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Donald Trump eyes Jeff Miller as next VA Secretary

President Donald Trump is meeting with former Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller this week to talk about the open position running the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The upcoming meeting was reported by the Washington Examiner’s Gabby Morrongiello, who said she received the tip from a senior official at the White House.

Miller, now a lobbyist, represented the Pensacola area in Congress for 16 years, announcing his retirement ahead of the 2016 elections.

From 2011 until he left office, Miller served as the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee, where he pushed for the privatization of VA healthcare.

During the 2016 election cycle, Miller was a primary architect of candidate Trump’s 10-point plan to reform the VA. At the top of the plan was the appointment of a VA Secretary “whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans.”

Another facet called for Congress to pass legislation empowering the VA Secretary to “discipline or terminate any employee who has jeopardized the health, safety or well-being of a veteran.”

Miller was rumored to be a top pick for the job during Trump’s transition to the White House, but was ultimately passed over in favor of David Shulkin, who had served as the Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health during the final two years of President Barack Obama’s administration.

Shulkin was dismissed as VA secretary on March 28, and Trump’s initial pick to replace him, White House physician Ronny Jackson, has since withdrawn his as VA secretary in the wake of scandals alleging improper conduct in his current role.

Alan Grayson comes out ready to brawl

Former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson is entering the Democratic primary field against his successor U.S. Rep. Darren Soto ready to brawl, already going after the incumbent as someone he said has done nothing meaningful regarding the district, Puerto Rico, or President Donald Trump.

In an interview Tuesday morning, Grayson took the fighting stance that recalled his image, during three terms in Congress, as a puncher, and he contended that a fighter is needed now in the time of Trump. And Grayson immediately took swings at Soto.

Grayson said his paperwork to run in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, “my old seat,” has been submitted.

“I take no pleasure in saying this saying this because my own sense is I want what is best for the people in Central Florida. But I think he’s been entirely ineffective,” Grayson said of Soto. “I literally can’t think of anything meaningful he’s accomplished in the 16 months he’s been on the job.”

Grayson compared his perception of Soto to his self perception of his own record, serving CD 9 from 2012-’16, and serving in Florida’s Congressional District 10 from 2008-’10. Grayson took credit for bringing the new Veterans Administration Hospital to Orlando; for getting funding to extend SunRail into “the minority southern end of town,” for “fending off the Obama administration’s decision to close [the air traffic control operations at] the Kissimmee Airport;” and for bringing in an extra $100 million in competitive federal grants for the district.

“And… I passed more legislation than any other member of Congress, 121 amendments, bills and resolutions, in four years,” Grayson said. “I don’t see that kind of activity or anything remotely resembling that activity from the Soto office. And I think both the region and Puerto Rico are suffering for it.”

Soto quickly responded with a written statement defending his record on progressive values, and on building local alliances. The latter observation was a jab back at Grayson, whose bombastic  character has often alienated him, even among party regulars.

“I have been endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and every Democratic member of the Florida House delegation precisely because I have stood up for progressive values in Congress and delivered for the district,” Soto stated. “I will be joined by numerous local and state officials and supporters on Thursday to launch my reelection campaign. In contrast, Grayson stands alone today pushing his typical self-promoting smearfest.”

Grayson contended that polls show him doing very well against Soto. And he argued that he did better with voters within CD 9 during the 2016 Democratic primary, when Grayson ran against eventual U.S. Senate nominee Patrick Murphy and Pam Keith, while Soto ran against Grayson’s wife Dena Grayson and Grayson’s former congressional office field director Susannah Randolph, in the CD 9 primary.

There is at least one Republican running this year in CD 9. Wayne Liebnitzky, whom Soto beat in the general election last time, said his paperwork also has been submitted for the 2018 election. Yet barring unforeseen developments, this seat, representing Osceola County, eastern Polk County, and southern Orange County, likely will be decided in the Democratic primary on August 28.

Liebnitzky said the race should be about integrity.

Grayson’s references to Puerto Rico essentially are preemptive. Soto is of Puerto Rican descent, in a district that has the largest concentration of Puerto Rican residents of any in Florida, a community that has grown dramatically in the past couple of years.

While Soto has been very active pushing for relief and support for Puerto Rico, and visited the island several times since Hurricane Maria devastated it last September, Grayson contends he was ineffective in actually getting help for the island, and that he failed in preventing tax changes that punish Puerto Rico in the new tax reform law Congress approved late last year.

