Darren Soto – Florida Politics

CD 15 Democratic hopeful puts focus on fixing public education

Public-school teachers should not have to pay federal income taxes, a Democratic candidate for Florida’s 15th Congressional District declared Thursday

“It will be the Rewarding American Educators Act, and I will file it when I get to Congress,” said Gregory Pilkington of Indian Lakes Estate. “It will attract new teachers and keep those who then will be able to afford staying.”

Pilkington, 55, is one of six Democrats hoping to run to fill the CD 15 seat now held by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican who is not seeking re-election.

The erosion of the education system and infrastructure have hit the nation particularly hard, but it is even worse in the 15th District which includes portions of Polk, Hillsborough and southern Lake counties, he said. He promised to bring relief to the district and blamed Republican predecessors for neglect causing the conditions.

“We have problems that must be solved in our public education system. Tenoroc High School (in Lakeland) has a 50 percent graduation rate. And If you are an African-American male who drops out of school, you have a 90 percent chance of winding up in jail.”

Pilkington fills his policy discussions with more statistics than perhaps even the Census Bureau then quickly emails the names of the studies, dates and sample sizes.

It seems, because of his background, numbers and their proofs are natural things for him. A former executive at the World Customs Organization, in Belgium, and previous positions with DHL Worldwide Express and FedEx Express, he backs up claims with statistics. The ones that worry him, he said, are education and dilapidated infrastructure numbers.

“I support charter schools. They have they have a place, but no tax monies should ever go to for-profit charter schools. And we should not penalize public schools like (Tenoroc High) by sending the money it needs to charter schools,” he said.

Pilkington said that exempting the 3 million public school teachers, some of the poorest paid professors in the nation, from federal income tax would cost $19 billion, which could be immediately recouped by reducing the big tax cut to the wealthy by only 1 percent.

“We should revisit the tax cut to give it to the working people and not just to the wealthy,” he said. “The theory of trickle-down economy — the wealthy investing their additional money from tax cuts into the economy — has never proven to be true. That money largely goes offshore and to reserves. But the middle-class use that extra money for cars, kids’ education and expenditures helping local economies.”

Pilkington said that unlike some other Democratic candidates, he wouldn’t campaign against the departing Ross, but farther into the interview with Florida Politics, he couldn’t help it.

“If you look to the east, (U.S. Rep.) Darren Soto has obtained monies for improving business and health care for his district. To the west of us (Democratic Congresswoman) Kathy Castor has brought back grants and money to help the economy of her district,’’ he said.

“But if you look in the middle, our own congressman (Ross) has done nothing for us. And even the post office he renamed is no longer in the district,” Pilkington said.

He said the struggle for economic help in the CD 15 is partly due to lack of investment in infrastructure and the economy in the last decade and impacts to the quality of life.

“There are nine facilities of higher education in this district, but graduates can’t find a job here,” he said, adding that the flight of young graduates leaves the district older with less high skill trained people to attract business.

Currently, although living in Polk County for several years to be near his parents, Pilkington lives outside of the CD 15 but noted that he and his wife are actively looking for a home in Lakeland since it would be in the center of the district.


David Richardson picks up Darren Soto’s endorsement in CD 27 race

Democratic congressional candidate state Rep. David Richardson has received the endorsement of Orlando’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in the Florida’s 27th Congressional District race.

The endorsement is the first by a sitting member of Florida’s Congressional delegation in the wildly contentious contest as Richardson, five other Democrats, eight Republicans, and an independent seek to succeed retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in the Miami-based district.

”David Richardson is a fighter for the progressive cause. During his years as a State Legislator he fought for social rights and civil liberties for DACA recipients, LGBTQ Americans, and incarcerated Floridians,” Soto stated in a news release issued by Richardson’s campaign. ”His campaign for Congress has continued this trend with his support for Medicare-for-all, his calls for immediate aid to Puerto Rico, and his demands for gun reform nationwide. As such, I am proud to endorse his campaign for Congress, and look forward to serving with a progressive voice like David’s in Washington, D.C.”

The other Democrats in the race include Donna Shalala, Matthew Haggman, Mary Barzee Flores, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Michael Hepburn.

“I’m deeply honored to receive the support of Congressman Darren Soto,” Richardson stated in the release. “Darren since his days as a state legislator  has become a national leader on progressive issues and has fought tirelessly for the people of Florida. I’m happy to have his support as we approach the Democratic primary election on August 28th.”

