Wayne Liebnitzky Archives - Florida Politics

Outside groups spent $1.2 million to help Darren Soto defeat Alan Grayson

Eight outside political committees and groups provided almost $1.2 million support to U.S. Rep. Darren Soto‘s defeat of his predecessor former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary for Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

Apparently highlighting the outside help for Soto was the George Sorosbacked Latino Victory Fund, which claimed on primary day that it had pumped more than $500,000 into media buys to support Soto on Spanish-language media.

FEC records of independent expenditures through Election Day do not show that much spending by Latino Victory Fund, but almost, and there may be spending yet to report.

The FEC records also show Latino Victory Fund also was not alone in spending to either support Soto or oppose Grayson, and perhaps not even the most generous toward Soto’s candidacy. FEC records show Latino Victory Fund spending $415,000 through the primary, while Progress Tomorrow Inc. spent $544,000.

There are no FEC records reporting any outside groups making any independent expenditures that supported Grayson or opposed Soto.

Grayson had set up what was to be his big political comeback this year after he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic primary nomination to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, and lost his congressional seat to Soto by default. But that comeback required him to take out Soto, and Grayson crashed badly, in an election landslide.

The total for outside spending to support Soto or oppose Grayson was $1.18 million, potentially more than Soto might have spent through his own primary campaign fund, though the final numbers are not yet in for his official campaign’s account. Through August 8 his campaign had spent about $886,000. In that Aug. 8 report, the most recent available, Soto had just $251,000 left in the bank.

Grayson had spent $540,000 through Aug. 8.

Soto now faces Republican Wayne Liebnitzky, who has far less money available, only about $29,000 on Aug. 8, heading toward the Nov. 6 election.

For the Aug. 28 Democratic congressional primary outside spending, the FEC reports show:

Latino Victory Fund, described by the Center for Responsive Politics’ website OpenSecrets.org as a hybrid of a political action committee and a super political action committee, largely but not entirely funded by Soros, spent $415,184 on various kinds of advertising, from pushed text messaging to television.

Progress Tomorrow spent $272,000 on digital and mail advertising supporting Soto and another $272,000 on digital and mail advertising attacking Grayson.

The super PAC has a curious combination of resources, according to records made available through OpenSecrets.org. All of Progress Tomorrow’s money has been donated by two other PACs. The first is Forward Not Back, whose principal benefactors are New York businessmen Peter May and Nelson Peltz, who each have been big supporters of Democratic candidates, and New York businessman Louis Bacon, who has supported both Democrats and Republicans, including Rudy Giuliani. The other PAC is United Together, principally funded by News Corp. Chairman and Republican rainmaker Rupert Murdoch, and by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a big backer of Democrats.

United for Progress, a super PAC entirely funded by Soros, spent $123,000 on radio advertising to support Soto.

Alianza for Progress, a dark-money 501(c) committee that does not have to disclose its donors, reported $41,555 worth of door-to-door canvassing to support Soto.

Organize Now, the progressive 501(c) grassroots group put together by former organizers for Barack Obama, reported $35,062 worth of printing and canvassing efforts to support Soto.

Boricua Vota Inc., an Orlando-based group, reported spending $22,590 on billboards, radio advertising, and event expenses to support Soto.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund provided $1,386 worth of support through a list rental and a text message platform for Soto,

The Center for Popular Democracy Action, a dark-money 501(c), offered $1,411 worth of canvassing labor and transportation to support Soto.

Wayne Liebnitzky endorsed by former Puerto Rico senator

Republican congressional candidate Wayne Liebnitzky has received the endorsement of former Puerto Rico Sen. Miriam Ramirez in his quest to be elected in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which has a large population of Puerto Rican residents, his campaign announced.

Ramirez, a medical doctor, had a long career in public health and politics in Puerto Rico including a term in the Puerto Rico Senate from 2000-’04, before moving to Florida. Most recently, until 2013, she served as Federal, Health and Legislative Affairs Advisor to then-San Juan Mayo Jorge Santini, Mayor of San Juan. She continues as an active advocate for Puerto Rico statehood from Florida.

