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Darren Soto defends fundraiser as not affecting his efforts for Puerto Rico

While Puerto Rico got hammered by Hurricane Maria, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto defended his re-election campaign fundraiser he is holding Wednesday night in Kissimmee, home to Florida’s most concentrated Puerto Rican population.

Soto, a Democrat from Orlando, said he’s been in constant contact with Puerto Rico officials and readying federal financial support for the country’s recovery following both Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, and that those efforts will not be affected by Wednesday night’s event.

His fundraiser, starting at $100 for individual donations and going up to $1,000 donations for hosts, is set for 6 p.m. at the Seasons Florida Resort in Kissimmee.

Soto has touted his Puerto Rican heritage and advocated for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in Florida while in Congress. His district, which includes southern Orange County, eastern Polk County and all of Osceola County, has an estimated Puerto Rican population in the hundred thousands.

Hurricane Maria crossed onto the island Wednesday morning as a Category 4 storm and reports of  widespread damage and flooding are pouring from the island. The storm is expected to continue to ravage Puerto Rico well into the night.

Criticism of his decision to go forward with the fundraiser has been widespread on social media. Republican Wayne Liebnitzky, who faced Soto in the 2016 election and is campaigning for a rematch in 2018, called Soto’s decision “in poor taste.”

“I think it’s absolutely shocking, disgraceful,” Liebnitzky said. “That event needs to be cancelled. He needs to postpone it to a later date.”

Soto defended the event as not relevant to his efforts to help Puerto Rico.

“I have been in hourly contact with [Puerto Rico] Gov. [Ricardo] Rosselló‘s office, spoke at length with our House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen today in Jacksonville about Puerto Rico, FEMA funding, and am leading letters to ensure full financial support of Puerto Rico’s recovery over the next few days,” Soto said in a message to Orlando-Rising.com.

“Our efforts and readiness to advocate for an effective federal response will not be affected by an Osceola event with local Democratic activists,” he added.

Mike Miller gets Mel Martinez’ endorsement in CD 7

Former U.S. Sen. and former Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez has endorsed state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park in the battle for Florida’s 7th Congressional District, Miller’s campaign announced Wednesday.

“Mike Miller knows that a strong America is a prosperous America and I’m proud to support and endorse him to represent us in the U.S. Congress,” Martinez stated in the release. “Mike is a conservative Republican who will cut taxes and government spending while making sure we completely destroy ISIS and those who would do Americans harm”.

Miller, a Republican, worked for Martinez during his U.S. Senate tenure, 2005-’09. Martinez, of Orlando, also was chairman of Orange County from 1998-’01, and served as U.S.  Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

“As a resident of Central Florida and former Orange County mayor I will be proud to have Mike represent me and my family in Congress,” Martinez stated. “I know we have challenges at home and abroad and that Mike Miller is the right person to represent us at this critical time. Kitty and I wish Mike and Nora the best during this campaign and look forward to voting for him in the primary and the general election.”

Miller aims to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park. Also in the race is Republican Sanford businessman Scott Sturgill.

“One of the many things I admire about Senator Martinez is his leadership on tough local issues,” Miller stated in the release. “During his time as Orange County Mayor, he led the fight to cut property tax rates twice, the first such cuts in twelve years. We share similar conservative principles that will guide my decisions in Washington. I am proud to have his support.”

Disney discrimination suit headed to Florida court

The lawyer representing 30 ousted Disney IT workers has filed a motion to pull the federal lawsuit alleging the theme park giant misused the H-1B visa program and plans to refile it in state court.

Sarasota Attorney Sara Blackwell said Tuesday that she is seeking the best route to penalize Disney for firing 250 American workers and hiring 250 Indian nationals to take their jobs.

Walt Disney Parks & Resorts asked a federal judge to dismiss the suit in February, saying the suit failed to state claims of intentional discrimination and that employees were hired by commercial vendors, not Disney.

The Disney workers were forced to train their replacements before leaving and filed severance documents agreeing not to talk about their dismissals, according to Blackwell.