Florida’s delegation presses for Kennedy Space Center launch support money for NASA’s next big rocket

Congressional letters signed by a large majority of Florida’s delegation are urging congressional leaders to support full funding not just for NASA’s next spacecraft and rocket but for critical upgrades at Kennedy Space Center to launch them.

The letters to chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees subcommittees overseeing space have drawn signatures of 21 of Florida’s House members and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and also have support of others who couldn’t appropriately sign because they’re on the committees, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

The letters focus on the multi-billion dollar projects to build NASA’s big new rocket, the Space Launch System, and the Orion Spacecraft, which are to carry astronauts into deep space. That’s not new. But the letters give equal weight now to urging full funding for the related Kennedy Space Center upgrades, to exploration ground systems, and for a new mobile launcher, huge boons to the space business at Florida’s Space Coast.

A letter sent last month by U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, the Rockledge Republican who sits on the House Space Subcommittee, and co-signed by 10 other members of Florida’s delegation, urges $557 million for the exploration ground systems improvements in the 2019 federal budget, and another $17 million for other construction. It also calls for $150 million in 2019 to build a new mobile launcher that could support the SLS rocket for 40 years, a recent NASA policy direction change from plans now seen as problematic to retrofit the current mobile launcher. The letter also calls for another $2.15 billion for the SLS rocket development, and $1.35 billion for the final Orion crew vehicle development.

The rocket’s debut has been pushed back, but still is possible by the end of 2019, or in early 2020.

Most of the ground systems work has been underway for several years, but risks falling behind without full funding, and that could further delay the first launches of the SLS, even if the rocket and Orion spacecraft are fully developed and ready to go, the letters argue.

“The exploration ground systems are an indispensable part of the infrastructure of space exploration,” Posey’s letter states.

Posey’s letter drew signatures of 11 of Florida’s members of the House: Posey, Gus Bilirakis, Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Ron DeSantis, Neal Dunn, Matt Gaetz, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Daniel Webster, and Ted Yoho.

A follow-up letter from Republican U.S. Sen. Brian Babin of Texas, making the same pleas, included 163 members signatures from throughout the country, and drew most of the 11 Florida members who signed Posey’s letter, plus ten more from Florida: Al Lawson, Val Demings, Dennis Ross, Brian Mast, Francis Rooney, Alcee Hastings, Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch, Carlos Curbelo, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Three other House members from Florida, Tom Rooney, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz are, like Rubio, on the main committee receiving the letters, and so do not sign under Congressional protocol.

Thirty-one senators including Nelson signed the Senate version, sent out Tuesday by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.

Rubio’s office said he’s supportive, had an active role in pushing for $2.15 billion for the SLS rocket, $1.3 billion for Orion, and will “continue to push for increased funding in order to keep the ground system upgrades on track.”

Darren Soto’s guns town hall draws criticism from Wayne Liebnitzky

A town hall to talk about guns that Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto set for Saturday in St. Cloud is drawing criticism from his Republican election opponent Wayne Liebnitzky because the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School girls’ softball team is also in town.

Liebnitzky called the town hall “a political stunt.”

Soto earlier this week announced he would hold a constituents’ town hall meeting on national gun safety at the St. Cloud Community Center at 1 p.m. Saturday. Responding to Liebnitzky’s criticism on Friday, Soto’s campaign said it was entirely coincidental that a team from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Parkland school that was the site of the horrific Feb. 14 massacre that took 17 lives, is playing in a tournament, against St. Cloud High School, not far away this weekend.

Soto, of Celebration, defeated Liebnitzky, of St. Cloud, in the 2016 election for Florida’s 9th Congressional District. The pair may be heading for a rematch this fall. Liebnitzky has a Republican primary rival, Sean Buchan of Winter Haven, while Soto remains unchallenged for the Democratic primary.

“We are deeply saddened when any horrific event occurs, but creating a political stunt to hijack law abiding citizen’s rights will not be viewed favorably,” Liebnitzky said.

He argued that Soto’s focus guns was wrong, and that school safety needs to be addressed through hardening the schools and convincing people to say something if they see something. “Allowing only criminals to possess guns does not and will not make any sense to me,” Liebnitzky said.

Soto’s notice for the meeting states that he has spoken with survivors from the Parkland shooting and young people at the March for Our Lives event in Lake Wales, and now “wants to hear from community members across Central Flordia about the sensible legislative action and access to mental health treatment needed to prevent further gun violence. Besides Soto, the town hall will feature Kristi King, legislative chair of the Central Florida Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; and Patricia Brigham, steering committee chair of the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

In a response issued by his re-election campaign, Soto insisted the town hall, scheduled by his congressional office, is part of a nationwide effort this week, and has nothing to do with the fact that a Douglas High team was in town.

