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Scott Powers

Tourism officials cautious about what federal rhetoric might do to international visitors’ interests

Tourism officials are keeping a cautious eye on the horizon, beyond the coast, beyond the sea, to see if the harsh isolationist international rhetoric and tough policies of President Donald Trump could sour foreign tourists on Florida.

University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith and Visit Orlando President George Aguel both warned Orange County officials at a recent meeting of the Orange County Tourist Development Commission that while international visitation remains strong at the moment, the industry is growing nervous that could change.

While they did not explicitly name the American president, both referred to American administration policies and statements that are making American tourism leaders nervous. And other factors international factors, from the United Kingdom’s Brexit move to currency valuations may not bode well either.

The same topic came up at another recent meeting, that of the statewide tourism development organization, VISIT FLORIDA. And while the concerns were more dismissed there, they were noted as possible concerns.

“Right now the overall prediction for international travel to the U.S. will be declining,” Aguel told the Orange County board. “However, fortunately for us, I think we’ll be able to hold our own, especially with three core international markets (United Kingdom, Canada and Brazil) we’re all familiar with.

“The tourism industry is deeply concerned about some of the rhetoric that is taking place and is in fact having an impact on people considering visitation to the U.S.,” Aguel added. “U.S. Travel, the World Tourism Association, even one of our leading convention organizations… If only because, for some of these conventions, they’re international delegations are very important part. And many international delegates have said we’re just not sure we should come.”

Typically there is a lag of six months to a year between economic forces and reactions within the tourism industry, because of advance bookings. The lag time is longer with conventions, which typically are booked years in advance.

However, incoming VISIT FLORIDA Chair Maryann Ferenc, who owns the Mise en Place restaurant in Tampa, said she and others already are hearing anecdotally about attendance being down at Florida meetings of international groups, and wondered what that foretold.

“The only thing that gives us pause right now is the international market. Even there, I just don’t know how much of the international evaluation is anecdotal, or how much of it is real. We’ve heard ‘Trump slump.’ We’ve heard ‘Trump bump,’” VISIT FLORIDA Interim Chief Marketing Officer Nelson Mongiovi responded to the board. “I’ll tell you the only true data I’ve seen to date in April was U.S. visitation was actually up 12 percent.”

Both the VISIT FLORIDA and the Orange County Touristy Development Commission received a bevy of such good-news reports at the same time as the international concerns. Visitor numbers are at record levels. Hotel occupancy is up, and so are room prices. Tourist tax dollars are running well ahead of projections.

In Orlando, convention business is running ahead of last year, tax subsidies to the convention center are falling, and cash is building there.

And Florida’s, particularly Orlando’s economy, is solid.

But there are those clouds way out on the horizon.

Aguel pointed out that Orlando is the nation’s fourth-busiest visitors market for international travelers, behind New York, Los Angeles and Miami. And he said New York’s tourism officials are predicting a decline in visitation this year, while those in Los Angeles is projecting a very slight increase.

“They say its because of these [federal] policies. I”m not sure we agree,” Aguel said. “There are other factors, such as currency.”

The potential impact is bigger than the share of the market international visitors have, because international visitors typically stay far longer and spend far more on trips to Florida than domestic travelers, he said.

“We’re keeping a close eye on what’s happening internationally,” he said.

Democrat Anna Eskamani to file to run in House District 47

Firebrand progressive activist Anna Eskamani intends to file Monday to run for the House District 47 seat in the Florida House.

The seat is expected to be vacated next year as Republican incumbent state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park runs for Congress instead.

Eskamani, director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said she has been planning since December to run in HD 47, a district that covers east-central Orlando including downtown, Winter Park, and much of east-central Orange County.

She is 27, but has established herself as a leader of Orlando’s progressive Democrats, and is known for her passionate, scene-stealing speeches at most local left-wing protests.

“My commitment is to serving this district as a strong, visionary, bold, Democrat that our district is thirsty for, hungry and starving for,” she told Orlando-Rising.com Monday in confirming her intention to run.

