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Bob Cortes: more than 230 students displaced by hurricanes graduate in Central Florida

Newly-released data show that 209 students from Puerto Rico and 22 from the U.S. Virgin Islands whose families fled hurricane devastation were able to graduate from Central Florida schools this spring, state Rep. Bob Cortes announced Tuesday.

Cortes pushed last fall for the state to streamline and expedite the school transfer processes for students evacuated from the island devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, including helping arrange a deal that allows Puerto Rican students, if they chose, to get Puerto Rican diplomas under Puerto Rican rules while finishing their education in Florida. He did so assisting Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and her counterparts in the islands.

Data Cortes provided Tuesday shows that 237 Puerto Rican high school seniors had enrolled in schools in Orange, Osceola or Seminole counties, and 102 graduated with standard Florida diplomas, 85 with standard Puerto Rico diplomas, and 23 with other diplomas or certificates. Thirty-two Virgin Islands high school seniors transferred to Central Florida schools and 20 got standard Florida diplomas, while two got certificates of completion.

Cortes said in a news release that most of the remaining students either returned to Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands before the school year ended, transferred somewhere else, or are continuing this summer to complete their requirements.

“Hurricane Maria was a catastrophe that displaced so many families, and we wanted to make sure Florida did everything we possibly could to help,” Cortes stated in the release. “If we had not taken proactive steps to help students, especially high school seniors, many would not have graduated. I’m so proud of how folks came together to make this happen for these young people who have been through so much.”

Cortes’ data showed that 128 of those displaced island students enrolled in Orange County, 105 in Osceola County, and 36 in Seminole County.

Charles Hart elected chair of Orange Co. GOP

For the first time this century, the Orange County Republicans have a new leader, attorney Charles Hart, who was elected Monday night to serve the remaining six months of retiring Lew Oliver‘s term as head of the county party.

Hart, of Windermere, was elected by acclamation with no other nominees after also-departing Vice Chairman Chadwick Hardee withdrew, throwing his full support behind him.

Lou Marin is replacing Hardee after being elected Monday night in a landslide over Randy Ross.

Oliver chose to step down after 19 years leading the Orange County Republican Executive Committee. Earlier this month he announced he was leaving leave to focus more time and effort on his business.

“It has mostly been a joy,” Oliver said Monday night. “And it matters … Trust me; the committee has made a difference.”

While Oliver received universal praise for leading numerous election victories for candidates, charter amendments, and other matters supported by the Republican Party, he’s also overseen a period of steady decline in the party’s share of the Orange County voter base as demographics have shifted dramatically in Orlando. Today Democrats now outnumber Republicans by more than 100,000, and the party has a fraction of the precinct chairs compared to just a few years ago.

Hart has been involved in the Republican Party “since I was four years old” upset by President Jimmy Carter‘s handling of the Iran hostage crisis. “You guys have elected a true believer. I’ve always been a true believer,” he said.

He pledged to lead to victories this fall and prepare the party for a likely bigger transition in the official two-year elections taking place in December.

“We need to get out there and help all of our candidates because ultimately guys our success is completely predicated by candidates’ success and then also your success. I cannot be your leader, I cannot help you, I cannot do anything for you unless we win together,” Hart said. “I want to win.”

Hart had a moment of controversy last fall when he filed a lawsuit challenging Democrat Paul Chandler‘s qualification to be a candidate in the House District 44 special election.

The suit wasn’t so much about Chandler, who had little or no chance of winning, but had ramifications that could have reset the rules for the August Republican primary, possibly nullifying it. The suit never was heard. Chandler withdrew.

Bobby Olszewski won both the primary and the general election over the Democrats’ replacement candidate.

Olszewski, who was momentarily at risk of having his primary victory nullified, welcomed Hart’s election Monday night.

“I look forward to working with chairman Hart and the new OCREC board,” Olszewski said.

Rene Plasencia alleges espionage by opponent’s treasurer, seeks criminal charge

State Rep. Rene Plasencia is alleging that a volunteer who moved from his re-election campaign to the campaign of his Republican primary opponent George Collins illegally downloaded Plasencia’s campaign data and took it with him to Collins’ campaign.

Plasencia and his campaign met with an Orange County Sheriff’s Office detective Monday. Plasencia said they intend to pursue criminal charges, perhaps theft of intellectual property, a third-degree felony.