“There are town halls happening on gun safety nationwide this week. Congress must act, as I continue to hear from constituents around the 9th District. I am committed to listening to all of them and to taking action,” Soto said. “While this town hall was scheduled independently of any sports event, we certainly welcome the student-athletes of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their supporters to the 9th District.”

When do you write about the arrest of a lawmaker’s spouse?

No matter what else the reporters of Florida Politics wrote on Monday, I knew that the story that would be most-read would be whatever we posted about a congressman’s wife being arrested for disorderly intoxication.

On that day, FP served up a steady stream of first-of-the-quarter, post-holiday scoops and stories about candidates maneuvering their campaigns into position for 2018 and politicos maneuvering their careers into position for the long term.

That didn’t matter. People wanted to see a mugshot. They wanted to read a police report.

They wanted to be reassured that a politician’s day-to-day life is no better or worse than theirs. Lots of families have someone who drinks too much on a holiday. Some of those folks even end up running head-long into law enforcement. A handful of them get booked into jail.

But is it news? Did we really need to publish the story about U.S. Rep. Darren Soto‘s wife being arrested at Disney World?

If you go by the standard of ‘Well, everyone else is publishing, so why aren’t we?’ then, yes, our reporter in Orlando, Scott Powers, had to write about it. The Orlando Sentinel was covering it, and certainly so were Central Florida’s voracious television news stations. Powers wasn’t first to the story, but since he was close to being first, I knew we’d win the click-bait race.

Later in the day, after I looked at the viewership stats on the story, I pushed Powers to take another bite at the apple. To Powers, a classy veteran of the newspaper industry, I had to have sounded like Jason Sudeikis’ character in the fake movie trailer from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight: “Get some likes. Get some clicks. Get some retweets. Get some forwards.”

Powers’ concern about hyping the story stemmed from Congressman Soto’s acknowledgment (via a press release and a statement) that “my wife has been honest about her struggle of living with mental illness…”

By re-upping the story, would we be taking advantage of someone who needs help and was just having a really bad day, just to earn a few thousand more clicks?

The police report further complicates the story. In it, the officer (who seemingly could not have been more patient) writes that “even while attempting to speak with her (Mrs. Soto), she continued to utter that her husband is a congressman, therefore, she can do whatever she wants.”

It’s that last part – the sense of entitlement it suggests – that guided me to my decision about pushing the story.

Yes, Mrs. Soto is suffering from some sort of mental illness. Yes, she had been drinking and only by the grace of God have I not found myself in the back of a police cruiser for similar reasons. But neither of those reasons are an excuse for haranguing a law enforcement officer.

That’s why we had to publish the story about a congressman’s wife being arrested for disorderly intoxication.

Here’s to hoping Mrs. Soto gets the help she needs.

Darren Soto’s wife arrested on disorderly intoxication

Amanda Soto, the wife of U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, was arrested early Sunday morning at Walt Disney World in Orange County, on a charge of disorderly intoxication.

Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, issued a statement indicating that the arrest followed a domestic incident with a family member, and attributed the situation to depression.

Amanda Soto, 33, of Celebration, was arrested late Sunday night after Orange County deputy sheriffs were called to respond to an argument she was having with her mother at Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs entertainment district, according to the arrest report filed by Deputy Cory Heller. She was released on $250 bond early Monday morning.

“My wife, Amanda, has for years suffered from depression and been under medical care,” Darren Soto’s statement said. “In accordance with her treatment plan and under her doctor’s supervision, she recently stopped using her medications. Yesterday, she drank too much and reached an argumentative state with a family member, which led to arrest.

“She deeply regrets her actions and takes full responsibility for them. Amanda and her physician will be reviewing her mental health treatment, immediately,” Darren Soto added.

Orlando showdown with TSA brings swift airport security changes

The Orlando International Airport may have been stopped from the prospect of privatizing security checkpoints now that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration is rushing to make improvements.

Swift changes coming to expand TSA staff, add more screening dogs, and bring in new state-of-the-art equipment have happened in a matter of less than seven weeks, and more are on the way.

And it all appears to be the direct result of a showdown, of the airport’s board’s vote in February to begin the process of dumping TSA in favor of a private security screening company.

