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Scott Powers

Stephanie Murphy names senior congressional staff

U.S. Rep.-elect Stephanie Murphy has named her top congressional staff while announcing she intends to maintain two district offices – in Orange and Seminole counties,

Murphy, the Winter Park Democrat elected in November to represent Florida’s 7th Congressional District, announced that Brad Howard will serve as her chief of staff, John Laufer as her deputy chief and legislative director, and Lauren Grabell Allen as her district manager.

“Brad, Lauren, and John are incredibly experienced and have a passion for public service and a deep commitment to the future and progress of central Florida,” Murphy stated in a news release. “They also share my bipartisan, results-driven approach to the job.”

Howard, who ran Murphy’s campaign, spent five years on Capitol Hill as a communications director for a member of Congress and then the fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, which Congresswoman-Elect Murphy will join. He has also served in the U.S. Small Business Administration and as press secretary for New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Allen most recently served as the executive director for Support Our Scholars, a Winter Park-based nonprofit organization that financially and emotionally assists young women from underprivileged backgrounds with extraordinary academic potential. Allen previously worked as a government affairs specialist for Siemens Corporation in its Washington, D.C. office, and has also served in the district offices of two U.S. senators.

Laufer spent the last eight years as legislative director for U.S. Rep. Pedro Pierluis of Puerto Rico, and also has served in a New York law firm and for a federal judge.

Val Demings announces senior staff in Congress

U.S. Rep.-elect Val Demings has announced her senior congressional staff, a mixture of those who supported her 2016 election in Orlando and some Washington D.C. savvy.

That begins with Wendy Anderson as the Orlando Democrat’s chief of staff, and includes  Caroline Rowland as her communications director and Sonja White as her district director in Central Florida.

Anderson has both Central Florida and Capitol Hill experience, having served as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat; and in lobbying positions for Florida Hospital and the African American Chamber of Commerce.

Rowland served as communications director for Demings campaign. Before that she worked as a journalist for News 13 in Orlando and other media.

White spent 29 years at the Orlando Police Department, where Demings once was chief of police, and also has played significant community service rolls with the Oasis Preparatory Academy, Harbor House of Central Florida, Central Florida YMCA Achievers, Leadership of Orlando and other organizations.

Among other key positions, Erin Waldron was named community and economic development director, Wendy Featherson as scheduler and executive assistant, Aimee Collins-Mandeville as senior legislative assistant, and Chester Glover and Gladys Morales Smith as as constituent services caseworkers.

 

Ben Newman New Year’s prank: leaving GrayRobinson for possible political run, not love of burritos

Orlando lawyer and Republican fundraiser Ben Newman also is known — sadly not to all — as a merry prankster and over the weekend had many believing he was leaving the powerful GrayRobinson law firm to run a burrito truck.

Me among them. Sorry about that.

Newman has left GrayRobinson, where he’s been a shareholder for seven years, but not to feed the hungry masses yearning for queso, he said Monday morning. Instead, he’s moving on to a national law firm, Wilson Elser, and thinking about running for office.

“Sorry about that,” he told FloridaPolitics.com, politely but not entirely suppressing a well-deserved laugh.

FloridaPolitics and OrlandoRising — I — bought Newman’s trail of posts on Facebook declaring he was quitting law to pursue his lifelong dream of running a food truck. Among other things (Photoshopping a picture of a food truck with his name on it), he changed his status to CBO (Chief Burrito Officer) at El Queso Loco Burrito Company.

My texts and calls to Newman before I wrote went unanswered early Monday, apparently because the numbers I had were old and out of date (his GrayRobinson numbers;) and while they still recorded messages they did so for someone who wasn’t around anymore to retrieve them. I also Facebook messaged him, but that was too late. Turned out I also had a private, valid email address available for him. But in a full disclosure of incompetence, I didn’t come across that until too late, and went ahead and wrote before I had his or anyone else’s confirmation.

Full mud bath for my face, please.

After being alerted that I fell for his prank, Newman called to set the record straight, pointing out that he loves pranks, and a lot of people know that, though he’d left no clues this time. He was leaving GrayRobinson and decided to “goof,” he said.

“Rather than be serious all the time, I thought I’d have a little bit of fun. I’m just leaving it out there and letting people draw their own conclusions. Some people know it’s a joke and others fell for it,” Newman said. “I’m a serial prankster.”

But now for the serious news — we hope. Newman said one of the reasons he left GrayRobinson was because he’s positioning himself to possibly run for public office someday. He didn’t think it would be appropriate to do from that firm, which has one of the biggest lobbying operations in the state. With Wilson Elser he’ll feel freer to do so, he said.