She has a twin sister, Ida Eskamani, who is legislative aide to another young, firebrand, progressive, Democrat, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of adjacent House District 49.

The Eskamanis are daughters of Iranian immigrants whom Anna Eskamani said were working class, employed in a donut shop, K-Mart, and other low-wage jobs as they grew up and attended the University of Central Florida, along with a brother. Anna Eskamani is just now completing a doctorate in public affairs, and has two master’s degrees, and a bachelor’s degree, all from UCF.

An unabashed progressive, Eskamani said Democrats need to be like Republicans, who aren’t afraid to be too conservative. Her platform is likely to include a $15 minimum wage, moving away from tax incentives for businesses, strong schools, access to health care, emphasis on infrastructure and public transportation, and safe streets.

She also believes it is time for a major youth movement in the party, and said she’ll seek to do as a representative what she’s sought to do as an activist and community organizer, to inspire young people to work on campaigns and run themselves.

“House District 47 is an incredible district and gets to the heart of Central Florida, of who we are,” she said. “This is where Pulse is. So this has been the center of so much trauma and triumph for Central Florida. Growing up in Orlando I have seen the community’s growth change challenges. And I understand its potential. And that’s the direction I want to go.”

The district includes much of the young, urbanized core of Orlando. It also includes the more Republican Winter Park.

“House District 47 deserves a fighter. This is a swing district in the swing corridor in the state, the I-4 corridor. It can’t be a district that swings anymore,” she said. “My intention is to make this a sold Democratic district moving forward, to stay in the D-column as we need to build power across the state.”

Paul Renner pledges teamwork, ‘full collaboration’ as speaker

State Rep. Paul Renner pledged military-unit-like reliance on teamwork and full collaboration after he was elected by his Republican peers to be their leader-designate.

The Palm Coast Republican won on a first ballot during a closed-door meeting of Republican members of the freshman class Friday. He beat out J.W. Grant of Tampa, Erin Grall of Vero Beach, and Bryan Donalds of Naples.

Renner, a retired U.S. Navy Reserves commander and attorney, spoke of teamwork and collaboration, said his class is deep with expertise and experience and he intends to use that to the full extent.

He received 16 of 27 votes on the first ballot. Details of what the other three candidates received were not released.

“I think one of the things I spoke about is that every member of the team is critical. That is something I learned in the military, from the first day of boot camp. You learn that you succeed or fail as a team,” Renner said.

“The focus I would like to have is we have a great class, we can do great things together, and I want to be the facilitator,” Renner said.

Exactly what Renner or the other three said in their ten-minute speeches, or how the other Republican representatives responded, may never be known. The lawmakers gathered in a hotel near the Orlando airport and met in secret for nearly three hours before announcing that they elected Renner.

Unlike other recent Speaker elections in the era of term limits, this one was put off until after the Session to give the members of the class a chance to get to know each other and pick a leader from among people with whom they’ve worked.

“We’ve got a process here that will leave you with a class united,” House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues said to Renner. “It’s good for your class and more importantly it’s good for the institution.”

 

National Deputy Sheriff awards dramatically detail Orange County deputies’ actions at Pulse and 2014 fire

Orange County Deputy Sheriff Frank Bonetti went into a fully-engulfed burning house to pull a man to safety. Orange County Deputy Sheriff Brian Martin, Reserve Sergeant Robert Knight and Sergeant Fred Westerberg went into Pulse. Now the quartet are going into history, named by the National Sheriffs’ Association’s National Deputy of the Year Awards.

The National Sheriffs’ Association also told their stories of heroism and valor performing under extraordinary circumstances, saving dozens of lives and helping kill the Pulse murderer.

The stories of Martin, Knight and Westerberg in helping save victims of the horrific Pulse nightclub massacre on June 12, 2016, and of engaging gunman Omar Mateen in a gun battle that led to his death, showed three very different roles in that astonishing tragedy. They jointly received the National Sheriffs’ Association’s Deputy of the Year for Valor Award.

