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Rick Scott visits Tampa Police following arrest of Seminole Heights killer

Updated

Gov. Rick Scott came to Tampa early Wednesday to thank the officers involved in the arrest of 24-year-old Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, the man suspected of killing four people in Seminole Heights over the past six weeks.

“To the families of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton, my heart goes out to you,” Scott said addressing reporters who gathered outside the Tampa Police Department headquarters shortly after 8 a.m.

“Because of the hard work of law enforcement, justice will be served.”

TPD Chief Brad Dugan and Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced that Donaldson was the suspect in the killings late Tuesday night, approximately eight hours after they arrested him at an Ybor City McDonald’s.

An employee at the fast food establishment said that Donaldson, who worked at the restaurant, came up and had given her a food bag with a .40 caliber Glock inside. The witness also told a TPD officer that Donaldson said he wanted to leave the state. Donaldson had since left the restaurant, but returned and was detained by officers.

Scott, Buckhorn, Dugan and other law enforcement officials were effusive in celebrating the collaborative effort between law enforcement agencies to help bring Donaldson into custody — just fifty-one days after he allegedly killed Mitchell, the first of the four people slain in the neighborhood.

Scott directed the Florida Highway Patrol to deploy additional troopers to Seminole Heights last week. Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents had also been involved in the manhunt, as well as sheriff deputies from Hillsborough County and officers from the St. Petersburg Police Department.

“We would not be here today having apprehending this individual had it not been for the team effort that’s been taking place for the last fifty-one days,” Buckhorn said.

Chief Dugan said at a press conference later on Wednesday that his investigators still have work to do on the case, though he said definitively that Donaldson is the culprit in the murders. He added that he had spoken briefly with Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren on Wednesday, but said it was too early to determine what penalty to seek.

Buckhorn surprised some residents a month ago when he asked Tampa Police officers who were working on finding the killer to “bring me his head on a platter.”

His rhetoric was toned down Wednesday, though he couldn’t resist offering his opinion about Donaldson’s fate.

“Today we begin the healing process, and today the judicial process starts,” the mayor said. “And it will end, and I will promise you that when it does end, that this community will be a better place because I know where this guy is going to spend his eternity.”

When asked what should happen to Donaldson, Buckhorn said he wanted the process to take its place. And once it does?

“If he is found to be guilty, he should die. It’s that simple,” the mayor said.

Dugan said the arrest of Donaldson gave him a feeling of relief. The longtime Tampa policeman was named interim chief earlier this year, and then was officially given the title of chief just a few weeks ago. He said it was hardly an ideal way to start off his career.

“To start off as chief of police and to have four unsolved homicides on your watch? That’s a tough pill to swallow. That is something that I’ll carry the rest of my life,” Dugan said.

Scott said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to murder someone in cold blood.

“Why somebody would have it in their mind to go take four individuals lives? I don’t get it, and I don’t know if we’ll ever understand it,” he said.

Dugan said there is no apparent motive for the murders at this time. He said Donaldson was cooperative with officers once he was taken into custody, but has only admitted that the gun he was found with on Tuesday was his. He has not admitted to the murders.

Tampa Police ‘optimistic’ on possible break in Seminole Heights murders

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan is “optimistic” a man with a gun at a McDonald’s restaurant in Ybor City Tuesday afternoon could be linked to four recent killings in Seminole Heights.

Dugan said his agency received a tip at 2:45 p.m. of a man was brandishing a gun at the McDonald’s on E. 13th Avenue. The unidentified man was confronted, and taken in to be interviewed.

The man was not put in custody at the time, the chief pointed out.

The TPD has received over 5,000 tips since the four murders began last month in Seminole Heights, but Dugan admits he is “optimistic” that Tuesday’s tip about the man could be linked to the killings.

“We have to be very careful about what we release because this person might be completely innocent,” said Dugan, who met with reporters at Tampa Fire Rescue Station #4, south of the McDonald’s.

As of 5 p.m., the man had been arrested.

The suspect in the Seminole Heights killings is described as an African-American male with a light complexion. Officials believe he is approximately 6′ to 6’2″ tall, with a thin build. He was armed with a large black pistol.

“We have a gun,” said Dugan. “We don’t know if it’s our gun.”

It has been 51 days since the TPD began searching for the killer of Benjamin Mitchell, killed October 9.

