Bill Rufty, Author at Florida Politics - Page 5 of 13

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.”

Neil Combee makes it official; announces run for Dennis Ross’ seat

Former State Rep. Neil Combee, a Polk City Republican, announced Tuesday that he will seek Florida’s 15th Congressional District seat left open by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross.

Ross, a Republican from Lakeland, announced last week he will not seek re-election to the post he has held since January 2011.

Combee, 58, made his announcement at noon following his resignation as state executive officer for the Gainesville-based Farm Service Agency, a USDA agency serving Florida and the Virgin Islands and notifying his staff.

He resigned as representative for House District 39 in November when he was appointed to the federal post by President Donald Trump.

“I am a loyal supporter of President Trump and the great strides he has made for this country. While I had to think carefully about resigning my post, I can better help him and his programs by being in Congress,” Combee said.

The Combee family name is well-known in Polk County, which makes up 40 percent of the congressional district, with such names as the historic Combee Settlement neighborhood and Combee Road.

Combee is a farmer, rancher and real estate executive and served 16 years as a Polk County Commissioner. Upon leaving in 2004, his fellow commissioners named the new county administration building for him.

He served on the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District from 2005 until 2012 when he was elected to the Florida House.

Combee said CD 15 is a perfect fit since a large portion is rural and suburban and has a great deal of agriculture.

The district includes Polk County which makes up 40 percent while Hillsborough contains about 50 percent with Lake County making up roughly 10 percent of the district.

Pundits had for a long time before Ross’ announcement had said after him, the district likely would be controlled by Hillsborough voters.

“With Polk and Lake counties this is a 50-50 split, but I also have great history with the eastern part of Hillsborough with friends and associates for a long time,” he said.

Six Democrats have already opened campaigns for the seat before Ross’ announcement of his retirement. Democratic officials say that the district is winnable this year for a Democrat because of the controversies surrounding the very president to whom Combee has pledged his strong support.

But the district in some form has been represented by a Republican since then Rep. Andy Ireland of Winter Haven switched to the Republican Party in 1984.

Polk County Republican Party Chair JC Martin said he has no doubt a Polk County Republican will win the primary and the general election.

“Polk County’s favorite son (Commissioner of Agriculture) Adam Putnam will be on the ballot, and that is worth extra turnout from the Polk County side,” Martin said of Putnam’s run for governor.

Among those prominent Republicans also interested in Ross’ seat includes state Rep. Ross Spano of Dover, who is expected to announce he is switching from campaigning for Florida Attorney General to mount a run for CD 15.

Tuesday afternoon, WMNF radio reported Spano is pulling out of the AG race, and intents to enter the race for Congress. He has not yet officially filed.

Spano was behind the resolution in the last Legislative Session that declared pornography a “public health risk.” The measure recognized the health risk caused by explicit material, and recognized a need for “education, prevention, research and policy change to protect citizens of this state.”

Speculation is that state Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon is studying a run.

Also officially in the race: Loretta Leah Lax Miller of Clermont and Curtis Ralph Rogers of Dover.

Another official in the Polk County Republican Party, family counselor Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland, announced last week that he will run for the seat.

Danny Kushmer, Executive Director of International Responsible Farming Council, headquartered in Hillsborough County, also announced Tuesday that he will run for the seat as a Republican. The council is a not-for-profit corporation to tell the American farmer’s story through certification and participation in best management practices to ensure use of the latest food safety protocols.

Former state Rep. Seth McKeel and state Sen. Kelli Stargel, both Lakeland Republicans, are highly rumored as potential candidates but have said they will not run for the post.

Dennis Ross to retire in 2018

Congressman Dennis Ross will not seek re-election in 2018.

The Lakeland Republican will not seek another term in Florida’s 15th Congressional District, which covers parts of Central Florida, ending a 16-year career in elective offices.

“But I got up Sunday morning and I’m reading my emails and the news and seeing what I need to do looked outside and said ‘My God, it’s beautiful today,’” Ross told POLITICO. “’I gotta go out there and see that.’ And I thought to myself, it’s time. It’s time. It’s time to move on.”

Ross, 58, was elected to Congress in 2010 after eight years in the Florida Legislature.

He told Florida Politics Wednesday: “It’s time. Cindy [Ross’ wife] and I have talked about this for some time. I planned on ten years, but after eight with both my sons getting married within the year and having accomplished what I had hoped, it’s time,”

Ross, a senior deputy whip in the House, said he plans to work hard to see other goals of the GOP House leadership accomplished before he leaves.

“Polk County has a significant role in this district, and I intend to campaign for my successor,” he added.

He said his decision was a personal one. It comes on the same day Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his decision to retire at the end of the term this year.

