Orlando – Page 3 – Florida Politics

Darren Soto gets backing of Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC

Orlando Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto just received the backing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Political Action Committee, an endorsement he might need as a buffer against a possible primary challenge by a congressman who once was a big voice for that caucus.

“Darren Soto is a fighter for economic justice. He works tirelessly for working Americans, and he always has. He marches for civil rights and civil liberties — for Dreamers, for Muslims, for LGBTQ Americans,” Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC Co-Chair Mark Pocan said in a news release issued by Soto’s re-election campaign. “The struggle for women’s equality has no better friend than Darren. Soto supports healthcare for all, a strong social safety net, and robust protections for workers who want to organize and fight for better wages and working conditions.”

Right now the endorsement appears more as a possible weapon for Soto’s only opponent in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, Republican candidate Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud. Liebnitzky, whom Soto beat in 2016, is campaigning on a firm conservative platform and seeking to characterize Soto as too liberal for the district.

“He has only done what party leader [Nancy] Pelosi directed him to do, instead of taking care of the area,” Liebnitzky said. He added, “I guess I won’t lose any sleep tonight awaiting their endorsement.”

Yet off in the wings is the previous incumbent in the district, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who had been one of the most strident progressive Democrats in Congress during his three terms. Grayson reportedly has been talking to Democratic consultants, trying to assemble a team to possibly challenge Soto in a CD 9 primary. In the 2016 primary, Soto took a more moderate overall tack to defeat two Democratic opponents with purely progressive platforms and close ties to Grayson: his wife Dena Grayson, and former aide, Susannah Randolph.

In Congress Soto has striven particularly to be a strong environmental champion. Pocan also praised him for other issues.

“Soto knows we must defend our planet today — or our children will have no tomorrow. He’s not afraid to fight the corporate interests that created the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Wall Street financial crisis, and the opioid epidemic,” Pocan stated. “Darren knows that hard working Americans are hurt the most when greed runs wild, and he fights for those families with everything he’s got. Darren’s a rising leader with a bright future. The Progressive Caucus stands with Darren because he embodies progressive values — he stands for the people, not for the privileged.”

Central Florida Expressway Authority moves ahead with study of contentious Split Oak road

In a move with long-range ramifications for huge developments in Central Florida, road networks linking to the Space Coast, and promises assumed in the state’s nature preservation efforts, the Central Florida Expressway Authority Thursday moved ahead with a study of how best to push a new road through or around the state’s Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area.

The expressway authority’s board heard dozens of impassioned speakers ranging from leading environmental activists and affected homeowners to former Orange County Chair Linda Chapin and current Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla. They highlighted the needs and drawbacks of a road that one day is likely to be key to a huge new transportation network serving tens or even hundreds of thousands of future homes – and the prospect that a beloved and highly sensitive environmental area might be breached, and the state’s preservation pledge broken, to build that first road.

The area of southeast Orange County and northeast Osceola County already is being prepped for the first project, Sunbridge, of what is expected to be several decades worth of developments that would turn much of the Mormon Church’s Central Florida holdings, the 300,000-acre Deseret Ranch, into a huge new community by the end of the 21st century. Just about the entire area is vacant ranch land now, but it’s going to need roads.

That development, and already emerging longterm growth and traffic pressures in that region and on the Space Coast, led the Florida Legislature last year to expand the expressway authority to include Brevard County to the east, pegging the authority as the player to provide roads merging Central Florida to the Space Coast.

The first major road moving in from the west would be the planned extension of the Osceola Parkway from where it now ends south of Lake Nona, to head west and south well into the Deseret Ranch area, to link up with the Sunbridge Parkway coming in from the north, to serve the Sunbridge development now underway. Yet the Osceola Parkway extension has a limited corridor and difficult options. They could require it to either go through Split Oak, a nature preserve created under Florida’s Preservation 2000 program of the 1990s, or through existing neighborhoods, forcing eminent domain takings of mostly large, estate-style exurban homes.

