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Mike Suarez

Mike Suarez talks Tampa—but not own political future

Like most of his colleagues, Mike Suarez will soon be heading into his final year on the Tampa City Council—he’s term-limited in 2019.

But the 54-year-old West Tampa native and District 1 councilman is considered to be set on staying in city government once his term ends. How? By becoming the next mayor, succeeding a similarly term-limited Bob Buckhorn.

If Suarez does decide to run for mayor in 2019, it could be a crowded field, with former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, former Police Chief Jane Castor, philanthropist David Straz and fellow councilman Harry Cohen all possibly being in the mix.

With that election still more than 14 months away, however, there wasn’t any discussion of future ambitions when Suarez addressed a crowd gathered at the Oxford Exchange for Café Con Tampa on Friday morning.

Instead the talk focused primarily on quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods, particularly transportation.

“Most of our lives are spent about three miles in radius to our own homes,” he said. “That sense of community, that sense of place, is something that we need to continue to do.”

But Suarez was dismissive of an announcement Thursday by Republican lawmakers Jamie Grant and Dana Young about a bill that could provide millions of dollars to the area for non-rail related projects.

“In their mind, the only technology that matters is autonomous vehicle, and some other things,” Suarez said. “I think we need to be a more efficient and smarter city, we have to invest in those things that deal with how we get around, where we have to park, and using technology to make it easier for us.”

He said he wants to encourage efforts with city engineers to make Tampa a more walkable city, saying transpiration is ultimately about “the freedom that you have.”

And that’s only possible with more information that city officials can provide, he added: “That’s much less expensive … than try to invest in an argument about which is the best investment.”

Tampa has a sorry reputation when it comes to the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists. And Suarez said that reputation is well deserved.

“Almost everywhere you go it’s extremely dangerous to walk. That’s ridiculous,” he said. “And that’s why when we talk about transportation, we talk about large projects … we need to do things like make our sidewalks better, and wider, and easier to walk.”

Suarez said he was OK with reducing the speed limit on Bayshore Boulevard from 40 mph to 35, but says there needs to be more enforcement since many motorists go well above the current speed limit everyday.

Suarez was asked by several in the audience about affordable housing. He said he hoped to “convince” developers into building more affordable units, something he said has not been a focus at City Hall, and wished that those developers would consult with Council as much as they do the mayor in bringing their projects to City Hall.

Like so many local officials in Florida, Suarez took his turn at lambasting the Florida Legislature for eviscerating the now quaint concept of “home rule” in the Sunshine State.

“The Legislature keeps taking more and more and more of your rights as a citizen of this city away from you,” he said, arguing that it wasn’t about taking power away from local lawmakers but from the citizenry.

The most recent source of the City Council’s angst towards Tallahassee is legislation passed during the 2017 Session that pre-empts the city’s authority to regulate where new 5G wireless antennas will be placed.

“Any people living along the Bayshore? Watch out. Look at what happens. You’re going to see some of these things pop (up) over the next few years,” referring to the antennas, which can be as big as a kitchen refrigerator.

Recently two members of Council visited Cuba, something that’s become a regular occurrence between parts of the business and political establishment over the past five years or so.

Suarez, a Cuban-American, has been resistant; as recently as last month he challenged Chair Yolie Capin to say whether members on the most recent trip had met with dissidents (they did not).

Admitting he’s been bashed in certain quarters for his Cold War attitude (shared by Mayor Buckhorn), Suarez didn’t seem eager to get too deep into the topic.

“To me, we spend a little too much time on that and not enough time on what our issues are here,” he said, adding,”If they want to talk about Cuba, I think that they should talk to their elected officials.”

In answering a question about funding the arts, Suarez said he didn’t agree with the Buckhorn administration’s decision to cut funding for entities like the Tampa Museum of Art and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts (all nonprofits took a 10 percent “haircut” in the budget).

“I didn’t understand that,” Suarez said, referring to the budget that raises taxes for the first time in 29 years. He said that the majority of that increase was going to personnel in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

When asked about Jeff Vinik’s Water Street Tampa mega-development, Suarez mused—while acknowledging that he had no inside information—that Vinik’s team is having a difficult time luring a major company to relocate their headquarters there.

That’s because of what audience member Cathy James said was “stagnant wages, not enough affordable housing and horrible public transportation.”

He did applaud Vinik for making the project more walkable, and said he hoped Vinik would invest some of his own capital into local transportation projects to make the $3 billion project a success.

