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What’s next for Sunshine State News?

Last week, Sunshine State News, the right-leaning news website covering Florida politics, celebrated its eighth anniversary.

In the brutal economy of journalism, that’s no small feat. Sunshine State News has been around longer than Florida Politics or POLITICO Florida. And it’s maintained a presence in Tallahassee when other legacy media outlets, such as the Palm Beach Post, have abandoned their capital outposts.

SSN’s longevity is due in no small part to it being in the right place at the right time.

“When our first Sunshine State News team arrived wide-eyed in Tallahassee in 2010, all hell was about to break loose, and we didn’t know it,” editor Nancy Smith wrote in a post marking the site’s anniversary on March 3. “Gov. Charlie Crist believed he had a lock on a U.S. Senate seat, Attorney General Bill McCollum was riding comfortably toward the governorship, and nobody I know had ever heard of multimillionaire hospital executive Rick Scott.”

“But, oh, how the rise of the tea party in Florida shattered those expectations. And SSN fit right in with the surprises.”

In fact, more than one critic suspected that SSN was/is being secretly financed by Scott, or at least forces aligned with him.

SSN’s reluctance to reveal its ownership is one of the main issues many people in The Process have with the outlet. The Tampa Bay Times Lucy Morgan tried her best to get to the bottom of the issue, but could not come up with a firm answer. Others have linked the site to Florida’s sugar industry, but I believe the connection there is due more to Smith’s work history with The Stuart News and her experience covering environmental issues than anything else.

SSN says it has an editorial board; on a page dubbed “The Sunshine Way,” the site contends, “We are the only news organization in Florida with an editorial board that believes free-market, less-government solutions will prove successful in addressing the problems challenging our state.” However, it’s never been revealed who is a member of Sunshine State News’ editorial board, nor does the site publish unsigned editorials as other legacy media organizations do.

As much as one can be, I’m something of an expert on the cost of maintaining a digital-only news website in Florida. Once you do the math, it’s pretty amazing that SSN is still standing.

Assuming that Smith earns at least $60,000 a year, that SSN’s capital reporter (it had been Allison Nielsen until she took a job with Congressman Tom Rooney) makes approximately $45,000 per annum, as does federal writer Kevin Derby and a copy/web editor, you’re close to $200,000 a year just in salaries. Those are conservative figures, and they don’t account for benefits, if there are any. Then again, maybe Derby does double-duty as the copy/web editor. Also, the size of the staff has fluctuated throughout SSN’s eight-year run.

Still, with expenses like a subscription to the News Service of Florida’s feed, it’s easy to get to SSN costing at least a quarter-million dollars a year to operate.

On the revenue side, the site does have limited display advertising, but its mostly slots reserved for the Google Ad Choices program. Occasionally, if not rarely, SSN displays ads about an event or issue linked to the legislative session, but, again, those ads seem to run few and far between. If SSN hauls in $50K per year in advertising, I would be greatly surprised.

Bottom line: one or more people or companies are expending, by my math, at least $200K to keep SSN afloat. That’s real money. That’s much more money than any single advertiser is spending at my shop.

It’s difficult to understand why anyone would spend that kind of money on a political news website covering Florida politics.

If the purpose, as some suspected, was to defeat Crist and elect Scott, well, first of all, you have to really not like Crist (there are certainly folks out there who fall into this category) and you have to really like Scott (there are not many politicos who do not already donate heavily to his political committee.)

Besides, Crist vs. Scott was settled in 2014, so if putting Scott in the Governor’s Mansion was the ultimate objective, why keep spending $200K a year on a pet journalism project?

If the sugar industry is footing the SSN bill — a concept I highly doubt — that would be surprising because the operatives who make the decisions for Big Sugar are smart enough to know there are better ways to spend their money than having Smith write the occasional piece about the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Perhaps it’s a consortium of interests, lobbyists and politicos who each kick in, say, $10K a year to keep SSN going. It makes more sense than Scott or sugar being behind the website, but you’d think that after eight years, some part of the secret arrangement would get out. I know many of the folks who would pay $10,000 to support business-friendly, right-leaning online journalism in Florida and I haven’t heard a peep in eight years. And I’ve asked and investigated.

