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More than 28,000 Venezuelans in Central Florida vote to oppose Nicolás Maduro in straw poll

The rapidly-growing Venezuelan community in Central Florida sent a message home and to Florida and American politicians with a vote Sunday they said drew more than 28,000 people who waited hours in line at six poling places to vote overwhelmingly to condemn the government and policy of that country’s dictator Nicolás Maduro.

Led by radio show host William Diaz of Orlando, who also is Central Florida director of Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, a unified coalition of Venezuelan political parties, the straw poll more than quadrupled the turnout expected by organizers of Central Florida refugees and Venezuelan-American permanent residents and naturalized American citizens.

“Locally, we were prepared to get about 6,000 votes,” Diaz said  at a press conference held Tuesday at the Saint Issac Jogues Catholic Church in southeast Orange County.

The referendum was quasi-official, as it was organized and directed internationally by the opposition parties within Venezuela,

Statewide almost 150,000 votes were cast Sunday, and 700,000 total internationally in the straw poll, said Venezuelan refugee Samuel Vilchez.

“The results are incredible,” Diaz said.

All but five of the 28,328 votes cast in Central Florida, backed by signatures, Venezuelan identification numbers and thumb prints, voted yes on three questions that essentially declared opposition to Maduro and called for restoration of the country’s previous constitution, Diaz said.

Whether that message might have any affect on Maduro and his government, Diaz and others gathered for a press conference announcing the results said it should announce to the world how strong and determined the refugee community is in Florida, particularly in Central Florida.

“I know and I understand we have a new voting power in Central Florida, the Venezuelans” said Luis Figueroa, an official with the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida who volunteered to be a poll observer.

“It was really motivating, it was inspiring, to see so many people passionate about their country, passionate about their freedom, passionate about their family members who are still back there, and hoping, some day, to go back to their country as a free country,” said state Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican.

The resulting turnout led to long lines, but people were patient and eager to vote, Figueroa said He said he knew one woman who waited in line more than six hours and was happy to do so. The polling places were set to close at 5 but at least one stayed open until 10 p.m. The organizers quickly ran out of ballots and kept nearby Office Depot and Staples very busy on Sunday, they said. Nearby restaurants like a Panera’s Bread were swamped.

Diaz and Vilchez said the Venezuelan community got plenty of assistance from non Venezuelans such as Plasencia and Figueroa, from Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans and Anglo-Americans to run the polls on Sunday.

The vote also was a coming out for the strength and unity of the Venezuelan community, Diaz said. He said there were thousands of people who came who could not vote because they were too young, or because, for various reasons, they could not qualify, and estimated there were 50,000 people who showed up at the polling places. Therefore, he estimated 100,000 Venezuelans live in Central Florida.

“I was here on Sunday morning and I was completely floored by what I saw. It was incredible,” Plasencia said. “To see the number of people voting, from one country, in one day, I was awestruck.”

The rapid expansion of the Venezuelan community has been apparent to local officials. Earlier this month the Orange County Public Schools said Venezuela is now the top origin of transfer students from outside the United States, ahead of Puerto Rico. Likewise, Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph said his driver’s license bureaus have seen dramatic numbers of people from Venezuela seeking driver’s licenses.


Mike La Rosa draws Democrat challenger

St. Cloud Republican Rep. Mika La Rosa picked up a Democratic challenger in his re-election bid House District 42 Monday.

Barbara Cady is the first major-party opponent to file against La Rosa for 2018. Last month, no-party candidate Lonzell Ivory Jr. opened up a campaign account for the seat, which covers parts of Osceola and Polk counties.

Cady attended the Democratic National Convention last year as a delegate for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and was the lead coordinator for Clinton’s campaign in Osceola County. On Twitter, Cady describes herself as a “liberal progressive, radical feminist, freedom fighter, human rights activist.”

The Kissimmee Democrat is also a SUNY New Paltz alumna who holds a degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Despite having more registered Democrats than Republicans, HD 42 has a reliable GOP lean and La Rosa will likely waltz into a fourth term.

Last year, the 35-year-old Republican went up against Democrat Benny Valentin on Election Day and won by more than 10 points. In 2014, a mid-term election year, his margin was more than 20 points over Democratic challenger Chad Carnell.

