Scott Powers, Author at Florida Politics

Scott Powers

Marco Rubio, bipartisan Senate group call for U.S. help for starving North Africa

After a hearing on a humanitarian crisis with millions of lives at stake in northeast Africa, U.S. Rep. Marco Rubio joined a bipartisan group of senators Thursday asking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to intervene by leading an “urgent and comprehensive” diplomatic effort.

Rubio and eight other senators signed a letter Thursday to President Donald Trump‘s secretary of state saying that political obstacles in northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen are significantly to blame for humanitarian aid from getting in, and consequently millions of people now are starving to death.

“The scale and complexity of these crises might lead some to say the situation is hopeless,” states the senators’ letter to Tillerson. “We reject such a response as U.S. leadership can make an enormous difference, and we believe the Department of State can and should lead a diplomatic effort now to reduce the political barriers that are hindering the delivery of food to millions of starving people. The U.S. government has a strategic and moral imperative to do nothing less.”

Rubio was joined by Republicans Todd Young of Indiana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Jeff Flake of Arizona; and Democrats Ben Cardin of Maryland, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Chris Coons of Delaware.

All of them including Rubio serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held a hearing on the situation Wednesday. Rubio stated that he also received a briefing on the crisis from billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates earlier this week.

The senators’ letter suggests up to 20 million people are at risk of starving to death.

“The testimony of the witnesses underscored the urgent need for a ‘diplomatic surge’ in the next couple weeks to prevent millions of people from dying unnecessarily from starvation,” the letter opens. “Consistent with the national security interests of the United States and the compassion of the American people, we write to ask that the Department of State implement an urgent and comprehensive diplomatic effort to address political obstacles in each of these regions that are preventing humanitarian aid from being delivered to people who desperately need it.

“Mr. Yves Daccord, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, yesterday called the crisis ‘one of the most critical humanitarian issues to face mankind since the end of the Second World War.’ He warned that ‘we are at the brink of a humanitarian mega-crisis unprecedented in recent history,'” the letter states.

The senators’ letter details how governmental or nongovernmental actors in each of the regions have blocked or hindered humanitarian access, depriving people of food. But it suggests the U.S. Department of State can potentially address the man-made obstacles and spells out steps that should be taken to convince each country to open the flows of food.

Bob Cortes: I’m not running for Congress (yet)

Republican State Rep. Bob Cortes has decided he likes what he’s doing in the Florida House too much to want to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in the next congressional election.

Cortes, of Altamonte Springs, had been seen as a leading potential GOP candidate in Florida’s 7th Congressional District, which the GOP has vowed will be a top target to take back after Murphy ousted longtime Congressman John Mica in November.

The decision didn’t come lightly. Last month Cortes went to Washington D.C. where national Republicans, including the National Republican Congressional Committee. He said he explored the prospect with his wife Virginia and the rest of his family, through prayer with God before deciding, and with discussions with friends, donors and advisors.

He said one thing that drew him to consider Congress was his belief that Puerto Ricans need to take more of a leadership role in national politics, but that the Democratic Party has turned them into a “sub-set.”

But not this time, and not for a while, Cortes said. His goal is to serve out his potential four terms (he’s in his second) representing Florida House District 30, where he said he believes he can do more good.

“Although yes, we were a great candidate to run for this seat and I believe I can be a very good candidate to run for this seat, I believe I still have a lot of work to do as a member of the Florida House and can be very effective in the next five and a half years,” Cortes said. “And I think my effectiveness and what I owe to the voters of my district is staying here and continuing my work and completing my work, if the voters allow me to work four more years.”

He left open the prospect of seeking the CD 7 seat after he’s done in the Florida House.

That leaves the CD 7 seat GOP run available for others, possibly state Sen. David Simmons, who also has expressed strong interest, though Simmons also is exploring other possibilities, including running for Florida Attorney General.

Cortes acknowledged other factors for his early decision and announcement, including making sure he leaves the field open for other Republicans to get an early start without having to worry about a primary against him.

