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Alma Gonzalez backed by Kathy Castor and Democratic Labor Caucus as chair election nears

Less than 48 hours before a select group of Florida Democrats chooses their new state leader, Alma Gonzalez announced a series of new endorsements in the race for the party’s state chair.

Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor announced that she was backing the Hillsborough County State Committeewoman, who is competing against Palm Beach County Democratic Executive Committee Chair Terrie Rizzo and Brevard County Democratic Executive Chair Stacey Patel.

“Alma Gonzalez has been fighting for working Floridians, students and seniors her entire career,” Castor said in a statement. “Alma is a passionate advocate for affordable health care, high-quality education, higher wages and a healthy and clean environment.  She is the right leader at the right time for our diverse and growing Florida Democratic Party, and I am proud to endorse her for Chair of the Party.  With Alma’s leadership, we are going to win the Governor’s mansion, keep  U.S. Senator Bill Nelson working for us, and win seats at every level — up and down the ballot — to benefit our neighbors across our great state.”

Tallahassee U.S. Rep. Al Lawson and state Reps. Bobby Dubose of Fort Lauderdale and Joseph Geller from Hollywood also announced their endorsements for Gonzalez, as did the Democratic Labor Caucus of Florida.

“Her long-held support of the struggle for economic justice for all working men and women, continuous union membership, professional legal background, institutional knowledge and experience as a past executive officer in the FDP, two-term member of the Democratic National Committee and experience as an elected county committeewoman has resulted in a majority vote of our governing council, in her favor,” said John C. Parker, the president of the Democratic Labor Caucus.

“As a lifelong union member and activist, my labor brothers and sisters are family. I am proud to have their support,” Gonzalez said. “My involvement in the labor movement has taught me the importance of standing together in solidarity to face the challenges that our working families are dealing with every day.”

That previous labor background includes years serving as legal counsel for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the state’s biggest government employees union and a potent political force in Tallahassee.

The Florida Democratic Black, Hispanic and Caribbean caucuses have each previously endorsed Gonzalez.

Approximately 182 Florida Democrats will decide on who will become the next party chair Saturday in Orlando.

Associated Builders and Contractors endorses Matt Caldwell for Ag Commissioner

North Fort Myers Republican Rep. Matt Caldwell announced Thursday that Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida has endorsed him in the Republican Primary to replace termed-out Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

“We are thrilled to announce that we are endorsing Matt Caldwell for Commissioner of Agriculture,” ABC board chair Mary Tappouni said. “Matt is a principled conservative who will fight to ensure that every Florida resident and business has the opportunity to succeed in the Sunshine State and grow our economy.”

Caldwell is running in a three-way GOP primary for the post alongside state Sen. Denise Grimsley and former Rep. Baxter Troutman. Democrat David Walker is also running for the Cabinet seat.

The endorsement from the construction trade group follows several “waves” of endorsements for the fourth-term HD 79 representative which have included several of his Republican colleagues in the Florida House from the Panhandle, Northeast Florida, Southwest Florida and South Florida delegations, a handful of county constitutional officers and a nod from U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Paul Paulson, a one-time primary rival, also announced he would step aside and support Caldwell in the race.

“I am proud to receive the support of ABC Florida, a true champion of conservative values and free market principles. This exceptional group of individuals have fought to ensure that government does not get in the way of business in Florida and I too will continue fighting for economic prosperity in our great state,” Caldwell said in a press release.

The Caldwell campaign went on to tout October fundraising numbers which showed the Lee County Republican had raised about $1.37 million and has about $934,000 on hand between his campaign account and political committee, iGrow PC.

Through the same date, Grimsley had raised a total of $1.91 million and had about $884,000 on hand, while Troutman had raised $2.61 million and had $2.56 million on hand. His total is buoyed by $2.5 million of his own money.

Some FDP members find recent push to rehire Sally Boynton Brown ‘insulting’

Some Florida Democratic Party members intend to ask the newly-elected chair on Saturday to reinstate Sally Boynton Brown as their president, a move that other members have found “insulting.”

