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Florida Senate reopens chamber after $6 million upgrade

The chamber of the Florida Senate is reopening after a $6 million upgrade.

Outgoing Senate President Andy Gardiner showed off the renovated chamber on Monday.

Workers spent the last eight months tearing out carpet, replacing desks and installing a new stained glass dome and new wood columns. The state motto of “In God We Trust” is now displayed prominently above the president’s rostrum.

Senate leaders had been considering renovations for more than a decade, but Gardiner said they went ahead with the renovations because the 2016 session ended in early March.

The renovations mark the first substantial work that has been done to the Senate chambers since it was opened in the late ’70s. The Florida House renovated its chamber in 2000.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Blaise Ingoglia announces he’s running for re-election as Florida GOP chair

Announcing earlier than he intended to do, Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia said Thursday he will run for re-election to his post next January.

“I was hoping to announce this after Thanksgiving so everyone could spend time with their families and give everyone a much-needed break from politics, but the events of today will not allow me, or us, that luxury,” Ingoglia wrote on his Facebook page. “I want everyone to know that I will indeed be running for a second term as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.”

The “events of today” Ingoglia was referring to was the announcement earlier Thursday that Sarasota state committeeman Christian Ziegler will challenge Ingoglia for party chair.

In his statement, Ingoglia said when he declared his candidacy for chairman two years ago, he promised “much needed reforms” and delivering the state’s 29 electoral votes to a Republican presidential nominee.

“We not only delivered on our promises, we delivered historic wins for Sen. Marco Rubio, our Congressional delegation, our Florida Legislature, and delivered by winning the State of Florida for the first time since 2004 for now President-elect Donald Trump. I humbly ask for your continued support as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.”

In addition to serving as party chair, Ingoglia was just re-elected to his House District 35 seat in Hernando County, and makes his living as a home builder.  A New York City native, Ingoglia developed a side career as a skilled poker player, and years ago began producing a series of videos and seminars called “Government Gone Wild,” where he decried the rising federal debt.

In January of 2015, he upset incumbent Leslie Dougher in the race for party chair. Dougher was Gov. Rick Scott’s handpicked candidate, and afterwards he took the hundreds of thousands he had raised out of the party’s account and put into his own political committee, “Let’s Get to Work.” Later, Senate President Andy Gardiner followed suit, removing more money and putting it into the Senate Republicans’ fundraising committee.

Nevertheless, speculation that schism would hurt the party in last week’s election proved not to be the case, with Trump defeating Hillary Clinton by 1.2 percent, a seismic achievement in a state both candidates desperately fought to win.

Christian Ziegler announces his candidacy for Republican Party of Florida Chair

Christian Ziegler, the 33-year-old state committeeman for the Sarasota Republican Party, has announced his candidacy for chair of the Republican Party of Florida.

“As we turn the page from the election, we have a lot of work to do over the next two years to ensure victory in 2018 — work that takes focus and resources,” Ziegler said in a statement sent to members of the Florida Republican Party Thursday.

“In addition to supporting the Trump Administration, we will need to strengthen our Republican Party of Florida to send an ally to the U.S. Senate who will work alongside our great senator, Marco Rubio,” he writes. “We will need to replace our term-limited governor and the entire Cabinet, in addition to protecting majorities in the state Senate and House of Representatives. And we will need to win the many congressional and local races across our great state.”

The RPOF is currently chaired by Spring Hill’s Blaise Ingoglia, who last week fulfilled his often-stated No. 1 goal since taking over the reins of the party nearly two years ago — to turn Florida red in the 2016 presidential election.

In addition to being party chair, Ingoglia also serves as a state representative in House District 35, where he successfully won another two-year term in office last week. And in August, he became the Hernando County state committeeman.

In his pitch to party members, Ziegler indirectly refers to Ingoglia’s other activities by saying the party needs a chairman “whose sole focus is strengthening the party,” adding, “I will make this my full-time mission.”

Ziegler is a close ally to Joe Gruters, vice chair of the state party and chairman of the Sarasota Republican Party (who just won his own two-year term in state House last week). Gruters got in early in backing President-elect Donald Trump in Florida, and Ziegler says, “I have built relationships with the current Trump Team … that will help foster a united party.”

Ziegler also serves as the chairman of the 134-member RPOF State Committeeman and Committeewomen’s Caucus, and says he will “bring that same passion and leadership style to the Republican Party of Florida as Chairman.”