“Deputies Westerberg, Knight and Martin embody what this award was created to recognize,” NSA Executive Director Jonathan Thompson stated in a news release. “They demonstrated to the world that day what it means to be a Deputy and their bravery and resourcefulness is unmatched.”

Here is how the National Sheriffs’ Association told their stories in a press release:

For Martin: “The Orlando Police Department requested emergency backup at the Pulse nightclub. Being close by, Deputy Martin immediately responded and upon arrival saw people running out of the club and heard gunshots inside.

“After being advised that there were victims inside, Deputy Martin entered the club to assist in evacuating patrons and injured victims outside for medical attention. By making continuous trips inside, it is estimated he assisted at minimum 20 injured victims to safety.

“As an Orange County Sheriff’s Office K9 handler, he also recognized the volume of resources coming to the scene and began to coordinate the arrival of numerous K9 handlers with the staging officer on duty. Deputy Martin’s quick response saved many lives. This is the kind of diligence to duty he performs in all tasks assigned to him. He displayed an exceptional level of bravery and courage by risking his life for the protection of others.”

For Knight: “On June 11-12, 2016, members of the Reserve Unit were working a crime control detail. After completing two 12-hour shifts in this detail, the Orlando Police Department issued an ‘officer needs assistance – shots fired’ call, and several reserves responded to downtown Orlando. As the tragic events of the Pulse Night Club shooting unraveled, Sergeant Knight and two other reserves were among the earliest first responders to arrive.

“Sgt. Knight reported that during his code three response to the location, he received numerous updates indicating an escalating ‘active shooter’ situation. When he arrived on the scene, he placed his marked patrol vehicle in a strategic location, and then took up a position with an OPD officer.

“After an assessment of the scene, he realized that the inner perimeter was well covered and there was an immediate need to extricate victims from the club to the triage area. He responded to the club and assisted other officers in carrying out several victims, returning several times to the active scene with the shooter still inside. When the SWAT team had neutralized the suspect, Sgt. Knight then assisted in evacuating hostages to the hospital.”

For Westerberg: “The Orange County Sheriff’s Office Hazardous Devices Team was called to assist the Orlando Police Department when an active shooter indicated he had an explosive vest on and a vehicle full of explosives. Upon arriving, members of the team responded without delay and began to set up. Sergeant Westerberg and members of this team were briefed by the OPD SWAT commander and successfully initiated the order.

“With the help of the ram on the Bearcat, two holes were pushed inside the building and Sergeant Westerberg and the team immediately began assisting victims out of the holes and leading them to safety.

“While assisting the victims, the suspect came out and began firing at officers and deputies through the hole. Sergeant Westerberg and members of the Hazardous Device and OPD SWAT team returned fire, killing the suspect. After confirming the suspect was deceased, they entered the building to search for victims and assisted the wounded to safety. Sergeant Westerberg’s heroic actions went above the call of duty and saved the lives of several victims. He risked his safety to assist the wounded out to safety. When the suspect began firing, he responded without hesitation.”

Bonetti received the the association’s National Deputy of the Year Award for Merit, for his actions in a 2014 fire, in which he saved the life of the suspect.

“Deputy Bonetti quick response saved the life of the man he was going to apprehend which is exactly what this award was created to honor,” Thompson stated in the release.

Here is how the NSA described the events: On Dec. 31, 2014, Deputy Bonetti responded to a call regarding a violation of domestic violence injunction. The suspect had been served with an injunction and was prohibited from returning to the residence until the case was resolved. When Deputy Bonetti arrived on the scene, he and his Sergeant approached the side of the residence and attempted to make verbal contact with the suspect.

“As they approached a window, they could smell the odor of gasoline and observed the suspect start a fire. Working with other deputies, and at the risk of his personal safety, Deputy Bonetti ran into the fully engulfed home, grabbed the suspect and pulled him from the burning home to safety, saving his life. “

 

Speaker contest underway for 2022 House leadership

The last-ditch politicking has begun behind closed doors at an Orlando airport hotel.

