Bill Rufty, Author at 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.”

Former POW honored ahead of 100th birthday

Randall Edwards turns 100 on Sunday.

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.”

J.D. Alexander opts out of Senate race

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.

Neil Combee takes on tough room in Polk County

Republican State Rep. Neil Combee of 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. Frisbie joked 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.

 

J.D. Alexander rides again to save Polk County arts center

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.

The latest rumor that just won’t stop is that Rep. Colleen Burton, a Lakeland Republican, could be challenged in the Republican Primary next year by Deputy Superintendent of the Polk County School District John Small.

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.

Polk GOP Commissioner warns Republican incumbents may face strong challenges

Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey

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.

Darren Soto cautiously eyeing Puerto Rico statehood effort

Sunday’s landslide vote in Puerto Rico to determine statehood and perhaps add the 51st star to the American flag, was almost ignored by news media, until the last minute, because of all the political controversies emanating from Washington.

But some officials like U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat representing the 9th Congressional District had been paying close attention since the election was scheduled.

Soto, 39, the first Florida member of Congress of Puerto Rican heritage, was careful not to take sides in the referendum.

“I believe that decision is solely up to the voters (of Puerto Rico), he said in an April interview, adding,’’ But I did ask to be appointed to the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, just in case they asked for statehood,” Soto said.

One of the next steps to becoming a state after a vote from a territory is for its administrators to request statehood from Congress. And the first step will be to go through the subcommittee on which Soto sits.

Voters in Puerto Rico approved statehood by almost 97 percent due in part to a boycott of the referendum by the party supporting a continuation of the current commonwealth status.

“It was a good turnout, but at the end of the day it is those who show up at the polls who decide,” he said.

Soto is well aware that the Republican-controlled House and Senate may be reluctant to approve statehood because voters in the new state likely would put Democratic House members and senators into the Congress.

“I and Rep. Don Young (Republican from Alaska) will be preparing a detailed bipartisan report to our subcommittee,” he said.

Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote in presidential elections, but once they move into the United States mainland, they can participate in the presidential election as well as the elections in the states in which they reside. If statehood is granted they won’t have to relocate to vote for president.

The large population of voters with Puerto Rican heritage contributed to Soto’s election November in the heavily Democratic 9th District.

Baxter Troutman entering competitive Agriculture Commissioner race

Former state Rep. Baxter Troutman of Winter Haven said he will run for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture.

The grandson of the late citrus baron and one-time gubernatorial candidate, Ben Hill Griffin Jr., Troutman will enter the competitive race to succeed Adam Putnam, a Bartow Republican who is term-limited and is running for governor.

“I will file either Friday or Monday at the latest,” Troutman said. “This isn’t a decision I came to lightly and it isn’t a step to advance to a higher position up the career ladder.”

His run will ensure a heavy GOP primary with state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers and Paul Paulson, an Orlando real estate executive and unsuccessful candidate for mayor of the Central Florida city.

University of Miami law student Michael Christine is the sole Democrat in the race after Daniel Sohn of West Palm Beach announced on his Facebook page that he was withdrawing due to health reasons.

Troutman, 50, served in the Florida House 2002 to 2010. His disagreements with his cousin, former state Sen. J.D. Alexander, both in the Legislature and in the family’s agri-businesses made for great soap opera-like commentary, but both men have said they have since settled their differences.

Troutman, who proposed to his wife Rebecca on the floor of the House while it was in session, had campaigned for his wife last year in her unsuccessful run for Polk County School Board. The couple have a daughter.

He said he had considered running for Agriculture Commissioner at the end of his terms in the Florida House.

“I was going to do it, but (then-Congressman) Adam Putnam called and talked me from the cliff,” he said.

A citrus grower and owner of a temporary employment service, Labor Solutions, Troutman said he is running because he “understands the plight of the farmer.”

And he took what will likely become a campaign stance toward his Republican opponents in the race, stating he is the one with the most experience in agriculture.

“I can read a book about World War II and give a speech about World War II, but I can never know what someone who fought in World War II knows. The same applies for agriculture commissioner, you have to have dirt on your shoes,” he said.

With Grimsley, however, Troutman has an adversary who has also been in agriculture; whose family owns citrus groves as well. Both could compete for votes from the same constituency.

New polling shows alarming trend, many Floridians unaware how government works

Many Floridians are unable to answer simple questions about how government works, says a new survey of residents by Florida Southern College.

Even those with college degree missed some of the answers from questions included on exams administered to those becoming new citizens of the nation. For example, only 65 percent could name Rick Scott as governor of Florida.

The poll, conducted April 2-14 and April 17-19 by the FSC Center for Polling and Policy Research, took responses from 377 adults. The margin of error is +/- 5 percentage points.

Respondents were asked a series of questions about how they get their news and then were asked questions derived from the citizenship and naturalization exams on their familiarity with state and federal government.

Many commentaries addressed the falling use of the printed newspapers, but results of the Florida Southern poll would suggest it is greater than previously reported.

Asked what they would say is their main source of news, 41 percent of those agreeing to participate in the random sample telephone survey said television. Forty percent said the internet while 7 percent said newspapers, the same [percentage who said their main source of news is radio. Another 2 percent listed other sources and 3 percent gave no answer.

Sixty-two percent of the 18 to 29-year-olds participating in the poll listed the internet as their main source of news and only 7 percent of that age group said newspapers.

Sixty-one percent of those 65 and older said their main source of news is television. Only 11 percent of that age group, which grew up with newspapers, early TV, and no internet, listed their main source of news as newspapers. Twenty-one percent of those 65 and over said their main source is the internet.