The 46-year-old Ingoglia was elected RPOF Chairman in January 2015, when he upset incumbent party chairwoman Leslie Dougher, Rick Scott‘s personal choice to head the state party. He then cleaned out much of the RPOF staff, prompting Scott and Senate President Andy Gardiner to split from the party and begin raising money independently for Florida Republicans and, in the case of Scott, for himself with his “Let’s Get To Work” political committee.

Shortly after Ziegler’s announcement, Ingoglia announced on his Facebook page he was running for re-election for party chair.

Senate chamber

Senate to re-open next week after months of renovations

The newly renovated Florida Senate chamber will be ceremonially opened next Monday at 3 p.m.

And don’t expect another re-do for a very long time.

“We believe the historic components of the remodel have created a timeless design that will limit the need for future renovations,” outgoing Senate President Andy Gardiner said in a statement.

The re-opening will take place the day before the new Legislature’s Organization Session. The project began minutes after last session’s Sine Die, with sergeants-at-arms hauling chairs and other furniture out of the chamber. 

The chamber features redone walls, new desks, and new carpet. Senators will stand under a new ceiling dome, modeled after one in the Historic Capitol.

Also as planned, the nearly 40-year-old mural that greeted visitors to the 5th floor gallery has been removed and stored in the old Capitol. It depicts a Confederate general and flag, which the Senate previously voted to remove from its official seal and insignia.

Gardiner had pulled the trigger on the upgrade, recognizing that the chamber “has received only minimal updates since its original construction in the 1970s,” he said in a memo.

Design elements echo the Historic Capitol’s exterior, such as a pediment on top of columns over the president’s rostrum and the words, “In God We Trust.”

The renovation project was budgeted for $5 million.

Andy Gardiner, business leaders launch Florida Unique Abilities program to help disabled find work

Senate President Andy Gardiner appeared in downtown Orlando Wednesday to promote the launch of the new Florida Unique Abilities partnership, an initiative that businesses can join to support hiring those with disabilities.

Gardiner and business leaders representing AT&T, Walgreens, and SeaWorld, appeared at the Canvs building on Garland Avenue to talk up the program, saying it would behoove businesses all over the state and country to start hiring more people with disabilities. The Florida Unique Abilities partnership, they said, would offer a concrete way for businesses to show support and get the word out.

“Businesses can lead by example,” he said. “Every agency that wants to will have to send a report on what they intend to do to hire those with disabilities. That gives us the ability to promote Florida as the best place to live, work and play.”

To qualify as a partner with the program, businesses must meet one of three criteria:

— Employ at least one Florida resident with a disability for nine months prior to applying.

— Provide a financial or in-kind contribution to programs that serve the disabled.

— Or contribute to the establishment of a program that helps those with disabilities achieve independence.

Gardiner said the initiative was an important first step.

“It’s a good start,” he told “It’s about recognition and hopefully recruiting more business partners to help this population of need and get a dialogue started.”

Others, like Steve Pemberton, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Walgreens, and Troy McNichols, Director of External and Legislative Affairs with AT&T Florida, spoke of the bonuses of hiring those with disabilities.

They all said it was important to be inclusive and nondiscriminatory in hiring, as those with disabilities, like anyone else, can bring strong new ideas and better quality to the workplace.

The final speaker at the ceremony was Whitney Harris, the Special Projects Coordinator with the Florida Chamber Foundation. Harris, who is disabled herself, quickly shut down any audience misconceptions that she was there to be an “inspirational” figure — rather, she was just like anyone else.

“I’m an eighth generation Floridian and a first-generation person with disabilities,” she said. “I’m not here to tell you an inspiring story or talk about how I can overcome my disability and be like everyone else. There’s nothing to overcome. I’m just a different flavor of normal. There are 1.13 million disabled people in Florida, and I’m just one of them.”

She stressed the importance again of businesses hiring those with disabilities — they, just like everyone else, need to support their families and themselves.

Florida Senate

Florida Senate renovations near completion

The Florida Senate’s chamber renovations should be done by early-to-mid November.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta tweeted back on Oct. 5: “Chamber Reno Update — About one month to left to go.”

She posted photos showing the chamber with redone walls, new desks, and new carpet going down.

