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SpaceX finally sets maiden launch of Falcon Heavy: January

After years of soft scheduling that has kept pushing its debut out into the future, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, is being prepared for its maiden launch from Kennedy Space Center in January.

The Falcon Heavy, essentially three Falcon 9 rocket boosters together, is designed to be the most powerful rocket the world has seen since NASA retired the Saturn V in 1973. The Falcon Heavy is designed for both heavy-payload Earth orbit missions and deep-space missions, capable of reaching the farthest depths of the solar system.

And like the Falcon 9 rocket, the Falcon Heavy was conceived as one day taking astronauts into space. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has proposed using it for the company’s privately-run mission to get astronauts to Mars.

SpaceX has not announced a specific date yet for the debut launch, which is being called a demonstration mission. But on Thursday the company announced the blast-off is being targeted for January. Should weather permit, the rocket’s ascent should be visible through most of the Florida peninsula.

The launch will come from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX has leased and rebuilt to accommodate its Falcon rocket line, including the Falcon Heavy. It’s the same launch pad that many of the Saturn Vs launched from between 1967 and 1973 carrying Apollo moon and Skylab missions.

The Falcon Heavy would produce more than 5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off. SpaceX says the Falcon Heavy will have the ability to lift 54 metric tons of payload into orbit, more than twice that of the Space Shuttle rocket system, and more than twice that of any other rocket in use today.

The Falcon Heavy’s claim to being the world’s most powerful rocket will hold until NASA completes its next big rocket, the Space Launch System, which also has seen its debut date drift in time through various delays. It’s now set for a 2020 debut, also from Kennedy Space Center, from the other launch pad of the twins, Launch Complex 39B.

Bobby Olszewski, Rene Plasencia, Anna Eskamani, lead Central Florida House campaign gains

Five Central Florida candidates for the Florida House each raised more than $10,000 for their campaigns in November, including incumbent Republican state Reps. Bobby Olszewski, Rene Plasencia, David Santiago, and Bob Cortes along with first-time Democratic candidate Anna Eskamani.

Olszewski of Winter Garden, who took his seat after winning a special election in October, reported raising $14,000 in November — top among Central Florida candidates for the Florida House. That gave his re-election campaign about $17,000 after expenses going into December.

He has two Democratic opponents, neither of whom reported raising any money in November. Dawn Antonis of Winter Garden began and ended November with $1,355 cash in her campaign. Matthew Matin of Winter Garden has not yet reported any campaign financial activity.

Not far behind Olszewski in fundraising for November, Plasencia of Orlando brought in $13,500 for his re-election campaign in House District 50; Eskamani of Orlando raised $13,114 in her bid for House District 47; Santiago of Deltona, $13,100 for his re-election push in House District 27; and Cortes of Altamonte Springs, $11,125 in his re-election bid in House District 30.

Plasencia finished November with just over $61,000 in his campaign fund.

He also picked up an opponent, Pamela Joy Dirschka, 63, of Titusville, who filed to run on Dec. 8, and has not filed any campaign finance reports yet.

Eskamani finished the month with more than $110,000 in cash. She faces Republican businessman Stockton Reeves of Winter Park, seeking a seat expected to be open as Republican incumbent state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park is running for Congress.

Reeves reported raising $200 in November. He entered December with about $91,000 cash in hand, though almost all of that came from a personal loan.

Santiago finished November with almost $46,000 in the bank. His opponent, Democrat Tyran Basil did not report any financial activity in November and finished the month with $1,591 in hand.

Cortes finished November with $61,000 cash in his campaign account. His challenger, Democrat Clark Anderson of Winter Park, just entered the race in the last days of November and has not yet filed any campaign finance activity.

In other raises, Republican David Smith of Winter Springs reported raising $8,907 in November in the House District 28 race. He finished November with more than $139,000 in the bank. Democrat Lee Mangold of Casselberry reported raising $1,972. He finished November with about $7,300 in his campaign. They’re both seeking to replace Republican state Rep. Jason Brodeur.

Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon of Longwood reported raising $1,000, giving him about $38,500 in his re-election campaign in House District 29. His opponent Democrat Patrick Brandt of Longwood reported raising $150, finishing the month with $1,300 in hand.

