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James Comey in middle of political fray over Donald Trump and Russians

FBI Director James Comey is again in a familiar spot these days – the middle of political tumult.

As a high-ranking Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, he clashed with the White House over a secret surveillance program. Years later as head of the FBI, he incurred the ire of Hillary Clinton supporters for public statements on an investigation into her emails. Now, Comey is facing new political pressure as White House officials are encouraging him to follow their lead by publicly recounting private FBI conversations in an attempt to dispute reports about connections between the Trump administration and Russia.

It’s an unusual position for a crime-fighting organization with a vaunted reputation for independence and political neutrality. Yet Comey, the former top federal prosecutor in Manhattan who later became deputy attorney general of the United States, is known for an unshaking faith in his own moral compass.

“I’m not detecting a loss of confidence in him, a loss of confidence in him by him,” said retired FBI assistant director Ron Hosko, noting the broad recognition that “these are very tumultuous, polarized, angry, angry times.”

The latest flare-up occurred Friday, when White House officials told reporters that chief of staff Reince Priebus had asked top FBI officials to dispute media reports that Donald Trump‘s campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election. The officials said the FBI first raised concerns about New York Times reporting but told Priebus the bureau could not weigh in publicly on the matter. The officials said Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Comey instead gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly, something the FBI has not confirmed.

As the FBI declined to discuss the matter, pressure mounted on Comey to either counter or affirm the White House’s account. Even the Trump administration urged him to come forward, which as of Friday was not happening.

“Politicized assertions by White House chief of staff Priebus about what may or may not be the findings of an FBI investigation are exactly the wrong way for the public to hear about an issue that is of grave consequence to our democracy,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The American people deserve real transparency, which means Director Comey needs to come forward, in an open hearing, and answer questions.”

The push on Comey to publicly discuss the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is especially acute given his statements in the run-up to Nov. 8 that many Democrats believe cost Clinton the election. He detailed the results of the FBI’s investigation at an unusual July news conference, testified on it for hours on Capitol Hill and alerted Congress less than two weeks before Election Day that the FBI would be reviewing new emails potentially connected to the case.

But it’s not clear that Comey, now in the fourth year of a 10-year term, will be swayed by any public hand-wringing. People who have worked with the FBI director describe him as holding strong personal convictions.

As deputy attorney general, he confronted White House officials in the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in an effort to quash the reauthorization of a counterterrorism surveillance program.

When nominating Comey for FBI director in 2013, President Barack Obama praised him for his “fierce independence and deep integrity.” Comey stood apart from the administration on a few occasions after that, including when he floated the possibility that police concerns over being recorded on video were causing officers to pull back and contributing to an uptick in homicides, a viewpoint the White House refused to endorse.

His decision to announce the FBI’s recommendation against criminal charges in the Clinton email case was made without any notice to the Justice Department, and his notification to Congress about the new emails was not supported by department leaders, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Decisions that reach the desk of the top leadership of the FBI are generally not easy, said Robert Anderson, a retired FBI executive assistant director.

“The director of the FBI is a hard job, even when it’s an easy day or nothing’s in the newspaper,” Anderson said. “By the time it makes it up to Jim, it’s all hard at that point.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Lenny Curry outlines Jacksonville’s legislative priorities, talks pension and Enterprise Florida

This is a pivotal time in Jacksonville’s city hall.

With complete turnover in the city’s delegation to Washington and opportunities created by the new President, majority turnover in the city’s representation in Tallahassee, a revolutionary pension deal currently being approved by the city’s unions, and the imperiled fate of Enterprise Florida, this is a make or break time for Mayor Lenny Curry.

He discussed all these topics with us – exclusively – on Friday.

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Expect more from D.C.: The mayor met with Rep. John Rutherford on Wednesday.

“We caught up … talked JAXPORT, public safety,” Curry said.

In addition to leaning on Rutherford, an ally of long standing, Curry also will take advantage of connections within the Donald Trump administration – including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

“I’ve already got messages in to the Trump Administration. I’d like the federal government to be able to help us in some form in Jacksonville. I don’t know what that looks like yet. But we’re going to leverage every relationship we have to get help here with issues we’re facing, specifically on the public safety front, and the port is a huge issue,” Curry said.

Jacksonville is uniquely positioned in terms of the Trump administration. Ballard Partners employs Susie Wiles, a city hall veteran and a close ally and friend of Curry, and she will be doing work in the nation’s capital in addition to Jacksonville. And Marty Fiorentino is in Washington right now also, doing consulting for Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

The city contracts with both Ballard and Fiorentino on the state level.

“Certainly we have relationships [in D.C.],” Curry said. “I have direct relationships as well with Reince Priebus and others. We have an RFP [in process] regarding lobbying for the feds. Expect to see movement there.”

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Duval Delegation: There have been grumbles from inside city hall about the relative effectiveness of the Duval County Legislative Delegation.

Committee assignments: weak. Bills filed: often ancillary to city priorities. Leverage with leadership: dubious.

However, Mayor Curry was focused on what could be done.

Despite the relative paucity of appropriations requests on many key issues, Curry noted that he’d been “working with our delegation on priorities I’ve laid out. One of the big ones is septic tank removal. The city’s looking for a match – a big match. That is an issue that’s environmental … that will help us honor promises that were made pre-Consolidation.”

“I’m working with the delegation toward the priorities that I have, and I think we’ll work very successfully,” Curry said.

In a related note, Curry’s office announced Friday that the Florida Department of Transportation has committed $250,000 to a study of the Hart Bridge ramps.

Curry rolled out a potential $50 million ask to remove the antiquated ramps, which present public safety and aesthetic concerns, last year to the Duval Delegation.

Traffic would be routed on to Bay Street under the latest conceptual proposal for replacement, creating a direct route into the Sports Complex and a developing entertainment district close to the river.

That request got de-emphasized, however, and looks more likely to be done in a more gradual manner than the mayor’s office initially wanted.

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Pension Deal Will Save the City Money: Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police overwhelmingly voted to approve the city’s pension offer on Thursday.

One union – the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters – is left to approve the pact, which will offer raises to current employees and defined contribution plans to new hires.

Curry was reflective on the process.

“This has been a very long road, this pension reform. Yet we’ve traveled this road aggressively and in a short window. It hasn’t even been a year since the last legislative session,” Curry said.

In fact, the referendum passed less than six months ago – which kicked off the collective bargaining that appears to be reaching its conclusion.

“So we are close. The yes vote by the police membership [shows] they recognize that this is good for them, it’s good for taxpayers, and it’s good for the city of Jacksonville. We’re going to continue to work for the fire membership vote, and the Police and Fire Pension Fund vote, and then the city council vote – and then be done with this,” Curry said, noting that the proposal yokes two of his campaign priorities – public safety and budget discipline.

“When this pension reform is done and final,” Curry said, “our budgets will be responsible and they’ll allow us to fund the things that I said I’d focus on – the things that voters voted me into office on.”

Yet questions remain, still, about whether this plan saves money for the city

The actuarial projections used in 2016, when last released to the public, were predicated on 10 or 12 percent contributions from the city to the employee’s retirement, far short of the 25 percent in the current proposal.

Though the actuarial projections have not been released and likely won’t be for at least a bit longer, Curry contends the plan will save the city money on its public safety retirement plans.