Both men cited family as one of the key reasons.

Close supporter Dena DeCamp, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women was quick to point out that Ross’ retirement had nothing to do with President Donald Trump.

“Dennis kind of hinted to me last year he was thinking about it,” she said. Again, he is not leaving because of Trump.

(In fact, Ross told this reporter in 2016 he had no intention of making it “a lifetime career.”)

DeCamp said she is not worried about Republicans losing the seat.

‘“There are a lot of Democrats running, but that won’t make a difference,” she said. “This is a solid Republican district, and there have always been a lot of Democrats who voted for Dennis.”

But is it still a Polk County seat?

Over the years Ross has been in the seat, the district has changed from the commanding position Polk County voters held in the early years of his congressional terms. His incumbency and voter satisfaction continued to ensure his re-election.

But Polk voters now only make up 40 percent of the district, with the bulk now in eastern Hillsborough and a small amount stretching to Clermont.

“I don’t believe in the Blue Wave,” DeCamp said. “ That was just made up by the media. Dennis has done a great job for us representing the people of this district. He has supported conservative issues, the Second Amendment, and tax cuts.”

Ross said he plans to return to practicing law when his term expires in January. And he said he plans to pursue his passion for promoting civics education in high schools and colleges. He said he is concerned about the lack of teaching on the topic.

“It is so important that kids understand the process and that we are all a part of it,” Ross said.

Ross told POLITICO Florida he doesn’t have a favorite candidate to follow him. Possible successors include state Sen. Kelli Stargel, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd (who, through a spokesperson, said he “will never run for a different public office, and that includes Congress.”) state Rep. Ben Albritton, former state Rep. Neil Combee and state Sen. Tom Lee.

Republican leaders reached Tuesday also mentioned former state Rep. Seth McKeel of Lakeland as a potential candidate from Polk County for the GOP primary in CD 15.

McKeel, 42, was a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives from 2006 to 2014,  and had served on the Lakeland City Commission for six years prior to the Legislature.

He earned the respect of Republican leaders in Polk and Hillsborough counties when he stepped in to heal the rift between University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft and the Hillsborough delegation between Senate Appropriations Chairman JD Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican, and the members of the Polk legislative delegation.

The negotiation gave birth to Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland and the elimination of the USF Lakeland campus.

In making the announcement, Ross joined Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Tom Rooney and Ron DeSantis in deciding against seeking re-election to congressional seats this fall. Like Ross, Ros-Lehtinen and Rooney have not disclosed any other political plans, while DeSantis is running for governor.

Ross was elected to the Florida House in 2000 and served four terms in Tallahassee. Ross’ congressional website recounts how he was stripped of a state House committee chairmanship in 2007 for voting against a bill that made the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. “the largest property insurer in Florida. For voting against his party and with his free-market principles, Dennis was stripped of his chairmanship and many said his career was over.”

Ross won his first congressional election by 7 percentage points over Democrat Lori Edwards, but he never faced a close race in getting re-elected three times.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

Baxter Troutman campaign snarks opponents in Agriculture Commissioner race

Former state Rep. Baxter Troutman reported raising $2.9 million by the end of February in his run for Florida Agriculture Commissioner.

The Winter Haven Republican still has $2.7 million in the bank.

In money collected, Troutman is ahead of his Republican primary opponents, and his campaign manager feels he is ahead in qualifications, dubbing both in a comment that they aren’t as qualified to serve the agriculture needs of the state.

State Sen. Denise Grimsley of Wauchula had $851,666 at the end of January and Florida Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers had $556,826. Under rules of the Florida Legislature, they were barred from collecting campaign funds when the legislature is in session.

Grimsley is a hospital administrator and manages the family citrus groves and Caldwell is a real estate appraiser, citing family roots in farming.

But Troutman campaign manager Carlo Fassi doesn’t think much of his candidate’s primary challengers’ qualifications.

“You can post pictures of yourself on a horse or in a citrus grove, but Baxter is the only one who grew up with dirt under his fingernails from the time he was a kid,” Fassi said. “He understands farmers and ranchers because he has been there and knows more about these hard-working people of Florida.”

Troutman, grandson of the late Citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin also owns an employment agency.

If campaign funds are considered a measure of electability, it might appear that no Democrat would have much of a chance in the general election. Both Thomas Clayton White Jr. of Tallahassee and Jeffrey Duane Porter of Cooper City reported collecting no money at all by the end of January. The third Democrat in the race, R. David Walker of Fort Lauderdale reported a war chest of $7,261.

Florida game warden recounts exciting tales of bad guys, boat chases

Mention of a wildlife officer in Florida, and many think of someone who checks your fishing license.

