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‘Pragmatic’ civil engineer Randy Cooper vies for HD 71 seat in Manatee County

Randy Cooper likes to think of himself as a pragmatist.

The 60-year-old Democrat is one of three candidates running to succeed Republican Jim Boyd in Florida House District 71, which encompasses much of Manatee County and a bit of North Sarasota County.

He says his political philosophy could be labeled “practical and pragmatic,” and says the main impetus compelling him to run for office is his belief that the Legislature is not listening to the voters.

“If public schools aren’t doing well, funding the charter schools isn’t a solution,” he says. “Let’s help the public schools first, try to build them up, instead of making a for profit charter school.”

He also believes that local governments are better suited to regulate property rental companies like Airbnb and HomeAway, specifically mentioning the areas in Anna Maria Island, Palma Sola and other parts of northwest Bradenton.

“They’re taking over neighborhoods, and ruining whole communities,” he says of those companies, sounding a little bit like Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine. “People have to have a say about what’s going on in their neighborhoods.”

Cooper owns R. Cooper Engineering, an agricultural engineering consulting firm, and is a self-described moderate. “As an engineer,  I’m pragmatic – maybe to a fault,” he says.

He is disparaging of Gov. Rick Scott’s trips to other states to recruit businesses, saying it reeks of political opportunism. He says more needs to be done to boost local businesses, and he likes Visit Florida but would be just fine if Enterprise Florida faded away.

Cooper is the lone Democrat in the race, and the odds of his winning the seat may be formidable. He raised no campaign contributions in June, and overall has raised just $5,325 since entering the contest in March.

Meanwhile, the two Republicans in the contest have both raised more than $100,000.

James Buchanan, the son of Sarasota Congressman Vern Buchanan, raised $6,000 last month and overall has raised $162,630.

Bradenton attorney Will Robinson raised $4,400 in June, and overall has taken in $118,275.

Vito Sheeley to challenge Wengay Newton in 2018

A Democrat has filed to run against St. Petersburg Rep. Wengay Newton in House District 70, setting up a possible primary for the first-term representative.

Vito Sheeley opened up his campaign account for the seat on Friday and is the only candidate running against Newton, who took over for now Sen. Darryl Rouson after winning a three-way Democratic against Dan Fiorini and Chris Czaia.

“I want more for the community I’ve lived in my whole life,” Sheeley said in a release sent after FP broke the news of him running. “I’ve had the honor to work with our elected representatives on issues like affordable housing, restoration of voting rights, and job creation for District 70 families. That experience has shown me that we’re strongest when we face these issues together.”

Sheeley is no stranger to politics.

Earlier this year, he left the Charlie Crist fold to work for former Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly as a senior adviser. Before he took that job, rumors swirled that he had been fired and rehired by Crist, and that he was going to take a position with St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman which would have been a less-strange landing place for a Democratic operative.

“Many have and will continue to question my reason for leaving Congressman Crist,” Sheeley said at the time. “That is an answer that will remain between Charlie Crist and me.”

He went on to say he respected Jolly and that the two shared a common love for the St. Pete community, despite the fact that his old boss had just kicked him out of office in one of the few pick ups for House Democrats in 2016.

HD 70 is a minority access district that covers parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. About 45 percent of the population is black, and 15 percent is Hispanic.

Democrats have an overwhelming advantage in numbers, with party members making up nearly two-thirds of the electorate.

Through the end of June, Newton had raised just $4,800 for his re-election campaign and had about $4,300 of that money on hand. Sheeley’s first report, which will cover the second half of July, will no be available until mid August.

Jeff Vinik confirms he’s one of four ‘secret lenders’ to Tampa Bay Times

Responding to columns and questions from Florida Politics and other local media, Jeff Vinik confirmed Friday that he is, indeed, one of four “secret lenders” who provided a $12 million loan to the Tampa Bay Times.

“I am happy to confirm that I am part of the investor group, FBN Partners, which recently formed to support the Tampa Bay Times,” said Vinik in a statement first provided to Florida Politics. “The Times is a critical local institution and a voice for our community.

“As Tampa Bay continues to grow and emerge as one of the most significant metropolitan areas in the southeast, I believe that it is important to have a strong, locally owned and operated newspaper, with the resources necessary to retain its independent voice and place as one of the nation’s best.”