So far this cycle, La Rosa has raised about $32,000 and has $18,000 of that money on hand. Ivory has not yet reported any monetary contributions to his campaign, and Cady’s first campaign finance report will not be available until mid August.

Sam Allen seeks to push ACA in challenge of Daniel Webster

Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster has picked up a Democratic challenger in Florida’s 11th Congressional District, with Samuel Allen seeking to make the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of his campaign.

Allen, 30, of Tavares, is a telecommunications specialist who once ran unsuccessfully for town council in Howie-in-the-Hills in Lake County,

While he’s ready to campaign on issues such as education, particularly higher education, he said the Republican health care bills and attacks on the Affordable Care Act motivated him to run, and will be the foundation of his challenge of Webster, a four-term member of Congress who’ll be seeking his second term representing CD 11, which covers of Lake, Sumter, Marion, Citrus and Hernando counties in west-central Florida.

This is an overwhelmingly Republican district, as the GOP has a 15 point advantage in voter registration, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index. In 2016, his first run in CD 11 after moving from neighboring Florida’s 10th Congressional District, Webster drew 65 percent of the vote against a Democrat and an independent.

Allen does not yet have any political consultants, nor any campaign insurance short of his Howie-in-the-Hills run in 2004.

“The reason I’m running is I believe the Affordable Care Act is something to be built upon. What has been put forth in both the House and the Senate is atrocious,” Allen said. “What it will do for Floridians, is not OK. I’ve decided to run to make changes for the 11th District of Florida, and for all Americans.”

His plan: expanding Medicaid to allow a tiered buy-in by people who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid now.

“I think that will be not only helpful, but it would be the most cost effective way to make sure that health care is affordable and available for all Americans,” Allen said.

Webster held out for a long time this spring before voting yes on the American Health Care Plan, which was approved by the House of Representatives 217-213, but has been ignored so far in the U.S. Senate.

“Dan Webster showed himself, with the health care act,” Allen said.

Allen is married with three children, and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history from Arizona State University.


Jason Brodeur now at more than $450K raised for Senate bid

Through the end of June, Republican Rep. Jason Brodeur had more than $450,000 on hand between his campaign account and his committee account for his 2020 state Senate run.

Brodeur has run into term limits in his current House District 28 seat and filed to run for the Senate District 9 seat currently held by Republican Sen. David Simmons.

His fundraising got off to a quick start, with more than $400,000 in the bank ahead of the start of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Since then, he has raised $50,450 through his campaign and $125,500 in committee cash, much of it coming in the first few days of March before session began.

March committee money included $25,000 from Disney, $10,000 from Gulf Coast Health Care, and $5,000 a piece from Growing Florida’s Future, Walgreens, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and many others.

May saw $16,500 from The Committee for Justice, Transportation and Business, chaired by lobbyist David Ramba, and June included $10,000 from the GOPAC Election Fund and $5,000 from Florida Power & Light, among a handful of other donors.

The campaign cash came in through 75 contributions, including 39 for the maximum donation of $1,000. Donors included Teco Energy, Publix, Charter Communications and many others.

The last few months have also seen the Sanford Republican spend $36,488 in committee money and nearly the same amount from his campaign coffers, leaving him with $337,000 in his committee, “Friends of Jason Brodeur,” and $113,000 on hand in his campaign account.

The only candidate filed to run against Brodeur so far is Oviedo Democrat James Ashby, who entered the race in mid May. He has yet to show any contributions to his campaign.

SD 9 has a health Republican lean. The district has about 17,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats and Mitt Romney would have carried the seat by 8 points back in 2012.

The district covers all of Seminole County and part of Volusia County.

Rick Scott reassigns 2 more Aramis Ayala cases, involving alleged child killers

Gov. Rick Scott has reassigned the cases of two women accused of abusing a three-year-old Orange County boy to death, transferring their cases from Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala to Ocala’s State Attorney Brad King.

The transfers are like more than 20 others the governor has reassigned from Ayala to King since March, when Ayala, the elected state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, said she would not pursue the death penalty in any murder cases in her district under Florida’s current laws.