“I was constantly blocking efforts, and reversing efforts, to discriminate against Puerto Rico when I was in Congress,” Grayson said. “And this has been the worst year in history for Puerto Rico, not only because of the hurricane, but because of the vicious discrimination that has been perpetrated against Puerto Rico since then that Darren has been unable or unwilling to try to stop.”

The former congressman didn’t stop there. He took on Soto over a wide range of progressive Democratic issues. Among them, Grayson contended that the incumbent abandoned U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi‘s call to vote against the budget continuing resolution because it did not extend the DREAMers program, and that he made statements in his 2016 campaign suggesting he was “open minded” about cutting Social Security benefits.

Then there is Trump. In the past year Grayson, a lawyer who specialized in whistle-blower cases, established a political action committee with the stated goal of ending Trump’s presidency, called LockHimUpNow.Org.

Grayson charged that Soto has twice voted against impeachment efforts in the House. Grayson vowed he would fully support impeachment, immediately, charging that evidence indicates Trump was complicit in the hacking theft of “tens of thousands” of Democratic Party files, and that coverup evidence already includes Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey “over that Russia thing,” paraphrasing Trump’s interview statements.

“Somebody has to stand up to this bully,” Grayson said of Trump. “And I don’t see that happening right now with Soto.”

Blake Dowling: Latest in political campaign tech

Last week, I had an opportunity to visit Pebble Beach outside Carmel, California.

Pretty gal and some clown at Pebble Beach.

As I basked in the glory of the extraordinary West Coast scenery, I just couldn’t stop thinking about Cambridge Analytica and its micro-targeting techniques, as well as the disruptive and deceptive Internet Research Agency and the trail of havoc and misinformation created in the last presidential election. (The sarcasm button is on, clearly.)

For a couple of days, I didn’t even check email. It was a grand escape, indeed.

If you have never visited Carmel/Big Sur, get there ASAP.

In fact, the only political thought on my trip was when John Dailey called to discuss his campaign for Tallahassee mayor.

“Can’t talk now, how about next week?” I replied.

Anyway, I am back in the swing of things and thought we could look around the political landscape and see what tech folks are using to get themselves into office – without fake ads and stealing/borrowing data.

During his last run, Ted Cruz used a very innovative suite of mobile apps called uCampaign. The app actually makes campaigning a game (to some, it already is) and you are awarded points for reaching specific achievements.

“Political Pokémon,” I call it.

Apps like uCampaign can really change how a supporter engages with those they support. His fans were (literally) all tied together in a digital community. Very cool.

Here in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson is doing great things with his digital presence. Last year, I gave him a hard time about his website in a column; I just retook a look and it is actually pretty slick. He integrates a photo album, videos and several other calls to action right on the home page.

The past two presidential elections have been outstanding examples of tech usage. President Barack Obama was the first to use Social Media (Twitter – 102 million followers) aggressively in a campaign. President Donald Trump’s use of social media and firms like Cambridge Analytica during the election was also aggressive. And we all know about his use of Twitter in the White House.

Also, doing the little stuff, like making sure to send out e-newsletters is a strong way to keep your constituents and or supporters in the loop during and after an election.

In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed into law legislation redistricting his state to help his party with an election. With that, the term “Gerrymandering” was born, describing the activity of redistricting areas.

Some experts argue that the fact the U.S. is the only democracy on earth where the politicians are involved in the process of drawing boundaries is terrible – causing even more party division.

For example, England has a “Boundaries Commission” which claims to be “independent.”  Which I am sure it bloody is, mate (British accent).

Even more interesting is throwing “big data” into the gerrymandering equation to see what that looks like. There is a ton of information here on that. However, this also might veer back into the shady side of things vs. cool. But it is a reality.

Back to cool tech, have you heard of Nation Builder? It’s software to run every facet of an election.

Check out the story of Alabama’s Randall Woodfin Nation Builders to help capture the Mayor’s office in Birmingham. Nation Builder puts social media, finances, emails all in one place.

Also, check out ActBlue, it is an exciting fundraising platform that gathers together small donors all in one place to support Democrats.

“ActBlue is an invaluable tool not only to the DCCC but to the whole party,” says Julia Ager, Chief Digital Officer of the DCCC. “They make it easy for supporters to give with a single click.”

So, there you have it – some cool tech to help get you or your favorite aspiring politician elected.

Keep in mind, all the tech in the world can’t replace a phone call or face to face dialogue.