The Times declined to comment for this story. Its parent company, Times Publishing, is owned by the Poynter Institute, the not-for-profit journalism school in St. Petersburg.

Vinik owns one of eight shares of FBN Partners – which stands for “Florida’s Best Newspaper” – which has provided the loan to the newspaper company as part of a mortgage on the buildings and 27 acres at the Tampa Bay Times’ printing facilities in central St. Petersburg.

Times president and CEO Paul Tash announced the refinancing plan two weeks ago.

In a column explaining the deal, Tash identified four of the eight lenders underwriting the loan: Tash and his wife Karyn, business executive and philanthropist Frank Morsani and his wife Carol, Tampa-based developer Ted Couch, and Robert Rothman, a Tampa investor and part owner of the Washington Redskins.

The other four lenders would not be disclosed, Tash wrote, because they insisted on not being identified. He would only say they each have “big investments in the Tampa Bay region.”

This quickly led to speculation about the identity of the four secret lenders.

Patrick Manteiga, the publisher of La Gaceta, first identified Vinik as one of the secret lenders in his weekly “As We Heard It” column.

Manteiga believes Vinik’s being a secret investor to the Times could present several dilemmas.

“(T)he Times has taken itself out of being fair and balanced when writing about Vinik, his companies and the deals government is making with him,” Manteiga writes.

Vinik’s business relationship with the Times is just another in his widespread involvement in both sides of Tampa Bay.

In addition to his stake in the Lightning, Vinik is also one of the major partners in the $3 billion investment for a decade-long, 50-acre redevelopment of Tampa’s Channelside District, to be rechristened Water Street Tampa.

Water Street Tampa will include several new high-rises – the first for the city in nearly a quarter-century – with 30 new buildings planned for downtown, including a new USF College of Medicine building and major hotel complex.

For Vinik, it’s a no-brainer that Tampa Bay have a viable local newspaper to report about these projects.

In addition to the $12 million FBN influx, the company also secured a line of credit of up to $20 million from the Encina Business Credit of Chicago, a loan under better terms which has been only partially used. Poynter’s assets, including its buildings and land, were collateral for the Encina loan.

The money went to pay off the outstanding $18 million loan from Boston-based Crystal Financial, as well as to fund the Times’ pension plan.

Neil Combee takes on tough room in Polk County

Republican State Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City faced a terse crowd largely of Republican county and city officials during a noon address Thursday to the Polk Tiger Bay Club.

Many legislators are facing folks back home upset with cuts to local governments and for an amendment to the state’s constitution, which if passed by the voters in 2018 would increase the residential Homestead property tax exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.

Sensing the mood of the overflow crowd, moderator S.L. Frisbie joked about the Polk County Commission building, which had been named for Combee when he left the commission after 16 years.

“I think I saw a county commissioner with a bucket of paint over there,” Frisbie said to one of the few moments of laughter.

Combee did not back down on his contention that the property tax to him is “the worst tax invented by man.”

He also mentioned several times that there were no Home Rule violations by the Legislature’s mandates made in the session and special session this year. The remark was aimed at Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey, who was the speaker for Tiger Bay last month and in the audience for Combee.

“I used that term because it has become synonymous with local control,” Lindsey said, later adding that the Florida Legislature was taking too much control away from local governments.

Combee continued that the ad valorem, or property tax, was unfair, especially to the poor noting that 19,249 tax certificates had been sold because people had not paid the taxes on their homes or business. If not repaid to the purchasers, often at interest, they could lose their homes.

“These are not homeowners who live in Massachusetts or Michigan. They are people who live and work in Polk County,” Combee said. “Property tax is the most inconsiderate and least fair tax of all.”

County commissioners present at the luncheon said that if the additional $25,000 Homestead Exemption is approved, it would add a burden to providing services that citizens need and want. Even in this year, the Legislature has cut revenue to the county and the city governments by $10.5 million, they said.

“Just because the state has the right to do something over that of the counties doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do,” Polk County Commissioner John Hall, a Republican from the unincorporated area of the county between Lakeland and Auburndale.

“The state government needs to look at its own spending, which has gone from $73.5 billion to the new budget of $83.5 billion. So, they can take their eyes off the necessary gains of local government and see to their own spending,” Hall said.

On the few audience questions not involving revenue cuts, Combee said he approved of open carry of guns on campus if the owners meet all requirements and registration.

