Opinions Archives - Florida Politics

Diego Echeverri: Ron DeSantis is the clear choice for Florida’s veterans

I first met Ron DeSantis a couple of years ago in his Washington office during a meeting to discuss legislation to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most of the meetings our group had that day were with staff members, but Rep. DeSantis took time out of his schedule to meet with us face to face.

He listened to each of the veterans in the room as they shared their personal stories. He understood, as only another veteran can, the issues faced by the veteran advocates he met that day, and he vowed to support efforts to bring much-needed accountability to an embattled VA system.

The military and veteran communities are vibrant and important parts of Florida’s economic and civic life. Our state has more than 20 military installations, including four unified commands and the nation’s third largest veteran population. As a member of this distinguished population, DeSantis has built a reputation as a proven leader and dedicated champion for veterans across the state. From how (and when) they get health care, to working to remove bad actors from the VA, DeSantis has been a strong voice for veterans in Washington.

As the representative of the 6th Congressional District, DeSantis consistently supported expanding health care options for veterans, to ensure they aren’t forced into or trapped in failing VA hospitals. Early on, he understood the Veterans Choice Program was failing veterans, and he outlined more viable alternatives.

To make sure veterans can get the care they deserve, when and where they need it, he supported the VA MISSION Act. This critical new law stabilizes the Veterans Choice Program so no veteran falls through the cracks, phases it out after a year, and replaces it with a more accessible community care program. Signed into law earlier this year, the measure includes provisions like those DeSantis championed years earlier.

Additionally, in light of scandals showing the VA routinely overprescribed medication, DeSantis embraced alternative forms of treatment designed to mitigate medication-dependency issues, including an innovative public-private partnership to test the use of service dogs to treat PTSD.

DeSantis also co-sponsored multiple measures designed to make it easier to hold VA employees accountable when they engage in misconduct, and to ensure bad actors aren’t able to provide substandard care to veterans. He voted for the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2017, which brought a fundamental change to the VA — putting veterans first, not the bureaucracy.

Ron DeSantis understands firsthand the sacrifice and service of Florida’s 1.5 million veterans. He is an Iraq War veteran who honorably served in the U.S. Navy as a judge advocate at Guantánamo Bay and alongside Navy SEALs in Fallujah. He served six years on active duty and continues to serve as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

On Election Day, I urge my fellow Florida veterans and military families to support Ron DeSantis for governor. We will be well-served in Tallahassee, as we have been in Washington, by this proven leader and unwavering champion.


Diego Echeverri is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is an adviser to Concerned Veterans for America Action in Florida.

Karen Cyphers: Breaking down the impact of Hurricane Michael on Panhandle voting

The entire state is focused appropriately on hurricane recovery, relief, and repair efforts. But with less than three weeks before Election Day, what does this mean for the hundreds of thousands of people in the affected regions?

Gov. Rick Scott, Mayor Andrew Gillum, CFO Jimmy Patronis, and many other elected officials have been actively working on recovery efforts in the state, and while many of them have (at least temporarily) suspended their campaigns, a big question that remains unanswered is whether Hurricane Michael will disenfranchise voters in the Florida Panhandle.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner — the state’s go-to official on elections issues — said this week that he is waiting to hear from local supervisors of elections before making proposed changes, but in some of the areas that were hit the hardest — like Bay County — many of the buildings and facilities used for precincts are either damaged or being used for emergency shelters.

According to the News Service of Florida, Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux is asking the state to consider potential creative solutions like email vote-by-mail ballots or combining precincts. While those determinations will ultimately be made after careful consideration by various state and local officials, some data casts light on the upcoming elections. 

In the 11 counties FEMA has designated as needing Individual Assistance (as opposed to just Public Assistance), there are more than 270,000 registered voters. Looking solely at party registration numbers, these voters are fairly “purple” — 43 percent Republican, 40 percent Democrat, and 17 percent registered with minor parties or no party at all. 