Freshman state Reps. Byron Donalds of Naples, Erin Grall of Vero Beach, Jamie Grant of Tampa and Paul Renner of Palm Coast, and most of the other 23 Republicans in the class gathered Friday at the Orlando International Airport Hampton Inn & Suites, with a vote expected sometime after noon.

The meeting was closed to press and public. It appeared that more than 20 of the freshmen lawmakers were present when the doors were closed.

Outside the hotel protesters including gubernatorial candidate Bob White gathered to oppose the election of Grant, whom they say should be ineligible because he was originally elected in 2010.

“At this meeting to decide the speaker, there will be 26 freshmen lawmakers and one phony freshman who has already held office for seven years,” U.S. Term Limits Executive Director Nick Tomboulides, organizer of the protest, said in a written statement.

In an election coordinated by state Rep. Larry Metz and House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, each of the candidates is being given 10 minutes for a speech, followed by questions and answers. Then a vote, possibly a series of votes, will be taken, as 14 votes will be needed to elect the leader of the class.

Mike Miller announces he’s running for Congress in CD 7

Republican state Rep. Mike Miller is running for Congress in Congressional District 7 against incumbent U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, he announced today.

Miller, of Winter Park, is running in a district covering Seminole County and north-central and northeast Orange County that had been Republican for decades but shifted to slightly Democrat in the last election, allowing Murphy to knock off longtime incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica.

Murphy, also of Winter Park, has been carefully trying to establish moderate credentials in Congress, but her ties are strong with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the left-wing the California congresswoman represents. They participated at a high level during her campaign last year.

Miller, a former former baseball player at the University of Florida, is coming out swinging.

“It’s time for Congress to represent the views, the values and the priorities of the people,” Miller stated in a news release “And making that happen starts right here at home, by electing a member of Congress whose vote is guided by what’s right, and what’s in the interest of our people, our community and our nation. This district should no longer be represented by someone whose vote is controlled by Nancy Pelosi and the ultra-left.”

Yet he also made it clear that he’s not trying to target Murphy exactly, but intends to say that as someone with “a typical Central Florida family trying to make ends meet, we’re trying to do the right things for our kids, get them set up for success. I just feel I’m a better representative from a personal standpoint.”

Miller won election in House District 48 in 2014, ousting Democratic then-state Rep. Linda Stewart in a district that is fairly evenly split. He won re-election in a relatively close race last fall.

In an announcement of his candidacy, his campaign declared that he fought hard to balance the state budget without tax or fee increases, improve public education by empowering parents and supporting the largest state education budget in state history, and supported $1 billion in tax cuts for Floridians.

Miller also reached across the aisle to work with Democrats and Republicans alike to oppose fracking in Florida and help address Orlando’s homeless problems. He also took a lead role in addressing the opioid crisis, pushing legislation that would crack down on dealers, whom he said, “are in effect murdering people with opioids laced with fentanyl.”

Two weeks ago Miller went to Washington D.C. and met with various Republican leaders there, including the Republican National Campaign Committee, before deciding to run.

He’ll need their support because Pelosi, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and other Democratic organizations backed Murphy with more than $5 million last fall, and are likely to return behind her in 2018.

Miller’s entry into the race poses a potential major Republican primary fight with state Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, who has repeatedly declared his interest in taking on Murphy in CD 7, at one point declaring he was 98 certain he would enter the race. He has not done so yet though.

“It doesn’t change mine at all,” Simmons said Thursday of his plans. “I am in the same place I was when I originally stated that I’m 98 percent there. I will continue to move forward with my plans.”

Another potential candidate is Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, who is not commenting directly on the prospect of running for Congress in CD 7, but is increasingly seeking the limelight, as he did Thursday with a press conference declaring he and some of his deputy tax collectors would be open-carrying firearms for their safety.

