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Safety Harbor candidate forum gets venue change

The 2018 Safety Harbor candidate forum has received a venue change, moving from the City Commission Chambers at City Hall to the Baranoff Theater at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa.

The event is still set to start at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1, with a meet-and-greet in the foyer, followed by a two-hour question and answer period in the 150-seat theater.

According to officials for the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce, which is sponsoring the forum, the venue change was necessitated by the large candidate field — six candidates qualified to run for the three open commission seats Tuesday, March 13.

“The forum has been moved to a larger venue to accommodate the larger crowd that six candidates could draw, and we thank the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa for providing this,” chamber President Susan Petersen said via email.

“It is important to us to present a fair and open forum, where there is room for all, at which the candidates can be heard on current relevant topics, so that the voters can make well-educated decisions for the future of our city. The Baranoff Theatre is the perfect setting for this with seating for all.”

Petersen said the chamber’s board of directors would provide moderators from the Pinellas County League of Women Voters with questions for the candidates.

She said the public would also be given the opportunity to submit questions before the start of the forum, and she noted a representative from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections’ office would be on hand to assist with voter registration and updating voter records.

Also, with the forum now taking place off city property, some of the restrictions surrounding the event have been lifted.

Whereas campaign materials were prohibited at City Hall, those materials, including pamphlets and campaign signs, will be allowed to be displayed at the Spa.

The venue change also forced the city to scrap plans to livestream the event, as they don’t have the capability to stream events outside City Hall.

According to City Manager Matt Spoor, a video of the event should be up on the city’s website by Monday, Feb. 5.

Spoor also said city officials fully support the venue change.

“The City supports the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of North Pinellas County in their collective desire to provide the most accommodating venue for a growing number of interested voters,” he said via email.

“A big THANK YOU to the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa who graciously volunteered to host the event in their Baranoff Ballroom. This location will allow for maximum voter participation, which is everyone’s ultimate goal.”

For more information on the 2018 Safety Harbor municipal election, visit cityofsafetyharbor.com.

Dianne Hart already emerging as frontrunner to replace Sean Shaw in HD 61

Democrat Dianne Hart announced Wednesday that she will give it another go in House District 61, which is opening up this year due to Tampa Democratic Rep. Sean Shaw’s entry into the Attorney General race.

“I know firsthand the struggles and the needs facing this District and spent a lifetime working to help our children and better our neighborhoods,” said Hart. “For far too long we have been ignored by those in power. Our children deserve a better education, our families need access to affordable healthcare and we must have better services for our elderly and disadvantaged families. I vow to continue to work tirelessly for and with the people of our community, small business owners, and neighborhood watch organizations to improve the quality of life for everyone, not just the privileged few.”

Hart was one of three candidates on the ballot in the 2016 Democratic Primary for HD 61. She and Shaw were separated by just 101 votes, each taking about 42 percent followed by Walter Smith in third with 15.5 percent of the vote.

This go around, Hart starts off with a slew of endorsements from current and former elected leaders, including U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, St. Petersburg Sen. Darryl Rouson and former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis.

“I am proud to support a woman of integrity like Dianne Hart,” Davis said. “Dianne has always worked hard to serve our community and has led countless community events, from stop the violence rallies and healthcare forums, to job and vocational training fairs. Dianne Hart is a cornerstone in our community and will be a powerful advocate for us in Tallahassee.”

The Tampa Democrat is the CEO of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association, and has owned and operated a small business, Ms. Dee’s World of Beauty, for more than 30 years.

Hart is also a member of the Hillsborough County Children’s Advisory Board and NFL YET Center, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Task Force and was recently appointed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller to serve on the Commission of the Status of Women.

She joins fellow Democrat Byron Henry in the race. He filed his paperwork to run on Dec. 21, but didn’t report any contributions in his first campaign finance report.

HD 61 covers downtown Tampa, Ybor City, and Seminole Heights. Democrats hold an overwhelming advantage at the polls.

Democrat Bob Buesing wants rematch against Dana Young for state Senate seat

Tampa attorney Bob Buesing will again challenge Republican Dana Young in Senate District 18

The 64-year-old Buesing lost to the 53-year-old Young by seven points in 2016, but that was not a one-on-one matchup.

Adult club entrepreneur and progressive activist Joe Redner ran an aggressive campaign (mostly against Young) as well, and finished a distant third with nearly ten percent of the vote.

Although Buesing and other Hillsborough Democrats denied that Redner’s presence would be a drag on his candidacy, Buesing admitted in a brief interview with Florida Politics last week that in fact he had been.

Redner has already announced his support for Buesing in 2018.

