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CD 15 hopeful Greg Pilkington believes 2018 will be a big year for Democrats – including himself

Greg Pilkington is one of a handful of aspiring Democrats who have filed to challenge Dennis Ross in Florida’s 15th Congressional District next year.

Nevertheless, Pilkington may be the best organized of the bunch at this early point in the election cycle.

Since entering the race, he’s hired some political pros to help him in his attempt to win the crowded Democratic primary next summer. That includes campaign manager Stephen Madden, Blue Ticket Consulting’s Tom Alte as his campaign finance fundraising director, Laura Williams as his communications director, and Phyllis Whitney (who served as campaign treasurer for Democrat Alan Cohn in his 2014 race).

The 54-year-old Indian Lakes Estate resident comes to the race with extensive overseas experience, with his last position being an executive officer for budget and strategy at World Customs Organization, an intergovernmental organization based in Brussels, Belgium.

He also worked as a global project manager for DHL Worldwide Express, and as a program management adviser for FedEx Express.

“I think I have the skill set to be the kind of legislator that Polk County needs,” Pilkington said in an interview late Tuesday afternoon. He thinks the Democrats gains next year will be “impressive” and doesn’t believe the Trump presidency is going to improve before the 2018 congressional elections.

“If anything, I think things are going to get worse,” he said, about an hour before news broke that President Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey. “I think there’s something in the Russian dossier. I think there may be other stories that we don’t know about, and certainly the president has ample opportunities to continue to make the kind of poor decisions that he’s already made, so I think the Democrats have a very strong chance in 2018 — especially since Dennis Ross has aligned himself as a surrogate for Mr. Trump.”

On health care, Pilkington says he believes that the Affordable Care Act (which he says is a more appropriate term to describe it than “Obamacare”) had the right “intention,” but because it was subjected to approximately 60 attempts to be repealed vs. being improved, “that it became a very flawed piece of legislation.”

However, he’s a much bigger critic of the Republicans’ American Health Care Act that Ross helped pass last week and predicts that the Congressional Budget Office will surmise that between 24 million to 30 million people will be booted out of their insurance if it were to be implemented. Instead, he backs a single payer health care system.

On social security, Pilkington wants to eliminate the maximum Social Security tax cap from $127,200 to no limit on earned income. He also believes that the law mandating that people begin accepting their Social Security benefits at 67 be repealed to go back to age 65.

He supports comprehensive immigration reform and is vehemently against the measures the Trump administration has been talking about.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous that we would talk about spending $20 billion on a wall when what we should be talking about is using that money on renovating the 430 Veteran Administration facilities that are closed throughout the country, and maybe even converting them to public clinics-immigration centers, where people can actually go and apply for citizenship,” he says.

The other CD 15 Democratic candidates that have already announced include Ray PenaGreg Williams and Cameron Magnuson. 

Bay News 9 to launch new weekly Sunday roundtable with Florida’s opioid crisis

Allison Walker-Torres

Florida’s growing heroin opioid epidemic is the debut topic of “In Focus with Allison Walker-Torres” a new 30-minute public affairs program from Bay News 9.

In Focus will be a weekly roundtable beginning Sunday, May 14, at 11:30 a.m. on Florida’s Spectrum Networks Bay News 9 in Tampa and News 13 in Orlando.

On her first show, Walker-Torres will discuss the opioid epidemic which led Gov. Rick Scott to recently declare a statewide public health emergency. She will be joined by Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood and Assistant State Attorney Dan Faggard to discuss what is being done and will need to happen to make progress on the crisis.

Part of the program will also feature a mother’s firsthand account of the effects of drug addiction on families; she had lost both her son and grandson to the epidemic.

During the show, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office will also air a special message.

In Focus will tackle one topical issue per week, and feature a weekly roundtable of newsmakers to provide a range of perspectives, including local officials and expert analysts. In Focus will re-air Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on Channels 9, 1009 and Channel 1209 in Tampa.

Walker-Torres is a three-time Emmy-award winning reporter/anchor, who has been with Bay News 9 since 2007. After serving as weekend anchor desk at Bay News 9, she has become a full-time reporter/field anchor for Bay News 9, and a contributor to News 13 in Orlando.

After strong start, Ed Hooper raises just $640 in April for Senate bid

Call it an April slowdown.