Cortes also has been a leading critic of State Attorney Aramis Ayala, and called earlier this week for Gov. Rick Scott to suspend her from office. Cortes said he was hearing accusations that he did so because he thought the move might be good for a congressional campaign, but Thursday he said, “just the opposite is true,” and he wanted to put that speculation to rest.

Then again, Murphy may be no easy target for Republicans in the 2020 election. Her short campaign, well-financed by Washington Democrats, showed her to be an energetic, likable and well-prepared candidate and led to a surprise upset of Mica. In short, she’s seen as a Democratic Party rising star, likely to get strong party support in a district that, thanks to redistricting, has become far more Democratic, far more diverse, and far younger, all playing to her strengths.

Still, Cortes used the occasion of his announcement not to run to send some criticism Murphy’s way. Besides charging that she is out of touch with the growing Puerto Rican base in her district, Cortes said in a statement that he believes she has fallen “in lockstep with her caucus leadership in Washington instead of truly representing the people that elected her.”

If Aramis Ayala had been in Denver, people might have shrugged

In January, when she took office, new Denver District Attorney Beth McCann reaffirmed her campaign promise on an extraordinary policy: There would be no death penalty cases in her district under her watch.

The reaction?

Virtually nothing. No expressions of shock or outrage from other politicians, no calls for cases to be stripped from her, no calls for her firing, suspension or resignation.

“I think our community is a lot different from Orlando,” McCann said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.

Indeed, Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala became something of a political pariah a week ago when she made a similar pronouncement for her Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, with most Republicans and a few Democrats blasting her and many calling for her ouster. And while Ayala is getting some support for Democrats for her right to decide how to prosecute her cases, she’s not finding much political support explicitly for her no-death penalty position.

Nationally, the latest annual tracking poll by Gallup, in late 2016, found that 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty and 37 percent oppose. That’s the closet gap since Richard Nixon‘s first term as president, but still a solid majority in support. A Pew tracking poll shows identical trend lines, though a much tighter gap in 2016 – 49 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed. But again, death penalty wins.

Yet region by region, state by state, sometimes even district by district, there may be no across-the-board pattern, and nothing to suggest that the blowback Ayala is getting in Florida and Central Florida is at all common.

The last two district attorneys in San Francisco have disavowed and not used the death penalty. That’s a liberal political bastion; but now two district attorneys in Birmingham, Ala., have won election and entered office after personally disavowing the death penalty, though neither has ruled it out entirely for extraordinary cases.

One key difference between Ayala and McCann – both Democrats – is that McCann campaigned on a no death penalty promise. But it wasn’t that hard for her to do. Two of three candidates took that position. There hasn’t been an execution in Colorado in 12 years, and statewide there are only three people on death row. Her predecessor in Denver tried just one death penalty case in five years, and lost on the capital punishment counts.

Even Aurora, Colo., movie theater mass murderer James Holmes – tried in the neighboring Arapahoe County – was given life in prison without parole, after being convicted of murdering 12 people and attempting to murder 70 others.

McCann watched with interest everything Ayala said, and everything that has happened since. She found herself agreeing with all of Ayala’s reasonings, and “very troubled” by the political reactions, particularly when Gov. Rick Scott reassigned the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd to another state attorney. But McCann also conceded it’s all outside her experience, and cautioned that Ayala will have to reconcile with local opinion.

“I think it’s the climate in our state. In Denver, politically, the death penalty is not very popular,” McCann said. “So it’s a very different situation.”

So how is it in Florida? Polling is all over the place. Polls by the Palm Beach Post and by Public Policy Polling both found majorities preferring life imprisonment without parole – Ayala’s position. But polls that have asked if people support the death penalty have shown majorities saying yes.

That leads Robert J. Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project, a death penalty opposition group based at Harvard University, to argue that people do not support the death penalty as much as politicians – in any political party – think that people do.

The biggest indicator, Smith argues, is that the actual use of the death penalty has plummeted in the past two decades, nationally and in Florida, both in terms of sentences and executions. At least in practice, prosecutors, judges, and most importantly, juries, are just not that into it anymore, he suggested.