Boynton Brown submitted her resignation nearly three weeks ago following the footsteps of Stephen Bittel who was ousted as chair when reports surfaced that he acted inappropriately with women in the workplace. Her abrupt departure came a day after she defended Bittel in a public letter and after two former staffers accused her of enabling his sexual misconduct that included him asking women about their sex lives.

“The fact a resolution of this nature is currently being considered proves the lack of commitment that some leaders in the Florida Democratic Party have for addressing sexual harassment and a hostile work environment that obviously exists within our Party,” James Deininger, of Duval County Democrat, wrote in an email to members.

Deininger’s email was in response to a petition that began to circulate last week, garnering support for Boynton Brown to come back.

In an email, Jim Gangitano, a Volusia County committeeman, told members that a “non-binding motion” would be made Saturday to ask the new party chair “to ask Sally to stay.”

“While party leadership has accepted Sally’s resignation, Sally indicated that she is willing to do whatever is asked of her for the good of the party, including reconsidering her decision,” Gangitano wrote.

Ultimately, the person elected to lead the state party will have the power to hire staff, including the president and an executive director.

Florida Politics reached out to the three candidates vying for the chairmanship, and only Hillsborough County Democrat Alma Gonzalez took a stance against reinstating her presidency, adding that if elected she would conduct a “full-scale investigation of the allegations” against her before she can consider hiring her back.

“Sally is a strong woman, who is independent-minded and capable of making her own mind, and she made a decision that it was in her best interest to submit her resignation,” Gonzalez said.

“I want to respect her decision-making process and ensure I am protecting the interest of the Florida Democratic Party,” she said.

Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, who so far has reeled in the most endorsements, said it would be “inappropriate for any candidate for chair to speculate on possible hiring decisions.”

“If I am successful in my election, I would want to be fully briefed on the internal situation at the party before moving forward choosing staff,” Rizzo said.

When asked if that meant she is open to considering rehiring her, Rizzo said, “my quote speaks for itself, thx.”

Stacey Patel, the chair of the Brevard Democratic Executive Committee, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a cryptic Facebook announcement, posted in late November after she resigned, the Idaho transplant said she had made the decision to stay in Florida.

“Can’t wait to see what path God illuminates for us next,” Boynton Brown wrote.

​​Philip Levine tops $1 million in November for campaign and political committee

Gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine maintained his huge fundraising lead in the Democratic Primary with another $1 million raised last month between his campaign and committee accounts.

“In a big state like Florida, with over 20 million residents and ten media markets, resources are a key benchmark for running a successful statewide campaign. In his first month as a declared candidate for Governor, Philip Levine has shown he will aggressively meet those benchmarks,” senior adviser Christian Ulvert said in a press release.

“With this level of support, in the months ahead, we are confident that we will have ample resources to take Philip’s progressive vision for Florida’s future directly to voters in all 67 counties, from the Panhandle down to the Keys. Florida Democrats need a candidate with a vision and mission to do the right thing by getting things done, and Philip Levine is well-positioned to earn the support of Democratic voters in the coming months.”

Levine hadn’t uploaded his November finance report to the Florida Division of Elections as of Thursday afternoon, nor had his political committee, All About Florida, though the campaign said the two accounts “brought in over $1 million in November, with over $800,000 raised by the campaign and political committee.”

The difference could be made up through checks from Levine himself, who through October had already dumped $2.8 million of his personal fortune into his committee account.

November marks Levine’s second million-dollar month in a row, and he has now raised somewhere in the ballpark of $7 million for his gubernatorial bid. The October haul came in before he officially declared his candidacy.

That level of funding puts him far ahead of his closest primary competitor, former congresswoman Gwen Graham, who had raised a total of $4 million by the end of October. Through the same date Winter Park businessman Chris King had raised $2.7 million and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum had $1.6 million in total fundraising.

One of the few who could have financially overshadowed him in the primary race, Orlando attorney John Morgan, announced the day after Thanksgiving that he wouldn’t run for governor as a Democrat.