Nice work, Mr. Dailey, pounding the phones, and best of luck with your campaign. I hope everyone is having a wonderful day and thank you for reading.


Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies. He can be reached at

Jacksonville Bold for 4.27.18 — Lessons learned

Lately, Jacksonville politics has been fractious. A debate over JEA privatization, a hot-button topic for months, saw the culmination of claims and cross-claims of lies, betrayals, subterfuge and deception before Mayor Lenny Curry pulled the plug Thursday.

As the political season approaches, locals may want to take a cue from gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, who made yet another Jacksonville stop, one where protesters showed up to spotlight his family farm underpaying laborers in 2008.

While the issue was long since resolved, in the heat of the campaign, it has become newly relevant, and chants like “Putnam don’t pay” could be heard through the glass inside the Mandarin diner during Putnam’s “Up & Adam” event.

Our Jacksonville correspondent joked with campaign staff that the candidate should engage protesters after the event.

And Putnam did just that.

To watch what happened next, click the image below:

For those expecting any of the protesters, who were holding signs condemning the candidate, to engage him directly on the issues, they would have left disappointed.

Putnam bantered with the lead protester, as she described working in celery fields “on the mule train.”

What followed was talk of celery grating and “firing the grove” — in an area Putnam called “the celery capital of the world” — with Putnam describing ways of said firing.

“I know about those wages,” the woman told Putnam. “You basically said you took care of that situation.”

Putnam confirmed that, adding: “Our people are the most important part of any business.”

The encounter ended with a high-five.

“That’s my girl, right there,” Putnam said, with protesters saying “have a good day” as he headed to his next stop.

Now, on to the week’s other news …

Lawson slams farm bill

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, writing in the Tallahassee Democrat, slammed the current iteration of the Farm Bill on Congress.

“The bill introduced by House Republicans proposes to cut billions of dollars from federal nutrition assistance programs, including SNAP, and take food away from millions of seniors, veterans, persons with disabilities and vulnerable communities struggling to make ends meet,” Lawson asserted.

Al Lawson has been concerned about ‘food deserts’ in his district; this bill won’t help.

Lawson notes that the bill would “end or cut SNAP benefits for more than 1 million low-income households, add aggressive new work requirements and throw 265,000 school children off the free lunch programs.”

The Democratic incumbent in Florida’s 5th Congressional District laments, in the editorial, the loss of the bipartisan spirit in the committee.

Meanwhile, Lawson’s campaign apparatus has been fairly dormant thus far — and he needs to get it together, as his primary opponent Alvin Brown will host a campaign kickoff Saturday morning at the IBEW hall … the meeting place of the Duval Democrats.

Johns bows out of CD 6 scrum

On Friday, St. Johns County Commissioner Jimmy Johns opted to withdraw rather than stay in the race for Florida’s 6th Congressional District.

The “resign to run” law compelled the choice. And faced with two self-financing Republican opponents in Michael Waltz and John Ward, Johns stood down.

Jimmy Johns’ withdrawal narrows the race for what will be an expensive nomination.

As of the end of March, Ward had $709,340 on hand, with $555,000 of that from his own checkbook. Waltz, who loaned his campaign $400,000, had $653,354 on hand.

Ward and Waltz thus far have demonstrated the most fundraising ability on the Republican side. Former state Rep. Fred Costello has $15,720 on hand.

Read more here.

Gibson, Davis deliver check to Edward Waters

Rep. Tracie Davis and Sen. Audrey Gibson presented a $356,000 check to Edward Waters College to aid recipients of the College Promise Program. The program is a pathway for low-income, first-time college students beginning their higher education at a four-year institution.

Audrey Gibson and Tracie Davis delivered for EWC.

“As an alum of Edward Waters College and State Representative for this area, I am so excited to have been part of the team with Senator Gibson to secure this funding for such a great program,” stated Davis. “College Promise is the second program in the nation providing a debt-free pathway to higher education for first-time students. This is the future of higher education and funding is critical to its success.”

This money will defray costs for 100 students to attend EWC for a year.

Renner: Beaches are still open

Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican with deep Jacksonville ties, penned an op-ed intended to quell misinformation about beaches closing to public access.

Beaches are open, says Rep. Paul Renner. (Photo: Florida Times-Union)

“In some cases,” Renner wrote, “private property owners who live on the beach own lots that are platted to include the ‘dry sand’ between the dunes and that high-water mark. Even though this is private property, and even though those owners are taxed on the dry sand portion of the beach, it is not uncommon that many of us use it.”

