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For Red Cross, hurricanes bring both donations and criticism

Confronted with back-to-back major hurricanes, the American Red Cross has received a huge outpouring of financial support — and a simultaneous barrage of criticism based on its struggles to respond to several past disasters.

To date, combined donations to the Red Cross for hurricanes Harvey and Irma have topped $300 million. Former President Barack Obama tweeted a link to a Red Cross fundraising site. Many pro sports teams, celebrities and major corporations have announced large donations.

Yet even in the early stages of the response to Harvey in Texas, a #NoRedCross hashtag circulated widely on Twitter. Some prominent journalists wrote articles suggesting that people should not donate to the organization. The New York Times, in an editorial, urged prospective donors to be skeptical.

“Its record on large-scale operations is spotty,” said the editorial, asserting that “there has been less accountability than Americans might expect emanating from its grand marble headquarters in Washington.”

The criticism has been stinging to Red Cross volunteers, many of whom have taken to social media to rebut the negative commentary.

“I worry that our volunteers need to feel appreciated,” Red Cross President Gail McGovern said in a telephone interview. “After 12-hour shifts, they come back to their hotel really exhausted. They don’t want to read this stuff.”

Some local officials in Texas and Florida have complained about glitches in the Red Cross response to Harvey and Irma, while others have expressed thanks. But much of the current mistrust of the Red Cross arises from the aftermath of other major disasters over the past 16 years.

After the 2001 terror attacks, the Red Cross irked many donors by earmarking some 9/11 gifts for unrelated purposes, including future needs. It was widely criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and afterward acknowledged problems that included overwhelmed volunteers, inadequate anti-fraud measures and too few strong partnerships with local charities and civic groups.

More recently, investigative reporting by Pro Publica and National Public Radio made the case that the Red Cross responses to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 were flawed in multiple ways. One key allegation was that the Red Cross failed to adequately document how it was spending the $488 million it raised for its work in Haiti.

Last year, the Red Cross posted a detailed breakdown of its spending in Haiti. But that did not deter some critics from using social media as the new hurricanes arrived to post Haiti-related headlines like this: “How Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars and Built Only Six Homes.”

“People are repeating and retweeting this stuff instead of taking time to research,” said McGovern, a former professor of marketing at Harvard who took over as Red Cross president in 2008 after years of rapid leadership turnover.

McGovern said she took solace in evidence of continued public support — the strong flow of donations and the signing up of about 40,000 new volunteers during the hurricanes. The organization ran scores of emergency shelters in Texas and the Southeast and says it already has provided more than $45 million in financial assistance to more than 100,000 hurricane-stricken households in Texas.

For both Harvey and Irma, the Red Cross is among the hurricane-response groups recommended by Charity Navigator, a watchdog group that rates charities on their finances and transparency. On the Charity Navigator website, several hundred comments about the Red Cross were posted, including visceral exchanges between supporters and critics.

Charity Navigator’s president, Michael Thatcher, says the Red Cross “is under pretty intense scrutiny” and he hopes the result is improved accountability.

“It’s a hard job to be able to ramp up quickly and deploy volunteer resources and expert resources at the drop of a hat,” he said. “Are they perfect? No. I would love to see them do better, but I definitely want them to hang around.”

Bob Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, urged the Red Cross to be as specific as possible in explaining how emergency donations will be spent, both short-term and long-term.

“Part of why the Red Cross got in difficulty is they’re raising money in such large quantities they can’t use it all for the reasons people gave it,” he said.

Another source of concern to some critics is McGovern’s salary of just over $500,000. The Red Cross defends it as being in the normal range for leaders of major national nonprofits.

In the wake of various past controversies, the Government Accountability Office issued a detailed report about the Red Cross in 2015, recommending that Congress establish some sort of federally overseen process for regular, independent evaluations of Red Cross disaster services. The Red Cross contended that existing evaluation mechanisms were adequate, and the GAO’s proposal has not been implemented.

Congress chartered the Red Cross in 1900 to play a central role in responding to domestic and international disasters, though it does not receive federal funding for this purpose on a regular basis.

McGovern says the Red Cross wants to be as transparent as possible about its handling of donations. It’s too early now to outline long-term plans for the Harvey and Irma donations, but that issue will be broached in a one-month-later report, she said.

In Houston, more than 50 groups, local and national, are raising money for recovery from Harvey. The distrust of established organizations like the Red Cross has driven many donors to new initiatives. Notably, Houston Texans star J.J. Watt has raised more than $30 million for his foundation, largely through appeals on his social media accounts.