Generally, he said he’s positioning for possibly for a run for the Florida House or the Florida Senate. Those seats are both filled by solid Republicans where he lives — state Rep. Bob Cortes and state Sen. David Simmons. Newman said he’s looking ahead to possible shuffling of positions this year, particularly if Attorney General Pam Bondi leaves.

The New York City-based Wilson Elser also gives him more of a national platform for his practice, which focuses principally on health care law and medical malpractice defense. Wilson Elser already has an Orlando office, and he said he’d be helping the firm develop more of a statewide presence.

 

Politics in Orlando now takes place in a post-Pulse city

A before-and-after time line now exists for Orlando – June 12, 2016 – and on this side of the Pulse massacre the city may be seen by the world and through its own citizens’ eyes as a very different place, with a new political perspective.

Before June 12, Orlando was a city without an an image, an identity or, most importantly, a unifying factor for its people that didn’t involve mouse ears or rocketing roller coasters.

It took horror, pain, shock, suffering, outrage to change that. It took the unthinkable, the unbearable. It took June 12. Nothing good may ever be attributed to the slaughter of 49 people and destruction of countless other lives that took place at the popular gay nightclub Pulse, perpetrated by the ISIS-pledging, gay-hating madman Omar Mateen.

But in the aftermath, a new, Orlando emerged, pledging unity, support, hope, faith, understanding and love. Politics in Orlando now takes place in a post-Pulse city.

That became clear in the responses of a score of Orlando political leaders who expressed to FloridaPolitics.com how Pulse has changed things.

“We are kinder to one another,” said longtime Democratic Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the LGBT godmother voice for Orlando.

“Gay, straight, trans, black, Latino, Muslim, Evangelical, Atheist, Democrat, Republican – you name it. We were all there for each other,” said Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who also is gay.

For now, the post-Pulse period has only just begun, said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a Republican. All of that unity, support, hope, faith, understanding and love still is needed, must continue for practical reasons, she said.

“I think it’s very important to realize that a lot of people – especially those most traumatized by the Pulse violence – are still in the beginning stages of processing what they’ve actually been through, and how it has affected them,” Jacobs said. “So I want to be very clear in reassuring people that how they feel, how they act, and how they grieve and recover is an incredibly personal and individual path. Each survivor, victim, family or friend of those who perished needs this community to be their soft shoulder, and to extend understanding and compassion as each of us travels the path to healing.”

And perhaps to extend that understanding, compassion and healing elsewhere. A number of area politicians, including Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, a Republican, and Commissioner Victoria Siplin, a Democrat, spoke of extending love and support beyond Pulse, to address the victims and communities such as Pine Hills experiencing their own violent horrors, or at least to keep the momentum going. Orlando City Commissioner Robert Stuart is formally looking for ways to foster that, through a “Compassionate City” project he, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and the city commission launched in August.

“I hope that the unity that brought our great community together these past few months continues into the new year,” said Congresswoman-elect Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat. “I also think this tragedy has caused many of us to get more involved in our community to honor the lives lost and to help prevent tragedies like this from happening again.”

Support for Orlando’s gay community is now the standard in political rhetoric. Recognition of Orlando’s Hispanic community, particularly the hard-hit Puerto Rican community, is nearly universal.

“It made everyone everyone confront the horrors of homophobia and its root causes,” said Anthony Suarez, a Republican lawyer who chairs the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Central Florida. “Those that profess that gays and lesbians are sinners and committing sin had to reflect on their comments and the results of such. For a very religious community, the reaction was overwhelming support and a mainstreaming of tolerance.”

“It’s been very fascinating,” added Clarke, “My circle of friends and other folks, I’ve seen a softening. It’s sad it takes a tragedy to do that.”

Yet some divides remain, now hardened by the affirmations Pulse brought to very different beliefs held by people on opposite sides of existing divides. Almost every Democrat believes the introspection of the massacre surely, finally, signals a change in the popular thinking tide on gun control, while virtually no Republican concedes that point.

“We have a moment in time where our voices can be louder than most in calling for serious gun safety reforms,” said Democratic activist Susannah Randolph.

Others prefer to put the focus on better-supporting law enforcement. “We must stay vigilant and ensure that law enforcement has the tools they need in order to protect us,” said Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey, a Republican.