Voters in these 11 counties typically have a higher turnout than the rest of the state, and a higher frequency of voting on Election Day rather than via mail or early voting. In 2016, 39 percent of voters who cast a ballot in these counties did so on Election Day, compared with 35 percent of voters in all other Florida counties. Another 41 percent voted early, compared with 40 percent elsewhere. This is important because nearly half of a million Floridians have already cast ballots — approximately 4 percent of voters statewide, but just 1 percent of voters in the counties hit hardest by Michael.

These differences may seem slim, but they represent tens of thousands of people, and in a state that is routinely decided by razor-thin margins, those votes can make a big difference. For example, in 2014, Scott beat Charlie Crist by just over 64,000 votes. In these 11 most impacted counties, Scott’s margin over Crist was 39,467 — equivalent to 62 percent of Scott’s entire margin. 

Regardless of your political preferences, a devastating hurricane shouldn’t hinder a voter’s ability to cast a ballot in any election. That’s especially true for the countless people whose homes are damaged or those who have been forced to relocate outside of their community, at least for now.

There’s only a few weeks to go, and while many areas like Mexico Beach and Panama City may not be the same for a long time, one thing is clear: The ability to exercise one’s constitutional right on Election Day should not be among Hurricane Michael’s extraordinary losses. 


Karen Halperin Cyphers, Ph.D., is a partner and vice president of research with Sachs Media Group in Tallahassee. 

Joe Henderson: Supreme Court ruling brings out Mini-Me in Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis hasn’t mentioned President Donald Trump much now that the general election for Florida Governor is getting closer, but that might change after Monday’s stinging slap by the Florida Supreme Court at Gov. Rick Scott.

After lawsuits by the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the state’s highest court ruled that Scott cannot nominate replacements for three justices set to retire at midnight on Jan. 8, 2019 — the same day Scott vacates the Governor’s Mansion and the winner of the gubernatorial race between DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum moves in.

The new guy gets to choose.

Those are the rules, darn the luck.

When in doubt, break out the boogeyman. That’s straight out of Trump’s playbook and Ron DeSantis put on his best Mini-Me imitation after the ruling by quickly tweeting Gillum would be pressured by “out-of-state, radical groups” to appoint “activist judges” who would “legislate from the bench to fit their own ideology.”

First off, that ignores the Judicial Nominating Committee, which will present the new Governor a list of candidates from which he must choose. As the Tampa Bay Times reported Wednesday, the JNC — which is top-loaded with Scott appointees — stays on into the new year. That bunch is unlikely to care what Gillum or “out-of-state, radical groups” would want. Gillum would have little or no say in the matter.

For now, though, let’s roll with the idea of legislating from the bench — a pet phrase of Republicans, and one that DeSantis just invoked.

I assume  “radical” would be defined by any ruling with which he disagrees.

Or, does he mean the current Supreme Court ruling that declared, “Governor Scott exceeded his authority by directing the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission submit its nominations to fill these vacancies by November 10, 2018” was legislating from the bench?

By his logic, I guess so.

That is, of course, opposed to the good ol’ American conservative judges DeSantis would favor. He is implying they would be more inclined to see things through a Republican lens.

Would such judges have allowed Scott to pack the Court with conservatives just as he was leaving office? Is that what DeSantis is saying should have happened?

But … but … that violated state law. It would have been wrong.

The ruling sort of blows a hole in the theory that only conservative judges follow the law while those pesky liberals make it up as they go along while humming Taylor Swift tunes.

It’s the same fear-and-smear tactic Trump used to push the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, though. Anyone who opposed him, the president declared, and his supporters parroted, was part of a “liberal mob” — which, I guess, makes the National Council of Churches part of that vast left-wing rabble because that group opposed Kavanaugh.

Republican animosity against the Florida Supreme Court has been going on for many years.

In 2012, for instance, the state GOP launched an unprecedented campaign against justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince – the same three who are being forced into retirement at the end of this year because of age limits.


