Darren Soto Archives - Florida Politics

Orlando airport contract workers get Democratic support

The union organizing an effort to raise wages and benefits for thousands of contract workers at the Orlando International Airport is becoming a symbol of Democrats’ living wage push in Florida.

On Tuesday, several dozen workers, some making as little as $5.23 an hour working for airport contractors, declared the airport to be a sweatshop.

They received full-throated backing from Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Chris King, as well as U.S. Rep Darren Soto, state Sen. Victor Torres, and state Rep. Amy Mercado.

The Service Employees International Union, together with Orlando Local 32BJ, are trying to organize contractor employees at the airport, with the goal of $15 an hour wages and benefits, as has been done at other airports.

All summer long, the union highlighted the low wages paid to airport workers who carry bags, push wheelchairs, greet visitors and other jobs, while working for contract companies hired by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

The minimum wage at the airport does not include tips those employees may receive, but the employees said tips are unreliable (and frequently nonexistent).

On Wednesday, the union released findings of a study of wages at the Orlando airport; 78 percent of employees make less than $20,000 a year, with 13 percent making less than $12,000 a year. The study highlighted efforts at other airports, including at Fort Lauderdale, to raise wages universally.

“This airport that is the gateway to the ‘happiest place on Earth’ is run like a sweatshop,” declared Sheyla Ascencios, political director for the SEIU in Orlando.

“We are committed, [Tallahassee] Mayor Andrew Gillum and myself to righting this wrong and making this airport work like it should,” King declared in response, citing his running mate, gubernatorial candidate Gillum.

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority put out a statement Wednesday that the airport authority itself employees only 850 of the 21,000 or so who work at the airport, and that the rest are employed by private companies or federal agencies. GOAA declared it pays its direct employees at least federal minimum wage.

At a separate news conference announcing the airport received a JD Power award as the top-ranked major airport in the country, GOAA Board Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher said he was asking for an independent review of the union’s study and would discuss it at the October board meeting.

But Kruppenbacher expressed skepticism about the report, cautioning that he had heard from “a number of employees” that they would rather have the low wages plus tips than a $15 an hour minimum wage and no tips.

King, Soto, Torres, and Mercado called for changes soon, and even suggested that if the current GOAA board won’t do it, an election of Gillum and King would bring a new board that would.

“It’s a disgrace,” Mercado said. “But I tell you what; it is a good time to come to the table and negotiate.”

Said Torres: “Guess what: You can change the board with a new government.”

For them, the Orlando airport symbolizes the Democrats’ call for mandated living wages. King and Soto cited the deal struck two weeks ago between Walt Disney World and its unions to raise the minimum wage there over time to $15 an hour.

“Orlando is not unique, but it is a microcosm of a very large problem in Florida, which, for too long, we have not cared for, we have not invested in, we have not built a fair economy that works for all of our families,” King said. “It’s why Mayor Andrew Gillum and I will be fighting for a living wage and a $15 an hour minimum wage in the state of Florida.”

The call reflects the stark difference in the economic theories on the table in the Nov. 6 election, where Gillum and King face Republican nominees U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and state Rep. Jeanette Nunez; Soto is facing Wayne Liebnitzky, and Mercado faces George Chandler, who argues that a free economy lets businesses prosper, and wages would rise naturally as a result.

Democrats say they see a thriving economy at Orlando airport, but with stagnant low wages.

“No one in this nation should work 40 hours a week or more and live in poverty,” Soto said. “It also good for the economy as well as being the right thing to do. That deal for Disney pumps another billion into our Central Florida economy over the next four years. When Central Floridians have more money than just to pay their bills, small businesses win, everybody wins.”

Outside groups spent $1.2 million to help Darren Soto defeat Alan Grayson

Eight outside political committees and groups provided almost $1.2 million support to U.S. Rep. Darren Soto‘s defeat of his predecessor former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary for Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

Apparently highlighting the outside help for Soto was the George Sorosbacked Latino Victory Fund, which claimed on primary day that it had pumped more than $500,000 into media buys to support Soto on Spanish-language media.

FEC records of independent expenditures through Election Day do not show that much spending by Latino Victory Fund, but almost, and there may be spending yet to report.

