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Hillsborough GOP Chair Deb Tamargo steps down

Deborah Tamargo is stepping down from her position as Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee Chair.

The change is effective as of 5 p.m. Tuesday.

By order of succession,  Party Secretary Jeanne Webb will assume the interim chair position, Tamargo said.

Tamargo’s resignation follows months of controversy that had boiled up inside the Hillsborough GOP, advanced when Webb and three other Hillsborough County Republican Party officers filed a grievance with the Republican Party of Florida last fall that called on the state party to suspend Tamargo.

Issues with the chair began after a debate over the location of the Party’s monthly meetings, with some advocating they be held at the River of Tampa Bay, versus keeping them at Netpark Tampa Bay.

From there, the debate escalated when Tamargo told a female speaker commenting on the issue during a Party meeting to keep her comments brief.

That comment ultimately led four members of the party’s executive committee — Webb, Clarice Henderson, Michael Henderson and Jim Waurishuk — to file a grievance against Tamargo, accusing her of violating state party rules, specifically in her manner of discussion over the site of the party’s monthly meetings.

“My resignation is a means that will hopefully end attempts made over the last couple of months to distract our committee from our mission and goals, ” Tamargo writes in her resignation letter. “Though those attempts didn’t deter the super majority of  members from continuing to faithfully perform our responsibilities as members, it became increasingly difficult for our Board to move forward with the unity necessary to focus on winning 2018 elections.”

Tamargo had never enjoyed a considerable mandate since assuming the chair of the Hillsborough GOP in 2014 when she narrowly defeated former Deborah Cox-Roush. She then survived an insurgent challenge against her chair position again in 2016 by Jonny Torres, who claimed that party membership and interest had dropped in the party in recent years and that local candidates weren’t helped much by the REC in the 2016 election cycle.

Tamargo’s resignation is the second by a Republican party chair from a major county in the past couple of days. Bob Sutton, the chairman of the Broward Republican Party, resigned last Saturday.

That announcement was made publicly by RPOF Chairman Blaise Ingoglia during the state party’s quarterly Executive Board meeting in Orlando.

“I’m still a 100 percent issue-oriented Republican and supporter,” Tamargo wrote to Florida Politics in a brief email Monday night.

Self-proclaimed underdog Topher Morrison announces bid for Tampa mayor

Saying he’s proud to be the underdog in the race, Topher Morrison is running for Tampa mayor, becoming the second candidate to declare for the March 2019 elections.

Morrison made the announcement Monday at the 1895 Kitchen-Bar-Market on Franklin Street (the oldest building in downtown Tampa), speaking at a podium literally backed by friends and other small-business people.

The 48-year-old Tampa small-business owner acknowledged lacking the financial resources of some candidates who will enter the race but hopes to get the financial support of the small business community in Tampa to fuel his run.

“I want to ride on the shoulders of every small business owner in the Tampa area, ” he said. “I’m not going to get the big funding dollars. I’m not as fortunate as David A Straz Jr. … that I can just bankroll and buy the election.”

Straz is another Tampa businessman possessing no political experience who is flirting with entering the mayoral contest. He said last month he will decide sometime in the coming months.

A native of Spokane, Washington, Morrison fell in love with the people of Tampa while on a three-day vacation in 2000; he moved to the Cigar City three weeks later.

Morrison said there are three main issues to fix in the city: transportation, the city’s lack of a “brand identity” and improving relations between Tampa and Hillsborough County.

On transportation, Morrison thinks he can create a plan that allows Tampa — and not Hillsborough County — to direct its own future, a stance not usually taken by local lawmakers (one reason being that state law only permits counties, and not cities, to place tax referendums on the ballot).

While Morrison supports a multimodal approach to transit, he also showed his idiosyncratic approach by calling for an app from the city — created by the tech community — to encourage carpooling from Tampa to St. Petersburg.

“Why can’t the city of Tampa create an app that allows us to carpool and generate revenue for the city and also those individuals?” he asked. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.”