Yet the congressional delegation from the area, notably U.S. Rep. Val Demings, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson all opposed privatization of the screening force and got involved to get the communications with and changes from TSA that Orlando airport officials had complained they weren’t getting.

On Friday Demings chaired a meeting at the airport with Soto, Nelson, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, and airport officials, with a representative from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio as well, during which a TSA official laid out plans to essentially provide everything the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority wanted. And in record time – about 36 days.

“Assuming everything continues the way it is, it is my intention that the [Greater Orlando Aviation Authority] board at our April meeting rescind the authority given to the executive director to move forward to explore privatization and instead focus on continuing to build a great partnership,” Frank Kruppenbacher, chairman of the GOAA board, said afterwards.

The changes will mainly focus on the western checkpoint area of Orlando’s central passenger terminal. Jerry Henderson, TSA’s federal security director for Orlando, told Demings and the others that in days after a she and the rest of the delegation began brokering talks between the TSA and GOAA the federal agency drew up and approved plans to rework the area to add three new lanes. The TSA also authorized 75 new transportation security officers for Orlando, and delivery of some new, state-of-the-art screening equipment. More dogs at coming too.

That’s the temporary fix. Meanwhile GOAA Director Phil Brown and his staff are working to relocate two major stores by that security checkpoint, run by Disney and Universal Orlando. Brown hopes to get at least one of them relocated in time to build out a bigger checkpoint area for a permanent upgrade by next Christmas.

This has all been happening as Orlando’s airport has been seeing record numbers of passengers – even in the past seven weeks, Henderson said.

In February the board had reacted to what had been more than a year of frustration, as airport officials were convinced that TSA security services were not sufficient and passenger reactions were getting more and more negative. The board essentially issued an ultimatum: The TSA needed to change things fast, and in the meantime, Orlando was officially moving toward kicking TSA out.

It comes at an airport that strives for what officials call an “Orlando Experience,” an extension of customer service level goals maintained at Walt Disney World and some of the other tourist resorts and hotels.

With Dyer voting no, on Feb. 21 the GOAA board voted to open what likely would be a year-long process that could have led to the federal agency’s security functions being contracted out to private security companies. That option is used in more than 20 airports nationally, though the vast majority of them, excepting San Francisco and Kansas City, are small.

Privatization had been pursued before in Orlando, when U.S. Rep. John Mica urged it a few years ago, in part because of his frustration with the unions involved, but the GOAA board never accepted the idea until February.

This time Mica’s successor, Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy opposed privatization, as do Demings, Nelson and Soto. Murphy did not attend Friday.

Demings sounded relieved Friday, but cautioned Kruppenbacher, Brown, Henderson and the others that if the GOAA board does indeed reverse its February vote, that the pressure must be kept up to keep GOAA and the TSA working together, and that she wants the congressional delegation informed immediately if there are any problems.

“When people get of the planes in Orlando, their vacations start the minute they arrive. And their vacations end the minute they get back on that plane,” she said. “We set that bar for ourselves very high but I have no doubt that we can achieve it.”

Democrats portraying Rick Scott as unaccountable in tragedies

In anticipation of Gov. Rick Scott‘s entry as the leading Republican candidate in this year’s U.S. Senate race, Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto and state Sen. Gary Farmer on Friday accused him of avoiding responsibility in the Hollywood Hills, Parkland, and Florida International University tragedies.

“There is a stark contrast in how each man takes responsibility for his actions: accountability on the end of [Democratic] Sen. [Bill] Nelson, and the blame-game on the end of Gov. Scott,” Soto said. “We need leaders who take responsibility for their actions. Because inaction has cost us lives here in the state of Florida.”

“This is not leadership,” Farmer said. “This is not the accountability we need.”

Their comments came as an early salvo in a Florida Democratic Party campaign against Scott, themed, “Self-Serving Scott.” Scott has called an April 9 event where he is expected to announce his candidacy to take on Nelson.

There was no immediate response from Scott’s office or from the Republican Party of Florida to Soto’s and Farmer’s accusations. Not yet being an official candidate, Scott does not yet have a formal campaign that can respond.

However, the Republican National Committee later issued a statement declaring Farmer’s and Soto’s statements to be “disgusting.”

“It’s disgusting that Democrats are so desperate in Florida they would take a tragedy of people dying and turn it into politics,” Taryn Fenske said in a written statement. “This would be no different than saying Congressman Soto and Senator Nelson should be held accountable for the bridge collapse in South Florida because federal dollars and inspectors were responsible for the management of that project. They should be ashamed.”