The Red Cross remains dominant, raising more than $200 million on its own for Harvey relief. About $40 million has gone to a local fund set up by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County’s top official, Judge Ed Emmett. They openly urge donors to forego contributions to the Red Cross.

Emmett blames the Red Cross for problems that arose with setting up and running the emergency shelters used by tens of thousands of people flooded out of their homes.

The major shelter for several days was the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. Originally setting a capacity of 5,000 people, the Red Cross ended up with double that number in three days. It ran out of cots. Some people slept on strips of cardboard or the floor until more cots arrived. Others said they were not getting enough food.

David Brady, CEO of the Red Cross for the Texas Gulf Coast region, said the group’s volunteers and staff were doing the best they could during a chaotic and unprecedented storm. Many Red Cross volunteers slept on cots at the shelter themselves.

“There are challenges that we and everyone else faced during the storm,” Brady said. “We always look at how we can serve better.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

`Dreamers’ decision creates dilemma for Republicans

President Donald Trump‘s decision to do away with his predecessor’s policy that benefited hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” has put Florida Republicans in a bind.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday that the Trump administration intends to do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a policy implemented by former President Barack Obama in 2012 that shields from deportation young people who were brought to the country by their parents as children.

Trump gave Congress six months to come up with an alternative solution before his administration begins phasing out the policy, which affects about 800,000 people.

“To have a lawful system of immigration … we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. It’s just that simple,” Sessions told reporters.

The announcement from the Trump administration coincided with a deadline in a lawsuit from 10 attorneys general challenging Obama’s executive order that was the basis for the program. Florida is not among those states.

But the Trump administration announcement poses a dilemma for Republican politicians in the Sunshine State, which is home to At  least 30,000 people who could be affected and is the base for exponentially more Hispanic voters who could be critical to next year’s elections.

Gov. Rick Scott, a close ally of Trump who is widely expected to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year, on Friday issued a statement indicating his support for “dreamers” that stopped short of condemning the president.

Scott said Obama was “wrong to address the dreamers issue by executive order.” But, the governor added, “I do not favor punishing children for the actions of their parents.”

Republicans running for governor were split on the issue, with state Sen. Jack Latvala, who has a long history of supporting “dreamers,” decrying Trump’s policy decision in anticipation of the president’s announcement.

“We must lead with a compassionate heart, not by punishing children. Florida is a diverse state and our economic success depends on a strong diverse workforce. If DACA ends in 6 months, it will have a disastrous impact not only on hundreds of thousands of bright, promising young people but also on our business climate,” Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, said Monday.

Latvala was a sponsor of a 2014 measure that allowed “dreamers” to pay in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who is considering a run for governor, took a more hardline approach in a statement released shortly after Session’s Tuesday’ morning press conference, saying Trump “made the right decision.”

“The rule of law is the rule of law and no one should be above it. Anything less would have been a tacit acceptance of President Obama’s backdoor amnesty plan for illegal immigrants,” Corcoran said. “Yes, this is a difficult decision given those who are involved. But make no mistake, two wrongs do not make a right. This illegal immigration mess we are in today is because of apologists consistently opposing every sensible idea to secure the border and constantly demanding we reward illegal behavior with citizenship. The American people are left with no choice but to enforce the law to its fullest extent.”

In advance of Tuesday’s announcement, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Palm Coast Republican who is also mulling a bid for governor, said in a Facebook post: “DACA is unconstitutional and the president is duty-bound to rescind it.”

The issue could force Florida GOP candidates, trying to appeal to base voters in advance of next year’s elections, to walk a tightrope in a state where Trump handily won the Republican primary and defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in November’s general election.

Major parts of the business community – a powerful interest group for Republican candidates – support DACA, while Trump’s base voters back the president’s tougher immigration approach, said Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner.

“That’s a difficult chasm for Republicans statewide to navigate, to draw those Republican portions of the electorate together,” Wagner said.

Political consultant Wayne Bertsch, who specializes in GOP state legislative races, predicted that some Republican candidates “are going to have to do a tap dance” in response to Trump’s recall of the policy.

Bertsch pointed out that the GOP-dominated Legislature has already approved the measure that allowed “dreamers” to pay in-state tuition.

“While it was a lengthy debate, they passed it and the governor signed it,” Bertsch said. “I think Florida Republicans have defined themselves as, `We’re compassionate. We don’t need to be deporting these children … back to a country where their parents came from but they have no relationship to.’ ”

While Trump’s policy “is going to make some of them cringe,” Bertsch said he doesn’t believe Trump’s policy shift regarding DACA will harm Florida Republicans, regardless of their positions.

“We didn’t see any Republicans in the last primary or general elections lose because they supported dreamers,” Bertsch said.