GOP AG candidates want death penalty for Seminole Heights killer case

If found guilty of murder, the accused Seminole Heights killer should receive the death penalty, so say Republican attorney general candidates Ashley Moody and Ross Spano.

In a letter Wednesday to Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, Spano, who also serves as the chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee in the Florida Legislature, says the facts in the case “warrant a prompt decision to seek the death penalty.”

Warren previously declared he could seek the death penalty against Howell “Trai” Donaldson III, who is suspected of shooting four people over 51 days.

He repeated that Wednesday night while speaking to the media.

“If there is a legal basis to seek the death penalty, and it’s consistent with the wishes of the victims’ families, we intend to seek the death penalty,” Warren told reporters in Tampa. He was not available to comment on Spano’s letter later in the day.

Spano isn’t satisfied with that response, and he asked what legal basis Warren would need to refuse to seek the death penalty.

“It is time for you to decisively pursue justice,” the Dover Republican wrote.

Spano is involved in a four-way race for the Republican nomination for attorney general against Moody, a former Hillsborough County circuit judge, and state Reps. Jay Fant and Frank White. 

Moody said she would also call for the death penalty.

“If I were in State Attorney Warren’s shoes I would seek the death penalty for anyone found guilty of these heinous acts,” she said in a statement. “This is exactly the type of premeditated murder case that would merit the death penalty, and the victims and their families deserve justice.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week that he too would like to see Donaldson executed if found guilty in a court of law.

Ryan Torrens, the lone Democrat running for attorney general, said he would not dictate what Warren should do.

“I’ve said the attorney general’s office needs to decide these cases on a case-by-case basis, and I would not want state attorney try to tell me how to do my job,” he said. “I do not feel it appropriate for me to try to tell Andrew how to do his job. This is his decision, and I’m going to live it to him to make that decision.”

Donaldson III, 24, was arrested last week and accused of the killings, seemingly at random, in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa in October and November. Anthony Naiboa, Monica Hoffa, Benjamin Mitchell and Ronald Felton were all shot and killed in separate incidents while walking alone at night or in the early morning in the neighborhood.

Donaldson’s father, Howell Donaldson Jr., refused to answer questions posed to him by Hillsborough County prosecutors earlier this week. A hearing has been scheduled Thursday before County Judge Margaret Taylor on whether Donaldson’s parents, Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson, should answer such questions.

Hillsborough Commissioners want Legislature to address who has curfew power

Nearly three months after Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn engaged in a verbal skirmish about who had the power to call for an emergency curfew in Tampa, County Commissioners would like local state legislators to weigh in.

The issue goes back to the days leading up the arrival of Hurricane Irma in the Tampa Bay area, which was predicted to bring major damage to the region.

On Sunday morning, Sept. 10, hours before Irma’s expected arrival, Buckhorn and Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan declared a curfew would begin in Tampa Sunday at 6 p.m., and would not be lifted until he and other city officials deemed it safe after the storm passed.

“If you are out on the streets after six o’clock, we are going to challenge you and find out what you’re doing out there,” said Dugan. “We are relying on the good people of Tampa to tell us what’s going on in their neighborhoods, and to point out who doesn’t belong in their neighborhoods.”

Five hours later, however, Merrill held his own news conference saying: “I have not called for a mandatory curfew. We urge residents to get to a safe place, to shelter in place.”

Buckhorn didn’t back down; a curfew was in place as Irma hit late Sunday night into Monday morning. After daybreak Monday, the city of Tampa said the curfew was no longer in affect.

At Wednesday’s Board of County Commission meeting, county attorney Chip Fletcher said that he had been in consultation with the city attorney’s office in Tampa regarding mandatory evacuations, another issue where there was a conflict between the city and county leading up to Irma’s arrival. He said issues were less clear when it came to the power of ordering curfews.

Commissioner Les Miller, who served in Tallahassee for more than a decade before coming on the board in 2010, said he remembered that the Legislature had enacted specific rules after a similar incident happened in Tampa in 2005. He said this was the time to go back to the Hillsborough County legislative delegation to review those statutes to make sure they’re complementing each other.

“We might not be the only county that’s having these issue,” Miller said. “We could be working out an agreement with all the mayors and the emergency management policy group, but who’s to say that two years from now, when there’s a new mayor, the same issue does not come about?”

The board then approved a motion proposed by Miller to have the board write a letter to the Hillsborough legislative delegation to review all statutes that deal with emergency management policies and operations dealing with issues like curfews.

