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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.

Giffords PAC endorses Darren Soto in CD 9 race

The national gun-control political action committee founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, Giffords PAC, is endorsing Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in his re-election bid in Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

The endorsement, announced Tuesday by Soto’s campaign, comes to Soto who’s been under attack for his career political record on guns by his Aug. 28 Democratic primary challenger former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who was a colleague of Giffords in Congress.

The Giffords PAC was founded by Kelly, a former NASA space shuttle astronaut and retired U.S. Navy captain, and his wife, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt that also killed six people and wounded 18 others. The Arizona Democrat was left with permanent brain injuries but recovered to return to Congress and become a leader in the gun-control movement.

“Darren Soto is a fighter who has stood up to the gun lobby in Congress, refused to stay silent on the need to address our gun violence crisis, and championed legislation that will save lives,” Giffords stated in a news release. “We are proud to endorse Darren for re-election because he is committed to protecting not only the people of Florida, but communities all across the country. We look forward to continuing our work with Darren as we push for the solutions that will keep our schools, streets, churches, and neighborhoods safe.”

Grayson also has been a strong advocate of significant gun control measures, and he’s been challenging Soto’s career record on the issue, noting that while Soto was in the Florida House of Representatives, he received an A rating and an endorsement from the National Rifle Association in 2010.

Soto and his campaign have dismissed that circumstance as not indicative of who he is and argued that he’d been a strong voice for gun law reforms in Congress, voting against a concealed weapons reciprocity measure last year and advocating background checks on all firearm sales, among other positions. Soto also was among the first to call for bans on the sales of semi-automatic weapons in Florida, when he was in the Florida Senate, holding a news conference on the call just a few days after the June 12, 2016, massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

“Congresswoman Gabby Giffords is a singular force in American life,” Soto stated. “She is the definition of courage. It is humbling to have her support. Her, her husband Mark, and the entire Giffords organization are true leaders, and I am honored to work with them to end gun violence. The NRA is a determined opponent, but the great majority of Americans are seeing through their lies. Together, we will overcome them and pass real gun safety reform.”

Darren Soto picks up Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida nod

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto announced the endorsement of his re-election campaign by the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida Tuesday.

The endorsement adds to a list of Democratic and progressive groups that previously might have been expected to endorse Soto’s Democratic primary challenger and predecessor in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson.

The Democratic Environmental Caucus‘s President Michael Newett expressed appreciation for Soto’s “commitment to preserve, protect and enhance Florida’s natural environment.”

Soto and Grayson are battling over CD 9, covering south Orange, all of Osceola, and east Polk counties, a region that is the crux of the South Florida Water Management District flow through the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and the algae-plagued coasts east and west of Okeechobee. The winner of the Aug. 28 Democratic primary faces Republican Wayne Liebnitzky in November.

Soto, a member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee and the Natural Resources Committee, has pushed legislation to address Kissimmee River restoration and other water management projects, and has previously received the endorsements of the League of Conservation Voters and the Flordia Conservation Voters.

“DECF members are some of the most active, informed progressive voters in Central Florida, and I’m honored to have their support. I sought a seat on the Natural Resources Committee because the people of our District wanted a fighter for Florida’s environment,” he stated in a news release issued by his campaign. “In Congress, I’ve helped stop Trump’s reckless attempt to allow oil drilling in our waters, passed a law to hold foreign oil drillers more liable for their spills, and passed bills out of the House to protect the Kissimmee River and marine life like sharks and marlins. With the support of DECF members, I know we can accomplish even more.”

Gloves off: Darren Soto ad blasts ‘shady, lying’ Alan Grayson

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto rips his predecessor and primary election opponent former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in a television commercial that started airing in Orlando Friday.

Soto’s commercial, airing on at least four Orlando TV stations, accuses Grayson of lying about him and also accuses Grayson of having a “double life running a hedge fund in Congress where he tried to profit off natural disasters in a shady Cayman Islands account.”

Soto’s 30-second spot, “Shady,” is at least in part a response to a TV commercial Grayson began running earlier this month that accused Soto of ignoring constituents during last year’s hurricanes, holding a fundraiser. This week Grayson also returned to running an earlier spot on TV, using old footage of liberal commentators hailing him.

A review of Federal Communication Commission files shows Soto’s campaign just purchased about 70 time slots, about $15,000 in airtime, on four TV stations through the end of next week.

Grayson is taking on Soto in the Aug. 28 primary for Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which Grayson represented for two terms before Soto won it in 2016.

Just two weeks earlier, Soto released an internet ad intended to show he will run a positive campaign. But that’s ended.

“When we get attacked with lies, we will hit back with facts,” said Soto’s campaign spokesman Harry Kruglik. “That’s what we’ve done in this ad.”

Grayson’s response:

“When we go high, Soto goes low. I don’t know what’s worse: Soto’s smarmy feigned moral superiority, his headlong flight from his own record, his distant relationship with the truth, or his rank incompetence as a Member of Congress. To attack an ad of ours that is 100 percent true as dishonest demonstrates that Darren Soto can even lie about lying.”

