Wayne Liebnitzky Archives - Florida Politics

Wayne Liebnitzky qualifies by petition for CD 9 race

Republican Wayne Liebnitzky qualified by petition for this year’s ballot in Florida’s 9th Congressional District Monday.

Liebnitzky of St. Cloud is seeking a rematch with Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando. Soto beat him 57-43 in 2016.

On Monday the Florida Secretary of State’s Office posted that it had received 120 valid petition signatures for Liebnitzky from Orange County voters, 525 from Polk County, and 4,441 from Osceola County. That gave him 5,086, 18 more than he needed to qualify.

He said Monday he believes he is the first federal candidate to qualify by petition in Florida for this year’s election.

“I have to admit, I feel so relived,” said Liebnitzky, a small business owner who’s been manning a petition booth at events throughout the district for months.

He said he probably submitted more than 7,000 signatures to the three counties supervisors of elections, adding, “I knew I had them in, but sometimes it takes a week or two to get them counted…. I just hate to procrastinate.”

The next step, Liebnitzky said, was to turn all of the face time he had with voters while gathering the signatures into campaign donations and grassroots supporters. He said he has not begun fundraising yet. Through December his campaign reported it had just over $500 cash.

Another Republican, Sean Alan Buchan, a banker for Winter Haven, briefly entered the fray last spring, but last summer he apparently withdrew, reimbursing all his campaign donors, and Buchan has not filed any reports since June 30. He could not be reached Monday.

Soto, a former state senator serving his first term in Congress, reported fairly modest campaign contributions through October, and had about $220,000 in cash on hand. [His December reports still have not been posted by the Federal Election Commission.] No one else has entered the race, but former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, who had held the seat for two terms prior to Soto, has been positioning himself for a possible new run.

Darren Soto under fire for having urged Puerto Ricans to declare they intend to stay

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando has come under fire for statements he made last Friday at a Puerto Rico town hall meeting in Kissimmee, when he urged evacuees to declare they intend to stay in Florida.

Soto’s comments had come during a question-and-answer period after he, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, and others including Florida Gov. Rick Scott had addressed more than 500 people gathered at the Kissimmee Civic Center about issues surrounding Puerto Rico, evacuees who have fled to Florida following Hurricane Maria, and federal, state, and local assistance and recovery efforts.

Responding to a question about federal assistance, Soto noted inequities and legal quirks in the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs. He noted that when evacuees go home to the island they lose coverage, and that he and others are working on legislation to try to make benefits more seamless as people move back and forth. But that’s not the case yet, he said.

“One thing for those who recently arrived need to know is, you’re going to be asked the question, ‘Do you intend to stay?’ I urge you to say ‘yes, for now,'” Soto told the town hall. “Because otherwise you’re going to get rejected, and then you’re going to find yourself without health care. So I urge you to watch for that pitch-fall question.”

A report on WFTV-News in Orlando and posts on Facebook other social media, raised the question of whether Soto was encouraging people to make false claims about their intentions to stay in Florida or not.

In a written statement provided by his office Wednesday morning, Soto denied he made any such overture.

“I do not encourage anyone who is planning to leave our state to falsely claim otherwise. Many recently arrived Puerto Ricans have a high probability of staying in Florida. The intent of my statement was to encourage them to err on the side of caution and declare their intent to stay if they are in doubt about their future plans,” Soto said. “If they eventually leave, their Medicaid or Medicare will automatically be terminated and they will have to reapply back in Puerto Rico. Healthcare could mean the difference between life and death for eligible seniors, disabled and children evacuees, many of whom have been without healthcare for months.”

One of Soto’s Republican opponents seeking to take him on in the 2018 election, Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud, said he did not think Soto said anything that would raise legal problems, but he questioned the ethics of the statement.

“There is an ethics problem here,” Liebnitzky said. “Is it a big problem? Probably not. It is an ethical problem. He shouldn’t have done it.”

Darren Soto’s slow campaign fundraising still unchallenged

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando raised just $83,000 during the last quarter for his re-election campaign in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, yet neither of his Republican challengers in Florida’s 9th Congressional District raised much of anything.

The new contributions through Sept. 30, minus $28,000 in campaign expenses, left Soto with $222,318 in the bank on Oct. 1, according to the latest campaign finance reports posted on the Federal Election Commission website.