“Right now we’re spending 119 percent of [salary] for [pension costs] for every JSO employee and fireman,” Curry said. “If we hired you today, we would take your salary and put 119 percent of that in the pension fund. That’s not sustainable.”

“25 percent is a fraction of 119 percent. It works. It will attract and retain people.”

“As to when the numbers will be made available,” Curry said, “City Council will have to vote on this, and all of these numbers will be laid out before them, which is how the budget process works.”

“The public will see them, the council will debate it, people will be able to make their opinions known at the time, and I think they’ll have a favorable opinion.”

The Police and Fire Pension Fund will also have the data needed to make a decision, Curry said, before the Mar. 15 deadline.

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Enterprise Florida: Slowly but surely, locals are compelled to take sides on the Enterprise Florida debate.

The JAX Chamber endorsed the concept Thursday. And on Friday, Mayor Curry offered insight as to why.

One issue that many in the Florida Legislature have not considered: for cities like Jacksonville, Enterprise Florida has offered meaningful benefit, as Curry told us.

“Let me speak specifically to Jacksonville and how we work here,” Curry said.

“We use incentives – local incentives and state incentives through Enterprise Florida – and we use them successfully,” Curry contended.

The city’s scorecard, which ensures ROI for taxpayers when incentives are offered, is designed to ensure an “inflow of tax dollars that exceeds that investment.”

“I would say that incentives are important to us. They’re used in a way that respects the taxpayers. Without the state funding,” Curry said, “we would have had trouble closing some of the big deals that we closed.”

“They’re talking about reforms over there [in Tallahassee],” Curry said. “I can tell you how we do business locally. We use our tax dollars in a way that’s responsible to taxpayers, and we’ve been able to use the state incentives the same way. I hope they can figure out a way to continue to give us the opportunity to have access to state incentives.”

Introducing FloridaPolitics.com’s latest newsletter: ‘The Delegation’

We admit it; we love a good newsletter.

So with 10 new members in the congressional delegation, a part-time #FloridaMan in the White House, and plenty of Sunshine State connections to the Beltway, we thought it was about time to launch our own newsletter diving into D.C.

Welcome to “The Delegation,” Florida Politics’ weekly roundup of the news from D.C. as it relates to the Sunshine State.

Here you’ll find stories about President Donald Trump, hot takes about Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, video of Congressman Neal Dunn bringing a musket to the Capitol and everything in between.

Send us your tips, your thoughts and suggestions. And please be patient while we work out the kinks. We know the ins and outs of Tallahassee, but we’re still learning the tricks of the trade in D.C.

Donald Trump, Month 2: Talks on health care and tax overhaul via Julie Pace of The Associated Press — White House chief of staff Reince Priebus expects a health care plan to emerge in ‘the first few days of March. Pressed on whether the plan would be coming from the White House, Priebus said, “We don’t work in a vacuum.”

Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs banker now serving as Trump’s top economic adviser, and newly sworn-in Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been leading talks with Republican lawmakers and business leaders on taxes. Neither man has prior government experience. …

One of the biggest questions on Capitol Hill is how involved Trump plans to be in legislative minutia. One GOP leadership aide whose office has been working with the White House described the president as a “big picture guy” … he expected Trump to defer to Capitol Hill on health care … Priebus expects Congress to pass both a tax package and legislation repealing and replacing Obama’s health care law by the end of the year. But the White House’s outward confidence belies major roadblocks on both matters.

In Trump’s future looms a familiar shutdown threat via Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press — Add a potential government shutdown to Trump‘s growing roster of headaches.

Beneath the capital’s radar looms a vexing problem — a catchall spending package that’s likely to top $1 trillion and could get embroiled in the politics of building Trump’s wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and a budget-busting Pentagon request.

While a shutdown deadline has a few weeks to go, the huge measure looms as an unpleasant reality check for Trump and Republicans controlling Congress. Despite the big power shift in Washington, the path to success … goes directly through Senate Democrats, whose votes are required to pass the measure. And any measure that satisfies Democrats and their new leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, is sure to alienate tea party Republicans.

Bill Nelson’s postelection pep talk — Is Sen. Nelson up for a contested Democratic primary in his re-election bid next year?

“You want to do a contest on pull-ups or push-ups?” Nelson replied to a reporter who asked that question during an informal news conference in Tallahassee Monday.

News reports have mentioned a variety of primary challengers to the 74-year-old Democrat in a year when much of the party base is fired up with anti-Trump fervor.

Nelson visited Tallahassee to speak to STEM students at Florida A&M University and deliver a pep talk to the Senate Democratic caucus. “My message is going to be: It’s worth it to keep fighting for your values.”

He praised Stephen Bittel, the new chairman of the Florida Democratic Party for his fundraising ability — not easy, he said, in a state where Republicans dominate government and the lobbying corps. “Stephen, he’ll go around the lobbying corps,” Nelson said. “He’ll go to all his outside contacts.”

Days until the 2018 election: 621

Nelson “on strong ground” to oppose Gorsuch — Left-leaning group Progressive Change Campaign Committee is using the results of a poll they commissioned to test out arguments against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch to pressure Sen. Nelson into opposing his confirmation. The poll found nearly two-thirds of Floridians opposed Gorsuch when he told he “sided with big insurance companies, sided with employers who denied wages and retirement benefits to employees and generally protected big corporations from accountability.”

The group said the results show that Nelson “is on strong ground opposing Neil Gorsuch’s nomination” if he sticks to the talking points in the poll. PPP conducted the blended phone/online survey of 326 Floridians from Feb. 3-4. The error margin is plus-or-minus 5.4 percentage points.

Nelson takes action on property insurance ratings — Sen. Nelson has asked the Deputy Director of the Office of Federal Insurance to step in after financial stability rating company Demotech announced earlier this month that it was considering downgrading the stability of Florida companies from an A to a B. The move has the potential to cause thousands of Florida homeowners to default on their loans.

First reported by Christine Sexton of POLITICO Florida, Nelson asked in the letter to Steve Seitz that he “take any and all necessary steps to help stabilize Florida’s property insurance market and avoid such a disaster.”

Demotech cited Florida’s assignment of benefits laws and a pair of rulings it said created Florida-specific standards when it made its ratings announcement.

Protesters hold mock town hall meeting in Tampa with cardboard Marco Rubio via Anastasia Dawson of the Tampa Bay Times — His face was posted on Popsicle sticks, printed on a life-size cutout and hidden in Where’s Waldo?-styled puzzles. His name was printed on T-shirts and written on posters. But Rubio was thousands of miles away from Wednesday night’s “constituent town hall” meeting held in his honor.

“Why won’t Rubio come to town, or at least address us?” said event organizer Melissa Gallagher …”It’s really disconcerting, especially since he ran a presidential campaign and promised Floridians to protect us and look out for our best interests.”

A spokesman for Rubio said the staff has met with “dozens of these liberal activists,” including a small group of protesters a week earlier. Staff has been “fully accessible and responsive” to all who come with concerns and questions, he assured.