The new spot touts Soto’s efforts to help Central Florida following Hurricane Irma and to help Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans coming to the United States — a big deal in the Puerto Rican-rich CD 9 — after Hurricane Maria. That’s an apparent response to Grayson’s attack.

It also takes the attack Grayson on a different front.

“Alan Grayson at it again, this time lying about Darren Soto,” the commercial begins. It does not say what Grayson lied about, or make any specific reference to Grayson’s spot.

“After Irma, Darren secured FEMA relief for Central Florida and helped countless families recover,” the commercial continues. “He led the fight for Puerto Rican evacuees and stopped [Donald] Trump from cutting off food and water aid to the island.”

Back to Grayson.

“So why is Grayson lying? To cover up his double life running a hedge fund in Congress where he tried to profit off natural disasters in a shady Cayman Islands account. The better choice? Darren Soto.”

The reference to the Cayman Islands hedge fund is a reference to a 2015 controversy, which came up again in 2016 when Grayson ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. It’s about hedge funds he founded in 2011 using his name in the title that, and that hedge fund had a Cayman entitity, which was never funded.

A Congressional ethics inquiry dismissed charges against him but still issued a report his that his Democratic primary opponent, then U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, called damning.

‘Moms’ gun control group likes Darren Soto in CD 9

The national gun control political action committee Moms Demand Action has given Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto its “Gun Sense Candidate” Distinction, demonstrating how far he has come since he once was endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

The group, formed as part of Everytown for Gun Safety after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is one of only two gun-control organizations backing candidates as a counterweight to the NRA. However, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America calls its badge of honor a distinction rather than an endorsement, and sometimes awards more than one in the same race.

“Thank you again for standing up for gun violence prevention and recognizing gun safety,” the group stated.

Soto has been criticized — largely by his Democratic primary opponent, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson — for being more in line with the NRA when he was in the Florida Legislature. The NRA gave Soto an A rating and endorsed him in his 2010 state House campaign.

Later in his Florida House tenure, his state Senate tenure and in Congress, Soto’s NRA ratings plunged. He has maintained that he is a strong proponent of gun law reforms. A few days after the 2016 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Soto was among the first Florida lawmakers to call for bans of assault weapons.

“In Congress, Darren Soto is a 100 percent reliable vote for gun safety reform,” his campaign declared in a news release.

“Darren stood up to the NRA, has fought for gun safety legislation, and has put forward a five-point gun safety reform plan that requires universal background checks; keeps guns away from those who are a danger to others or themselves; bans assault weapons, high capacity magazines, and bump stocks; creates a Red Flag System of gun-violence restraining orders; and bans guns for those on FBI terrorist watch list — No Fly, No Buy,” the release continued.

Social Security Group endorses Darren Soto in for re-election

On Thursday, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare endorsed Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto for re-election in Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

“You are a key ally in the effort to serve the needs of seniors and their families. You appreciate that Social Security benefits are modest, on average only $15,456 annually and even lower for women who most often have their working careers interrupted for family caregiving,” committee president Max Richtman said in an endorsement letter.

Richtman later wrote: “There is no membership in the nation more aware or active politically than the men and women who proudly are associated with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. National Committee members know they can continue to count on you in the United States House of Representatives!”

Soto is currently in his first term representing CD 9, which covers south-central Orange, Osceola and eastern Polk counties. He faces former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in what’s shaping up to be a contentious Democratic primary.

From day one, Soto had to fend off attacks from the “congressman with guts,” who is attempting to paint him as an “entirely ineffective” lawmaker while touting himself as a “progressive warrior” and an effective legislator during his three terms in Congress.

Soto has castigated Grayson as a “bully” for his brash and often acerbic style — Grayson, after all, is the Congressman who made a name for himself by saying the Republican health care plan was “Don’t get sick,” and if you do, “die quickly.”

Many groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood, have opted to back Soto over Grayson in the primary race, though Grayson this week landed an endorsement from Our Revolution Orlando, a local chapter of Our Revolution, a national group that traces its roots to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign operation.

Grayson and Soto have agreed to two debates, the first on Aug. 2 and the second on Aug. 8. The primary election is Aug. 28.

Darren Soto, Alan Grayson set for two CD 9 debates

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto and former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, Soto’s predecessor and challenger this year, have agreed on two debates and two joint forums in the weeks leading to the Aug. 28 Democratic primary.

Soto’s campaign announced Tuesday it was committing to a Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida Aug. 2 debate and a Spectrum News 13 Aug. 8 debate. The Tiger Bay forum, open only to members of the club, is a noon event. The Spectrum forum is set for 7 p.m. and would broadcast on that cable TV company’s 24-hour news channel.

Also, Soto’s campaign said he would be participating in the upcoming July 16 Polk County Progressive Democratic Caucus candidate forum, and a July 31 forum arranged by several organizations including the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Grayson already has committed to those. Last week he accused Soto of ducking the debates and forums, while Soto’s campaign said, essentially, hold on. The pair also previously both participated in a Polk County Democratic Executive Committee forum in June.