To date, Soto had raised $282,727 for his campaign, most of that coming from political action committee donations. Those committee donations include $10,000 from the No Labels Problem Solvers PAC, created by a bipartisan group of Congress members.

Two Republican challengers, Wayne Liebnitzky and Sean Alan Buchan, both reported raising less than $1,000 during the quarter covering July, August and September. Buchan finished the quarter with no money, while Liebnitzky reported having $362 in the bank.

Darren Soto defends fundraiser as not affecting his efforts for Puerto Rico

While Puerto Rico got hammered by Hurricane Maria, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto defended his re-election campaign fundraiser he is holding Wednesday night in Kissimmee, home to Florida’s most concentrated Puerto Rican population.

Soto, a Democrat from Orlando, said he’s been in constant contact with Puerto Rico officials and readying federal financial support for the country’s recovery following both Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, and that those efforts will not be affected by Wednesday night’s event.

His fundraiser, starting at $100 for individual donations and going up to $1,000 donations for hosts, is set for 6 p.m. at the Seasons Florida Resort in Kissimmee.

Soto has touted his Puerto Rican heritage and advocated for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in Florida while in Congress. His district, which includes southern Orange County, eastern Polk County and all of Osceola County, has an estimated Puerto Rican population in the hundred thousands.

Hurricane Maria crossed onto the island Wednesday morning as a Category 4 storm and reports of  widespread damage and flooding are pouring from the island. The storm is expected to continue to ravage Puerto Rico well into the night.

Criticism of his decision to go forward with the fundraiser has been widespread on social media. Republican Wayne Liebnitzky, who faced Soto in the 2016 election and is campaigning for a rematch in 2018, called Soto’s decision “in poor taste.”

“I think it’s absolutely shocking, disgraceful,” Liebnitzky said. “That event needs to be cancelled. He needs to postpone it to a later date.”

Soto defended the event as not relevant to his efforts to help Puerto Rico.

“I have been in hourly contact with [Puerto Rico] Gov. [Ricardo] Rosselló‘s office, spoke at length with our House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen today in Jacksonville about Puerto Rico, FEMA funding, and am leading letters to ensure full financial support of Puerto Rico’s recovery over the next few days,” Soto said in a message to Orlando-Rising.com.

“Our efforts and readiness to advocate for an effective federal response will not be affected by an Osceola event with local Democratic activists,” he added.

Wayne Liebnitzky criticizes the $4,600 a month in rent Darren Soto pays for Kissimmee office

Republican congressional candidate Wayne Liebnitzky criticized the rent U.S. Rep. Darren Soto is paying for his Kissimmee office as “unusually extravagant expense of peoples’ money,” while the congressman defended the office Tuesday for its convenience and service to the district.

Soto is spending $4,638 a month for his primary district office, plus $866 a month for a CD 9 office in Orlando, according to Congressional Office Disbursement Reports filed with the U.S. House of Representatives. He also has been opening other satellite and part-time offices, notably in Polk County.

That’s 40 percent more than Soto’s predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson paid. Grayson had his main office in Orlando, for which he spent $3,300 a month in rent, and a district office in Kissimmee that cost $626 a month.

“My opinion of paying $55,000 a year for a congressional office in Kissimmee is an unusually extravagant expense of the peoples’ money,” said Liebnitzky, who lost the 2016 general election to Soto and filed for a rematch in the 2018 election.

“In the uncertain times of increased expenses the people of our community are experiencing, was this a wise decision to spend that kind of money on an office space? What decisions in the future are we expected to hear about that have not been thought through fiscally?” he added.

In his written statement, Soto responded, “We are deeply proud of our Kissimmee district office, which is centrally located to serve our constituents, symbolic of our rancher heritage, and provides a facility that is very conducive to community gatherings.”

Nonetheless, the rents Soto is paying now and Grayson paid last year are both relative middle points in the wide spectrum that Central Florida members of Congress pay or have paid for their offices to support local staffs, the members when they’re back home, and services to constituents.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy pays $7,142 a month for her Winter Park district office in Florida’s 7th Congressional District.

On the other extreme, Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster has three local offices for Florida’s 11th Congressional District, and pays less than $800 a month in rent for each of them.

Then there is Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Posey. He doesn’t pay a dime for his office in Viera for Florida’s 8th Congressional District. That’s because Brevard County has long – predating Posey – provided its congressional representative with rent-free office space in the government center there, something approved by the Congressional Ethics Office.