Still, Levine is far behind Republican front runner Adam Putnam, who had raised more than $20 million by the end of October with nearly $14.7 million in the bank.

Andrew Gillum calls Adam Putnam ‘racist’ in dispute over undocumenteds

The harshest exchange of the 2018 governor’s race thus far between a Democrat and a Republican just occurred as Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum called Republican candidate Adam Putnam “racist” Thursday, responding to Putnam’s tweet about their policy dispute over undocumented residents and sanctuaries.

“Half true & all racist is nothing to be proud of, Commissioner,” Gillum tweeted Thursday afternoon. “I’m proud to stand up for all people – precisely what Floridians expect of their leaders.”

Gillum’s campaign put out a news release saying the tweet was “In response to an unprovoked and untrue attack by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the GOP’s gubernatorial frontrunner, referring to a tweet Putnam had posted about a half-hour before Gillum responded.

“Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum made no apologies for standing up for immigrants and all Floridians,” the release added.

The exchange was carried out largely by Twitter, but it has its roots in Gillum’s and Putnam’s positions on undocumented residents and whether cities, or the state of Florida, should essentially act as sanctuaries for them by declining to work with federal authorities to identify and detain them.

Putnam’s campaign responded by suggesting that Gillum wants to make one side of the policy dispute the racist side.

“It is not racist to want to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. It is Adam Putnam’s goal to keep Floridians safe from criminals, particularly those who are in our country illegally, like the person who shot Kate Steinle,” Amanda Bevis, spokesperson for Adam Putnam, said in a written statement.

About a half-hour before Gillum’s tweet, Putnam had linked to a PolitiFact Florida article, “Does Andrew Gillum want to make Florida a sanctuary state?” delving into Putnam’s criticism of Gillum, and concluding that Putnam’s claim was “half true.”

Putnam linked to that article with a tweet declaring, “Thanks for the Half True, @PolitiFactFl. @AndrewGillum wants to make Florida a sanctuary state. That WILL NOT Happen on my watch.”

Gwen Graham to ‘chummy’ politicians: ‘When I’m Governor, the party is over’

After saying that politicians in Tallahassee treat Session and committee weeks like it’s “spring break,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham said Thursday that if she becomes Governor “the party is over.”

“It’s time our public servants truly serve the people and that can only happen when politicians stop serving themselves,” Graham said at a press conference.

The former congresswoman said that should start with Sen. Jack Latvala, who is facing multiple sexual harassment allegations. She called on him to resign, again. If Latvala does not step down, Graham said, the Senate should expel him.

Graham stopped short of saying Senate Democrats should take a caucus position and call on the powerful Senator to step down, arguing that it should not be a “partisan issue.”

Minutes before, however, she said the Republican-controlled Legislature, with Gov. Rick Scott at the helm, is to blame for the “crisis in confidence” elected officials are facing today because of sexual harassment and conflicts of interest.

“Republicans, they own this because they have been in total control,” she said.

If elected, Graham vowed to take steps to combat sexual harassment across all state agencies. Her plan includes appointing an independent investigator to oversee complaints about workplace harassment who could refer cases to the attorney general for full prosecution under the law.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King also unveiled a plan to clean up the Florida Capitol. In a statement, he said that if elected he would create an Office of Victim Advocacy under the Florida Division of Ethics — a department that does not exist, but likely meant the Florida Commission on Ethics — to handle sexual misconduct complaints. And would require any claim of sexual harassment or assault made against a government employee to be reported to the office within two days.

“If we want to bring ethics and accountability to Florida, we need to create an environment that supports victims and allows them to come forward without fear of retaliation,” King said.

Latvala is also facing claims that he is intimidating sexual harassment victims from coming forward by using defense tactics that aim at publicly shaming his accuser, Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to the future Senate president, Sen. Wilton Simpson.

Sen. Lauren Book, a close ally of the 66-year-old senator, filed a formal complaint with the Senate Rules Committee claiming Latvala was interfering with the Senate investigation by his approach in fighting the sexual harassment claims in the public eye.