This time the transferred cases involve an incident that occurred earlier this year, in which Callene M. Barton and Lakesha C. Lewis were arrested for allegedly beating the pre-school son of their other roommate with a window blind rod, and then throwing him down a flight of stairs. The boy died.

Scott’s authority to reassign such cases, and Ayala’s authority to refuse to pursue death penalty prosecutions, are in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court. The two took to the Supreme Court to battle out what outside interests have called a major case defining the powers of elected state attorneys and governors. The two made their oral arguments last week. A decision could come any day.

The case and the stakes involved have divided legal and lawmaking authorities, not just in Florida but nationally.

Lewis, 28, was booked earlier this month on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

Barton, 58, was booked earlier this month on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and tampering with a witness.

Anna Eskamani draws 10 Democratic lawmakers’ endorsements in HD 47

Democratic candidate Anna Eskamani announced the endorsements Monday of 10 Democratic members of the Florida House of Representatives in her bid for Florida’s House District 47.

In addition to the endorsements from Democratic state Reps. Amy Mercado and Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando, announced earlier, the backing comes from Democratic state Reps. John Cortes of Kissimmee, Daisy Baez of Coral Gables, Emily Slosberg of Delray Beach, Evan Jenne of Hollywood, Lori Berman of Boynton Beach, Robert Ascencio of Miami, Sean Shaw of Tampa and Shevrin Jones of West Park.

Eskamani, or Orlando, filed to run for what would be an open seat representing east-central Orlando including downtown, Winter Park and much of central Orange County. Republican incumbent state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park, filed to run for Congress instead of re-election.

Eskamani is the only candidate in the race so far.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Anna since she was a UCF College Democrat,” Mercado, a former Orange County Democratic chair, stated in a news release issued by Eskamani’s campaign. “She is an amazing individual who puts all her energy and passion in rolling up her sleeves to fight for community, which is exactly what we need in Tallahassee. She will be an amazing addition to the Florida legislature.”

Bruno Portigliatti out with first TV spot of HD 44 special election

Republican Bruno Portigliatti has launched his first TV commercial of the House District 44 campaign, an introductory spot declaring, “Now, you know Bruno.”

The spot is airing on the Fox News channel on the Spectrum cable network in Orlando.

“Do you know Bruno?” the playful spot begins, followed by Portigliatti himself smiling, almost laughing, responding, “Yeah, I know Bruno.”

Bruno faces John Newstreet, Bobby Olszewski, and Usha Jain in the Aug. 15 primary to fill the vacant HD 44 seat representing southwest Orange County. The winner will face Democratic nominee Paul Chandler in the Oct. 10 general election to replace former state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, who resigned this spring.

The 30-second ad, done by Consensus Communications in Orlando, then follows with several neighborly-looking people standing on front porches or a sidewalk declaring, “Bruno’s in my church.” “Bruno’s an experienced businessman.” “He’s not the politician that the establishment wants.”

The narrator then declares him to be conservative, someone who shares the values of lower taxes, less red tape, better schools, and better roads.

“There are a lot of politicians on the ballot,” Portigliatti declares, with a laugh. “But I’m the only Bruno.”


Space groups hailing appointment of Scott Pace as National Space Council executive

While Vice President Mike Pence prepares to take over American space policy as chairman of the resurrected National Space Council, space exploration advocates are hailing his choice as the panel’s executive secretary, Scott Pace.

Pace is a former space policy advisor in the administration of President George W. Bush and an academic who currently is director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, one of the leading space policy think tanks in the world.

“Scott is a leader who will serve the National Space Council well. We look forward to working closely with Scott and the rest of the NSC to advance the United States space enterprise by leveraging the U.S. commercial space industry’s vision, investment, and innovation,” Commercial Spaceflight Federation Chairman Alan Stern, a former NASA official who was the leader of the recent Pluto exploration mission, said in a written statement. The federation represents companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Space Florida.

Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, which represents companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK, said Pace will bring a “trusted perspective to the council.”

“Dr. Pace’s unique combination of experience in government, the private sector, and academia, and his internationally-recognized expertise in space policy, make him an exemplary selection,” she said in a written statement. “Scott has long been a supporter of NASA’s deep space human exploration, science, and technology programs and of space commerce, and is a recognized leader supporting U.S. geopolitical interests in space.”