In House District 31, Republican state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan reported raising $7,800 in November, and entered December with just over $18,000 in her campaign. Democratic challenger Debra Kaplan of Eustis reported raising $165, finishing the month with $4,300 in her campaign.

In House District 42, Republican state Rep. Mike La Rosa of St. Cloud reported raising $6,725, and entered December with about $42,100 for his reelection campaign. Democratic challenger Barbara Cady of Kissimmee reported raising $335, and finished November with about $3,900. Independent challenger Lonzell Ivory of Poinciana raised the first $200 for his campaign, and finished the month with that in the bank.

In House District 43, Democratic state Rep. John Cortes did not report raising any money in November, and finished the month with about $18,000 in his re-election campaign. He does not have an opponent.

In House District 45, Democratic state Rep. Kamia Brown of Ocoee did not raise any money in November and entered December with $10,350. She does not have an opponent.

In House District 46, Democratic state Rep. Bruce Antone of Ocoee did not report raising any money in November, and entered December with about $700 cash in his campaign. He does not have an opponent.

In House District 48, Democratic state Rep. Amy Mercado of Orlando reported raising $2,050, and finished November with about $17,600. She does not have an opponent.

In House District 49, Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando reported raising $2,110, and finished November with about $7,700. His opponent, Republican Pepito Aponte of Orlando, did not report any financial activity in November and entered December with $100 in his campaign.

In House District 51, three Republicans seeking to succeed outgoing Republican state Rep. Tom Goodson all had minimal campaign finance activity in November, and a Democrat entered the race in early December. Thomas O’Neill of Rockledge reported raising just $100, finishing the month with $5,900. Jeffrey Ramsey of Merritt Island did not raise any money in November, and finished the month with $15,700. Tyler Sirois of Merritt Island reported raising $150, and finished the month with $37,800.

New to the race is Michael Cavis Blake of Cocoa.

In House District 52, Republican state Rep. Thad Altman of Indialantic reported raising $1,500 and finishing the month with about $13,000. Republican challenger Matt Nye of Melbourne reported raising $2,535 in November, and entered December with $1,700.

In House District 53, Republican state Rep. Randy Fine of Palm Bay report raising $4,000. His re-election campaign entered December with about $65,000.

Jason Brodeur continues to rake in cash for 2020 Senate bid

Republican state Rep. Jason Brodeur continues to rake in campaign finance money for his 2020 bid for the Florida Senate, raising $19,229 for his official campaign and another $35,000 for his independent political committee in November.

Brodeur, of Sanford, leads all Central Florida state Senate candidates even though the election he’s shooting for is three years away. He now has raised more than $196,354 in his campaign fund, with $123,352 left after expenses, and another $1.3 million raised in Friends of Jason Brodeur Political Committee, with about $300,000 in that bank account on Dec. 1.

He is aiming for the seat being vacated by Republican state Sen. David Simmons in Seminole County.

Brodeur’s latest contributions include $10,000 from Committee of Safety Net Hospitals, $5,000 from grower June Simpson of Thonotosassa, and $5,000 from Mosaic for his political committee, and 15 maximum $1,000 checks for his official campaign, including $1,000 checks from lobbyist Ron Book and his law firm.

His Democratic opponent Fred Ashby of Oviedo reported $425 in contributions, giving his campaign just under $300 in the bank at the end of November.

Among those Central Florida Senate candidates running in the 2018 election, Republican state Sen. Dorothy Hukill of Port Orange had the largest November haul, bringing in $13,400, bringing her total contributions to $98,100. In her bid for reelection in Senate District 14, she has about $68,000 in the bank.

Her Democratic opponent Melissa Martin of Cocoa had a relatively strong month for a challenger, but not on the same scale as the incumbent. Martin reported raising $2,890 in November, giving her a total of $11,208 in contributions. She ended November with just under $10,000 in the bank.

Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala raised $6,500 in November, bringing his total contributions to $71,850. In his reelection bid in Senate District 12, he has about $55,000 in cash.

His Democratic opponent Gary McKechnie of Mount Dora entered the race only three weeks ago. His only campaign contribution was $258, which he donated to his own campaign. There also is another Republican in the race, Kaesha Gray of Ocala, who has not reported any campaign finance activity.