On Thursday the board voted unanimously to approve a project development and environment study on the various alternative alignments, including the apparent favorite 1A, which would run the road through Split Oak, and also options that would go through neighboring housing areas, most notably the Lake Ajay Village. As a new board member whose home district has much to gain but not much at risk in the Split Oak controversy, Brevard County Commissioner Jim Barfield made the motion.

Chapin, the godmother of much of the longterm growth planning done in Orange County and of the Split Oak preservation deal, from her tenure as county chair in the 1990s, warned the board that it might be setting a precedent, certainly for Central Florida and possibly for all of Florida. She warned members against allowing developers to play “Let’s Make a Deal” with public lands in exchange for growth, and cautioned that if they go the route of carving up a nature preserve for legitimate public interest, they better make sure they get a really good deal from developers.

Sunbridge developer Tavistock Development Co. Vice President Clint Beaty in fact offered to continue talks with everyone as long as necessary, and urged the board to hit the pause button if it felt necessary.

But the board was ready to move forward.

“With the growth coming, that’s the big elephant in the room. Nobody up here is going to stop the growth that is coming,” said Expressway Authority Board Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr., chair of the Osceola County Board of Commissioners.

“I think we are at a moment in time where there is general agreement that we need this road for a variety of reasons that were put forward,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, another board member. “If in fact we need this, there is no reason to put it off five years or ten years when we’re going to be probably more restricted or limited in our options to actually accomplish it.”

Still, Dyer and others wanted to know more about the legal power the expressway authority might have with the Split Oak conservation charter.

They apparently soon may find out, because environmental activists wanting to stop the road from going through Split Oak are not only wondering the same thing, they’re preparing to go to court to find out.

Valerie Anderson, president of Friends of Split Oak Forest, Inc. and Chuck O’Neal, president of Speak Up Wekiva, Inc., said Thursday they intend to sue. They hope and intend to pursue the action all the way to the Florida Supreme Court to answer the question of whether state preservation covenants are in perpetuity, or can be, as O’Neal derided, tossed aside anytime a local government wants to build a new road.

“If you can put roads through the most protected conservation lands that there are in the state of Florida, those conservations mean nothing,” Anderson said.

The environmental community is united in its love of Split Oak but not united in its opposition to the plan. Charles Lee, director of advocacy for the Audubon Florida‘s Central Florida Policy Office, urged the board to aggressively pursue options to get Tavistock and others to piece together 1,500 acres of mitigation land, including some critical uplands, to swap for the affected portion of Split Oak

Board member Brenda Carey, a Seminole County commissioner, and Atlee Mercer, chair of the Osceola County Expressway Authority, which originated the Osceola Parkway extension plan and other road network plans before handing them off two years ago to the Central Florida Expressway Authority, insisted that roads can be built to minimize impact on environmentally sensitive lands, on long, high bridges with carefully engineered drainage, and that this could and should be done at Split Oak.

Mercer a former Osceola County commissioner, reminded the board that it was looking at plans for a whole network of new roads out of Osceola County heading northeast and east, preparing for the Deseret growth and essentially for a longterm merger of the Orlando-Kissimmee metropolitan area and the Space Coast of Brevard County.

“These roads haves been talked about for almost 30 years. We had a plan. We vetted it entirely. We passed it at our board. We passed it on to you. You chose to revisit it. That’s OK. I get it. But don’t lose site of that plan,” Mercer said. “I’m here to say that this road, this connection, is critical to the long-term health of Central Florida and the East Coast. And it needs to be constructed because it is an integral part of that southern beltway.”

But why here? the supporters of Split Oak demanded.

“Just because you can doesn’t make it right, especially when it’s been made very clear that you shouldn’t,” said longtime environmental activist Gretchen Robinson of Orlando. “Split Oak Forest is the canary in the coal mine, ladies and gentlemen. As Split Oak Forest goes, so go all conservation lands in Florida, and so goes the public trust. The public trust works like this: we the public entrust you a governing entity with taking care of something precious and vulnerable and irreplaceable.”