The FEC records also show Latino Victory Fund also was not alone in spending to either support Soto or oppose Grayson, and perhaps not even the most generous toward Soto’s candidacy. FEC records show Latino Victory Fund spending $415,000 through the primary, while Progress Tomorrow Inc. spent $544,000.

There are no FEC records reporting any outside groups making any independent expenditures that supported Grayson or opposed Soto.

Grayson had set up what was to be his big political comeback this year after he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic primary nomination to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, and lost his congressional seat to Soto by default. But that comeback required him to take out Soto, and Grayson crashed badly, in an election landslide.

The total for outside spending to support Soto or oppose Grayson was $1.18 million, potentially more than Soto might have spent through his own primary campaign fund, though the final numbers are not yet in for his official campaign’s account. Through August 8 his campaign had spent about $886,000. In that Aug. 8 report, the most recent available, Soto had just $251,000 left in the bank.

Grayson had spent $540,000 through Aug. 8.

Soto now faces Republican Wayne Liebnitzky, who has far less money available, only about $29,000 on Aug. 8, heading toward the Nov. 6 election.

For the Aug. 28 Democratic congressional primary outside spending, the FEC reports show:

Latino Victory Fund, described by the Center for Responsive Politics’ website OpenSecrets.org as a hybrid of a political action committee and a super political action committee, largely but not entirely funded by Soros, spent $415,184 on various kinds of advertising, from pushed text messaging to television.

Progress Tomorrow spent $272,000 on digital and mail advertising supporting Soto and another $272,000 on digital and mail advertising attacking Grayson.

The super PAC has a curious combination of resources, according to records made available through OpenSecrets.org. All of Progress Tomorrow’s money has been donated by two other PACs. The first is Forward Not Back, whose principal benefactors are New York businessmen Peter May and Nelson Peltz, who each have been big supporters of Democratic candidates, and New York businessman Louis Bacon, who has supported both Democrats and Republicans, including Rudy Giuliani. The other PAC is United Together, principally funded by News Corp. Chairman and Republican rainmaker Rupert Murdoch, and by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a big backer of Democrats.

United for Progress, a super PAC entirely funded by Soros, spent $123,000 on radio advertising to support Soto.

Alianza for Progress, a dark-money 501(c) committee that does not have to disclose its donors, reported $41,555 worth of door-to-door canvassing to support Soto.

Organize Now, the progressive 501(c) grassroots group put together by former organizers for Barack Obama, reported $35,062 worth of printing and canvassing efforts to support Soto.

Boricua Vota Inc., an Orlando-based group, reported spending $22,590 on billboards, radio advertising, and event expenses to support Soto.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund provided $1,386 worth of support through a list rental and a text message platform for Soto,

The Center for Popular Democracy Action, a dark-money 501(c), offered $1,411 worth of canvassing labor and transportation to support Soto.

Donald Trump: Puerto Rican deaths fake news; Darren Soto: Trump dancing on graves

President Donald Trump has responded Thursday morning to mounting reports of high death tolls in Puerto Rico in the wake of last year’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria, contending in tweets that 3,000 did not die as a result, and such reports are the result of Democrats trying to make him look bad.

“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.

Democrats and Puerto Rican activists are expressing stunned disbelief of Trump’s tweets. U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat from Celebration whose district includes Florida’s largest concentration of Puerto Ricans and who is of Puerto Rican descent himself, accused Trump of “dancing on their graves to disguise your tragic incompetence.”

Republicans scrambled to accept the 3,000 figure as a believable estimate without sounding overtly critical of the president’s tweets.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum tweeted, “No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserve better from @realDonaldTrump before, during and after the hurricane.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, whom Scott is challenging, called Trump’s tweets “shameful.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando called the tweets “awful” and declare that Trump “has once again made it all about him.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park found Trump’s comments “very distrurbing,” according to her chief of staff.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, running for the U.S. Senate this year, said he disagreed with Trump and declared “the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching.”

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor and a staunch Trump supporter, “doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” and is “committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community,” according to his campaign.

And Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio essentially defended the 3,000 estimate, and cautioned everyone to stop playing politics over it.

Said state Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat who also is of Puerto Rican descent, called Trump delusional. “This president cannot admit that he did not do all that he should have done to help those in the dire situation on the island. It’s a wonder he can still pound his chest and say he was outstanding in what he did, and not realize he failed, he failed the Puerto Ricans miserably.”