In the Nov. 6 election, Liebnitzky, of St. Cloud, is facing Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, who in 2016 became the first Florida congressman of Puerto Rican heritage. Soto defeated Liebnitzky in that 2016 election.

CD 9 covers Osceola County, south Orange County and east Polk County, all areas with large and growing populations of Puerto Ricans. The area was ground zero for the migration of people fleeing Puerto Rico last year after Hurricane Maria devestated the island almost a year ago.

Orange County Republicans call for Kathy Gibson to resign RPOF post

The Orange County Republican Executive Committee called Wednesday for Kathy Gibson to resign as the county’s state committeewoman to the Republican Party of Florida.

The Republican panel made that decision Wednesday afternoon shortly after Republican congressional candidates Wayne Liebnitzky and Mike Miller made similar demands, joining gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis in calling for Gibson to step aside.

The calls for her immediate resignation developed from outrage over a social media meme that appeared under Gibson’s Facebook account, falsely claiming that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum was going to make Florida pay for its part in slavery. The meme, widely denounced as racist, appeared Monday night, and has since been deleted. Gov. Rick Scott also condemned any statements that would seek to “divide the people of Florida by race or ethnicity,” though he stopped short of calling for Gibson’s resignation.

She later claimed, in another Facebook post, that it was not hers and that her account had been hacked.

Republicans apparently are not buying that.

The controversy grew Wednesday in advance of the big Republican unity rally that Orange County is set to host Thursday.

It is to feature Scott, DeSantis, Liebnitzky, Miller, and almost all other top Republican statewide and Central Florida candidates and officials. It is supposed to be the Republicans’ big celebration and kickoff to a 2018 election campaign.
In addition, Vice President Mike Pence is coming to Orange County Thursday for a fundraiser, but apparently is not arriving in time to attend the rally.

“We need people with a moral compass,” Liebnitzky said after calling for Gibson to resign.

“Kathy Gibson’s insensitive comments on Facebook have no place in politics. She should resign immediately,” Miller, a state representative from Orange County, said in a news release.

Earlier, both DeSantis, the congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach, and Scott denounced the post. In a statement to POLITICO, DeSantis called the thinking behind the meme “disgusting” and called for her to resign.

Orange County Republican Chair Charles Hart said Wednesday afternoon the county party’s board called for her resignation.

Gibson could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

However, on her Facebook page, around midnight going into Wednesday Gibson wrote, “To All Family & Friends Please be Advised that my Facebook Page was Hacked today. All Passwords & Codes have been Changed. If you saw anything today that didn’t sound like me, please let me Thank You.”

The response comments on that post were mostly not sympathetic. “Nice try,” one person commented. “God shall not be mocked. He knows you posted untrue information and are now lying about it,” wrote another. “Grow up and own it,” said a third. Others used foul language to say the same things.

If Gibson resigns, she would be the second state official to the Republican Party of Florida from Orange County to resign this summer. Earlier, State Committeeman Paul Paulson resigned over scandalous reports involving a fraudulent charity he was running. He was replaced by Rich Crotty.

Gibson is an elected official, so she would have to submit a resignation to RPOF Chairman Blaise Ingoglia. However, the Orange County Executive Committee would have to select a replacement, as it did in Paulson’s situation.

Bill Posey gets behind Wayne Liebnitzky in CD 9 race

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey is endorsing fellow Republican Wayne Liebnitzky in his campaign to be elected to Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which includes a broad swath of voters Posey once represented.

Liebnitzky is taking on Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto this fall.

Posey’s Florida’s 8th Congressional District covers Brevard County, Indian River County, and east Orange County, while CD 9 covers south Orange, Osceola and eastern Polk counties. Before redistricting, much of what is now in CD 9 was inside Posey’s district.

In a letter to Liebnitzky, Posey recounts that when he first ran he lost the vote in Osceola County, and he was told residents there were not satisfied with the representation they had received over time from their previous representative. “Over the next years, I worked very hard to properly represent them and earn their trust. In the next election, Osceola County voters gave me 4,849 more votes than my opponent!