Although it was not measured, FSC principal polling analyst Dr. Bruce Anderson said it is possible some of those who get their news from the internet could be from online newspapers.

In the political-governmental questions, while only 65 percent were able to name Scott as governor of Florida, even fewer (45 percent) knew Paul Ryan was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In his analysis, Anderson stated that younger respondents were less likely were to know the answers, suggesting one factor could be dwindling civics and government education.

However, the survey also showed higher education levels did not ensure a correct answer, although a higher percentage of college graduates and post graduates answered more.

According to the polling memo, the telephone numbers used in the survey were formed at random by a computer to ensure that each area of the state was represented in proportion to its population. In addition to sampling error, the practical difficulties of conducting any opinion poll can induce other forms of error.

Primary care physicians: Health care plans must have prevention

Dr. Joy Jackson

Any health care program implemented by Congress or the state must include affordable preventive health care for all, Dr. Joy Jackson told members of the Polk County Tiger Bay Club Wednesday in Bartow.

Jackson is the Polk County Health Department director and chairs the Florida Department of Health’s statewide committee on Pharmacy and Therapeutics.

She has also served as medical director for Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, a free and low-cost clinic for those in the health insurance gap, since 2012.

Tiger Bay had billed her talk as “Trump vs. Obama health care programs,” but Jackson said affordable health care for everyone is the key to prevention of more serious health problems and increased medical costs. The “how” is up to the politicians, she said, declining to take a side.

At the turn of the 20th century a third of worldwide deaths was due to influenza, she said. Now the No. 1 cause of death is cardiovascular disease and No. 2 is cancer.

“We are living longer and dying of chronic diseases,” Jackson said, making it more crucial that everyone has access to preventative health care.

One of the major causes is obesity and the state has implemented a preventative program known as the Healthiest Weight Project.

Although Jackson steered away from the political side of health care, some Tiger Bay members characteristically did not, asking blunt questions.

One, in particular, wanted to know if Jackson supported universal health care.

“As a physician, I struggle with universal health care, but also universal health care would include preventative health care,” she said. “It is desirable for everyone to have access to affordable, quality health care.”

Asked if she thought everyone gets quality health care she said she didn’t think they do, adding there are multiple reasons. A major one is people not having a primary care physician.

Another health issue concern in Florida with summer approaching is last year’s Zika virus outbreak.

The Florida Department of Health and its county departments monitored the threat carefully she said. There were over 30 travel-related cases of Zika in Polk County alone. But only in Miami-Dade County were there local mosquitoes found to be carrying Zika.

Six babies in Florida were reported with Zika-related issues.

While the health agencies throughout the state are on guard, residents must also be, she noted.

“Keep tipping and draining,” she said referring to bird baths and small water containers outside, “No going away and leaving standing water.”

While there is no visible presence the alerts must continue with strong mosquito control and with people being aware, Jackson said.

Darren Soto: Current GOP health care bill won’t pass

The current bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act will never pass Congress in its current form, freshman U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, told members of the Polk County Tiger Bay Club during a Monday lunch in Bartow.

“I believe ‘Trumpcare’ will be difficult in the House now that the joy of victory has subsided. And things in the Senate can come unraveled,” said the new congressman from Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which includes Osceola County and parts of Polk and Orange counties, during a post-luncheon interview.

“We must have a health care system other than (patients going primarily to) emergency rooms, which is the most expensive option,” Soto said.

A uniform bill with both parties working together is needed, respecting both sides.

But it is also an opportunity for the minority Democrats to have a say in defending or preserving parts of the Affordable Care Act because Republican lawmakers are so divided.

“In chaos, there is opportunity,” Soto said.

He has no problems calling the current bill “Trumpcare.” It is a play on words after Republicans called the ACA “Obamacare,” he said.

“He endorsed it (the Republican repeal and replace bill) so he owns it,” Soto said.

He also told his audience that the deportation of undocumented immigrants could devastate the agricultural and tourist industries in Florida, two of the three pillars of the state’s economy.

“This is the opinion of many ranchers and growers,” he said. “You are not going to have mechanical pickers in the groves. That is not going to happen. You need a guest worker program that actually works and need overall reform.”

Soto serves on the House Committee on Agriculture and on the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Citrus greening, a disease that attacks and destroys citrus trees, is a foremost concern he said. He said he is working with Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, to get more funding for research crucial to Florida agriculture.

He and Ross have worked on several issues and will be among a congressional delegation Soto proposed to visit Iraq to determine the political and military situation.

The Florida Delegation, in fact, has developed a series of bipartisan issues on which members from both parties have agreed to work. They include Everglades Restoration, Infrastructure, Tax Reform and solving Red Tide.

“You can’t drive on 17/92 or US 27 and not understand the need for infrastructure funding,” Soto said. And citrus greening is a major concern to the Congress members from citrus counties, he said.

Soto may be a freshman member of Congress, but is not new to legislating. He served for nine years in a Republican-controlled Florida House and Florida Senate before being elected to Congress, which is Republican majority-controlled.

“I have to take that into consideration and thread the needle with good ideas. An example of that is money I have asked for to provide additional hurricane monitoring aircraft working with both parties. There is only one group to monitor the entire Gulf,” he said.

“Congress is more bipartisan than you may think,” he said. “We pass 10-12 bills a day on voice vote meaning no one objects enough to ask for a vote by name. It is the two or three controversial ones that get the press.”

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