Grayson’s campaign noted Tuesday that Soto did not refer to another potential debate to which Grayson committed, offered by WDBO radio/Cox Media Group.

Soto and Grayson are competing to represent CD 9, which covers south Orange, all of Osceola, and eastern Polk counties. Grayson served the district from 2013-17. Soto succeeded him when Grayson chose to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016. Soto beat his wife Dena Grayson and two others in the Democratic primary before beating Republican Wayne Liebnitzky in the general election.

Liebnitzky again is the Republican candidate this year.

Alan Grayson puts up ‘Dump Trump’ billboard for CD 9 race

If there is any doubt that progressive Democrats are ready to campaign against Trump, Alan Grayson already is doing so — as a primary campaign issue.

The former Democratic congressman seeking to win his seat back in Florida’s 9th Congressional District is putting up billboard’s declaring, in huge writing, “DUMP TRUMP,” as a campaign slogan.

At least one has appeared, on U.S. Highway 27 in Polk County, featuring Grayson’s picture and the message: “VOTE FOR ALAN GRAYSON AUG. 28 PRIMARY.”

Grayson declined to provide any details on the billboard campaign.

It could attract angry Democratic voters in a primary election who might otherwise not be doing much to compare Grayson with his August 28 Democratic primary opponent, incumbent U.S. Rep. Darren Soto.

Soto has been critical of Trump. But Grayson always has been one to weaponize criticism. And he’s been firing at Trump a long time. Last year, back when he was still mulling a run this year, Grayson launched an organization and a website, Lock Him Up Now, dedicated to collecting evidence for a Trump impeachment.

The winner of the Democratic primary goes up against Republican Wayne Liebnitzky, who has been supportive of Trump.

Alan Grayson accuses Darren Soto of ducking debates; Soto says he’ll do them

Saying that several potential debates are under discussion for the two Democrats running in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson is accusing incumbent U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of ducking them Tuesday.

According to the Grayson campaign, multiple media outlets — including Spectrum cable’s Channel 13 News13 and WDBO-FM News Talk Radio — have inquired, with a wide array of times and places, about getting the two Democrats face-to-face. Grayson’s campaign is dubbing Soto “No-Show Soto” for not accepting.

Soto’s campaign denies any ducking and said debates would happen.

“Congressman Soto will do debates and forums,” Harry Kruglik, Soto’s campaign spokesperson, said Tuesday in a written statement. “We’ll be finalizing and releasing the debate and forum schedule next week.”

Grayson held the CD 9 seat for two terms before running for the U.S. Senate in 2016, rather than seeking another term that year. Soto, a former state senator, won in 2016, first defeating Grayson’s wife Dena Grayson and Grayson’s former aide Susannah Randolph in a primary, before dispatching Republican Wayne Liebnitzky in the general election.

Liebnitzky is lined up this year to meet the winner of the August 28 Democratic primary between Soto and Alan Grayson.

CD 9 now covers Osceola County, much of south Orange County, and much of south Polk County.

“It comes as no surprise that ‘No-Show Soto’ is unable to defend his endorsement by the NRA, his two votes against impeachment, his vote to prosecute abortions as murder, or his ‘open-mindedness”’on eliminating Social Security,” Grayson said in a written statement issued by his campaign on Tuesday. “He’s an elephant in donkey’s clothing.”

Grayson has been attacking his Democratic successor, with such references to votes against the interests of progressive Democrats.

Soto has disputed Grayson’s spins on the bills in question, and contended that some date back a decade anyway. Soto was endorsed by the NRA in 2010 when he was in the Florida House of Representatives, and received an “A” grade from the organization, though he has since disavowed any support from the group while pushing for gun control as a congressman.

Grayson once got a “B” from the NRA, Soto’s campaign countered. Grayson also has disavowed the NRA calling it “ruthless” and noting it had run ads against him in a campaign.

Soto also is running up an impressive list of endorsements by progressive groups that had become wary of Grayson, including endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood and Florida Young Democrats, groups that would take issue with the positions Grayson’s campaign cited for Soto.

On Tuesday Soto also rolled out another, the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, which works to elect candidates who will support sound environmental policies.

Darren Soto picks up Human Rights Campaign endorsement in CD 9 race

The national Human Rights Campaign, the nations’ largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, has endorsed the re-election bid of Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

The endorsement is part of Soto’s efforts to shore up the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as he prepares for the August 28 Democratic primary showdown with his predecessor in the CD 9 seat, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson.

The winner faces Saint Cloud Republican Wayne Liebnitzky. CD 9 covers southern Orange, Osceola and eastern Polk counties.

JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement:

“HRC is proud to endorse Darren Soto for re-election to Congress. Darren has been a strong ally to the LGBTQ community throughout his career, including standing up to the Trump administration’s hateful anti-LGBTQ policies and pushing for progress to expand civil rights and protections under law.

“In Central Florida, he brought community leaders together when the Trump administration rescinded protections from transgender students. He has fought for workforce and housing protections, and he supports legislation to make sure our elders get the care and services they need.

“We need Darren Soto in Washington, and we encourage Central Floridians who support LGBTQ rights to support him.”

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