Bill Rufty, Author at Florida Politics - Page 7 of 12

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.”

More civics, more civility says Dennis Ross

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross

The vitriolic presidential campaign and its controversies are due in a major part to the education system failing to retain one of its traditional and historical obligations, the teaching of civics, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, told a meeting of a Kiwanis Club in his hometown Thursday.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Ross said of the combative campaigns and crowds this year. “And the reason is that we don’t teach our kids — the next generation — civics and the political process.

“Charlotte and Baton Rouge have been with us, and that is not the way to process change, “he said. “There has to be a sense of civility (on both sides),” he said.

Ross, during his first term, 2011-2013, was a member of the Tea Party Caucus of the Republican-controlled House, which was often accused of not compromising or not working with then-Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner. After the first term, he was no longer a member, adding he still believed in some of the group’s points.

But Ross is among several elected officials calling for a return to teaching the governmental and civic processes in school.

These subjects have largely been dropped in many schools to make way for more technical subjects without increasing the school year or for lack of funding. Still, they affect the way many understand government and dealing with one another, supporters say.

“In any relationship, we have to have give-and-take, but we don’t teach that anymore,” he said.

Ross often said where there is the teaching of the subject, the substance of government isn’t given to students, such as requiring a visit to a city commission meeting or a school board session.

Neither major party has a monopoly on the right way to do things, he said.

“I have many friends who are Democrats. My mother was a Democrat until the day she died. She always said that she voted for me, but I am not really sure,” he quipped.

It is crucial, he said, for the next generation to understand the process of government and civility toward each other. He said he is worried about what children are learning from this campaign year.

“If we have a fundamental understanding of the process (of government in a democracy), then we can go forward. I am encouraging students, teachers, school boards, and college professors on this subject,” he said.

Bill Rufty: House District 41 candidates going for the money

RuftySam Killebrew, Republican candidate for Florida House District 41, has raised a campaign war chest double that of Democratic candidate Bob Doyel, who nevertheless raised more than any Democrat running for the district in 16 years.

The battle for the open seat is the only competitive race among the seven legislative seats in Polk County that have elections.

In the latest campaign finance reporting period, Sept. 3 through Sept. 16, Killebrew reported raising $7,400 to bring his total contributions during the primary and general election campaigns to $135,499.

He has loaned himself $51,000. By Sept. 16, he had spent $109,498.

During the same two-week reporting period, Doyel collected $5,280 in campaign contributions, bringing his campaign total to $60,885 and loaning himself $10,000. He had spent $38,616.

The annual salary for a legislator is $29,697.

District 41 includes the eastern portion of Polk County. Latest voter registration numbers show the district with 41,357 Democrats, or 38 percent of the 107,900 registered voters in the district. Registered Republicans number 36,715, or 34 percent of the electorate.

Another 29,828 list themselves as no party affiliation or members of third parties. They make up 28 percent of the registered voters in District 41; those are the voters both candidates are spending money to attract in the final six weeks.

Killebrew has spent more than $32,000 for campaign consulting and $19,000 in campaign mail-outs.

Doyel has paid around $5,000 for consulting and $12,000 for campaign management. While Killebrew was heavy on campaign mailers, Doyel was more focused on campaign signs, according to their expenditure sheets.


Bill Rufty: Polk GOP endorses in nonpartisan race

Hunt Berryman
Hunt Berryman

The Polk County Republican Executive Committee endorsed incumbent Polk County School Board member Hunt Berryman for re-election. Berryman is a registered Republican voter.

The school board is supposedly a nonpartisan office.

Don’t tell that to the thousands of Republican insiders across the nation who are supporting the concept of “total majority,” which means endorsement and election of registered Republicans no matter if the office is nonpartisan.

Berryman came in second in the Aug. 30 election. As was the case with most Polk School Board incumbents up for election, he was challenged by three candidates.

Billy Townsend, an independent and longtime critic of the school board, its inaction on education issues and during a scandal last year, came in first with 43 percent of the votes cast followed by Berryman with 33 percent.

Unlike party primary elections, in which the winner is simply the candidate with the most votes, the winner in the nonpartisan election must have more than 50 percent of the ballots cast to win.

Jim Guth, Polk County Republican Party chair, said the executive committee endorsed Berryman because “he is the most conservative candidate and the most prepared to work with all groups involved in our education system …”

The runoff between Townsend and Berryman and that of another school board position will be on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Bill Rufty: A political rarity in HD 41 – Republican, Democrat agree

RuftyRepublicans and Democrats agreeing on a major issue – It seldom (if ever) happens lately in national politics.