Ed Hooper, the former Republican state representative and Clearwater city commissioner, posted just over $600 in April after two consecutive months of five-digit fundraising.

Hooper, aiming to replace term-limited Jack Latvala in Senate District 16, put up only $640 in contributions and showed $20 in expenditures for the month.

That’s after bringing in more than $25,000 and $24,000 for February and March, respectively.

Hooper, however, still has no opposition for the seat, which covers much of north Pinellas County.

All told, Hooper has raised $65,736, spent $2,721, reported $3,220 in loans and in-kind donations.

The former firefighter served four terms in the House before being term-limited. He lost a combative race in 2014 for the Pinellas County Commission to Democrat Pat Gerard, and has since maintained a public profile in local GOP circles.

Just over a year ago, Hooper filed for Latvala’s seat, when redistricting resulted in an opening after Pasco County’s former state Sen. John Legg chose not to run against Latvala, a popular figure in Pinellas County politics.

Activists to blast Rick Baker’s ‘backward thinking’ on LGBT rights

A day after Rick Baker announced he would run again for St. Petersburg mayor, a group of LGBT leaders is scheduled to blast his record on LGBT issues.

At a press conference set outside of City Hall, the activists are expected to note that during Baker’s tenure leading the city from 2001-2010, he banned the gay pride flag from flying at City Hall, refused to attend gay pride events around the city and “refused to offer any support for the LGBT community,” according to a press release sent out early Wednesday.

“St. Petersburg has moved forward the past 3 years. We can never go back to a time when discrimination was ok in the mayors’ office,” said Susan McGrath, organizer of the event and the chair of the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee. “We will be discussing the stakes in this election, and the type of candidate our community cannot stand with in August. We can’t go back to a mayor who is uncomfortable with the LGBT community, or any other.”

Baker is well aware that his record on gay rights will be a topic during his campaign against incumbent Rick Kriseman. Near the conclusion of his 33-minute speech announcing his candidacy on Tuesday, Baker noted that the issue is sure to come up, but affirmed his belief that the LGBT community is “a vital and important part of our community,” and said he had LGBT staffers working for him when he was previously mayor.

“If you were to look at my administration, we had people from the LGBT community at every level of my government, through the cabinet level,” he said, adding that he “hated to talk about groups like that, but I have to, because I’m being called this.”

“I think St Pete is a very diverse, welcoming community and some of the policies in the past weren’t as welcoming,” Kriseman said in reaction to Baker’s entrance in the race on Tuesday. “We have tried to open our doors to everyone, make everyone feel comfortable here and recognize the importance that everyone plays as a resident of the city and in the community, and so some of the policies of the past belong to stay in the past.”

Jeff Brandes celebrates long list of legislative wins in 2017 Session

Now that the 2017 Legislative Session is in the rearview mirror, state Sen. Jeff Brandes looks back on some big wins from the past two months.

The St. Petersburg Republican is celebrating his top eight successes, which include a diverse range of issues such as renewable energy tax exemptions, statewide regulation for ridesharing, flood insurance reforms and the development of personal delivery drones.

In 2017, Brandes championed the bill on renewable energy source devices (SB 90), which passed unanimously through both the House and Senate, implementing Amendment 4 from the 2016 election.

SB 90 exempts 80 percent of the value of solar and renewable energy devices from property taxes for 20 years, beginning Jan. 1, 2018.

After four years of battling with the taxicab industry, Brandes made major inroads with the landmark SB 340, the uniform statewide regulation for for-hire transportation services provided by transportation network companies. The bill sets up requirements on insurance and background screening, officially legalizing the use of services like Uber and Lyft everywhere in Florida.

Brandes also spearheaded flood insurance alternatives in Florida. SB 420, which passed both chambers unanimously, extends to 2025 the rate flexibility afforded to private insurers who seek to enter the market to offer flood insurance as an alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Other of Brandes successes also include SB 460, which defines and authorizes “personal delivery devices” (PDDs) to operate on sidewalks and crosswalks in Florida, and SB 590 which changes the way Florida handles time arrangements for unmarried and divorced parents and their children. The Child Support and Parenting Time Plan creates an optional default time sharing plan, as well as an easier system for parents to agree on parenting time arrangements.