Anna Eskamani reports her HD 47 funds have topped $200K

Democratic Florida House District 47 candidate Anna Eskamani reported Tuesday that her official campaign and her independent political committee combined have now cleared the $200,000 level in contributions.

Eskamani, seeking to succeed Republican state Rep. Mike Miller, has raised $184,400 in her official campaign fund. Her camp said in a news release Wednesday that People Power for Florida, her independent political committee, has drawn $24,250.

Her campaign raised $15,816 in February, the eight-consecutive month it reached five figures in donations, and finished February with about $139,000 in the bank. The latest reports for People Power for Florida have not yet been posted by the Florida Secretary of State. Through January that committee had brought in only about $3,200, and had spent about half of that.

Eskamani, of Orlando, is gearing up to face one of two Republicans seeking the seat, which represents north-central Orange County including Maitland, Winter Park, downtown Orlando, and neighborhoods around it.

Neither Stockton Reeves VI of Winter Park nor Mikaela Nix of Orlando has announced February campaign finance results, and their reports have not yet been posted by the Florida Secretary of State. However, both of them held their campaign kickoff fundraisers in February. Reeves came into the month having raised $11,000 since last summer and has lent his campaign $90,000, so his campaign entered February with about $95,000 in the bank. Nix entered the race in late January, and her only campaign finance activity at that point had been $100 she put into her account to start.

Eskamani’s campaign now has received more than 1,600 donations since she entered the race last July.

“This is more than just a moment, this is a movement,” she said in a news release issued by her campaign. “I am an Orlando native and a daughter of working class immigrants who lost her mom to cancer at age 13. I never thought I would run for office one day, let alone raise more than $200,000 from over 1,600 individual donations in just eight months.

“I have been holding politicians accountable and pushing for common sense policy for the last ten years of my life,” she added. “It’s about time women like me march from our neighborhoods and into the Florida House.”

Carlos Smith’s $1M Pulse memorial amendment draws some Republicans, but fails

An attempt by Orlando Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith to get the state to provide $1 million to help build a Pulse nightclub memorial in Orlando drew some crossover votes from Republicans (including many from Central Florida) but failed in the House Tuesday night.

The proposed amendment, which would have added $1 million for the Pulse memorial to the $1 million for a Parkland memorial already included in House Bill 7026, the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” was voted down 67-49.

The proposal got yes votes from all Democrats, and eight Republicans, including five from Central Florida: state Reps. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs, Mike Miller of Winter Park, Bobby Olszewski of Winter Garden, Rene Plasencia of Orlando, and Scott Plakon of Longwood. They joined Smith and other Central Florida Democratic state Reps. Bruce Antone of Orlando, Kamia Brown of Ocoee, John Cortes of Kissimmee, and Amy Mercado of Orlando. Republican state Reps. Heather Fitzenhagen of Fort Myers, Chris Latvala of Clearwater, and Holly Raschein of Key Largo also voted yes.

Among the Central Florida delegation voting against the $1 million for the Pulse memorial fund were Republican state Reps. Jason Brodeur of Sanford, Mike La Rosa of St. Cloud, David Santiago of Deltona, and Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora.

The OnePulse Foundation has been planning and raising money for a major memorial and museum on the site of the former popular Orlando gay nightclub where 49 people were murdered in the early morning hours of June 12, 2016.

Smith, who has been intensely outspoken in trying to get the Florida Legislature to address Pulse alongside its efforts to address the Feb. 14 massacre at Douglas High School, declared on Twitter late Tuesday night that he was disappointed, but he expressed thanks “to the 8 Republicans who voted YES.”

“49 deeply symbolic votes in support of remembering our 49 angels,” Smith added.

Video: John Boehner backs Scott Sturgill for CD 7

Congressional candidate Scott Sturgill and picked up an endorsement from former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner during a March 1 campaign fundraiser.