“Because I know you will work just as hard to represent my former constituents and friends in Osceola County,” Posey wrote, “I am pleased to give you my most enthusiastic endorsement.”

Bill Nelson, Adam Putnam top Orlando’s Political Salsa

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam were the top choices at Orlando’s Political Salsa hobnob for races for Senate and Florida Governor.

With more than 400 votes, Nelson topped Republican Gov. Rick Scott 52 percent to 43 percent with Rocky De La Fuente taking the rest during the Hispanic-oriented but mostly mixed-ethnic event Thursday night.  Organizers released results over the weekend.

Putnam won a tight contest over Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in the 16-person straw poll for Governor, with Putnam grabbing 25 percent of the votes and Gillum 23. Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis finished third with 15 percent; Democratic former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, 13 percent; Democratic former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, 11 percent; Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King took five percent; and four points for Palm Beach businessman Jeff Greene.

In a separate poll taken at Political Salsa held at Acacia, a community center for Central Florida’s Puerto Rican community,  77 percent of the participants said they support Puerto Rico statehood. Only 15 percent chose the option of independence, and 8 percent said none of the above.

Unlike many hobnob straw polls, the Political Salsa straw poll evenly divided favorites between Republicans and Democrats, offering a possible Democratic lean with several upsets.

The primary sponsors of the event were the Suarez Group of Companies and the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida.

Republican former Judge Ashley Moody was the pick for Attorney General, with 39 percent, compared to 27 percent for Democratic state Sen. Sean Shaw, 22 percent for Democrat Ryan Torrens, and 12 percent for Republican state Rep. Frank White.

In the race for Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, Democratic former state Sen. Jeremy Ring topped Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis 51 to 49 percent.

Democrat Nikki Fried was the top choice for Agriculture Commissioner, taking 30 percent, compared with 19 for Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell, 18 for Democrat Roy David Walker, and 17 for state Sen. Denise Grimsley, among the leaders.

In congressional races, three Democratic incumbents came out on top and one Democratic challenger took a surprise victory.

Democrat Sanjay Patel outpolled Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Posey 53 to 47 percent in Florida’s 8th Congressional District, which is Brevard County-centered with a piece of eastern Orange County.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy barely topped Republican state Rep. Mike Miller in Florida’s 7th Congressional District, covering Seminole and north and central Orange counties. Murphy polled 35, Miller 33. The other three candidates, two Republicans and a Democrat, drew totals in the low teens.

In Florida’s 9th Congressional District, Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto not only came out on top but his Democratic primary rival, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson finished a distant third. Soto got 51, Republican Wayne Liebnitzky 34, and Grayson 15 points in that district covering Osceola, south Orange and eastern Polk counties.

In Florida’s 10th Congressional District, which covers west Orange County, Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings has only an upstart Democratic challenger standing between her and re-election. And that was relatively close in this poll: Demings 61 percent, Wade Darius, 39 percent.

Several surprises came in Florida House races.

Democrat Lee Mangold topped Republican David Smith 53 to 47 percent in House District 28.

Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon came out on top in House District 29, taking 44 to 40 percent for Democrat Tracey Kagan; Democrat Darryl Block took 16 points.

Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes topped House District 30, taking 49 to 22 percent against Democrat Brendan Ramirez; 20 percent went to Clark Anderson and 9 points for Joy Goff-Marcil.

Democrat Debra Kaplan led Republican state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, 58 to 42 percent in House District 31.

Democrat Ricky Shirah was the choice in House District 39, topping Republican Josie Tomkow 54-39 percent.

Democrat Barbara Cady topped Republican state Rep. Mike La Rosa 54 to 46 in House District 42.

Republican state Rep. Bobby Olszewski topped House District 44. He drew 38, to 33 for Democratic former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson and 29 for Melanie Gold.

Democrat Anna Eskamani edged out a Republican rival the House District 47 contest with 47 percent; 42 percent went for Republican Mikaela Nix and 11 percent for Republican Stockton Reeves.

Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith got 56 percent to Republican Ben Griffin‘s 44 in House District 49.