Whether Buesing can beat Young in a straight-up matchup remains to be seen, but Buesing says he is confident that with a surge of intensity amongst Democrats, he can be successful.

Young has a substantial head start in fundraising. She now has $160,418 in her campaign for Senate account, and an additional $690,595 in her political committee, Friends of Dana Young.

Between her own campaign contributions and her political committee, Young raised more than $2 million in 2016, while Buesing took in more than $500,000 on his own. His PAC, Floridians for Early Education, raised another $133,000.

The race between the three candidates was intense in 2016, and Buesing seems ready for that same level of intensity  this year. Although he was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, he told Florida Politics last summer that “it is interesting that she only got 48 percent of the vote after spending millions and millions of dollars on a false attack smear campaign.” B

District 18 covers much of Tampa and western unincorporated Hillsborough County.


James Buchanan agrees to debate Margaret Good in HD 72 race

Voters in Florida House District 72  will now have a chance to see James Buchanan debate Margaret Good in advance the Feb. 13 special election.

After resisting entreaties by Good to debate since she won the Democratic primary race last month, Buchanan agreed Tuesday to debate her and Libertarian candidate Alison Foxall January 30 on ABC7 in Sarasota.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune first reported the news. ABC7’s Alan Cohn will moderate the debate.

“We’re pleased Mr. Buchanan will be joining Margaret Good and Alison Foxall at our debate on ABC7 at 7,” Cohn texted to Florida Politics Wednesday. “Spirited debates are the best way for voters to learn about the candidates for office, and their positions on the issues that’d affect our community. We’re pleased to be able to offer that opportunity to the candidates, voters and our viewers.”

Buchanan is a first-time Republican candidate who originally filed to run in nearby House District 71 this year but transferred his account to HD 72 when the seat opened up last year. He’s a realtor and son of Congressman Vern Buchanan.

Good is a Siesta Key based attorney also running for the first time. She has surprised some observers with a strong fundraising effort to date, and according to the last campaign finance report, actually has more cash on hand than Buchanan as the race approaches its final four weeks before the election.

The Sarasota area district has gone without representation since September after Republican incumbent Alex Miller unexpectedly stepped down from the seat less than a year after she was elected.

“We’re pleased James Buchanan has finally agreed to engage in a public debate after months of hiding from the voters of Sarasota,” said Ryan Ray, a spokesperson for Good. “With his support for Donald Trump and dysfunctional GOP state leaders, he has a lot of explaining to do. We look forward to sharing our message of change and engaging on the issues that matter to Sarasotans.”

“He looks forward to this opportunity, which will allow all candidates to discuss the issues important to the voters of Sarasota, absent of any organization’s partisan agenda,” Buchanan campaign manager Nicholas Catrappo told the Herald-Tribune.

Nick DiCeglie adds endorsements from Largo elected officials

House District 66 candidate Nick DiCeglie picked up a pair of endorsements Tuesday from Largo Mayor Woody Brown and Commissioner Curtis Holmes.

“I seldom voluntarily endorse any candidate but there are occasions when the qualifications displayed by a would be leader are so outstanding that it’s warranted and that is why I wholeheartedly endorse Nick DiCeglie to be the next representative for Florida House District 66,” Holmes said. “I’ve worked with Nick on many occasions, he’ll do a great job for Largo.”

“I’m pleased to offer my support to Nick DiCeglie for my home district, Florida House District 66. Nick cares about this community and has a solid record of community involvement,” Brown added.

Holmes and Brown follow former House Speaker Will Weatherford and Seminole Vice Mayor Chris Burke in endorsing DiCeglie, who chairs the Pinellas County Republican Party and runs Clearwater-based trash removal and recycling company Solar Sanitation.

“I’m honored to have the support of these two great leaders, Mayor Brown and Commissioner Holmes,” DiCeglie said. “They understand the needs of our community and serve with the highest level of integrity. I look forward to the opportunity to work together with them to do great things for the City of Largo.”

DiCeglie is running against St. Petersburg attorney Berny Jacques in the Republican Primary for HD 66, which is currently held by termed-out Rep. Larry Ahern. Also running are Democrat Alex Heeren and Reform Party candidate Paul Anthony Bachmann.

Jacques currently holds the fundraising lead in the primary race with $133,000 raised and $106,302 cash on hand through the end of December, though DiCeglie has outpaced him since entering the race in September.

Through four months in the campaign, DiCeglie has raised $72,714 and had $59,427 of that money on hand heading into 2018.

HD 66 is reliably Republican, with about 10,000 more registered GOP voters than registered Democrats. Ahern has comfortably won each of his three elections in the district.