The ex-politician promised to keep his endorsement short, telling the crowd at the event “as Elizabeth Taylor told her fifth husband, ‘don’t worry honey, I won’t be here long.’”

The former Ohio congressman then outlined his support for Sturgill, who is running for Florida’s 7th Congressional District. The Central Florida seat is currently held by freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, but Republicans are aiming for a flip in the fall.

“Scotty was a big help to me when I was trying to become speaker of the House back in ’09, ’10, and was there during my time as Speaker helping me do what I needed to do to raise money to re-elect a Republican majority,” Boehner said.

“And so, when Scotty and I ran into each other and he told me he was running for Congress, I went ‘WHAT!’”

“I think you had a few other adjectives,” Sturgill joked.

“I’m here tonight because Scotty’s a great guy, and I just want to say this: Elections are won and lost not based on what the polls say, not based on anything else other than who shows up to vote and how they vote,” Boehner said.

Boehner then recounted his longshot first campaign for Congress, and encouraged the crowd to open up their pocket books to give Sturgill a boost in the CD 7 Republican Primary, where he faces state Rep. Mike Miller as well as Patrick Weingart and Vennia Francois.

“The best way for him to win is to clear out the field,” Boehner said. “If he raises enough money, these other people will just go away. So, I would just urge all of you to step up and write the big check, get on with it, cause you’re going to do it sooner or later.”

Also attending the fundraiser were former U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams, Seminole County Republican State Committeewoman Susie Dolan and businessman and philanthropist David Maus.

Sturgill leads his primary opponents in the money race as of the end of 2017. His year-end report showed about $309,000 raised and $266,000 on hand compared to $220,000 raised and $185,000 on hand for Miller. Weingart and Francois have not yet filed their first campaign finance reports.

Murphy leads the overall field with $1.36 million raised and $973,000 on hand. Her primary challenger, Chardo Richardson had $8,700 in the bank at the start of the year.

Video of Boehner’s endorsement is below.

Democrat Neil Henrichsen enters HD 27 race in Volusia County

Democrat Neil Henrichsen, a former chair of the Duval County Democrats and founding member of Henrichsen Siegel law firm, has filed to run for House District 27, seeking to take on Republican incumbent state Rep. David Santiago of Deltona.

Henrichsen, 55, of Deltona, is the second Democrat into the race. But the other, Tyran Rayaad Basil, has raised little money and has shown minimal campaign activity — especially given his early start last April.

In Henrichsen, Santiago may be drawing a competitor with both deep ties to the state Florida Democratic Party and to fundraising. Henrichsen opened his law firm in Jacksonville but among the expansions is a Daytona Beach office, and Henrichsen said he has had a home in Volusia County for more than 10 years. The district covers south and west Volusia, including the cities of Deltona, Orange City and Debary, which essentially are suburbs of Orlando.

He is a past chair of the Duval Democratic Executive Committee and a past vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party County Chairs Association, and also has been active in Democratic Party politics in Volusia. His law firm focuses on labor, employment, civil rights, and civil litigation, with offices in Jacksonville, Daytona Beach, Miami, New York, and Washington D.C.

“Volusia County has always been a big home … and that’s a seat that should be Democratic,” he said. “It has a handful more registered Democrats and a representative in Santiago who has not done a lot for the district or the state.”

Henrichsen said he expects Santiago to be vulnerable for his vote. Two weeks ago, with survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre looking on in the gallery, Santiago was against allowing floor debate on House Bill 219, which would prohibit the sale, transfer or possession of assault weapons or large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Henrichsen also expects to go after Santiago on homeowners insurance in a county that’s been hit hard by hurricanes, and for being too tightly tied to the Florida Chamber of Commerce and its agenda.

Tom Stroup withdrawing from Orange County Sheriff’s race

Tom Stroup, a retired police captain, is withdrawing from the Orange County Sheriff’s race.

He made the announcement on Facebook over the weekend.