Another conflicting issue that took place between the county and city occurred Friday, Sept. 8, when Buckhorn called for a mandatory evacuation in Tampa of residents of Zone A. At the time, Hillsborough County had only issued a voluntary evacuation for special-needs residents of that zone.

The announcement directed people to the county’s shelters. Unfortunately, Hillsborough hadn’t opened their general population shelters yet.

Fletcher said that it’s now “clear” that the county has the ultimate emergency management authority when it comes to ordering evacuations.

Commissioner Sandy Murman said that it was important to get this policy right, saying she was getting her hair done in South Tampa that Friday afternoon when she learned that the city had called for an evacuation, “and I knew full well that the shelters weren’t open.”

“That’s when confusion starts,” she said. “People need to know they have a place to go.”

The issue was brought up initially at Wednesday’s meeting by a member of the general public.

“I’m not pleased how that was communicated to the public,” said Gerald White. “We all need to be on the same page during a crisis.”

“It was a little embarrassing and very confusing what took place,” Commissioner Victor Crist acknowledged.

Ed Turanchik seriously considers Tampa mayoral run in 2019

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner and transit advocate Ed Turanchik is seriously considering entering running for Tampa mayor in 2019.

“There’s been overwhelming broad-based encouragement from people that I should do it and that I needed to do it,” Turanchik told Florida Politics Tuesday afternoon.

The Tampa Bay Times initially reported his of his renewed interest.

The Tampa Democrat said that there’d been a “persistent drumbeat” for months now from people from all across the political spectrum encouraging him to enter the 2019 mayoral sweepstakes, which doesn’t figure to get seriously underway for another year. The election takes place in March of 2019.

The 62-year-old hasn’t served in government in nearly twenty years, having last served on the County Commission in 1998. He currently works at Ackerman LLP, a law firm where he works in government relations, zoning and urban development.

After he finished two terms as county commissioner, Turanchik took up perhaps his most quixotic campaign ever — a bid to have Tampa considered as a site for the 2012 Olympics (which ultimately was awarded to London).

After that bid failed, Turanchik took up the Civitas project in 2004, a mixed-use residential and commercial development which was supposed to transform downtown’s public housing projects. He then became involved in local real estate with the InTown Homes project in West Tampa.

And of course, he’s always been an advocate of different transit solutions over the years, most recently with the Cross-Bay Ferry, where he teamed with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman for a public-private project that was considered a success earlier this year, but won’t come back this fall.

The Cross-Bay Ferry project came to fruition much sooner than another ferry project that Turanchik began working with Seattle based HMS Ferries back in the spring of 2013. The project evolved after studies showed that thousands of commuters who live in South Hillsborough County and drive to MacDill Air Force Base on a daily basis would take a ferry service if it were an option. There is currently a design and engineering study on the project is now underway.

He ran a campaign for Tampa mayor in 2011 that seemed to catch fire late, finishing fourth in a five-person field that was ultimately won by Bob Buckhorn. Though he didn’t win enough votes to get into the runoff, he did garner a group of passionate supporters and was endorsed by the alt-weekly Creative Loafing in the primary that year (when this correspondent served as political editor).

“A big-picture thinker who served in elected office and exercised leadership across county boundaries, he also has firsthand experience with the block-by-block realities of doing business in Tampa. He’s a progressive and a pragmatist,” wrote CL editor David Warner at the time.

Turanchik said he hasn’t considered running again at all, but has “gravitated” toward the idea of how Tampa can pivot toward the 21st century. He says it would be the culmination of nearly 30 years of civic engagement, and said it would be “intellectually stimulating.”

He learned a lot from that unsuccessful campaign and said that (presumably) some of those lessons learned would be to raise more campaign cash and run a more protracted campaign.

“I was outspent 10-1 and really only ran a 60-day campaign,” he said. “And I got 20 percent of the vote,”

Officially, he received 19.4 percent of the race, six percentage points behind Rose Ferlita and four points behind Buckhorn. He said that while many of his enthusiastic team of volunteers from that campaign are urging him on again for 2018, he’s also hearing from Tea Party members, Republicans, Democrats and business leaders.

Among those expected to run in the election are former Police Chief Jane Castor and current council members Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen.

And then there is David Straz, the 74-year-old philanthropist who dipped his toes into a possible candidacy on Sunday when his exploratory committee hosted a spaghetti lunch in West Tampa, which drew a crowd of approximately 250 people.

Like Turanchik, Straz said he’s only considering a candidacy because of grassroots supporters urging him to enter the contest. Both men say they’ll probably decide whether to go all in during the first quarter of 2018.