Madeira Beach incumbents face challengers on March ballot

Two Madeira Beach commission seats are up for grabs in March and four candidates qualified for the ballot ahead of the noon deadline on Jan. 12.

Voters will decide whether to give longtime District 1 incumbent Terry Lister another term or send Deby Weinstein to the five-member panel in his stead. In the District 2 race, current Commissioner Nancy Hodges is up against Eric Breslin.

The Madeira Beach Board of Commissioners consists of the mayor and four commission members. After each municipal election, a the board votes to elect a Vice-Mayor for a one-year term.

The panel meets the second Tuesday of every month at 6:00 p.m. at City Hall.

The Madeira Beach elections will be held on March 13, when Pinellas County holds its municipal elections. Residents can determine which district they live in by visiting the Madeira Beach website.

More than 20 city commission or city council seats will be up for grabs in Pinellas County communities on Election Day, including seats in Belleair, Belleair Beach, Clearwater, Gulfport, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Redington Beach, South Pasadena and Treasure Island.

In addition, the communities of Belleair, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Pinellas Park and Treasure Island will hold mayoral elections.

More information on the offices slated for the March ballot can be found via the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections website. New voters must register by Feb. 12 in order to cast a ballot in the municipal election, and those looking to vote by mail must request a mail ballot by no later than March 7.

Bill aims to help spouses of fallen Tampa first responders

Legislation that would increase the benefits paid to the spouses of police and firefighters employed by the City of Tampa who lost their lives in the line of duty advanced in a House committee Tuesday.

The bipartisan bill (HB 1139), sponsored by Tampa Republican Shawn Harrison and House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, also of Tampa, authorizes the city to enter into a supplemental contract with certain firefighters and police officers to increase their pension under certain circumstances.

It increases benefits paid to surviving spouses from 65 percent to 100 percent of the member’s final year’s earnings while surviving children will receive a portion of up to 30 percent yearly until they reach adulthood. If the member has more than one child, that 30% portion is divided evenly.

“When we are in trouble and need of help, Tampa Police and Firefighters always respond to the call, often running directly into danger to protect us. We must return the favor and protect those families in their time of need,” Cruz said in a press release after the bill was passed in the House Local, Federal, and Veteran’s Affairs Subcommittee.

The proposed change was negotiated between the City of Tampa, Tampa Police Benevolent Association, Inc., and the International Association of Firefighters Local 754, ratified by their respective memberships, and approved by the Tampa City Council.

The bill has no companion in the Senate at this time.

Aakash Patel continues fundraising prowess in Hillsborough Commission race

There are a number of first-time candidates running for office in Hillsborough County this year, but none are more successful at raising campaign cash than Aakash Patel, the 33-year-old Tampa businessman who is running for the District 1 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.

Patel added more than $9,000 to his campaign coffers last month and now has raised more than $258,000 to that account. Combine that with the $79,150 raised through Elevate Tampa, his political committee, and the young Republican has amassed more than $337,000 in the race, with more than $230,000 cash-on-hand. That’s second only to 16-year incumbent Ken Hagan for total campaign contributions of any candidate running in Hillsborough in 2018 — and the most of any first-time candidate.

Patel is known as a master networker, but he says the secret of his fundraising success is his determination.

“I’m going to succeed in whatever venture I go after,” he says. “People see that. People notice that.”

The “people” Patel referenced include David Laxer, the president and owner of Bern’s Steakhouse, who already wrote Patel a $1,000 check and is throwing a fundraiser for him at the Epicurean Hotel next month.

“They already wrote me a check, but they want to continue to do more, and so I think that’s the differentiator between me and any of the other first-time candidates,” he says.

There have been 714 individual contributions to his campaign account (including a $20,000 check he stroked last June) and another 68 to his political committee, including bold-faced names like restaurateur Richard GonzmartGordon Gilette, the former CEO of TECO, and Ron Christaldi, the former chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. There’s also former U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler and his son Brent.

U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and state legislators Joe Gruters and Kathleen Peters, have also contributed to his campaign, as have some Democrats (Erin Aebel and Jen McDonald).

Patel’s most recent fundraiser was Monday night at Irish 31 in Westchase. That’s the same part of the county where Todd Marks‘ law office is located.

Marks filed recently to challenge Patel for the GOP nomination in District 1. Tampa state Rep. Janet Cruz is the only Democrat currently in the race.

Last month, Patel’s leadership qualities were feted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, who honored him with their Emerging Leader Award, given annually to an individual who has made a positive impact on Hillsborough County through their leadership. The award comes with a $1,000 check. Patel donated his prize money to the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County, a board to which he was appointed Chairman in 2014 by Governor Rick Scott.