A cardboard cutout of Marco Rubio stood in for the Florida Senator, as more than 500 constituents attended a mock town hall meeting in Tampa Wednesday. (Photo: @DDonovan21/Twitter)

Rubio riding high in Associated Industries of Florida poll — It’s no surprise that Rubio gets top marks in the Associated Industries pre-session survey. The pro-business group had the Miami Republican leading in the U.S. Senate race throughout 2016. The survey of 800 likely Republican primary voters found 69 percent said they approved of the job Rubio was doing, compared to 22 percent who disapproved. According to the polling memo, the second term senator “enjoys a high net approval, but his overall approval is soft with 44 percent somewhat approving of the job he is doing as Senator.”

ONE hires former Rubio staffer as senior director — Sally Canfield will become senior director of U.S. government relations for ONE, the advocacy organization co-founded by U2 lead singer Bono, which is fighting to end poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.

Canfield previously served as Rubio’s deputy chief of staff and was formerly the senior director of international government affairs for pharmaceutical company AbbVie. She has held a variety of senior positions including deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, counselor to the secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, and senior policy adviser to the Speaker of the House.

In the 2000 campaign, Canfield served as domestic policy adviser to then-Gov. George W. Bush and in the 2008 campaign cycle, she served as policy director for Gov. Mitt Romney.

Op-ed: Florida’s new members of Congress leading the way in civility via Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer for Florida Politics — This past year has seen our country feeling more divided than ever before. The 2016 election took its toll, with candidates up and down the ballot partaking in name calling and disrespectful attacks.

Florida’s newest members of Congress may have the answer … 28 Republicans and 18 Democrats — the Freshman Class of the 115th Congress, signed a Commitment to Civility — both Republicans and Democrats — from red states and blue states, from the north and the south. Florida has much to be proud of, with 9 of their 11 freshmen members (Representatives CristDunnDemingsGaetz, Mast, Lawson, RooneySoto, and Rutherford) signing the letter signaling their commitment to civility.

Florida’s freshmen … Stating what we all believe to be true, the civility statement addresses the “ … coarsening of our culture fueled too often by the vitriol in our politics and public discourse. One result has been a loss of trust in our institutions and elected officials.” For acknowledging this reality, these congressmen deserve our commendation.

Progress Florida calls out 10 members of the congressional delegation — The left-leaning activist group named 10 members of the Florida delegation who have voted in lock-step with “President Trump’s anti-environmental agenda.” According to the group, Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, Neal Dunn, Ted Yoho, Bill Posey, Gus Bilirakis, Dennis Ross, Vern Buchanan, Tom Rooney, and Francis Rooney have supported the White House’s position in each of the 22 environment-related roll call votes in the House. Rubio got the same score for the four votes that have come up in the Senate.

Progress Florida said the votes put each of the 10 lawmakers “squarely out of sync with public opinion in a state where a majority of residents say they are worried about global warming.”

Progress Florida Director Mark Ferrulo added: “The question is, what will it take for our elected representatives to stand up to President Trump and to vote independently, on behalf of all Floridians?”

Gaetz back in Florida Capitol — The CD 1 Republican was in Tallahassee Wednesday to discuss health care reform, including his support for a block grant funding method for Medicaid, the joint state-federal health care program for the poor.

After a structured media availability, the former state representative elected to Congress last year also held a more informal gaggle with members of the Capitol Press Corps. He explained without elaborating that such grants would offer more control over Medicaid to states, repeatedly knocking the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, with Congressman Matt Gaetz behind him, discusses Medicaid block grants at a Wednesday Capitol news conference.

Gaetz calls for Trump tax returns via CNN – Gaetz surprised a roomful of angry protesters Thursday night when he called for President Trump to release his tax returns. But the Florida Republican stopped short of saying Congress should subpoena those returns.

Gaetz has stood by Trump, campaigning with him over the past weekend and closing his raucous one-hour town hall at the Oops Bowling Alley here Thursday night by saying he wanted to “make America great again.” But he surprised the audience when he said, “Absolutely, Donald Trump should release his tax returns.”

Dunn files resolution to block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water plan — Freshman U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn announced this week that he filed a resolution to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from implementing their water control plan for the Apalachicola Bay. “This crisis and the fight for our right to river water goes back many years, but the challenge is urgent for us today,” said Dunn, a Panhandle Republican.

Dunn’s resolution would block the Corps’ plan for the water basin that empties into the bay, which has been the subject of a yearslong dispute between Florida and Georgia, which has seen its water needs grow alongside population booms in Atlanta and other metros. “If implemented, this rule would have even more devastating effects on the ecosystem in Apalachicola and the economy in the (2nd Congressional District) than the current water control plan that led to the unprecedented collapse of our oyster fisheries in 2012,” he said.

Dunn brings musket to Capitol office — The CD 2 Republican posted a video last week showing off an antique musket that now hangs on the wall in his Capitol office. The 1777 British flintlock rifle was surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, and Dunn said the firearm is “how I’m reminded to fight for your Second Amendment rights every day.”

Dunn said he “came to Congress to fight for you and to ensure that our Constitution remains the supreme law of the land. We must never forget how precious our Constitutional rights are, and the right to bear arms is one of our most fundamental and sacred rights.” Click on the image below to watch the video.

— “Neal Dunn shuns citizens calling for town hall” via James Call of the Tallahassee Democrat

Save the dateTed Yoho town hall — The Gainesville Republican is hosting a town hall discussion Saturday, March 4, at Countryside Baptist Church, 10926 NW 39th Ave. in Gainesville. Doors open at 9 a.m., the event begins at 10 a.m.

Rutherford: ‘I thought I was facing death’ via Florida Politics — This weekRutherford addressed a group of young Catholic professionals at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Jacksonville. Though the speech was about faith, Rutherford also discussed his ongoing recovery from a January medical episode (he collapsed in the cloakroom of the House of Representatives), and how the rosary proved to be the key to his survival.

“I thought I was having a massive heart attack … The panic was off the scale.” Feeling consciousness fading, Rutherford surmised that if he passed out, he might not come to. “I thought I was facing death … But I thought it wasn’t the ending, only the beginning … I was not afraid.” He started saying the rosary, and the pain and hyperventilation subsided.

Schedule confusion characterizes Al Lawson in Jacksonville via Florida Politics — Lawson’s itinerary … was pretty straightforward … the first-term Democrat from Tallahassee was to go to Eureka Garden on Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis.

However, the plan did not come together … Lawson called an audible and made his Eureka Garden visit Monday — Presidents Day … Curry was camping with his family … Dennis likewise was busy with personal business. With no local political backup, Lawson spoke in generalities about the improvements on the property, discussing potential collaboration with Marco Rubio on HUD reform. Even so, there was a tone-deaf quality to his remarks.

From “Whenever I get my paycheck, I think of you” to his assertion that Eureka apartments — which made national news for months because of their issues — are “better than apartment in D.C.,” Lawson’s presentation confused media on hand — especially those who have been immersed in the Eureka Garden story.

Posey applauds the return of professional boxing to Palm Bay — The Rockledge Republican praised the City of Palm Bay and Telemundo for working to bring another World Boxing Organization (WBO) sanctioned boxing night to Palm Bay.

“I applaud the efforts of Mayor Capote and the City of Palm Bay for working with Telemundo and All Star Boxing to bring another exciting night of boxing entertainment here to Florida’s Space Coast,” Posey said. “Events such as this help provide a boost to local businesses and raise our profile around the world as a premier travel destination.”