“I don’t know if I’m going to do it, but I’m looking at it seriously, and it’s got nothing to do with anyone in the field,” Turanchik said, adding that it’s the opportunity to do “great work that is meaningful and can move the city forward” that is attractive to him.

David Straz makes first public appearance as potential Tampa mayoral candidate

Philanthropist and former banker David Straz Jr. had a coming-out party (of sorts) Sunday, hosting a spaghetti lunch for more than 250 people in West Tampa.

It was his first public appearance since forming an exploratory committee two months ago for a potential run for Tampa mayor in 2019.

The 74-year-old Wisconsin native already had enjoyed a long and distinguished career before becoming a much better-known quantity in the Tampa Bay-area in November 2009. That’s when he made a substantial financial contribution (rumored to be as high as $25 million) to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center which resulted in the facility changing its name to the Straz Center.

He’s also been involved for over a decade with individuals like Al Fox to advocate for closer relations between Tampa and Cuba.

A political independent, Straz was an ally of former mayor Dick Greco, supporting him when he ran for yet another reign as Tampa mayor in 2011. After Greco lost to Bob Buckhorn in the primary, Straz backed Buckhorn and then became in charge of his transition team.

Since announcing that he was forming an exploratory committee in late September, Straz has refused interviews with inquiring reporters about his possible candidacy. When confronted by this reporter shortly after the doors opened at the Sons of Italy hall on Sunday, he initially said it was “not a media event” before succumbing to answer a couple of questions.

“What I’m doing right now is getting around to various constituencies around the community,” he said. “I’m listening to what they have to say and what their priorities are.”

On Friday, Straz met with members of the black community. Councilman Frank Reddick is onboard with a Straz candidacy and said the meeting went well.

“In order to get my support, you’ve gotta put a plan together that the people can benefit from,” the District 5 representative said, adding that there’s been too much emphasis on downtown in the Buckhorn years.

Reddick wants the next mayor to engage more in developing both east and west Tampa.

“We need someone who understands the lack of resources and economic development in that area,” Reddick said. “David Straz will look into that and see what he can do to improve those areas.”

Straz is a political independent who has given substantial campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats over the years.

“Honestly, I thought he was a registered Democrat,” joked Travis Horn, a member of the Hillsborough Republican Party. “I’m involved in Ybor City and as a businessman. I don’t go around asking people for their party ID.

“Money is green, and we want to see the city succeed.”

The most problematic event for Straz since forming his exploratory committee was the revelation last year that he supported Donald Trump for president. That led to some comments on social media that he already disqualified himself in such a Democratic-leaning city, but prominent Hillsborough County Democrat Patrick Manteiga defends Straz over his support for the president.

“I think he would not vote for him again, he’s already told me that, and mistakes happen,” said Manteiga, who is editor/publisher of La Gaceta. Last year, a lot of Manteiga’s friends surprised him by opposing Hillary Clinton and choosing Trump.

Manteiga pushes back on the theory that Straz is an unknown political quantity.

“We do know where he is on a lot of things,” he said. “The guy gave a lot of money to the performing arts and a lot of money to education, so you’re talking about somebody who’s obviously has made a decision before he was running that this was a city that he wanted to invest in, this was a city that he wanted to put his name on.”

What excites Mario Nunez about a potential Straz candidacy is his alliance with Fox in promoting the liberalization of Cuban relations.

“I’m going all in on the Cuba conversation,” Nunez said. “That’s where my heart is.”

Where Straz’s heart is at when it comes to putting together a campaign to lead the city in 2019 is still being determined.

Before announcing last month that he would not pursue the Democratic nomination for governor, Orlando attorney and entrepreneur John Morgan told a Tiger Bay Club audience in St. Petersburg he wanted to see how much interest the public had in him before decided to upend his life to pursue a run for elected office.

Reddick said Straz is also currently assessing if there is sufficient support in Tampa for him to go all out in a run for the mayor’s office in 16 months.

“He wants to see what type of support base he’s going to get, that’s what he’s looking at now,” the councilman said. “And if the community really wants a visionary, David’s that person and I’m just hoping that people reach out to him, and say ‘do this.'”

Rick Scott visits Tampa Police following arrest of Seminole Heights killer


Gov. Rick Scott came to Tampa early Wednesday to thank the officers involved in the arrest of 24-year-old Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, the man suspected of killing four people in Seminole Heights over the past six weeks.