Democrat Pam Dirschka led the House District 50 contest with 45 percent, while Republican state Rep. Rene Plasencia took 40 percent, and Republican George Collins, 15 points.

Republican Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke led in the contest for Orange County Mayor. Clarke grabbed 41 percent, to 35 percent for Sheriff Jerry Demings and 24 percent for businessman Rob Panepinto.

Retired Florida Highway Patrol Chief Joe Lopez pulled off a shockingly easy upset in the contest for Orange County Sheriff, topping Orlando Police Chief John Mina 51 to 28, with Democrat Darryl Sheppard finishing third with 21.

In Orange County Commission races, Republican Christina Moore was the top choice in a four-person field for District 2, leading Republican Mark Byrd 35 to 28 percent; Democrat Eric Rollings was the pick in the five-person field for District 3, leading Pete Crotty 36 to 22 percent; Gina Perez-Calhoun and Maribel Gomez Cordero were the top choices in the five-person District 4 race.

For the Seminole County Commission, Katrina Shadix was the choice in District 2, and Amy Lockhart in District 4, with both polling more than 50 percent.

For the Osceola County Commission, Wanda Rentas got 44 percent in District 2, while incumbent Commissioner Viviana Janer took 25 and Janette Martinez 24. Adam Michelin led a tight race for District 4, taking 32 percent versus 26 percent for incumbent Commissioner Cheryl Grieb, Will Fonseca taking 24, and Will Gonzalez Jr., 18 points.

Alan Grayson, Darren Soto, Wayne Liebnitzky spread on ICE in ‘Political Salsa’ CD 9 debate

When asked Thursday night about what they want to do with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the three candidates for Florida’s 9th Congressional District had a wide range of opinions.

Either keep it as is, reform it, or throw it out.

Speaking at one of four debates at the packed Political Salsa hobnob in Orlando, Republican Wayne Liebnitzky defended the embattled federal immigration enforcement agency, its work and officers as necessary and law enforcement doing the best they could with what they have.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto talked about law changes necessary to rein in excesses while protecting important work ICE does. And Democratic former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson blasted ICE as a federal agency that “has lost its way.”

“ICE deserves to abolished,” Grayson said. “ICE has become what amounts to an agency of viciousness. I never expected any time in my life to see a federal agency caging children, anywhere in the world. And therefore, ICE has lost its way. We should not have federal agents on the federal payroll, paid by the taxpayers, abusing and brutalizing people because they don’t happen to be Americans. That has to change.”

“I believe the solution is to reform ICE,” said Soto. “The reason that ICE is the way it is is that there aren’t laws that are preventing them from doing the things that they do. That’s why we need a Democratic majority in back in Congress, to make family separation illegal, to make zero-tolerance illegal.

“Keep in mind, they also regulate and protect people who are involved in human sex trafficking and other aspects that are important, that we do support. We do need a culture change there, from the top down,” Soto said. “We also need to make sure they are not going into churches, and they are not going after people who are low priorities.”

“No, I will not vote to abolish ICE,” Liebnitzky said. Later he defended ICE agents as law enforcement officers just following the laws, and getting a bad rap, saying, “They’re doing what they’re told to do, by Congress,” adding that President Donald Trump has asked Congress “over and over to do something, and yet they do nothing.”

Their sparring over ICE was one of the few moments of genuine disagreement in debates between Orange County congressional, mayoral, and sheriff’s candidates. The discussions took place during an event where scores of candidates — including Republican U.S. Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic gubernatorial candidates Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — worked the floors at Acacia, a gathering point for the area’s Puerto Rican community.

The debates did not bring any of the go-for-the-throat moments seen at earlier debates, particularly between Soto and Grayson, and between Orange County mayoral candidates Sheriff Jerry Demings, Commissioner Pete Clarke, and businessman Rob Panepinto.

Nor were there many moments of new revelation, 11 days before the Aug. 28 elections.

Panepinto had one of the few notable moments to shine when the mayoral candidates answered questions on specifics about what they would do to address Orange County’s affordable housing crisis.