Plasencia is alleging the man now serving as Collins’ campaign treasurer, Zane C. Matter, used access to Plasencia’s webElect political data account to download data after-hours onto a home computer. Matter then left Plasencia’s campaign and joined Collins’ campaign.

Florida Politics was unable to reach Matter for a response on Monday.

Collins Monday afternoon confirmed that Matter worked for him, and called him invaluable. But Collins said Matter has provided no such information from Plasencia’s campaign to him, or said anything about it to him. And Collins said he wouldn’t want it even if Matter had it to offer.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is investigating, Plasencia said. The sheriff’s office was not able Monday afternoon to confirm that, comment, or provide a copy of the incident report, as it was still being processed.

Plasencia and Collins are battling in the August 28 Republican primary for Florida’s House District 50, covering eastern Orange County and northern Brevard County. They met in the primary two years ago and Plasencia won. Collins filed for a rematch on June 5, and later added Matter as his campaign treasurer. The winner would take on Democrat Pamela Joy Dirschka in the November general election.

On Monday Plasencia said Matter had volunteered for his campaign this spring, and was given a task doing computer work, with log-in access to the webElect account. After a while, in mid-May, Matter stopped showing up, Plasencia said. After someone saw Matter appear with Collins in photographs posted on-line, Plasencia said his campaign grew concerned and brought in a computer analyst. The analyst told Plasencia’s campaign that computer activity history showed that Matter had logged in to the campaign account from home, after hours, and had downloaded campaign data.

That occurred in late May after Matter stopped showing up, Plasencia said.

Matter did not have authority to do so and the campaign did not know he was doing so, Plasencia said. When the activity was discovered, Matter’s access was terminated.

“We feel terrible about it because we were giving this person an opportunity. He was a young college student and it really looks like from the very beginning he was here to steal information,” Plasencia said.

Plasencia also said he believes Collins has used Plasencia’s data while campaigning in north Brevard County.

Collins denied that Monday, and said that Plasencia and his voter-supporters are too liberal to be of any interest to him anyway.

Collins said he met Matter at the Orange County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner on May 18, and that said Matter told him that he had been working for Plasencia’s campaign, but had become disillusioned with Plasencia’s positions on issues. Collins added that Matter told him he would like to work with him to defeat Plasencia if he was going to run again.

The downloads occurred May 27-29, according to Plasencia. Matter resigned from Plasencia’s campaign on June 1.

Collins filed as a candidate to run against Plasencia on June 5, listing himself as treasurer. Matter officially became Collins’ campaign treasurer last Friday, according to paperwork filed with the Florida Division of Elections.

“I haven’t received any information that would benefit my campaign from Zane,” Collins said. “I have absolutely no interest in any of that because I’m sure that the people who will support me are more conservative than Rene. And so I think that Rene is very upset that he would lose his valuable intern to come over to my campaign. But unfortuantely, that’s the way it is.”

Pam Bondi endorses Mike Miller in CD 7 heading toward Republican primary

State Rep. Mike Miller has received the endorsement of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in his campaign for Congress in Florida’s 7th Congerssional District, providing a potentially potent voice to the district’s upcoming Republican primary.

“I am endorsing Mike Miller because I have served with him and know he will be an effective leader in Washington who will uphold the rule of law and keep fighting the battle against opioids,” Bondi stated in a news release issued by Miller’s campaign. “I am confident in Mike and know he will help President [Donald] Trump strengthen our borders, protect the tax cuts and fully eliminate Obamacare.”

Miller, of Winter Park, is battling with Sanford businessman Scott Sturgill and Vennia Francois for the August 28 Republican primary nomination. They all want a shot at Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park.

“I’ve worked with General Bondi for several years, particularly in trying to end the scourge of the opioid epidemic. General Bondi is a strong conservative that Floridians have come to respect and admire,” Miller stated in the release. “Knowing she recognizes our shared conservative principles and has confidence I will support the President’s agenda means a lot to me.”

CD 7 covers all of Seminole County and much of north and central Orange County, including downtown Orlando.