The bill does not affect any child support arrangements, it seeks only to simplify the visitation schedule in order to benefit the child and may have the effect of helping as many as 1 million fathers see their children more often.

Brandes introduced a measure setting up the Task Force on Affordable Housing, part of the implementation bill included in the 2017-2018 General Appropriations Act, which will study and suggest sweeping reforms to Florida’s strategy on affordable housing.

One more winner in the 2017 Session was SB 1012, a priority of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, requiring insurance companies to adopt anti-fraud plans and report fraud related statistics to the Division of Insurance Fraud regularly to assist the state in combating fraud.

The legislation, unanimously adopted by the House and Senate, adopts accountability reforms through reporting requirements of dedicated insurance fraud prosecutors throughout the state to assess the effectiveness of the dedicated fraud prosecutor system.

Another solid success was SB 1272, a boost to businesses in Florida by waiving a number of business and professional licensing fees for members of the military, their spouses, surviving military spouses, and low-income individuals whose income is less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line. The bill also allows reciprocity for many regulated professions for service members (and spouses) who travel to Florida from other states during their service.

Democratic hopeful Ray Pena says voters in CD 15 ‘not happy with Dennis Ross’

Although Ray Pena Jr. worked in law enforcement his entire life, he resents that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is “ripping families” apart deporting undocumented immigrants under the Donald Trump administration.

“We need a fair and just immigration reform policy right now because what we have is unfair and unjust,” says Pena, who became the first Democrat to file to run for Florida’s 15th Congressional District seat earlier this year. That’s the seat comfortably held for the past six years by GOP incumbent Dennis Ross.

The nearly 60-year-old Pena has spent much of his professional career in San Jose, California, where he worked as a police officer from 1981 to 2007.

In 2010, he received a FAA Certified Flight Instructor Certificate and created Guardian Aviation LLC in Winter Haven.

When asked about Ross’ support last week for the American Health Care Act, Pena says he’s not about to “vilify” the incumbent. That doesn’t mean that he won’t pass on what other voters in CD 15 have to say derisively of their congressman.

“I think Mr. Ross’s actions or inactions are what’s going to vilify him,” he told SPB in a phone conversation Monday. “The people I shake hands with every day, they are not happy with Mr. Ross, and they are not happy with his voting record, and in some respects, I have to concur with the public.”

Pena says that consulting with doctors and other health providers, he’s convinced that while the ACA needs to make “some adjustments,” he is emphatic that it did not need to be completely overhauled, which is what the GOP House passed last week.

Pena served in the Coast Guard from 1974-1978 which included a stint in Vietnam. He now considers himself “anti-war,”  nearly losing his son in Iraq in 2005. And he says that’s past time that the U.S. get out of Afghanistan.

“There’s no reason for us to be there,” Pena says. “We should be gone and let the Afghanistan government and administration handle their own internal problems and bring our kids home.”

Current and former Defense Department officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Reuters News Agency last month that the Trump administration is carrying out an inter-agency review, and while there has been no decision, discussions revolve around adding 3,000 to 5,000 troops.

Pena is derisive of Trump’s recent military attack on Syria, calling it a “dog and pony show.”

Although passionate in talking about the undocumented immigrants he met in all of his years working in San Jose and California’s Central Valley, Pena admits he’s not aware of the U.S. Senate’s 2013 legislation that would have paved the way for citizenship for the millions of undocumented people in the country.

The GOP-led House of Representatives ultimately declined to take up that bill.

While working as a police officer, Pena went back to school and earned two educational degrees: an Associates of Arts in Public Safety and Administration of Justice and a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice Management.

He’s working the grassroots early on, attempting to get on the ballot by gathering the 4,737 signatures needed to qualify by petition.

Pena is one of four Democrats who have filed to run so far for the CD 15 seat, which encompasses Polk County and parts of Lake and Hillsborough County. The others are Cameron Magnuson, Greg Williams and Greg Pilkington.

Democrat Greg Williams says Dennis Ross ‘sold his soul’ representing CD 15

Greg Williams

Greg Williams says he’s been “progressively more frustrated for the last decade” on the goings on in Washington D.C.

But after closely working with Democrat Jim Lange‘s unsuccessful congressional campaign against Dennis Ross in Florida’s 15th District last year, Williams believes the community needs a “real voice and a real change” from what’s been going in the district.