But on a state level, Republican Sam Killebrew and Democrat Bob Doyel, competing for Florida House District 41, agreed on the critical issue of education in the state of Florida.

There are too many tests and perhaps not geared to finding children’s progress so much as to grade teachers or schools, they said in front of a Polk County Tiger Bay luncheon in Bartow Wednesday.

Both men, of course, support the state giving the vacant agriculture office building, Nora Mayo Hall, located in the district, to the city of Winter Haven.

District 41 covers the eastern portion of Polk County. It is currently held by Rep. John Wood, a Winter Haven Republican, who will have reached his eight-year term limit on Election Day.

Killebrew and Doyel each won their respective party’s primary, Aug. 30. No Democrat has won the seat since 1998 or any other legislative seat in the county for that matter.

The Democratic Party, not known for vigorous active campaigning for its candidates, is “pulling out the stops” for Doyel, a retired circuit court judge, because of the changing face of the district. More people who work in Osceola or Orange counties are among those moving into the northeast portion of the county.

But Killebrew is well-known for his contributions to the Republican Party both financial and through his candidate recruiting. A retired contractor, he completed several projects in the district.

They (state education officials) have tied teachers hands by all of this excessive testing, said Killebrew, whose wife teaches in the Polk County school system. His wife has helped him understand what changes are needed in Florida, he said.

“She says we need to get the federal government out and have mostly the state involved,” he said. “But we need to do testing by counties not one state standard test because there are differences,” he said.

Doyel gave a similar opinion on education and testing.

“We need to take a close look at testing. If that is what we call an education standard then we are in real trouble,” Doyel said

“The tests don’t take into account if the child is hungry or couldn’t sleep the night before because of poverty…or homelessness,” he said.

There were plenty of differences between the two men on other issues.

Unlike many Tiger Bay Clubs where members rise from the audience, sometimes in a confrontational manner that wastes time, Polk club members submit their questions in writing.

Asked for their opinion on legislation likely to come before the Legislation in 2017 that would allow people to openly carry a gun, Doyel said he is “adamantly opposed.”

Killebrew said 45 states allow open carry permits. Open carry permits are stricter and require stiffer checks he said.

Both men strongly disagree on a proposed medical marijuana amendment proposed for the state constitution.

“It should not be in the state constitution. This one is bad but not as bad as the one two years ago (which was defeated),” Killebrew said.

‘’It still is not handed out by pharmacies, but private shops and a caregiver can buy for up to five people,” he said.

Doyel said he, too, was opposed to the issue being a constitutional amendment such as the one outlawing the penning of pregnant pigs which was passed some years ago.

“I support it, but not just on medical marijuana,” Doyel said. “As former law professor, I am concerned about teenagers who get caught with a very small amount of marijuana and have their futures destroyed with prosecution.

“I think for those small cases there should be a citation,” he said.

On expansion of Medicaid coverage Killebrew is opposed and Doyel supports it.

With a question asking each candidate’s position on abortion, Killebrew said: “I am pro-life.”

Doyel said, “I wish it were that simple, but that runs counter to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.”

From a political junkie’s viewpoint, both candidates were almost too nice to one another.

Both wisely called for additional funding for citrus greening. Polk County dropped from first in production of citrus in the state to third and the main agriculture research center is located in District 41.

Bill Rufty: Former WWII prisoner of war marks POW/MIA Day, monument in Lakeland

Randall Edwards
Randall Edwards

Randall Edwards stood up as straight as the 20-year-old sailor he once was after being unexpectedly introduced early Friday morning in a tree-lined Veterans Memorial Park in Lakeland.

The occasion was an observance of POW/MIA Day, which took place all over the nation. In Florida, the day was marked with a special declaration by Gov. Rick Scott.

But Lakeland’s ceremony, held in a monument-studded park overlooking Lake Beulah, included the dedication of a monument to those who have been prisoners of war and to those missing.

Edwards never thought about missing the event just because he is 99 years old. He strode up the lengthy walkway from the lakefront to the ceremony.

When World War II broke out, Edwards was a sailor aboard a submarine tender stationed in the Philippines.

“We serviced 19 submarines and we were loaded with torpedoes, the best food around explosives, but we had only one gun. The rest of the fleet was pulled out, but we remained taking care of the submarines,” he said.