John Mina nabs FOP endorsements in sheriff’s race

Orlando Police Chief John Mina has recevied the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge representing Orange County deputy sheriffs and also of the union’s Central Florida district for his campaign to be elected sheriff of Orange County.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodges 93, 86, and 25, representing various units in Orange County; and Disrict 7, representing 10 counties, now have given their endorsements of Mina in his contest against retired Florida Highway Patrol Chief Joe Lopez and two other candidates. Lodge 93 announced its backing Friday morning.

Lopez had previously picked up the endorsement of the Central Florida Police Benevolent Association. But the FOP lodges have far more members throughout Central Florida. FOP Lodge 93 represents more than 1,0o0 deputies, corporals and sergeants in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Lodge 25 represents Orlando police. District 86 represents Orange County corrections workers.

District 7 comprises 24 FOP lodges including those in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Brevard, and Voluisia counties.

“It is no coincidence that Chief Mina has earned the support of all of the mayors in Orange County,” FOP Lodge 93 President Jeff Stinson stated in a news release issued by his lodge. “For those of us in law enforcement, we all see the same qualities in Chief Mina: experience, leadership and a battle-tested candidate who can handle the demands of being the sheriff of Orange County.”

The release said that FOP LOdge 93 backed Mina after a town hall meeting in may attended by both Mina and Lopez, citing Mina’s  27-year career in law enforcement,  leadership skills, ability to handle crisis, and his strong working relationship with the Fraternal Order of Police.

David Simmons backs David Smith in HD 28 race

Longtime legislative leader state Sen. David Simmons has given his endorsement to David Smith in the race for Florida House District 28 in eastern Seminole County.

The endorsement gives Smith a clean sweep of the entire Seminole County state legislative delegation, as state Reps. Jason Brodeur [the incumbent in HD 28,] Scott Plakon, and Bob Cortes already have thrown their support behind him. All are Republicans, as is Smith.

Simmons, represening state Senate District 9 covering all of Seminole County, delivered his endorsement in a hand-written note to Smith Thursday.

“Although my campaign remains focused on grassroots efforts such as door knocking and public events, these are powerful endorsements that will add to my momentum,” Smith stated.

Smith, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel and business consultant from Winter Springs, is vying against Democrat Lee Mangold, a Casselberry resident who owns a cybersecurity business.

“I’m truly humbled and honored to have the endorsement and full support of Sen. David Simmons,” Smith stated in a news release. “Sen. Simmons has been a role model for building consciences and working the tough issues on behalf of all Floridians. I greatly appreciate his mentorship and look forward to serving with him in Tallahassee.”

Republican enters HD 48 race against Amy Mercado

Republican Scotland Calhoun Perez has entered the House District 48 race to take on Democratic incumbent state Rep. Amy Mercado.

Calhoun Perez, a full-time college student at Valencia College and legal assistant, declared herself to be a Christian constitutional conservative and vowed to run on a platform of limited government, quality jobs, and school choice.

She’s the first challenger for Mercado, who was first elected in 2016 and is a former chair of the Orange County Democratic Party. The district covers most of south-central Orlando and Orange County, with an arm coming north into areas in east Orange County. The area has a heavy Puerto Rican population.

Calhoun Perez, the daughter of Gina Perez-Calhoun, who is running for Orange County Commission, is of Puerto Rican heritage, as is Mercado, the daughter of state Sen. Victor Torres.

“District 48 needs a representative who truly listens and cares,” Calhoun Perez stated in a news release. “Far too many people feel abandoned and without a voice. I’m a lifelong Orlando resident, and I know firsthand the challenges folks in our area, particularly young people like me, are having to find quality jobs that pay enough to support a family. We’ve got to do more to make sure policies are in place to attract and grow industries and businesses that will provide them.

“I’m a Christian constitutional conservative, in that order,” she added. “Government is the employee of the people, not the other way around. I believe strongly that every voice and life matter, and I plan to work diligently to support lower taxes and broader educational options for people from all walks of life. High school students, especially, need to know that college is not the only path to a valid and valued career.”

Calhoun Perez strongly supports efforts to combat human trafficking and to provide greater support for victims of child abuse, including increased training for parents and educators in how to detect and respond to abuse.

To date, without an opponent, Mercado’s campaign fundraising has been less than robust. Through May she had raised about $40,000 – nothing in May – and had spent about $30,000 of it.

“We are so proud to see young conservatives taking an active interest in Florida’s government,” Chadwick Hardee, vice chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee, stated in the release. “Scotland is an impressive young person, and we are excited to support her.”