The hard truth is we really don’t know who pays the bills at Sunshine State News, but it’s someone or a handful of people who is/are willing to have parted with more than a million dollars to keep Smith, Derby, et al. going. That’s an extraordinary investment in Florida politics.

And, according to Smith, Sunshine State News plans on sticking around for a while. During a recent conversation, she said she was actively looking for a replacement for Nielsen.

So much for the idea that SSN wouldn’t be around when Scott leaves Tallahassee, either for Naples or Washington D.C.

Illinois U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos to keynote Pinellas Democrats event March 24

Illinois Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos will appear in Clearwater later this month to keynote the annual Pinellas County Democrats’ Prelude to Victory Dinner.

Bustos was one of just 12 Democrats to win her seat in the same district that President Donald Trump won in 2016, though nobody did it better, as she took Illinois’ 17th Congressional District by more than 20 points.

Several Democratic political observers consider her the “future of the party,” and her success in winning in Trumpland earned her a recent profile by POLITICO’s Michael Kruse.

The Pinellas Democratic Executive Committee says that Bustos was recommended to speak at the event by Pinellas Congressman Charlie Crist, who says she’s “great.”

“She’s an amazing leader. She has a great message. Very common-sense oriented. I think she’ll do a great job,” Crist said Monday morning.

Bustos is also involved in recruiting candidates as chairwoman of heartland engagement for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Despite her blowout election victory in 2016, Bustos’ congressional seat is still being targeted by Republicans. The National Republican Campaign Committee targeted her seat as one of the most vulnerable to going from blue to red in 2018 and ran ads against her last fall after the GOP passed its tax reform package.

Bustos speaks Saturday, March 24, from 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. at Kapok Special Events Center in Clearwater.

Charlie Crist hopes Donald Trump will push for gun control regulations

While Democrats like Charlie Crist hope Washington can finally address “common sense” gun regulations in the wake of the Parkland massacre, he admits the odds aren’t great that will happen. That’s why he’s hoping President Donald Trump can intervene and push for some of the proposals he mentioned last week while meeting with legislators in the White House.

“I don’t really understand why commonsense ideas can’t be brought forward, or even discussed on the floor,” the Pinellas congressman said twhile visiting with Pinellas County School Board Chair Rene Flowers, law enforcement officials, administrators and students at Gibbs High School in South St. Petersburg on Monday morning.

“I do think these things will change, and I do think new ideas will be brought forward, I just don’t know if it’s going to be now,” Crist added. “If the President weighs in more, I think we’ll have a better shot at that, so I hope that happens.”

Trump stunned Republicans and thrilled gun-control advocates last Wednesday when he called for comprehensive gun control legislation that would expand background checks to weapons purchased at gun shows and on the internet, keep guns from mentally ill people, secure schools and restrict gun sales for some young adults.

A day later, he seemed to back off from that position after meeting with officials from the NRA, and on Friday, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that he still supported raising the age to purchase a rifle to 21 “conceptually.”

Regarding background checks,  Sanders said the president favors “not necessarily universal background checks but certainly improving the background check system.”

At Gibbs, Crist queried the students on what they felt was needed to keep their school safe.

Student body president Jameira Green, 18, said it was critical for student leaders like herself to include other students who don’t feel involved in regular school activities. She said all it takes is one student who feels alone to explode in violence, as was the case last month in Parkland.

“They feel alone, and so now that they feel alone, they have to do mass destruction to get that attention they want from their peers, so I think it’s more about the students and how they treat each other at school,” said Green.

Anthony Harrell, 17, said that school lockdowns have been very productive in making students feel safe.

“When we have an announcement, they say ‘this is not a drill, someone is on our campus,’ ” Harrell said. “Our teachers lock their doors and we cover windows. We duck and cover to make sure that no one comes in. If things are clear, we have an administrator come unlock the doors and tell us everything is all clear.”

