Bill Rufty – Florida Politics

Bill Rufty

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

Tampa Tiger Bay Club to host bipartisan CD 15 candidate forum

The Tampa Tiger Bay Club will host all candidates who are running to fill the vacancy in Florida’s 15th Congressional District at a meeting Friday at the Ferguson Law Center in Tampa.

Tiger Bay officials invited the three Democrats and six Republicans competing to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland, who is retiring from the CD 15 after eight years.

By Thursday afternoon, all three Democrats — Andrew Learned of Valrico, Ray Pena and Kristen Carlson, both of Lakeland, had accepted.

Of the six Republicans who want the job, five had confirmed — Sean Harper and Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland, former state Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City, Danny Kushmer of Brandon, state Rep. Ross Spano, Dover. By late Thursday, Curt Rogers of Dover had not confirmed.

Both parties face tough primaries Aug. 28 before the two winners meet in the Nov. 6 general election.

Registration opens at 11:30 a.m., the event begins at noon. Chester Ferguson Law Center is at 1610 N. Tampa St. in Tampa. Tickets for members and first-time guests are $30; $40 for nonmembers. More information is at tigerbayclub.com.

Democratic hopeful Ray Pena hits CD 15 with old-school handshaking, retail politics

Ray Pena, of Lakeland, is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for Florida’s 15th Congressional District as the first Hispanic-American to seek the district located in portions of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties.

He is doing it the old-fashioned way, handshaking every person he meets and appearing at all public candidate meetings. He enumerates the issues that he says are ignored by the other party, i.e., critical highway infrastructure needs, the total lack of interest in public education funding by the administration and repeal of the Republican Budget Act.

While both his Democratic Primary opponents, Andrew Learned of Valrico and Kristen Carlson of Lakeland have campaign war chests of more than $100,000, Pena reported campaign funds of less than $5,000 in the most recent report of the Federal Elections Commission.

Perhaps it is the lack of big-time contributors or the highly visible primary fight between Learned and Carlson over who should get the Democratic Party’s support that Pena is often unknown in spite of all his groundwork.

“I have been running for a year and a half,” Pena told Florida Politics Wednesday. “Do you know who was the first media outlet to sit down for a face-to-face interview with me? You are. Today.”

Learned has been running for a year, but has gained more attention now that Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland is stepping down from his Congressional District 15 seat and Democrats believe it is vulnerable.

The son of a Cuban mother and Puerto Rican father, Pena is a veteran of the Coast Guard and a 33-year veteran of the San Jose Police Department, retiring as a detective. He owns General Aviation LLC in Winter Haven. He is a commercial helicopter pilot

Pena embodies the belief that a person can still put themselves up for election and run on their ideas and by meeting people at post offices, the tax collector’s office, and small-town gatherings. But to meet the demands for electronic media and newspapers, big money is often a determining factor.

Unable to hold large fundraisers with Congresswoman Kathy Castor hosting as Learned has done or to have a group like EMILY’s List endorse and notify their heavy donors as was done for Carlson, Pena has gone on a marathon handshaking campaign.

“Quite seriously, I have met close to 30,000 people in the district since I started in February 2017,” he said.

One issue he says he would fight for in Congress is the repeal of the Jobs Act, which he said is unfair to middle class working people.

“Infrastructure must be addressed. I-4 is the most dangerous highway in the nation. Between 2011 and 2017, 164 people were killed on that roadway,” he said.

In education, more money is needed in every state, but particularly in Florida.

”I am against any tax dollars going to charter schools whether for profit or public. We must start investing in teachers and our school kids,” he said. “We also need to create tuition-free education for our public universities’ undergraduate programs. It’s done in the San Francisco area, New York City, and others, and students are required to stay in their area and work for a period of four years.”

And if the Democratic Primary isn’t rough enough, the winner will face the winner of a six-way Republican Primary for District 15.

“I am not worried,” he said of his opponents’ money, both Democrats and Republicans. “When people see a genuine person, they gravitate toward them. I would tell all candidates and elected officials everywhere, stop your maliciousness and just be honest to the people.”

“Ours is a genuine grassroots campaign. We certainly have the deep roots, but are waiting for the grass,” he said.

Ashey Moody

Grady Judd gives thumbs up to Ashley Moody for AG

Polk County Sheriff  Grady Judd is endorsing former Circuit Judge Ashley Moody for Attorney General.

Judd made the announcement at an early Tuesday morning news conference in Bartow.

Moody campaign says now there are 40 Florida sheriffs have now endorsed her for the office.

“For more than forty-five years, Grady Judd has served the citizens of Polk County and sought to keep them safe,” Moody said in a statement. “As Sheriff, he has implemented innovative approaches and programs to deal with evolving threats from human trafficking to the opioid epidemic. I am honored to add his support and his voice to my campaign.”