“To the families of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton, my heart goes out to you,” Scott said addressing reporters who gathered outside the Tampa Police Department headquarters shortly after 8 a.m.

“Because of the hard work of law enforcement, justice will be served.”

TPD Chief Brad Dugan and Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced that Donaldson was the suspect in the killings late Tuesday night, approximately eight hours after they arrested him at an Ybor City McDonald’s.

An employee at the fast food establishment said that Donaldson, who worked at the restaurant, came up and had given her a food bag with a .40 caliber Glock inside. The witness also told a TPD officer that Donaldson said he wanted to leave the state. Donaldson had since left the restaurant, but returned and was detained by officers.

Scott, Buckhorn, Dugan and other law enforcement officials were effusive in celebrating the collaborative effort between law enforcement agencies to help bring Donaldson into custody — just fifty-one days after he allegedly killed Mitchell, the first of the four people slain in the neighborhood.

Scott directed the Florida Highway Patrol to deploy additional troopers to Seminole Heights last week. Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents had also been involved in the manhunt, as well as sheriff deputies from Hillsborough County and officers from the St. Petersburg Police Department.

“We would not be here today having apprehending this individual had it not been for the team effort that’s been taking place for the last fifty-one days,” Buckhorn said.

Chief Dugan said at a press conference later on Wednesday that his investigators still have work to do on the case, though he said definitively that Donaldson is the culprit in the murders. He added that he had spoken briefly with Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren on Wednesday, but said it was too early to determine what penalty to seek.

Buckhorn surprised some residents a month ago when he asked Tampa Police officers who were working on finding the killer to “bring me his head on a platter.”

His rhetoric was toned down Wednesday, though he couldn’t resist offering his opinion about Donaldson’s fate.

“Today we begin the healing process, and today the judicial process starts,” the mayor said. “And it will end, and I will promise you that when it does end, that this community will be a better place because I know where this guy is going to spend his eternity.”

When asked what should happen to Donaldson, Buckhorn said he wanted the process to take its place. And once it does?

“If he is found to be guilty, he should die. It’s that simple,” the mayor said.

Dugan said the arrest of Donaldson gave him a feeling of relief. The longtime Tampa policeman was named interim chief earlier this year, and then was officially given the title of chief just a few weeks ago. He said it was hardly an ideal way to start off his career.

“To start off as chief of police and to have four unsolved homicides on your watch? That’s a tough pill to swallow. That is something that I’ll carry the rest of my life,” Dugan said.

Scott said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to murder someone in cold blood.

“Why somebody would have it in their mind to go take four individuals lives? I don’t get it, and I don’t know if we’ll ever understand it,” he said.

Dugan said there is no apparent motive for the murders at this time. He said Donaldson was cooperative with officers once he was taken into custody, but has only admitted that the gun he was found with on Tuesday was his. He has not admitted to the murders.

Thanksgiving place setting

What Florida’s political elite should be thankful for

From the soup kitchens of Tallahassee to the conch houses of Key West, from the toniest mansions in Coral Gables to the double wides in Dixie County, people from all walks of life will sit down to celebrate the most American of holidays: Thanksgiving.

“Americans traditionally recognize the ‘first’ Thanksgiving as having taken place at Plymouth colony in the autumn of 1621,” according to, the website of George Washington’s Virginia estate. “The 1621 thanksgiving celebration, however, did not become an annual event.”

More than a century later, “Washington issued a proclamation on Oct. 3, 1789, designating Thursday, Nov. 26 as a national day of thanks,” it says. “In his proclamation, Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from the Almighty’s care of Americans.”

But “the 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation … did not establish a permanent federal holiday,” the site adds. “It was not until the Civil War of the 1860s that President (Abraham) Lincoln initiated a regular observance of Thanksgiving in the United States.”

Thus we come to the tradition of eating and giving thanks, including by the state’s elected officials (and yes, by candidates and players in The Process).

Once God, country, family, and good fortune are given their due, here’s what some of the state’s most prominent leaders should be grateful for:

Marco Rubio – For the proverbial “second chance.” He’s finally becoming the influential U.S. Senator he was supposed to be.

Bill Nelson – For the wave of opinion coming that may enable the Democrat to hold off the inevitable challenge to his seat from self-funding, always-on-message Gov. Rick Scott.

Rick Scott For Nelson, who, despite 17 years in the U.S. Senate, is not well known enough to about half of Florida’s voters, according to a recent poll. No wonder Bill keeps inundating us with press releases of all the concerned letters he writes.