Mitchell’s death was followed by the killings of Monica Hoffa on October 11, Anthony Taino Naiboa on October 19, and Ronald Felton on Nov. 14. Each of the murders was within 10 blocks of each other in the neighborhood of southeast Seminole Heights.

“It’s been a long time for the families and for the cops, and so I’m guarded on the whole thing, but I’m optimistic,” Dugan said, adding it would be a long night for police.

Jeff Brandes on how criminal justice reform can address generational poverty

At an anti-poverty conference, state Sen. Jeff Brandes said that, if possible, he thinks it could be beneficial for the Legislature to work on policies that encourage millennials to marry before having children, though he acknowledged that’s unlikely to occur.

“The regulatory effects from that would be game-changing,” the St. Petersburg Republican said during the Florida Chamber Foundation’s “Less Poverty, Through More Prosperity Summit” Tuesday in Tampa.

Brandes cited the “Success Sequence” as a formula that can help reduce Florida’s poverty rate, which among those under the age of 18 is a staggering 30 percent.  Success Sequence is an anti-poverty process first endorsed by officials with the Brookings Institute and has since been adopted by folks with the American Enterprise Institute. It calls for people born into poverty to get at least a high school degree, work full-time and marry before having any children, in that order.

That’s easier said than done, Brandes admitted.

“That is one that is frankly, not well suited for the Legislature to address, but it needs to be part of the overall conversation about addressing prosperity and poverty in the state,” he said.

The conversation then veered into criminal justice reform, which has become one of Brandes’ major passions over the past couple of years.

Florida prisons incarcerate approximately 100,000 people, with another 30,000 in urban county jails, Brandes said. But there are not nearly enough people to staff those prisons, hurting the chances those in custody to avoid recidivism.

There are currently 2,100 job vacancies in our state prisons, he said, and not a huge demand to take those positions, which pay a measly $31,000 annually. That contributes to increasing contraband in prisons and inmate violence.

Brandes talked about creating a prison “off-ramp,” such as opportunities to offer civil citations instead of arrests. The state has made major progress on that with juveniles, but Brandes says that opportunity needs to be presented to adults for certain offenses.

“You steal an item in Florida that costs $300. You’re a committed felon in the state,” he said, noting that law hasn’t changed since 1986, as opposed to most of Florida’s neighboring states, where the felony threshold is stealing an item worth $1,500.

“Steal an iPhone; you’re in prison for five years. You could lose your right to vote. Good luck getting a job,” Brandes said, calling it a “scarlet letter” that will be with someone for the rest of their life.

Other policies Brandes specifically addressed include providing inmates with an opportunity to study and acquire occupational licenses while incarcerated, so they have skills in an industry where they’d be eligible to work once released from prison.

Those arrested in, say, Tampa shouldn’t be placed in a prison in the Panhandle, Brandes added, citing how important family interactions are to prisoners in giving them hope about their future.

When Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, asked what the business community could do to help, Brandes mentioned mentoring and certificate programs tied to an employer or another career source. He said the Legislature could play a part in offering incentives to businesses and released inmates.

“Can I create a certified inmate program?” he mused, suggesting a look at what other states or doing to encourage businesses to get involved.

Brandes also weighed in on the state’s affordable housing crisis; the current model was broken, he said, and a “radically different approach” needs to be adopted to help the public.

 

A warning for Democrats eyeing Jeff Brandes’ SD 24 seat in 2018

A word of warning for Florida Democrats in 2018; be cautious about eyeing Pinellas County Sen. Jeff Brandes’ District 24 seat.

After the somewhat surprising success of Rick Kriseman, who edged out former mayor Rick Baker, Florida Democrats are starting to think a “blue wave” will give them a legitimate shot at Brandes, the incumbent Republican in SD 24.

They may have to rethink that strategy.

But first, a few facts.

One of the most visible distinctions between Brandes’ SD 24 and the City of St. Petersburg is voter registration.

Republicans make up 38 percent of SD 24, and hold a five-point advantage over Democrats (33 percent), while ‘Other’ and no-party-affiliated voters make up the rest (29 percent).

In contrast, St. Pete is 46 percent Democratic — an 18 percent registration advantage over Republicans (28 percent) while ‘Other’ party affiliation voters make up 26 percent of the electorate.

One of the main reasons Baker found success as a Republican in the mostly Democrat-leaning city of St. Pete was his popularity in the African-American community, where he spent a good amount of time.