Morrison believes that in solving problems, the private sector can work more efficiently than bureaucratic government. He said small-business men like himself “eat the impossible for breakfast every day,” which doesn’t happen in bureaucracies.

“If you start asking how much things cost and why it won’t work, well that’s a surefire way to get it stopped. Too many people focus on the how. You need to focus on the who first.”

The city can’t have a “timid” mayor who only pushes for things that he (or she) knows they can get passed, Morrison added.

“We need a brave mayor, one who’s willing to go for the impossible,” he said. “And I don’t think that the impossible can be done by bureaucracy and career politicians.”

That said, Morrison was quick to compliment Bob Buckhorn, who still has more than a year to go before being term-limited from office.

“I’m a fan of Bob,” he said. “I think he’s done an exceptional job for our city and I hope I can continue his legacy and his vision and carry that forward.”

Asked if there was any policy that he took issue with the current mayor, Morrison said that he only wished Buckhorn had been more enthusiastic about the Cross-Bay Ferry pilot project that ran last fall and winter from Tampa to St. Pete. It was a project Morrison said he loved.

Tampa invested $350,000 into the project, and Buckhorn’s decision not to repeat that subsidy this year was a factor in the public-private partnership opting not to continue the pilot project forward.

Morrison provoked some controversy on his own Facebook page last month, when he posted a comment the Saturday before Christmas about three dozen homeless people in Gaslight Park “making it completely inaccessible to functioning, taxpaying citizens whose money goes to politicians that make the park so beautiful, but do nothing to keep it beautiful by offering better solutions to the homeless.”

Morrison, who lives at the Element in downtown and whose business is just blocks away, says he sees and interacts with many of the same homeless people on a daily basis. He was “confused” why there was so much focus on giving food and clothes to the homeless, but not actually giving them housing.

“Right now, I think what we’re doing is making it far too easy for the homeless to be homeless. You give them all the food they want. You give them all the clothes they want, what incentive do they have to work? It makes it very easy to make them homeless,” he said.

Morrison also believes the city of Orlando did a great job with their housing first” approach.

As a professional speaker for over 30 years, Morrison is the founder of the Tampa-based firm, Key Person of Influence, USA. KPI-USA is a business accelerator and personal branding program. He is also a best-selling author of multiple business books.

Compared to former Police Chief Jane Castor and current council members Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen (all of whom are contemplating entering the mayoral race), Morrison is a relative unknown in Tampa politics. It is something that he says he’s fully aware of, which explains his relatively early entry into the contest.

Morrison’s fresh approach to politics has trickled down to his staff; he hired former Tampa Hillsborough Film Commissioner Dale Gordon to serve as campaign manager. It’s a job that Gordon never held before, though she has plenty of experience working with lawmakers in her previous career.

Unlike Straz, Morrison didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016. But at the conclusion of the news conference, he gave his own thoughts on what people might have been looking for when the Republican nominee won the Electoral College, and what has occurred since then.

“I think we were looking for leadership that embraced politically incorrectness, and people got political inappropriateness,” Morrison said. “I want to be politically appropriate, but I don’t want to be politically correct.”

Morrison is the second candidate to file for office, though it’s questionable how credible is the candidacy of Michael Anthony Hazard. He’s a Brandon citizen who announced his candidacy last spring, yet has yet to raise a single dollar in the race.

High-profile St. Pete Democrats now backing Vito Sheeley in contentious HD 70 primary

Wengay Newton received a rebuke Monday when several high-profile St. Petersburg Democrats announced their support of Vito Sheeley, the political operative challenging the incumbent in the overwhelmingly Democratic House District 70 this year.

In a joint statement, Pinellas County School Board Chair Rene Flowers, Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and City Council Chair Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said they were backing Sheeley’s bid to unseat Newton.

Sheeley is a former district aide to both U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist, and spent some time this year in an unusual alliance with former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, the Republican who Crist defeated last November.