Sheriff Jerry Demings, a Democrat, couldn’t have agreed more, saying, “The Pulse nightclub incident represents a paradigm shift in how terror subjects now see soft targets within the continental US, as their primary targets for violence. American cities must prepare for the change in strategy and develop plans to prevent, respond to, and mitigate terror attacks.”

Many Republicans said they see the Pulse massacre as Demings implied, an act of radical Islamic terrorism.

“The tragedy at the Pulse nightclub confirmed to me that the appeasement of any radical group, such as ISIS and it’s supporters, will not work,” said Republican state Sen. David Simmons.

Few Democrat cite terrorism at Pulse, and some even dismiss it.

“Terrorism based on religion has nothing to do with it,” said Democratic attorney John Morgan. “That is the cover to give that miserable miscreant cover for a higher purpose.”

There also is a sense of fear, of driving the horrors of the world home.

“When I go to crowded public places, there’s a bit of anxiety while I constantly look over my shoulder at the people around me and the nearest exit points,” said Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, a Democrat. “This is not how we should live, but it is embedded into our psyche now.”

Lost, perhaps, to many non-Puerto Ricans are the ties that Pulse has brought with the island.

“Many of these people who lost their lives on this tragic date are from Puerto Rico, the island of my parents, the place I few up in,” said state Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican. “The tragedy not only affected Orlando, but also had a huge impact on Puerto Rico… We saw the whole world in mourning.”

And the whole world has watched, Mayor Jacobs said.

“I think it’s important for us to understand that how the world sees us – how the world views Central Florida – has changed,” Jacobs said. “We’ve long enjoyed a global reputation as a fantastic leisure and business destination, but now, the entire world has watched as we’ve come together, in seamless unity, like no community before us. The world has watched us respond to the victims’ families, those who survived, those with broken hearts and bodies, our first and second responders – our extraordinary outpouring of acceptance and love came naturally, from within the fabric of this community. So I would say that as we heal, let’s not forget that through our individual and collective actions, we’ve not only changed how the world perceives us, we’ve learned something wonderful about ourselves. Let’s cherish and nourish not only our famed culture of collaboration, but our extraordinary culture of caring.”

2016 in Orlando politics: Pulse, outside money, hotel taxes, frogs

Story co-written by Orlando-Rising staff reporters Scott Powers and Lawrence Griffin.

In Orlando, 2016 will always be remembered as the year of the Pulse gay nightclub massacre, and Pulse redefined everything; but it’s not the only major event to have shaped politics in Orlando during the year.

Here are a few events that defined politics in Central Florida in 2016 and which promise to continue being game-changers in 2017:

1. The Pulse massacre – The hours of horror early on June 12 changed how Orlando sees itself and how the world sees Orlando. While nothing good can ever be attributed to the tragedy itself, the post-tragedy saw one region-wide group hug after another, often with Orlando’s LGBT and Hispanic communities being embraced by all. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer rallied the business community to support the victims, while Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs brought people together. Orlando’s faith community united to support all the region’s people regardless of their personal identities. Orlando’s Republicans united to support gay rights. Time will tell if this is just a moment of mass grief or a genuine pronouncement of brotherhood and sisterhood. But for now everyone in Orlando politics has a shared vision of universal love.

2. Stephanie Murphy‘s shock of John Mica – Lost to many, in the realization that national Democrats spent more than $6 million to get her elected, is just how identically U.S. Rep.-elect Murphy reflects the look and views of the 21st-Century Florida’s 7th Congressional District: a young, well-educated, business-oriented, minority (Vietnamese-American) woman with fairly conservative fiscal and foreign-policy views, and liberal social values; or how much 12-term incumbent Mica was SO-20th Century. Before she’s cast her first vote Republicans already are targeting her. But they might wind up liking her.

3. Teresa Jacobs‘ battles with the tourism industry – Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association president Rich Maladecki and Teresa Jacobs had a falling-out over the allocation of Tourist Development Tax funds in the spring. Maladecki wanted to fast-track a proposal to use the funds in a way Jacobs wasn’t happy with – it would have given less than she wanted to the Orange County Convention Center and put an undue burden on the county’s revenues. Maladecki declined to present anything to the Tourist Development Council on the plan, saying he wanted to pass it quick and not discuss it more as Jacobs wanted. However, a new deal was struck later that Jacobs could get on board with, putting $45 million towards the completion of the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center’s Phase II, finishing the acoustic Steinmetz Hall.