Sixty-nine percent St. Pete voters are white, 20 percent are African-American, a significant (and influential) portion of the electorate.

In the primary, Baker bested Kriseman 51 to 38 percent in precincts with over 80 percent African-American registration. This came despite Kriseman’s support and endorsement from former President Barack Obama and tying Baker to Trump as much as possible.

And while Trump proved a winning strategy in St. Pete’s general election, it only resulted in a three-point victory for Kriseman, 51.62 to 48.38 percent.

In comparison, SD 24 is 85 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic. Only 4 percent of voters are African-American.

Republicans hold a five percent registration advantage over Democrats in SD 24 but outperform them by much higher numbers. In the 2014 Governor’s race, Republicans turned out +9 over Democrats, giving Brandes a victory by nearly 14 percent.

In 2016, SD 24 Republicans performed +6 over Democrats, where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 7 percent and Marco Rubio beat Patrick Murphy by 8 percent.

Those two elections played out very differently in St. Pete. Democrats outperformed +18 over Republicans in 2014, where longtime St. Petersburg resident (and Republican-turned-Democrat) Charlie Crist beat Rick Scott by 33 percent.

Similarly, Democrats outpaced Republicans +18 in 2016, when Clinton beat Trump by 23 percent and Murphy beat Rubio by 19 percent.

Turnout in presidential cycles historically tends to favor Democrats, and SD 24 had a Republican advantage of 7.5 percent at the top of the ticket.

In a midterm gubernatorial race in 2018, where Republican performance historically is even better (+9 percent for 2014), Democrats would face a very steep uphill climb. This means Democrats would need to boost turnout by double of that in the St. Pete mayoral race — as well as siphon off some of the broad support for Brandes among both Republicans and independent voters.

As a family man with four young children (including a newly adopted daughter), an Iraq War Veteran, businessman and Republican who leans libertarian, Brandes appeals to a Republican base as a fiscal conservative. He is a staunch believer in limited government and Second Amendment rights.

But even more importantly, especially to a broader electorate: Brandes isn’t afraid to shake things up in Tallahassee.

As a Republican in a GOP-majority Legislature, Brandes has been a longtime advocate for some traditionally un-Republican issues, such as the legalization of medical marijuana for those who need it. He also led the charge for prison and criminal justice reform, questioning the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences.

Brandes is also a staunch supporter of cutting-edge technologies in Florida, both in the classroom, on roads, and in the everyday lives of citizens. He sponsored legislation for increased autonomous vehicle technology in the state and to develop digital driver’s licenses. Brandes also spearheaded the expansion of ride-sharing services statewide and pushed for the repeal of red light cameras.

From his first House victory in 2010, unseating incumbent Democrat Bill Heller by 999 votes, Brandes has won solid victories (or ran unopposed), with arguably one of the most organized campaigns structures in Pinellas County history.

Employing a robust ground game, strong fundraising and willingness to commit personal resources, Brandes defeated fellow House member Jim Frishe in the Senate race by more 14 percent. In 2014, he beat Democrat Judithanne McLauchlan by 13.9 percent in the general election and went unchallenged in 2016.

With a mix of demographics, organization and support, any Brandes challenger in SD 24 will find themselves facing a rough road — Democratic “blue wave” or not.

Be forewarned.

Hillsborough PTC attorney Cindy Oster named to county court

Cynthia Oster, who has been serving as the in-house attorney for the soon-to-be dismantled Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, has been named by Gov. Rick Scott to serve as a judge in Hillsborough County Court.

The 47-year-old Oster’s official position, which she has held for the past 17 years, was Senior Assistant County Attorney in Hillsborough. She was previously an assistant state attorney for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit and an assistant public defender for the Tenth Judicial Circuit.

Oster received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and her law degree from Stetson University College of Law. She will fill the vacancy created by the appointment of Judge Jennifer X. Gabbard to the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court.

In recent years with the PTC, Oster was busy with lawsuits between the agency and ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, who battled the PTC for more than two years until they came into compliance a year ago.

Legislation passed earlier this year calls for the PTC to be dissolved at the end of this year.

David Jolly, Patrick Murphy to meet again at USF St. Pete

Former Florida Congressmen David Jolly and Patrick Murphy resume their fall college speaking tour in St. Petersburg.

The tour — called “Why Gridlock Rules Washington” — continues Tuesday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. on the 2nd floor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Student Center. It will be televised live in the Tampa Bay area and Orlando markets.