“In the 1990s, there were 315 death sentences in 1994 and 1996. Last year in America there were 30,” Smith said. “So you have a nation of 320 million people, there were 15,000 homicides, and you had 30 death sentences in the last year.”

Texas, once one of the execution leaders of the world, with upwards of 40 death sentences a year, saw just three death sentences handed down last year, Smith said. Neither Dallas nor Houston (Harris County) have had one in more than two years, he added.

In Ayala’s circuit, under her predecessors Jeff Ashton and Lawson Lamar, there was one death sentence in Orange County and none in Osceola County in the five-year period between 2012 and 2016, Smith said.

“I think you’re going to see that politics is going to change… going to catch up to that,” he said.

Orlando activists urge Republicans to reform, not replace ACA

Calling attention to the potential of lost health insurance benefits to disabled, young, low-income and other people under the proposed American Health Care Act, a coalition of mostly progressive political activists asked Central Floridians to urge members of Congress to reform, not replace the Affordable Care Act.

Their call, outside the Orlando offices of Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, was explicitly aimed at Rubio and at Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Posey of Rockledge, whose Congressional District 8 includes a portion of east Orange County.

Their message included acknowledgment that the Affordable Care Act has problems, but they called for Republicans to consider fixing the problems, rather than throwing it out and replacing it with the American Health Care Act.

“Today marks the seventh anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, the day we made history,” said Anna Eskamani, director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “We know the Affordable Care Act needs improvements. We also understand it has expanded care for millions of Americans, and Floridians. Florida, despite political opposition, being one of the most successful states in enrollment numbers.”

Sara Isaac, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County urged lawmakers “to think about the impact this will have on all of us, especially those with the least resources among us.

“The league, while acknowledging that ObamaCare is not perfect, it has improved the lives of many Americans who have more access to health care, and this legislation is not an improvement but it is a huge step back,” she said.

Besides arguing for the needs of disabled people for affordable health insurance, Tiffany Namey, chair of the Orange County Democratic Disability Caucus, also cited numbers for the increased in coverage for minorities, people with HIV.

“Your quality of your health care is likely to go down,” she predicted. “Emergency rooms will go back to playing a critical role in America’s health care system by serving low-income and uninsured regardless of their ability to pay. However, our government will no longer reimburse the hospitals through Low-Income Pool funding. This will inevitably bring wide-spread layoffs, cause cuts in outpatient services and services for the mentally ill, and cause hospital closings.”

Veterans group’s mailers target Bill Nelson in Neil Gorsuch vote

Florida voters can expect to receive mailers from a veterans group with Republican ties urging them to urge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice.

The group Veterans Concerned for America, run by a former GOP state finance chairman, is making a second round of mailings to Florida voters targeting Nelson. Similar efforts are underway in other states with Democratic senators.

The mailers ask: “Will Senator Bill Nelson  protect the freedoms you fought to defend?” and then urges voters to call his office.

“This week Judge Neil Gorsuch has continued to demonstrate the kind of integrity, independence, and neutrality before the law that he will bring to the Supreme Court bench if he is confirmed,” CVA) Florida Coalitions Director Diego Echeverri stated in a news release. “Gorsuch’s dedication to protecting the Constitution has garnered the respect of political leaders on both sides of the aisle and Floridians of all walks of life who are stepping out every day in his support.

“Since Gorsuch was announced as our next Supreme Court nominee, CVA has been mobilizing our grassroots army in this fight – and we will continue doing so until the moment that the Senate has confirmed Gorsuch to the bench,” Echeverri continued. “We urge Senator Nelson to avoid political theatre this week and to help drive a quick, clean, and thorough hearing process.”


Puerto Rican alliance protests austerity measures on island

Insisting that the people on Puerto Rico can endure no more austerity measures, a coalition of Puerto Rican, labor, and religious groups marched in Kissimmee Wednesday to protest the federal plan being pushed to resolve the commonwealth’s debt crisis.

“Puerto Rico Stands at the edge of a precipice,” declared Wanda Ramos, a leader of the Vamos 4 Puerto Rico, which led the march. “The fate of its economy is being decided by the oversight board, an unelected body set up by Congress in 2016 that has been carrying out its business largely out of the public eye, and in the heart of Wall Street.”

The Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board last week outlined a series of austerity measures aimed at helping the government dig its way out of a $72 billion debt. But the measures would come to an island where the economy has been largely collapsing in the past couple of years with large cutbacks in public services from schools and hospitals to police and fire protection to utilities, high unemployment and poverty rates and a flood of people fleeing the island, many to Florida.

Ramos declared that the oversight board is interested in the financial crisis to hedge funds and not interested in the humanitarian crisis of the islanders.

Kissimmee is becoming the heart of Central Florida’s Puerto Rican population, and the protest march stopped in front of the Puerto Rican Government’s Federal Affairs Administration Office for Florida.

There, protesters charged that the oversight board is too heavily influenced by Wall Street hedge funds that hold much of the Puerto Rico debt and too little by anyone interested in the welfare of the islanders. They called on Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello to reject the austerity measures being pushed by Washington, and to reestablish an independent audit commission he disbanded early this year.

Similar rallies were held in Boston, New York, Hartford, Chicago, Seattle, and San Juan, P.R., Wednesday, which is the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873.

In addition to Ramos, the speakers included two Roman Catholic priests, teachers who left the island, and representatives of several labor unions.

Francis Rooney says Everglades doesn’t need a task force right now

Florida’s Congressional delegation is united in its position urging President Donald Trump to fully fund Everglades restoration and to do so quickly – but a small schism has opened between Republican U.S. Reps. Brian Mast and Francis Rooney over whether there needs to be another task force.

Last week Mast, of Palm City, and and Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg wrote to Trump, and got 16 of the other Florida’s 25 House members to co-sign, urging the president to fully and quickly fund Everglades restoration efforts, and included a call that Mast has made earlier, for the president to appoint a federal Everglades task force to make sure it is a priority.

Some members of Florida’s delegation said they didn’t sign because last week was a busy week and they didn’t get the chance; but Rooney, whose Naples-based Congressional District 19 includes a good chunk of the Everglades and related areas, said he declined, because he thinks the last thing the Everglades needs right now is another task force.

“I certainly applaud and am thankful for the work that Brian Mast and Gov. Crist are doing to help advance the ball, getting funding for the Everglades project. There’s no doubt about that,” Rooney said. “But I didn’t sign on to the letter, and I told the same thing to Brian, because the last thing I think we need in government is more task forces, advisory commissions and things like that.

“I actually think that could be an excuse for the feds not doing what I’ve been pushing them to do, to come up with the money to fund the projects that have been authorized,” Rooney added.

A Feb. 3 Rooney letter to Trump garnered all 27 signatures urging the president to fully fund the Everglades. “In your Inaugural Speech, you mdd clear that infrastructure is a priority of Your Administration. We applaud your desire to work on this issue, and we invite you to look at the incredible work being done by the Everglades federal/state partnership,” that letter opened. “We are especially encouraged by your comments at the Collier County Fairgrounds on October 23, 2016, when you said, “A Trump Administration will work alongside you to protect and restore the beautiful Florida Everglades.

“As you prepare your budget for Fiscal Year 2018, we request that you strongly support Everglades restoration projects,” it continued.

Rooney is running the long game, inviting and hosting key congressional leaders on Everglades projects tours. Last weekend he took U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, the California Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, on helicopter, car and airboat tours, showing him what’s being done, what still needs to be done, and what needs funding.

Rooney said he is also lining up similar tours for Republican U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Kevin McCarthy of California, who all hold key leadership roles.


Bill would require city officials to file state financial disclosures

A bill that would require elected city officials to file detailed financial disclosures got thumbs up Wednesday morning from the Florida House Government Accountability Committee.

House Bill 7021, introduced by Republican state Rep. Larry Metz of Groveland, would require mayors, city council members and other municipal elected officials in perhaps half of Florida’s cities to file full and public disclosure of their public interests on the same forms now used by state and county elected officials.

The bill, which the committee approved unanimously, also creates a statewide registry for local lobbyists.