The 3,000 figure, actually 2,975, came from his own government’s estimates of people who died from lack of water, electricity, medicine, and health care on the island in the aftermath of Maria, which left most of the island without power for months, and much of the island without potable water.

A separate study by Harvard University researchers, predicted the government estimate. Released in May, the Harvard study analyzed the probabilities of Puerto Rico deaths with and without the storms concluded the range of difference would be anywhere 793 to 8,498 additional deaths, and set its estimate on 4,645, as the statistically most-probable point. That study was conducted by a collaboration of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Carlos Albizu University in Puerto Rico, and the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!” Trump tweeted.

Trump’s tweets come as the Carolinas prepare for the next monster hurricane, Hurricane Florence, bearing down for a strike tonight or tomorrow.

Soto’s full tweet, “Mr. President: we had nearly 3000 Americans die in Puerto Rico due to your slow, failed response to Hurricane Maria. And now you dance on their graves to disguise your tragic incompetence.”

Demings tweeted: It’s times like these when we need the President to lead. But once again he has made it all about him. The death count from #Maria is real. Thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico died as a direct result of the storm. When America faces a tragedy, we HAVE to come together.

Murphy put out a statement that read, “No objective observer believes the federal government’s preparation for and response to Hurricane Maria was adequate, given that nearly 3,000 Americans in Puerto Rico died. However, this is a symptom of a much deeper problem. For too long, under both Republicans and Democrats, the federal government has treated Puerto Rico in an unequal and sometimes indifferent way. American citizens in Puerto Rico should have the same rights and responsibilities as their fellow citizens in Florida or any state. Ensuring genuine equality for Puerto Rico is one of the best ways to avoid a repeat of what we saw with the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria.”

Scott’s full tweet: I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and [Puerto Rico] Gov. [Ricardo] Rosselló agreed. I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching. I’ll continue to help PR

“These days even tragedy becomes political. 3k more Americans died in #PuertoRico after Hurricane than during comparable periods before. Both Fed & local gov made mistakes. We all need to stop the blame game & focus on recovery, helping those still hurting & fixing the mistakes,” Rubio tweeted.

Nelson’s full tweet: The president’s comments on the nearly 3,000 American lives lost in Puerto Rico are shameful. We deserve and expect more from someone who holds the highest office in our country.

The full statement from DeSantis’s Campaign Communications Director Stephen Lawson is:

“Ron DeSantis has always worked to help the Puerto Rican community, both on the Island and here in Florida. As Chairman of the National Security Subcommittee, he conducted an oversight hearing earlier this year to identify deficiencies in the federal response to Hurricane Maria. He has worked alongside Rep. Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon to secure support for rebuilding efforts. In August, he visited the island to meet with elected leaders and get the latest briefing from FEMA regarding recovery efforts. Ron DeSantis is committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community, especially after such a tragic loss of life. He doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated. Ron is focused on continuing to help our Puerto Rican neighbors recover and create opportunities for those who have moved to Florida succeed.”

Bill Nelson endorsed by Jose Alvarez, Mayita Meléndez

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson today picked up the endorsements of two Hispanic leaders—Mayors Jose Alvarez and Maria “Mayita” Meléndez.

Alvarez announced his support for the Democratic incumbent shortly after Nelson participated in the Osceola County Puerto Rican Parade this morning.

At a campaign announcement, Alvarez called Nelson “the best choice not only for the people of Kissimmee and our city’s Puerto Rican community, but for all Floridians.”

Meléndez, the mayor of Ponce, Puerto Rico, sent a video message from the island also appealing to the many Puerto Rican residents of Florida. She cited the three-term senator’s experience as reason for her support.

Nelson this year faces the toughest re-election battle of his career and remains neck-and-neck in the polls with Republican challenger Rick Scott.

The fight for support among the Puerto Rican population within Florida has been fierce. Scott’s campaign a week ago held a South Florida event spotlighting the support from Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón and other island leaders.

All citizens of Puerto Rico hold U.S. citizenship, and if they reside in the United States can vote in the mid-term elections. And a CNN analysis earlier this year showed a record number of Puerto Ricans migrating from the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and Florida the state where more have settled than anywhere else.