Stroup was the only Republican in the race. His withdrawal will leave Orlando Police Chief John Mina and retired Florida Highway Patrol Major Jose “Joe” Lopez as the only current candidates. Both Mina and Lopez are registered Democrats, but each changed from Republican last year. 

Mina officially is running as an independent in the partisan election, and Lopez is expected to also switch to an independent run.


Stroup, 60, retired in 2015 after 30 years of service. He entered the race in January to succeed Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, who is running for Orange County mayor. He’ll have to resign his current post, opening up a special election for sheriff.

Stroup said he is leaving the race so he and his family can focus on community activities.

“As I write this letter my first thoughts are how grateful I am for all of the unbelievable support from my family my friends and the citizens of Orange County. After much prayer and discussion with my wife, my family, and my friends I have decided that I will not continue my bid for the office of Orange County Sheriff,” he wrote. “My wife and I are very involved and committed to several community volunteer programs in addition to our family commitments and do not currently have the required time to dedicate to an effective election campaign.

“I will, however, continue to pursue other opportunities to serve my community in public service. Once again, thank you for all of your support. I would also like to extend the best of luck to the remaining candidates.”

UCF presidential search concludes this week

University of Central Florida Provost and Executive Vice President Dale Whittaker gets his turn in the hot seat Tuesday morning in the university’s search for its next president, set to be concluded Friday.

Whittaker, who has been with UCF for four years, joins three other finalists in the hunt to succeed retiring President John Hitt, along with University of Akron President Matthew Wilson, University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy, and Purdue University Executive Vice President Suresh Garimella.

Whittaker will have his turn in a UCF community open forum discussion at 11 a.m. on Tuesday at the student union [in the Pegasus Ballroom,] at which he’ll make a presentation and answer questions from the audience. Wilson had his forum last Friday, and Kennedy and Garimella will have theirs on Wednesday and Thursday.

The UCF Board of Trustees will then interview the finalists, review feedback from the campus visits, and select a president-elect on Friday. The Florida Board of Governors will vote on the selection March 28 or 29.

More than 30 people applied for the job, only a dozen or less had credentials close to what the search committee hoped to see. There were no politicians in the applicant pool.

Hitt completed his 26th year as president last week. He intends to stay until June 30.

UCF trustee David Walsh, who chaired the search committee, described the group of finalists as outstanding.

“Board of Trustees Chairman Marcos Marchena charged us with leading a ‘comprehensive, transparent and inclusive’ search … and I am confident we delivered on his charge,” Walsh said in a news release issued by the university. “We represent students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, trustees, community leaders and the Florida Board of Governors. We hosted four listening sessions on campus and in the community to solicit feedback about the search. Our online survey generated more than 1,400 responses.”

More on the finalists:

– In addition to his leadership roles, Whittaker also is a professor of civil, environmental and construction engineering. He has been Hitt’s right-hand man the past four years. Prior to that, he held several leadership posts at Purdue and Texas A&M University, topped by a stint as Purdue’s acting vice president for student affairs. He received his bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M, and his master’s degree and doctorate in engineering from Purdue.

– Wilson has been president of Akron for about 18 months, and interim president for a few months prior. He was credited with righting the ship there after the university lurched into financial problems. Wilson has a law degree from Temple University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah, and was a professor of law at Akron. He also had served as dean of the Akron School of Law and held several leadership positions in Temple’s Japan campus.

Kennedy has been president of North Dakota for almost two years. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan and bachelor’s degree from St. Johns University. Previously he served as the director of and professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

Garimella is executive vice president for research and partnerships and the Goodson Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue. He has earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, a master’s degree from Ohio State University, and a bachelor’s degree from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, India. He has held other leadership positions at Purdue and the U.S. Department of State, including as a senior fellow for energy and climate partnership of the Americas at the Department of State.

Bryan Nelson’s about-face on red-light cameras

Former Republican Rep. Bryan Nelson has shifted positions on red-light cameras now that he’s running for Apopka mayor, but it’s starting to look like the change wasn’t so much an evolution as it was a total 180.