4. The retirement of Martha Haynie – Perhaps no one in Central Florida politics has a more sterling reputation for credibility and accountability than Orange County’s retiring longtime Comptroller Haynie. She’ll be succeeded by former Orlando City Commissioner Phil Diamond, who arrives with high marks for his own integrity, including her endorsement. But whether the more-laid-back Diamond can continue Haynie’s fearless way of speaking truth to power, often annoying the hell out of even fellow Republicans like Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, will be crucial to keeping checks and balances working in local politics.

5. George Soros‘ election of a state attorney for Orlando – New York billionaire and Democratic-cause financier decided he wanted African-American district attorneys throughout America and he didn’t care who they are. He’d never met nor spoken to Aramis Ayala, yet poured $1 million into what had been her long-shot bid for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit state attorney’s race. Low and behold, she beat incumbent Jeff Ashton in the Democratic primary, essentially winning the job then. Ayala has her own strengths and charms but now she’s got to run a huge prosecutor’s office for Orange and Osceola counties based on her short experience as an assistant state attorney.

6. East of Econlochachee River development – The two large developments called the Lake Pickett projects, The Grow and Sustany, would have brought hundreds of new apartment buildings to an area east of the Econlockhatchee River that many wanted to keep an environmental safe haven. Opponents of the projects had a litany of complaints, saying the project would damage everything from the environment to the already-congested traffic. Then in November, Lake Pickett North (Sustany) was shot down altogether at a hearing for its comp plan and a zoning change. That was due to the changed vote of District 6 commissioner Victoria Siplin, who, after hearing the complaints of citizens, couldn’t in good conscience allow the project to go through.

7. Heroin and rising crime – In April, the Heroin Task Force’s work came to an end and they concluded with a set of recommendations Mayor Teresa Jacobs vowed to implement, including: continuing joint enforcement details among law enforcement, increasing bond amounts for heroin trafficking and growing availability of drugs such as Naloxone that could save a heroin addict’s life. Meanwhile, in both the Parramore neighborhood and Pine Hills, violent crime has been surging. City officials and residents have cited a lack of good education and a lack of good jobs as the symptoms for much of it. Sheriff Jerry Demings’ new plan Operation RISE will offer more visibility and opportunities for the community to come forward with what they know. That’s Demings’ big hope – that people will start coming forward. But the bodies are still piling up.

8. The Fall of the House of Grayson – They sought to become the most politically powerful family in Central Florida, maybe in all of Florida, but voters had different plans. Orlando’s liberal lion U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson stumbled through his own pratfalls in the U.S. Senate race to become an also-ran. His newlywed Dena Grayson’s largely stealth campaign supported by large networks of her her outside backers discovered none of them could vote in Florida’s 9th Congressional District. And his daughter young Star Grayson discovered that name recognition might not be a good thing, in her poor showing for the Orange County Water & Sewer District.

9. Darren Soto‘s win as the first Puerto Rican congressman from Florida – All along, from back when it was drawn as a Hispanic-access district in Florida’s most-Puerto Rican community in 2011, Florida’s 9th Congressional District was to be Soto’s for the taking. But that didn’t prevent him from having to earn it in a bruising primary, before easily vanquishing yet another white Republican, albeit a good one in Wayne Liebnitzky, in the general. Now the former state senator who spent his whole life in New Jersey or Orlando, yet uses a Puerto Rican coquí campaign mascot to symbolize his heritage, will have the responsibility to demonstrate it’s a good thing for Central Florida to have a Puerto Rican in Congress.

10. Emily Bonilla‘s upending of Ted Edwards – District 5 incumbent Ted Edwards started feeling the burn over the summer as opposition kept growing louder to what many said was his overly corporation-friendly style of governing. Though there were three contenders at first, all vying as the populist answers to Edwards, it was ultimately environmental activist and businesswoman Emily Bonilla who succeeded, not without help from an onslaught of George Soros-paid mailers that attacked Edwards hard. Bonilla’s message of balanced, smart growth that didn’t encroach upon the environment resonated with many voters disillusioned with Edwards, and she ultimately won the day.

11. Fight over legal statuses of the county officials – Orange is a Democratic-voter dominated county with a Republican-dominated leadership, except in the constitutional offices like sheriff, property appraiser and tax collector. In one of the less-heralded but critical political battles, Democrats Scott Randolph and Rick Singh won a court case keeping their offices partisan and likely Democrat, while Mayor Teresa Jacobs got voters to pass what could turn out to be only symbolic statements that they should be charter, not constitutional offices, and non-partisan. For now, the Democrats won. But Jacobs is still in charge.