“At the speech I said we have to do better as young professionals. We have to step up our game, so I pledged another $1,000, and I hope that every year every winner will continue to do the same.”

Patel says he’s been carrying around a yellow notebook with him to record the concerns of voters he meets. He says he’s heard a lot about affordable housing, health care and “transportation, transportation, transportation.” Others complain about the school board and some talk about tourism.

“Pretty much every constituent is just ready for change, so they’re happy that I’m running,” he summarizes about the reaction he’s received from the voting public.

Being an Indian American millennial on the Board of County Commissioners definitely represents change, though as a Republican he would fit in with the dominant GOP-led board (currently the BOCC features five Republicans and just two Democrats). Hillsborough Dems believe Cruz’ name recognition and experience make her the favorite in the contest, but that remains to be seen in what will be one of five BOCC races on the ballot this year.

Belleair Mayor Gary Katica bullish about upcoming election

Mayor Gary Katica (courtesy Town of Belleair)

Longtime Belleair resident and Mayor Gary Katica isn’t one to mince words.

In fact, the 84-year-old ex-police commissioner from New York recently admitted he is a “no B.S. guy.”

So, it’s no surprise that when Katica, who moved to Belleair in 1984, was asked about having to run for a fourth consecutive term against relative unknown Spencer Connerat following the end of the qualifying period Dec. 19, he responded by candidly saying he was “running against a nonentity” and called the upcoming election Tuesday, March 13, a waste of taxpayer dollars.

One month removed from those comments, Katica hasn’t changed his opinion of the race, or his opponent, one bit.

In fact, if anything, Katica has ramped up his pre-election rhetoric.

“The guy that I’m running against, oh, about five or six years ago was the only time he was ever at a public hearing, and there was about 300 people here about the Belleview Biltmore,” Katica said by phone over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. “And during his comments, he got up and read his manifesto while people were hissing and booing.”

Katica went on to add Connerat “looks really good, he talks really nice, but when you read something like that to the citizens of Belleair, what can I say, it went over like a turd in a punch bowl.”

When asked to describe the contents of Connerat’s speech, which he said took place in 2009, Katica said “essentially, it’s a manifesto against the president of the United States and the United States government. And this guy has not been to a public meeting since, he has not participated in anything with the town of Belleair, and he calls me up about the last week or two in November and tells me he’s gonna run for mayor against me.”

A check of the city’s website revealed meeting videos do not go back as far as 2009, making Katica’s claims about the content of Connerat’s speech impossible to immediately verify, and attempts to reach the candidate over the holiday weekend were unsuccessful.

However, the 49-year-old Connerat, who has lived in Belleair since 2001 and ran for city commission in 2016, said after the qualifying period ended that he felt “there should be a competition for elected office” and “it is good to have competition.”

When asked about those remarks, Katica said it wasn’t just Connerat’s inexperience that bothered him, but his opponent’s political beliefs.

“He has zero background. Not a thing. Never asked to volunteer for a committee or anything. Nothing. Zippo,” he said. “But it’s more than his inexperience, it’s his thoughts on government.

“I’m a Korean War vet, I volunteered for the military, and you know, I get very offended by this type of stuff.

“If you’re going to be involved, anybody that’s ever been involved (in politics) in my time, and I was appointed as commissioner in (2000) and I’ve run for mayor three or four times and it’s always been unopposed, because I’m an ex-police commissioner from New York and I’m a no B.S. guy, and we do what we have to do. I’ve been through the Belleair Biltmore (sale), and we worked that out. We worked out the drainage (issue) in Bellaire, we’ve worked out the erosion of the bluffs. I mean, what can I say, I’ve lived here since 1984 and I love this town.”

Katica, who went on to become a successful car salesman following his retirement from the force in 1977 and has worked at Dimmit Cadillac in Clearwater since 1981, said he has no plans to debate Connerat.

“I hope not. I don’t want to sit up there with him,” he said.

He also said he isn’t worried about facing the political newcomer at the polls in March.

“Since he put his name on the ballot, he hasn’t been to anything, he hasn’t volunteered for anything or done anything,” Katica said of Connerat.

“And the worst part is, it’s costing the town five thousand dollars to have a contested election, one that he is certain, absolutely certain, to lose.”

For more information on the 2018 Belleair municipal election, visit townofbelleair.com.

Bernie Fensterwald: Democrat wants to be true ‘citizen legislator’

When Dunedin-based Democrat Bernie Fensterwald III entered the local political scene two years ago, there was significant attention paid to his personal finances after documents showed he was worth $19.8 million.