But for Jack Oliver, the founder of Floridians for E-verify Now and the legislative director of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, there’s no wiggle-room for GOP candidates.

“A lot of these candidates run on being hardliners on immigration and then they get in and then they forget what they said, or they get influenced by the Chamber of Commerce or others,” Oliver, a 67-year-old who lives in North Palm Beach, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. “It’s just been a big disappointment for a lot of voters.”

While he and his cohorts recognize that the DACA situation “is a complicated one,” Oliver said that “our immigration laws were made to protect Americans,” who are now suffering from “the unintended consequences of leaving our borders open.”

Trump’s decision gives Congress six months to come up with a new DACA plan, effectively buying time not only for the president but also for incumbent GOP representatives as well as candidates who may be loath to criticize a president who remains popular with the Republican base, the voters who show up en masse in mid-term elections like Florida’s governor’s race next year.

“I think all that happened today is you may get a barometer for those who are extra-extreme to the right on immigration as opposed to those who are more right of center. For everyone else, the president did what he promised,” said David Custin, a Miami-based Republican strategist.

But Custin warned of problems if Congress doesn’t act.

“If they don’t do something on DACA, lives are going to get ruined,” Custin said. “People are going to suffer or risk being deported.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

 

Rick Scott on DACA: ‘Congress has got to start to act’

Rick Scott let it be known late last Friday he is not supporting his friend Donald Trump‘s decision to rescind the immigration order of former President Barack Obama that shields some children of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

But now that it’s happened, the Florida governor says it’s time for Congress to act.

“These were individuals who came here; they were brought here by somebody else. They all need to have the opportunity to pursue the American dream,” Scott told reporters after FloridaPolitics.com asked him about his reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcement that the Trump administration was ending what is known as DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by Obama in 2012.

In the five years since DACA was enacted, the nearly 800,000 individuals who have received the protections have started families, pursued careers and studied in schools and universities across the United States. The business and education communities at large have joined Democrats and many moderate Republicans in supporting the program, including Gov. Scott.

Scott noted that he is a stickler against illegal immigration, but said this was different.

“Look, I believe in enforcing our immigration laws,” he said. “I believe we have to secure our borders; I believe that we shouldn’t have sanctuary cities. But these are individuals who came here not on their own.”

As he said in his news release issued Friday night, Scott said he supports legislation sponsored by Miami Dade Republican Carlos Curbelo in the House and North Carolina’s Tom Tillis in the Senate that would provide a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

“I want these individuals to have the chance to pursue their dreams,” Scott said of those who could be deported with DACA being rescinded. He said the Curbelo/Tillis bill “makes some sense” but said it needs to go through Congress, not the White House as the original DACA policy was called for by Obama.

“Congress has got to start acting,” Scott said.” They’ve got to secure our borders. They’ve got to come up with an immigration policy that works.”

Andrew Gillum says an end to DACA would be ‘moral stain’

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum joined the call to save the program allowing young, undocumented immigrants to stay in America, charging that President Donald Trump‘s anticipated repeal of DACA would be a “moral stain.”

Anticipating Trump will end the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals begun by former President Barack Obama, Democrats have been pushing for weeks to raise awareness of young adults who were brought without visas to America as young children, or who have overstayed their visas while growing up, and the program that allows them to stay under certain conditions.

The Florida Democratic Party also issued a pro-DACA statement Thursday.

The pro-DACA efforts have included numerous meetings this month between Democratic lawmakers and local immigrants who are enrolled in or eligible for the program.

Fox News is reporting Thursday that Trump is expected to repeal the program any day.

Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, promised on Thursday that as governor he would do everything he could to protect those called “DREAMers,” named after the “Development Relief And Education For Alien Minors” bills filed several times by pro-immigration members of Congress in recent years.

“If they follow through, the White House’s decision to end DACA is a moral stain on this country,” Gillum declared in a statement issued Thursday by his campaign.

“These Dreamers have only ever called one country home: the United States of America. They are our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers,” Gillum continued. “They represent a vibrant thread of our nation’s patchwork, and forcing more than 800,000 of them to leave the country, including more than 100,000 Floridians, will be a moral stain this Administration cannot erase. I promise to do everything I can to continue protecting these young Americans here in Florida.”

The Democrats statement read: “The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program embodies the best of America. Our country is stronger when hardworking families and young people can make meaningful contributions to our economy and society. America is the only home these young immigrants know. Ending DACA without an appropriate legislative solution would devastate Florida’s economy and the thousands of DREAMers who live, work, and study here. This would be a cruel and reckless decision by Donald Trump. Rather than tear families apart to score political points, the White House should work to implement bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform.”