As planned, the nearly 40-year-old mural that greeted visitors to the 5th floor gallery has been removed.

Departing Senate President Andy Gardiner has said the mural will be preserved for viewing elsewhere and stored until then.

The 10-foot-by-16 foot “Five Flags Mural” greeted visitors to the Senate since the Capitol opened in 1978.

The work also happens to depict a Confederate general and flag. The Senate previously voted to remove that symbol from its official seal and insignia.

When the chamber is reopened, senators will stand under a new ceiling dome, modeled after one in the Historic Capitol.

Gardiner pulled the trigger on the upgrade, recognizing that the chamber “has received only minimal updates since its original construction in the 1970s,” he said in a memo.

The final product in the Senate will be similar to an artists’ rendering released earlier this year.

It shows the new dome and other design elements that echo the Historic Capitol’s exterior, such as a pediment on top of columns over the president’s rostrum and the words, “In God We Trust.”

The renovation project was budgeted for $5 million. The chamber should be open for the Nov. 22 Organization Session.

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Is Oscar Braynon running the best Senate political operation in years?

Democratic uber consultant (and frequent Uber customer) Steve Schale contends in a must-read, table-setting blog post about which Florida Senate races are worth watching that “Oscar Braynon is running the best Senate political operation I’ve seen in years.”


Technically, Schale is absolutely right. Braynon is running the best political shop in years because, when compared to previous Democratic efforts, O.B. looks like a black James Carville.

Beyond Schale, there are other super-smart people in Tallahassee who think very highly of the Florida Democrats’ Senate political arm. Associated Industries of Florida’s Ryan Tyson often sings its praises, warning Republicans that if the Dems ever have more than two nickels to rub together, they’ll be dangerous.

Schale is also right on two more points:

— that, especially based on recent history, if Braynon’s Democrats overreach, they’re more likely to end up with just 14 or 15 seats in the Senate;

— and that if the Senate Dems get to 16 or 17 seats, that would make a huge impact in the chamber.

But I’m not ready to sing Braynon’s praises. One could make the argument that if the Democrats don’t get to 16-plus seats, the fault squarely lies with Braynon.

Putting aside all of the usual knocks on Florida Democrats — can’t raise money, etc. — Braynon has made glaring strategic mistakes for which he must be held accountable.

The first is not being able to recruit a candidate in Senate District 22. Few developments made me more relieved than to see our friend Jeff Brandes go without a challenge this cycle, but SD 22 is a genuine battleground seat that could have been won in a presidential year (and, admittedly, lost back to the Republicans in the 2018 non-presidential cycle). Braynon was left at the altar by Augie Ribeiro, who flirted with running in the seat, then decided to run in Senate District 19. Still, the seat encompasses St. Petersburg and South Tampa — veritable hotbeds for whatever constitutes Democratic intellectualism (for example, several major national and statewide environmental organizations, such as Defenders of Wildlife, have their offices in the district). It’s just a sin of omission that Braynon was not able to field a candidate here.

O.B.’s second tactical mistake is one borne out of his personal loyalty and willingness to reach across the aisle. By not pinning down his friend, Republican Anitere Flores, in SD 39, Braynon has allowed a couple of million dollars of Republican money to be freed up and redeployed to other races. Had a poll shown Flores in the slightest bit of trouble, Joe Negron would have spent $5 million to protect his chief lieutenant. Instead, Negron can now spend that money to shore up Dana Young in Senate District 18.

And while not outflanking the Republicans in SD 39, Braynon also left himself exposed on his left after backing the wrong candidates in two Democratic primaries. Braynon’s caucus of one backed Mike Clelland over Linda Stewart in SD 13, and Ed Narain over Darryl Rouson in SD 19. He didn’t spend a lot of money to do it, but Braynon now has two members who he personally tried to block from coming to Tallahassee. Look for both of them to give Braynon fits during the 2017-18 legislative sessions.

The honest truth about Braynon is that he is one of the smartest, most well-liked Democrats to hold the leadership post in a while. He’s O.B. from the press skits video of him and Andy Gardiner cutting it up as the “honest” Senate President.

But the Democrats were given the greatest political gift they’ve received in decades with the Florida Supreme Court’s redistricting ruling. Some political reporters, such as Mary Ellen Klas, speculated the Democrats were in position to pick-up six seats.