Don’t ask him about being captured by the Japanese because he will immediately correct you.

“I wasn’t captured; I was surrendered by Gen. (Jonathan) Wainwright,” the Navy veteran said.

It is still an event that bothers him.

The Japanese invaded the Philippines Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. American forces held out until May 6, 1942. According to many historians, Wainwright offered to surrender his forces on the island of Corregidor only, but the Japanese commander insisted all of the American troops in the Philippines be surrendered, including Edward’s ship.

The ceremony and unveiling of the POW/MIA memorial were sponsored by family members of the late Foster Heath, a community leader who, as a tail gunner in World War II, was one of only two to have survived from his bomber and spent 11 months in a German prisoner of war camp.

Veterans Memorial Park is larger than most in Florida. It contains memorials to fallen members of the military, a Pearl Harbor monument, memorials to the fight against terrorism, to local fallen police officers, and to firefighters and EMT’s who died in the line of duty.

“We have no tanks or artillery here,” said retired Air Force Col. Gary Clark, chair of the Polk County Veterans Council. “This is a place for quiet reflection, remembering, and education.”

Dennis Ross returns to Washington after heart surgery rehab

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, who underwent heart surgery Aug. 9, is returning to Washington Monday to resume his congressional work.

“We have votes at 6:30 p.m. (in full session), then it is business as usual Tuesday with a Financial Services Committee meeting,” the Lakeland Republican said.

Ross, who turns 57 Oct. 18, has been recuperating from the surgery in Orlando to repair a heart defect he has had since birth. He missed the first week of Congress’ reconvening after its lengthy Labor Day recess.

While staff members and family described the operation as routine, if left untreated it could have become life threatening in future years.

Ross had said he just needed “a new valve and a little ‘re-piping.” Rehab included a great dealing of walking, he noted.

A senior deputy whip for the Republican majority, he is seeking his fourth two-year term to office Nov. 8 and says he plans to a campaign actively in person in the district on weekends and following the anticipated congressional recess Oct. 1.

Ross represents Florida’s 15th Congressional District, which includes western Polk County, containing 41 percent of the voting population, and eastern Hillsborough County, which makes up 59 percent.

Lutz business consultant and Democrat Jim Lange, 54, is challenging Ross in the general election and has made the rounds to “meet and greets” throughout the district.

Ballotpedia ranks the seat as “safe” for the Republican candidate and the Cook Political Report defines the district and race as “solid Republican.”

Bill Rufty: Diverse Florida electorate crucial in presidential election

RuftyIf you are a presidential candidate, you can’t come to Florida with a single, cookie-cutter campaign and speak to issues based on national surveys.

Florida is one of the most diverse and perhaps, with 29 electoral votes, the most crucial swing state in the presidential election, University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus told a large audience Thursday evening.

MacManus was the leadoff speaker for the new season of the Florida Lecture Series hosted by the Lawton M. Chiles Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

Distinguished professor of public administration and political science at USF, MacManus is considered one of the pre-eminent scholars and commentators on Florida and national politics.

Two major issues rise to the top among Florida voters, MacManus said: the economy and personal safety, and varies in concern among the state’s diverse electorate.

The economy is a great concern for the blue collar and middle class electorate. Of almost the same strength in polls is what MacManus lists as “personal safety,” which includes terrorism in the United States and safety from home-grown violence. Younger voters are more concerned with personal safety. College-age women, for example, are concerned with rape and assault, she said.

Florida’s role is pivotal in the national election, and its swing state status is very tight. In the last three elections — 2010, 2012 and 2014 — gubernatorial and presidential, the margin of victory for the winning party has been 1 percent or less she said.

Late Thursday, a new poll had Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump statistically tied at 47 percent of the electorate with the remaining 6 percent third party voters or undecided.

Because of the closeness, both parties must look at and attract the many layers of diversity in gender, ethnicity, and age.

“Twenty-four percent [of Florida voters] — one-fourth of the electorate — are neither Republican nor Democrat,” she said. And are most likely to be younger.

And although more women traditionally are registered and go to the polls more than men across the political spectrum, the difference is higher for Democrats.

“All I had to do to do was look at the fact that there are 18 percent more females than males among Democrats and know that Bernie Sanders would not win [the Florida Primary].”

There is an even larger group of Hispanic voters now than four years ago, she said, adding that they can’t be viewed as a solid bloc.