One reason they were so mad was that the court ruled against allowing a referendum against Obamacare to go on the statewide ballot because the language was misleading (it was later rewritten).

This was after Republicans tried, and failed, to expand the court to 10 so Scott could pick three additional members.

In 2016, the Court struck down Florida’s death penalty provision that said capital punishment could be imposed with only a majority of 12 jurors voted in favor. When the state reworked the law to make it 10 out 12 the Court said nope, it had to be unanimous.

The ruling party doesn’t like to be told no.

With Republicans controlling both houses of the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion for the last 20 years, the Supreme Court often is the firewall between a Republican lawmaking rampage that ignores the other half of the state that might think differently.

So, yeah, the Court is going to get a makeover, and it may not matter much who wins the Governor’s race.

But what the heck. Scare ’em anyway, right?

Joe Henderson: If Florida CD 15 flips, blue wave could be coming

If you see Florida CD 15 starting to turn in favor of Democrat Kristen Carlson as election results pour in on Nov. 6, better get out your rain gear because the blue wave could be coming.

Carlson is the underdog against Republican Ross Spano, but three major national outlets — FiveThirtyEight.com, the Sabato Crystal Ball, and the Cook Political Report — continue to agree that the race is close. They all have it leaning Spano’s way, but not convincingly. For instance, FiveThirtyEight has Spano ahead 51.2 to Carlson’s 48.8 percent.

That’s consistent with a poll in early October that showed Spano with a 3-point lead.

This, mind you, is the seat held by the retiring Dennis Ross and it has been as safely Republican as most any you could find. He won re-election 2016 with 57 percent of the vote in this district that covers parts of conservative East Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties.

Although the boundaries of Florida CD 15 have changed a few times over the years, the result has not. This seat has been in Republican hands since 1995, and the fact it is even competitive is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

So, what changed?

A lot of things, starting with Lakeland — Polk’s largest city.

Lakeland’s demographics and attitudes aren’t as rock-ribbed conservative as they used to be. It has a growing LGBT community and Polk Pride celebration to go with an eclectic downtown and thriving arts scene.

And while conservative firebrand Sheriff Grady Judd remains as popular as ever, it’s worth noting that he feuded with Spano during the primary campaign over what Judd said was a misleading mailer that suggested he was endorsing Spano.

Spano is well known in eastern Hillsborough but less so in Polk, and that’s an advantage to Carlson whose roots run deep there.

She was the chief counsel of the Florida Department of Transportation in Bartow, was general counsel for Florida Department of Citrus, was a prosecutor in Pasco County, and has served on the boards of Boys and Girls Clubs of Lakeland and the Polk Museum of Art.

She also has the backing of Emily’s List, which has been promoting women candidates throughout the country for high-profile offices. That brought in needed money and helped put Republicans in the unusual position of having to battle hard for a seat they have been able to take for granted in the past.

Democrats have targeted this as a seat they believe they can flip as part of an overall strategy to regain control of the U.S. House, and Carlson is running hard. Her TV ads are beginning to show up with increasing frequency.

Will it be enough?

That’s hard to say.

But Florida CD 15 is close, and that might speak volumes for could lie ahead on Nov. 6.

Joe Henderson: Hey, guess what? Hillsborough transportation is an issue!

I’m going to take a guess, but it looks like Ken Hagan has made Hillsborough transportation his signature issue in what is starting to look like a lifetime term on the governing body.

Take the colorful mailer that said, “Ken Hagan’s plan to invest infrastructure will create jobs, improve safety and improve our quality of life.” 

Or the one that said, “Last year Ken Hagan helped steer $800 million into projects currently underway that will help relieve some of Hillsborough’s most congested roadways.”

Or the one that boasts Ken Hagan “is the only candidate who has invested billions in our county infrastructure.”

And I shouldn’t leave out his fellow Commissioner Victor Crist, who brags in a mailer about delivering “billions” in new road construction to “alleviate traffic.”