Among other 2020 re-election candidates, Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Senate District 11 reported raising $2,000 in November, and Republican state Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Senate District 17 reported raising $1,000. Meanwhile, neither Democratic state Sens. Linda Stewart of Senate District 13 nor Victor Torres of Senate District 15 reported raising any money in November. Bracy, of Oakland, entered December with $8,000 in the bank and Mayfield, of Rockledge, with $25,500. Stewart, of Orlando, who just opened her campaign two weeks ago, reported no money yet, and Torres, of Orlando, reported having $22,000 in the bank.

International elections award winners: Australia, Ecuador, Ireland, Seminole County

The Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Office has won an international award for elections, winning a first-place honor for reaching first-time voters, from the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies’ International Electoral Awards.

The award put the Seminole County office on the same stage as elections’ honorees from Australia, Ecuador, Ireland, Canada, and Mexico, among other countries. The only other American elections’ office to win one of the awards was from Los Angeles.

Seminole County won in the category of the First Time Voter Award, with honorable mentions being given to the Permanent Electoral Authority of Romania, and The League of Young Voters of the United Kingdom.

Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel did not attend the awards ceremony, held in Jordan. Dean Logan, county clerk for the Los Angeles County Registrar, picked it up for him.

Ertel said the award recognizes the efforts Seminole County has undertaken to register new voters in high schools, and then to engage them in thinking about how much power their votes give them. He said he’ll go into a high school, register the students to vote, and then tell them they’ve just gained power. He said invariably the students respond with “yeah, right,” attitudes and grumbling about the lack of power of young people.

He’s set them up.

After engaging them in a town-hall conversation about what things they’d like to see changed, and still getting some skeptical, cynical responses, Ertel calls on someone he’s planted in the back of the room, or calls someone on the phone and puts the speaker next to the microphone. A mayor. A school board chairman. Some other elected official. And that person then explains what 200 votes from that auditorium would do to his or her next election.

“It’s really cool,” Ertel said. “The students eat it up.”

This is the second major award his office has won recently. Last week Ertel announced his offices website had won a “Golden Web Award” from the The International Association of Web Masters and Designers,

After cutting murder plea deal, Aramis Ayala demands answers from Rick Scott

The ongoing conflict between Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and Gov. Rick Scott over her death penalty policies took another turn as Ayala cut a murder deal with a suspect that avoids a death penalty then answered the governor’s questions by asking her own questions.

Scott and Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, have been battling, at high stakes, since March when she first announced she would not seek capital punishment. Yet even since the Florida Supreme Court told her she cannot take that position and she relented, the conflict continues.

It’s now in a war of public records requests and information demands. Part of that has to do with the case of Emerita Mapp, who would have been Ayala’s first death penalty case. Scott charged Ayala missed a critical deadline, blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that, but then on Friday cut a plea bargain with Mapp in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence in an April slaying in Kissimmee.

Last week Scott’s General Counsel Daniel Nordby demanded detailed reports on how Ayala’s death penalty review process operated, and why she missed the deadline, and what she would do about it. Her response Monday continued to deny that the capital punishment case was compromised, and once again charged that the governor himself missed the case back when he was reassigning all potential death penalty cases to another state attorney.

“I would like to know what method/procedure you used in determining which cases you decided to take from my office,” Ayala wrote the governor on Monday.

She made it a records request. And she informed the governor that she had forwarded Nordby’s requests for information to her own public records department.

Brooke Renney to run Rob Panepinto’s Orange County mayoral campaign

Orange County mayoral candidate Rob Panepinto has hired seasoned Republican campaign grassroots organizer Brooke Renney to be his campaign manager.

Renney has led field operations for a number of campaigns including Gov. Rick Scott‘s re-election campaign in 2014, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera‘s U.S. Senate campaign in 2016, and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry‘s campaign. She’s also worked for the Republican Party of Florida and the Republican National Committee, and on the state of Republican state Sen. Tom Lee.

“I am excited to have Brooke on the team leading our day-to-day campaign efforts. Brooke has a demonstrated record of success working on campaigns all over Florida,” Panepinto, a Winter Park businessman, stated in a news release issued by his campaign. “I am confident Brooke will build a top-notch organization that will carry us to victory in 2018.”

The Orange County mayor’s race is officially non-partisan, but the parties are lining up to win it. Panepinto is up against Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, a Democrat; and Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette and Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, both Republicans. They seek to succeed Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who is term-limted, in the 2018 election.