Val Demings leads call to end transfers of customs agents from Orlando, Port Canaveral

A trio of Orlando-area Democratic members of Congress, joined by Florida’s two U.S. Senators, is calling on the United States Customs and Border Protection agency to suspend proposed transfers of safety officers out of Port Canaveral and Orlando International Airport.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Val Demings, Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy, along with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio are opposing to a Customs and Border Patrol initiative to rotate customs inspections officers from airports and other ports to serve temporary shifts along the United States-Mexico border. The transferred officers are not replaced on the lines in their home ports, leaving the staffing there short-handed for periods of time.

The group sent a letter Wednesday to newly confirmed U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, arguing that the airport and seaport customs inspectors were critical to public safety. They cited numerous incidents when inspectors have averted potential terrorist actions and seized countless amounts of illegal drugs and other contraband.

“The treats at our nation’s ports of entry are real, and, if carried out, could have permanent devastating effects on our nation and cities like Orlando,” they wrote. “Therefore we encourage your agency to prioritize and fulfill the scientifically based CFP officer working model for our nation’s ports of entry.”

Demings, Soto and Murphy first decried the program in January after Orlando International Airport officials called for help with overburdened customs stations at the airport’s international gates. In February Demings and Murphy co-sponsored a bill that would increase customs staffing levels at airports, including Orlando. House Resolution 4940, the Border and Port Security Act got three committee referrals, including the House Homeland Security Committee, but has not yet been heard anywhere.

In May, Rubio called for an additional 500 customs officers to help address staffing shortages at many of Florida’s airports and seaports.

“Orlando International Airport is one of the nation’s best ports of entry, and Orlando is the number one visitor destination in the U.S. As we continue to grow, it’s vital that we maintain safety staffing to meet increased passenger volume,” Demings stated in a news release issued Thursday by her office. “I urge Customs and Border Protection to once again reverse this ill-considered move and ensure that Central Florida continues to have the level of staffing necessary to ensure speedy travel and necessary security for all passengers.”

Airport officials have contended that, even without the rotations of agents and inspectors to the southwest border, the Orlando airport already was suffering from under-staffing by Customs and Border Patrol. They reported that from 2009 to 2016, the number of international passengers arriving at Orlando International Airport grew by 89 percent, from 1.49 million to 2.83 million.

However, over the same period, Customs and Border Protection Officer staffing levels have remained flat, the GOAA officials in a letter sent to area lawmakers, urging their help.

The lawmakers’ letter noted that Port Canaveral also is being squeezed.

In 2017, the seaport, which mostly handles cruise traffic, welcomed 4.5 million passengers, a 7 percent jump from the previous year, while customs inspectors staffing decreased, “resulting in significant bottlenecks.”

“Representatives Demings, Soto, and I have consistently told CBP that transferring officers from Orlando International Airport to the Southwest border is a mistake,” Murphy said in the release. “These officers are needed at the airport to keep the public safe and the economy moving. As Orlando’s representatives in Congress, we will continue to do everything possible to ensure Orlando International is fully staffed given that the airport is the busiest in the state and about to enter peak travel season.”

Murphy first got involved early on, after GOAA officials declared the program would “seriously diminish security” at the airport.

“We’ve seen overwhelming support for the CBP officers at OIA from our community, including repeated pleas from the Central Florida congressional delegation to at-minimum halt transfers,” Soto stated in the release. Each and every member of the CBP team is valued and desperately needed for the increasing demands of our area’s busy ports of entry. Their work is critical for passenger safety and smooth-running operations. We look forward to working with Commissioner McAleenan and continue supporting our CBP officers.”

Roger Stone gets behind Scott Sturgill in CD 7 race

Conservative politics iconoclast Roger Stone is endorsing Sanford businessman Scott Sturgill in the election contest for Florida’s 7th Congressional District, Sturgill’s campaign announced.

Stone, who has had long career as a controversial warrior of politics, dating to Richard Nixon and who was a close advisor of President Donald Trump, made his endorsement announcement at a surprise appearance at a Sturgill event in Winter Springs Wednesday night.

Sturgill faces state Rep. Mike Miller and Vennia Francois in the August 28 Republican primary. They all seek to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, whom Sturgill has dubbed “Steakhouse Stephanie” after criticizing her for holding a fundraiser at a Washington D.C. steakhouse a few days before Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017.