12. Linda Stewart‘s grab of Andy Gardiner’s Senate seat – Senate President Andy Gardiner termed out in 2016 and his seat was up for grabs between the progressive, environment-friendly Democrat Linda Stewart and Republican Dean Asher. Stewart, who has served on a myriad of other governing boards, won the election and is now in the Senate, currently trying to pass a bill to force Gov. Rick Scott to fill up the Environmental Regulation Committee faster. With her election, all of Orange County’s senators are now Democrats. That’s good for the Democratic party, but in a GOP senate that Gardiner used to rule, what does it mean for Orange County’s clout?

13. The political resurrection of Val Demings – By the election of 2014, Val Demings’ name was mud in this town, at least among many Orange County Democrats, because she inexplicably abandoned her party’s only hope of winning the mayor’s race that year. But that wasn’t the real Demings. Her steamroll run to election in Florida’s 10th Congressional District showed who she really is: an ambitious, determined, streetwise fighter and fire-and-brimstone orator whose progressive views mix with her deeply-held values of a cop and a janitor’s daughter.

14. Groundbreaking on Creative Village – Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s vision for Orlando includes an ambitious plan for a work-live-play-learn community focusing on high-tech enterprises in a 68-acre corner of downtown, but for several year’s it’s been pretty much just plans. That changed when University of Central Florida President John Hitt and others finally managed to push through their cornerstone plan for a downtown UCF campus, with $20 million in state money, $20 million in UCF money $20 million in private money, and $67 million worth of contributions from Orlando. Now it’ll be up to Dyer and Creative Village developer Craig Ustler to make the proposed 150,000 square feet of retail and commercial, 225 hotel rooms and more than 1,500 residential units start happening.

15. Orange County’s tightening of citizen initiatives – The citizen-petition charter-change route has been hostile partisan territory for several years as Democrats out of power in county politics have used it when they couldn’t get Mayor Teresa Jacobs and the Board of Commissioners to pursue Democratic priorities, while Republicans charged their ideas were irresponsible. So Jacobs, her Charter Review Commission and the commissioners crafted their own charter amendment and got voters to overwhelmingly approve it, making that process much tougher, setting new rules on how and where petitions can be collected.

16. Shakeup at the Orange Democratic Executive Committee, but not at the GOP – Orange County Democratic chair Juan Lopez stepped down in November, the latest in a long line of short-term local DEC chairs. The election of new chair Wes Hodge was swift, and it was accompanied by a complete turnover of Orange Democratic executive committee office holders. But he still faces the problem of slim turnout at local meetings – something he hopes to turn around, especially as Democrats are by and large the biggest political party in the area. Local Republicans’ election went smoothly and without drama as long-running chairman Lew Oliver was re-elected for another four-year term over Trump-enthused challenger Randy Ross.

17. Betsy VanderLey‘s victory – Orange County District 1 Commissioner Scott Boyd termed out in 2016, and his seat was the lone one open for grabs on the county commission board. There were numerous contenders, among them local Muslim leader Nuren Haider, Dr. Usha Jain and Winter Garden politician Bobby Olszewski, but Betsy VanderLey – boasting recommendations from Teresa Jacobs and Boyd himself – came out on top in the end. VanderLey is a longtime resident of District 1. Her priorities on the board will be tackling school overcrowding and urban sprawl. And, as a non-politician (a theme in this year’s election if there ever was one), she says residents can trust her not to make decisions on her own behalf to climb ladders rather than representing the community.

18. Carlos Guillermo Smith‘s unavoidable LGBT voice in the Legislature – This was the year that had so much promise for LGBT rights advocates, with seven openly-gay candidates running for election to the Florida Legislature. But Smith was the only newcomer to win, joining Miami Beach’s incumbent state Rep. David Richardson. Smith, an Orlando Democrat, is likely to be a force though, even in a Democratic minority. A former lobbyist for Equality Florida, he’s as comfortable with a megaphone in his hand as he is in looking for ways to craft deals.

19. The rise of women – Sure, Hillary Clinton lost, but not in Orange County. And locally, freshmen U.S. Reps. Val Demings and Stephanie Murphy, state Sen. Linda Stewart, state Reps. Amy Mercado and Kamia Brown, and Orange County Commissioners Emily Bonilla and Betsy VanderLey all replaced men, and each except Demings defeated a man to do so. Only U.S. Rep. Darren Soto and state Reps. Bruce Antone and Mike Miller defeated women in significantly races, and Soto and Antone did so in primaries.