Amid the Senate investigation that has been going on for a month now, Scott has called him a “distraction” and senators have slowly called on him to resign. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is likely to announce his bid for the governor’s mansion after Session, told a national audience this week that Latvala was “heading toward expulsion.

The Latvala sex scandal could be seen as ammunition in the governor’s race. And as the only woman in that race, Graham said she has the “ability to talk about this in a way that resonates with everyone,” because she too has experience sexual harassment.

While she would not go into detail about her #MeToo story, she said that it happened a “long time ago.”

When asked if the back-to-back sex scandals rocking the Capitol in recent weeks have had an impact on her professional life, or the women in her orbit, she acknowledged that there’s been tension.

“I personally have not been treated differently, but I have heard that,” she said. “I’ve heard that at the Capitol men are afraid of getting in an elevator with women, I’ve heard that.”

Chris King calls for sexual misconduct victims’ advocacy in ethics office

Declaring again that it’s time to “change the toxic culture in Tallahassee,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King on Thursday laid out a plan to address sexual misconduct allegations including the creation of a victims’ advocacy program.

In a video he launched on his campaign’s Facebook page Thursday, King declared it is time to end “the abuse of power against women in politics in Florida.”

He did not name any names, but King decried the state of affairs that has resulted in several recent reports of sexual misconduct against public officials, and expressed awe of the courage of the women coming forward. Among those being accused are one of his opponents, state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, a Republican candidate for governor. Sexual misconduct allegations also cleared out the leadership of the Florida Democratic Party last month.

King first faces several Democratic rivals for the 2018 primary nomination: former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. The leading Republican candidate is Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

King said his plan is intended to make it easier for women to come forward. Among the points:

– Require that sexual misconduct lawsuit settlements involving legislators, cabinet secretaries, and municipal and county elected officials be made public, including the accusations of what was done, and how the settlements were paid.

– Create an office of victim advocacy under the Florida Division of Ethics, set up specifically to handle sexual harassment and assault cases.

– Require that any allegations be reported to that office within 48 hours of being reported to any other governmental unit.

– Shielding victims’ identities from being made public so they never have to choose between their careers and reporting misconduct.

The sexual misconduct proposal follows King’s statement Wednesday regarding revolving-door politics, including a proposal for an eight-year ban on former lawmakers lobbying the Florida Legislature.

“We’ve got to start holding our leaders accountable for bad behavior. This is not a partisan issue,” King said of sexual misconduct. “This is not about left or right. This is about right or wrong,

“I am deeply, deeply appalled at the behavior of folks that are in positions of power that are abusing women. That’s why we need new ideas to address it,” he said.

Florida Democratic chair candidates weigh in on ‘open primaries’

Florida is one of just 13 states with a closed-primary election system, meaning only voters registered as a Republican or Democrat can participate in a primary election.

While that may have worked out just fine for the major political parties, many say it doesn’t work for the public, demonstrated by those increasingly opting to bypass the two major parties and register as “no party affiliation” or with a third party.

No-party-affiliation is the fastest growing segment of the electorate and is particularly popular with young people, with more than one out of every four Florida voters falling into that category.

The issue has been discussed among Democrats in Florida with increasing intensity in recent years, with no clear consensus. In advance of the election for chair Saturday in Orlando, Florida Politics reached out to the three candidates to get their take on this issue.

Stacey Patel, Brevard County Democratic Executive Committee Chair — Yes.

“As a Democrat, I believe in democracy and self-determination for all Floridians and believe voting is a right of every American. Nearly 3.5 million Floridians are disenfranchised due to closed primaries according to the League of Women Voters. I support opening our primaries to NPAs as an expression of our values as Democrats.”

“While I support opening Democratic primaries to NPAs, I do not support a ‘top-two’ primary.”

Alma Gonzalez, Hillsborough State Committeewoman — No.