The students all said they would feel uncomfortable with teachers being armed in schools, a proposal that Crist strongly rejects.

Clint Herbic, the Associate Superintendent of Facilities and Operations with Pinellas County schools asked Crist if the federal government would be able to set up a grant program for districts and states to have “quick access” to funds to harden the infrastructure of public school campuses.

The congressman said he’d look into it.

Flowers talked about bulletproofing doors on school campuses, something she says she wants the school district to look into.

“We want our schools to remain inviting,” she said. “We want our family members when they’re coming in, to not feel like they’re coming into a prison, they’re coming into a school environment.”


Charlie Crist

Charlie Crist sells downtown St. Petersburg condo

Charlie and Carole Crist have sold their condo in the Parkshore Plaza building in downtown St. Petersburg.

The couple, who are going through a divorce, sold the condo to Susan and Daniel McGeown for $1.35 million, about $300,000 more than they paid for the property when they bought it in mid-2015.

The Crist real estate transaction was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

When the Crists put the condo on the market back in June, the list price was $1.5 million.

Last year, the Crists sold their St. Pete Beach home for about $1 million. That sale also produced a tidy profit of about $100,000 over what they paid for the home.

Charlie Crist announced last year, shortly before he took his seat in Congress, that he was filing for divorce.

He and Carole have been married since 2008, and were together during Crist’s change from a Republican governor, to an independent U.S. Senate candidate, to his current role as a Democratic U.S. Representative.

“I think the world of Carole. She’s an amazing person. It just didn’t work out for us,” Crist said at the time.

Despite announcing their split in February 2017, there have not been new actions in their divorce case for several months; the pair are still married.

At St. Pete vigil for Parkland shooting, calls for political action

Charlie Crist hopes things will be different this time around.

Before a public appearance at Williams Park Saturday, the St. Petersburg Democrat said he was still unconvinced the Republican-led Congress will support gun control legislation, even after 17 people were massacred last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Several hundred people gathered in downtown St. Pete for a vigil to remember the victims of the shooting.

“It’s different because those students have been speaking out about it,” Crist said, “very strongly and passionately from the heart.”

Crist, joined by other Pinellas Democrats, wanted to convey the message that the hurt and anger people are feeling over this latest tragedy must be transformed into political action at the polls this November.

St. Petersburg Councilwoman Darden Rice said it was the power of gun control groups like Moms Demand Action that helped defeat former New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte in her bid for re-election in 2016.

Ayotte paid a political price for voting against the 2013 bill that would have expanded gun background checks. Ayotte ultimately lost to Democrat Maggie Hassan by just 716 votes.

“Let me tell you, those groups were total ‘badasses’ and they stood up to the gun lobby,” Rice said to cheers. “And that’s what we have to do, again and again. It’s a lot of work. We gotta stick to it. We can’t snap our fingers and have something happen overnight right after a tragedy.”

Pinellas County School Board Chair Rene Flowers explicitly called out Republicans and rallied for more Democrats elected in November.

“Put (Marco) Rubio out of office!” she shouted as the audience continued to cheer. (However, it is something not likely to happen anytime soon — Rubio doesn’t come up for re-election until 2022.)

“Do not shuffle, shake and jive to hide behind the Second Amendment, ” she added. “If you want to protect your home, that’s fine, but there is no place to want to kill a deer, a coon or a possum with that kind of weapon fare. It’s not being used to eat!

Flowers then referenced Tuesday’s special election in Sarasota County, where she knocked on doors and made phone calls to help Democrat Margaret Good, who defeated Republican James Buchanan by seven points in a traditionally GOP-leaning district.

“We can do it!” she shouted.

In his brief remarks to the audience, Crist also referred to Good’s victory, as well as other recent elections in Florida that saw Rick Kriseman get re-elected mayor of St. Pete and his 2014 running mate Annette Taddeo win a special election state Senate seat in Miami-Dade County last year.