Over the past couple of months, Jolly and Murphy have been holding public discussions about the state of chaos in Washington D.C., and what can be done to fix politics.

The one-hour event will be broadcast on Bay News 9 in Tampa Bay and Bay News 13 in Orlando, and will be moderated by Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory.

The two former lawmakers appeared on the USF Tampa campus last month, where Jolly repeated his comments from a year ago that part of the job as a member of Congress is to spend 20-30 hours a week raising money, and only 10 hours a week doing their actual jobs.

“I truly was taken aback by the fact that consumes every single minute,” the Pinellas Republican said. “If any member tells you that they spend more time on policy than fundraising, they’re lying.”

Attendees are asked to arrive at the ballroom on the 2nd floor of the University Student Center by 6:45 p.m. on December 5th. Those interested in attending must RSVP through Eventbrite.

HD 58 debate scheduled Dec. 4 in Temple Terrace

The four men running in the special election in House District 58 next month will meet up in a candidates’ forum Monday, Dec. 4, in Temple Terrace.

Republican Lawrence McClure, Democrat Jose Vazquez, Libertarian Bryan Zemina and non-party-affiliated Ahmad Saadaldin are running in the election Dec. 19 to select a successor to Republican Dan Raulerson, who stepped down from the seat in August due to health problems.

Last month, McClure defeated Yvonne Fry in the GOP primary and hopes to keep the seat red in the special election.

Vazquez has been unsuccessful in previous bids for office, including against Raulerson back in 2012.

It’s the first run for office for both Zemina and Saadaldin, a member of the Green Party who is running an independent.

The event will be at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay and will be moderated by representatives of the Hillsborough branch of the League of Women Voters. There will be a straw poll conducted after the forum, with the votes to be counted by the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.

The four candidates participated in one previous forum earlier this month in Plant City.

District 58 covers Plant City, Temple Terrace, Dover, Mango, Seffner, Thonotosassa, and parts of Tampa and East Lake-Orient Park.

Margaret Good says she’s the Democrat who can win HD 72 in 2018

Can Florida Democrats pull off an upset and take northern Sarasota County House District 72 early next year?

There’s a lot of time before that special election takes place next year (Feb. 13), but Siesta Key attorney Margaret Good has emerged as a possible contender — if you gauge her fundraising prowess, where she raised nearly $88,000 in the first month of fundraising after entering the contest.

The HD 72 seat is being fought for after Republican incumbent Alex Miller abruptly left last August.

“I wasn’t getting into a race I didn’t think I could win,” Good said. “And one of the ways you win elections is by building coalitions and networks that are going to support you.”

Good has built support by meeting with as many voters as she can since entering the contest in early September.

A Georgia native, she spent her youth growing up there and in South Carolina, where she received an undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina. It was during her youth when the idea of getting into public service first hit her.

She then attended law school at the University of Florida, where she edited the Florida Law Review. Good currently works at the Sarasota-based law firm of Matthews Eastmoore.

“When I moved to Sarasota, I started thinking more seriously about it, because I knew this was going to be the place I called home for the rest of my of my life,” she said.

Last year’s election results inspired Good to look seriously at pursuing such an opportunity.

Earlier this year she helped her friend, attorney Hagen Brody, get elected to the Sarasota City Commission. When Miller announced she wanted out in late August, Good pounced.

“I thought it was a really great opportunity for the Democrats to win a Florida House seat, and decided that this was the time to step up and serve my community.”

Good is running against businesswoman Ruta Jouniari in the Democratic primary scheduled for Dec. 5.

Ruth’s List and the Sierra Club have endorsed Good, but a co-endorsement from the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida was rescinded earlier this month after the group incorrectly said both Democrats support raising the minimum wage from $8.10 to $15 an hour.

“I’m for any increase that we can actually get passed in the state Legislature, but I do think we need to take an incremental approach,” Good says, refusing to define a specific hourly wage.

(Three years ago, South Florida Democratic state Sen. Dwight Bullard pushed legislation that would have raised the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. In 2015, Democrats, fueled by the Fight for $15! movement, then began raising that proposal to $15. In both cases, those plans have gone nowhere in the GOP-led Legislature).

It’s been reported that the two Democrats also differ when it comes to legalizing marijuana, with Jouniari supporting the idea and Good opposed, but Good says she’s “open to the idea of it.”