Members of Congress receive set allocations, adjusted for costs of living in each district, for their offices, staff, travel, and operational expenses. Generally the members are free to budget the money however they see fit. If their spending goes over the allocations, the law requires them to make up the difference out of their own pockets. If they go under, the unspent remainder is returned to the U.S. Treasury, something Webster touts every year. A higher-than-average district office rent likely would have to be offset by lower expenses elsewhere in the member’s budget.

Liebnitzky, a St. Cloud small business owner, questioned whether Soto could have been more economical, especially considering what Grayson spent last year, and considering the rise of internet communications.

“My opinion is an office is a shrine. It serves very little purpose in the technology times of telecommunications and social media,” he added. “Communication with the people you are suppose to represent should be top priority. We must do it better than anyone else can and set the example for the country to experience. This will be part of the performance I shall deliver in 2019. And, yes, I will have offices, but much more reasonable so we can communicate with all of our constituents.”

Soto’s landlord is the city of Kissimmee. The office is a historic old building at 804 Bryan St., in the heart of the Kissimmee government complex. Its 3,613 square feet provides enough space for small town hall meetings.

“It’s location in the Osceola Government Complex fosters critical communication with local and state officials and is ideal to maintain office security,” Soto stated. “We also have important satellite and part time offices in Lake Nona, Winter Haven, Haines City and Lake Wales to more conveniently serve our constituents in Orange and Polk Counties.”

Among other members of Central Florida’s congressional delegation, Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings pays $5,319 a month for her office in west Orange County for Florida’s 10th Congressional District. Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis pays $1,700 a month for his primary office in St. Johns, $300 a month for a satellite office in DeLand, and $100 a month for one in Port Orange, for Florida’s 6th Congressional District.

The three freshmen Democrats – Murphy, Demings and Soto – all are spending more than their predecessors.

Murphy’s predecessor, Republican former U.S. Rep. John Mica, had three district offices with a total rent of $5,077 a month for the trio.

Demings’ predecessor was Webster. However, due to redistricting, most of her district actually was represented by Democratic former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown. She spent $3,114 a month for an office in Orlando, and $2,356 for one in Jacksonville. Her total was a little more than what Demings spends now, but with a district spanning parts of two major cities.

Wayne Liebnitzky blasts Darren Soto for ‘BananaRepublicans’ tweet

Republican congressional candidate Wayne Liebnitzky called out Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto by charging that a tweet the congressman sent using the hashtag “BananaRepublicans” is divisive and beneath the office.

On Wednesday, Soto, of Florida’s 9th Congressional District, covering parts of Orange, Osceola and Polk counties, tweeted criticism of President Donald Trump‘s firing of FBI Director James Comey that declared “#Trump & #BananaRepublicans are destroying our democracy. Need #IndependentProseuctor to investigate #RussianHacking.”

In a Facebook post responding, and then in an interview, Liebnitzky, who lost to Soto last November and is seeking a rematch in 2018, said he should be ashamed of using a reference insulting Republicans in the district.

“Is calling the Republican Party the ‘#BananaRepublic’ professional and the way that an elected official should be carrying himself? Last time I check U.S. Rep Darren Soto, some of your constituents are Republicans,” he wrote. He ended his own post with the hashtag #politicsasusual.

In an interview, Liebnitzky said the country needs someone who fights against partisan rancor, not someone who fosters it.

“Once you represent people, you’ve got to say this partisan politics is horrible,” Liebnitzky said. “It has gotten worse.”

Soto responded Thursday by explaining his reference was to those Republicans in power who are standing behind or staying silent on the controversial firing of Comey.

“President Trump firing someone investigating his office was akin to a dictator from a third world country,” Soto said. “And so that term was used specifically to highlight the outrageous nature of firing the man who is investigating you.”

Sean Buchan of Winter Haven enters CD 9 Republican field

A second Republican candidate, political newcomer, banker and veteran Sean A. Buchan of Winter Haven, has entered the race for Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

Buchan, 31, a banker with Wells Fargo Bank in Winter Haven, filed to run late last week, joining last year’s GOP nominee Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud in hoping to take down Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in the 2018 election.

“The time is right,” Buchan stated of his entry into politics.

Married with two children, Buchan spent eight years in the U.S. Marines and two in the Army, and served two tours in Iraq.

His top concern is the economy which he described as “doing better, but not well enough,” particularly in Polk and Osceola counties, which he said are in need of across-the-board jobs from technical trades to high-tech.