“Another red to blue,” he said referring to the Democrat taking over a seat formerly held by a Republican. “You see the trend. It’s coming, but only if we stay engaged.”

Crist told the crowd that he supports “comprehensive and significant ” background checks, a ban on all assault weapons and measures to keep schools safer.

“Now is the time. And I hope and pray that we can get some of these things passed, quickly, like yesterday. I’m an optimist, but I am somewhat pessimistic about the leadership in Congress, and how could you not be?  What have they done? How many does it take? When is enough enough?”

One Florida Republican lawmaker who said Sunday he would support such bills is Miami U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, considered one of the most vulnerable Republican members of Congress in the nation as he fights for re-election in Florida’s 26th Congressional District.

“What we need is congressional leaders, specifically in my party, to allow some of these bills to come to the floor for debate,” Curbelo told Martha Raddatz on ABC’s This Week. “There are a lot of Republicans who are prepared to support reasonable, common-sense gun safety laws, new laws, stronger laws that protect rights for responsible citizens, people who are responsible gun owners, but will prevent those who want to do harm to innocent people from obtaining these weapons.”

Rice said the time for activists who want to see gun control laws change is to get active right now. “Congress is where the work ends, it’s not where it begins. It begins here. It begins now, and we stick to it.”

An early look at the Vern Buchanan-David Shapiro CD 16 showdown

For Sarasota-area Democrats, hope springs eternal.

Tuesday night, Margaret Good won a decisive seven-point victory over Republican James Buchanan in the House District 72 special election.

Now Democrats are eyeing much bigger prey — Florida’s 16th Congressional District held by Vern Buchanan, who made millions owning car dealership before turning to politics in 2006, winning a hugely controversial victory over Democrat Christine Jennings.

Since then, Buchanan has never faced a serious threat.

Sarasota Republicans openly mocked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last spring when they added CD 16 to the list of seats that they were targeting for recruiting and potential investment.

“The Democrats have zero chance at winning this seat,” quipped Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters after that announcement was made. And while not sounding so bravado immediately after Good was declared the victor on Tuesday night, still vowed that he was “confident” that the GOP will win the seat back in November.

Democrats have found the man they believe can topple Buchanan in the fall in attorney David Shapiro, who in the last quarter of 2017 received more than 500 contributors totaling more than $250,000.

Shortly after Good’s victory Tuesday night, Shapiro’s campaign team fired off a memo to reporters (available on his campaign website) laying out the predicate on how they believe Buchanan is now very vulnerable.

However, it appeared that some of the data employed in the original memo to reporters was inaccurate.

The memo begins by asserting, HD 72 makes up 21.6 percent of the 16th Congressional District and is “a full 10-points more Republican by party registration” than CD 16 as a whole.

Where HD 72 saw a 12-point swing between 2016 and 2018, the memo asserts CD 16 will put Shapiro in “a strong position to win in November.”

According to a graph in Shapiro’s memo, HD 72 party registration is 50 percent Republican, 29 percent Democrat and 20 percent independent. Comparing it to the CD 16 political party breakdown, the memo claims HD 72 is a “full 10 points” more Republican.

Not exactly. A check of the closing book on party registration on HD 72 as of last month shows — courtesy of the Division of Elections website — that is in fact, 42 percent Republican, 33 percent Democratic, and 25 percent NPA. That breakdown is extremely close to the CD 16 demographics of 41 percent Republican, 32 percent Democrat and 27 percent independent (HD 72 makes up 21.6 percent of CD 16).

When contacted, Shapiro campaign manager Jason Ascher acknowledged the error and has subsequently corrected it on the website.

The highest-profile Democratic candidate on the ballot in 2016 and 2014 also fared much better in HD 72 than in CD 16.

In 2016, Donald Trump won HD 72 by 4.8 percent over Hillary Clinton but took CD 16 by 10.8 percent (Buchanan also defeated Democrat Jan Schneider by 19.6 percent).

In 2014, Charlie Crist won HD 72 by 1 percent over Rick Scott. Nevertheless, Scott took CD 16 by 6 percent.