20. Marijuana’s approvals – Under a new City of Orlando rule, local law enforcement can now choose to write a warning citation rather than arrest for marijuana possession in the city. Some were concerned that this could still lead to marijuana arrests of minorities if police act in a discriminatory manner, and Chief John Mina‘s assurance that it wouldn’t happen is all they had to console themselves. But many were very pleased with the change. Buddy Dyer isn’t taking any chances with medical marijuana not running smoothly – he’s put a moratorium on marijuana dispensaries opening here, beyond the three they’ve already licensed, until they see what gets done in the coming legislative session in terms of zoning for them. The first medical marijuana production plant, Knox Medical, also opened late this year after Amendment 2’s passing, and will deliver medical cannabis to patients with untreatable epilepsy or neurological disorders.

Barack Obama’s decision awaited on Oscar López Rivera – terrorist or political prisoner

Puerto Ricans and other supporters are counting down days until Jan. 20, 2017, waiting to see if President Barack Obama will heed their pleadings to release Oscar López Rivera – a federal prisoner varyingly known as a terrorist, Puerto Rican nationalist freedom fighter, dangerous criminal, political prisoner, avowed enemy of the United States, or a conscience for a people.

López, who turns 74 in January, is serving his 36th year in U.S. prison, currently in the Terra Haute (Ind.) Federal Correctional Institution, on a 1981 conviction for several federal crimes, most notably seditious conspiracy, essentially conspiring to levy war against the United States.

López is a causa célebre in the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida and throughout the United States, and for residents of Puerto Rico.

His support extends from the capitol of Puerto Rico, where Gov. Alejandro García Padilla; Gov.-elect Ricardo Rossell, and Secretary of Justice César Miranda all have written and called for his release; to the halls of Congress, where López has near-universal support among the Hispanic Caucus members including U.S. Rep.-elect Darren Soto of Orlando; on down to thetable talk in the cafeterías of Orlando and Kissimmee.

The support goes well beyond the Puerto Rican community to include Jimmy Carter, who was president during most of López’s alleged crimes, and who called last week for Obama to release him; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made a similar call; the New York City Council, which pass a resolution in 2015 calling for his immediately release; the late Coretta Scott King, who backed his release before her 2006 death; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the presidents of the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU; the United Church of Christ; the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; the Latino Victory Project, the ACLU, and several international human rights organizations, though not including Amnesty International.

A petition asking for his release, filed through the White House We The People program, has drawn more than 108,000 signatures. López also has petitioned on his own for clemency.

His most ardent supporters, including the ACLU, compare him with Nelson Mandela, portraying him as a jailed freedom fighter and prisoner of conscience. Soto compared his efforts with those of Boston Tea Party patriots. Even those who oppose López’s specific cause of national independence for Puerto Rico find him symbolizing their frustration at being second-class, under a political status imposed on the island.

“It’s important because it has a lot to do with Puerto Rico’s identity: as a U.S. territory we’ve been in the crossroads of our identities as Puerto Ricans or Americans,” said Orlando activist Phillip Arroyo, a former Obama White House intern who founded the Coalition for Puerto Rico Justice. “It’s a matter of justice and identity.”

“The overwhelming majority of the people of Puerto Rico, political leaders from all major political parties on the island, numerous members of the U.S. Congress including the congressional Hispanic Caucus, legal experts, the United Nations, and members of the international community have called on you to exercise your constitutional powers to commute Mr. Oscar López’s sentence,” Arroyo wrote Obama earlier this month on behalf of the coalition. “Today, I formally request the same.”

Not everyone agrees. Jay J. Rodriguez, an Orlando activist who is national president of the Hispanic Republican Organization, said too many people, including him, grew up in Puerto Rico being fed what he called propaganda and lies about being oppressed by the United States, and that López became the symbol of fighting that. Rodriguez argued that Puerto Ricans need to seek what López opposed, full statehood. López, he charged, is a criminal.

“Oscar López is not the voice of the people of Puerto Rico; it is our vote,” he said.

Partisan politics – many of the most visible individuals and groups supporting López are Democrats or Democratic allies – also is a factor at the moment. A full pardon or unconditional clemency from Obama [López already rejected President Bill Clinton‘s 1999 offer of conditional clemency] could do as much as anything to cement Puerto Ricans’ fragile loyalty to the Democratic Party. And, unlike solutions for Puerto Rico’s bigger problems such as its economic collapse, all it would take is a stroke of a pen.

But a pardon also likely would be seen by many outside the Puerto Rican community, most notably including the FBI and other officials in the U.S. Department of Justice [who aggressively opposed parole for López,] as undercutting law enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts. It would be easy, particularly for conservatives, to paint such a pardon as a final act of appeasement by Obama.