Panepinto declared the county no longer can wait for (or count on) state help, then laid out details of his $20 million-a-year, seven-point plan for the county to promote affordable housing. Demings and Clarke mostly called on the state to do its job, giving generalized answers about looking for possible zoning and permit-processing reforms.

“We’ve been looking to Tallahassee for a long time to solve this problem,” Panepinto said. “Yes, they should fund the Sadowski [Affordable Housing Trust] Fund. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. I’ll continue to go up there and fight for it. But I think we owe it to our people to solve the problem here locally.”

Orlando Police Chief John Mina and retired Florida Highway Patrol Chief Joe Lopez, both running for Orange County Sheriff, mostly agreed on many items ranging from their opposition to the sheriff’s office ever actively enforcing federal immigration law, to their commitments to reduce violence against and by law enforcement officers. But they split squarely on their views of red-light cameras.

“I would be in favor of it, as long as the system is run properly and there are many, many checks and balances, and the person has the opportunity to go before a hearing officer and in front of traffic court to fight a red light traffic ticket, which we do in the city of Orlando,” Mina said.

“Very simple: no! I do not support them,” Lopez offered. “I don’t think it works. I think it creates problems,” he said citing studies indicating they increase rear-end traffic accidents.

“It’s a cash cow, that’s all it is,” he added.

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Miller shared the debate dais with progressive Democratic challenger Chardo Richardson, as incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy and Republican candidates Scott Sturgill and Vennia Francois skipped the event, even though it was held in their district.

Miller and Richardson stood on far opposite sides of the political spectrum. Miller argued for capitalism, low taxes, and freeing up businesses; Richardson, mounting a left-wing (albeit long-shot) Aug. 28 Democratic primary challenge to Murphy, pressed his Democratic socialist platform, including universal Medicare and raising the minimum wage “to a living wage.”

The pair were far enough apart that they offered grace and respect to one another, Richardson expressing appreciation for Miller’s service in Tallahassee, and Miller for Richardson’s service in the U.S. Marines, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scott made a late, brief appearance, mostly meeting with a few people in crowded hallways.

The Governor left shortly after being confronted in a corridor by Central Florida progressive political activist and former congressional candidate Susannah Randolph. He was ushered toward the stairwell while she tried to demand an answer on one of her questions.

On the other hand, Scott’s opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. (and Orlando resident) Bill Nelson, was a no-show.

Levine and Gillum worked the floor of the main room, filled with hundreds of people and scores of candidates for county, state, and federal races packed the auditorium.

Political Salsa was sponsored primarily by the Suarez Group of Cos. and the Puerto Rico Bar Association of Florida, drawing a sizable Hispanic attendance.

The Soto-Grayson-Liebnitzky debate stayed civil, a dramatic departure from previous CD 9 debates where Soto and Grayson trashed each other’s records and called each other names, all but drawing actual blood. The closest to personal attacks came when Liebnitzky chided the two Democrats for talking so much about their records.

They were coming off sounding like their only concerns were themselves, not the district and its residents, he said.

Neither Soto nor Grayson took his bait.

Nurses’ union backs Darren Soto in CD 9 race

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto has picked up another endorsement from a reliable Democratic ally in his battle with his predecessor former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson for the party primary in Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

National Nurses United, the largest organization of registered nurses in the country, has endorsed Soto, his campaign announced Monday.

In its endorsement letter, the union said Soto “embodies nurses’ values of caring, compassion and community.”

The winner of the Soto-Grayson primary faces Republican Wayne Liebnitzky in the Nov. 6 election. The district covers south Orange County, Osceola County and east Polk County.

“I’m honored to have the support of nurses in our community and nationwide. We must care for the caregivers,” Soto stated in a news release from his campaign. “Nurses, like all workers, deserve wages that can support a family, safe working conditions, and the right to unionize and bargain collectively. Throughout my career, I’ve fought for the working people of Central Florida, and I’m proud to be supported by many unions including the Florida AFL-CIO.”

Alan Grayson’s new ad: ‘Impeach Trump … Grayson will; Soto won’t’

Is this video Alan Grayson‘s latest television commercial … or a trailer for the next Hollywood blockbuster?