So recent elections bear out the assumption that, statistically, CD 16 will be a harder road to hoe for Democrats than HD 72 was.

Not that it can’t (or won’t) be done in 2018.

The Sarasota GOP establishment still believes Buchanan’s hegemony in the district can’t be broken.

“I don’t think there’s any chance that the Democrats can beat him, just because he’s done such a great job,” says Sarasota Republican Committeeman Christian Ziegler, a former longtime aide to Buchanan. “When you look at his record, he’s right in line with the district, and if you look at his hustle, I don’t think know if there’s a congressman that works more aggressively and does more outreach to the community than Vern.”

“Our argument still holds,” counters Ascher. “These two districts are very similar and what happened Tuesday night bodes very well for David’s campaign heading into November.”

Philip Levine taps Jocelyn Mund as Tampa Bay regional director

Reflecting the importance of winning Florida’s largest media market as he seeks the Democratic nomination for Governor, Philip Levine has named Jocelyn Mund as his regional director for the Tampa Bay area.

Mund most recently served as deputy finance director for Charlie Crist, handling community outreach and public events for the Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg. She began her political career as an organizer for Barack Obama‘s 2012 election and on his inaugural committee.

Mund also worked in Washington for Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, before returning to Florida as deputy director of scheduling for Crist’s 2014 gubernatorial bid.

“We are thrilled to have Jocelyn join our team, as we continue to expand our efforts to reach voters in every part of our state,” said Levine campaign manager Matthew Van Name. “With Jocelyn’s expertise and incredible organizing abilities, we are more equipped than ever to build a successful grassroots 67-county strategy, building our movement throughout the critically important Bay area and beyond.”

“Mayor Levine is an exciting candidate, with an exciting vision for Florida, and I am grateful for this one-of-a-kind opportunity. I can’t wait to hit the ground running, helping to build grassroots movement in a part of Florida that I love so much,” Mund said.

The Tampa Bay area is the biggest media market in Florida. While extremely important for a statewide candidate, being from the Tampa Bay market hasn’t helped the last five Democrats who ran for governor going back to 2002. Bill McBride, Jim Davis, Alex Sink and Crist were all Tampa Bay-area Democrats who ran for governor — and lost.

Democrats haven’t won the governor’s race since 1994 when Lawton Chiles defeated Jeb Bush.

Levine was elected as mayor of Miami Beach in 2013.

Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum and Chris King are the other candidates vying for the nomination.

Steve Schale: Thoughts on the Sarasota special election

In eight days, there will be a special election in Sarasota. It is a race that probably shouldn’t look interesting, but alas, it is turning into one heck of a fight.

For those of you not from Florida, the corners of this state take on the characteristics of the part of the country where people migrate from.

Sarasota, like much of Florida from Tampa south to Naples, has a Midwestern feel, a result of migration that came down from the parts of America accessed from I-75.

So, the voters here, in large part, have more in common with voters from the northern suburbs of Chicago (the district used to be spring training home to the real Chicago baseball team, the White Sox) than they do with voters who live just 20 miles to the east, in the more rural parts of Sarasota County.

The seat became open when the incumbent, Republican Alex Miller, resigned due to a change in her business. The Republicans have nominated James Buchanan, the son of the area’s incumbent Congressman, Vern Buchanan. The Democratic candidate is Margaret Good, a local attorney.

House District 72 is a lean-Republican district. Mitt Romney won it by 4, and Donald Trump won it by 5. Overall, Republicans have a ten-point advantage in voter registration.

However, despite these numbers, this is a place where Democrats have won:  from 2006-2010, this seat was held by a Democrat, Keith Fitzgerald. In 2014, Charlie Crist beat Rick Scott by about 1.5 percent, and in 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain played to a draw.

Nonetheless, conventional wisdom would say this seat should be a little more Republican in a special election, due to their super voter turnout advantage, but alas, this isn’t a conventional wisdom year.

With a week to go before the Election, Democrats are turning out their voters at a higher rate than Republicans, and the race appears to be headed to a very tight finish.