Nelson was an outspoken champion of red-light cameras when he was in the Legislature, often promoting the controversial devices for improving the “safety” of Florida roads in the face of criticism labeling them as money grabs for local governments.

“Folks that’s safety,” Nelson said in 2010. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

While there wasn’t much research on whether red-light cameras tangibly improved road safety back then, a 2016 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides a heaping helping of vindication for Nelson and the other lawmakers who cast votes in favor of the devices.

That study found cities with the cameras had a 21 percent lower rate of red-light running fatalities than cities without the cameras.

Fast forward to 2018 and Nelson, the one-time staunch backer of red-light cameras, is putting out ads promising to take down every camera in the city if he gets elected.

He makes a couple points. Apopka is a bit out of control when it comes to red-light cameras. From 2012 through 2013 Apopka raked in over $3.6 million from red-light cameras – $200,000 more than the much larger City of Orlando.

And boy does it sting when that $158 ticket shows up in the mail. Maybe that explains why Nelson changed his mind.

So, one red-light camera enough to flip Bryan Nelson’s mind on cameras. A single $158 dollar ticket made him backflip on years of saying red-light cameras were the price to pay for road safety.

There’s also that study — the same one that vindicated Nelson’s 2010 “safety” claim — which shows cities that have cameras but choose to remove them see their red-light running fatalities spike by a third. Is $158 worth more to him than Apopka lives?

Nelson is running against incumbent Mayor Joe Kilsheimer.

The election is March 13.

Amy Mercado, Carlos Smith hear opinions on schools and guns bill

What are progressive Democrats to do when faced with an omnibus school safety and guns bill that has a few things they like but doesn’t have any of the major provisions they’ve insisted on, and also includes something that they worry might be a poison pill?

Democratic state Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Amy Mercado of Orlando laid that out as their dilemma Saturday during a town hall meeting in Orlando. The meeting included high school students, survivors of the 2016 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, along with school representatives, teachers, a mental health organization and Orange County School Board Member Daryl Flynn.

Smith and Mercado heard what sounded like universal opposition to provisions in the House school safety and guns bill that would authorize teachers and other school employees to become gun-carrying marshals, a provision that the two lawmakers agreed they could not support.

And the bill doesn’t come anywhere near what Smith and Mercado have been pushing for their two years in the Legislature, bans on the sales of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Yet there are the provisions, in the current bill, providing funding for mental health services, and for school counselors, as well as the bill’s limited gun reforms, including raising the minimum age for purchases, and the banning of bump stocks.

Is this a take-what-you-can-get and fight for the rest later moment? Smith and Mercado sought constituents thoughts, heading into Monday’s beginning of a hectic final week.

With dozens of amendments already on file on the House side and an uncertain direction for the Senate’s version during Saturday’s special session, Smith and Mercado acknowledged they did not know the language of every amendment. Mercado noted that she has an amendment awaiting the House version to make sure potential school marshals aren’t covered by “Stand Your Ground” protections allowing them to shoot someone just out of fear.

But many of the items in the bills have been sought for years.

“There’s going to be a lot of things in this bill that we don’t like, but there are some things that we do like. Anything that is funding for mental health, as Representative Mercado and I said, there have been a lot of people yelling for that for a long time,” said Eric Welch, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater  Orlando. “So anything that is funding for mental health… that we can get behind is certainly something that the mental health community can get behind.”

Many of the most powerful thoughts came from Pulse survivors talking about what they have suffered and what they have sought since that June 12, 2016, massacre in Orlando, and from students invited into the discussion from Orlando’s University High School, who spoke of how they have been affected by the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“It should not have to be that when I go to the bathroom in 7th period, and I’m concerned that, what if something happens and I’m in the bathroom? That’s not OK,” said University High student Athena Jain-etienne.

“I will provide in the future for my children so they will not have to have this concern… that they are not coming home,” she added.

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