Well, OK.

But both men have been on the Commission for a long time, and if they’ve directed so much dough and effort into upgrading Hillsborough transportation, shouldn’t our traffic be “alleviated” by now — at least a little bit?

But we know why it isn’t, don’t we?

Because, the governing agency has actually never addressed Hillsborough transportation in a systematic way, and long-serving commissioners like Hagan and Crist have exacerbated the problem by allowing unchecked growth that brought more congestion to roads that simply can’t handle the stress.

This might be a good time to note that thanks to loophole wide enough to drive a semi tractor-trailer though in the county’s term-limit rule, Hagan and Crist are essentially trying to swap seats.

Hagan, who is term-limited for his countywide seat, is running the District 2 chair in northern Hillsborough that Crist currently holds, while Crist is running for a countywide spot.

See how that works?

Interesting that Crist notes his “new” plan involves “getting Tallahassee and Washington to send us our fair share of road money” and “forcing developers to pay their fair share of road improvements when they develop, not after.”

You know, Mr. Commissioner, a good time to collect the “fair share” from developers might have been many years ago. Crist has been on the Commission since 2010, and development has exploded without the roads to handle the growth. And why is that?

Well, you can’t be a Republican these days without being pro-development and in favor of low taxes, and it’s impossible to build a comprehensive system to handle the mess we have here without the money to pay for it.

Other than a lot of “harrumphs” and some serious hand-wringing, the traffic problem has been allowed to keep expanding until now voters are going starting to ask tough questions to the people in charge while this happened. And that’s why a citizen’s group got enough signatures on a petition to put

It probably won’t keep Hagan from extending a stay on the Commission, where he has served since being first elected in 2002.

You know those mailers I mentioned earlier? He can afford them because he has raised more than $500,000 to fuel his campaign, much of it coming from (surprise!) developers, real estate interests, and construction companies.

By contrast, his Democratic opponent, Angela Birdsong, has raised only $30,000 and is almost out of cash.

Crist faces a tougher test against Democrat Mariella Smith. The Tampa Bay Times, in endorsing Smith, noted she is “among the most informed and articulate candidates for local office this year.”

There also isn’t much of a money gap, and Smith is well known and outspoken on transportation needs, so it could be tough for Crist to get any traction on that issue.

And transportation is the issue.

The guys who were in charge when it became one promise, now, to fix it.

Joe Henderson: Michael’s wrath the latest warning to Tampa Bay

While watching the unfolding catastrophe Hurricane Michael brought to Panama City, a familiar fear crept back into my mind: What if this thing had come up the mouth of Tampa Bay instead of veering west?

It’s a warning people there need to take seriously.

That in no way minimizes what the people of Panama City and the Panhandle went through and all aid and comfort need to be directed to that area. But if past is prologue, a storm the size and intensity of Michael washing ashore in downtown Tampa or close it would bring unimaginable devastation to the densely populated Tampa Bay area, and I’m not sure that’s something that this area can adequately prepare for.

I think about that every time one of these hurricanes comes up the Gulf coast. A year ago, the Washington Post reported on what will happen when Tampa Bay’s century-long string of luck runs out. A World Bank says Tampa is one of 10 cities on the planet most at risk for utter devastation by a major hurricane.

It almost happened last year with Hurricane Irma, but the meteorological gods gave the area a last-minute break when the storm unexpectedly wobbled ashore at Naples, knocking it down a bit.

And in 2004, Tampa Bay had a bullseye on it from Hurricane Charley which, like Michael, suddenly strengthened from a Category 2 to 4 in the snap of a finger. But just as it seemed the worst-case scenario was about to happen for this area, Charley turned inland at Port Charlotte and left major damage in its wake.

The Tampa Tribune, where I worked then, produced an investigative piece shortly after that with a large, bold headline that read: “We’re Not Ready.”