But the protection and dangers of the job are far beyond that, former game warden Bob H. Lee told a packed auditorium Thursday at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

Lee is the author of “Bad Guys, Bullets and Boat Chases — True Stories of Florida Game Wardens.” It is a book of the stories of wildlife officers and their duties ranging from high-speed boat chases to gunfights and poaching.

“There are over 1 million city, state and federal law enforcement officers in the United States. There are only 6,000 wildlife officers, often working alone in remote areas without backup,” Lee said.

His appearance was part of the lecture series of the Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History.

It was the public’s general lack of understanding of these special law enforcement officers that prompted Lee to write his first book, “Backcountry Lawman.”

His first memorable episode in his career, Lee told his audience, was as an eighth month rookie on patrol alone at midnight on the Ocklawaha River when his boat sank. Grabbing a fuel can he began floating in the direction of a landing in the river.

“Now this was in 1978 after 25 years of a ban on alligator hunting. The river was full of gators,” he said.

During a two-mile or more float toward the landing, a bull gator jumped into the water so close it rattled the gas can. He arrived at the landing where four men were drinking around a campfire. Lee ended up driving his “rescuers” the next morning because they were too intoxicated to drive.

“That story had many layers to it. I like to write stories in layers,” he said.

But threats to wildlife officers are from more than animals.

He recalled two officers in a helicopter chasing two suspected deer poachers who were in a Piper Cub. The plane charged at the helicopter trying to crash it. The officer piloting the helicopter, a former pilot in Vietnam, maneuvered under the plane stealing its wind, Lee said, causing it to drop to the ground where arrests were made.

Poaching of baby alligators and passing them through licensed alligator farms is a major issue. Lee noted that several years ago a bust was made on poachers who captured 17,000 baby alligators to be sold for $8 apiece.

“It is now $28 a piece,” he said.

Baby alligators hatched in licensed farms can be sold legally, so poachers have found some perhaps less than honest gator farmers who mix in the poached baby gators. But high technology is now used by the Florida Wildlife Commission: DNA testing.

Technology also shows the worsening problem of the Burmese Pythons in the Everglades, Lee said in answer to a questioner from the audience. Pythons released either accidentally or on purpose are a growing problem to the ecosystem of South Florida, so much so that they will never be eradicated.

By tracing a pathogen carried by cotton rats found in captured Pythons, researchers are finding more and more being eaten by the snakes indicating that they may have greatly diminished the population of other native animals in the Everglades.

“That is the one animal where there is no license requirement,” he said of pythons.

The state even sponsors an annual python hunt, although anyone can hunt pythons any day of the year.

“Anyone who wants an Indiana Jones moment can hunt them,” he said.

But it is all for control. There are now too many for eradication.

Florida’s has a proper amount of game wardens. With somewhere a little over 800 members, it is the state with the most conservation law enforcement officers. Even larger than Texas and California wardens, Lee said.

The problem, he said, is the lack of experience due to retirements under the DROP Program. When signing up for the program, employees must leave after five more years of service

“There are fewer experienced officers because of DROP,” he said.

Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll endorses Baxter Troutman for Agriculture Commissioner

Former Florida Rep. Baxter Troutman, a Winter Haven Republican, was endorsed by former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll Monday in his run for Agriculture Commissioner.

Troutman, the grandson of the late Ben Hill Griffin, noted citrus baron and a former Democratic candidate for governor, announced Friday he was officially opening his campaign for the post. It is currently held by fellow Polk County native and Bartow Republican Adam Putnam who is term-limited for the office and is running for governor.

Carroll joined Troutman last week, introducing him to voters in Duval, Nassau and Clay counties.

“Now, more than ever, we need an Agriculture Commissioner who will look out for Florida’s farmers, ranchers and consumers. I’ve known Baxter Troutman for 15 years,” she said in an emailed statement from the campaign. “His lifetime in the agriculture industry and his record of job creation make him undoubtedly the most qualified man for the job. He’s running to help the community he grew up in.”

Troutman campaign manager Carlo Fassi said the Carroll endorsement, “shows the campaign is up and running and ready to take on the workload ahead.”

Troutman will face state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring and Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers in the August Republican Primary. The sole Democrat declaring for the post is conservationist and researcher R. David Walker of Fort Lauderdale.

Darren Soto lands in Puerto Rico

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.

Dennis Ross visits Irma … at 10,000 feet

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.”

Adam Putnam checks on Polk storm prep

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.”

As Florida prepares for Irma, NOAA aircraft working nonstop

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.

Inside Hurricane Irma Tuesday, shot from a Lockheed WP-3D Orion by Commander Justin Kibbey, NOAA.

History comes alive at St. Augustine Seminole Wars convocation

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.

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