“This is not just at Disney but it’s happening all over the country,” Blackwell said. “We will not stop fighting. It’s the CEOs and executives who are doing wrong by paying foreigners less in wages. They’re all using the same business models.”

Companies have used H-1B visas to save money by hiring foreign employees who work for less pay and no benefits. The visas allow employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty occupations.

Blackwell said IT employees are losing their jobs at Toys R Us, Carnival Cruise Line, Emblem Health, Saks Fifth Avenue and McDonald’s. She added that Equifax and Target, which also hired Indian workers at cheaper pay, had “huge breaches in security.”

“This is not about being anti-immigration or racist, it’s about fairness and not exploiting workers,” said the attorney who founded the Blackwell Firm and Protect US Workers.

The lawsuit claims Disney “acted with malice and reckless disregard” when the company laid off 250 employees in October 2014 after outsourcing some of its information technology functions to an Indian vendor.


Duke Energy acknowledges problems, apologizes in Seminole County

Duke Energy not only missed its deadlines for restoring power in Seminole and Orange counties and elsewhere but glitches in its information system provided little and often wrong information to customers, leading its lobbyist to apologize and promise better to Seminole’s lawmakers Tuesday morning.

Duke, once faced with 1.3 million customers without power following Hurricane Irma, is down to 56,000 state-wide.

But that includes 7,900 homes and businesses in Seminole and 10,500 in Orange after the North Carolina-based utility had promised full service by Sunday night, and then Monday night.

Adding to that woe were information technology system glitches that both prevented Duke from being able to keep track of who was calling in outages, and often falsely informed callers that their electricity was on when it wasn’t, or off when it was on, or advised them that no one had previously reported the outage, when the call was potentially one of scores the company had received from a given neighborhood.

And to the incredulity to some, the company was never able to tell anyone when to expect service restoration.

Tuesday, state Reps. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs, Jason Brodeur of Sanford, Scott Plakon of Longwood, and state Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs brought Duke vice president for government affairs Chris Flack before their Seminole County Legislative Caucus meeting to demand answers and better performance, and received an apology and more promises.

“I’d like to start with an apology, with an apology to our customers,” Flack said. “In a time like this, information is important. Our customers want information. They want to know when the lights are coming back on. They want to know when they’re going to be able to get back to their daily lives. And we let them down.

“We’ve had some confusion. We’ve had some problems with our IT system, not to make excuses. We’ve not lived up to our expectations, we haven’t lived up to your expectations, we certainly haven’t lived up to our customers’ expectations,” Flack continued.

Lessons learned, moving forward, was his message.

And for that the four lawmakers, all Republicans, were eager to point out many of the lessons.

Brodeur suggested the company needs a better communications software that could actually pinpoint a caller’s location and give clear information about what was wrong, and perhaps how long the outage might last.

Plakon agreed that the company’s communications software seemed woefully inadequate, and he suggested the company needed to develop crowd-sourcing communications that could help them track problems through residents’ reports, especially when they might report critical problems, like people with special medical needs without power.

“A guy I know who owns a software company locally is incredulous that the software system could break down with this critical need that affects the health and safety of Floridians,” Plakon said. “The question is, what happened?”

Flack said he did not know, but agreed it needed to be improved, saying, “That’s on us.”

Cortes urged Duke to become more sophisticated in getting its messages out via social media, and to monitor social media reports about power.

Simmons focused on the power infrastructure, and for a comprehensive plan in advance.

“Please don’t go away with the thought that we’re looking for how fast you’re going to get service back on as a goal. Our goal is you won’t have the outages that you had. That way you don’t have to deal with how quickly you’re going to turn it back on,” Simmons said.

“As we move forward with 21 million citizens of this state, it’s not good enough to just have mass outages and hopefully get it back up to working. It’s incredibly important to put together a plan, and it’s going to be hardening of infrastructure, so you won’t have these numbers.”

Flack said the company already has invested “several hundred million dollars hardening our system” and will be looking closely at what failed within that system, and learn better approaches.