Grayson, the Democratic former congressman trying to win his seat back in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, is launching a new television commercial Tuesday that focuses on his commitment to seek President Donald Trump‘s impeachment.

The spot has just the most fleeting of references, a negative one, to Grayson’s Democratic primary rival, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto.

The 30-second video, “When They Break the Law,” plays out like an action movie trailer, with two video sequences of dozens of rapid-fire images, backed by dramatic crescendos of music, seeking the implications that Trump and his team have broken the law, and that Grayson will go after them.

The video opens with the first sequence, quick flashes of stark images of Trump, members of his family, and inner circle blasting onto the screen as the music crescendo climbs toward a bang.

That bang leads to a calmer, bridge moment in the video, starting with text screens that read “When They Break The Law,” “Stand With Grayson,” and “Impeach!!” That’s followed by some old TV footage of Grayson being interviewed by, or talked about by, progressive TV commentators admiring him. Some of that footage is recycled from his previous TV commercials. It includes Grayson declaring, “If we do nothing you can kiss this country goodbye!”

The second crescendo sequence then starts, featuring a mixture of images of all kinds of Democrats’ bugaboos, from Vladimir Putin to ICE agents, and from global warming problems to lines of police in riot gear. Sprinkled in are a few pictures of Democratic protesters and others resisting, and of Grayson looking brave and patriotic. That sequence also includes — so quickly that the messages might be best seen as subliminal — text screens that read, “Impeach Trump,” “Grayson Will,” and “Soto Won’t.”

That sequence draws from one of the points of hot contention in a CD 9 Democratic debate last week at the Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida, in which Grayson said he is ready to pursue impeachment articles against Trump — right now — that Soto twice voted against bills to impeach.

Soto responded that he wants to wait until after Special Council Robert Mueller finishes his investigation, but would be among the first to vote for impeachment if that investigation warrants it.

There were no details provided late Monday by Grayson’s campaign team about what sort of media buy is backing the commercial.

 

Associated Industries endorses Fred Costello, Mike Miller in open-seat congressional races

The Associated Industries of Florida has thrown its backing behind Republican state Rep. Mike Miller‘s bid for Congress in Florida’s 7th Congressional District and former state Rep. Fred Costello‘s bid in Florida’s 6th Congressional District.

Miller’s endorsement may come as a bit of a sting to his Aug. 28 Republican primary opponent Scott Sturgill, who is himself professionally in the manufacturing sector represented by AIF.

Miller is aiming to oust Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in CD 7, which covers Seminole County and much of north and central Orange County. He first must get past Sturgill in what has been a bruising primary battle. Also in the primaries are Republican Vennia Francois and Democrat Chardo Richardson.

Costello is in a battle with Republicans John Ward and Michael Waltz for the Aug. 28 Republican primary, with another three Democrats vying, and the prospect that the November election could be competitive in a seat Republicans have long held. Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis is running for governor.

The group also endorsed the re-election bids of Republican U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz in CD 1; Neal Dunn in CD 2; Ted Yoho in CD 3; John Rutherford in CD 4; Al Lawson in CD 5; Bill Posey in District 8; Dan Webster in CD 11; Gus Bilirakis in CD 12; Vern Buchanan in CD 16; Brian Mast in CD 18; Francis Rooney in CD 19; Maria Diaz-Balart in CD 25; and Carlos Curbelo in CD 26.

And the AIF endorsed two Democrat congressmen seeking re-election: Al Lawson in CD 5, and Darren Soto in CD 9.

“Today, the AIF Board of Directors is proud to release our endorsements for those candidates here in Florida that we believe will best serve Florida businesses and families in the U.S. House of Representatives,” AIF President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Feeney, a former congressman himself. “We believe these individuals are the most qualified candidates in their respective races to take our pro-growth, pro-job and free-enterprise message to Washington to continue to make Florida a top state in the nation to live, work and raise a family.”

The group skipped endorsements in several districts with highly-competitive Republican primaries, and in most districts where incumbent Democratic incumbents are likely to be re-elected. That made the endorsements of Miller, Costello, Soto and Lawson stand out.