Just how close?

Well as of this morning, some 20,621 voters have cast a ballot either by returning an absentee ballot or by voting in person at an early voting site, with Republicans holding a 199-ballot advantage.

So far, just under 17 percent of District 72 voters have voted. Democratic voter turnout is at 22.5 percent, while 17.5 percent of the district’s GOP voters have cast a ballot.

So how does this district typically perform?

In the last three top of the ticket races:  the 2012 presidential, the 2014 governor’s race, and the 2016 presidentials, there is a distinct pattern: Democrats have won the votes cast before Election Day, and Republicans have won Election Day.

In 2012 and 2016, Obama and Hillary Clinton went into Election Day with a 3.5 and 5-point lead respectively. In 2012, Romney won Election Day by 15 percent, and in 2016, Trump won by 26 percent.

But 2014 looked a bit different, and in it, the path for how Democrats win here:  Crist went into Election Day with a 7-point lead, but this time, Republicans only won Election Day by 6, leading to the Crist win in the district.

But since 2016 was more recent, let’s take a closer look at that race.

Overall, Republicans had about an 11.5 percent advantage in the share of the electorate. The way this broke down:  Republicans held a 5.5 percent advantage in the share of voters who voted before Election Day, and about a 23 percent advantage on Election Day. Just as in this race, Democrats had a higher turnout rate before Election Day than Republicans, but on Election Day, Democratic turnout cratered and GOP turnout spiked.

This translated to Clinton 5-point advantage among the 68 percent of the HD 72 voters who voted before Election Day, and Trump winning the remaining voters on Election Day by 26, for an overall Trump 5 percent win.

If you compare where Good is today compared to Clinton, in terms of turnout, the district is definitely more Democratic than it was going into Election Day in 2016.

By any fair assumption, given the district’s current turnout, and historical performance, she should be ahead by at least as much as Clinton was going into Election Day.

The unknown question, can she hold on — and just how much of a lead does she need to pull off the upset?

Eight days out, there are two big questions.

Republicans have more outstanding vote-by-mail ballots, so they see their numbers improve — though, over the last week, the delta between the two parties hasn’t changed much (remember Democrats in 2016 statewide left a lot more ballots on kitchen tables than did Republicans).

Right now, Democrats have returned 68 percent of their ballots, and Republicans have returned 65 percent, so I will be curious over the next week if the GOP can close that gap. What the final margin going into Election Day looks like will say a lot about the next point.

How much can Good lose Election Day by and still win?

If Election Day looks like Crist ‘14, she wins. If it looks like Trump ‘16, she loses.

Almost surely, it will land somewhere between the two.

Turnout can be hard to predict in these races. With more than a week to go, the turnout rate is already higher than the entire state Senate special election in Miami last fall.

In the recent St. Petersburg mayor’s race, 37 percent of the total vote came on Election Day. In the Miami State Senate race, it was around 27 percent. By the end of the week, this picture will be much more clear.

But one thing is for certain, this race is headed to the wire. Again, in a conventional special election, in a conventional year, this is a race we would not be talking about. But it isn’t, thus we are.

And at this point, a Democratic win here is far from improbable.

Constitution panel could look for clemency fix

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission may wade into the state’s process for restoring voting rights of ex-felons, after a federal judge ruled the current clemency process is unconstitutional.

Members of the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee unanimously agreed Friday to explore ways to consider the issue, either through additional committee meetings or by amending a proposal when the full commission meets in March.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found the current process – in which ex-felons must wait years to have their clemency cases considered and only a small number are successful in getting rights restored – to be arbitrary and unconstitutional. He also asked the state and lawyers who challenged the system to file plans to resolve the problem by Feb. 12.

“I don’t know if there is anything we can do, should do, where we would go from here, et cetera,” said Commissioner Hank Coxe, a Jacksonville lawyer who heads the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee. “But we’re here, it just happened and so we have it.”

Commissioner Sherry Plymale of Palm City said she and other members of the committee have an understanding of the problems in the current system, after they participated in an in-depth review of the clemency process.