Gwen Graham draws more endorsements: Steelworkers, Mark Pafford, Katie Edwards, John Cortes

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham has drawn more endorsements including former Florida House Minority Leader Mark Pafford and state Reps. Katie Edwards and John Cortes

The endorsements announced by her campaign Thursday also included Duval County Soil and Water District Chair Shannon Blankenship, and Jacksonville City Councilman Tommy Hazouri.

Her campaign also announced the first major labor endorsement of the season, from the United Steelworkers.

“This isn’t just about the next election. After almost twenty years of Republican rule, we are out of time. Our future and our very way of life are at stake,” Graham stated in a news release issued by her campaign. “I’m proud to have the support of these elected officials. Together, we will renew our promise to public schools, protect our environment and build an economy that works for everyone.”

Graham is in a race for the Democratic primary for  the 2018 election with Winter Park affordable housing developer Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. The one major Republican candidate is Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

“Gwen Graham is clearly the best choice to represent the interests of all Floridians,” USW International President Leo W. Gerard stated in a news release. “In Congress, she fought for policies to lift workers and our families, including her support for new laws to ensure fair pay and protections from workplace discrimination.”

“I have dedicated my career in public service fighting against the Republican status quo in Tallahassee. After years of one-party rule, we can not afford to lose another election. I’m supporting Gwen Graham because she’s offering real progressive solutions to the challenges we face,” stated Pafford,  who represented Palm Beach County in the House of Representatives and now is an administrative officer in the Orange County Tax Collector’s Office.

“As governor, Gwen will end Tallahassee’s education industry and put a stop to high-stakes testing by ending the destructive school-grading system and trusting teachers to do what they are trained and hired to do. She will protect our environment by banning fracking and oil drilling off our beaches. And she’s working to build an economy that works for every Floridian,” he added.

Cortes of Kissimmee, stated, “Gwen’s momentum in Central Florida is growing as fast as our region’s population. From fighting for our environment to working in public education, Gwen Graham has dedicated her life to the issues we care most about. I look forward to working with her as our next governor.”

 Hazouri added, “From the first week of her campaign, Gwen Graham has shown she understands how important Jacksonville is towinning back our state. From her commitment to human rights to her passion for protecting our natural resources and environment, Gwen Graham is focused on issues that matter to Democrats, the City of Jacksonville and the entire state of Florida. For these reasons, among many more, I’m proud to support and help Gwen win Jacksonville and win the governor’s race in November 2018.”

 

Seminole Tax Collector Joel Greenberg arming self, his employees

Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg is packing now and he wants his employees to do so too.

The Republican declared Thursday that it’s a crazy world and it’s getting dangerous for his people, so he is exercising his right as a state revenue officer, and for his deputy tax collectors, to openly carry firearms while in the performance of their duties. Such officers are exempt from Florida law regarding open-carry of guns.

Greenberg notified Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma and the police chiefs of Seminole’s seven cities two weeks ago of his new policy, and immediately began carrying a revenue officer badge and a 9-mm Glock 19 sidearm himself. He said they responded with support for his policy.

“Have you been watching the news lately? It’s a crazy world we live in,” Greenberg said. “There are certain times throughout the year that this office has hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in cash. So it is my job to make sure that cash, those assets are secure.”

And, he said, there are situations where deputy tax collectors go out into the field, into situations that sometimes involve hostile, overdue taxpayers.

Greenberg expects the policy to go into effect by early August. He was not certain yet whether the office would be providing firearms or if employees would be asked to bring their own. He also is reorganizing and was not certain yet which classifications might be encouraged to pack. He said he expected to have one or two armed deputy tax collectors in each office at all times, perhaps 20 total out of about 100 employees.

He also said he was uncertain if there were precedents for his policy.

It’s not unusual for tax collection offices and license bureaus to have armed guards, either deputy sheriffs or private security guards. Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, for example, hires private security guards, who are armed.