Kriseman’s endorsement of Sheeley shouldn’t be a complete surprise. Newton alienated several Democratic activists in St. Pete last year after endorsing Republican Rick Baker over Kriseman in the hyper-intense mayoral contest.

“Vito’s track record speaks for itself,” Kriseman said in a statement. “I’ve known Vito for years, and know his heart and how hard he will work on behalf of the people of his District and this community. We need Vito’s leadership in District 70.”

 In the 2016 Democratic primary for HD 70, Kriseman endorsed Dan Fiorini, one of Newton’s opponents.

“I went to Kriseman for support in my House race. He told me to pound sand,” Newton said last year when asked about supporting Baker. But Newton insisted that backing Baker had nothing to do with that snub, saying that the former two-term mayor was the best man to lead St. Petersburg in the future.

“Rick Baker is my friend for over ten years. It’s a shame that in the areas of greatest need, they’re still talking about that here in 2017,” Newton said about the economic conditions in South St. Pete.

Welch, Wheeler-Bowman and Flowers were also strong Kriseman supporters in the 2017 mayoral race.

“Vito brings people together to listen to stakeholders, work as a team, solve problems and uplift our community — that’s something we desperately need in Tallahassee,” Welch said Monday. “I know that Vito will continue his service to our community and bring common sense solutions to the capital.

“The continued attacks aimed at diminishing our education system is besieged with unfunded mandates, and any sense of integrity has eroded daily, we need representation in line and in tune with the needs of District 70,” Flowers said. “For a strong leader aligned with our values and ideals, Vito Sheeley receives my endorsement as the next member of the House of Representatives, District 70.”

“Vito has the skills, the temperament, and the drive to represent our community successfully,” added Wheeler-Bowman, who was officially elected to chair the St. Pete City Council this year last week. “South St. Pete needs a strong voice who can go to Tallahassee, work constructively, and bring home results.”

“Simply put, Vito is the right person for the job.”

Newton held a campaign kickoff barbecue at Dell Holmes Park in South St. Pete on Saturday. He has raised $17,370 in the race. Sheeley has raised just $4,722, though his numbers for December have yet to be reported.

Sheeley said he was “humbled” by the support.

“They know me as an advocate who will always put my constituents above the broken politics we’ve had to endure for too long. I look forward to continuing that work representing District 70.”

Newton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

St. Petersburg attorney and civic activist Keisha Bell announced last week that she would soon officially enter the HD 70 Democratic race.

HD 70 covers parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

Kathy Castor is Mariella Smith’s first major endorsement for county commission bid

Kathy Castor is endorsing longtime neighborhood and environmentalist activist Mariella Smith in her bid for Hillsborough County Commission District 5.

“Mariella Smith is a champion for citizens, our neighborhoods, a healthy environment and a strong local economy,” the Hillsborough County congresswoman said in a statement Monday. “She has a deep understanding of how to move Hillsborough County forward on transportation, smart growth, the environment, and economic prosperity. She is a vigilant advocate for open and honest government and an outspoken partner on issues important to Hillsborough families.

“I have seen firsthand how she is not afraid to stand up to powerful special interests. I strongly endorse and support Mariella Smith for Hillsborough County Commission.”

Castor’s endorsement is a huge shot in the arm for Smith, who officially announced her first run for office less than a week ago. Smith is one of five Democrats who has entered the race in District 5, in what is theoretically an open seat after the departure of a term-limited Ken Hagan later this year.

However, District 2 Republican Commissioner Victor Crist already announced a run for the District 5 seat, and after having spent the past seven years on the board (and 25 years in public office), Crist is considered essentially the de facto incumbent in the race.

Crist is also one of three Republicans currently serving on the Board of County Commission seeking different seats on the board in 2018.

In the case of Crist and Hagan, it’s because they are term-limited out of their current seats in Districts 2 and 5, respectively. Critics are calling that a violation in spirit of term-limit rules, and it was referred to by Smith in her campaign kickoff announcement last week.