“The new law simply creates a uniform process for a county to apply to the courts to affirm areas of customary use. Without the courts involved on the front end, individual property owners could and did sue to challenge county ordinances around the state. The taxpayers were on the hook for legal fees to defend every individual case against the county and pay any damages awarded if the county got it wrong,” Renner wrote.

Read more here.

Polson gets Hazouri endorsement in HD 15

On Tuesday, political veteran Tommy Hazouri, currently a Jacksonville City Councilman, endorsed fellow Democrat Tracye Polson in her bid for state House.

Polson is the sole Democrat in the race to succeed outgoing Rep. Jay Fant in House District 15, a Westside Jacksonville seat.

Can Trayce Polson flip HD 15?

“As a former state legislator, having represented this district for 12 years, I know this community needs and deserves a courageous and bold voice to represent our diverse needs, and that person is Dr. Tracye Polson,” Hazouri asserted.

Hazouri went on to laud Polson’s commitment to “real change in public education” and a “fresh, insightful approach that will address the true needs of our city.”

“I am extremely honored to receive the support from Council Member Tommy Hazouri, who has been a public servant to Jacksonville for decades,” Polson said. “His knowledge and experience will be a great asset to our campaign and we are excited to have his counsel and support moving forward.”

Polson, atypically for area Democrats running for Republican-held State House seats, has shown dynamic fundraising. She’s raised $174,103 between her campaign and political committee accounts, with $113,635 on hand, after clearing over $30,000 in March.

There is a competitive Republican primary, and those candidates all trail in cash on hand.

Jacksonville land use attorney Wyman Duggan has just over $95,000 cash on hand. Duggan, notably, is one of a group of lobbyists working on behalf of Nova Scotia-based Emera in hopes that local utility JEA goes on the market.

Other Republicans are farther back.

Yacht broker Mark Zeigler raised $11,795 in March, his first month of significant fundraising. First-time candidate Joseph Hogan, meanwhile, reported no fundraising.

‘New Dawn’ for JEA, says CEO

In a memo to JEA employees Monday, Interim CEO Aaron Zahn hailed “a new dawn” for the Jacksonville utility.

Aaron Zahn vows that he will build trust with his new workforce. (Image: Action News Jax)

The point of the memo was clear. It framed Zahn, a board member for one month who leveled-up into the CEO chair, as an agent of stability for the utility, which has been rocked for months by a parlous privatization debate.

Zahn wrote that he “recognize[d] the emotional and mental toll” of the privatization debate, adding that he is “committed to learn” from the workforce, and that he intends to earn trust.

The language had a fortune cookie feel in spots: “Every day presents an opportunity to start anew. Even mistakes present an opportunity to learn and grow.”

Zahn addressed substance eventually, noting that he had asked the Mayor and City Council to move from a “discourse … of decision-making” to a “discussion” of JEA’s future, allowing the utility to develop a plan to address “opportunities and risk … in our changing market.”

Regarding Melissa Dykes, who served as interim CEO for a week before the board chose Zahn without any substantial public discussion of his merits compared to Dykes, she has “agreed to take on an expanded role … is committed to JEA and working together as partners to accomplish the vision I’ve set forth.”

Org changes are coming, Zahn says. And so is an updated strategic plan, which will make JEA “a utility for the future of Jacksonville.”

Official positions of Zahn and his chief political ally, Mayor Curry, boil down to advocating a pause of some indeterminate length in a discussion of privatization of the utility.

The memo does not address that timetable, one likely of key concern to stakeholders inside the company and city government alike.

Jacksonville’s Mayor pulled the plug on privatization Thursday though, ending the discussion for the foreseeable future.

Dennis menaced by ballot challenge

It appears that there will be a competitive race in Jacksonville City Council District 9 next year after all.

Finance Chair Garrett Dennis, the Democratic incumbent, faces a challenge from within his own party, from Marcellus Holmes.

Marcellus Holmes tells us he is in the race regardless of Garrett Dennis running again or not.

Holmes, who played professional football for the New England Patriots from 1997 to 2001 as both a practice and active squad member, is about to line up against a Councilman who has been a serious irritant to Curry.

When asked to assess Dennis’ performance, Holmes — reached by phone Monday afternoon — was diplomatic.

“He’s doing the best job he can,” Holmes said. “But I can give the community more of what it needs.”