“Palm Bay is excited to have ‘Showdown at the Bay VI’ back here at the Tony Rosa Community Center,” Capote responded. “Attracting top-tier programs and events, such as Boxeo Telemundo Ford, is just a taste of what we plan to do in Palm Bay as the city grows. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to partner Telemundo with and the event organizers as we continue to bring this event back to Palm Bay.”

Facebook fun:

Murphy unites 150+ Congress members calling for response to Jewish centers threats via Scott Powers of Florida Politics — Murphy and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Conference, sent the letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey expressing “deep concern regarding the recent spate of anonymous bomb threats made via telephone against Jewish Community Centers” and urged them to swiftly assess the situation and advise Congress about what is going on.

She also called for prosecutions and efforts to deter threats and to assist centers to enhance security.

“This is not an idle concern, given that there have been at least three casualty-causing attacks at JCCs or other Jewish institutions in the last two decades,” she added, referring to the shootings in Kansas, Seattle and California. “This is a national problem and, as such, it requires a national solution.”

Trump immigration policy spurs discussion from Demings, Soto via Ryan Gillespie of the Orlando Sentinel — With angst rising in immigrant communities, two members of Congress from Orlando on Tuesday met with their minority constituents, who are alarmed by Trump’s immigration-enforcement plan. U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Val Demings, both Orlando Democrats vocally opposed to Trump’s immigration policies, hosted roundtable discussions at their respective district headquarters.

Hours before the meetings, memos signed by Secretary Kelly revealed further details of the administration’s plan to ramp up deportations.

“My first impression is we have a community in crisis,” Soto said before about 30 people in Kissimmee Tuesday evening. Earlier in the day, four local Muslim leaders met with Demings at her MetroWest office to continue a previous discussion of Trump’s ban of immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries.

Happening Sunday: Demings’ town hall — The Rep. will answer questions and concerns about the Affordable Care Act. Event is 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Dr. Phillips high school, 6500 Turkey Lake Road in Orlando. More information at www.demings.house.gov.

Webster jeered for declining to answer questions at Inverness town hall via Mitch Perry of Florida Politics — The town-hall meeting at the Inverness Government Center didn’t go all that smoothly. Many in attendance appeared upset that they didn’t get to ask questions of the Congressman, who now represents Florida’s 11th Congressional District. GOP House lawmakers were warned last week to maintain “enhanced security awareness” as they return to home districts following several raucous town hall meetings in which angry Democrats dominated the proceedings, upset over plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

Tweet, tweet@realDonaldTrump: The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!

Webster returns $460,000 to taxpayers — The Republican congressman returned $460,000 appropriated run his congressional office in a Thursday ceremony in Brooksville. The CD 11 representative said he has returned more than 30 percent of the money set aside to run his office over the past six years, for a cumulative savings of just under $2.5 million.

“Washington operates on the principle that if money is appropriated, it should be spent. During my service in Congress, I have exposed this flawed principle,” Webster said. “If every area of the federal government began intentionally cutting waste, we could get a lot closer to balancing our budget and trimming the massive burden of debt that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren.”

In a cheap-and-proud-of-it-like-your-Dad moment, Dan Webster says he runs his Congressional office on less money that it’s budgeted for, now saving a total of nearly $2.5 million since he was first elected in 2011.

Crist divorcing wife Carole via Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times – “I think the world of Carole. She’s an amazing person. It just didn’t work out for us,” the former governor told the Tampa Bay Times. “I wish all the best for her.” Crist, 60, said the divorce should have no impact on his service.

Crist asks supporters to “fight for a cleaner Florida”Crist sent out an email this week urging supporters to “fight for a cleaner Florida.” The former governor and first term congressman extolled the virtues of Florida’s environment, but added that “recklessness and lack of oversight can have devastating impacts” on nature. “As someone who has always had a deep appreciation for the environment and a vocal advocate, the first few weeks of this new administration have been disheartening. Now, I am certain we will need everyone to join in and make our voices heard to protect Florida’s most important resource.”

Crist blasts the Trump administration’s rollback of protection for transgender students via Mitch Perry of Florida Politics  “This action sends a frightening message that the administration does not care about the safety of transgender children in our nation’s schools,” Crist said on Thursday.

Crist to host St. Pete student at presidential address — He has selected an eighth grade student from St. Petersburg to be his guest at next week’s address by President Trump before a joint session of Congress.

Oliver Hess, a student at Shorecrest Preparatory School, is assisting a Syrian family fleeing persecution as part of a school “passion project.” He recently wrote to Crist saying “families being denied a better life and a safe future is devastating to me.” Crist commended the “conscientiousness” of Hess, earning him the invitation. “I look forward to having him join me in Washington next week to bring greater attention to helping refugees in need.”

Castor’s district director retiring after decade in officeChloe Coney is retiring as U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor’s district director after a decade of service, Castor’s office announced recently. Before her work with Castor, Coney spent more than 40 years working in housing and urban development. “Chloe’s passion and expertise have served our neighbors, families and businesses well,” Castor said. “She is revered by Tampa’s community for her lifetime of service.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn also weighed in on Coney’s retirement, saying that more than almost anybody, Chloe spearheaded the effort to begin the revitalization of East Tampa.”

Marcia Mejia, Castor’s communication director, will take over for Coney, while Steven Angotti will take over communications for the 10-year congresswoman.

At town halls, doses of fury and a bottle of Tums via Trip Gabriel, Thomas Kaplan, Lizette Alvarez and Emmarie Huetteman of The New York Times — During the first weeklong recess of the new Congress, many Republicans have chosen not to hold events at all, wary of protests that might greet them. Others gamely faced the music, including Dennis Ross.

Ross, one of the most conservative members of Congress and an enthusiastic defender of Trump’s, was called a liar by participants in his town hall in Clermont … They held signs reading “Disagree,” “Nyet My President” and “No Pipeline.”

One protester tried to reason with the passionate crowd, urging people to let Ross speak and adding that if they were angry, the correct response was to vote. “But in the meantime, let him talk so we can hold him accountable,” she added.

“This is democracy in action,” Ross said at one point.

Buchanan spends congressional recess overseas — Instead of returning to Sarasota during the Presidents Day break, Buchanan is visiting Afghanistan and other countries, including Israel. While in Afghanistan he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani discussing the country’s fight against the Taliban and the U.S. role in assisting this struggle. He reaffirmed the need to maintain “strong alliances with our allies in the fight against terrorism.” Buchanan also met with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Hugo Llorens and Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the 8,500 American troops in the region. He also visited with several troops from Florida, calling it “an honor and privilege to meet some of the Florida soldiers keeping us safe overseas.”

Vern Buchanan (front row, second from right) with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (front row, third from left) and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Hugo Llorens (second row, second from left)

Buchanan: Restore USDA animal protection website immediately — The Sarasota Republican is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fully restore a site designed to expose animal abuse. Citing “privacy concerns,” the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service suddenly removed the online database earlier this month.

A partial restoration was found lacking by Buchanan, who joined more than 100 colleagues writing to President Trump urging a full restoration “immediately.” Buchanan, the co-chair of the Animal Protection Caucus in Congress, said “there’s no reason to hold back this vital information. Putting a few documents back online is not good enough.”