CD 15 encompasses Northern Polk County, as well as parts of Hillsborough and Lake Counties.

Lange had lost to Ross in 2016 by 16 percentage points, spending only $40,000 in the effort.

Williams has “no illusions” about matching Ross’ ability to fundraise, but believes he can do better than Lange in raising campaign cash over the next year and a half.

“By starting earlier and organizing better at the beginning, we will certainly have a larger war chest than Jim did,” Williams says, adding: “I’m not going to sell my soul like our current representative has in order to get out-of-state and special interest money. That doesn’t help the people in this area.”

When asked what exactly he means by Ross “selling his soul,” the Charlotte, North Carolina native cites the Lakeland Republican’s vote last week for the American Health Care Act, as well as the financial contributions he’s received over the years from the insurance and security and banking industries.

“He sits on the Financial Services Committee where they’re looking at repealing the Dodd-Frank Act,” Williams says. “I think Dennis will do anything for a contribution.”

On health care, Williams says the Affordable Care Act was “never” a finished product. The problem was that the GOP-led Congress spent the past six years trying to repeal it instead of looking for ways to improve it. The ultimate solution is a single payer system, Williams believes.

Williams cares deeply about maintaining Social Security, the environment, and equality issues, which he says encompasses a plethora of other issues, such as LTBGT and women’s rights.

“It boils down to every American should be given equal opportunity under the law, and nobody should be discriminated against,” he says.

As a liberal on immigration, Williams says he’s not met a single person “that I come into everyday contact with who lost their job to an immigrant.” He feels much of the talk about immigration are “scare tactics,” and says while the issue needs to be addressed, building an expensive wall on the Mexican border is not the way to do that.

He calls President Donald Trump‘s recent cruise missile attack against Syria a “giant PR stunt,” attributing his reaction to reports that the administration “cleared” the action with Russia beforehand, and warning that it was going to happen.

On the Syrian question overall, he believes that the U.S. should have become more involved but adds that “it needs to be something effective.”

“We need a consistent foreign policy that promotes democracy and freedom and human rights,” he says.

Currently, Williams teaches graphic design at Keiser University (and has since 2000) had has lived in Lakeland for about 12 years, and in the district for more than two decades.

He’s one of the four Democrats so far filing to run for the CD 15 seat. The others are Cameron Magnuson, Ray Pena and Greg Pilkington.


Cameron Magnuson becomes fourth Democrat to challenge Dennis Ross in CD 15

Dennis Ross has not faced a serious challenge since his election to Florida’s 15th Congressional District in 2010, but several Democrats want a piece of him next year — all of whom filed to run in the district before Ross voted for the American Health Care Act last week.

Four Democrats are already running against the Polk County Republican in CD 15, while a fifth — Navy veteran Andrew Learned, is considering putting his hat into the ring.

One of those candidates who officially filed is 28-year-old insurance broker Cameron Magnuson, raised in Brandon but now lives just outside of Washington D.C. as part of his job with Geico (he’ll return to the Lakeland area by summertime).

Magnuson graduated from USF in 2009 with a degree in Business Marketing Management and earned an MBA in Finance from the Tampa-based university a year ago.

A supporter of a single-payer health care system, Magnuson labels Ross’ vote on the AHCA last week “absolutely the wrong move.”

“I think it’s a shame that we’re heading in this direction, but I am encouraged that even Republicans in Congress are acknowledging that we need to look at covering more people,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “They’re trying to make the argument — they’re absolutely wrong in what they’re saying — but they’re acknowledging now that the conversation is moving in that direction, about how do we cover everybody. Now we can start talking about the solutions that will do that, such as the Medicare for All or a single payer system.”

Last year, Ross defeated Democrat Jim Lange by 16 percentage points, 58 to 42 percent, a race where the GOP incumbent massively outspent him. While Democrat Alan Cohn raised more money in 2014, he lost by a bigger margin to Ross than Lange did.

On world affairs, Magnuson calls the Trump administration’s firing off 59 cruise missiles to attack Syria “a little reckless,” but he’s glad at least to see Trump not taking a ‘hands-off approach” to the vexing issue of what to do in that Middle Eastern nation.

“I very much believe we need to be more involved with Syria, with a humanitarian effort,” Magnuson says, acknowledging he hasn’t seen any such movement.

