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.”
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, the first congressman of Puerto Rican heritage from Florida, landed in San Juan early Monday.
“I am heading to the Emergency Operations Center to get a helicopter tour of the Island and to meet with local elected officials,” the Orlando Democrat said.
Many news reports have cited villages and rural areas completely cut off following the direct hit from Hurricane Maria.
“There is obvious devastation including major building damage. Roads still have debris blocking, and most trees have their leaves blown off,” Soto said. “I saw hundreds of containers still at the port with few trucks to transport them.”
The administration has said relief efforts are working well and on time, while some island officials said relief has been slow, disorganized and not getting to the rural, isolated areas. Soto said he is there to observe and find the needs.
His 9th Congressional District has a large number of Puerto Rican voters. Those with Puerto Rican heritage also make up a large percentage of the Hispanic voters in Florida, which may become larger if the number of citizens on the island keep their promises to move to the mainland U.S.
As Floridians flee from Hurricane Irma or hunker down and await her arrival U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, joined the crew of “Kermit,” a Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprop hurricane hunter aircraft to meet her Friday.
Reached at his home just an hour after what he called an amazing four trips through the eye of the hurricane, he began making his preparations for the massive storm.
“This thing is twice the size of Andrew,” he said. “I am trying to get things together here at the house and reeling after the trip. Members of the Florida and Georgia Congressional delegations conferenced with FEMA officials today. They already have help staged and ready to go after the storm.”
Ross and the crew left Lakeland Linder Airport at 3 a.m. Friday and caught up with the hurricane over the Caribbean Islands. It was easy to see that the tremendous storm is indeed larger than the width of the state.
“We flew into the eye the first time at 10,000 feet, and as it was still dark you could see the stars above,” Ross said. “And during the three additional trips through at 8,000 feet, you could still see a little sky, but the eye was unsettled. The inner walls die down and are replaced by another wall.”
The congressman praised what he described as the complete thoroughness of the crew as it methodically went through the hurricane time and again to gather the information needed by the National Hurricane Center and emergency officials.
“We did a figure four inside the hurricane,” he said, “dropping twenty sensors every so many miles, then did a 130 degree left turn and dropped again, then another 130-degrees turning left and one more time turning left 130 degrees.”
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam returned to his home of Polk County on Thursday, checking on preparations for food, shelter and transportation from the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
He also issued warnings to state residents to take action immediately: “Irma is a beast. There is no scenario in which Southeast Florida will escape it. And a slight shift can send it (farther inland). Being inland is not a free pass to this storm.”
Earlier, Gov. Rick Scott had noted in his Thursday morning press conference that the storm is so large it will cause damage across the state and on both coasts.
Residents and officials of Polk County still remember the three hurricanes that crossed Polk County in 2004, with heavy damage each time. Emergency personnel in Polk and counties south say they are not dropping their guard just because of the latest predictions are that Hurricane Irma may only hit southeast Florida.
The most devastating of the three 2004 hurricanes hitting Polk County was Hurricane Charley, which was predicted to go offshore up the west coast of the state. Instead, it suddenly shifted east almost at the last minute, entered Charlotte Harbor and went up the middle of the state.
Putnam, also a Republican candidate for governor in 2018, said his department also is closely monitoring the distribution of gasoline in Southeast Florida where many stations have already run out.
“This is not a fuel shortage problem but a distribution problem,” he said. “There is gas in the state; we are now working to get it distributed to areas needed.”
Hurricane Irma may be days away from Florida, but national, state and local agencies are at work now to deal with the second weather threat to the nation in two weeks.
The crews and hurricane hunter aircraft of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moved to their new home at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport by Aug. 1 after opening in June, but they have had little time to rest.
Hurricane hunter aircraft worked tracking Harvey as it made its way to the Texas Coast and now have been working almost nonstop tracking Hurricane Irma.
A Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprop nicknamed “Kermit” by its crew relocated to Barbados Sunday and had flown five missions into the hurricane by the end of the day Tuesday.
A Gulfstream IV jet left for Barbados Sunday and was on its second mission late Tuesday afternoon when it measured wind speeds of 185 miles per hour, according to NOAA spokesman David Hall. The crew has nicknamed it “Gonzo.”
The NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, is commanded by Capt. Nancy Hann. Nine aircraft belonging to the agency are located at the Lakeland operations center, which has many varied duties in addition to its hurricane hunting. Additional aircraft are used for NOAA’s environmental research, reconnaissance and surveying.
NOAA flight crews and the Hurricane Center have been hard at work for days and weeks, as well as other Florida agencies. County emergency service departments across the state spent most of Tuesday setting up communication centers from which local services will be conduction and will become fully operational at the end of the week.
Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott called for 7,000 Florida National Guard members to be activated. Wednesday, planners at guard headquarters at the Saint Francis Barracks in St. Augustine will open the joint operations center.
“Units have not been identified yet,” Guard spokesman Will Manley said Tuesday, “but members from almost every unit will be called up.”
Guard members will be on duty Friday throughout the areas of the hurricane’s projected paths.
The drum beat a slow, mournful cadence as a procession of soldiers in 1842 uniforms led by two mounted cavalrymen proceeded down St. Augustine’s Marine Street to the National Cemetery where Maj. Francis Dade and all but two men of his command are buried.
The event is an annual re-enactment of the burial of the more than 100 soldiers in St. Augustine, seven years after they were massacred en route to Fort King (Ocala).
Although a separate and annual event, the parade and service coincided with the start of the first biennial Convocation of Seminole War Historians over the weekend. Historians, researchers, archeologists and re-enactors gathered for the two-day conference of the longest conflict between the U.S. and native Americans.
Among those in attendance and presenting research were John and Mary Lou Missall who have written five books on the three wars. Patsy West, who has followed the Seminole nation from its final defeat to its successes in the 21st-century, discussed her book “The Enduring Seminoles: From Hard Times to Hard Rock.
She followed the small remnants of Seminoles left in Florida after the third war ended in 1858. For decades, they largely avoided the white people moving into Florida, then slowly they opened roadside stands of handcrafted goods, progressing to Seminole “villages” and alligator wrestling, casinos and then the purchase of Hard Rock International from its British owners.
“Now, the sun never sets on Seminole lands,” she quipped.
A special presentation went to Frank Laumer, who has spent 50 years researching the Dade Massacre and even obtaining permission to exhume and examine the body of Ransom Clark, one of the survivors of the Dade Massacre.
Moses Osceola, chief judge of the Tribal Court of the Seminole Tribe of Florida also attended. The work on histories of the wars is important to continue education, he said.
“This is very important to our people. There had been information and traditions passed down by the elders, but many of the young people no longer know the stories and fewer know the languages,” he said .
“I actually found gaps in my history that I was not aware of,” Osceola told members of the convocation.
Preserving the historic sites of forts, battlefields and Seminole-Creek and Mikasuki villages against development or even placing just a historic marker can often be a struggle.
One success story discussed is the siting and planned reconstruction of Fort King near Ocala, it was the site of the scene of war leader Osceola’s fight with an Indian agent and the goal of the troops under Dade when they were massacred near present day Bushnell.
Many places, however have not been successfully saved sometimes because of the lack of understanding from developers, local officials and often, the general public.
“There is still much to learn about those critical years in the state and nation’s development from those wars,” said Steve Rick, president of the Seminole Wars Foundation.
Think you’ve had a bad day from which you might not recover emotionally?
Randall Edwards had almost three-and-a-half years of them in a Japanese slave labor camp then went on to finish his naval career and another as an electrical engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Sunday, he will turn 100 years old.
Friends, family and officials gathered in Lakeland on Saturday for his birthday party.
Edwards joined the Navy in 1935 after growing up and going to school in “one room school houses all over we Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and Montana,” the son of an itinerant father.
He was the flag Radioman for the American Asiatic fleet when the Japanese struck the Philippines Dec. 8, 1941. The fleet later left for Australia during the Japanese five-month siege of the islands.
Edwards stayed behind on the crew of the submarine tender, USS Canopus, which the crew disguised as an abandoned vessel.
“We hid in the woods during the day and at night came back and refueled and restocked the subs, even made them ice cream,” he said.
“They went off to sink Jap ships up the coast, but the damned firing pins on the torpedoes wouldn’t fire,” in a stern brusque voice of a veteran military man.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur left the islands for Australia under presidential orders. Once the inevitable seemed imminent Edwards and the crew scuttled the Canopus on April 10, 1942, and swam to Corregidor.
As fleet Radioman, he translated the secret messages from Naval headquarters.
“The last one I translated was ‘We can’t come to help you,’” he said.
On May 6, 1942, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright surrendered all troops in the Philippines to the Japanese.
Don’t mention the names of Wainwright or MacArthur to his father, son Dr. James Edwards said.
Since he was on Corregidor at the time of surrender, Edwards said, he was not a part of the infamous Bataan Death march. Instead, he and other prisoners were sent to a prison camp in Manchuria and forced into slave labor for the MKK Corp. which became the Mitsubishi Tool Works.