The White House announced late Thursday that Pace would be the day-to-day guy behind the National Space Council, which is being reactivated this summer for the first time since 1993.

Pence was at Kennedy Space Center last week, and besides infamously placing his hands on a spacecraft with a sign reading “Do not touch,” he impressed the NASA audience there with his promises to re-energize America’s space programs, to fully commit to a human trip to Mars, and to return to the moon in the meantime.

Pace also served as an associate administrator at NASA in the 2000s, and as a policy analyst with the RAND Corporation’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.

[Photo by and courtesy of William Atkins/The George Washington University.]


Val Demings sharing Central Florida ACA stories

U.S. Rep. Val Demings is responding to the latest U.S. Senate health care bill by soliciting, gathering, videotaping and posting stories of Central Florida residents helped by the Affordable Care Act.

The stories begin with one about someone identified only as a Central Florida small business owner named Kirk, who begins his testimonial by complaining that the price of health insurance had climbed too high, but says he came to appreciate it when he got stage-four bladder cancer.

“When I was diagnosed with that, we were on the ACA,” Kirk said. “By having that insurance coverage in place already, that’s really what helped me survive. Before the ACA, I would have lost my insurance. I would have lost my health care.

“So the laws ACA put in place helped protect people like me to not be discriminated against just because we are sick. It’s not any fault of my own because I have cancer,” Kirk states. “I look at the future and think, ‘What’s going to happen if these protections for pre-existing conditions are taken away?’ It scares me. It scares me to death, quite literally.”

Kirk’s video is one of 10 that Demings has gathered so far that she intends to share on social media, according to a press release from her office.

Demings, a Democrat from Orlando, said she wants to work with Republicans and Democrats to fix the current health care laws, not to repeal them.

“It was so important for me to hear the stories from people in Central Florida who have been affected by the ACA, whether their experience has been positive or negative,” Demings stated in the release. “We know the ACA is not perfect, but let’s work together to make it better, and I’m hoping by sharing some of these stories I can show why that is so important.”

John Newstreet defends residency in, commitment to House District 44

Republican House District 44 candidate John Newstreet dismissed questions Friday about whether he actually lives in the district, and for how long, seeking to end a whisper campaign that publicly surfaced during a debate Thursday.

At the West Orange County Republican Women’s Club debate Thursday Newstreet fielded a question about whether he truly was an area resident, and if so for how long. The answer was: yes, off and on for 13 years, and continuously for the past 16 months.

“I have lived in this district long before deciding to run for office and have paid property taxes in this district for nearly a decade,” Newstreet said in a statement sent to FloridaPolitics.com to clarify the issue.

“I sit in the same traffic as everyone else, I buy my groceries at the Publix on Conroy, I’ve called Holy Family Catholic Church my parish for years and I have witnessed the growth of this district first hand,” he added.

The question raised Thursday may have been legally irrelevant; Florida law requires office holders, not candidates, to live in the district. In other words, any election winner who doesn’t live in the district simply has to move there before taking office. And Newstreet’s residency is established regardless.

But in HD 44, where four candidates are preparing for the Aug. 15 primary, the issue has become more about who has roots in the district.

HD 44 covers southwest Orange County, which has some historically-old communities, but also some of the newest and fastest growing communities in Central Florida.

Newstreet faces Winter Garden businessman Bobby Olszewski, Orlando businessman Bruno Portigliatti, and Dr. Usha Jain in the primary. The winner would face Lake Buena Vista businessman Paul Chandler, the Democrats’ nominee, in the Oct. 10 general election.

Newstreet first moved into the district in 2004, though job opportunities have occasionally moved him out. He bought his current house in the Orange Tree subdivision in 2008, and left in 2012 for a job in Broward County, renting out the house. When he returned in 2013 to become president and chief executive officer of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, his tenants still were under lease, so he rented a place in Osceola County, and moved back into the Orange Tree house in April, 2016.

“I never sold the home because I love this area,” Newstreeet said in the statement.

“A state legislator works on the issues affecting all Floridians. My experience across Florida is a distinct advantage in Tallahassee,” Newstreet added. “I’m not a perpetual politician.”

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