Soto’s may in part reflect the strength of AIF’s preference of him over his Aug. 28 Democratic rival, the much more liberal former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, with the recognition that the Republican in the district, Wayne Liebnitzky, would be a long shot against either of them come November. Lawson also has a tough primary battle with former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, which likely will decide this year’s ultimate winner in that north Florida district.

“We strongly encourage our fellow Floridians to vote to send these candidates to Washington to fight for Florida,” Feeney stated. “Our businesses and families can count on these individuals to foster a business-friendly environment our future generations can rely on.”

Darren Soto and Alan Grayson debate: brawling, bruising, ‘lies!’

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto and Democratic former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who wants to take his job back from Soto, may agree in principal on most Democratic positions but on Thursday that didn’t stop an almost unrelenting brawl with bruising attacks on each other ranging from how they treat women to multiple accusations of lies.

Past histories of anti-abortion votes. Congressional ethics investigations. NRA ratings. Setting up off-shore hedge fund accounts. Insensitively-timed fundraisers. Monday-morning quarterbacking rather than helping with hurricane relief. Not living in the district. Not bringing home the bacon. Investments in a Russian firm. Campaign money from special interests. Campaign money from radicals whipped up by “saying crazy things on the internet.” Claims of poor treatment of and disrespect toward women. Leaving a wife to be arrested for disorderly intoxication.

All of it was alleged or at least implied, and most of it angrily refuted, as the Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida sat through 46-minute debate between the two seeking to win the Aug. 28 Democratic primary to run this fall in Florida’s 9th Congressional District by trying to make the other guy look unfit.

The Republican waiting for a survivor to challenge, Wayne Liebnitzky, would have been the gleeful winner Thursday, if he weren’t such a significant underdog to either of them in the very-blue district covering South Orange County, all of Osceola County, and east Polk County.

When the final bell rang and the two fighters left the ring, they had offered mostly similar positions on immigration, guns, abortion rights, Social Security, Medicare, tariffs, opposition to President Donald Trump, Puerto Rico, and the Internet, with the differences on many of those issues primarily being defined as who’s been more consistent, who got to the positions first, and who has been and is likely to be more effective in pushing them in the next Congress.

The discord began early when they were asked why each of them would best represent the district.

“I actually live in the district, rather than 30 miles away,” Soto said at one point. “Second, I represent the emerging demographics of the district and work every day for my constituents, not myself.”

“Darren has been a complete failure in getting money. … He doesn’t know how to fight for it,” Grayson said.

The first of many accusations of lies came when Soto accused Grayson of not overseeing what became problematic construction of Orlando’s new Veterans Administration Medical Center four years ago, allowing the problems to languish for over a year and a half. Grayson refuted that. saying he got the contractor banned from getting more federal contracts.

“Now you’re just making things up,” Grayson charged. “What a silly lie that was.”

Even when the questions involved a seemingly a uniting opponent like Trump, the two couldn’t keep their gloves off each other.

“The president has blown it ever since he came to office for cheating and colluding with the Russians. Frankly, I would have voted already to have him impeached,” Grayson said. “I would hope to see him impeached and convicted when I return to Congress. … My opponent has voted twice with the president against impeachment, and that’s the worst form of appeasement that I can imagine.”

“We have an investigation going right now, and should [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller find that President Trump committed high crimes, I’ll be the first to vote for impeachment. But we have a process to go through,” Soto responded. “And I doubt that my opponent is the best person to be trying to take on Russia, since he supported [Russia President Vladimir] Putin‘s invasion of Crimea, and he has investments over there that makes it a total conflict of interest.”

“Okay, Darren, what investments do I have in Russia? Go ahead!” Grayson challenged.

Soto mentioned one.

“Okay, I haven’t owned [that one] in 10 years. What else you got? Nothing! Okay, let’s move on,” Grayson said.

“You supported Putin invading Crimea!” Soto reminded him.

“Okay, and when did you become the great champion of self-determination?” Grayson responded.