After the heavily criticized federal response to the storm, President Donald Trump has been incredibly unpopular with island voters. But a Florida International University poll found voters from the island have a high view of Scott.

That’s part of why Nelson has worked hard to shore up support from the traditionally Democratic voting bloc.

Support from Meléndez could prove critical, as the Puerto Rican official runs the second-most populous city on the island behind San Juan. And Nelson already has the backing of San Juana Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, former Puerto Rico Govs. Pedro Rosselló and Alejandro García Padilla and former Puerto Rican Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock.

At the event where Alvarez endorsed Nelson, a number of other prominent Central Florida leaders with ties the community also appeared, including U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, state Sen. Victor Torres, state Rep. John Cortes, Osceola County Commissioners Viviana Janer and Cheryl Grieb, Kissimmee Mayor Pro Tem Jim Fisher and City Commissioner Angela Eady.

Kissimee boasts one of the highest concentrations of Puerto Rican voters in the state.

Additionally, Nelson’s camp hopes Alvarez, who was born in Cuba, can help with another Hispanic voting bloc.

The Cuban-American population has been a traditionally Republican demographic, and more than half of Cuban voters in Florida backed Trump in 2016, according to Pew Research. But Democrats for years have worked to make inroads with one of the only right-leaning Hispanic groups in the country.

Wayne Liebnitzky endorsed by former Puerto Rico senator

Republican congressional candidate Wayne Liebnitzky has received the endorsement of former Puerto Rico Sen. Miriam Ramirez in his quest to be elected in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which has a large population of Puerto Rican residents, his campaign announced.

Ramirez, a medical doctor, had a long career in public health and politics in Puerto Rico including a term in the Puerto Rico Senate from 2000-’04, before moving to Florida. Most recently, until 2013, she served as Federal, Health and Legislative Affairs Advisor to then-San Juan Mayo Jorge Santini, Mayor of San Juan. She continues as an active advocate for Puerto Rico statehood from Florida.

In the Nov. 6 election, Liebnitzky, of St. Cloud, is facing Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, who in 2016 became the first Florida congressman of Puerto Rican heritage. Soto defeated Liebnitzky in that 2016 election.

CD 9 covers Osceola County, south Orange County and east Polk County, all areas with large and growing populations of Puerto Ricans. The area was ground zero for the migration of people fleeing Puerto Rico last year after Hurricane Maria devestated the island almost a year ago.

matt gaetz

Poll: Matt Gaetz’s medical marijuana support A-OK with CD 1 Republicans

A poll commissioned after Matt Gaetz cruised past his two primary challengers found that Republican primary voters were just fine with their Congressman supporting medical marijuana.

Nearly 70 percent of Republicans in Florida’s 1st Congressional District told St. Pete Polls they cast their ballot for Gaetz in last week’s primary election.

Though the Shalimar Congressman’s actual vote total was closer to 65 percent, more than half of those who said they were in Gaetz’s corner were also supportive of the Sunshine State’s 2016 medical marijuana law while only 37 percent said they were against it.

That gives the law a plus-16 margin of support among Gaetz’s voters in the ruby-red district — registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by more than 2-to-1 in CD 1.

In 2016, Floridians voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment allowing people with debilitating conditions to use medical marijuana.

Well before that amendment (or the failed 2014 version) went before voters, Gaetz sponsored the state House version of a bill legalizing the use of low-THC medical marijuana to treat certain patients, such as children who suffer from debilitating seizures.

When dispensaries started rolling out medical marijuana to patients, Gaetz even went on a ride along to deliver the medication to a Northwest Florida family.

The first term Congressman has also given medical marijuana some attention during his time in Washington. Earlier this year, he joined Kendall Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Orlando Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in sponsoring a bill to legalize and promote federal research into medical marijuana.

When St. Pete Polls asked Gaetz supporters if they were aware that their Congressman was “a strong supporter of medical marijuana research and helped pass Florida’s first low-THC medical cannabis law,” 58 percent answered in the affirmative.

Among those who said they were aware, only 29 percent said it influenced their vote — 16 percent said that it was positive, while 13 percent said it was negative. For the remaining 71 percent, medical marijuana didn’t factor into their decision at the polls.

When asked if they had seen any advertising on Gaetz’s support for medical marijuana, 31 percent said they had while the balance said they had not.