“Whenever I talk to people outside the state they all assume every Hispanic is Cuban. The greatest change in the voting population in the last four years has been the influx of Puerto Rican voters,” she said. “It is the second-highest Hispanic voting bloc to Cuban and growing mainly along the I-4 corridor.”

Pollsters from outside the state haven’t learned this yet and often don’t see the difference when conducting their surveys. MacManus said, alluding to the fact that traditionally, Cuban voters in the past have voted Republican while Puerto Ricans primarily vote for the Democratic candidates.

Florida is not only the home base for a diverse population of Hispanic communities, but black voters as well.

“There are Haitians, Jamaicans, and Dominicans mostly in South Florida and their interests are decidedly different from African-American voters,” she said.

“Why does this matter? With a state like Florida and a 1 percent difference [in the victory margin], every slice of demographic is important. You ignore demographics, and you have a potential to lose,” MacManus said.

That is particularly true of the demographics of age, she said. The Greatest Generation — those who remember World War II and Franklin Roosevelt — are 89 years old or over and are 2 percent of the electorate. The Silent Generation includes voters 71 to 88, making up 17 percent of the electorate. Baby Boomers, 52-70, account for 34 percent and are the children of the 1960s and ’70s, with a different cultural reference. They are followed by the Gen X group, aged 36-51, at 23 percent; and the Millennials, 18-35 — whose points of reference are Afghanistan, 9/11, and social media — making up 24 percent of Florida voters.

Millennials are likely to have strongly supported Sanders on the Democratic side and Marco Rubio on the Republican side.

“If you are older, you likely favor one party or the other,” MacManus said, “younger, you are likely NPA [no party affiliation].”

It is the younger generations of Gen Xers and Millennials, which currently make up 47 percent of the electorate in Florida, who will make the changes in future elections.

Asked about the future of the country by an audience member who said he was not optimistic about it, MacManus said she was very optimistic because of the younger generation.

“I frequently ask my students at the end of the semester how many feel they want to go into politics,” she said. “In the last four years, I have seen an increased number raising their hands. And it is not for president or senator. It is the local school board or the Legislature. I find that very encouraging.”

Bill Rufty: Polk becoming a two-Party county?

Polk County will likely never return to the Democratic bastion that was home to four U.S. senators, three governors, and four presidents of the Florida Senate.

But from Tuesday’s primaries and the fielding of candidates for the Nov. 8 general elections, Polk Democrats are slowly learning to make the now-GOP bastion a two-party county again.

There was a big Democratic Primary in eastern Polk County for Florida’s 9th Congressional District, but not one of the four candidates were from Polk.

However, for the first time in a decade, there was a Democratic Primary for Florida House District 41, which is fully contained within the county’s borders.

As the I-4 corridor begins to turn Democratic in performance, eastern Polk County appears to be following the trend. But the western side, which includes Lakeland, Bartow and Mulberry, is still the Republican stronghold it has been since 1996.

The highest level race in the county and much of Central Florida was a congressional race where a Democrat is almost certain to win a general election run after court-ordered redistricting.

State Sen. Darren Soto’s win over former Alan Grayson aide Susannah Randolph, Grayson’s wife Dr. Dena Grayson, and former Osceola County Democratic Party Chair Valleri Crabtree can be credited to the significant margin in Osceola County, a Democratic stronghold among the three counties making up the district. He barely won the Orange County section and came in third in the Polk County section of his district.

Democrats in Polk County are hoping to win a Florida House seat in Polk County for the first time since 1998.

Former Circuit Court Judge Bob Doyel handily won the Democratic Party’s nomination over Nicholas Garcia in the primary and now faces former contractor and Republican fundraiser Sam Killebrew, a formidable Republican activist.

Killebrew won the GOP nod by a narrow margin over former 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge Charles Davis.

It was Davis’ first run for a partisan political office and, although running as a Republican, he failed to adhere to what has become a tenant of the GOP: get the absentee voters first.

Davis won at the polls Tuesday, but longtime political planner and activist Killebrew won the race with the mail-in and early vote ballots.

The anticipated overhaul of the sometimes intransigent and stagnant Polk County School Board wound up about 50-50. After a scandal involving the then-superintendent and a top aide and the board’s slowness to do anything, many believed there would be tight contests for the four school board seats up for election this year.

One board member drew no opposition, while another, perhaps in part sensing public anger, did not seek re-election. That left two seats with incumbents and an open seat for the nonpartisan election in Tuesday’s primary.