“I am excited to work to elect the right mayor for Orange County. I believe Rob Panepinto is naturally suited for this seat and genuinely understands what it will take to make a thriving and dynamic community even better. Rob has the experience, vision and, most importantly, a plan to move Orange County forward by creating more economic diversity, educational opportunities, and public safety improvements. It will be an honor to introduce Rob to my friends in Orange County.”

Jerry Demings raises $109K in Orange County mayor’s race

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings reported raising more than $109,000 in November in his quest to get elected next year as Orange County mayor.

Demings’ November campaign finance reports are only for his official campaign fund. He also has an independent political committee, United For Orange County, which has not yet reported its November activity.

The November haul in his campaign fund brings its total to $305,603 in contributions. With expenses, Demings’ campaign had $277,130 left on Dec. 1.

Another candidate, Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke of Orlando reported raising $9,900 in November, bringing his total contributions to $19,200 since he entered the race in early October. Clarke had $18,400 in the bank on Dec. 1.

Businessman Rob Panepinto of Winter Park reported his campaign totals earlier this week. He raised $34,100 for his official campaign fund and another $15,000 into his political committee, Vision Orange County. With the money he raised in October, including a $100,000 loan he made to his campaign, Panepinto now has $204,530 in his campaign and $84,530 in Vision Orange County.

November reports still have not been posted for the fourth major candidate, Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette. He finished October with $52,000 in the bank.

Demings’ November haul was by far his largest, nearly three times greater than his previous best month. He received 210 individual checks, with 70 of them coming in for the maximum $1,000 donation. Ten of those maximum checks came from various companies and individuals associated with Full Sail University.

Pulse first responder with PTSD spurs call for mental health coverage

Stories of first responders to the 2016 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder, including a police officer dismissed Tuesday night, spurred several Orlando lawmakers Wednesday to renew their call for Florida’s Workers Compensation to provide mental health coverage for them.

Democratic state Sen. Victor Torres of Orlando and Democratic state Reps. Amy Mercado, and Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando responded Wednesday in particular to Corporal Omar Delgado, who on Tuesday was dismissed effective Dec. 31, from the Eatonville Police Department.

There are several bills in both the House and the Senate that seek to expand Workers Comp to cover first responder PTSD cases.

According to a news release issued Wednesday by the Florida Senate Democrats, Delgado has been struggling with PTSD since rescuing Angel Colon, a Pulse nightclub victim who was shot six times during the early morning of June 12, 2016, when a madman killed 49 and wounded 53 inside the popular gay nightclub. For the past few months Delgado has been working on administrative tasks for the police department. Tuesday evening the Eatonville Town council dismissed him.

“When our first responders engage in acts of bravery and display amazing valor in the line of duty they are rightfully praised and awarded medals. Too often, however, when they need treatment for work-related mental traumas they become disposable and struggle to receive the support they deserve,” Torres stated in the release.

Smith noted the Delgado case is not the first involving a Pulse first responder being terminated, and noted there are other cases statewide of first responders struggling with PTSD and even committing suicide.

“The story of Corporal Omar Delgado is just the latest example of how first responders in Florida are systematically denied the support they need when coping with PTSD. It is time we take action to change Florida law and start taking their mental health seriously.”

And Mercado added, “We ask and expect our first responders to put their lives on the line every day. But when we need to protect them we fail.”

Smith is a cosponsor of HB 629, introduced by state Rep. Robert Asencio, a Democrat from Miami who is a retired police captain, which would extend the workers comp benefits. There also is HB 227 by state Reps. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican, and Matt Willhite, a Wellington Democrat, which has numerous co-sponsors, including Smith and Democratic state Rep. John Cortes of Kissimmee, and Republican state Reps. Mike Miller of Winter Park and Scott Plakon of Altamonte Springs.

Torres’s senate version, SB 126, also has numerous co-sponsors, including Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Oakland. And another measure, SB 376 by state Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation, was unanimously approved Wednesday by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.

Yet several attempts failed in last spring’s Session.

“I have been fighting for two years to make sure the first responders who protect the public get the treatment they need,” Torres continued. “It is the right thing to do, not just for the first responders, but also for their families who are impacted by these mental traumatic injuries and need our support.”

House panel approves $750K to man injured in Orange County wreck

A House of Representatives panel approved a bill that would award $750,000 from Orange County to a man injured when his motorcycle was struck by a county work van in 2006.