“It’s time to stop the musical chairs by the same old politicians who are more interested in deals for special interests than serving our citizens,” Smith said.

Crist has raised $70,905 to date, the most of any candidate in the field.

Mark Nash has raised the most funds of any Democrat with $39,940. Elvis Pigott is next with $12,221.

Wife, son of late C.W. Bill Young arrested in Indian Rocks Beach

An incident at an Indian Rock Beach restaurant led to the arrest of both the son and wife of the late Pinellas County Congressman C.W. “Bill” Young.

Beverly Young, 62, and her 30-year-old son, Patrick, were arrested Friday evening.

As first reported by WFLA, Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies were called to JD’s Restaurant & Lounge on 125 Gulf Blvd. in Indian Rocks Beach at about 9:45 p.m. Friday, responding to a customer claiming he was hit by a male subject at the restaurant.

According to PCSO records, Patrick Young, a Pinellas Park resident, was detained on one count of felony battery on a person 65 years of age or older. He was released on $5,000 bond.

Beverly Young, who lives in Indian Shores, was held on a single count of misdemeanor driving under the influence. She was released on her own recognizance.

Beverly’s late husband and Patrick’s father C.W. “Bill” Young was the longest-serving Republican member of Congress at the time of his death in 2013.

Young represented much of Pinellas County in the United States House of Representatives from 1971 to 2013. In 2014, the Bay Pines veteran’s hospital was renamed after Young.

Activists make late push against Tampa’s massage parlor crackdown

Tampa’s City Council is poised to approve an ordinance Thursday that attempts to curb illicit activity at massage parlors.

But critics maintain the move is a misdirected effort that will only hurt the people it’s intended to help.

Aimed at combating human sex trafficking, the ordinance came to the council’s attention last year via members of the activist group “Clean Up Kennedy,” who made frequent visits to the Council meetings. They advocated that the city do something about commercial sexual exploitation and possible human trafficking going on Kennedy Blvd and across Tampa.

That led the city’s legal department to address the issue by reviving a law initially crafted in the late 1980s to address sexual practices that spread HIV during the AIDS crisis. It calls for requiring bathhouses and bath technicians to undergo inspections, permitting and regulations (that) “will help ferret out illegal activities and prevent, detect or deter human trafficking.”

On Dec. 21, the measure passed 5-0 (Council members Yolie Capin and Frank Reddick weren’t at the meeting).

More than a dozen activists gathered in front of City Hall Saturday afternoon to call on Council members to rethink their vote before it comes back for a second reading Thursday.

To a person, the activists who spoke at the news conference said that they abhor human trafficking and want it stopped. They just don’t think the ordinance that the city’s legal department has crafted will do that.

“Reviving this bathhouse ordinance is harmful to the working class community because it excuses the real criminals who are human traffickers — it places blame on the actual victims of human trafficking,” said Cara Leigh with National Nurses United, and Democratic Socialists of America.

Citing statistics that show that less than half the women who are sexually assaulted ever report such incidents, Sydney Eastman with the Sex Workers Solidarity Network says the only solution to the problem that the council is attempting to address is to give such sex workers legal immunity.

“We want to see this solution because we know it’s the only lifeline we can throw on a city level that’s going to truly empower victims to come forward,” Eastman said. “An anonymous tip line, and immunity for people who want to report violence against them. This will shift the model that allows human traffickers to prey on our streets with impunity.”

Some activists who came before the Council last month to discuss the ordinance say they’re troubled by what they perceived to be the council’s lack of interest in their message.

“It is obvious that they see us as nothing more than rabble rousers with nothing of interest to say,” said Julie Solace, co-founder and organizer with the Sex Workers Solidarity Network.

“The fact of the matter is that regardless of what happens Thursday at City Hall, we aren’t going to stop until human trafficking is properly addressed through sensible legislation that does not further oppress and harass already marginalized groups, and we will not rest until safety, justice and equality is achieved for all members of the working class, including sex workers.”