Hillsborough lawmakers call on state and feds to reject Medicaid, CHIP cuts

Hillsborough County Democratic lawmakers Wednesday called on Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-led Congress to reject potential cuts to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

President Donald Trump’s budget plans unveiled earlier this year would reduce the Children’s Health Insurance Program by at least 20 percent over the next two fiscal years and slash Medicaid, which covers millions of children.

Hillsborough County officials and the children who would be directly affected by those cuts, spoke out against the proposals at a news conference at Robles Park Village in South Seminole Heights on Wednesday afternoon in an event sponsored by the group Organize Florida.

Congress enacted the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997 as a more modest and more bipartisan expansion of federally funded insurance than compared with the failed bid of Bill and Hillary Clinton for universal health care in 1994.

George W. Bush vetoed efforts to increase the program’s reach, but Democrats succeeded in expanding it once Barack Obama took office in 2009 and again a year later as part of the Affordable Care Act. The Obama administration and Republican congressional leaders struck a deal in 2015 to reauthorize the program, which by then had been credited with helping reduce the uninsured rate among children from nearly 14 percent two decades ago to under 4.5 percent.

The Trump administration official told the New York Times Thursday that the administration wants Congress to provide money the CHIP program.

Tampa Democratic Representative Kathy Castor said that Congress had to recommit to extend the CHIP program by the end of September. She said that has to happen first, or else Governor Scott and the Legislature could then begin cutting kids from the state health care rolls.

House Minority Leader Janet Cruz says she grew up in a family where her single mother couldn’t afford to take her to the dentist as a youth with a severe toothache.

“We tried to figure out all kinds of different things to make the pain go away, and one of the number one causes of absenteeism in schools is toothaches,” she said.

Cruz said one out of every two children in Florida receives their health care through Florida KidCare. She said the program was “fundamental to fulfilling our moral obligation of ensuring that a child’s ability to access health care doesn’t vary by the size of their parents’ paycheck.

“Governor Scott, go pick on somebody your own size and stop picking on these kids!” she said to applause.

“All my life, I’ve received health care through Medicaid,” says Isabelle Hall, 17, a student at Hillsborough High School. “Without this essential service, my teeth would have rotted in my skull because of a lack of dental care. Without the psychological resources provided by Medicaid, my depression and anxiety issues would have made my life exponentially more burdensome.”

“My mother provides for me as a single parent,” she adds, “but Medicaid helps her fill in the gaps when her bi-weekly paycheck is parceled out into every bill due that month until barely anything remains.”

Low-income children are covered by a complicated mix that only the state why they leave it to the leave it to the individual of programs. Medicaid covers 37 million children. The Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, has 8.9 million enrolled. Together, these two programs cover about one in three American children, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Hillsborough County School District receives up to $12 million annually in Medicaid reimbursement payments, according to school board member Tamara Shamburger. Those funds are used to Medicaid eligible services to students for speech therapies, psychological and counseling services, and providing assistance to students managing their diabetes.

“The loss of this funding does not lower our cost to provide these mandated services, neither does it lessen our obligation,” she said.

“I suffer from sickle cells. It is a problem, and it’s difficult to deal without Medicaid,” said Germanique Canyon, 20. “I’m coming before all of you to ask Governor Rick Scott to please just leave Medicaid for Florida.”

Samantha Underwood, 16, attends Hillsborough High School. She suffers from asthma, allergies and eczema, and had a word for politicians who often talk about “the children.”

“As they’re running for everything, they’re saying it’s all about the youth, but when they get in, they want to take from the youth, and that’s really unacceptable,” she said.

“It would be devastating for state spending if these federal dollars were to go away,” said St. Petersburg Democratic state Sen. Darryl Rouson.

Donald Trump order undermines rebuilding better for future floods

Two weeks before Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed much of Houston, President Donald Trump quietly rolled back an order by his predecessor that would have made it easier for storm-ravaged communities to use federal emergency aid to rebuild bridges, roads and other structures so they can better withstand future disasters.

Now, with much of the nation’s fourth-largest city underwater, Trump’s move has new resonance. Critics note the president’s order could force Houston and other cities to rebuild hospitals and highways in the same way and in the same flood-prone areas.

“Rebuilding while ignoring future flood events is like treating someone for lung cancer and then giving him a carton of cigarettes on the way out the door,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental and climate change law at Columbia University. “If you’re going to rebuild after a bad event, you don’t want to expose yourself to the same thing all over again.”

Trump’s action is one of several ways the president, who has called climate change a hoax, has tried to wipe away former President Barack Obama’s efforts to make the United States more resilient to threats posed by the changing climate.