The award, if it receives ultimate approval by the Florida Legislature, is far less than the $2.9 million awarded to Robert Allan Smith in a 2012 jury trial in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit Court, and less than the $2.8 million requested in a bill approved by the House last year.

But that previous bill failed in the Florida Senate, and the claim amount has since been reduced through settlements in the past year, according to the sponsor of HB 6517, state Rep. Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican.

Democratic state Sens. Victor Torres and Linda Stewart of Orlando are sponsoring the Florida Senate companion bill, SB 54.

Smith was injured on a residential street in the College Park neighborhood of Orlando when his motorcycle was struck by an Orange County government van. Smith wound up losing most of his right leg and fractured his lift fibula, foot and pelvis. He incurred more than a half-million dollars in medical bills, though most of that was paid by health care coverage, and continues to have medical problems and costs from the crash, including annual replacement or maintenance of his prosthetic leg, according to a special master’s report provided to the House Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee.

Smith sued Orange County. A jury found the van driver to be 67 percent responsible, and Smith 33 percent responsible, and recommended a judgment of more than $4.8 million. The court ultimately ruled for a $2.9 million judgment. Orange County paid the first $100,000, with the rest of the claim going to the Florida Legislature.

Orange County contended the accident was 75 percent Smith’s fault, but House Special Master Jordan Jones sided with the court, and called the $750,000 claim, “reasonable.”

The bill also agrees to waive the state’s Medicaid claims against Smith, and limits attorney and lobbyist fees.

If the bill passes, Orange County would pay the settlement largely from its self-insured retention fund, and partly from an excess insurance policy.

Governor’s office accuses Aramis Ayala of negligence, possible ‘willful disregard’

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration upped the pressure on Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala with a letter Monday demanding answers on why she apparently missed a deadline for filing notice of a death penalty case and accusing her of possible “willful disregard” of the law.

The letter from Scott’s general counsel Daniel Nordby might be setting the stage for a new round of battles between the governor and the state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit who refused for months to recognize Florida’s capital-punishment law, until she lost a legal battle with Scott in the Florida Supreme Court in August.

Scott had stripped 30 death-penalty cases from her jurisdiction during that time, but resisted harsher calls from her critics who wanted to see him take action, including possible ouster proceedings, against Ayala, who was elected in the fall of 2016, becoming Florida’s first African-American state attorney.

Nordby’s letter seems to be setting the stage for possible additional actions.

Ayala’s office replied late Monday that it had only just received the letter and would reserve any comments until after the office had looked into it.

The current matter hinges on the case of murder suspect Emerita Mapp, charged with killing one man and wounding another during a violent April encounter at a Kissimmee motel. After Ayala agreed to pursue death penalty cases following the Supreme Court decision, using a panel of assistant state attorneys that would not include her, Mapp became the first case that her office elevated to first-degree, capital murder.

But according to Scott, Ayala missed the filing deadline for a required Notice of Intent to Seek Death, when she filed it on Oct. 31, more than three weeks late.

“More troubling, your more recent public comments indicate that you were well aware of the deadline, but knowingly filed the notice long after it had elapsed,” Nordby wrote. “At best, this suggests negligence — and at worst, willful disregard — in the faithful performance of the duties of your constitutional office.”

Two weeks ago, after Scott first criticized her handling of the Mapp case, Ayala’s office disputed that she had missed the deadline, and contended that the capital case against Mapp had not been compromised in any way. She accused Scott of making misleading statements about the case. She also charged that if a deadline had been missed, it would have been Scott’s fault, because the governor’s office was meticulously identifying and transferring cases out of her office while their dispute over powers was underway at the Florida Supreme Court. And that period included the period of the Mapp case, she argued.

Nordby’s letter sought a number of things from Ayala, including explanations about how her dealt penalty review panel works, when it meets, and what it has done so far; explanations of why she had rejected an offer for assistance from Brad King, state attorney for Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit; and all records pertaining to the law firm and public relations firm she hired earlier this year to represent her in the case that went to the Supreme Court.

“In light of your office’s delinquent filing — and your ongoing attempts to blame others for your office’s failures — Floridians deserve to better understand what happened and what you intend to do to remedy the situation, and what steps you intend to take to ensure that a similar failure will never occur again,” Nordby wrote.

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