In 2015, Mitsubishi Materials Corp. sent representatives to the United States to apologize. The Wiesenthal Center reported that it was the only one of dozens of Japanese companies that used prisoner of war slave labor to apologize.
“Dad said on Aug. 1 (1945) he looked out and saw the Japanese commandant walking around outside the wire in the kill zone. He found an American colonel sitting at his desk in the compound,” said his son James.
Randall Edwards said the American prisoners in Manchuria had been freed by the OSS (the forerunner the CIA) and Russian soldiers, who were as brutal to the Japanese guards as they had been to the prisoners.
But bad days were yet to be over for the Navy Radioman, his son added.
“The Victory Ship transporting prisoners back to freedom hit a mine,” James Edwards said.
Edwards said when freed he wasn’t letting anything stop him from a full life.
“I said to myself I am going to cut a path a hundred miles wide across the country; get married, go to school have a life.”
Receiving a Silver Star and other commendations, Edwards retired from the Navy with the rank of warrant officer in 1955. He entered the University of Florida receiving an engineering degree. He then worked for the nuclear research facility at Oak Ridge until the 1970s.
But it didn’t stop there; the Veterans Administration trained him to be an advocate for veterans who had been prisoners of war. Edwards had helped many former POWs to get benefits they were entitled to but didn’t know how to receive.
After presentations from a congressman’s representative and a letter from the Secretary of The Navy by a Navy lieutenant, Edwards said to the crowd, “I would like to welcome you to my second-century birthday party which will be on July 22, 2117.”
JD Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican who wielded great influence in the Florida Legislature for four years in the Florida House and 10 years in the Senate, said he has decided not to run for his old Senate seat again.
But he hasn’t endorsed anyone in that race yet.
“ A part of me wanted to run but I sat down on the July the Fourth week and decided the personal costs are too high for my family and business,” he said Sunday.
During his time in the Senate, Alexander, as head of the Senate Appropriations Committee basically created Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland over the initial objections of University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft and Tampa area senators.
His political tenaciousness has not let up since he left office in 2012.
He recently was credited by Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey with traveling to Tallahassee this year and getting funding for the Polk State College campus in Lake Wales restored. He was also praised for keeping a close eye on issues affecting Polk County, particularly in the southern portion, which was part of his old district. Despite not running for the office again, it is likely Alexander will still have influence in some Senate matters.
When he reached term limits for his Senate District 26 seat, he was replaced by Denise Grimsley who had chaired the House Appropriations Committee at the time he headed the Senate committee.
Grimsley is now running for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, leaving the seat for Senate District 26 vacant in the 2018 elections.
Alexander has endorsed Grimsley for the Cabinet post. His cousin former Rep. Baxter Troutman, a Winter Haven Republican, also has opened a campaign for the post. Both men are grandsons of the late citrus magnate and one time gubernatorial candidate Ben Hill Griffin Jr. and have clashed over politics and business interests in the past.
He also has endorsed current Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam who is running for governor next year.
But so far Alexander has not endorsed in the Senate race. Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican is the only one to have officially announced although at least one other Republican House member is rumored to be considering it.
Republican State Rep. Neil Combeeof Polk City faced a terse crowd largely of Republican county and city officials during a noon address Thursday to the Polk Tiger Bay Club.
Many legislators are facing folks back home upset with cuts to local governments and for an amendment to the state’s constitution, which if passed by the voters in 2018 would increase the residential Homestead property tax exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.
Sensing the mood of the overflow crowd, moderator S.L. Frisbiejoked about the Polk County Commission building, which had been named for Combee when he left the commission after 16 years.
“I think I saw a county commissioner with a bucket of paint over there,” Frisbie said to one of the few moments of laughter.
Combee did not back down on his contention that the property tax to him is “the worst tax invented by man.”
He also mentioned several times that there were no Home Rule violations by the Legislature’s mandates made in the session and special session this year. The remark was aimed at Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey, who was the speaker for Tiger Bay last month and in the audience for Combee.
“I used that term because it has become synonymous with local control,” Lindsey said, later adding that the Florida Legislature was taking too much control away from local governments.
Combee continued that the ad valorem, or property tax, was unfair, especially to the poor noting that 19,249 tax certificates had been sold because people had not paid the taxes on their homes or business. If not repaid to the purchasers, often at interest, they could lose their homes.
“These are not homeowners who live in Massachusetts or Michigan. They are people who live and work in Polk County,” Combee said. “Property tax is the most inconsiderate and least fair tax of all.”