“It allows folks to protect themselves and their friends,” he said.

And he stated approval for the amendment to the Stand Your Ground law.

“It puts the onus on prosecutors to prove the person was not in fear of their life,” said the Polk City legislator, who has fought for years against what he said were unfair convictions of some using a gun in self-defense.


St. Pete activists worry environmental gains would regress under Rick Baker

Environmental activists would like to see several initiatives passed this year by the City Council because they fear they will not be addressed if Rick Baker becomes mayor in 2018.

The St. Petersburg Sustainability Council (SPSC) is a local non-profit that includes members of the Suncoast Sierra Club, which has previously endorsed incumbent Rick Kriseman for mayor. At a press conference at Maximo Park in South St. Pete, members said that the progress on  environmental issues that has taken place during Kriseman’s time in office could be in jeopardy if he is not re-elected. Read more

Will St. Pete become second Florida city to ban plastic bags?

Environmental activists in St. Petersburg hope the ‘burg will soon become the second city in Florida to ban plastic bags.

Later this month, the St. Petersburg’s Energy Natural Resources and Sustainability Committee (ENRSC) will vote on a proposal to ‘ban the bag.’ If approved, the issue would be taken up by the City Council for consideration. Read more

Ben Albritton rolls out Charlotte County endorsements for SD 26 bid

Republican Rep. Ben Albritton announced endorsements from several Charlotte County officials for his campaign to take over for Senate District 26 Republican Denise Grimsley, who is running for Ag Commissioner in 2018.

Among the endorsements was a nod from Florida House colleague Mike Grant, and former Rep. Ken Roberson, whose time in the Legislature overlapped with Albritton’s for three 2-year terms.

“I have worked with Ben and know his integrity and commitment to doing public service the right way,” Grant said. “With Ben in the Florida Senate, his constituents can be confident they have someone in Tallahassee who will always put their best interest first.”

Roberson added that he was “convinced we can count on him in the Florida Senate.”

The HD 56 Republican also picked up support from Charlotte County Commissioners Ken Doherty, Joe Tiseo and Bill Truex, as well as Punta Gorda Mayor Rachel Keesling.

“Ben Albritton’s proven track record of thoughtful, conservative leadership makes him the clear choice for District 26 in the Florida Senate,” Truex said in a statement. “We know we can count on him to continue to treat his constituents with respect and make decisions that will benefit the people of Charlotte County.”

Albritton, a Wauchula resident, doesn’t currently represent Charlotte County, which is one of the more populous tracts in SD 26. His current seat covers DeSoto and Hardee counties as well as part of Polk, while SD 26 includes those areas, plus all of Highlands, Okeechobee and Glades counties as well as the Charlotte east of Interstate 75.

Albritton is currently the only candidate in the race and has been able to raise $46,700 for his campaign since filing for the seat in February. He has about $25,000 of that money on hand.

SD 26 is reliably Republican and would have voted 60-40 in favor of Mitt Romney back in 2012. President Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in the district by a 2-to-1 margin last year, while Grimsley went unopposed.

Vern Buchanan: Stop rewarding Palestinians for terrorism

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan today urged Congress to pass legislation that will cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority for its despicable practice of rewarding terrorism.

The Palestinian Authority currently pays hundreds of millions of dollars a year to jailed terrorists and the families of so-called ‘martyrs’ who die committing acts of terror in Israel. Buchanan is a co-sponsor of the Taylor Force Act, legislation that withholds economic assistance to the Palestinians unless the Secretary of State certifies that the PA has terminated the payments to terrorists. Read more

Shawn Harrison brings in more than $36,000 in June for re-election bid

Shawn Harrison narrowly avoided losing his House District 63 seat last year. Heading into the 2018 election cycle, Democrats are fired up about a “wave” election they say will help them win the seat.

Harrison is fully aware of that, which is why he’s stepping up fundraising efforts early in the election cycle, raking in $36,178 in last month.

Harrison has now raised $55.678 for the cycle.

A great deal of those contributions come from political committees or organizations, including law enforcement. Harrison received $1,000 contributions each from the Florida Public Benevolent Association (PBA), Tampa Police PBA, West Central PBA and Sun Coast PBA PAC.

Harrison hosted a fundraiser late in June at the Tampa Theatre featuring Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Harrison defeated Democrat Lisa Montelione by less than two percentage points last November. No Democrat has entered the race.

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