The database is used by animal welfare groups and journalists to watch puppy mills, zoos, circuses and research facilities.

F. Rooney gives history lesson to MSNBC host — Republican Rep. Francis Rooney gave MSNBC host Katy Tur a bit of a history lesson Monday when he brought up Barack Obama’s promise to give then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev more “flexibility” after the 2012 election cycle. Though Rooney misremembered the incident as Obama talking to Vladimir Putin, the content was correct and was a major story during Obama’s campaign against Republican Mitt Romney.

Tur, who said she didn’t know what Rooney was talking about during the broadcast, hit Twitter later in the evening to say “she didn’t touch politics in 2012,” and that she would “rather be honest about what I know and don’t know in the moment.” More from Mediate here.

Protesters heading to Rooney’s office Saturday while he speaks in D.C. via Alexandra Glorioso via the Naples Daily News — Rooney‘s decision not to hold an open, town-hall style constituent meeting … left some Southwest Florida residents feeling that he’s avoiding them.

Rooney … will hold a “tele-town hall” at 4 p.m. Tuesday. To participate, residents of his district must go to his website — francisrooney.house.gov/contact — and send an email requesting an invitation.

On Saturday, local members of the left-leaning national group OurRevolution have scheduled a protest near Rooney’s Naples office as he’s speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. The group will hold the protest at 10 a.m. at the Collier County Courthouse Complex on the same day as other national protests are held against efforts to repeal Obamacare.

P. Rooney celebrates cost cutting for F-35 project — Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney lauded a new deal between Lockheed Martin and the Department of Defense that will save taxpayers $728 million on the next 90 F-35 fighter jets purchased by the US. In addition to the savings, the manufacturer announced it would add 1,800 jobs at its Fort Worth, Texas, facility.

“It has always been my top priority to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the latest and greatest technology at their disposal to defeat our adversaries, which for us means the F-35 aircraft,” Rooney said. “I appreciate Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon for swiftly coming to an agreement that equips our military with the most advanced aircraft in the world, while also saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Rooney also worked to strike funding for an alternative engine for the fighter jet back in 2011, which saved taxpayers up to $3 billion.

Florida congressmen demo F-35 at West Palm Beach event — U.S. Reps. Rooney and Brian Mast took to the (virtual) skies in an F-35 fighter jet during a Wednesday demonstration at manufacturer Pratt & Whitney’s West Palm Beach engine center. The two congressman and area business leaders were invited to hear an update on the fighter jet project and demo a demonstration unit packed with virtual missions.

Mast and Rooney both spoke at the event and emphasized the importance the project plays in the Florida economy.

Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies Corporation, said the fighter project “supported over 14,700 direct and indirect jobs and created an economic impact of $3.1 billion” last year in Florida.

Palm County Republican Brian Mast takes control of the F-35 Lightning II cockpit simulator during a visit to the Pratt & Whitney Engine Facility in Jupiter.

Happening today — Mast hosts veterans’ town hall meeting — The Palm City Republican congressman is hosting a town hall in Fort Pierce to “honor our nation’s heroes, ask questions and hear about services we offer for veterans.” The event, which is open to the public, will be Friday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Havert L. Fenn Center, 2000 Virginia Avenue in Fort Pierce. RSVP at masthouse.gov.

— “Mast has first town hall as GOP faces angry crowds” via Isadora Rangel of TC Palm

Frankel faces constituents from both sides of political aisle at West Delray town hall via Anthony Man of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — Question after question at the 75-minute session concerned what the president is doing: on his court-blocked ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, on his new order calling for more deportations of immigrants who aren’t in the country legally, and about potential conflicts between serving as president and the businesses he still owns.

The crowd at the Kings Point condominium community was largely friendly, unlike what many Republican members of Congress are encountering as they are being pushed by voters to explain their support for Trump and his policies.

At times Frankel had to dial down some of the anti-Trump comments from her constituents, one of whom suggested first lady Melania Trump be deported, and another of whom suggested the president’s attacks on the news media show he’s acting like a Nazi. Frankel immediately rejected the Nazi label. As to the first lady, Frankel said “Hands off the president’s family.”

Deutch tapped for two leadership posts — This week the South Florida Democrat took on two leadership roles in the House of Representatives. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tapped the Boca Raton Democrat for the role of Ranking Member on the House Committee on Ethics. Pelosi said Deutch “will be a pillar of ethics and accountability.” Also, he was elected by his colleagues to serve as Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa for the third consecutive term.

Deutch expressed pride in the “bipartisan work” of the subcommittee and the collaborative engagement with the chairman, Cong. Ros-Lehtinen. Besides Deutch and Ros-Lehtinen, Republicans Ron DeSantis and Brian Mast also serve on the subcommittee.

Diaz-Balart calls out human rights record of Venezuela’s Maduro — The District 25 Republican took the opportunity to shine a little light on the human rights abuses of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Following a visit to his Washington office by Lilian Tintori and Mitzy Ledezma, wives of political prisoners Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, Diaz-Balart called for the release of all Venezuelan political prisoners on the third anniversary of Lopez’s jailing.

Diaz-Balart also listed all that is wrong politically and economically in Venezuela with deteriorating human rights, corrupted government institutions and a failing economy topping the list. The Congressman also praised President Trump for “placing tough sanctions on Maduro’s right-hand thug Tareck El Aissami.

Diaz-Balart renames foreign aid as “national security spending” — Is there a better way to describe the term “foreign aid?” During a Miami forum sponsored by the US Global Leadership Coalition, Diaz-Balart said “national security spending” is a more accurate definition of U.S. assistance to other nations.

Diaz-Balart, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign expenditures, predicted the federal budget “will survive” attempts to slash the $52 billion allotted for foreign assistance. Diaz-Balart and fellow panelists that included retired Air Force General Richard Hawley, discussed why overseas investments and projection of American values are good for the country’s security and prosperity. “The world is safer when the U.S. leads,” he said.

Wasserman Schultz denounces Trump administration immigration changes via Anthony Man of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel – “There’s a long list of pretty terrible things that have happened in the Trump administration so far. This is definitely among the worst.”

She pledged to do everything she could to counter the new policies, including opposing the spending authority Trump would need to hire 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and 5,000 new Customs and Border Patrol Agents. “I’m going to fight. I’m going to stand up for the values of this community,” Wasserman Schultz promised.

She rejected the idea that the policy is OK because Trump won the presidency after promising during the campaign to get tough on illegal immigration. “It doesn’t matter whether we should have expected it,” she said. “You have to fight injustice wherever you can.”

Curbelo: Tax reform helps small businesses via Kevin Derby of the Sunshine State News — From his new seat on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee … House Republicans featured Curbelo in their latest “Tax Reform Tuesday” web video.

“Greetings from South Florida. I’m Carlos Curbelo, and I represent this community in Congress,” the South Florida Republican says in the video which was also released in Spanish. “We House Republicans are starting our work on tax reform and tax reform is about people. We want to build a simpler, flatter, and more fair tax code, so that people like these behind me can dedicate more time to their families and can have more resources to get ahead instead of just getting by.”

“So that small business owners like the family who came from Cuba decades ago and struggled to build this wonderful restaurant can invest more in the community, provide better jobs, and pay their employees more.”