He also stressed national security as a critical concern, and expressed a strong desire for tax reform that simplifies the system for tax payers.

CD 9 includes most of south Orange County, all of Osceola and much of eastern Polk. Last year Soto, a former state senator, defeated Liebnitzky, to replace two-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson. Liebnitzky won in Polk but Soto handily carried the vote in the other two counties.

Buchan said he’s currently reaching out to county Republican executive committees and Young Republican clubs to begin pulling together support and organization.


Wayne Liebnitzky slams Darren Soto for boycotting inauguration

Let the 2018 campaign begin for Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

Republican Wayne Liebnitzky, who lost to U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in November and now has filed to take him on again in 2018, slapped Soto for his announcement that he is boycotting the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump.

“I find it an absolute disgrace and should not be tolerated,” Liebnitzky stated in a Facebook post and a statement he sent to Orlando media. “I find it ironic that I gave him [Soto] the respect after our election as the winner and he does not do the same for our President, demonstrating the immature reactions that other Democrats have chosen. Central Florida needs people representing us that can promote leadership.”

Liebnitzky, of St. Cloud, won the vote in the Polk County portion of CD 9 but lost to Soto in Orange and Osceola counties. On Tuesday he said he could not let Soto’s first big partisan action stand without reacting.

Soto said Monday he was boycotting because he was deeply disappointed in Trump’s tweets about U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who was a champion of the Civil Rights movement.

“I have a long history of working across the aisle and will continue to do so in Congress. However, I am deeply disappointed with President-Elect Donald Trump’s attacks against civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis and will not be attending the inauguration as a result,” Soto stated in a release he issued Monday.

Soto is not alone. The Washington Post is reporting that so far 44 Democratic lawmakers have announced they will not attend Trump’s inauguration. The Post’s list does not include Soto. It does include U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, the Democrat from Miami Gardens.

For Darren Soto, it’s still all about a stronger, fairer economy

Of the three new members of Congress elected from Orlando this month, Democrat Darren Soto is the one who’s no mystery to constituents, and still committed to the same agenda he’s pursued for nearly 10 years in the Florida Legislature: a stronger, fairer economy.

Soto, 38, an Orlando lawyer, defeated Republican businessman Wayne Liebnitzky for the open seat to represent Florida’s 9th Congressional District, covering south Orlando, southern Orange County, Osceola County, and eastern Polk County. He heads for Congress as the veteran rookie of Orlando’s congressional delegation, someone with a clear track record of lawmaking who’s not talking about wavering from it.

Soto becomes the first member of Congress with Puerto Rican roots to be elected from Florida and the first Hispanic member from Central Florida. That’s important considering the makeup of CD 9, where the Puerto Rican-dominated Hispanic community is nearly a majority and growing. And it’s important to Soto, who grew up constantly interacting with family coming and going from the island. But it doesn’t change Soto’s approach.

His first task, seeking committee appointments to reflect what he’d been pursuing in Tallahassee: growth in high-tech jobs and protection of the environment.

That also includes seeking to replace some of the clout that his predecessor, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, and Orlando’s other former representatives, U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, John Mica, and Dan Webster exerted, particularly in addressing the roads, highways, railways, and other needs of the growing area. Now, Orlando will be represented by Democratic freshmen Soto, Val Demings, and Stephanie Murphy.

“We hope to get on committees that can help with high-tech jobs in our economy in Central Florida,” Soto said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.com. “I hope to also continue our good work on the environment. And in addition we are hopeful I can help with the growing infrastructure needs that we have here in Central Florida.”

Getting I-4 finished. Expanding SunRail. Upgrading the Kissimmee and Lake Wales airports with air traffic control towers. Pursuing the Kissimmee River restoration plans.

“Certainly, I’ve sought out committees that would help in those three areas,” Soto added. “As well as, the Democrats pushing for our version of an infrastructure package, which potentially all parties can agree upon.”

Except for his views on social and environmental issues, Soto has largely been a more moderate member of the Florida Democratic Party. While he led a Democratic insurrection to seek gun law reforms after the June 12 Pulse massacre in Orlando, in Tallahassee he sided with gun lobby proposals often enough that his Democratic primary opponents threw that in his face.

He defeated two prominent progressives in the election, former ally Susannah Randolph, and Dina Grayson, wife of the outgoing incumbent.