All of that came with a background of appreciation for all the restoration work that has been done by Duke, other power companies, and thousands of linemen, many of whom coming in from out of state. Duke replaced 3,000 poles and dealt with more than 1,100 broken transformers, and replaced more than 1,000 miles of line, Flack said. About 1,000 of those poles, 325 of those transformers, and 325 miles of that line were in Seminole.

“Our focus right now is on restoration,” Flack said.

He promised full restoration by the end of Tuesday, except for specific, individual customers that might have unique problems at their properties.


David Smith qualifies with petitions for HD 28 ballot

Winter Springs Republican David Smith announced Tuesday he has gathered enough certified petition signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot running for Seminole County-based House District 28.

Smith, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel and business consultant, is running to replace Republican state Rep. Jason Brodeur, who is running for the Florida Senate. There are two other candidates, Republican Chris Anderson, a Seminole County deputy sheriff from Lake Mary; and Democrat Lee Mangold, a Casselberry businessman.

Smith has submitted 1,122 valid signatures.

“I’m truly grateful for all the hard work by my volunteer staff and I’m especially thankful for the support and encouragement I’ve received throughout Seminole County,” Smith stated in a news release. “Qualifying by petition demonstrates our strong grassroots support across House District 28. Our conservative message resonates with voters. This is a significant milestone in the campaign, but I know there is still a lot more work to be done. We’ll keep working hard, meeting with voters, listening to their concerns and sharing our conservative plan for Central Florida.”

Smith also has raised over $60,000, mostly from Central Florida donors, and contributed $60,000 himself to the campaign – which currently has $105,000 cash on hand.


Orange Democrats pick Eddy Dominguez for HD 44 election

Eddy Dominguez, an executive at an employment consulting agency, has been selected by Orange County Democrats to be the replacement candidate for the upcoming House District 44 special election.

Dominguez, 37, was picked to run in place of Paul Chandler, who withdrew from the ticket on Sept. 8, though the withdrawal was not announced or officially recorded until Sept. 13 due to state offices being closed for Hurricane Irma.

Winter Garden businessman Bobby Olszewski is the Repulican candidate for the Oct. 10 special election to fill the seat vacated when former state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle resigned to take a judicial appointment in the spring. Olszewski won a primary on Aug. 15.

Chandler’s name, along with Olszewski’s, is on all the ballots for the Oct. 10 election, including thousands of absentee ballots that already have been mailed to voters in the southwest Orange County District, and hundreds that already have been returned.

If Dominguez qualifies for the ballot by Wednesday, Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles will mail notices to all absentee voters that a vote for Chandler will be recorded as a vote for Dominguez. Signs saying so also will be placed in the polling places on Oct. 10.

“I’ve always dreamt about going into politics. It’s a matter of the right opportunity. This special election came around and I very seriously considered running for it, when it was just Paul,” he said.

Since Chandler backed out, “A lot of people called me and rooted me on and said ‘Hey, you really have a chance,'” he said. “I think the key to winning is voter turnout, without a doubt.”

Dominguez was selected by acclamation Monday night by the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee, according to Chairman Wes Hodge.

Harvard educated [bachelor’s degree in government and economics,] Dominguez is executive vice president at Resource Employment Solutions, and before that was founder and chief executive officer of VR Mergers & Acquisitions in Orlando. He also has served in leadership roles for Latino Leadership, Boy Scouts of America Central Florida Council, the Santiago & Friends Family Center for Autism, and his son’s PTA. On his Facebook page, he lists his political views as “moderate.” He and his wife Holly Dominguez have two children.

One of his backers, Chuck O’Neal, called Dominguez “a bright young man who has promised to pull out all of the stops and win this district,” in a Facebook post. “I believe he is the right person for the job and a friend of Florida’s environment.”

Dominguez said the environment is a very important issue for him. He’s also interested in issues ranging from home rule to campaign fundraising, and others key to people in the district.

Seminole County lawmakers want response from Duke Energy

Seminole County Florida lawmakers have sent a protest letter to Duke Energy for not meeting its electricity restoration goals and state Rep. Bob Cortes has asked Duke officials to attend a county delegation meeting Tuesday to look into delays.