Experts said then that if Charley had stayed on its course, most of Pinellas County would have experienced catastrophic flooding. Water would have been up to at least the second floor of every downtown office building in Tampa.

Tampa would have been just like New Orleans was a year later when Hurricane Katrina struck, and everyone who lives here understands the warning that one day we won’t get lucky. Of course, I guess – as the good people of Panama City and other parts of the Panhandle learned Wednesday – you can say that about anywhere in the state.

Some parts of Florida’s east coast around St. Augustine are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The same is true from parts of the state that were clobbered by Irma last year.

And now we see the nearly unimaginable force generated by Michael, and how the only defense against a storm of that size to leave. The problem for Panama City is that the hurricane exploded in strength in a short time, leaving residents and visitors little time to get out of the way.

The Red Cross estimated as many as 325,000 people in the evacuation zone did not leave. Maybe it was bravado for some, but it’s also a safe bet that many simply didn’t have the financial resources for a prolonged motel stay. And now many roadways are blocked, widespread power outages could last for weeks, stores are empty and probably couldn’t function anyway – the list of problems goes on.

Now, take that carnage and imagine it in an area of more than 3 million people, with an inadequate road system, major buildup along coastlines and waterways, no way to run and nowhere to hide.

Experts tell us it’s going to happen one day. The Tampa Bay area will be under water.

I hope they’re wrong, but I fear they aren’t.

felon voting rights (Large)

Susan Frederick-Gray: Our opportunity to support Florida’s modern-day suffragists

There is a direct link from the work of my namesake and relative Susan B. Anthony, who fought for a woman’s right to vote in the mid-1800s, and the modern-day suffragists urging us to pass Amendment 4 on the ballot this November in Florida.

Growing up, I was told the stories of Anthony and Lucy Stone, as well as Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass; people who fought for the right to vote for women and people of color. It always left me wondering what I would do if I were alive at a time when a whole class of people were denied the ability to have a say in our democracy.

For the Sunshine State, this is not a rhetorical question.

Florida is one of three states that indefinitely bans former felons from voting, even after they have fully served their sentences. Amendment 4, the Second Chances Amendment, would repeal this Jim Crow era ban and re-enfranchise more than a million Floridians — one in 10 of the state’s adults — who have served their time but are still sentenced to a civil death. This would be the largest expansion of voting rights since women earned the right to vote in 1920.

Alongside those childhood stories of our family’s connection to voting rights, I was also raised a Unitarian Universalist, a faith where I now serve as national President.

At the core of our faith is a belief that no one is ever cast out of the circle of love. One can make mistakes, lose one’s way, but that never separates us from God’s love. As Universalists, we are taught that love, community, and forgiveness — the possibility of redemption — is essential for humanity and a healthy society.

That is why to learn of people who have permanently lost their citizenship rights because they have come into contact with a criminal justice system that we know is uneven at best and discriminatory at worst rings so wrong to me.

A parable I often draw on when I preach about forgiveness and redemption is that of the Prodigal Son. In the story, a younger son takes his inheritance early, leaves his family and squanders it all in wild living. Penniless and starving, the son returns home hoping to at least work as a servant for his father. Instead, when the father sees his son, he is filled with compassion, and rather than punishing him, he welcomes him home, offering a new beginning. Yes, we may all struggle to live this unconditional love as fully as the father, but all of us, at different times in our lives, are in need of forgiveness and second chances. And just like in a family, society and community begin to fall apart without practices of restoration and redemption.

In Florida, like in many states, too many people do not receive such a welcome. A criminal justice system that is not focused on successful re-entry can neither be considered just nor a service to our common good. Barriers to housing, employment, and the pride and ownership that comes with civic engagement erode our society rather than protect it.

I myself have spent a short time in jail as a result of religious acts of conscience. I have witnessed firsthand how our criminal justice system dehumanizes and punishes. I’ve known people beaten in jail and I carried scars on my wrists for years after, even though as a faith leader, I was handled with ‘relative’ care.