Soto’s been around. He came up as part of a new, younger generation of Democrats that came together 12 years ago in Orange and Osceola counties, in an environment that saw the area’s base of low-wage, hospitality-industry economics as a top concern. With his future chief of staff and campaign manager Christine Alkenavich Biron, Tracy Sumner Brooks, Vivian Rodriguez, Susannah’s husband Scott Randolph, and a handful of others they began to transform the Young Democrats from a small, depressing group into a force.

At age 28, Soto first tried to run against Republican state Rep. Andy Gardiner in House District 40, knowing all along, he said, he could not possibly win. But the experience helped and the following year he won a six-way Democratic primary and a close general election to be elected in House District 49, to replace Republican state Rep. John Quinones who had resigned mid-term to become a county commissioner. Two re-elections later, Soto coasted into the Florida Senate in District 14 in 2012.

And as soon as congressional redistricting made CD 9 a near-majority Hispanic district in 2011, Soto was seen as a likely future candidate, presumably as soon as Alan Grayson stepped aside, which he did this year, seeking to run for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat.

Besides Brooks, Rodriguez, and Biron, his trusted political advisors include Iza Montalvo, his law partner Nicole McLaren, and Democratic party leaders Jimmy Auffant and Doug Head. He’s also had close ties with Lonnie Thompson, Linda Stewart, Bill Segal, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

“Buddy has shown that an independent-minded, pro-growth Democrat can be very successful in our region,” he said.

Soto grew up on in small-town New Jersey and watched his father, who was Puerto Rican, work to support his family and go to night school to get a college education. That dedication stuck, and he did much the same thing, going to Rutgers University, and then on to law school at George Washington University.

Many of his Puerto Rico family members moved from the island to Central Florida in the 1990s. Darren joined them when a distant relative offered him his first job out of law school.

“I fell in love with the place. It changed my life,” he said.

He met his wife Amanda, a teacher, through a blind date set up by Osceola County School Board member Jay Wheeler. The two plan to split their time between Washington D.C. and a new home they intend to move into in Celebration.

When he’s not legislating, you might find Soto making music, as a singer-guitarist in a folk-rock band called the Orange Creek Riders.

Soto said he quickly came to terms with the election of Republican Donald Trump as president. As a state lawmaker, he’s dealt with Republican governors Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

“Now,” he said, “I’m ready to help lead the resistances, as need be.”



Darren Soto wins CD 9, gives Florida its first Puerto Rican congressman

State Sen. Darren Soto’s dream of becoming the first Puerto Rican member of Congress from Florida became reality Tuesday when he swept aside an underfunded Republican opponent in what is now clearly Florida’s first Puerto Rican-dominated congressional district.

Early returns based on early voting and mail-in voting, gave Soto an insurmountable lead over Republican nominee Wayne Liebnitzky in Florida’s 9th Congressional District. He held a 30,000-vote early lead over Liebnitzky in Osceola County, a 16,000-vote lead in Orange County, and a 1,000-vote lead in Polk County, which has the most Republican voting base in the district. Combined, Soto was carrying more than 60 percent of the vote in the three-county area.

Soto will succeed his onetime ally, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando and give CD 9 what Florida voters essentially were promised when the district was first conceived as such in the 2011 congressional redistricting: an “access seat” for Orlando’s Hispanic community, and, for all practical purposes, a Puerto Rican seat.

Soto earned his road in through two terms as a state representative from the area and then two terms as a state senator. And with the district’s strong Democratic lean and large (almost 40 percent) Hispanic voter base, he always appeared to be the odds-on favorite for victory.

But first he had to get through a hotly contested and sometimes ugly primary with three other candidates, all white women: Grayson’s former aide Susannah Randolph; Grayson’s wife, Dena Grayson, and Kissimmee businesswoman Valleri Crabtree.

In that primary, Randolph and Grayson split the progressive Democrats’ vote and Soto, with a more moderate platform and record in the Florida Legislature, took most of the rest, including almost all the Hispanic vote. It was more than enough and he won handily.

For Liebnitzky, a St. Cloud businessman and veteran, the fight was never really fair, as they often aren’t in districts drawn to provide access to minority voters. Liebnitzky won his own primary over a socially conservative Puerto Rican Republican, Wanda Rentas, to find the election largely stacked against him for the fall race.

 Besides the voter mix favoring Soto, Liebnitzky’s campaign never raised much money, and he entered mid-October having raised less than one dollar for every $30 Soto had raised.

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