“Eight days after Hurricane Irma blew through our districts, the struggle for residents and businesses to get back to normal continues to be painfully exasperated by the lack of power. We are disappointed that Duke Energy has not made good on its promise to be fully restored by Sunday night, and we are concerned that sufficient progress has not been made toward its new goal of Monday night,” opens the letter written by state Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs as the Seminole County delegation chair and also representing state Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, and state Reps. Scott Plakon of Longwood and Jason Brodeur of Sanford.

And they’re not alone. In neighboring Orange County, Reps. Bruce Antone, Kamia Brown and Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando are gathering information on the recovery of neighborhoods on Orange County’s east and west sides, and trying to get people in touch with Duke, especially in critical cases. And state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Oakland said he’s contemplating legislation that would require upgrades and underground wiring for older neighborhoods like Lake Jewell in Apopka that still are without power.

Bracy said he is concerned that the lengthier outages seem to affect the most vulnerable communities in his district, covering western Orange County, and he suspects it’s because of lack of investment in infrastructure upgrades..

“It’s just really disturbing,” Bracy said.

Smith said it is “not acceptable” that Duke has missed its goals, but said he was focusing on helping people get in touch with the company.

Antone and Brown were doing the same, with some successes, such as Tangelo Park, where Antone said about 24 hours after he called, about 20 trucks showed up and got the neighborhood turned back on.

“I’ve reached out to Duke several times. They’ve been fairly responsive. For whatever reason, the trucks show up in the areas I ask about. I want to say that they’re doing everything they can, but it’s a killer not to have power,” Antone said. “I didn’t get mine back until late Saturday.”

As of 3 p.m. Monday, 15,000 Seminole County homes and businesses and 19,000 in Orange County still were without power. Almost all of them are Duke customers, as other utilities have just about fully restored full service. Outside of South and Southwest Florida, and Highlands County, which has unique problems, those are among the largest outages left in Florida.

After Irma blew through the night of Sept 10 and 11, more than 300,000 customers in Orange and more than 100,000 in Seminole had lost power. Duke initially promised power back to all by Sunday, but has revised that target.

Cortes also has been raising questions about Duke’s responsiveness to individual residents and businesses that try to contact Duke, and who have reported receiving faulty information.

“We understand that power restoration after a natural disaster of this magnitude is a herculean task, but Duke Energy’s lack of transparency and effective communication about the situation and IT issues is trying its customers’ patience and eroding their confidence in Duke’s operation,” Cortes’ letter states.

Duke officials are being invited to Tuesday’s meeting in Seminole County to explain the delay of restoration of services there.

Smith also said he hopes House Speaker Richard Corcoran will at least assemble a special committee to examine ramifications of hurricane preparation.

Republicans go after Stephanie Murphy, CD 27 Democrats, on defense bill

National Republicans are launching internet ads attacking Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park and Democrats running in Florida’s 27th Congressional District over votes against a defense and anti-terrorism spending bill.

The National Republican Campaign Committee is launching four 30-second spots – two against Murphy and two generically against Democrats – that make it look and sound as if their no votes just made America far more vulnerable to terrorist and enemy attacks.

One spot, called “Terror,” begins with frightening images of terrorists and terrorist shootings, bombings and truck-killings, as a narrator declares, in the Murphy version, “Terrorists, determined to kill us, disrupt our way of life, threaten our freedom. The world is a dangerous place. And yet Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy opposed giving our military the necessary resources to keep America safe.”

That ad is running on social media in Murphy’s Florida’s Congressional District 7, in Orange and Seminole counties. The generic version, using the words “Florida Democrats” instead of “Stephanie Murphy, is running in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, in Miami-Dade County.

The other ad is similarly running in both districts, with the same differences.

Called, “Missed Call,” it intersperses shots of a panicked-looking mother and the interior of a trashed and vacant shopping mall while the mother’s telephone call goes unanswered somewhere. The spot then reveals what’s going on, with a shot of a television screen declaring, “Terrorist Attack At North City Mall.”  Then the ad declares, “Rep. Stephanie Murphy voted against funding to combat terrorism.