Suspicious package flagged at Curbelo’s Capitol Hill office, all OK via Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald — Someone hand-delivered an anonymous envelope … addressed to “Comrade Curbelo,” according to one of the congressman’s staffers. Instead of a return address, it listed, “Kremlin.”

Curbelo wasn’t in the office — he’s spending the congressional recess in the district — but some of his aides were. The Capitol Police checked out the letter “out of an abundance of caution … We were able to clear it without any threat.”

Capitol Police deals with similar situations “on almost a daily basis.”

Spotted: U.S. Reps. Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a POLITICO report about The Partnership for a New American Economic, an advocacy group led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

DCCC Twitter ad targets Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen for ACA votes — The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced Wednesday that it is targeting Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen in a series of targeted Twitter ads.

“Representatives Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen’s reckless vote to rip apart the Affordable Care Act without a replacement is causing widespread backlash at home,” said DCCC Spokesman Javier Gamboa. “These digital ads expose Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen for being shameless enough to take people’s health care away and then run scared when their constituents demand answers.”

The ads show a crowd assembled in front of a stage with an empty chair, asking “Where’s Curbelo?” and “Where’s Ros-Lehtinen?” The DCCC will also promote a Spanish version of the ad on the social media platform.

Ros-Lehtinen tells reporters they are not the enemy — The Miami Republican distanced herself from President Trump’s anti-media comments in her first public appearance of the congressional recess.

“To the members of the press, I want to say thank you,” she said to an audience including reporters. “You are not the enemy of the American people.” Ros-Lehtinen, Florida’s most senior representative in the House, added that the media has “a central role in our republic.” The statement is in seemingly in response to a tweet President Trump made last week calling major news outlets “the fake news media” and “the enemy of the American People.”

Ros-Lehtinen, whose son is transgender, calls Trump change to bathroom rules ‘lamentable’ via Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald — Ros-Lehtinen criticized the Trump administration’s move to lift protections for transgender students, who under Obama-era rules had been allowed to use public school bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.

Ros-Lehtinen — whose son, Rodrigo Lehtinen, is transgender — noted that in 2015, she introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act, prohibiting schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation or gender identity. She has also signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief in a Supreme Court case seeking to protect access to public accommodations for transgender students.

“This lamentable decision can lead to hostile treatment of transgender students and studies have shown that bullying and harassment can be detrimental to the emotional and physical well-being of teenagers,” Ros-Lehtinen said …”Evidence has shown that acceptance of transgender students lowers their risk of suicide. SNDA prevent discrimination of transgender young people, and we will reintroduce it because our country benefits when everyone is accepted, and we live up to our nation’s promise of inclusiveness.”

Ex-David Jolly staffer hangs out shingle via Florida Politics — Preston Rudie, who served as Jolly’s communications director, is now a media consultant for state Sen. Latvala.

The Clearwater lawmaker is the most high-profile client for Rudie since he’s gone into the consulting business. He says that with the Catalyst Communications Group, he’ll be working with both private companies and elected officials. Rudie was an award-winning television reporter with more than 20 Emmy’s and 6 Edward R. Murrow awards to his name while working at WTSP 10 News from 2002-2014.

“Preston Rudie was the best Communications Director in Congress,” Jolly says. “Colleagues across the country would often share with me just how remarkable Preston was at his job. His clients at Catalyst, including candidates for regional or statewide office, will find great success working with Preston. Simply put, he’s one of the best in the business.”

Harris CEO Bill Brown meets with Trump via Wayne Price of FLORIDA TODAY – Harris was the only Florida-based company that took part in the White House Manufacturing Advisory Council meeting. Brown and the other business leaders first met with Vice President Mike Pence, cabinet members and top aides … Topics of discussion involved deregulation, tax and trade, training and the workforce of the future, and infrastructure.

Others invitees … included top executives from U.S. business stalwarts like The Dow Chemical Co., Ford Motor Co., Johnson & Johnson and the Whirlpool Corp. Also invited was SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

Hillsborough County drops long time lobbyists Alcalde & Fay via Patrick Manteiga of La Gaceta — Washington, D.C. lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay lost Hillsborough County as its client after close to 25 years of representing its interests in the Capitol.

The firm’s founder, Hector Alcalde, lived in Tampa for several years, having built strong relations. At one time, he represented most of the region’s local governments, including the City of Tampa. Hillsborough Community College and the Tampa Port Authority still retain the firm. Alcalde is also a partner in Potomac Partners, which represents the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Squire Patton Boggs is the new federal lobbying firm for Hillsborough County. The two-year contract is for $216,000.

Marty Fiorentino assisting Trump administration via Tia Mitchell of the Florida Times-Union — Fiorentino is the owner of the most prominent Jacksonville-based lobbying firm in state politics, but he is away from Florida’s Capitol these days. Fiorentino is working in Washington as a consultant for new Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Trump appointed Chao, and shortly after Senate confirmation, she asked Fiorentino to come to Washington for a meeting.

He agreed to help her transition. The two are friends who met nearly three decades ago when he was working at the Federal Railroad Administration, and she was Deputy Secretary of Transportation. Fiorentino expects to spend a couple of months helping Chao in her new role before returning to his lobbying work in Florida.

Rick Scott joining with other governors in D.C.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is joining with the nation’s governors who are scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Scott is leaving Thursday for Washington D.C. where he will attend events connected to the winter meetings of the National Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association. Reports indicate Scott is the favorite to become Vice Chair of the Republican Governors Association, putting him in line to the lead the organization in 2018.

This includes a Friday luncheon with Pence and a visit to the White House on Sunday.

Scott is also scheduled to take part in the “State Solutions Conference” hosted Friday by POLITICO.

The GOP governor, who constantly criticized former President Barack Obama, is friends with Trump and backed his bid for president right after he won Florida’s presidential primary.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Randy Fine: Bill bolsters local businesses, not victimize LGBT community; detractors aren’t buying it

Rep. Randy Fine introduced HB 17 simply as a measure to keep commerce moving on an upward trajectory under the leadership of local governments, flourishing enough to bring prosperity to their respective communities.

“Its intent is to help businesses thrive and grow – that’s its purpose,” Fine told FloridaPolitics.com by telephone on Thursday from Tallahassee. “There are folks that think business should be left up to local government and then there are folks like me who think the nexus of business runs through the state.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Gina Duncan, transgender inclusion director for the Equality Florida Institute, a partnership between advocacy and charity nonprofits that form the largest civil rights group dedicated to the civil rights of Florida’s LGBT community.

“HB 17 basically reverses the work that has been done in the last two decades to provide protection to LGBT people in employment, housing and accommodations,” Duncan said by phone. “HB 17 is basically a watered-down version of the North Carolina House Bill 2. … We find it especially alarming and dangerous because we’ve been unable to get Tallahassee to move off this conservative track they’ve been on.”

Fine refuted the claim by LGBT advocacy groups that his bill was backdoor legislation to legal discrimination of minority groups.

“That’s not what the bill is going to do,” Fine said, at first not understanding a reporter’s question about criticism of what he strictly views as a pro-commerce measure. “There are all kinds of groups that feel their local governments have gone outside state lines.”

And he doesn’t get how it would affect the LGBT community, for example, either.

