayor has his regrets’

The mass shooting in Orlando isn’t changing Tommy Hazouri‘s timetable for reintroducing an updated human rights ordinance in Jacksonville.

“It’s been our plan all along to do it after the mayor’s sales tax referendum,” Hazouri told WJCT.

That said, the former mayor and at-large city councilman says the shootings of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando lend new urgency to his quest.

“Bottom line, we need the same protections for the LGBT community as we have for the rest of Jacksonville. And frankly, those who say that they’re for it, and who ran on it, need to come and speak out about it. It shouldn’t be just me, Aaron Bowman and Jim Love (the bill’s co-sponsors). It is so important. It makes a statement about Jacksonville and who we are. We need to do it and we need to do it yesterday.”

Hazouri says he’ll try again in September to get 10 votes on the 19-member council to support an updated HRO that bans discrimination against LGBT citizens in the areas of jobs, housing and public accommodations. Jacksonville remains the only large American metro area without an updated version of a human rights ordinance covering LGBTs.

Meanwhile, Hazouri also let loose on Brunswick Pastor Ken Adkins, whose hate speech about the LGBT community has become well known in Jacksonville over the last year.

“Been through so much with these Jacksonville Homosexuals that I don’t see none of them as victims. I see them as getting what they deserve!” Adkins tweeted after the Pulse massacre.

“He’s a hatemonger, there’s no question about it,” said Hazouri, who has often been the target of Adkins’ tweets, some of which featured images of Hazouri depicted in women’s clothing inside women’s restrooms.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, who has said he does not think an updated HRO is necessary, hosted a series of community conversations regarding the potential expansion of the HRO in the first year in his term, which had Adkins as a panelist representing opposition to expansion. Curry says he did not personally pick Adkins and has denounced his post-Orlando comments.

“I asked the mayor at the time why he would put somebody on there that is speaking against the HRO in such a vicious way,” said Hazouri. “In hindsight, I’m sure the mayor has his regrets.”

Protests planned in downtown Jacksonville over closed primary election

Sign-waving protest rallies are planned tonight at several downtown Jacksonville locations as hearings continue into the lawsuit over the city’s August 30th closed primary.

Both State Attorney Angela Corey and Public Defender Matt Shirk will face only GOP voters on that date due to the presence on the ballot of controversial write-in candidates.

More than 400,000 voters who are not Republicans have been effectively disenfranchised in the election. There’s been much more outrage about Corey’s race than Shirk’s, although it appears the same tactic was used – more about that here.

The lawsuit filed by civil rights icon Bill Sheppard alleging voter suppression is being adjudicated by Clay County Judge Richard Townsend, who has until June 24th to issue a ruling (that is when ballots will be printed).

Meanwhile, the group New Florida Majority says activists will wave signs at 5pm at cars heading out at rush hour at the corners of Union and Newnan, Pearl and State, Jefferson and Water, and Main and Forsyth Streets.


Tommy Hazouri trying again with the HRO this fall to protect LGBT residents, ‘send a message’

Jacksonville City Councilman Tommy Hazouri says the deadly mass shooting over the weekend in Orlando at the LGBT-friendly Pulse nightclub has only renewed his resolve to get a comprehensive human rights ordinance passed in the 904.

Hazouri withdrew the measure earlier this year when it became apparent it did not have a majority of council votes to pass.

Now, the former mayor tells he plans to push the HRO again “very shortly after” Jacksonville voters decide the pension referendum being touted by current Mayor Lenny Curry. That vote is set for Aug. 30.

“Today, my heart is heavy over too many mass murders stemmed from hatred and bigotry,” said Hazouri.

“Our fight for human rights, dignity and respect won’t be deterred by the horrific events that took place in Orlando. This tragedy should give every American the resolve to find tolerance and acceptance in their hearts. Lest we forget; that we are one nation, one city and one Jacksonville under God — with liberty and justice for all. Be assured, I remain fully committed to securing non-discrimination protections for the LGBT community here in Jacksonville. This fall we will send a message that we are a city that welcomes and accepts all who wish to visit us, to work hard, and to raise a family in our city.”

Shooting and Outdoor Convention moving ahead in Jacksonville

Next month, supporters of the Second Amendment will gather in Jacksonville for the Southeast Shooting and Outdoor Convention.

Spokesman Jon McGowan says despite the controversy in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in Orlando, weapons manufacturers that produce the AR-15 will be on hand.

AR-15 manufacturers Remington, Bushmaster, DPMS, Adcor Defense, Nemo Arms and other sporting rifle manufacturers Heckler & Koch, Taurus, and Kel-tec will be participating in the 2016 outdoors show. We stand by these companies and will not waver in our commitment to all Second Amendment rights.”

In addition to the show, which will be held at the downtown Prime Osborn Convention Center, the convention will also feature a number of forums around the issue of gun rights, including one featuring state Rep. Paul Renner.

Also: “We have invited the Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate Seat vacated by Marco Rubio to participate in a forum on the Second Amendment, the red snapper ban, and other federal outdoor industry issues,” says McGowan.

The show kicks off Thursday, July 28 with a concert featuring country music artist Craig Morgan at the Florida Theatre, among other scheduled events.





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