On Monday, Judd also endorsed Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (also a Polk County native) in his gubernatorial campaign, and the Sheriff was prominently featured in a new 30-second Putnam ad on immigration. The ad was produced by Putnam’s political committee, Florida Grown.

Moody, who once served the 13th Judicial Circuit Court, is running for the Republican nomination for Attorney General against state Reps. Frank White and Jay Fant.

Also in the race are Democrats Ryan Torrens and state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa.

CD 15 primary support puts Democratic groups at odds

EMILY’s List, the progressive organization that supports women candidates for office, has recommended Kristen Carlson, Lakeland attorney and 11th-hour entrant into the Democratic primary,  for Florida’s 15th Congressional District.

The endorsement put two organizations that support Democratic candidates at odds with one another. At least one Democratic candidate, Greg Pilkington of Indian Lake Estates, withdrew from the race saying the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was sending aid to Andrew Learned of Valrico who had already had the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat.

“Kristen Carlson is a committed advocate for justice who is running for Congress to expand economic fairness and opportunity for Floridians. She helped save and protect the Florida orange industry from out-of-state companies’ wrongful practices and has since continued to serve her community as an attorney in private practice … The EMILY’s List community fully intends to support Kristen in her fight to win this seat and deliver the majority to Democrats,” Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, said in a news release Thursday.

“They had urged me to run,” Carlson said, “So I am grateful for their support. This endorsement is very important to me and to the campaign.”

The Democratic Party won’t be split whoever wins the primary, Carlson said.

“I certainly plan to support Andrew or Ray (Raymond Pena of Lakeland, who has not campaigned very visibly) if either should win,” she said.

“We all have the same policy goals and we will all be together at the end of the primary and will make this a Democratic district,” Carlson said.

“Democrats already are together,” Learned said, adding it is with his campaign. “There is only one that isn’t with us (EMILY’s List). You have an endorsement from a national group that doesn’t recognize what is going on locally among progressives or understands local issues and policies,” he said. “Look at her stand on medical marijuana and the Trump tax plan.”

Learned said he had not seen any grassroots rallies or major gatherings held by Carlson since she began her campaign noting that he has been campaigning and visiting progressive groups and the general public for over a year.

Carlson campaign manager Conor Hurley said his candidate has been on the road nonstop.

“She is focused on the grassroots campaign. Most recently she was at the was at the Clermont candidate forum and she also attended the Bealsville Anniversary Dinner (in Hillsborough County) and I didn’t see him there.  Just because he doesn’t see her campaign activities doesn’t mean we aren’t out there working heavily,” Hurley said.

Carlson argued that there is little difference in Democratic policies between the two, adding it is “posturing.”

“It is only that he is positioning himself as farther to the left of me,” she said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly listed candidate Raymond Pena as residing in Osceola County. Pena is a resident of Lakeland.

Baxter Troutman releases second statewide ad

The second television ad for Baxter Troutman, Republican candidate for Agriculture Commissioner, began running statewide Wednesday.

The ad for the Winter Haven businessman and grower is part of a $1.6 million television and digital ad package the campaign announced two weeks ago.

The first television ad featured Becky Troutman, the candidate’s wife, talking about her husband and his career and family.

The 30-second ad released Wednesday features the candidate himself discussing the issues facing agriculture and its importance to the state and nation.

The ad has been pared down to 15 seconds to run on Facebook and Twitter.

The campaign has other ads produced by The Strategy Group lined up for the future, said campaign manager Carlo Fassi.

Last one in; first one with votes, CD 15 candidate says

Republican Sean Harper believes that, in the era of Donald Trump, business expertise will win out over political experience.

That’s why the Lakeland contractor is running against five other Republicans for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, two of whom have experience in the state Legislature.

Harper entered the race May 2, two days before the filing deadline to fill the seat being left vacant by U.S. Rep Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican who is not running again. That was late, even by the three-week notice Ross gave.

It’s a crowded field with six Republicans running in the Aug. 28 party primary and three candidates in the Democratic Primary. In addition to Harper, the Republican field includes former state Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City, Danny Kushmer of Brandon, Curt Rogers of Dover, Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland and state Rep. Ross Spano of Riverview

It would appear to be a daunting task, but Harper already has three websites up and is building a campaign staff. The featured picture is of Harper’s campaign kickoff and a banner proclaiming “Conservative Outsider.”

His business experience will win over the public recognition of the politicians, he said.

“I have met with business leaders in Polk, Hillsborough and Lake counties many of whom are in construction and agriculture (two economic backbones of CD 15) They want someone who signs paychecks and understands the process of managing a business,” he said.

Harper said he plans to go to Washington to contribute and bring a business management to government and then return, “As our Founding Fathers intended.”

Despite his moniker as a conservative outsider, Harper makes his loyalties clear: “I like the job President Trump is doing and we need business logic in Washington, which is why I am running.”