Criticism ultimately followed after he lost his challenge to Republican Chris Sprowls in the House District 65 seat, spending just $35,000 in the race, compared to Sprowls’ $472,000.

But Fensterwald says that while the financial disclosure form is accurate, it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s because his finances are tied up in real estate.

“It’s by nature illiquid,” Fensterwald explained in an interview at a Panera Bread in Clearwater earlier this week. “The mere fact that I have in my case $19 million doesn’t mean that there’s the liquidity to that kind of thing. Unfortunately, that’s the way it was taken.”

Fensterwald is now running for Senate District 16, which was vacated last December by Jack Latvala. There won’t be a special early election, however, leaving the voters in the Pinellas/Pasco district without representation this Session.

Former state legislator Ed Hooper is the Republican in the race, and he’s already on a Sprowls-like pace in fundraising, collecting more than $275,000 in the race to date, including $11,625 in December.

Fensterwald raised less than a thousand dollars in December and has raised $11,825 so far. When asked how much he would spend on the campaign, Fensterwald says, “Enough to win the race,” adding that he’ll make up the cash gap with people power.

Fensterwald says he’s running on a platform of public integrity.

He says Tallahassee has become a place for the permanent political class and few others, which is why he supports a proposal filed earlier this week by Boca Raton House Republican Bill Hager (HB 1335) to have a committee study moving the Legislature and the offices of the Governor and Cabinet to a location that can be accessible to more citizens.

Buttressing his point is a Harvard Kennedy School of Government study conducted in 2012 that found a correlation between political corruption in state capitals and population density. He says Orlando would be an ideal spot.

A northern Virginia native who moved to the Sunshine State in 2009, Fensterwald has been a lifelong political junkie, but he says it was the Legislature’s attempt to preempt local governments in a fracking bill in the 2016 Session that inspired his candidacy against Sprowls last year.

He was a volunteer in politics for more than two decades in the Commonwealth while making a living as an attorney, including a few years with his late father, Bernard Fensterwald Jr., a former government lawyer who later defended James W. McCord Jr., a Watergate burglar.

Fensterwald is a fierce critic of the GOP-led Legislature’s encroachment on home rule, saying he’ll never vote for a bill that preempts local governments.

The 66-year-old Fensterwald is the director and vice president of a self-storage company with locations across the Washington, D.C., area and in Daytona Beach. He supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Florida and dismisses the business community’s criticism of such a plan. He adds that he “believes it’s true'” that all of his full-time employees make at least that wage at his company.

“I think the business community in my experience has a knee-jerk reaction to any increase in wages, regardless of whether it is a legitimate concern or not,” he says.

Fensterwald says he’s split on the issue of term limits, at least in Tallahassee. He absolutely abhors legislators switching from the House to the Senate (or vice versa) to extend their political careers, but says if it were up to him, the eight-year limit in a specific House and/or Senate seat would be eliminated.

“I would prefer not to have term limits because I think what you do is you sacrifice institutional knowledge,” he says, adding that if the Legislature is going to insist on having them, “they ought to be meaningful. They shouldn’t be able to switch back and forth like that.”

For an example, Fensterwald calls the idea absurd that in some cases, Republicans who aren’t even elected yet are or have only served one term quickly size up their chances of being in line to become House Speaker. (He cites Sprowls as an example. Sprowls was voted in 2016 to become Speaker in 2020 — before he had finished his first term in office).

The Pasco-Pinellas Senate District has been considered safe GOP territory for years, but Fensterwald claims Hooper is vulnerable this year, since he’s coming off a loss in the Pinellas County Commission race to Pat Gerard in 2014.

He derides Hooper as being a career politician, an epithet that no one can ever accuse Fensterwald of.

“I think people should go up to the Legislature, apply their expertise and their knowledge, give back to the community, and go back to where they came from and resume their lives as before,” he says.

“Too many people up there who switch from the Florida House to the Florida Senate, they eventually become lobbyists, and then, they’re just part of that industry.”

This lifelong Democrat feels the energy from his party and says he’s seen it in the Democratic clubs he attends, especially in Northern Pinellas County. Whether that can carry him to get over 50 percent in November is a formidable challenge, but Fensterwald is nothing if not an optimist.

“I think District 16 is one of those seats that is doable,” he says. “I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think that it was doable,” adding that he thinks the Democrats can swing five seats this fall, taking over the Legislature’s upper chamber.

“If they can get their act together, they have a tremendous opportunity to forestall any further gerrymandering,” he says of his own party.

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