“The voters in Florida passed a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana, and the implementation has, in my opinion not gone particularly well. I don’t think the Legislature has done a very good job in creating the laws implementing it,” she said, adding, “I think we need to get that off the ground first, and then look and see where we go from there.”

If elected, Good thinks she can work with Republicans on environmental issues, such as a fracking ban (sponsoring a proposal to do that in 2018 are Republicans Dana Young of Tampa in the Senate and Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena in the House).

Much of the Florida Democratic establishment believes in Good and support her campaign. That includes Florida House Victory and Christine Jennings, the former Sarasota County Democratic Executive Committee Chair who calls her a “dream candidate.”

In less than two weeks, HD 72 Democratic voters will make their choice.

Terry Power will challenge Jamie Grant in HD 64 primary

Terrance “Terry” Power, a 59-year-old Oldsmar-based certified financial planner, is launching a 2018 primary challenge against House District 64 incumbent Jamie Grant.

“I’m running for the Florida House because I am the best candidate in the race to serve the residents of our District,” the Republican said in a statement released Sunday.

“I’ll let the voters decide how corrupt, unethical, and ineffective my primary opponent is as a legislator and whether he needs to be find another line of work outside of Tallahassee. I’ve made up my mind. That’s why I’m in.”

Grant was cleared in 2014 of ethics violations regarding his involvement in a project to bring high-tech jobs to a rural Florida county. 

Power announced on his Facebook page that if elected, he would donate 100 percent of his salary to charities located in the district. State lawmakers earn $29,697 annually.

District 64 encompasses northwest Tampa, including Westchase, Northdale, and Carrollwood and northeast Pinellas County including Oldsmar, Safety Harbor, and eastern Palm Harbor (East Lake area).

The 35-year-old Grant was first elected in 2010, and was easily re-elected in 2012 and 2014. However, a dispute over the voting process led to a rejection of the 2014 result, leaving the seat vacant until Grant won a special election in early 2015.

Under the state Constitution, a candidate is eligible to run for a legislative seat until he has held that office for “eight consecutive years.” Because of that break between the November 2014 election and the special election, Grant’s win in 2016 ‘reset the clock’ for his time in office, giving him the potential to serve eight more years in the House.

Grant had aspirations of becoming House Speaker, but his bid for that position in 2022 fell short to Palm Coast Republican Paul Renner.

The 

Hillsborough’s Alma Gonzalez to run for FDP Chair

Alma Gonzalez, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a Hillsborough County committeewoman, announced Tuesday her bid for Florida Democratic Party chair.

The party is in crisis mode following the developments over the past few days. On Friday, now former Chair Stephen Bittel announced he would be resigning following a POLITICO Florida report that he had a history of making demeaning remarks toward women.

Florida Democratic Party President Sally Boynton Brown later announced her resignation after she wrote a letter defending Bittel.

“This is our moment,” Gonzalez said in a phone conversation with Florida Politics. “I am prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure we don’t lose our way as a result of what I think is a cathartic moment in our society.”

Gonzalez becomes the second official candidate to announce her candidacy for FDP chair, following Palm Beach County Democratic official Terrie Rizzo‘s announcement Monday.

Gonzalez said she believes she is best-fit to respond to the crisis.

She’s been a longtime Democratic Party official, a tenure that has included a stint as treasurer of the state party. She spent 30 years in Tallahassee before moving to Hillsborough in the last decade, working as a legal counsel for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and also as the legislative director for finance and tax at the Florida Association of Counties.

“I have worked in the trenches with (Democrats), precinct canvassing to working the Legislature, to walking picket lines, to making phone calls to dealing with our friends in Washington D.C., being part of international delegations promoting democracy around the world,” Gonzalez said.

Florida Democrats had been on a roll this fall, winning a special state Senate race in Miami-Dade County and a fierce mayoral contest in St. Petersburg.

Gonzalez said the party has the “wind in our sails,” but added that sexual harassment in the country and within the party is extremely serious.

“We need to take seriously what happened here,” she said regarding the events leading to Bittel and Boynton Brown’s resignations. “It’s an opportunity to do some of our own soul-searching and to make sure that we are not just talking the talk but walking the walk and allowing people to speak truth to power without having any retribution for that, and making sure to address any deficiencies that brought us to this moment.”

The election takes place Dec. 9.

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