The municipal financial disclosure provisions, which Metz has sought for several years in similar bills that never quite reached the governor’s desk, would apply only to cities that have annual revenues of at least $10 million. One witness estimated that would eliminate about half of the 412 cities in Florida from the requirements, leading some committee members wondering why. The bill also only applies to elected officials, not candidates.

Metz responded that the disclosure provisions should be brought in incrementally, starting with those cities where more is at stake.

“We should not let pursuit of a perfect ethics reform bill be the enemy of a good ethics reform bill, which this is,” Metz said.

Democratic state Reps. Emily Slosberg of Delray Beach, Joseph Abruzzo of Belle Glade, and Kristin Diane Jacobs of Coconut Creek pushed in vein for broader requirements.

“As past audit chairman, we had numerous cases, and the majority of them were small cities where public corruption was taking place,” Abruzzo said.


Linda Stewart pushing ‘Orlando United’ specialty license plate

State Sen. Linda Stewart is pushing the creation of an “Orlando United” specialty license plate to commemorate the city’s unity in the wake of last summer’s Pulse nightclub massacre, and to raise funds for mental health organizations.

Stewart, the Orlando Democrat who introduced Senate Bill 1232, will get her first chance to present it today in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The bill designates three organizations to receive proceeds: The Mental Health Association of Central Florida, the Hispanic Federation, and Two Spirit Health Services Inc. All three provide mental health services, with Two Spirit focusing principally on Orlando’s LGBT community.

On June 12, madman Omar Mateen shot up the popular Orlando gay nightclub Pulse during a Hispanic night, killing 49 and wounding 53, and forever changing Orlando.

Stewart, long a supporter of improving mental health services, called SB 1232 “a happy bill that might actually help.”

If the bill passes and gets signed, at least 1,000 Orlando United plates would have to be ordered before they are produced.

Orange County Democratic Party unanimously backs Aramis Ayala

The Orange County Democratic Party announced late Tuesday its executive committee has unanimously backed Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s decision to not pursue the death penalty in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit.

Orange County Democratic Chairman Wes Hodge said more than 200 people attended the Monday night meeting at which the committee passed two resolutions; one supporting Ayala’s prosecutorial discretion and urging Gov. Rick Scott to rescind his executive order stripping her of the Markeith Loyd case; and one condemning comments from a Seminole County Clerk of Courts official who called for her to be hung from a tree, and calling for his firing.

Hodge said there was considerable discussion but no objections to the resolutions.

The Orange Democrats took the positions following two other developments from Democratic groups supporting Ayala, a Democrat. Earlier Monday the Florida Democratic Progressive Caucus also approved a resolution supporting her, and earlier the Orange County Black Democratic Caucus announced its support.

“When she held her press conference [last Thursday] she was very deliberate in making her case in supporting her beliefs, and why she didn’t think the death penalty was an effective deterrent. That’s what you would expect from a well-seasoned attorney,” Hodge said. “Personally, I do agree that it has been proven that the death penalty is not a deterrent.”

The party’s resolution, however, offers support explicitly for her and her authority to decide what to do with death penalty cases, and does not render any explicit opposition to or support for death penalties. The party is split on that, with Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings supporting the death penalty, as is state Sen. Victor Torres, a retired police detective.

Yet the Orange Democrats’ call has not reached the pitch of opponents and critics of Ayala, principally Republicans, from Scott and State Attorney General Pam Bondi, to numerous lawmakers including Central Florida state Reps. Bob Cortes, who called for her removal; Scott Plakon, who is looking at funding for her office; and Mike Miller and Rene Plasencia, who, with Cortes, called a press conference to condemn her.

Hodge expressed frustration that Ayala is being portrayed as someone accepting of crime including the murders  charged to Loyd, which he called reprehensible, when she, in his view, is being realistic about seeking the surest and shortest route to justice.

All three Democratic groups called for Scott to lay off.

“We view this as a politically-motivated action gearing up for his next election,” Hodge said in a statement that echoed that of the progressive caucus. “His executive order infringes on the independence of state’s attorneys, exceeds his authority as governor, establishes a dangerous precedent, and undermines the will of the voters of Orange and Osceola counties.”

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