I am coming to Florida to support Amendment 4, because I do not want us to become a society where we so harden our hearts that one’s citizenship, and democracy itself, is withheld as a lifelong punishment with no chance for redemption.

Even when politics frustrates me and I feel disheartened by leadership, I keep voting. I do it because I remember that someone fought hard for me to have this right. I remember the women who organized, who marched, who went to jail and faced torture so that I would have the right to vote. The 15th Amendment which gave voting rights to African-Americans wasn’t passed until 1870, after the Civil War. The rights it enshrined weren’t extended to women until 1920. Native Americans didn’t gain the right to participate in elections until 1924. And it took the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to overcome the legal barriers that prevented black Americans from fully participating in citizenship and democracy.

Now in 2018, Floridians, more than a million of them, are fighting hard for their voting rights. And I will be there to support them.

As an American, we can see this moment as a chance to bring our laws closer in line with our highest values and proclamations. As a faith leader, I see this as a moment to bring the values of redemption more fully to our society for all citizens. Through the lens of criminal justice, Amendment 4 is a step forward toward a system with greater emphasis on rehabilitation, restoration, and reintegration.

And as a relative of Susan B. Anthony, I see Amendment 4 as a crucial contribution to the democratic promise of this country, one that has never been achieved without people organizing and pushing for it.

I will be in Florida because I do not believe that anyone should be permanently cast out. I will be there because the purpose of the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments was to prevent us from becoming the two Americas we’ve witnessed ourselves becoming. Amendment 4 will end disenfranchisement and strengthen democracy not just in Florida but nationwide.

I ask that all those who can vote, vote yes on Amendment 4, so others too will have that right to vote again.


Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray is the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association based in Boston Massachusetts. She is a first cousin, five generations removed, of Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement.

Joe Henderson: No time for politics with Hurricane Michael on its way

Politics seems so trivial in times like the Florida Panhandle is about to experience with Hurricane Michael. Petty red and blue arguments are out of place when a storm like this threatens everything and everyone in its path.

If you’re a Democrat and intend to vote with vigor for Bill Nelson to the U.S. Senate, you still should be rooting for his election opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, to carefully and successfully manage this horrible situation in the days ahead.

Same goes for Republicans who support Ron DeSantis for Governor. I sure hope they’re wishing for his Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, to be a steady and effective leader in this crisis. If it costs your man a few votes, at least you can be consoled by the fact it also might have saved some lives.

Only the most cynical and selfish person would think otherwise.

There is an appropriate time to question how leaders stepped up during a storm like this, but for the next few days, everyone just needs to be a Floridian. Think we’re up to it?

I hope we are.

But here is a reality: Hurricane Michael likely will cause catastrophic damage, and that can’t be fixed overnight. When Hurricane Irma blew through Tampa last year, some people went many days without power. There were flooded streets. Fallen trees and large limbs blocked some roads and it took a while to get them all clear.

Grocery stores had near-empty shelves for many days after the storm.

But as Floridians, we had each other and that’s how we got through it all — well, that, peanut butter, Chunky soup, and the stockpile from the local ABC store you safely stashed away.

At my home, power was out for a few days but people on the other side of the street had lights. So, you know what a neighbor did? She allowed us to run a long extension cord from her outdoor outlet to our house to keep the refrigerator going.

A small thing maybe, but it made life a little bit easier in a trying time.

Random acts of kindness like that will be in high demand in the next few days.

Charitable agencies will be looking for contributions, and I’m sure Floridians — and thousands of people from other states — will step up. But thank the workers, too.

I think one of the great things we see in this country is when workers from power companies all over the country head into a disaster zone to get the lights back on as quickly as possible. They’re working extra-long days away from their families and the lives they know just to help strangers get back on their feet.

If and when scoundrels try to take advantage of a natural disaster with price-gouging, looting, or bogus insurance claims, thank law enforcement officials when they make these mopes pay for their behavior. We had a FEMA rep show up at my house months after Irma hit to process the claim we made for our roof and other damage.