Barely a full day has passed since President Donald Trump’s administration put directives to public school’s reversing the previous policy outlined in 2015 and 2016, granting transgender students certain rights when it came to the equal use of bathrooms and locker rooms based on what gender they identify.

With the sweeping Trump action, the greater LGBT community as a whole across Florida – and the nation – is worried that it’s a slippery slope to further repeals gained in recent years, like gay marriage and the right for gay couples to adopt children.

Transgender students at the University of South Florida in Tampa were anxious to speak about what was happening in Florida and across the U.S., beginning with President Trump.

“Seeing him promise ‘protection’ for the LGBT community during his inauguration speech didn’t really convince me, so I’m not really surprised he would do this kind of thing,” said Max Morinelli, who serves as the president of the campus organization USF Trans+ Student Union and as historian of USF P.R.I.D.E. Alliance. “I still can’t believe an issue like bathroom is so controversial – still beyond me really. I know, in the end – but who knows how long that will be – some equal rights bill will be passed protecting our rights.”

Though it might seem like everyone was ganging up on Fine, the wave of voices coming from the LGBT community was overwhelming, something Duncan also noted.

When asked why she thought Fine didn’t understand their point of view on the bill, she answered curtly.

“This façade of ignorance is wrapped around a smokescreen of religion,” she said. “And it’s usually veiled in the dialogue of running their businesses as they see fit when they actually don’t but into what they view as the LGBT agenda.”

David Jolly says the state of GOP will determine his electoral future

Though he’s out of public office, David Jolly has never been more ubiquitous in appearing on television.

The former Pinellas County congressman was scheduled to make another appearance on MSNBC Wednesday night, this time on “All In with Chris Hayes” talking about the buzzsaw that his former GOP brethren are confronting when hosting townhall meetings across the country.

Jolly is a rare Republican, speaking out critical against many of the moves of the Donald Trump administration, bumping up his status on many cable news producers rolodexes. However, that opposition could come at a price.

Because of his comments regarding the pressures of fundraising that he says the GOP establishment imposed upon him and other freshmen legislators, the National Republican Congressional Committee opted not to aid him in his uphill battle to retain his seat against Democrat Charlie Crist last year. If he were to challenge him again next year, he surely will need those funds to compete in a seat that Democrats will fight hard to maintain. Yet Jolly says he can’t think that calculatingly.

“We would have won if the NRCC had come in,” Jolly told this reporter on WMNF’s MidPoint program Thursday. “If there had been a half million or a million dollars, the reality is of modern electoral science is we would have won … we would have closed that three precent gap.”

Jolly lost by 3.8 percentage points to Crist, a closer race than many polls had predicted, based on the redistricting of the CD 13 seat that added the much more liberal parts of downtown and South St. Petersburg to the district. However, Jolly says he won’t fall in line and stay silent when he sees some of the actions that the new Republican president is doing in office.

“I’m not going to sell my soul simply for electoral office,” he said. “I’m not interested in being part of a Congress that’s broken.”

And Jolly includes some Democrats of being timid in speaking out against Trump when the occasion calls for it.

“The reality is that a lot of Democrats are afraid to speak out against Donald Trump as well. And Charlie’s one of those.”

Jolly also took note that while there’s been criticism about some Republicans (such as Marco Rubio) avoiding hosting town hall meetings this week, so has Crist.

“The Congressman is meeting with constituents and hearing their concerns at community events across the district,” responds Crist spokesperson Erin Moffet. “We are looking at options for future public events to make sure the people’s voices continue to be heard, and I’ll be sure to let you know when they are scheduled.”

Regarding a potential congressional rematch against Crist next year, Jolly says he won’t make that decision until sometime early next year.

“If this is the state of the Republican Party next year, what we’re seeing today, then there’s probably not a place for me on the ballot, but I just keep doing what I believe is right,” he says.”There will be a point at which that aligns with where the party is and the community is, and then perhaps there might be an opportunity to seek election again. It simply is not my singular focus, though.”

If Donald Trump won’t man up, meet with teen, maybe Betsy DeVos will

President Donald Trump ought to give Jackie Evancho the meeting she asked for. He owes her bigly.

The sixteen-year-old musical prodigy performed the national anthem at Trump’s inauguration, adding a huge dose of class to the festivities and sparing a grateful nation from another round of DJ Ravidrums, Toby Keith and Three Doors Down.

Evancho’s political skills are right up there with her astonishing vocal chops. In the wake of Trump’s mean-spirited withdrawal of federal protections for transgender students, she took to Twitter, and to television, to politely ask Trump to meet with her, and with her 18-year-old transgender sister, to learn about what life is like for children whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had at birth.

That’s a lot for a sex-obsessed 70-year-old man to wrap his head around. But we’d like to think that Trump would have done it if any of his five children had felt utterly out of place in the pink or blue blankets in which they were first swaddled.

The Evancho family, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the mother of a transgender son and a congresswoman who has refused to pander to uninformed and uncurious culture warrior constituents, and every other family with a transgender son or daughter has had to choose between educating themselves and supporting their loved one, or throwing the child to the wolves.

The alternative to unconditional love is to give license to self-appointed gender police, and to the Mean Girls, Bully Boys, and Bathroom Bill Brigades who make life so miserable for transgender kids that one out of three of them will attempt suicide.

Too many of them succeed, which perhaps explains why Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to talk Trump out of telling transgender kids that they’ll be happier — and definitely safer — with homeschooling. If Trump doesn’t have the guts to meet with the Evancho sisters, let’s hope that DeVos will.

As Donald Trump revokes transgender student protection, Florida LGBTQ community wonders what’s next?

Late Wednesday night and into early Thursday morning, the most popular night spots in St. Petersburg were slow, but one topic was making the rounds: Donald Trump’s policy reversal decision on transgender students and what it means in a broader context.

Michael Jones, a well-known entertainer and drag whose stage name is “Meagan Towers,” was in street clothes, sipping on a drink at Pepperz Cabaret in Gulfport, the heart of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the greater St. Petersburg area.

“I think what they’re doing is wrong,” Jones, who works mostly in Naples, told FloridaPolitics.com. “I know too, too many trans people that this could affect if (Trump) takes this further.”

Hours earlier – in a letter to issued in Washington, D.C., on letterhead by the departments of Justice and Education, and signed by officials with the civil rights divisions of each – Trump’s legal experts asserted that the rights of transgender students to use separate “sex-segregated” were given without proper vetting.

Sandra Battle, of the U.S. Department of Education, and T.E. Wheeler II, of the U.S. Department of Justice, justified the government’s position because no formal public debate had ever been carried out and, in addition, no compatibility review with Title IX had been done either.

“The interpretation has given rise to significant litigation regarding school restrooms and locker rooms,” said the joint statement issued Wednesday.

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that the term ‘sex’ in the regulations is ambiguous and deferred to what the court characterized as the ‘novel’ interpretation advanced in the guidance.”

The letter cites a Texas injunction against the 2015 and 2016 Obama-era administration letters, released by the departments of Education and Justice, respectively, authorizing broader rights for the nation’s growing transgender students.

“In addition, the departments believe that, in this context, there must be due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy,” Wednesday’s joint revision read.

That mattered little to Jones back in St. Petersburg. He and a couple of friends worried whether Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress were poised to do much more, like rescind the right for those in the LGBTQ communities to legally marry.