Soto and Farmer strove to follow up on and bring new attention to reports that suggested that in the cases of the tragic deaths of 12 nursing home patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in September, the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, and the bridge collapse at FIU earlier this month, state authorities had received some sorts of warnings of potential problems.

Scott, they maintained, not only did nothing, or oversaw agencies that did nothing to respond to the early warnings, but later blamed others outside his administration while not acknowledging the prospects that his own administration may have played a role.

All three of the incidents are under investigation, and more will be known when those investigations are completed.

“You’ve got a pattern here where our governor will not accept blame,” Farmer said.

Darren Soto endorsed by 10 other members of Fla. congressional district

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto has received endorsements from all ten of the other Democratic members of Congress from Florida, his re-election campaign announced Friday.

The announced endorsements would come as no surprise and seemingly fill no particularly-urgent campaign purpose, since Soto’s only opponent thus far in Florida’s 9th Congressional District is a Republican, St. Cloud businessman Wayne Liebnitzky. However, the announcement may send a discouraging signal toward any potential Democratic primary challengers, notably former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who’s been mulling a comeback run, possibly against Soto for his old CD 9 seat.

Six of those who endorsed Soto in Friday’s announcement, U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, Alcee Hastings, Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Frederica Wilson, all served with Grayson in the 114th Congress, and before. U.S. Reps. Al Lawson, Stephanie Murphy, Val Demings, and Charlie Crist all were first elected with Soto in 2016 to the 115th Congress.

Said Frankel, from West Palm Beach, “Darren Soto is one of the finest new leaders of his generation. He is all that women hope for in a male ally. He supports equal rights for women across the board. He fights for a woman’s right to choose 100 percent of the time. He demands health care for women and families. And he practices what he preaches – he hires women equally, promotes women equally, and pays women equally. And he has the stats to prove it.”

“Darren is not afraid to stand for what’s right. Before Parkland, his community was torn apart by gun violence. And he stood up, he took on the NRA. He will not forget the victims of gun violence when the media moves on. Soto will work day and night until our children our protected from guns,” Frankel added. “Darren succeeds the old fashioned way — through hard work. Darren is a new-generation leader who isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and do the work you need to do to succeed. He’s pragmatic, he’s in public service to get stuff done for Florida. He served in the trenches in Tallahassee like I did. He’s seen every dirty trick the Republicans pull, and he has fought them all — without the name-calling and childishness that often consumes Washington.”

Darren Soto gets backing of Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC

Orlando Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto just received the backing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Political Action Committee, an endorsement he might need as a buffer against a possible primary challenge by a congressman who once was a big voice for that caucus.

“Darren Soto is a fighter for economic justice. He works tirelessly for working Americans, and he always has. He marches for civil rights and civil liberties — for Dreamers, for Muslims, for LGBTQ Americans,” Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC Co-Chair Mark Pocan said in a news release issued by Soto’s re-election campaign. “The struggle for women’s equality has no better friend than Darren. Soto supports healthcare for all, a strong social safety net, and robust protections for workers who want to organize and fight for better wages and working conditions.”

Right now the endorsement appears more as a possible weapon for Soto’s only opponent in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, Republican candidate Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud. Liebnitzky, whom Soto beat in 2016, is campaigning on a firm conservative platform and seeking to characterize Soto as too liberal for the district.

“He has only done what party leader [Nancy] Pelosi directed him to do, instead of taking care of the area,” Liebnitzky said. He added, “I guess I won’t lose any sleep tonight awaiting their endorsement.”

Yet off in the wings is the previous incumbent in the district, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who had been one of the most strident progressive Democrats in Congress during his three terms. Grayson reportedly has been talking to Democratic consultants, trying to assemble a team to possibly challenge Soto in a CD 9 primary. In the 2016 primary, Soto took a more moderate overall tack to defeat two Democratic opponents with purely progressive platforms and close ties to Grayson: his wife Dena Grayson, and former aide, Susannah Randolph.

In Congress Soto has striven particularly to be a strong environmental champion. Pocan also praised him for other issues.

“Soto knows we must defend our planet today — or our children will have no tomorrow. He’s not afraid to fight the corporate interests that created the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Wall Street financial crisis, and the opioid epidemic,” Pocan stated. “Darren knows that hard working Americans are hurt the most when greed runs wild, and he fights for those families with everything he’s got. Darren’s a rising leader with a bright future. The Progressive Caucus stands with Darren because he embodies progressive values — he stands for the people, not for the privileged.”

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