One problem: We didn’t have any significant damage and we hadn’t filed a claim. But somebody had our address and other information and was also trying to bill the government under our name for staying several weeks in a local hotel.

Storms like Michael are just the price we pay for living in Florida, and some bad people will try to take advantage of that. As we always find out though, the good outnumber the bad by a lot.

What’s about to happen here isn’t red or blue.

If somebody in authority really messes up, there will be time before the election to deal with that. But for now, just remember that Hurricane Michael isn’t red and isn’t blue, and that means we’re all in this together.

Rabbis Steven Engel, Jack Romberg: Take anti-Semitism out of Florida politics

Are politics in Florida truly descending to the lowest level?

We ask that because of articles appearing around Florida in which the Ron DeSantis campaign accuses Mayor Andrew Gillum of being anti-Israel, and Chris King along with Gillum of being anti-Semitic.

As the rabbis of two major Jewish communities in Florida, we object to any campaign using the politics of fear to influence our people.

The accusations of Gillum being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic are based on his endorsement by the Dream Defenders, a group connected to Black Lives Matter, which has taken an anti-Israel position.

Their endorsement of Gillum has nothing to do with Israel, and everything to do with his concern for racial and bigotry issues in our country. If we were to stoop to that level of politics, we could accuse DeSantis of being a white nationalist, possibly a racist and maybe even anti-Semitic. Why? Because DeSantis is a former co-manager of a Facebook page that contained racist remarks. In addition, there are white nationalists supporting his candidacy.

Does that actually make him a racist?  We would say no because neither of us personally knows Mr. DeSantis; so, to judge him on that level would be totally unfair.

However, between the two of us, we know Mayor Gillum and Chris King.

I, Rabbi Romberg, have served as the rabbi of Temple Israel in Tallahassee since July 2001. Temple Israel is the largest Jewish congregation along the North Florida I-10 corridor outside of Jacksonville.

I met Andrew Gillum 15 years ago through a congregant serving on the Tallahassee City Commission with him. In 2006, our Jewish community lobbied to have Tallahassee become a sister city to Ramat Hasharon in Israel. Then-Commissioner Gillum was extremely supportive of that project and, when it became official, traveled to Israel.

I accompanied him and our Mayor at that time on their tour of Israel. I witnessed Gillum’s positive impression of Israel’s great success as a country, answered questions about the country’s history and joined him in exploring Israel’s culture.

In later years, Gillum made two more trips to Israel, which taught him the difficulties Israel faces and deepened his appreciation for having strong economic ties between Israel and Florida. It also solidified his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Just as important as supporting policies regarding Israel, Gillum’s has shown strong support for Tallahassee’s Jewish community. Here is one example — Temple Israel’s largest fundraising event is our annual Jewish Food and Cultural Festival. As both a Commissioner and Mayor, Gillum has volunteered numerous times to work at the festival. He never wanted to be the center of publicity or attention, but simply worked alongside a group of our congregants, making and serving sandwiches.

I, Rabbi Engel, have been the rabbi of Congregation of Reform Judaism for 21 years.

It is Orlando’s and Central Florida’s largest congregation. I am also a co-host of a weekly radio show called “Friends Talking Faith” along with a Reverend and an Imam.

Through my interfaith work, and on a personal level, I know Chris King. He and I also have many mutual friends who we are both very close to. It is antithetical to everything I have heard Chris say and do, in public and private, to think that he is anti-Semitic.

In fact, he is one of the most open, embracing and empathic religious people I know. After the Pulse massacre here in Orlando, he quickly reached out to support the LGBTQ community as a religious person.

He has many close friends who are my synagogue members who he confides in as if they were his own family.

The incident that is being used to smear Chris was simply a young adult misspeaking. He has taken responsibility for his words and apologized in a repentant way. This was ignorance and not anti-Semitism.