Dennis, who hasn’t filed yet, insists he’s running for re-election. That was news to Holmes.

“I didn’t know he was running again,” Holmes said, saying that Dennis did a “great job his first term.”

Holmes, who currently is an at-risk case manager with first-time offenders at local nonprofit Daniel Kids, sees his experience as being key to “bringing the community together” to “meet the needs of every community” and “get every issue solved.”

There have been strong suggestions that Curry may have an interest in backing an opponent to Dennis. But, says Holmes, he hasn’t talked to the Mayor.

That said, one of Dennis’ Council colleagues — fellow Democrat Reggie Brown, who is running from his Council seat for Gibson’s spot in the Senate — did offer some advice: to go in there and be himself.

Dennis, when asked about facing an opponent for his re-election, was blunt.

“I don’t know who that is,” Dennis said. “Bring it.”

Supplementary Reading: Dennis irked by unfair concert ticket distro from Mayor’s office.

Sauce loss

A saga that began with a 2011 business development deal for a BBQ sauce plant and saw one of the business principals elected to City Council along the way descended into drama and nonperformance.

The city of Jacksonville was left hanging compared to secured creditors in the BBQ backwash.

An FBI raid and a subsequent series of legal actions and personal and corporate bankruptcy filings led to a reorg, and the city of Jacksonville poised to eventually get pennies on the dollar for the over $600,000 it fronted to the company.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jerry Funk issued a final decree Tuesday morning in the bankruptcy case of K.J.B. Specialties (Jerome Brown Barbecue and Wings), with a repayment plan for all creditors.

Last and least: unsecured creditors, such as the city of Jacksonville, which will get back less than $60,000 of the outstanding $380,000 loan back that it ceded the company seven years ago to open an ill-fated sauce plant in economically troubled Northwest Jacksonville.

A $210,000 grant for job creation was unaddressed by the accord. Fifty-six jobs were intended to be created and sustained over five years, but no jobs fit the criteria.

Read more here.

Shine down

Per WJCT, Duval County School Board member Scott Shine abandoned his re-election bid this year after yet another parlous board meeting.

Scott Shine out. (Photo: Florida Times-Union)

Shine, who often had a reliable ally on the board in former member and current state Rep. Jason Fischer, has been steeped in conflict with his colleagues — most recently about the push to hire a permanent superintendent, which Shine would have preferred to defer until after this year’s elections (which would see some of his rivals termed off the board).

There are no filed candidates in the race; expect that to change.

McCague to be interim JaxPort CFO

One of Jacksonville’s most respected financial hands is moving over to JAXPORT to be CFO on an interim basis.

Beth McCague, shown here with Bill Scheu, is no stranger to interim gigs.

Beth McCague, whose most recent public role was as interim director of the formerly embattled Police and Fire Pension Fund, will serve as CFO for the less embattled JAXPORT.

Per the Jacksonville Daily Record, McCague was already advising CEO Eric Green.

She will handle the port’s capital program and other financial functions, until such time as a permanent CFO is chosen.

Walk talk

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has been bashed of late for a tendency to ticket black pedestrians who cross illegally more than scofflaws from other demographics, and the latest hits were taken this week at a gathering of faith leaders, per Action News Jax.

Sheriff Mike Williams faces no serious electoral threat next year.

“In Jacksonville, African-Americans represent 29 percent of the population, but according to a joint publication by the Florida Times-Union and ProPublica, the black community has received 55 percent of the tickets in recent years. Sheriff Mike Williams has stood by his number of 45 percent, and said this year, after a focus on education rather than enforcement, it’s down to 34 percent,” AN Jax reported.

While there’s “work to do,” Williams maintained that there is not an “epidemic” of overenforcement.

Williams will waltz to re-election. He has raised over $400,000 between hard money and committee cash; his opponent, Tony Cummings, has approximately $200 on hand.

Bean, Byrd present state funding for Fernandina Beach

State Sen. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach and state Rep. Cord Byrd of Neptune Beach presented a $450,000 check Tuesday to Fernandina Beach Mayor Johnny Miller and the City Commission. During the 2018 Legislative Session, the two lawmakers secured state funding for crucial shoreline stabilization to the city’s waterfront marina seawall.

Aaron Bean and Cord Byrd present Fernandina Beach officials a $450K check for shoreline stabilization.