The St. Pete Polls survey, conducted Sept. 4, received responses from 604 registered Republicans in Florida’s 1st Congressional District who said they voted in the Aug. 28 Republican primary. The survey has a margin of error of 4 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.

The poll was commissioned as part of “Wellness Week,” a collaboration between Florida Politics, St. Pete Polls and Empowering Wellness.

Florida Politics to spotlight politics of cannabis with ‘Wellness Week’

On Tuesday morning, the general election season (unofficially) begins. And after a brief holiday hiatus, Sunburn also returns with a slightly different look.

Let me explain; I am extremely excited about what Florida Politics has in store for our loyal readers next week.

Starting Tuesday — and continuing through the week — Florida Politics is launching a collaboration with the newly formed medical-marijuana advocacy group, Empowering Wellness.

Joined by our colleagues at St. Pete Polls, Florida Politics and Empowering Wellness will roll out a week’s worth of exclusive polling data, analysis and content, satiating your appetite for the most up-to-date info on the major statewide contests on the November ballot — all with a medical cannabis-focused twist.

Formed in August, Empowering Wellness launched just as early voting began in the Florida primaries. With an initial focus on both state and federal races, as well as medical marijuana policy in Congress, Empowering Wellness hit the ground running, putting money to mouth on behalf of U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz and Darren Soto — supporting each in their ultimately successful primary races.

Dubbing the bipartisan duo “Champions of Wellness” for their dedicated support of medical marijuana policies in Washington, the organization executed digital ad campaigns in both primaries, targeting likely supporters of medical marijuana with hundreds of thousands of ads in the two weeks leading up to Aug. 28.

Partnering with Florida Politics on “Wellness Week,” Empowering Wellness is sending a signal: It is authentic, engaged, and will quickly become a force in the general election.

“There’s a clear disconnect between the majority of Americans and the majority of members of Congress when it comes to medical marijuana policy,” said Ben Pollara, who managed Florida’s 2014 and 2016 medical marijuana campaigns. Pollara serves as the lead consultant to Empowering Wellness.

“When over 71 percent of Floridians voted to put medical marijuana in our state’s constitution — as the voters or legislatures of 30 other states have also done — but medical marijuana patients, caregivers and businesses are still federal criminals.” Pollara said. “It’s time for Congress to do their jobs and change the law.”

Empowering Wellness plans to do that, at least in 2018, with a focus on protecting incumbents — those “Champions of Wellness” — who are vocal about reforming medical marijuana laws. The group will achieve this goal through positive messaging centered on those candidates’ support of cannabis.

Beyond Gaetz and Soto, the group is also singling out other “Champions” in Congress, such as Miami Republican Carlos Curbelo and Democrat Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg.

Empowering Wellness is also taking a keen interest Florida’s U.S. Senate slugfest between Gov. Rick Scott and incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson. Visit Florida Politics early Tuesday, when Wellness Week kicks off with some hot-off-the-presses polling in the Senate race.

Donna Shalala, Darren Soto, Al Lawson among congressional winners

Donna Shalala, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will take on Cuban-American broadcast journalist Maria Elvira Salazar in the November general election after both survived crowded primary races Tuesday in a major congressional battleground.

Democrats are expected to bank heavily on Shalala picking up the Miami-Dade County seat of retiring Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as the Democratic Party seeks to retake control of the U.S. House.

Shalala, also a former University of Miami president, got 32 percent of the vote in a five-way field in Congressional District 27. In the Republican primary, Salazar picked up 41 percent of the vote in a field of nine.

Meanwhile, Democratic incumbents were successful Tuesday, with U.S. Rep. Darren Soto crushing the hopes of former Congressman Alan Grayson, who was trying to recapture the District 9 seat in Central Florida. Also, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson fended off a challenge from former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown in the Democratic primary in Congressional District 5 in North Florida.

The party also again secured three of the state’s 27 seats, with U.S. Rep. Val Demings and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson both winning primaries and facing no general-election opposition. Congressman Alcee Hastings defeated a primary opponent and now goes up against a write-in candidate in November.

Democrats Lois Frankel and Kathy Castor were the state’s only congressional incumbents who had no opposition this year.

On the Republican side Tuesday, retirements and political aspirations created crowded fields for open seats.