Jones said Trump used to support “the LGBTQ team,” but since becoming president, the shifting winds of politics had taken hold.

“Apparently, he’s making it known to all minorities and us that he doesn’t give a damn,” he said, irked.

Jones and several other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in St. Petersburg that FloridaPolitics.com spoke with well into early Thursday morning – most of whom did not wish to go on the record for this story in what they described as a growing climate of fear in the culture wars – said they were definitely scared.

They spoke sympathetically of teens across the country who may be struggling with their identity, trying to fit in socially while growing up transgender. The men said Trump’s new policy might lead to an uptick in teen suicides among transgender youth.

Statistics are it are fuzzy, but according to one study by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, published in Science Daily August 2016, 30 percent of transgender youth reported having attempted suicide at least once, and nearly 42 percent report a history of self-injury, like cutting.

Separately, they asked, what about Florida legislators? With a Republican governor close to Trump and a GOP-controlled Statehouse with a new legislative session approaching, could the days of Florida being a haven for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community be at risk?

Maybe, several lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people admitted. They were aware of a current piece of legislation meant to do just that – roll back the gains made through years of protests and condemnation.

But HB 17 is a pre-filed measure for the 2017 session that the Washington-based nonprofit Freedom for all Americans – which works to secure non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans –  describes as a “bill (targeting) local non-discrimination protections for all Floridians, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, by not only banning municipal governments from passing non-discrimination ordinances, but by overturning any protections currently in place on Jan. 1, 2020.”

HB 17 was introduced by Rep. Randy Fine. Detractors of the proposal say it is being fast tracked.

“I feel like they’re trying to take all the rights we have now away,” Jones, the entertainer, said. “Like they may abolish gay marriage and everything – just gone.”

Charlie Crist joins blasts Trump administration’s rollback of protection for transgender students

Charlie Crist is blasting the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that let them use bathrooms and facilities corresponding with their gender identity.

“This action sends a frightening message that the administration does not care about the safety of transgender children in our nation’s schools,” Crist said Thursday. “While repealing this guidance does not change the fact that Title IX protects transgender students, it subjects our public schools to more lawsuits and puts trans youth at risk. I stand with America’s trans students who, like all children, deserve a safe place to learn.”

Two GOP members of Florida’s congressional delegation have also criticized the decision.

“This is a disappointing choice for the Administration to make,” Congressional District 26 Representative Carlos Curbelo said in a statement. “We should be working toward ensuring all American children feel safe and accepted in their schools, regardless of where they live, their race, creed, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the decision by the Trump administration, “lamentable.”

Along with Rep. Jared Polis (D – CO), Ros-Lehtinen introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) in 2015 that would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. She’s also supportive of the Safe Schools Improvement Act which would require schools to create a code of conduct against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other important factors.

Last May, the departments of Education and Justice issued joint guidance directing schools to let transgender students use facilities that correspond with their gender identity. The “Dear Colleague” letter, addressed to school districts and colleges that receive federal funding, was based on the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools, to include gender identity.

Conservatives welcome Donald Trump with delight – and wariness

For the past eight years, thousands of conservative activists have descended on Washington each spring with dreams of putting a Republican in the White House.

This year, they’re learning reality can be complicated.

With Donald Trump‘s presidential victory, the future of the conservative movement has become entwined with an unconventional New York businessman better known for his deal-making than any ideological principles.

It’s an uneasy marriage of political convenience at best. Some conservatives worry whether they can trust their new president to follow decades of orthodoxy on issues like international affairs, small government, abortion and opposition to expanded legal protections for LGBT Americans — and what it means for their movement if he doesn’t.

“Donald Trump may have come to the Republican Party in an unconventional and circuitous route, but the fact is that we now need him to succeed lest the larger conservative project fails,” said evangelical leader Ralph Reed, who mobilized his organization to campaign for Trump during the campaign. “Our success is inextricably tied to his success.”

As conservatives filtered into their convention hall Wednesday for their annual gathering, many said they still have nagging doubts about Trump even as they cheer his early actions. A Wednesday night decision to reverse an Obama-era directive that said transgender students should be allowed to use public school bathrooms and locker rooms matching their chosen gender identity has thrilled social conservatives.

“He’s said that on multiple occasions that he’s not a conservative, especially socially,” said Zach Weidlich, a junior at the University of South Alabama, “but my mind-set was, give him a chance, especially now that he’s elected.'”

“He was the better of two evils given the choice,” added Timmy Finn. “I agree with his policies, however, I think he’s moving a little too fast.”

Trump has a somewhat tortured history with the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual convention that’s part ideological pep talk, part political boot camp for activists. Over the past six years, he’s been both booed and cheered. He’s rejected speaking slots and galvanized attendees with big promises of economic growth and electoral victory.

At times, he has seemed to delight in taunting them.

“I’m a conservative, but don’t forget: This is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party,” he said in a May interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, said Trump’s aggressive style is more important than ideological purity.

“Conservatives weren’t looking for somebody who knew how to explain all the philosophies. They were actually looking for somebody who would just fight,” he said. “Can you think of anybody in America who fits that bill more than Donald Trump?”

Trump is to address the group Friday morning. Vice President Mike Pence is to speak Thursday as are White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.

The tensions between Trump’s brand of populist politics and conservative ideology will be on full display at the three-day conference, which features panels like: “Conservatives: Where we come from, where we are and where we are going” and “The Alt-Right Ain’t Right At All.”

Along with Trump come his supporters, including the populists, party newcomers and nationalists that have long existed on the fringes of conservativism and have gotten new voice during the early days of his administration.

Pro-Brexit British politician Nigel Farage will speak a few hours after Trump.

Organizers invited provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after protesters at the University of California at Berkeley protested to stop his appearance on campus. But the former editor at Breitbart News, the website previously run by Bannon, was disinvited this week after video clips surfaced in which he appeared to defend sexual relationships between men and boys as young as 13.

Trump “is giving rise to a conservative voice that for the first time in a long time unabashedly, unapologetically puts America first,” said Republican strategist Hogan Gidley. “That ‘America First’ moniker can very well shape this country, but also the electorate and the Republican Party and conservative movement for decades.”

Trump’s early moves — including a flurry of executive orders and his nomination of federal Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — have cheered conservatives. They’ve also applauded his Cabinet picks, which include some of the most conservative members of Congress. The ACU awarded his team a 91.52 percent conservative rating — 28 points higher than Ronald Reagan and well above George H.W. Bush who received a 78.15 rating.

But key items on the conservative wish list remain shrouded in uncertainty. The effort to repeal President Barack Obama‘s health care law is not moving as quickly as many hoped, and Republicans also have yet to coalesce around revamping the nation’s tax code.

No proposals have surfaced to pursue Trump’s campaign promises to build a border wall with Mexico that could cost $15 billion or more or to buttress the nation’s infrastructure with a $1 trillion plan. Conservatives fear that those plans could result in massive amounts of new spending and that Trump’s penchant for deal-making could leave them on the wrong side of the transaction.

“There is wariness,” said Tim Phillips, president of Koch-brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress, others believe there’s no way to lose.

“He sits in a room with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Is there a bad a deal to made with those three in the room?” asked veteran anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. “A deal between those three will, I think, always make me happy.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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