Adam Putnam – For the anonymous “POLITICO 6” who have torpedoed Jack Latvala’s gubernatorial campaign, giving the Bartow Republican an even wider lane to the Governor’s Mansion in 2018.

Jimmy Patronis For Matt Gaetz muscling him out of a state Senate race a few years back. Now he’s the appointed state Chief Financial Officer, with the full faith and credit of the Rick Scott political machine behind him to get elected to a full term in 2018.

Joe Negron For having just one session left as Senate President. It was a long, bruising road to the presidency, with an extended and nasty battle with Latvala. And since he won the gavel, relations with the House have bottomed out, while several Senators have faced debilitating scandals. Has it really been worth it?

Pam Bondi – For state Sen. Tom Lee’s proposed constitutional amendment banning greyhound racing. The term-limited Attorney General regularly brings shelter dogs to Cabinet meetings to get them adopted. Will she make this issue her own as one springboard to her post-2018 ambitions?

Richard Corcoran – For the seemingly hapless Senate, which allows him to ally with Scott when needed to advance his priorities. A post-Session declaration of his own candidacy for Governor is a virtual lock. 

Jack Latvala  For all the donors who gave to his campaign for Governor before the reports of claims of sexual harassment against him came out. No matter how the case against him plays out, he’ll have millions of dollars to make others miserable once he leaves the Legislature.

Buddy Dyer For no term limits as Orlando mayor. How about just chucking the election pretense? Mayor-for-Life, anyone?

Bob Buckhorn For … , well, the Tampa mayor says he’s too busy hunting a serial killer right now to be thankful. We bet he will be thankful once that evildoer is caught.

Brian Ballard For the gift that keeps on giving: His relationship with President Donald Trump. We’d wager he’s … hold on a second, he’s signing another client, we’ll get back to you.

Vivian Myrtetus – For one million hours of volunteer service in the state after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The CEO of Volunteer Florida has good reason to be proud, and we should be proud of our fellow Floridians who helped neighbors in need.

Hillsborough Democrats rally behind Jose Vazquez in HD 58 special election

Over the years, Democrat Jose Vazquez ran (and lost) several local elections, mostly without any organized support from the Hillsborough County Party.

But that is starting to change, as the Party is more energized than ever after Donald Trump‘s stunning election a year ago,

Local Democrats are now hoping to replicate the success they found in the Senate District 40 and St. Petersburg mayoral races this fall in the upcoming House District 58 special election.

Vazquez hasn’t always been an easy candidate to embrace. A Puerto Rican native with a thick English accent, he has an extensive criminal background history, including an infamous run for office as a write-in candidate in 2008 against Democratic incumbent Michael Scionti in the House District 48 race  — while still serving time in prison for a felony conviction of driving with a revoked or suspended license in May 2007.

Now on the campaign trail, Vazquez speaks about his arrest record, pivoting to use his past as a strong talking point for his support for restoring ex-felons voting rights, and the plight of poor and minorities in the criminal justice system.

“How many of you have been stopped for a bad light on your car or a cracked windshield? Or some other offense? Did you get a ticket? We’re you able to pay the fine?” Vazquez asked a crowd of fellow Democrats gathered at the Hillsborough County Children’s Board in Ybor City for the county’s Democratic Executive Committee meeting Monday night.

Vazquez explained that just two months after arriving in the U.S. from Puerto Rico in 1999, he was ticketed for a non-moving vehicle violation. He couldn’t afford to pay the fine (he was making just $7.25 an hour while working at Tampa International Airport).

Also, Vazquez was homeless at the time and thus never received notice that his license was suspended for nonpayment of the fine.

Although he received several other moving violations, Vazquez says he never received notices since he was homeless, and thus labeled a habitual traffic offender. His driver’s license was then suspended for five years, and Vazquez started using a scooter for his transportation. But even that went sour after he was arrested for a law (since rescinded) that all vehicles powered with gasoline required a driver’s license to operate.

“I have been a victim of a system that was and is still today stacked against minorities,” he said. “People who have limited financial resources and often have to make tough choices between paying fines, paying rent, putting food on the table, paying an electric bill, or hiring an attorney.”

He also told the room full of Democrats that while he was also arrested on a domestic violence charge, a charge ultimately dismissed.

Party regulars certainly accept his story — some even say that they are embarrassed over earlier failures to support him in previous races. In 2012, Vazquez ran against Republican Dan Raulerson in HD 58 without any support from the Hillsborough DEC.