President Donald Trump says “all of America” is grieving with those who lost loved ones because of Hurricane Harvey. And he told victims of the storm, the nation will be with them. (Aug. 30)

The order Trump revoked would have permitted the rebuilding to take into account climate scientists’ predictions of stronger storms and more frequent flooding.

Bridges and highways, for example, could be rebuilt higher, or with better drainage. The foundation of a new fire station or hospital might be elevated an extra 3 feet.

While scientists caution against blaming specific weather events like Harvey on climate change, warmer air and warmer water linked to global warming have long been projected to make such storms wetter and more intense. Houston, for example, has experienced three floods in three years that statistically were once considered 1-in-500-year events.

The government was still in the process of implementing Obama’s 2015 order when it was rescinded. That means the old standard — rebuilding storm-ravaged facilities in the same way they had been built before — is still in place.

Trump revoked Obama’s order as part of an executive order of his own that he touted at an Aug. 15 news conference at Trump Tower. That news conference was supposed to focus on infrastructure, but it was dominated by Trump’s comments on the previous weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump didn’t specifically mention the revocation, but he said he was making the federal permitting process for the construction of transportation and other infrastructure projects faster and more cost-efficient without harming the environment.

“It’s going to be quick, it’s going to be a very streamlined process,” Trump said.

Asked about the revocation, the White House said in a statement that Obama’s order didn’t consider potential impacts on the economy and was “applied broadly to the whole country, leaving little room or flexibility for designers to exercise professional judgment or incorporate the particular context” of a project’s location.

Obama’s now-defunct order also revamped Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, calling for tighter restrictions on new construction in flood-prone areas. Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, opposed the measure, saying it would impede land development and economic growth.

Revoking that order was only the latest step by Trump to undo Obama’s actions on climate change.

In March, Trump rescinded a 2013 order that directed federal agencies to encourage states and local communities to build new infrastructure and facilities “smarter and stronger” in anticipation of more frequent extreme weather.

Trump revoked a 2015 Obama memo directing agencies developing national security policies to consider the potential impact of climate change.

The president also disbanded two advisory groups created by Obama: the interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Obama’s 2015 order was prompted in part by concerns raised by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper after severe flooding in his state two years earlier. Hickenlooper was dismayed to learn that federal disaster aid rules were preventing state officials from rebuilding “better and smarter than what we had built before.”

The “requirements essentially said you had to build it back exactly the way it was, that you couldn’t take into consideration improvements in resiliency,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said Tuesday. “We want to be more prepared for the next event, not less prepared.”

Bud Wright, the Federal Highway Administration’s executive director during George W. Bush’s administration, said this has long been a concern of federal officials.

He recalled a South Dakota road that was “almost perpetually flooded” but was repeatedly rebuilt to the same standard using federal aid because the state didn’t have the extra money to pay for enhancements.

“It seemed a little ridiculous that we kept doing that,” said Wright, now the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ executive director.

But Kirk Steudle, director of Michigan’s Department of Transportation, said states can build more resilient infrastructure than what they had before a disaster by using state or non-emergency federal funds to make up the cost difference.

“That makes sense, otherwise FEMA would be the big checkbook,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Everybody would be hoping for some disaster so FEMA could come in and build them a brand-new road to the 2020 standard instead of the 1970 standard.”

Even though Obama’s order has been revoked, federal officials have some wiggle room that might allow them to rebuild to higher standards, said Jessica Grannis, who manages the adaptation program at the Georgetown Climate Center.

If local building codes in place before the storm call for new construction to be more resilient to flooding, then federal money can still be used to pay the additional costs.

For example, in Houston regulations require structures to be rebuilt 1 foot (30 centimeters) above the level designated for a 1-in-100-year storm. And in the wake of prior disasters, FEMA has moved to remap floodplains, setting the line for the 1-in-100-year flood higher than it was before.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump’s turn to face tricky politics of natural disasters

George W. Bush never recovered from his flyover of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Barack Obama got a bipartisan boost late in his re-election campaign for his handling of Superstorm Sandy.

Now, President Donald Trump confronts the political risks and potential gains that come with leading the federal government’s response to a deadly and destructive natural disaster. Hurricane Harvey, the massive storm that has dumped torrents of rain across Texas — flooding Houston and other cities — is the first major natural disaster of Trump’s presidency, and the yet-to-be-determined scope of the damage appears likely to require a years-long federal project.

Trump, who is suffering through a long stretch of low approval ratings, has been particularly eager to seize the moment. He will visit Texas Tuesday — and may return to the region again on Saturday. The White House announced the first visit even before Harvey made landfall. On Monday, Trump promised Texans will “have what you need” and that federal funding would come “fast.”