They also battled about their dueling TV commercials. Grayson’s alleged that Soto was attending fundraisers instead of helping the district during Hurricane Irma. Soto vehemently disputed the claim, saying he was in Central Florida. “You know that… You put up a lie on TV which has no truth whatsoever,” Soto declared “This is just more of a campaign of deception, and we don’t need that in politics.”

Soto’s commercial alleged that Grayson set up off-shore hedge funds. Grayson vigoursly disputed that, saying he created an empty fund there to meet legal requirements for the American fund he set up for his family and a couple of friends. He also doubled-down on his allegations about Soto’s fundraiser, saying that if it actually took place four days earlier than the federal filings suggested, as Soto insisted, that was a lie to the Federal Election Commission. “Who’s really lying here?” Grayson demanded.

The debate tetered on becoming ugly after Soto twice made implied references to Grayson’s treatment of women, alluding to, though not explicitly mentioning, his record of discord with his ex-wife Lolita Carson-Grayson.

“If anybody on this stage is a champion of women, of protecting women, it is me, and that is not even close. I respect women in public,” Soto declared. He then accused Grayson of calling women “senile, in print, on TV. I’m the only one up here who respects women and gives them the dignity they deserve.”

Grayson swung back hard, referring to the incident in April when Soto’s wife Amanda Soto was arrested for disorderly intoxication at Walt Disney World. Reports showed he was with her at the start, but conspicously absent when she was hauled away.

“Is that why you left your wife at Disney World when she was intoxicated?” Grayson demanded.

Grayson was in his natural activity, brawling, and through most of the debate appeared to have the advantage and land the hardest blows. It’s a nature that made him a favorite and a poster child, nationally, among progressive Democratic activists.

But it’s also his weakness, for Grayson’s scortched-earth approach to politics burned a lot of bridges during his three terms, from 2008-’10, and ’12-’16. Consequently, Soto drew all the Tiger Bay applause outbursts Thursday, and Grayson none; and a lot of progressive groups have been raining endorsements on Soto in this race. Even in the issues where Grayson attacked Soto the hardest, Soto had the seals-of-approval to counter-punch.

Abortion? Soto once voted in the Florida House for a bill pushed by anti-abortion lawmakers: mandatory trans-vaginal ulrasounds for any woman contemplating an abortion, Grayson charged. Soto’s response: He’s changed, and Planned Parenthood endorsed him, not Grayson.

Guns? Soto in the Florida House backed several measures offered by the National Rifle Association, and the NRA even endorsed him in 2010, Grayson offered. Soto’s response: He’s changed, and three major national gun-control organizations, Giffords PAC the Pride Fund, and Moms Demand Action all endorsed him, not Grayson.

Social Security? Grayson accused Soto of saying in a media interview that he’s open-minded about eliminating Social Security benefits. Soto’s response? He disputed that, and noted that the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare endorsed him, not Grayson.

“Who is there working every day, and gives our district the dignity and respect that it deserves?” Soto challenged.

Soto’s strength also is the weakness Grayson went after and upended: he’s usually quite cordial. Grayson repeatedly accused him of being ineffective in Congress and repeatedly contrasted that with his own record, including having been named the most effective member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, by several publications during his tenures. In Grayson’s statements, Soto may have brought tens of millions of federal dollars home, but Grayson brought hundreds of millions.

Slate magazine named me the most effective member of Congress. I’ve demonstrated what you can do with this job. I haven’t noticed anybody saying Darren Soto is the most effective member of Congress. People talk about: ‘Is this someone you’d like to have a cup of coffee with, or a drink?'” Grayson said. “The voters take it much more seriously. The voters think: ‘What are you going to do for me?'”

There almost was an acknowledgement of agreement when Soto talked about measures he had sponsored for Social Security, and then Grayson pointed out that he’d brought those things up first. But, even then, the blows came.

“He legislates by carbon-copy,” Grayson said. “He’s really taken things that I passed through the House, and introduced them himself.”

“Why not embrace good ideas? Soto replied.

“There’s nothing like the real thing, baby,” Grayson responded.

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