The president’s promise to improve infrastructure is crucial to CD 15 and the I-4 corridor, he said.

Sean Harper and Adam Putnam. (Image via Facebook)

On his Facebook age, Harper makes it clear where he stands on the recent reports of Publix and the Lakeland-based supermarket’s massive donations to the gubernatorial campaign of Adam Putnam.

“Publix is a major part of this district and I’m proud to have them here. I stand with Publix, Adam Putnam and the NRA. My family and I are in Publix several times a week and do not plan on switching.”

A lifelong Harper has been a highly successful contractor, running Harper Construction, noting during a recent interview the company has seven houses under construction as well as commercial buildings. And it is this expertise needed in federal government, he said.

“Federal regulations, banking regulations and financing rules that often don’t make sense have really pushed small businesses to the edge,” he said.

But to get through the entangled rules, he first must get through the entangled Republican primary. Spano has already won the endorsement of Attorney General Pam Bondi, county commissioners in Polk and Hillsborough counties as well as state House members. Combee also has House member endorsements, as well as those of several Polk County mayors and from former state Sen. J.D. Alexander.

Looking toward November, SD 22 race turns up the heat

While most campaigns are concerned with the August primary elections, the general appears already to have started for Senate District 22 and the main issue is education.

The campaign of former Circuit Judge Robert Doyel, of Winter Haven, fired several blasts at Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, because she would not participate in a canvas of senators, seen by some as a move by Democrats, for a Special Session.

Statewide, Democrats believe they have a winning issue to use against Republican incumbents because of the GOP refusal to agree to the Special Session to increase funding for K-12 education.

Doyel, picking up on teacher dissatisfaction with funding from the recent Legislative Session, blasted what he said is leaving regular public schools shortchanged.

“I am disappointed that she couldn’t even be bothered to complete the survey. A majority of the senators who voted this week agreed that we need to get clear answers for our public-school teachers, students and parents, but Kelli Stargel doesn’t seem to care,” he charged in a prepared statement.

“It’s a timely reminder that she’s more interested in maintaining her relationship with her friends in the for-profit and charter school industries than she is in doing her job as a state senator,” Doyel said

Stargel said the increases (by the Republican-majority Legislature) are adequate and are having good results.

“The budget passed by the Legislature provides an unprecedented level of K-12 per-student funding, with a per-student increase of over $100,” she said. “The fact is that 45 percent of the per-student increase is unrestricted and can be spent by districts according to locally determined priorities, while 55 percent of the per-student increase is restricted for critical uses such as Mental Health, Safe Schools and Teachers Classroom Supply.

Ignoring the criticisms of shortchanging public schools, Stargel said: “Our investments are working. Recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores demonstrate that our Florida students continue to excel and outperform their peers across the nation. In fact, Florida students outperformed the nation in Grade 4 reading, Grade 8 reading and Grade 4 math.”

Doyel has assembled a formidable campaign staff, but he still has a primary opponent, former state Rep. Ricardo Rangel, who has been eclipsed publicly by the growing battle between Stargel and Doyel.

At the end of April, Rangel had a campaign account of $5,085 compared to Doyel with $75,650 and Stargel, with the power of incumbency, at $183,583.

But in Rangel’s successful 2012 state House race, the Orlando Sentinel complained he was running a stealthy — under the radar — campaign. He won that race with 68 percent.

Hitting the ground collecting in CD 15

Kristen Carlson of Lakeland entered the Democratic Primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District just over two weeks ago and has reported campaign donations of more than $100,000 already.

Her staff said most of it came in during the first 13 days.

Carlson, a former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Citrus, current counsel for the Florida Juice Producers Association and lawyer in the Tampa firm of MacFarlane Ferguson & McMullen, didn’t enter the race until May 2, Two days before the deadline to qualify for federal office.

The primaries for both parties in the district that includes portions of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties gained more candidates and more early activity after the incumbent, Republican Congressman Dennis Ross of Lakeland announced he would not seek re-election.

Carlson faces two others in the Democratic Primary, Navy veteran and school owner Andrew Learned of Valrico and retired California detective and aviation group owner Raymond Pena of Winter Haven, both of whom have been running for a year or more.

Almost everyone in the Republican Primary race for the seat has been running for less than a month in the traditionally Republican district. Ross announced his retirement just weeks before federal qualifying to get on the ballot ended.

“I am humbled by the outpouring of support we have received in this early stage,” Carlson said in an emailed quote. “Voters know that we need a Representative who will work for the people of the 15th District to lower health care costs, create good paying jobs, and cut taxes for the middle class, and I am honored so many believe I am that person.”

Two progressive organizations, but different candidates?

Many political junkies are questioning whether two different entities that support the same goal — a Democrat in Florida’s 15th Congressional District — are backing two different candidates in the primary.