“We will come out stronger and believe me, we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before,” Trump said Monday during a White House news conference. Trump was scheduled to be briefed on relief efforts with local leaders and relief organizations during a stop in Corpus Christi, then touring the state emergency operations center in Austin and receiving a briefing on the storm before returning to Washington.

The president’s unconventional style has still oozed out. Trump sent about two dozen tweets about the storm since Friday, marveling at the size of the hurricane and cheering on emergency responders: “You are doing a great job — the world is watching!”

Indeed, he argued Monday he specifically timed his controversial pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to capitalize on all the viewers tuned into storm coverage. The Friday night pardon wasn’t an attempt to hide the news, he said: “I assumed the ratings would be higher.”

Trump advisers are well-aware that the hurricane poses a significant test for the White House, which has largely been mired in crises of its own making during Trump’s first seven months in office, including the president’s widely criticized response to white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump, who ran a real estate business and starred in a reality show before taking office, has no experience in the kinds of recovery efforts that will be required in Texas and has struggled at times to show competency in governing.

Administrations often tread carefully in planning visits to disaster-ravaged areas. Mobilizing a president, his staff and his security is an enormous logistical undertaking and can pull local law enforcement resources away from the disaster recovery efforts. But Trump hasn’t been cowed.

Aides said it was Trump who pushed for the White House to make his desire to travel to Texas known early. He won’t be visiting Houston, where flooding has wreaked havoc on the nation’s fourth-largest city. Instead, he is meeting with local leadership and relief organizations in Corpus Christi, then visiting the state’s emergency operations center in Austin.

“Conditions haven’t cleared in Houston yet so probably not appropriate for him to go up there, probably not safe for him to go up there,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. “But I do think having your own eyes on the devastation that I have seen is important.”

The optics of a president’s initial response to a natural disaster can be long-lasting.

Bush was haunted by his now-infamous declaration that then-FEMA Director Michael Brown was doing “a heckuva job” — a statement that appeared wildly off base after the full scope of the devastation became clear. Images of Bush peering down at the flooding in New Orleans from Air Force One also furthered the impression that he was detached from the horrific conditions on the ground.

“He understands why that picture became a metaphor,” said Dana Perino, who was serving as deputy White House spokeswoman at the time.

Trump has played storm politics before. During his campaign, he rushed to Louisiana, in his signature “Make America Great Again” hat, to view damage from massive flooding. Trump made it to the battered neighborhoods before Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and while President Barack Obama was vacationing.

“We’re glad you’re not playing golf at Martha’s Vineyard,” one woman told him, a jab at Obama.

“Somebody is, somebody is that shouldn’t be,” Trump replied.

Over the weekend, Trump offered a sunny assessment of the response efforts while the rain was still pouring down on Houston and other Texas towns. He cited the “great coordination between agencies at all levels of government” and declared, “We have an all-out effort going, and going well!”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has so far praised the federal response to Hurricane Harvey, which has been blamed for at least three confirmed deaths. But with nearly 2 more feet of rain expected, authorities worried whether the worst was yet to come.

On its own, a successful federal response to Hurricane Harvey is unlikely to reshape Trump’s presidency. But with his approval rating perilously low, it could help Trump convince some Americans that he has the capability to lead the nation through difficult moments.

Trump’s predecessors have also benefited from the political opportunities that can arise after natural disasters.

When Superstorm Sandy barreled across the East Coast days before the 2012 election, Obama paused his campaign to monitor the federal response from Washington. He traveled to hard-hit New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a strong supporter of the president’s rival, lavished praise on Obama.

Obama advisers said then that while they didn’t believe the president’s Sandy efforts were a deciding factor in the election, the praise he received from Republicans was helpful in the midst of a highly partisan campaign.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Barack Obama endorses Rick Kriseman’s re-election

Former President Barack Obama is throwing his support behind St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Obama’s rare intervention in a Florida nonpartisan municipal race is an effort to boost Democratic turnout days before a primary that will likely force a runoff in November.

In the late summer contest, Kriseman’s support has wavered among African-Americans, a group that helped propel him to victory in 2013. By putting his thumb on the scales, Obama will likely help Kriseman among blacks and ensure the incumbent will survive to a runoff.

The Florida Democratic Party is also desperate for a win in St. Petersburg, after a streak of losses in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the Sunshine State last year, where he edged Hillary Clinton by a single percentage point. Florida represented a crucial win for Trump on the path to the presidency.