Both ads refer to House Resolution 3219, the defense spending act, dubbed “Make America Secure Appropriations Act Of Fiscal Year 2018.” The House of Representatives approved the bill in July with an almost completely partisan vote, so split because Republicans had included money for the U.S.-Mexico border wall sought by President Donald Trump.

Murphy voted no, along with 186 other Democrats.

At the time, she charged in a press release that “House Republicans contaminated today’s defense appropriations bill” with the border wall … “once again politicizing our national security.”

“While I would have supported a clean defense bill—especially since I helped write and pass its authorization as a member of the House Armed Services Committee—I cannot fund the president’s ill-conceived wall at the expense of my state,” she added.

Anti-terrorism bill co-introduced by Stephanie Murphy passes House

A bill co-introduced by Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park to provide money for anti-terrorism workshops for first responders has been approved by the House of Representatives.

The “Joint Counterterrorism Awareness Workshop Series Act of 2017,” House Resolution 3284, also introduced by U.S. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Dan Donovan, a New York Republican, provides funding for training of federal, state, and local first responders to prevent, prepare for, and respond to a coordinated terrorist attack. The House of Representatives approved it Thursday.

The program has been ongoing since 2011, conducting more than 30 workshops in cities across the country. Orlando hosted one in October, 2014.

“ I know firsthand the difference that highly-skilled, well-prepared first responders can make during a crisis,” Murphy stated in a news release issued by her office. “During the 2016 Pulse nightclub terrorist attack, law enforcement officials, medical professionals and other first responders saved many lives.  Joint Counterterrorism Awareness Workshops will help communities across the country establish effective policies and procedures to prevent, plan for, and respond to a coordinated terrorist attack.”

Bob Cortes measure seeks full citizenship, short of statehood, for Puerto Rico

State Rep. Bob Cortes has introduced a measure that would urge Congress to take steps to expand citizenship rights for people of Puerto Rico and improve the commonwealth’s opportunity for statehood, without actually dealing directly with the statehood issue.

House Memorial 147 calls on Congress to address inequalities Puerto Rico and its residents face that date to a 1922 Supreme Court ruling that put the island and its people on a different track than any of the previous American territories that became states.

Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican with Puerto Rican heritage, said the approach is novel, not something he’s seen proposed anywhere else. It aims to push for incorporated territory status for Puerto Rico, something granted as a precursor to potential statehood to Hawaii, Alaska and all other states added to the union since the original 13 colonies formed the United States.

Puerto Rico was never granted status as an incorporated territory of the United States in part because of ramifications of the 1922 Supreme Court decision in Balzac vs. Puerto Rico, providing for a unique relationship between the federal government and the territory of Puerto Rico and its residents, he said.

And that relationship fosters inequality, Cortes argued, because Puerto Rico residents – including those who might have been born and raised stateside as full American citizens who then moved to live on the island – receive back limited federal benefits even though they pay full payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicaid, and in some cases federal income taxes. And the lack of status as an incorporated territory means the island does not have the necessary pre-statehood government institutions that territories such as Hawaii, Alaska, and Louisiana established before applying for statehood.

It’s part of the reason, he argued, that Puerto Ricans are flooding into Florida as part of a mass migration, seeking not just economic opportunity but full citizenship-status benefits they can be granted simply by boarding a plane out of San Juan.

“The whole key here is to straighten out that unequal citizenship system,” Cortes said.

He said he’s talking to state Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez about sponsoring a similar measure in the Florida Senate.

“This is something different, innovative,” Cortes said. “This is not something people are aware of. People will say, ‘he’s advocating for statehood for Puerto Rico.’ Yeah, I’m probably advocating for statehood. That should be a decision of the people. But before you get there, certain things need to be done. This is not a direct call for statehood.”

Two weeks ago Cortes and fellow state Reps. Rene Plasencia of Orlando, and David Santiago of Deltona traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with government officials to foster closer ties between the state of Florida and the commonwealth. However, Cortes said that while he gathered information during that trip, his determination to pursue this measure predated that visit.


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