“Oscar López Rivera is not a political prisoner, he is not innocent of the commission of violent acts, and he is not guilty merely by association,” charged blogger Jeff Ingber in a recent column on TownHall.com, a conservative news site published by the Heritage Foundation. “López Rivera was a FALN leader who organized and personally led numerous FALN bombings, armed assaults, and hostage takings both in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.”

The case of López is complicated by conflicting reports.

Jan Susler, a lawyer with the People’s Law Firm in Chicago who said she is representing him, said that the only real opposition to his release comes from the FBI. And she charged the bureau has long been trying to destroy the Puerto Rican independence movement, that its pursuit of López is part of that, and that it has spread false statements about his case and his own positions.  She argued that any suggestion that his release would be broadly controversial would be creating “false opposition.”

“The controversy in the eyes of many people is that he is still in prison after 35 years without having been convicted of hurting or killing anyone,” she said.

A decorated Vietnam War army veteran who lived much of his pre-prison life in Chicago, López was an acknowledged member and alleged leader in the 1970s and early ’80s of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or the FALN. The armed, Marxist-leaning, Puerto Rican nationalist group was linked to a number of bombings, shootings, robberies and other violent acts in Puerto Rico and stateside, acts which federal authorities labeled as terrorist. The 1975 bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in New York City, claimed by FALN as a retaliatory act, killed four people and injured 60. There were other deaths and injuries in other incidents.

A series of FBI roundups took down the FALN in the early 1980s. López was arrested during a routine traffic stop. During his trial, he was characterized as a leader, recruiter, trainer and bomb maker for the FALN. However, he was never charged with any specific FALN-linked attacks that injured anyone. He was charged with and convicted of seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony, and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. He was sentenced to 55 years.

In 1988 he was charged with and convicted of conspiring with others for a prison break, allegedly to be done with smuggled-in weapons, grenades and explosives. The escape attempt never went forward. He got another 15 years.

When López turned down Clinton’s offer of clemency in 1999, federal officials stated that he did so because he refused to accept the condition that he renounce violence against the United States. He has since denied that claim, saying he turned down the offer because he wanted other prisoners to be released with him.

In 2011 López came up for parole, but it was denied. Now he’s not due for release before 2023.

López has stated in interviews, most recently earlier this month with with El Nuevo Día, the largest newspaper in Puerto Rico, that his participation in the FALN did not result in anyone getting hurt or killed, and that he’d never even heard of the Fraunces Tavern before he read about its bombing. He also told the newspaper that he has personally sworn off violent methods.

He also contested that the U.S. government has any valid reason to imprison him, arguing that Puerto Rico is an occupied colony and that he is strictly a political prisoner of that situation.

“President Obama—who has spoken directly about Nelson Mandela—must understand that no Puerto Rican can seditiously conspire against the U.S. government because colonialism is a crime against humanity,” López said in the English translation of the story El Nuevo Día published Dec. 3. “International law makes that very clear. Every colonized person has the right to exercise his or her free will and independence, using all available methods, including violence.”

In 1998 he told the Associated Press he had no regrets.

“I cannot undo what’s done,” López was quoted as saying. “The whole thing of contrition, atonement, I have problems with that.”

Dwight Bullard elected in Gadsden County, back in state Dems race

Former state Sen. Dwight Bullard has gotten himself elected state committeeman from Gadsden County and is back in the running for chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

Bullard, whose home turf has been Miami, where he lost a bitter re-election campaign this fall after redistricting, has a home in Gretna in Gadsden County, and now is registered to vote there, according to the Gadsden County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Tuesday evening Gadsden Democratic State Committeeman Sam Palmer resigned and Bullard was unanimously elected to replace him, according to Gadsden Democratic Chairman Willie Neal.

“I support him. I’ve known him as senator for years,” Neal said.

That opens the door to reignite Bullard’s campaign for the state party chairmanship. He had failed in his bid to qualify in Miami-Dade County earlier this month to Stephen Bittel, who formally announced Tuesday that he, too, is running for the state chairmanship.

Also in the running are Alan Clendenin, who took a similar track as Bullard to qualify as a candidate. Clendenin moved to Bradford County to get the state committeeman post there after losing election to get the job in Hillsborough County early this month. Duval County State Committeewoman Lisa King and Osceola County Democratic Party Chair Leah Carius also are in the running.

The Florida Democratic Party will elect its new chairman Jan. 14, 2017. Current Chair Allison Tant is stepping down.