Andrew Learned of Valrico has been a candidate for the post since June 23, 2017, and has the advice and help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and some well-known Democrats like Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Tampa.

Attorney Kristen Carlson of Lakeland opened her campaign May 2 this year, two days before qualifying deadline for federal office adding that she had been encouraged to run by local Democrats and Emily’s List.

One Democratic candidate, Gregory Pilkington of Indian Lake Estates, pulled out the primary days before federal qualifying for the ballot, accusing the DCCC of supporting Learned in the primary. Learned said he is being given advice from the committee and others, but only after Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross announced he would not run for re-election to the district.

A third candidate in the primary, Raymond Pena Jr. of Lakeland, has been largely quiet since qualifying.

And while Carlson said it was the urging of Emily’s List members that convinced her to jump in the race, she was not listed as being officially recommended among the organization’s 2018 list of 49 women candidates on its website Friday.

The DCCC, as its practice, has not openly endorsed Learned, but Castor’s hosting of a fundraiser for him likely would not have occurred without the tacit approval of the campaign committee.

Carlson sounds like a candidate full of confidence in her run.

“I met with Andrew sometime before I decided to run. I admire him for jumping in the race and the work he has done for a year, but then the gameboard flipped when Dennis announced that he would not run again,” Carlson said. “We have done our work. We have already identified and hired some staff members, but I am not going to release all the names until we have the full staff on board.”

Carlson said she does not believe having three Democrats in the CD 15 race weakens the movement to elect a Democrat there.

“The benefit of having more than one person in a (primary) race is that people get a choice for the primary as well as the general,” she said.

Learned, who began running for the spot more than a year before Ross announced he wouldn’t run said his campaign is perplexed by Carlson’s claim about Emily’s List support because he has seen no official endorsement. Some attending Castor’s Valrico fundraiser for Learned said the campaign expressed upset with the late entry.

“I wouldn’t say upset,” Learned said of his staff’s comments. “It’s just very confusing. If you are claiming (Emily’s List) support, then why isn’t she on the actual endorsement list?”

He said Carlson’s stances were not the same as many he is pushing forward.

“She sat on the bench on Parkland (shooting) and she wants to make the tax cut permanent. She is out of touch with the party of 2018,” he said.

Still, the two candidates’ shadow boxing with each other promises a vigorous Democratic primary for the seat, something lacking for a couple of decades in the heretofore solid-Republican district.

Polk Democrat Robert Doyel gets the unthinkable: party support

Former Circuit Judge Robert Doyel, a Winter Haven Democrat and candidate for Senate District 22, is receiving what no other Polk County Democrat has received in more than two decades: support from his state party.

No Democrat from Polk County — the historic home of three Democratic governors and four U.S. Senators along with one speaker of the House and three Senate presidents in the 20th century — has served in either chamber of the Florida Legislature since 2000.

This year, Doyel is receiving support and the party has marked his race against incumbent state Sen. Kelli Stargel as viable. He noted he had his campaign up and running several weeks before state party interest.

Doyel served 16 years as a judge, retiring in 2010. But he has remained very active in several social issues including domestic violence.

He is the author of The Baby Mama Syndrome, a book dealing with the problems faced by young, often unwed, mothers.

He has been featured as a speaker and quoted on television news programs in the Southeastern states for his expertise on domestic violence issues and violence against women and law enforcement mismanagement of rape kits across the nation.

In 2016, he ran for Florida House District 41 and received no support from the Democratic Party, but had large grassroots support from the county party.

But what a change in races and two years make. Doyel has support from the state party, the Florida Senate campaign committee and several noted consultants.

He hired as campaign manager Trinity Laurino of Lakeland, an experienced digital marketing and fundraising expert and a former CNN producer.

Doyel hired Tom Alte and his St. Petersburg-based Democratic consulting firm, Blue Ticket for digital campaigning. His direct mail expert is Matt Martz. All were hired before the entrance of the state party and the Senate Committee into his campaign, he said.

“This is a serious job and a 24-hour one,” he said, “and I am working it.”

Monday, the campaign was notified that it had collected the required signatures from 3,321 voters in Senate District 22 to qualify for the ballot without having to pay a filing fee.

Before he can face Stargel, Doyel must win the August Democratic Primary. Former state Rep. Ricardo Rangel of Auburndale is challenging him. Rangel represented northern Osceola County for a two-year term 2012-2014.

Stargel a has served in the state Senate since 2012 and has been noted for her strict conservatism in supporting abortion restrictions and her support of charter schools. Her votes on education funding brought opposition from some public-school teachers during the recent session of the Florida Legislature.

She also received angry replies from some over her statement that, during gun restriction debates. “thoughts and prayers” were the best way to stop the evil behind mass shootings like the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

But she has been a strong conservative in a previously strong conservative district.

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