Stone picked up on that theme in his comments, and also picked up on the Sturgill campaign’s disproven contention that the fundraiser was after the hurricane instead of before.

“The arrogance of Steakhouse Stephanie gorging herself on lobster tails and filet mignon while her constituents were sweltering without electricity and water speaks volumes about her attitude regarding the people of this district,” Stone stated in a news release issued by Sturgill’s campaign.

“Everyone talks about the blue wave coming in November,” he added. “But that wave will be met with a big red wall right here in Central Florida and in Congressional District 7.”

Buddy Dyer, Teresa Jacobs talk of Pulse’s legacy

As crowds gathered around and across the streets from the interim memorial that had been the Pulse nightclub and then the scene of so much horror, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs called for the city and nation to focus on the Pulse legacy for future generations and history books.

That legacy, each of them described in their own ways in separate speeches, is of how a tragedy changed hearts and minds and transformed an entire metropolis into an all-embracing community.

“We are one people. We are one country. We are one world. And we are one heart. And from this day forward we will always share one pulse,” Jacobs said.

Tuesday is the second anniversary of the Pulse massacre, the attack by a heavily-armed ISIS-pledging gays-hating madman who stormed Orlando’s popular gay nightclub and killed 49, wounded 53, and, in both Dyer’s and Jacobs’ words, transformed a city.

At the oneOrlando Foundation’s remembrance ceremonies Tuesday night crowds defied the storms, as they had last year, to hear reflection, inspiration, memorials, music, dance, and pledges of resilience, love and unity. They sat and stood under stormy skies at the site where Pulse owner Barbara Poma and the oneOrlando Foundation she formed plan to build an international symbol of resilience, love and unity in a permanent Pulse memorial.

And after the storms and darkest clouds passed, a rainbow appeared over Orlando.

Dyer, a Democrat, and Jacobs, a Republican who is now running to be elected chair of the Orange County School Board, sought to challenge the crowd and the greater community to be the living memorial, to not give up the changes they have embraced.

Dyer also spoke of another tragedy, just Monday night, when another crazed gunman killed four children and then himself during a 24-hour siege in Orlando, after he shot and critically wounded an Orlando police officer responding to a domestic violence call.

“As the eyes of the nation and perhaps the world turn back to Orlando today, we return to the spotlight with a lot of talk about what is the legacy of Pulse. There is talk about the significance of this tragedy in so many mass shootings in the last two years,” Dyer said.

“The national debate on guns. Questions about how is Orlando different today than it was two years ago. These are important conversations, and they should be part of a dialogue about what our country must do to be a safer country, to be a more accepting country, to be a more loving place, like Orlando,” Dyer continued.

“Pulse was a violent act carried out by a single individual. But the response to that act of evil and act of hate has been made up by thousands and thousands and thousands, maybe even millions of individuals, deciding to show what the opposite of hate looks like, and it looks like love,” Dyer said.

Jacobs took a more personal turn, discussing how she had changed from her religously-taught views toward the LGBTQ community before Pulse, and said it was her own adult children who brought her through the transformation. After Pulse, her evolved views helped make her one of the leading Republican advocates of the LGBTQ community in the nation.

“I am so proud of our children in this community,” she began, and then talked about how many people in Central Florida went through the same transformation, with younger people leading the way.

“I think about this often: how will the history books remember this day?” Jacobs said. “We know what we want them to say. But I know for certain what they will say, if we don’t make sure that we forever tell our half of the story. It will forever go down as the day that evil reigned and brought horrific pain and suffering to an obscure little nightclub in Orlando. That’s how history books would paint this day two years ago.

“But for the fact that when the sun rose in the morning – and when the citizens of Orlando and Orange County and Central Florida and the nation and the world, when they woke up to the news – the devil had met his match.

“Evil could not win,” she said. “There is no amount of evil that could turn back the overwhelming, enormous reaction of the human spirit and the heart and soul that we are innately in human beings. It was hard for anybody in this community no matter how they brought up, no matter what long-standing believes they had, it was hard for anybody in this community to ignore the fact that we really are one people, and we really have one dream, and we really have one goal as human beings and that is to be treated equally and to love who you want to love. Because if you can’t love who you want to love, what is the point of it anyway?”

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