Stephen Bittel makes official his run for Florida Dems’ chair

Fresh off his step-three victory last week among Miami Democrats, Stephen Bittel has formally launched his candidacy to become chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

Bittel announced his candidacy Tuesday, though he’s been securing endorsements and backing for weeks for the vacancy created by the departure of FDP Chairwoman Allison Tant.

The Democrats will select their new leader Jan. 14.

Bittel has been among several prominent Democratic activists around the state trying just to qualify for the opportunity to run for the party leadership. In his case, he qualified last week when he defeated former Sen. Dwight Bullard for the state committeeman post in the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Both were positioning to run from there for the state chairmanship. And that Miami position became available only because the guy who had just won that post, Bret Berlin, stepped aside to make it available for Bittel or Bullard as the stepping stone to Tallahassee.

Another candidate, Alan Clendenin, moved to Bradford County to get the state committeeman post there after losing election to get the job in Hillsborough County early this month. Duval County State Committeewoman Lisa King and Osceola County Democratic Party Chair Leah Carius also are in the running.

Bittel is laying claim to the progressive wing and has lined up numerous endorsements including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Democratic National Committee chairman candidate U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Michigan, and two of the most powerful Democratic-supporting unions, the Florida Education Association, and the Florida Service Employees International Union.

“The Florida Democratic Party needs a new direction, a change in strategy, and a clear message,” Bittel stated in a news release. “I am a different kind of candidate who brings a fresh outsiders view and a new approach.

“Democrats are the party of working families and we need to expand beyond Tallahassee and get on the road to engage working Floridians from Pensacola to Key West,” he added. “As chair, I will work with leaders from every Florida county to build a bench of Democratic candidates with fresh voices and together we will assemble a permanent progressive infrastructure that Florida Democrats need in order to be successful in the upcoming elections. We must invest in a 67-county grassroots approach focused on our Democratic clubs and executive committees, with offices and organizers throughout the state.

 

Val Demings named assistant whip for Congressional Dems

Orlando’s U.S. Rep.-elect Val Demings is entering Congress as one of the Democrats’ leaders.

Demings was elected in December to represent Florida’s 10th Congressional District, covering

Representative-elect Val Demings’ office announced Tuesday she has been appointed by Democratic leadership to serve as an Assistant Whip in the Democratic Caucus. The former Orlando Police Chief will represent Florida’s 10th Congressional District in the 115th Congress.

“I’m proud to announce that Rep.-Elect Demings will serve as an Assistant Whip,” said “She comes to Congress with a long and distinguished record in public service on behalf of the people of Orlando and central Florida. I look forward to working with her to ensure that the voices of workers and their families in Florida and across America are heard loudly and clearly in the 115th Congress,” Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, a Democratic congressman from Maryland, stated in a news release issued by her office.

The Assistant Whip team is composed of leaders in the Democratic Caucus who work with the Democratic Whip to build unity among House Democrats. Assistant Whips are responsible for talking to their fellow Democratic members about upcoming legislation that will be considered in the House.

“I am extremely honored to have been asked to serve as Assistant Whip under Whip Steny Hoyer,” Demings stated in the release. “My number one priority in Congress is to be a voice for the people of Central Florida. There is no question that many challenges lie ahead, but I will work hard everyday to make sure the Democratic party continues to promote policies that protect working families.”

Linda Stewart files bill to stop short-handed contamination votes

Upset that the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission voted 3-2 this year to increase levels of water contaminants when it was short two members, state Sen. Linda Stewart filed a bill seeking to avoid such short-handed votes in the future.

Stewart, a Democrat from Orlando, filed a bill Wednesday that would require the governor to fill vacancies on the seven-member panel within 90 days. The bill would also require a supermajority of five votes to alter certain areas of the Florida Administrative Code that deal with things like air pollution, water quality standards, hazardous substance release notification, and drinking​ water.

Stewart filed Senate Bill 198, frustrated with the commission’s July 26 approval of a measure that increased allowable concentrations of certain contaminants in the state’s water bodies, including almost 100 known carcinogens, such as benzene.

“Three unelected and unaccountable people voted to allow these known cancer-causing chemicals into Florida’s waters. It defies belief that some folks in Tallahassee value the health and well-being of campaign accounts and corporate profits more than they do the lives of the people they were elected to serve,” Stewart stated in a news release. “I think they need a serious reminder that cancer doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, or rich, or poor – and I look forward to working with every one of my colleagues to see that science and not politics is what drives this decision-making process in the future.”

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