In the District 6 GOP primary to replace Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis in Northeast Florida, Michael Waltz, a businessman and former Army Green Beret from St. Augustine, received 42 percent of the vote to hold off former state Rep. Fred Costello and Palm Coast businessman John Ward.

Waltz now will face former U.S. Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, who handily defeated two opponents in the Democratic primary.

In Congressional District 15, state Rep. Ross Spano defeated four other Republicans seeking to replace retiring Congressman Dennis Ross. Spano received 44 percent of the field to top a field that included former state Rep. Neil Combee of Auburndale.

Spano will face Kristen Carlson, who defeated two Democratic primary opponents in the Republican-leaning district.

Also, state Sen. Greg Steube easily won the Congressional District 17 primary over state Rep. Julio Gonzalez and Bill Akins of Port Charlotte. Steube will now face April Freeman, who received 77 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary in a district that leans heavily Republican.

Two other races that are expected to draw national attention in November were set up as expected Tuesday.

On the Treasure Coast, freshman Congressman Brian Mast had little problem dispatching two Republican primary challengers in District 18. Meanwhile, Lauren Baer, a foreign policy official in the Obama administration whose family owns Baer’s Furniture, won by 20 percentage points over Pam Keith, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2016.

In Central Florida, freshman Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy got 86 percent of the vote to defeat a Democratic primary challenger and will face state Rep. Mike Miller in November. Miller, R-Winter Park, defeated two primary opponents, scoring 54 percent of the vote.

George Soros-backed Latino PAC: We spent $500K to help Darren Soto

The George Soros-backed Latino Victory Fund declared Tuesday evening that its independent campaign spending to support U.S. Rep. Darren Soto reached $500,000 entering today’s Democratic primary against his challenger former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

That amount, which Latino Victory Fund described as “an investment,” bought more than 500 television spots that have aired in recent weeks on Spanish-language television stations and networks in Central Florida; commercials on Spanish radio stations; Spanish-language social media; several mailers targeting Hispanic audiences in CD 9; and other campaign advertising and grassroots organizing efforts on Soto’s behalf, the group spelled out in a news release issued Tuesday evening.

The Latino Victory Fund efforts might wind up being an unexpected weapon pushing Soto over the top if he defeats Grayson in Tuesday’s primary, which has been bruising, contentious, and by most accounts, close. The fund’s late-Tuesday announcement spelling out details of efforts on Soto’s behalf certainly suggests that.

Earlier Tuesday, Soto’s staff expressed fresh confidence in his chances to defeat Grayson, the district’s congressman for two terms before Soto, specifically because Soto’s campaign was seeing high turnouts of Hispanic voters, a constituency he identifies with and probably needs to win, but which has been notoriously unreliable in past elections.

When he first was elected to Congress in 2016, Soto became the first member of Congress from Florida who was of Puerto Rican heritage.

CD 9 has Central Florida’s greatest concentration of Hispanic residents, and Puerto Ricans are by far the biggest ethnic group, and growing fast in the past five years. Today the Puerto Rican communities centered in CD 9 are among the largest in the continental United States. Soto has made Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican communities in Central Florida major focuses.

Latino Victory Fund pointed that out as important for its support for him.

“Darren Soto has fought for Florida families as an effective advocate in Congress. Now it’s our turn to fight for him,” Cristóbal J. Alex, Latino Victory Fund president, stated in the news release. “We were pleased to have managed one of the most sophisticated, multifaceted political programs to defend Darren Soto, the only Puerto Rican member of Congress from Florida, and to have built Latino political power along the way that will have a positive impact beyond today’s election.”

Soto is one of more than 30 Democrats whom Latino Victory Fund is backing in federal and state elections around the nation, including Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who’s running for Congress in Florida’s 26th Congressional District; state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who’s seeking re-election in Senate District 40; state Rep. Janet Cruz, who’s running for the Florida Senate in Senate District 18; and Brendan Ramirez, who’s running in the Democratic primary Tuesday for House District 30.