Trump has historic unfavorability among St. Peterburg voters, with just 37 percent approving and 61 percent disapproving of the president. In contrast, Obama is well-liked, with 61 percent approval, with 35 percent disapproving.

Among African-American voters, Obama’s approval is solid at 92-8 percent.

Kriseman has become a top priority of the FDP, with Democrats linking the unpopular Trump to Republican candidate Rick Baker, the former two-term St. Petersburg mayor who has led the race since entering in May. Recent polling puts Baker within reach of 50 percent in the primary, giving him the seat outright.

During the campaign, Baker has been coy about his support of Trump, refusing to discuss whether he voted for the real estate mogul. Democrats have latched onto Baker’s reticence, pointing out Kriseman’s history of blasting Trump — most famously by “barring” the president-elect from St. Petersburg in a December tweet.

“Mayor Rick Kriseman stands up to Donald Trump,” a new Democratic mailer this week proclaims. “When Donald Trump speaks out … Rick Baker’s silence speaks volumes.”

In backing Kriseman, Obama said it was over policy: “From raising the minimum wage and fighting for equality, to bold leadership on climate change, Rick was a great ally on the priorities of my administration. I strongly endorse Rick Kriseman as the only choice for continued progress for St. Petersburg” applauding Kriseman for working on the “big challenges to move St. Pete forward.”

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s primary, Kriseman has bolstered his support among black voters, according to the FDP. Internal polls show Kriseman narrowing the gap with Baker to 3 percent, up from a double-digit deficit last month.

“The reality is Obama is popular in this district, and Trump is toxic,” one Democratic source told POLITICO Florida. “All we have to do is get this to a runoff. We need this win.”

“I am incredibly honored to have the support of President Barack Obama as we continue our work of moving St. Pete forward,” Kriseman responded in a statement Friday. “President Obama’s leadership had a positive impact on our city. His historic election inspired us. His governance helped us to rebound from a Great Recession, made health care more available and affordable, and expanded opportunity and equality for countless Americans. From ending veteran homelessness to combating climate change, it has been my privilege to champion his priorities and apply them at the local level.”

Kriseman noted that, as a state Representative, he was one of the first elected officials in Florida to endorse then-Senator Obama for president in 2007. As a long shot at the time, Obama lost to Clinton in Florida the following year.

As mayor, Kriseman worked on several priorities of the White House, including veteran homelessness, increased minimum wage and offering paid parental leave for city workers. He also vowed to uphold the standards of the Paris climate accord after Trump pulled out of the agreement earlier this year.

Obama has made only one other mayoral endorsement, in Los Angeles for incumbent Eric Garcetti, who was already comfortably ahead at the time. Obama’s other notable post-presidency support was for Emmanuel Macron in France’s presidential race. While there are no plans for the former president to stump for Kriseman in the general election, it is certain Obama’s support will be a major talking point on the campaign trail.

On Friday, the FDP highly praised Obama’s endorsement, calling it “more grassroots energy to a campaign on the rise,” adding it comes along with a “significant investment” of Party resources. “With the President behind us, Florida Democrats will continue organizing and redouble their efforts to ensure that bold progressives like Mayor Kriseman are elected.”

From a release:

With Democrats around the country energized and ready to resist the Trump White House, the former President’s endorsement will galvanize the fired-up grassroots movement growing across the state. Democratic Mayor Rick Kriseman is currently running for reelection against a former two-term Republican mayor being backed by major Trump and GOP donors. An endorsement by the Democratic Party’s most recognizable standard-bearer will serve to energize the Democratic base.

Democrats from around the country are organizing and rising up against the harmful Trump administration. Grassroots enthusiasm is growing and the Rick Kriseman re-election campaign has seen a wave of Democratic activism from residents determined to continue moving their community forward.

For Democratic activists who have been on the ground campaigning for Kriseman since early April, the president’s endorsement offers fresh vitality and a renewed sense of mission.

“President Obama’s endorsement affirms Mayor Kriseman’s strong record of progressive accomplishments that have helped move St. Pete forward. On climate change, criminal justice reform and building an economy that works for everyone — Mayor Kriseman has been at the forefront. With the President behind us, Florida Democrats will continue organizing and redouble their efforts to ensure that bold progressives like Mayor Kriseman are elected. Every single voter counts and we have the power to change our country, one conversation, and one election at a time.” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel.

President Obama’s support comes in addition to a significant investment of resources by the Florida Democratic Party as well as endorsements from other top Democrats including U.S. Senator Bill NelsonCongressman Charlie Crist and State House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz.

This endorsement in Florida’s fourth largest city, signals a party on the rise and a serious commitment to electing Democrats up and down the ballot.