In fact, the HCDEC removed any mention of Vasquez from its website in the lead-up to that election, prompting Vazquez to call on then-Party chair Chris Mitchell to resign (he didn’t).

Despite that, Vazquez still took 42 percent of the vote in losing to Raulerson, whose resignation from that same seat this summer (due to health issues) has created the need for this special election, scheduled Dec. 19.

“This is a man who was beat down by the Democratic Party,” said Hillsborough County state committeeman Ross Patterson. “He has worked and worked and worked for our party, even though we didn’t work for him.”

As a write-in candidate, Vazquez then took on Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn as his only opposition in what was otherwise a coronation for the Tampa leader, who garnered 96 percent in his re-election back in March 2015.

Vazquez, 43, is the father of six children, one with a disability. In his speech Monday night, he talked about defending the disabled, the LGBTA community, expanding Medicaid and working on improving public education.

“Unlike most of our nation’s elected officials, I’m familiar with what it is like to struggle, what it’s like to live on the margins, paycheck to paycheck, day-to-day,” he said. “Too often we elect officials who have no real understanding on what life is like across the tracks, what life is like on ‘the other side of town.'”

The crowd bought into his message — literally.

Former DEC Chair Michael Steinberg introduced Vazquez to the crowd by saying that if everyone in attendance (about 100 people) contributed $5 to his campaign, he would match that to get Vazquez $1,000 out of the evening.

He later announced Vazquez had raised $1,015.

Donna Fore, head of the East Hillsborough County Democratic Club, said her group had recently donated $500 to Vazquez campaign, and she encouraged other clubs to follow suit.

Patterson reminded the crowd that there are actually more registered Democrats in HD 58 than Republicans, even though the GOP had dominated control of the seat for several years.

Dover businessman Lawrence McClure is the Republican candidate, and there are two other players in the mix: Libertarian Bryan Zemina and Ahmed Saadaldin, who is with the Green Party (but officially non-party-affiliated) and is, by far, the most progressive candidate in the race.

Ron Wyden visits Bill Nelson in Tampa to call for bipartisanship in tax reform

Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, joined his Florida colleague Bill Nelson at a business roundtable discussion in Tampa Monday.

At the event, the two lawmakers blasted the GOP tax reform bill that passed the House last week and could come up in the Senate as early as next week as a giveaway to the wealthy and a tax increase to those making less than $75,000.

After criticizing the bill, Wyden and Nelson said they could find common cause with a significant number of Republicans to come together on a bipartisan measure that could get up to 75 (or even 80) members of the 100-member Senate.

“That’s our endgame. That’s what we really want,”  Wyden said. “We’re going to explain why we don’t care for what is on offer, but we want to let you know why we feel bipartisanship is so important.”

Wyden said a bipartisan-supported bill would give the various business leaders (which included the respective chambers of commerce heads from most major counties surrounding the Tampa Bay area) a degree of certainty that wouldn’t need to be flipped over if a new administration comes into office in three years. Wyden said he has actually co-written such a bill with former Indian Republican Senator Dan Coats (now the Director of National Intelligence in the Donald Trump administration), so he knows it’s possible.

Stressing the bipartisanship certainly made sense talking to a group of business leaders, some of whom were presumably Republican.

Staying with the bipartisanship theme, Nelson cited Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson‘s opposition to the Senate bill in terms of how it treats businesses that operate like “pass-through entities,” — which means they their business income on to their individual income tax return.

In the Senate bill, pass-through entities are allowed to deduct just over 17 percent of their business income, an effort to reduce the rate paid on business income to come closer to the 20 percent rate the bill sets for corporate income (down from 35 percent today).

This will still leave many pass-throughs paying a far higher rate than corporations.

“According to this Republican senator, you’re going to pay an average of 32 percent. Now is that fair?” Nelson asked.

The Senate plan calls for tax cuts for individuals and pass-throughs alike expire in 2022, while the corporate tax cuts are permanent.

While Floridians would get a break from the provision that will not allow individuals in high taxed states like California and New York to deduct their state income taxes, Nelson says they’d get hurt with the provision in the legislation that eliminates real estate and sales taxes.

Another bit of criticism the two Democrats had is what Republicans like Tennessee’s Bob Corker have expressed concerns about — that the proposals being offered but the GOP will bust a hole in the deficit.

Not all nonpartisan tax organizations are bashing the bill. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, in 2019, people in the middle of the income spectrum, earning between $50,000 and $70,000, would see their taxes fall by 7.1 percent. Those earning between $20,000 and $30,000 would see a 10.4 percent decline, the report shows, while millionaires would get a 5.3 percent tax cut.