The political action committee counts Soros, the New  York billionaire who finances Democrats, liberal causes, and political candidates of color across the country, as its biggest single benefactor for the current election cycle, thanks to the $500,000 he has donated to the group in the past year. But he’s not single-handedly carrying the committee, as he has done with other political committees he funded. Latino Victory Fund also lists numerous other five- and six-figure donations from other political committees, labor unions, law firms and individuals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Beyond the direct political expenditures, Latino Victory Fund is reporting that it invested $50,000 in research into the rapidly changing demographics in Florida, and to engage newly arrived Puerto Ricans, including through polling and focus groups. The organization also hosted a high-profile fundraiser for Soto, offering him a national audience, and played a significant role in obtaining the endorsement, for Soto, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, according to the release.

In Central Florida’s last minute campaigning, Jerry Demings predicting victory

Candidates up at dawn, waving signs on street corners, still planting campaign signs, trying to get through the day to their cheers-or-tears parties tonight.

Primary Election Day.

Orange County could elect a new mayor — and Jerry Demings is predicting a win — and a new chair of the Orange County School Board along with at least four new School Board members, as well as three or four new Orange County commissioners.

Demings’ optimism is matched by confidence from his opponents that Demings won’t get the outright majority of votes he will need to be elected Tuesday. In that scenario, and in similar scenarios for the other multicandidate, nonpartisan races determining Orange County’s leadership, there would be runoff elections on Nov. 6.

This could be the day that U.S. Rep. Darren Soto‘s congressional career ends, or it could be when his Democratic primary rival former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson finds out the times have moved past when his bombastic personality was embraced by Florida’s 9th Congressional District voters.

It will certainly be the day in which Republicans decide who they want, most likley state Rep. Mike Miller or Scott Sturgill, to send to take on incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in Florida’s 7th Congerssional Distirct; who Florida House District 44 Democratic voters in west Orange County want, former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson or activist Melanie Gold, to send against Republican state Rep. Bobby Olszewski; and who Republican voters want, Mikaela Nix or Stockton Reeves VI, to go up against Democrat Anna Eskamani for the open seat for Florida House District 47.

Also on the line: Republican state Rep. Rene Plasencia‘s re-election bid in the east-Orange and north-Brevard counties’ House District 50 against primary challenger George Collins; northeast Brevard County voters’ choice, Henry Parrish or Tyler Sirois, for a Republican to run for state Rep. Tom Goodson‘s old seat in the Republican-rich House District 51.

That’s why candidates such as Orange County School Board chair candidate Nancy Robbinson, who has been on the board since 2008, was making last-minute runs early Tuesday to pick up and distribute more yards signs as last-minute opportunities arose, in her battle with Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and educators Robert Prater and Matthew Fitzpatrick.

That’s why Soto is planning an ambitious last-day of campaigning that has 17 stops on his schedule for Tuesday, visiting voting locations in CD 9’s areas in Polk and Osceola counties in a whirlwind of 20-minute visits wih voters, before the day ends with his watch party in Kissimmee.

That’s why he and most other candidates such as Orange County mayoral frontrunner Orange County Sheriff Demings and his opponents Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke and businessman Rob Panepinto were out waving signs and meeting with voters as the sun rose Tuesday.

Demings tipped his cap to voters but also predicted victory.

“We’ve done what we could do to ensure victory today but the people will decide on who will be the next Orange County Mayor,” Demings said. “Based on immediate feedback we’re receiving from the various polling sites, victory is well at hand.”

But Clarke and Panepinto have their own optimism, not necessarily for a win Tuesday, but for at least not losing on Tuesday.

“We’re sure we’re going to still be standing tonight,” Clarke said. “We’re confident we’ll be there for a run-off. We have a lot of good feeling out there. But we shall see.”

Panepinto said the voters he and his campaign are hearing from are filling him with confidence that the large undecided pool showing up in polls until recently is finally engaging and breaking his way, especially after the debates and the controversy this month about school safety resource officers.

“We’ve seen some momentum our way,” Panepinto said. “The nice thing about a democracy is, everybody gets to vote and the scorecard will come out tonight.”

They shall see tonight, as Clarke and his campaign hold their watch party at the Gallery At Mills Park in Orlando’s Mills 50 District, Demings holds his at the Florida Hotel and Conference Center’s Heroes Ballroom, and Panepinto holds his at The Brewstillery in Winter Park.

Among others, Soto’s party is planned for the Ramada Gateway Hotel in Kissimmee. Miller’s is set for Miller’s Ale House on Lee Road in Winter Park. Robbinson’s will be at the LOCAL Bar & Grill in College Park.

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