However, at the end of the day, they might just pick up just one seat (SD 13). If that’s what constitutes running the best Senate political operation in years, that’s hardly worth recognizing.

SD 13 race pits familiar names as Dems hope to flip seat

This used to be Andy Gardiner country, a Florida Senate district at the heart of GOP power, and now three Democrats are fighting for it like it’s theirs for the taking Tuesday.

Tuesday’s Democratic Florida Senate District 13 primary will pit three former elected officials, all with at least decent name recognition, one of them, former state Rep. Mike Clelland, with enormous amounts of campaign money; one, former state Rep. Linda Stewart, with a legendary ground game; and one, former Orange County School Board Member Rick Roach, with 16 years in the local spotlight.

Because redistricting has changed SD 13, dominated by central and east Orlando, from a strong Republican lean to a moderate Democratic lean, this is one of the Florida Senate districts the Florida Democratic Party thinks it’s most likely to flip this year, and even Gardiner, the outgoing Republican Senate president, has hinted he thinks it will flip.

Standing in the door disagreeing is Realtor Dean Asher, who’s got his own big piles of campaign money and much of Central Florida’s business community behind him. But Asher will have to wait to see which of three very different candidates he’ll have to take on.

“I am the favorite,” to win, Stewart bragged this week.

It’s an odd boast coming from a candidate who has raised just $25,400 for her campaign through Aug. 12, less money than Clelland sometimes collects in a week. Yet Stewart’s name recognition is high and her ground games have long set standards in Orange County, where she was three times elected county commissioner and once as state representative for House District 47.

Roach also calls her the front-runner, and Clelland clearly has recognized her strength, for he and his political action committee, “Common Sense for Central Florida,” have run attack ads focused on Stewart.

Clelland has raised more than $285,000 in his campaign fund and another $452,000 for Common Sense, which is collecting five-figure checks from firefighters’ unions and law firms, representing his background as a career firefighter who went to night law school and became a lawyer. His campaign also is being supported by Christian Ulvert’s Engaged Florida PAC and the Florida Democratic Party, who’ve both run Clelland ads in Orlando.

But Clelland said never mind the money.

“I made 208 phone calls today and then I went knocking on doors,” he said. “That’s what we’re focused on: we’re talking to voters.”

Meanwhile, as Clelland has been attacking Stewart in in TV commercials and mailers, and Stewart has been dismissing Clelland as someone who doesn’t know the district [Clelland moved in this year; he previously represented House District 29 in Seminole County], Roach has been the candidate showing up at every event and drawing crowds of more than 100 to his own town halls.

“I have talked to literally 2,000 people in the last two years in small groups and one-on-one,” Roach said. “I formed my campaign on what they told me.”

The trio agree with Democratic policies on almost all issues, though they’ve clearly quibbled over details, particularly as Clelland and Stewart have traded jabs on gun votes. But each has and focuses on individual strengths: Clelland, with his background in public safety; Stewart with her background as an environmental, women’s issues and community activist; Roach with his background as a school board member and former teacher.

Roach, who’s gotten a number of education-related endorsements from teachers unions to school administrators, combines his understanding of the schools and their challenges with economic themes. His message: strip the schools of much of the testing-prep, turn those test-prep positions, including reading teachers, back into shop classes and technical teachers. Graduate students who can get technical jobs and careers. Increase employment in higher-wage, skilled-labor jobs, reduce impacts on social services, including prisons.

“Once I discovered the talent gap, that I learned from the Chamber of Commerce, once I learned we had over 200,000 job openings, most of which don’t require college education, that pay good wages, I thought, well hell, why don’t we put people in those jobs,” Roach said.

“I know what’s happening in education. We’ve clogged it up with prep courses. So we can’t give kids auto education, construction, heating and plumbing. We’re too concerned about driving up standardized test scores. So if we just simply clean out all the junk in schools and use these tests the way they were designed, you could actually put between 10 and 15 courses in 1,000 high schools that all matched up with those jobs,” he said.

Stewart, whose endorsements have ranged from the National Organization of Women to mental health advocates to environmental groups, and said those represent the issues she’s best known for.

“People do want you to take a stand on assault weapons and no-fly, no-buy, which I have done a number of times,” she said. “People want you to take a stand on women’s issues, anything dealing with any kind of restrictions to abortion, they’re very concerned the government is getting too concerned about their personal lives. They’re also very concerned about the award of Amendment 1 money being diverted.”