Greenberg’s policy, however, also reflects his strong pro-Second Amendment stance. He spoke highly Thursday of Florida residents’ rights for concealed weapons, and for open-carry opportunities. When asked what he would think about his customers, waiting in the lobby, carrying firearms, he replied:

“That’s fine. I hope they’re all carrying,” he said.

He also said he hopes he and his employees never have to draw one of the weapons.

“I pray it never happens. But I’d rather have it if we needed it, than not have it.”

 

John Newstreet adds NFIB, Florida Realtors to his backers in HD 44 race

Republican John Newstreet has added the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Florida Realtors to his list of endorsers that already included the Florida Chamber of Commerce, in his bid for the special election to fill the House District 44 open seat.

Newstreet, chairman and chief executive officer of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, is running in a field of four Republicans and one Democrat, with a primary election set for Aug. 15 and a general election for Oct. 10.

His campaign announced the two new endorsements Thursday.

He also received the endorsement of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce last week, after that organization hosted a candidates debate that included him, Republicans Bobby Olzewski and Usha Jain, and Democrat Paul Chandler. Republican Bruno Portigliatti also is in the race, but was unable to attend the debate.

“For most of my life, I have worked with businesses to grow and create jobs for Floridians,” Newstreet stated in a press release issued by his campaign. “Along with serving veterans, economic development and an improved economy for Florida will be my focus if the voters ask me to serve them as their representative.”

 

Orange Sheriff Jerry Demings to announce soon on county mayor’s race

Everyone in Orange County politics, it seems, is waiting to see if Sheriff Jerry Demings will run for county mayor, and he’s about to let people know.

Demings, a Democrat, said Thursday he will be announcing soon whether he intends to run for Orange County mayor in 2018, an announcement that has set up dominoes for that and other Orange County races.

In fact, 17 months out from the 2018 general election, no major candidate has filed or announced to run for mayor, an unusually powerful position for the county that is being vacated next year because incumbent Mayor Teresa Jacobs faces term limits. Other races, too, are awaiting major candidates who might opt for the mayor’s race, or might settle for something else.

Insiders say everyone is waiting to hear what Demings wants to do.

“I’ll make an announcement on that soon,” Demings told FloridaPolitics.com Thursday morning. He would not comment further on what prospects he might be weighing.

Demings, husband to Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando, stands on the precipice as the likely early frontrunner, with sky-high name identification, two and a half terms behind him as sheriff and a 36-year career in law enforcement, including a stint as Orlando chief of police, and a stint as Orange County director of public safety.

If he runs, there would be two Demings on the 2018 ballot, again.

The Orange County mayor’s race is non-partisan, but both parties desperately want the seat, and make little effort to hide partisan efforts during elections. There also is the prospect that could change. Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph and Property Appraiser Rick Singh, both Democrats, sued to overturn a charter amendment that had made their offices and some others, including the sheriff’s office, non-partisan. Randolph and Singh won that suit last year, and Circuit Judge Keith White‘s ruling appeared to leave open the prospect that other county offices, including the mayor’s job, also could have been wrongly declared non-partisan.

Republicans reportedly are waiting for his decision so they can announce their own campaigns without being caught up in the wake of Demings announcement. Among those said to be seriously considering runs are Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette, former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, and businessman Rob Panepinto, an active member of the Orlando Economic Partnership board of directors.

Other Democrats reportedly are waiting to see if Demings declines the race. Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph has said he might run only if Demings does not. Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh has been testing the waters all year, but has not yet declared.

Some insiders had speculated that Demings was awaiting the end of his term as president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which concludes in late July. However, he just accepted another commitment Wednesday night in Reno, Nev., when he was elected to a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Sheriff’s Association. And he dismissed either duty as having any bearing on his potential campaign for Orange County mayor.

“Either way, whether I run for county mayor or not, I’ll be sheriff for quite a while longer, at least the next year and a half. So I’m not gong to stop being the sheriff whether I run or not,” he said. “But I’ll make an announcement soon.”

 

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