“I’m very comfortable with our closed primary system, because it allows you to vet  those people who say they want to be part of me, and believe in the democratic principals which I believe.”

“I have been supportive of that. I haven’t seen any new data, or research that would indicate to me that we need to change that. I know that folks feel differently, because of the growing NPA folks, but I think that it’s incumbent upon me as a Democrat and as a  Democratic leader, go and persuade those folks to choose the democratic brand and if we’re not doing that, well, we have to do better.

Terrie Rizzo, Palm Beach County Democratic Executive Committee Chair — No.

“I do not favor open primaries.  Most Democrats I know (& likely most Republicans) don’t think that persons who are not members of the party should determine the party’s nominees. We are going to encourage as many NPA’s as possible to become Democrats and vote in the primary.”

“As such, I am open to the concept of same-day registration, which includes registration changes such as NPA to D.  There is strong evidence that same day/Election Day registration increases voter turnout. According to the data, immediately following the implementation of SDR, states usually see a boost in voter numbers. Same day registration states also tend to outperform other states in terms of turnout percentages. Multiple studies place the effect between an increase of 3 to 7 percent, with an average of a 5 percent increase. “

(Rizzo’s statement was sent to Florida Politics via Steve Hough, director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries).

Last month, Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) member Bill Schifino introduced a proposal to place a constitutional amendment on open primaries on the 2018 ballot. Advocates are calling on the entire Commission to embrace Schifino’s proposal, which would first need to pass the Ethics and Elections Committee of the CRC.

Bill Nelson: ‘Al Franken should step aside’

As Sen. Al Franken prepares for an all-but-certain resignation Thursday, former allies in the Senate are calling for him to step down.

“Sexual harassment is never acceptable. I agree with a majority of the Democratic senators that Sen. Franken should step aside,” said Sen. Bill Nelson Wednesday evening.

Nelson joins Minority Leader Charles Schumer and over half of the Democrats in the Senate to call for Nelson to step down, per The New York Times.

Nelson had booked Franken for a November fundraiser, which was to have happened just as the first stories about Franken began to circulate in the media.

Franken was said at the time to be “no longer available.”

Hours from now, he likely will no longer be available in the Senate.

Nelson may face questions as to why he was one of the later Democrats in the Senate to call for his colleague’s resignation.

Janet Cruz backs Alma Gonzalez in race for Florida Democratic chair

Janet Cruz came out Wednesday in support of fellow Hillsborough County Democrat Alma Gonzalez in Saturday’s election for Florida Democratic Party chair.

“Alma’s experience and background will make her a strong voice for Florida’s working families, women, minorities and young people who feel threatened and uncertain by what they see coming out of Tallahassee and Washington,” said Cruz, who serves as Florida Democratic House Minority Leader.

“As Democratic Leader, I have watched too many legislators embrace the extremist agenda of Rick Scott and Donald Trump. Floridians need more Democrats in Tallahassee to preserve our environment for future generations, provide quality health care, and ensure that our public schools are fully funded,” Cruz said. “As chair, Alma Gonzalez will be the leader our party needs.”

Cruz gets 10 weighted votes. She also has 5 additional appointments from the House Democratic Caucus, each getting one vote.

A maximum of 1,237 votes are up for grabs Saturday, distributed among 182 physical voters, who will choose between Gonzalez, Palm Beach County DEC Chair Terrie Rizzo and Brevard County DEC Chair Stacey Patel. 

The SEIU’s Monica Russo dropped out of the race earlier Wednesday.

Fifty-one voters publicly stated they are backing Russo, though Gonzalez believes the race remains extremely fluid.

Cruz joins Florida’s Democratic Black, Hispanic and Caribbean caucuses, which are each supporting Gonzalez’s bid. If elected, Gonzalez would become the Florida Democratic Party’s first female Hispanic chair.

“Leader Cruz has been fighting in the trenches on behalf of hardworking people across Florida who want a government that understands the issues they face every day. She is a fierce leader and advocate for all Floridians,” Gonzalez said. “I am deeply honored to have her support.”

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