Saturday’s news conference ended with the sixteen people present calling and leaving voicemail messages to the members of the City Council in advance of Thursday’s vote, asking them to reconsider their support for the ordinance.

Republican Todd Marks takes aim at Hillsborough Commission District 1 seat

Republican Todd Marks has to run for the District 1 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.

The attorney and small-business owner joins Aakash Patel in the race for the GOP nomination. Florida House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, who is term-limited from running again, is the lone Democrat in the race.

Marks runs Westchase Law, a Tampa-based law firm specializing in family and business law.

“For my entire life, I’ve been a consistent and common-sense conservative,” Marks said in a statement announcing his candidacy. “As a local small business owner and attorney, I know the importance of creating good jobs and, conversely, the hardships that government can place on business. Common sense, experience-oriented leadership is vital to protect our quality of life.”

District 1 encompasses South Tampa, much of Town ‘n’ Country and West Tampa, and much of the South Shore area. Voters there tend to elect political moderates. It’s been held by Republican Sandy Murman since 2010. Murman was just elected to a four-year term in November 2016 but announced last year that she would pursue the opportunity to serve even longer on the board by running for the countywide District 7 seat.

Before Murman, the seat was held by Rose Ferlita, and before her, Kathy Castor.

Marks is a graduate of the George Mason School of Law and began his legal career in Washington D.C. and McLean, Virginia.

He’s been an active presence in Republican politics for years, and ran previously for office in 2010, when he lost to Dana Young for the GOP nomination for House District 57 (now District 60).

Marks has a formidable opponent in the GOP race in Patel, who has raised a startling $327,000 in campaign contributions and donations to his political committee, Elevate Tampa.

New lawmaker Lawrence McClure ready for re-election run

Less than three weeks after winning a special election in a Hillsborough County House district, Republican Lawrence McClure is planning a re-election bid this fall.

McClure, who defeated three other candidates Dec. 19 to replace former Rep. Dan Raulerson opened a campaign account Friday for the November election, according to the state Division of Elections website.

Unaffiliated candidate Shawn Gilliam of Plant City also has opened an account for the District 58 race.


James Buchanan adds to GOP disapproval on offshore drilling

House District 72 Republican candidate James Buchanan opposes the Trump administration’s plan to open up offshore drilling off the coast of Florida.

“I’m against it,” the Sarasota real estate agent and broker told Florida Politics Friday.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed Thursday a sweeping new offshore drilling plan that intends to open large sections of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans to oil exploration, a move that has been denounced by Democrats and Republicans throughout Florida.

Buchanan is running against Democrat Margaret Good in the special election in House District 72 on Feb. 13. The vote was scheduled after Republican Alex Miller announced in September she was stepping down from the seat.

Good said on Thursday that she was “horrified” by the Administration’s decision, and Buchanan needed to speak up about what he thought of the proposal.

“Is James aligned with President Trump on this issue and on climate change?” she asked in a statement. “Does he agree with the Republican leadership that we should sell off our natural resources to the highest bidder?  What does he stand for?”

Criticism of the plan has been bipartisan in Florida, led by Gov. Rick Scott, who in a rare public disagreement with Trump, said this week he opposed the announcement.

Scott added that his “top priority” was to ensure that Florida’s natural resources remain protected, a stance with which Buchanan says he agrees.

Vern Buchanan, James’ father who represents Sarasota County in Congress, blasted the proposal as well, calling it “reckless, misguided and potentially catastrophic to Florida.”

Libertarian Alison Foxall is also on the ballot in the HD 72 race. She was not available for comment Friday.

Tampa crowd objects to First Amendment Foundation stance on proposed public records law

One might think that the Tampa Bay Times’ Tim Nickens, as editorial page editor of Tampa Bay’s biggest daily newspaper, might be subjected to tough questions about the paper’s coverage and/or editorial stances when he spoke before the politically savvy Cafe Con Tampa crowd at the Oxford Exchange Friday morning.