Clelland has gotten endorsements from various first responder groups, law firms and a handful of establishment Democrats such as former Orange County Chairwoman Linda Chapin.

“It’s education, health care, Medicaid expansion, and water has resonated, particularly in Orange County, where quantity is as important as quality,” Clelland said. “I think those are the important things. That’s what I’m focused on.”

ABLE United launches, offers tax-free savings for disabled Floridians

Floridians with disabilities will now be able to save up to $100,000 in a tax-free account to pay for their health care, education and job training without jeopardizing their government benefits.

Under a 2015 law, sponsored by Estero Republican Rep. Ray Rodrigues and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, ABLE United launched the program July 1. The state law is the result of the federal Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, a Jacksonville Republican, shepherded through Congress in 2014.

“The mission of ABLE United is to encourage and assist the saving of private funds to help people with disabilities to cover costs that support their health, independence and quality of life,” said Kevin Thompson, director of the program. “Simply put, to have a better life experience.”

Senate President Andy Gardiner, who attended the Capitol news conference with his wife and children, said the savings accounts would help Floridians with “unique abilities,” like his son who has Down syndrome, have more opportunities, ranging from going to school to finding a job.

“ABLE United provides the opportunity for people with unique abilities to save for the future without the concern of losing important state and federal benefits,” Gardiner said.

Under the former law, disabled Floridians could not earn more than $700 a month or have more than $2,000 in assets without the threat of losing benefits like Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid.

The limits led to some “troubling” statistics, Rodrigues said, including the fact that the unemployment rate for the disabled was around 36 percent, and the poverty rate for them was 24 percent in Florida.

Rodrigues, who has a son with cerebral palsy, said many disabled Floridians want to work or otherwise improve their lives, but they were afraid of losing the “safety net” of government support.

“For the benefit of the safety net, you have to accept a life of extreme poverty,” he said.

Through a website,, Floridians with disabilities, like blindness, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis, can create the savings account, which is similar to a federal 529-college savings plan. The law allows up to $14,000 a year to be contributed to the account.

Eligible individuals must be Florida residents and have acquired their disability before age 26.

The money can be used for health, housing, education, employment training, transportation, legal fees and other activities.

Florida is a national leader in the program and is one of three states that have established ABLE savings accounts, said Michael Roush of the National Disability Institute, a nonprofit group whose aim is to lift disabled Americans out of poverty.

Don Gaetz: We don’t need special session for gun control

State Sen. Don Gaetz is telling constituents not to take the special-session-on-gun-control bait.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who was Senate president in 2012-14, sent out an email Monday. It reprinted and linked to an op-ed he wrote for the Northwest Florida Daily News, Okaloosa County’s newspaper. It appeared Sunday.

He wrote on the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 people dead and 53 wounded. The shooter, later killed by police, called 911 to claim allegiance to the Islamic State terror group.

“Though law enforcement investigations are far from concluded, one thing seems clear — the demented and tortured wretch who committed these murders was either inspired by ISIS or wanted the world to believe he was,” Gaetz said.

But his Democratic colleagues in the Senate are pointing to the shooting as the need for a special legislative session to look at gun control in the Sunshine State.

Democratic Sen. Darren Soto of Orlando, who is running for Congress, will hold a press conference Tuesday in Orlando with other lawmakers to detail “their effort to convene a special session to address gun violence,” according to a news release.

“Some Florida state senators are using these killings to draw attention to themselves and their own campaigns for higher office — as if calling for a special legislative session would somehow cure madness, wipe away grief or defang ISIS,” Gaetz wrote. “It does get a politician in the blogs or on the front page for a news cycle or two. But how smarmy.”

Gaetz added that Senate President Andy Gardiner, a fellow Republican “who has lived in Orlando his entire life, isn’t taking the special session bait. He’s far too sensible.”

To the contrary, “huddling up a bunch of breathless legislators in Tallahassee to snap-pass laws banning guns won’t stop some terrorism-inspired human tool from building a bomb out of fertilizer or shopping the robust weapons black markets … ,” he said.

“… I surely hope we can resist allowing this tragedy to be exploited as just a slot into which politicians can jam their own agendas,’ added Gaetz, who is term-limited and leaving the Senate at the end of this year.

Soto could not be immediately reached for comment.

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