Magnuson says he’s spoken with local party officials in three counties that CD 15 encompasses — Polk, Hillsborough and Lake, and is scheduled to address the Lake County Democratic Executive Committee Thursday night.

Democrats Gregg Williams, Greg Pilkington and Ray Pena Jr. also filed to run for the CD 15 seat. Stay tuned to this space for upcoming profiles on each of them.

Janet Cruz blasts USF’s treatment in proposed budget

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz blasted legislative leadership’s treatment of the University of South Florida, saying the school’s achievement of state “pre-eminent” status was snatched away from it at the last moment.

Language in an education conforming bill late last Friday was changed, preventing USF from pre-eminence, a status that would have qualified it for millions of additional dollars in state funding.

Cruz, of Tampa, asked pointed questions of fellow state Rep. Larry Ahern, chair of the chamber’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Who decides when we move the goalpost … who makes that decision?” Cruz asked. Ahern said the change happened in the Senate. 

Senate President Joe Negron has denied accusations of unfairness, saying they are “entirely unsupported by the facts.”

A bill originally had language that a university must achieve a four-year graduation rate of 50 percent or higher, a mark that USF has exceeded.

But the conforming bill — written after the budget was finalized Friday — reverted to a previous benchmark: A six-year graduation rate of 70 percent or better for full-time, first-time students.

“Did you know that USF was celebrating that they would finally, after years of preparation, would finally achieve pre-eminent status?” Cruz asked Ahern. 

“I’m not sure what they were doing Friday night,” Ahern said.

In debate, Cruz later lambasted the process: “I was ready to be supportive but then someone took from my hometown … (The university) followed the rules, and late at night, the goal posts were changed.”

Tampa Republican Shawn Harrison added, “We were there until we weren’t … this is a blow to USF.”

Tampa correspondent Mitch Perry contributed to this post. 


Poynter President Tim Franklin resigns for role at Medill School of Journalism

Tim Franklin

Poynter Institute President Tim Franklin is resigning to become senior associate dean at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing at Northwestern University.

Franklin joined the St. Petersburg-based nonprofit journalistic foundation in 2014, leading “a financial turnaround at the Institute and adapted Poynter’s business to the changing industry,” according to the news release. Franklin’s career includes a stint at the Chicago Tribune before becoming the top editor at The Indianapolis Star, Orlando Sentinel and The Baltimore Sun.

Franklin said the decision was based on both Medill’s reputation for excellence in education and an opportunity to return to the Chicago area, where his wife, Alison, works at a law firm.

At Medill, Franklin will oversee campuses in Chicago, Washington and San Francisco. He will also head Medill’s efforts to collaborate with major media companies and nonprofits on strategic initiatives with foundations. Franklin will report to Medill’s Dean Brad Hamm.

“It has been one of the great privileges of my life to lead The Poynter Institute and the remarkably talented and hard-working faculty and staff here who every day change lives and have an impact on the journalism industry,” Franklin said in an announcement Monday morning. “Together, we’ve strengthened the Institute and broadened its reach and impact. I’ve been grateful every day to call folks here colleagues.”

Under Franklin’s tenure, Poynter enacted several improvements to its business model, including offering training to individual journalists as well as large media and technology companies such as Gannett, The Associated Press, Google, Facebook, and Univision, among others.

Poynter also is close to completing and overhaul of its News University online learning platform, as well as a new redesign of its media news website. Last year, the institute taught more than 100,000 journalists, journalism educators and journalism educators from 92 countries and all 50 states, according to Poyner.org.

Margie Manning of the Tampa Bay Business Journal points out the changes under Franklin have had a significant impact on Poynter’s finances, with “three consecutive quarters of operating surpluses in the institute is budgeted to break even for 2017.”

Paul Tash, Times Publishing Company chair and CEO, celebrated Franklin’s record.

“While I regret Tim’s departure, I take great satisfaction in the strides that Poynter has taken while he’s been president these last three years,” Tash said in a statement. “Poynter’s work has never been more important, and its standing has never been higher. The opportunity to be its next president will attract terrific candidates from all corners.”

Franklin begins at Medill June 12. Florida Trend magazine president and publisher Andy Corty will take over for Franklin in the interim, while Poynter’s board of trustees begin a search for his replacement.

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