Those tough questions were asked, but they were about his support as a member of the First Amendment Foundation’s board for a piece of legislation introduced for the 2018 Session, which kicks off next week.

The First Amendment Foundation is a 33-year-old Tallahassee-based organization to promote the constitutional right for members of the public to oversee government through Florida’s Sunshine public records laws.

SB 1142, from Sarasota Senate Republican Greg Steube, calls for court records to be administratively expunged automatically of nearly anyone found not guilty, acquitted during a trial or has charges dropped or dismissed. Claiming documents could still be obtained from the courthouse where the charges were filed, charges would not show up in a background check through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

While the First Amendment Foundation strongly opposes the law, Nickens gave several examples of why the state should protect those records.

“If you are hiring a babysitter, you might want to run a criminal background check to see if that person has ever been arrested,” Nickens said. “If you run a business, you’d likely want to run a background check to make sure that this person hasn’t done any crimes or is an upstanding citizen that hasn’t been arrested a number of times for driving while intoxicated.”

A similar provision passed during the 2017 Session — and was sent to Gov. Rick Scott‘s desk — but that portion of the overall bill was dropped from the final legislation.

From the jump, Nickens said support for the bill received immediate pushback from members of the audience, with some in the audience prefacing remarks with comments about individual cases involving themselves or others.

“I feel it’s like a further persecution for that not to be wiped out of the system,” said a man who said he once served on a jury where it was obvious the accused was innocent. “I don’t think there’s any value in having that on his record.”

Nickens agreed that if he or a family member were falsely accused of a crime, he would want that wiped out. He said there are already procedures to get records expunged or sealed. But if reporters can’t get access to such records, he said they couldn’t demonstrate that prosecutors had erred or the police had perhaps planted evidence in a case.

That failed to mollify the crowd.

“We all know you can get your records expunged if you’ve got money,” replied Ione Townsend, the chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. “But if you don’t have money that’s almost impossible to do.”

“The whole system is biased against people of color,” activist Jim Shirk added. “It’s just discriminatory.”

Nickens countered that there had been evidence of racial disparities documented in newspaper reports across the country, but Steube’s law would prevent journalists from having access to that information for writing such stories.

Former criminal defense attorney Rochelle Reback, saying she was a First Amendment “champion,” argued that the Foundation’s opposition to the bill was “prejudicial and also unnecessary.” She said she encountered problems with requests for expunged records when public agencies sometimes fail to comply.

“They’re either overloaded, or their systems are defective, and it doesn’t happen.”

There was also discussion about Nickens’ day job, where he serves as editor of editorials at the Times.

The Times’ editorial page was heavily criticized last year by liberals, unhappy about the tough stances it took on St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in his reelection bid.

As did his opponent, former Mayor Rick Baker, the Times took exception to Kriseman’s campaign decision to nationalize the election, making what was officially a nonpartisan race into a very partisan contest.

Frustration led to Nickens writing a column under his own name where he cited a Florida Democratic Party mailer linking Baker to President Donald Trump with an accompanying quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that ultimately compelled him to switch party registration to independent.

When a reporter asked about readers’ responses to those columns, Nickens said the editorial page is generally progressive in tone and frequently takes positions more favorable to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. But Nickens noted that stance doesn’t always transfer when making recommendations in political races (the Times does not “endorse”).

“Over the last three or four election cycles, we’ve recommended more Republicans than we have Democrats,” Nickens said. “Now some of is sort of with a gun to our head because there wasn’t viable Democrats in those particular races, say for congress or something like that. But what was interesting in the mayor’s race in St. Petersburg is that is a nonpartisan race.”

He went on to say the paper had recommended both Baker and Kriseman in previous mayoral elections — 2001, 2005 and 2013, respectively — and the choice for the editorial board last year “was a close call.”

“We’ve been both supportive and critical of both,” he said. “We got a lot of feedback when we recommended Baker, because I think a lot of our readers who are progressives maybe took us for granted and just assumed that the Times editorial page was going to be for the Democrat. And in this case, we weren’t.”

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