Incumbent Lori Cunningham received more than 50 percent of the vote and was returned for her fourth four-year term.

But the other incumbent, Hunt Berryman, was a very distant second to the first-time candidate and school board critic Billy Townsend in the three-way race. Still, Townsend must now contend with Berryman in a runoff.

Becky Troutman, wife of former Florida House member and potential 2018 Cabinet candidate Baxter Troutman, led by 9,000 votes in the four-way race for the open school board seat, but did not get the required 50 percent of the vote. She will face Sara Beth Reynolds in the general election.

The most surprising win from a vote-margin standpoint was the re-election of Polk County Judge Susan Flood Barberdisciplined for an alleged romantic relationship with her bailiff.

She had been the target of some Republican leaders, who released photos of her looking at state attorney’s evidence against her while a deposition was in recess. Barber apparently didn’t realize the room’s security cameras were on, they said. It is a nonpartisan race, but so what? Parties don’t care when trying to elect one of their own.

But Barber was returned to the bench, winning by a margin of 5,500 votes over challenger Carson Bassett, due in part to a last-minute Facebook post from a well-known local attorney who endorsed her.

The results of Tuesday’s Primary elections in Polk County:

Polk Democratic Primary 9th Congressional District

Susannah Randolph – 4,791/34.67 percent

Dena Grayson – 4,534/32.81 percent

Darren Soto – 3,526/25.52 percent

Valleri Crabtree – 968/7 percent

Democratic Primary Entire 9th Congressional District

Darren Soto – 14,496/36.26 percent

Susannah Randolph – 11,267/28.18 percent     

Dena Grayson – 11,122/27.82 percent

Valleri Crabtree – 3,093/7.74 percent

Polk Republican Primary 9th Congressional District

Wayne Liebnitzky – 9,662/66.33 percent

Wanda Rentas – 4,904/33.67 percent

Republican Primary Entire 9th Congressional District

Wayne Liebnitzky – 22,725/67.56 percent

Wanda Rentas – 10,911/32.44 percent

Polk Republican Primary Florida House District 41

Sam Killebrew – 5,134/51.26 percent

Charles Davis – 4,881/48.74 percent

Polk Democratic Primary Florida House District 41

Bob Doyel – 5,360/64.95 percent

Nicolas Garcia  2,892/35.05 percent

Polk County Commission (Universal Ballot)

Bill Braswell – 40,889/66.21 percent

J.C. Martin – 20,868/33.79 percent

Polk County Judge

Susan Barber – 36,026/54.13 percent

Carson Bassett – 30,530/45.87 percent

Polk County School Board District 1

Billy Townsend (Runoff) – 27,978/42.64 percent

Hunt Berryman (Runoff) – 21,500/32.77 percent

Ed Shoemaker – 16,135/24.59 percent

Polk County School Board District 2

Lori Cunningham (Elected)  33,391/51.99 percent

Ronnie L. Clark – 17,202/26.78 percent

Kevin J. Kitto – 7,000/10.90 percent

Tim James – 6,634/10.33 percent

Polk County School Board District 4

Becky Troutman (Runoff) – 25,105/38.26 percent

Sara Beth Reynolds (Runoff) – 16,466/25.10 percent

Ed Smith – 16,085/24.52 percent

Rebekah Ricks – 7,956 /12.13 percent


Polk political notebook: Strong mayors, weak spellcheck and dueling websites

RuftyStrong mayor pushed because of weak responses

The city of Lakeland has been going through a series of bipolar political moves  — or lack of moves — over the last few decades. Its leaders and business executives in the city can’t seem to figure out if they want to be a big municipality or a small town.

A strong mayor is the sign of a large city, supporters say. But at the same time supporters are pushing for that big city appeal and searching for more businesses to move in, some officials are studying a proposal to make four-lane South Florida Avenue (State Road 37) through the middle of the city, back into a two-lane road with on-street parking.

Many want to keep the downtown small and keep the current height restrictions for buildings downtown.

It is a problem for many mid-size cities and small towns, trying to have their economic cake and eat it too.

The Committee for a Strong Lakeland, organized to support the strong mayor campaign, is working to collect and submit signatures of 6,038 registered voters within the city limits to get the charter amendment on the ballot.

There is a large segment also working to keep the manager-commission form of government. Many are the movers and shakers and older residents in the community who feel the current system is just fine.