“The seawall of Fernandina Beach’s marina sustained extensive damage during Hurricane Irma and has resulted in severe flooding in the downtown area,” Bean said in a statement. “This state funding will help the City of Fernandina Beach replace the deteriorating marina seawall, which will ensure the preservation of our historic downtown for future generations.”

Byrd added: “The Stormwater Shoreline Stabilization project will improve the city’s marina seawall and better serve residents by protecting the historical downtown area from future flooding.”

Fernandina Beach’s Stormwater Shoreline Stabilization project seeks to reduce flooding in the city’s downtown by replacing 270 linear feet of the existing marina seawall. Once installed, the new seawall will be 4 feet taller than its predecessor to better defend downtown Fernandina Beach from storm surges and subsequent damage.

Bean, Daniels present $250K to Jax Sheriff’s Office

Sen. Bean joined state Rep. Daniels of Jacksonville to present a $250K check to Jacksonville Sheriff Williams and Dr. Charles Moreland, attending on behalf of Mayor Curry. During the 2018 Legislative Session, the two Jacksonville-area lawmakers secured state funding for a Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Matching Grant.

Aaron Bean and Kimberly Daniels award $250K to officials from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the City of Jacksonville for an innovative policing program.

COPS Grant funds will be used for 15 sworn officer positions to implement a three-pronged approach in policing: A Blight/Nuisance Squad, Sheriff’s Watch Apartments and the Group Violence Intervention Program. The funding allows the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to continue its goal of reducing firearm-related crime and homicides.

“The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office does an exceptional job protecting our community, and this COPS Matching Grant will allow them to keep more officers on the street to fight crime,” Bean said. “This state funding shows the Florida Legislature’s commitment to the men and women of law enforcement and to protecting every citizen in the City of Jacksonville.”

Daniels continued: “I have chaired the Public Health and Safety Committee for the City of Jacksonville and served on the Florida House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. Sponsoring the COPS Grant with Senator Bean is an honor, and I am proud to be able to present this state funding for this great cause.”

District discussion continues

Jacksonville City Councilwoman Lori Boyer has been pushing The District development in recent weeks, and another stakeholder meeting occurred Wednesday with fellow Councilman and former Council President Greg Anderson.

The District is a high-risk, high-reward proposal to solve a long-standing development gap.

Anderson had questions for Boyer on the proposed development, four years in the making, with construction proposed to wrap by the end of 2022. Politically connected developers Peter Rummell and Michael Munz have a deal, as of January, to buy the land for $18.6 million from the JEA Board.

While the Downtown Investment Authority backs the proposal that would remedy a long-standing dead zone, there are a number of stumbling blocks to the deal, not the least of which is City Council approval of what amounts to a public-private partnership.

Read more here.

Neighborhood summit draws a crowd

Could Jacksonville’s neighborhood summits become a yearly tradition?

A report from WJXT suggests that may be the case, with hundreds of people at the Prime Osborn last weekend to get direction on Jacksonville’s resources.

The photo (via WJXT) offers a small sample of the action at Prime Osborn.

“The purpose of this is to educate the community as a whole — it doesn’t matter where you live — about the resources that the city provides to its citizens,” said Denise Lee, Jacksonville’s director of Blight Initiatives.

“You meet people all the time and they say, ” Well, I have this problem. ” I say, “Well, we have the city Neighborhoods Department back and they would be more than happy to work with you. We’re having a neighborhood summit. Please come out,” Lee said.

The city brought back its Neighborhoods Department early in Curry’s term.

Jacksonville Zoo ‘African Forest’ expansion continues

A newly installed 40-foot-tall tree will soon become the centerpiece of the Jacksonville Zoo African Forest build-out, which will connect each of the new ape exhibits.

As reported by the Jacksonville Business Journal, the unique central tree will connect overhead trails, similar to those in the Zoo’s Land of the Tiger exhibit. The tree – the crux of the $9 million, 4-acre African Forest project – will also contain an internal spiral staircase that will “allow keepers to interact and provide enrichment for the apes in the mesh-enclosed ‘exhibit.’”

Jacksonville Zoo African Forest exhibit renderings.

Part of the new exhibit – replacing the two-decade-old Great Apes Loop – will feature an “enrichment station” where apes interact with a high-tech touchscreen app.

The Journal also reports that by the end of January, the African Forest project is close to full funding, with $7.3 million out of its $9 million raised. Now, only $400,000 remains to reach its goal.