Donald Trump to skip Kennedy Center Honors awards program

In a break with tradition, President Donald Trump and the first lady have decided not to participate in events for this year’s Kennedy Center Honors arts awards so honorees can celebrate “without any political distraction,” the White House announced Saturday.

The Kennedy Center said it respected Trump’s decision and the show will go on.

Past presidents and first ladies traditionally host a White House reception in the hours before the Kennedy Center gala, which they would then watch from seats high above the stage. This year’s honors are to be awarded Dec. 3.

The Trumps reached their decision Friday, said a White House official who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

It was made the same day that the entire membership of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned to protest Trump’s comments about last weekend’s demonstrations by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president has blamed “many sides” for the violence that left an anti-racism activist dead.

Trump has had a long and contentious relationship with the arts world and some Kennedy Center honorees, who are being recognized for lifetime achievement in their fields, already had said they would not attend the White House reception.

One honoree, television writer and producer Norman Lear, had also questioned whether Trump would want to attend the gala, “given his indifference or worse regarding the arts and humanities.”

Trump has recommended defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Dancer Carmen de Lavallade said on her website this week she was honored to be recognized, but would not go to Trump’s White House.

“In light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our existing leadership is choosing to engage in, and in keeping with the principles that I and so many others have fought for, I will be declining the invitation to attend the reception at the White House,” she said.

Singer Gloria Estefan earlier had said that she would set her personal politics aside to accept the honor, now in its 40th year. She said the image of a Cuban immigrant, like herself, being honored is important when Latino immigrants in particular have “taken a beating in the recent past.”

Estefan once hosted a Democratic fundraiser attended by President Barack Obama. She said she and her husband, Emilio, are not affiliated with a political party.

The other honorees are hip-hop artist LL Cool J, who had yet to say whether he would attend the White House reception, and singer Lionel Richie, who described himself as a maybe. Representatives for both celebrities did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.

Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein and President Deborah F. Rutter said they respect Trump’s decision.

“In choosing not to participate in this year’s Honors activities, the administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the Honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the honorees. We are grateful for this gesture” they said in a joint statement.

The honorees, announced earlier this month, will be celebrated at a Kennedy Center gala in December, featuring performances and tributes from top entertainers that will be nationally televised. A traditional State Department reception and awards dinner Dec. 2 will be held as planned.

Rubenstein and Rutter said all five honorees were expected at both events.

The White House said Trump and first lady Melania Trump “extend their sincerest congratulations and well wishes to all of this year’s award recipients for their many accomplishments.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Senate Republicans’ Spanish ad says Bill Nelson ‘supports murderers’

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is being targeted in a new Spanish-language radio commercial accusing him of being soft on Cuba and for expressing admiration for former Venezuela dictator Hugo Chávez, and charging he supports murderers.

The 30-second spot from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, playing in the Miami market, also contends that Nelson’s actions offer encouragement to current Venezuelan Dictator Nicolas Maduro, who took over after Chavez’ death in 2013.

As Maduro oversaw an election marked by violence and deaths of protesters while international and opposition observers decried the vote as a sham in recent weeks, Nelson has issued several strong statements condemning Maduro.

Nelson’s campaign spokesman Ryan Brown called the ads “untrue” and “thinly-veiled attempt to distract from Gov. Rick Scott‘s record. Scott is raising money for a presumed challenge of Nelson in the 2018 election.

“These ads are untrue. Sen. Nelson is one of the strongest opponents of the Maduro and Castro regimes. In fact, the Miami Herald has called Nelson one of Chavez’s fiercest critics. And earlier this month Nelson called on President Trump to ban at least some imports of Venezuelan oil until constitutional order has been restored in Venezuela,” Brown said in a written statement. “These attacks against Nelson’s anti-Castro, anti-Maduro record are false and nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to try to distract people from Rick Scott’s decision to flip-flop on doing business with Goldman Sachs, which is currently doing business with an arm of the Maduro regime.”

Yet the radio ad, which plays like a radio news report, notes that Florida’s senior senator has taken other steps that suggest support.

“In the past, he has aligned himself with communists and dictators. Look at him with Cuba. He supported [President Barack] Obama when he negotiated with the other terrorists, the Castro brothers,” the narrator states in Spanish, with a sound effect that sounds like him flipping pages of notes on a desk.

“When Nelson supports the Castros, that only reinforces and encourages others, like it did with Chavez and now with Maduro. In 2005, Bill Nelson even visited Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Here it says Nelson went to Venezuela to admire Chavez’s revolution,” the narrator continues.

“If Bill Nelson supports murderers, I can’t support Bill Nelson,” the ad concludes.

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