Nelson criticized the rapid speed with which the Republicans have pushed the bill through the House, and decried the fact that the national press is more focused on Roy Moore, Al Franken and “whatever is the shining object that is so much more entertaining than the dullness of tax law.”

There’s no question that the separate bills in the House and Senate are moving through Congress at a rapid-fire pace. House Republicans passed their bill last Thursday night, exactly two weeks after its detailed legislative text was released. Republicans in the Senate released their plan less than two weeks ago and are expected to put to on the Senate floor before the end of this month.

“They want to get this done next week,” said Wyden. “They’re making ten trillion dollars worth of changes in tax policy on the fly.”

Both Democrats also criticized the recent addition of removing the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act as a way to free up revenue in the Senate bill.

“This is the kind of approach that starts unraveling all of the key elements of the Affordable Care Act, that’s why they’re doing it, it’s an ideological trophy,” Wyden said to reporters before the roundtable.

A Quinnipiac poll released last week shows that 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the GOP tax reform proposals, with only 25 percent supporting it.

Tensions high among blacks, police as Seminole Heights manhunt continues

With four unresolved murders in the past six weeks, tensions in Southeast Seminole Heights have never been higher.

Among some black residents, there’s even more anxiety, with many complaining about increased surveillance in the community — and that was before the Tampa Police Department announced earlier this week that the chief suspect is a black male.

That served as a backdrop Thursday night when Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan addressed the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP at the Seminole Heights Branch Library.

Dugan acknowledged his department is, in fact, convinced the suspect has only killed two of the four people shot in the neighborhood since October 9.

“We believe that this person definitely murdered Ben Mitchell and Ronald Felton,” he said, referring to the first and fourth persons killed in the still-unresolved killing spree. “We’re not sure enough to say that he was able to murder Monica Hoffa and Anthony Naiboa, so it could be someone else who murdered those two.”

Undeniably, police presence in the neighborhood is higher, and arrests have spiked — 150 in the area in the last month. That’s up from 56 in October 2016, and 126 in October 2015. Motorists are now being pulled over for making rolling stops, a move that Dugan admitted normally the TPD  wouldn’t be so aggressive about.

These aren’t normal times, however.

Dugan said the decision to cite motorists for failing to make a complete stop in Seminole Heights came from him.

“We want to know who you are. We’ve got four dead people. How many bodies gotta stack up? … so we are stopping everyone.”

In addition to TPD officers in Seminole Heights, there are also law enforcement officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department, the St. Petersburg Police Department, and now the Florida Highway Patrol in the neighborhood, courtesy of Gov. Rick Scott.

The chief also defended what some have labeled heavy-handed tactics such as officers clad in SWAT gear and holding long guns knocking on doors and asking residents if they can search their homes. He said residents have “every right to say no,” but he said the circumstances demanded such actions.

“This person is a coldblooded killer and we’re trying to catch them, and there is no doubt in my mind that cops are not exempt from his bloodthirst,” Dugan said.

Activist Connie Burton asked Dugan if he would consider changing the profile of the suspected killer, questioning if the suspect might have had military service or be a rogue cop?

Dugan appeared pained to pontificate broadly, especially with so many scrutinizing his every word. He confessed that it had crossed his mind that the suspect might have law enforcement training.

There were some raw feelings in the room, going back to 2015 when the TPD policy on citing black bicyclists for citations became the subject of a Tampa Bay Times series known colloquially as “Biking While Black.”

The uproar in the community led the department to call on the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to study the issue. A year later, they produced an 82-page report showing the policy was not discriminatory, but also ineffective.

Neither Tampa police nor Mayor Bob Buckhorn apologized for the now discarded policy, a slight that still stings in the community. While Dugan wasn’t in charge at the time, he was part of the force and was pressed on the issue Thursday by activist Jarvis El-Amin.

“We thought we were doing the right thing,” said Dugan. “We weren’t targeting African-Americans. We were targeting people doing violations on their bicycles. Afterward, when we sat down and looked at the numbers, clearly we were stopping mostly African-Americans.”

Former Police Chief Jane Castor pushed back strongly against the Times story after its publication, and Dugan appeared to still have problems with the story himself.

The chief added that there were murder suspects who escaped on bikes and another story of a young black man throwing a box containing an automatic rifle into a bush.

“Why was that not part of the story? I don’t know.”

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