To not admit the difference and use it to smear someone is dishonest. The irony is that at the same time this happened, Chris was being targeted for being a Christian. He knew what it felt like to be targeted and also had a brother who was targeted. I know that as a person of faith, Chris would never do the same thing to others that was done to him. It is simply not in his character, nor in the family that raised him.

This charge of Chris King being anti-Semitic is a despicable tactic being used to scare Jews away from him. Jewish Floridians should not fall for this, because our history exemplifies the many times people have branded us and hurt us, without knowing us.

For us to do the same to anyone else is inconceivable.

Both of us ask that rather than engage in character denigration, all political candidates and those supporting their campaigns, show respect for Florida Jews by sharing their policy plans regarding economics, the environment, education, health care and yes, continuing to improve our relationship with Israel.

The Jews of Florida care about what is best for all people of our great state.

You will not impress our community through the low-level politics of personal degradation.


Rabbi Steven Engel is from Orlando. Rabbi Jack Romberg is from Tallahassee.

Joe Henderson: With Hurricane Michael bearing down, state leaders must excel

When you see Governor Rick Scott put on the Navy ballcap, stuff’s about to get real. It has become his trademark look when taking the lead role as warner-in-chief during past Florida hurricanes, and we can expect more of the same in the coming days as Hurricane Michael takes aim on the Panhandle.

With this potential Category 3 monster approaching, Scott is already sounding the familiar warnings of the impending emergency and for residents to find safe shelter or get out of Dodge before it’s too late. 

Well, that’s what he should do – and most people believe some of Scott’s best moments have come during these tense situations with the potential for disaster. The stakes are even higher now, both for Scott and Democrat and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

This time, the October surprise came from the National Hurricane Center. What’s about to happen here should be about people and saving lives, but there is no escape from the fact it also comes with major political implications.

How the Governor and the Mayor perform in the days leading up to the storm and its aftermath could tilt close elections in their favor – Scott, for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Bill Nelson, and Gillum in what has become an increasingly snippy race for Governor against Republican Ron DeSantis.

There really isn’t much Nelson or DeSantis can do to keep the spotlight off their opponents, either – although Nelson, to be fair, was visible along with Republican senatorial counterpart Marco Rubio during last year’s bouts with Mother Nature.

But Scott will have all the cameras focused on him for updates as the storm gets closer. And with Florida’s strategic importance in the national political picture, he won’t have any trouble getting whatever aid people need to be delivered from FEMA in a timely matter when the storm is gone – probably with lots of free media coverage on TV, too.

Republicans, meanwhile, have already opened attacks against Gillum for his performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Hermine in 2016, when much of Tallahassee’s power infrastructure was damaged.

In an ad that has been appearing around the state in recent days, Republicans claim Gillum refused help from outside workers waiting to help restore power to the city. DeSantis said Gillum was waiting for unionized workers to arrive on the scene, a claim vigorously disputed by Barry Moline, the former head of the Florida Municipal Electric Association.

In the Sun-Sentinel newspaper, Moline said the decision about accepting extra was made by him and Tallahassee’s general manager of electric utilities. Under Tallahassee’s form of government, Gillum was not empowered to make that call.

“Any claim that suggests the mayor had anything to do with rejecting crews is a flat-out lie,” Moline said. “It’s wrong. It’s false. It didn’t happen. The mayor wasn’t involved with selecting or choosing crews to bring into Tallahassee.”

But, the ads keep airing and the image DeSantis is painting of Gillum might stick with enough voters to turn a close election. 

The image of Gillum, shovel in hand to help fill emergency sandbags, that was being circulated Monday afternoon on Twitter may help to blunt some of that.

Performing exceptionally in the coming days would blunt all of it though.

Hurricane Michael a real-life situation far too familiar to this state, and how the men who want to lead it to show what they can do under real pressure will go a long way toward determining if Floridians believe they’re up to the job.

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