“We were unhappy particularly with the number of people that are in the queue, which was thousands,” Plymale said. “I felt all along that we needed to find an opportunity to work on this.”

As of Oct. 1, the state had a backlog of 10,377 cases in which ex-felons are seeking to have civil rights restored, including the right to vote, according to commission analysts.

In Walker’s order, the federal judge noted that 154,000 Floridians had their rights restored under former Gov. Charlie Crist, who set up a process in which cases could be reviewed by the state parole commission.

But Gov. Rick Scott changed that policy after he took office in 2011, leaving the rights-restoration decisions up to him and the three members of the state Cabinet, although the governor has sole power to reject any application.

Since that time, only 3,000 applications have been granted, with Walker noting the process has resulted in nearly 1.7 million Floridians being denied the right to vote, including more than one out of every five voting-age African-American residents.

“I do think we owe it to an awful lot of people in Florida to have this process work a lot better than it does,” Plymale said. “Even if they don’t want to restore rights, OK. But they’re not even getting a hearing, which is really not fair.”

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is a member of the ethics and election panel, expressed regret that lawmakers did not address the issue during his 10 years in the Legislature.

“We didn’t do what perhaps we could or should have done if we had known then what we know now,” Gaetz said. “It’s obvious that the clemency process in our state is not only broken but it’s scandalously broken.”

The commission considered several proposals aimed at automatically restoring voting rights for ex-felons. But those proposals were withdrawn when the political committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy obtained enough petition signatures to place an initiative, known as Amendment 4, on the fall ballot. That amendment would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, excluding those convicted for murder or sexual offenses.

As commissioners debated the ex-felon proposals, several members raised the possibility of “ballot confusion” if the commission placed a measure on the 2018 general election ballot in addition to Amendment 4.

Coxe, the chairman of the ethics and elections panel, said if the commission now takes up a proposal, he expects it to be focused on the clemency process rather than on the automatic restoration of voting rights.

“I’m not concerned about ballot confusion if one deals with clemency and it clearly does,” Coxe said.

Gaetz said he expects Amendment 4 to fail to gain the required 60 percent support from voters because it is “too broad.” While it excludes murderers and sex offenders, it would automatically restore rights to other felons who have committed serious crimes, such as kidnapping or carjacking.

He said he would not like to see competing proposals on the ballot, “but I think that we should not just give up on the opportunity to fix the clemency process even if we can’t fix the broader issue because of the way it is drawn so expansively.”

The commission, which meets every 20 years, has the unique ability to place constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. Ballot measures must be supported by at least 60 percent of voters to be enacted.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Senate advances ‘resign to run’ bill

The Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would require state and local officials to give up their current seat in order to run for federal office.

Under the “resign to run” bill, SB 186, candidates would need to resign their current office 10 days before the qualifying period opens in a federal race if the terms of the old office and the new office overlap.

The rule wouldn’t apply if a candidate’s potential federal term doesn’t overlap with the term for their current office.

State and local elected officials already must abide by a similar rule if they opt to run for a different, non-federal seat, and the rule also used to apply to federal seats, but in 2007 GOP lawmakers changed the rule in order to allow then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to run for vice president without giving up the governor’s mansion.

Crist didn’t end up as a VP pick, but the rule change stuck around.

The Senate voted 27-7 in favor of the proposal, sponsored by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson, with all the nays coming from Democratic Senators. The bill would go into effect immediately if signed into law.

Of the 15 Senate Democrats, only Sens. Bill Montford, Kevin Rader, Annette Taddeo and Jose Javier Rodriguez voted in favor.

Rodriguez could potentially be affected if the bill becomes law, as he is running in the race for Florida’s 27th Congressional District this fall and his Senate term runs through 2020. Rep. David Richardson and a half-dozen other Democrats are also vying for the seat, which is opening up due to the retirement of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

An identical bill in the House, HB 105 by Republican Rep. David Santiago, has cleared all of its committee stops and is ready for a vote on the chamber floor.

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