A committee to keep the current system has met to plan tactics and is watching the strong mayor group, including having attorneys read over any proposed charter change.

“Their (the strong mayor supporters’) problem is that Tony Delgado is now city manager,” said a former city commissioner supporting the current form of government.

The strong mayor drive started during the employment of former City Manager Doug Thomas, who although he was criticized for his operation of the city by members of the commission, was never fired. Commission inaction on this and on other issues caused the drive, organizers said. They want someone on the commission who can make decisions without the continual non-action, they added.

Thomas left for another job as Mayor Howard Wiggs was on the verge of getting a 4-3 majority to fire him.

Delgado had been the assistant city manager for years and often handled the difficult problems and especially many dealings with the public for Thomas.

Delgado has earned the respect of both sides for his openness to the commission and to the public, but the Committee for a Strong Lakeland is increasingly active nonetheless.

It has hired a coordinator and individuals to man phone banks and get petitions signed, said Bruce Anderson, head of the petition drive.

How you sppell that?

Polk County School Board member Hunt Berryman, like most of his colleagues up for re-election this year, is in the fight of his political career as challengers take advantage of the public disgust with the board’s initial inaction and hand-sitting over recent scandals.

Berryman, a retired trucking corporation owner and CEO who served on many financial and civic boards, is running for his second four-year term on the board.

With his contacts in the business and civic communities he has been able to acquire big-name support like the popular Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd against his two challengers.

Berryman wants stronger education in the schools.

But maybe he better start with his campaign workers. Running for the School Board, Berryman’s campaign literature mailed to thousands of voting households lists Judd as the Polk County “Sherriff.” (That computer have spellcheck?)

Not that website, the other one

In modern campaigns with so much to remember about the internet and Facebook, it is easy to let things get away from you … like, for instance, not securing all possible website names that could be related to your candidacy.

It happened a month ago when David C. Poulin, the Lakeland Democrat challenging incumbent Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican, opened new web domains: and

Go to either site thinking you are going to find out about Albritton and instead is the biography of Poulin. It’s not new. Both parties have done it for years.

Albritton does own the site ending in .com, which he has had since running in 2010. But he wasn’t challenged in 2012 or 2014, so the site is inactive.

“I don’t have one (a webpage), and I don’t plan to have one at this time,” Albritton said. ‘’I have spent six years listening to and helping constituents. He can steal the websites, but not the hearts of my constituents.”

Poulin, 72, is challenging hard for the seat, a rare event for Democrats in Polk County. He is trying to a run a tough campaign with little help from the often too-casual party members.

Albritton, former chair of the Florida Citrus Commission, has chaired the Agriculture and Environmental Appropriations Committee in his last two terms in the House.

With landslide vote, Lakeland Ledger reporters, staff approve union

The reporters, photographers and copy editors of The Lakeland Ledger overwhelmingly voted Thursday to be represented by the News Guild-CWA, Communications Workers of America, in contract negotiations with the paper’s owners, GateHouse Media.

The vote, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, was 23 for union representation and 3 against, setting off rumors of other newspapers’ news personnel ready to request their own union votes in the state.

The Ledger newsroom is now the first union newsroom in Florida, but likely not the last.

Organizers of the union vote stressed that it was GateHouse and not management of The Ledger that was responsible for their seeking union representation.

“It is important to stress that this is not about Lenore (Devore, the editor) or about Kevin (Drake, the publisher),” said John Chambliss, a senior reporter at the paper and one of the organizers.

“It is about GateHouse,” Chambliss said. “They have made large profits, enough to give investors and corporate managers large pay increases, but there have been no raises for us in years and we have the uncertainty of more layoffs.

“Our work contributes to their ability to give those increases to others,” he said.

The Ledger, owned for decades by the New York Times Company, was sold to Halifax Media in 2011 and then sold to GateHouse Media in 2015. The parent company of GateHouse is New Media Investment Group, which is managed by the private equity firm Fortress Investment Group.

Print newspapers have been hit hard with economic woes, but ad revenue from their online versions are on the rise. The Ledger, as have many newsrooms in the country, has faced layoffs with little warning or time to for journalists to seek other jobs and the salaries are stagnant.

Ledger union organizers said their association with News Guild will give some protection against the spontaneous layoffs and allow journalists to have a say in and contribute ideas for improving the paper.

“We are looking forward to negotiating with GateHouse and to helping improve both of our interests in The Ledger,” Chambliss said.

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