County commissioners present at the luncheon said that if the additional $25,000 Homestead Exemption is approved, it would add a burden to providing services that citizens need and want. Even in this year, the Legislature has cut revenue to the county and the city governments by $10.5 million, they said.
“Just because the state has the right to do something over that of the counties doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do,” Polk County Commissioner John Hall, a Republican from the unincorporated area of the county between Lakeland and Auburndale.
“The state government needs to look at its own spending, which has gone from $73.5 billion to the new budget of $83.5 billion. So, they can take their eyes off the necessary gains of local government and see to their own spending,” Hall said.
On the few audience questions not involving revenue cuts, Combee said he approved of open carry of guns on campus if the owners meet all requirements and registration.
“It allows folks to protect themselves and their friends,” he said.
And he stated approval for the amendment to the Stand Your Ground law.
“It puts the onus on prosecutors to prove the person was not in fear of their life,” said the Polk City legislator, who has fought for years against what he said were unfair convictions of some using a gun in self-defense.
Remember former Sen. J.D. Alexander, the Lake Wales Republican who almost single-handedly created Florida Polytechnic University by use of his power as Senate Appropriations chair?
Alexander has been out of the Senate for almost five years, but it would appear that the old power cell is still charged and ready to zap when needed.
Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey recently praised Alexander saying he was the main reason that budget cuts that would have shut PSC’s JD Alexander Center in Lake Wales were restored in the Legislature’s recent special session.
“It is not just coincidence that J.D. Alexander on hearing that the funds were vetoed by the governor, got into his car, drove to Tallahassee and began knocking on doors,” Lindsey said. The comment came during a speech in which Republican Lindsey complained that the all GOP county delegation hadn’t done enough to protect the county from cuts.
Because the center was named for him, Alexander was reluctant to take credit for saving the center. But Lindsey was not reluctant about giving the former senator the credit, noting that many are now taking credit for restoring the money.
Supporters have said PSC’s Lake Wales campus is vital to the town. It has taught 11,291 students in music, visual arts and theater classes, all of which are required for an associate in arts degrees at state colleges. More than 40 percent of the students there are over the age of 25.
Alexander instead praised Polk’s two state senators and “a ton of community support” for getting funding restored.
“It is very important to help the hard working people who are enrolled at Polk State,” Alexander said in a recent text. “And I don’t know many things that are more important.”
Ready for another run for office, Senator?
And the beat (and rumor) goes on
Conservative Republicans who voted for school cuts are finding some threats from conservative Republicans.
Several incumbents have been challenged or will be. That’s a highly democratic (that’s right, a small “d”) trait. But if you are an incumbent you likely are already receiving money from special interests and their lobbyists for 2018.
Republican Legislators could find themselves challenged for election next year … by Republican candidates, Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland Republican, confirmed Wednesday.
In an interview before his address to the Polk Tiger Bay members, Lindsey said what he described as legislators’ attacks on home rule and local government, has many even in the Republican Party talking about trying to remove incumbents in the 2018 elections.
“The chatter (across the state) is voluminous,” Lindsey said. “I don’t know if it will turn into action, elections are many months away, but there is a lot of chatter about legislators who have basically eroded local control.”
Lindsey, himself, would not say if he will run against one of two Polk County legislators being criticized by local governments for their votes to cut funding to counties and to change school funding in many counties. He lives in the districts of state Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Colleen Burton, both Republicans from Lakeland.
“I would have to resign from my commission term which doesn’t end until 2020 to run next year. But you never say never,” he said with a laugh.
Lindsey told Tiger Bay members that he believed that Polk County would eventually make it through the financial crisis caused by Republican legislators and lawmakers agreed to help 29 “fiscally restrained” counties, largely small or rural counties with very low tax bases.
“But there is no lifeline for the cities, so small towns like Lake Hamilton, Dundee or Polk City will not have that help,” he said.
The normally mild spoken Lindsey has had heavy words for the Republican delegation from Polk County, with the exception of freshman Rep. Sam Killebrew who stood up for his east county district, he said.
“I want the delegation from Polk County to go to Tallahassee to represent Polk County, not to represent for Tallahassee,” he said.
“There is a point at which fiscal conservatism, which I firmly believe in, becomes fiscal conservative malpractice,” Lindsey said. “I have been that would-be candidates have been called by Legislative leaders or incumbent supporters saying, ‘If you get in this race I will bury you.’”
And he accused one former Polk County Commissioner, now-Rep. Neil Combee, a Lakeland Republican, of forgetting his roots and his principles.
“Rep. Combee said the county commissioners were just a bunch of crybabies. During his years on the commission the millage rate was increased five times,” he said.