Save the date: Jacksonville YMCA groundbreaking ceremony

Next month, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the James Weldon Johnson Family YMCA expansion, which includes a new teen center, swimming pool and other amenities.

Jacksonville YMCA groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for May 14.

Groundbreaking begins 10 a.m. Monday, May 14, at the Johnson Family YMCA, 5700 Cleveland Road RSVP by Friday, May 11, at

According to the invite, the project will provide “necessary resources and new opportunities to help transform the lives of youth and families in Northwest Jacksonville.”

Jaguars draft defensive tackle Taven Bryan from Florida

The Jacksonville Jaguars were in an unfamiliar position going into Thursday night’s NFL draft. Over the past few years, they drafted early in the first round following another losing season.

This year, the team drafted 29th (out of 32) following a turnaround 10-6 season that saw them come within five minutes of reaching the Super Bowl. Going in, they knew an instant starting running back like Leonard Fournette, whom the Jags drafted with the sixth pick last year, was not going be available at 29.

Newly drafted Jaguar Taven Bryan.

Someone like offensive lineman Cam Robinson, Jacksonville’s 2017 early second-round choice out of Alabama, would still be around. Bolstering the right side of the offensive line was still a need, while the defense is among the top units in the NFL.

They also let it be known maintaining their “smash mouth” style they developed under first-year coach Doug Marrone was in their plans.

“Who’s it going to be? Who knows? said Jaguars’ Executive Vice President of Football Operations Tom Coughlin before the draft. “But according to the work that we’ve done, we feel that we will get a good football player at that spot.”

At around 11:20 p.m. Thursday, Jaguars fans found out when they plucked 6-foot, 5-inch and 291-pound defensive tackle Taven Bryan from the Florida Gators. In the end, instead of filling some holes on offense, Jacksonville chose to make an outstanding defensive unit even better.

The Jaguars have two more days of draft work yet to do. On Friday, they have the 61st overall pick in the second round and the 93rd selection in the third round. The draft concludes Saturday with rounds 4-7.

They will have picks toward the end of the fourth round, the sixth round and two picks in the seventh round.

Ballard Partners dumps client with suspected ties to Assad regime

Brian Ballard announced Thursday that the lobbying firm is dropping a client accused of having connections to brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Ballard Partners added Dubai-based trading company ASM International General Trading LLC to its client roster on March 15 and an analysis of the company published Wednesday by the The Daily Beast indicated it was affiliated with Samer Foz, who is an ally of Assad.

The analysis used several news reports, files leaked in the Panama Papers and website registration information as evidence showing Foz was a part owner of ASM. When The Daily Beast reached out to Ballard, he said he wasn’t aware of the link, but said he would cut ties if there was one.

“We’re not the CIA, but if it were to turn out that there was any connection at all, we would withdraw from our representation of the Dubai trading company,” he said Wednesday, adding that his firm represents anti-Assad regime client Citizens for a Safe and Secure America.

On Thursday he did just that, adding that the firm will take steps to better vet prospective clients in the future.

“Yesterday a news report questioned our firm’s representation of ASM International General Trading LLC (“ASM”), based upon allegations regarding a minority owner of ASM. The news report also noted that our firm represents Citizens for a Safe and Secure America, whose objective is to promote America’s national security interests through support of policies that lead to a free and democratic Syria,” Ballard said Thursday.

“Our firm is fully dedicated to helping Citizens for a Safe and Secure America achieve this important objective, and will not allow this recent news report to distract attention and focus away from that mission. For that reason, we have decided to terminate our representation of ASM, effective today. As our firm’s Washington presence continues to grow in size, we will intensify our review of prospective clients to minimize the possibility of distractions in the future.”

The release also included a statement from Citizens for a Safe and Secure America President Rim Albezem, who was complimentary of the both the firm’s services and its decision to drop ASM.

“I am more than fully confident in the firm’s efforts to help secure America’s safety and security through promotion of free and fully democratic elections in Syria,” Albezem said. “Furthermore, I am very pleased that they will continue to fight on behalf of our organization’s sacrosanct mission, and have terminated their representation with ASM in order to eliminate any distraction from our shared goals for both America and Syria.”

The Daily Beast reported on Ballard Partners jettisoning ASM shortly after the statement was released.

Ballard chaired the Trump Victory organization in Florida during the 2016 presidential campaign and is seen as one of the few lobbyists close to President Donald Trump. Earlier this month, Trump ordered U.S. forces to join French and British allies in bombing chemical weapons facilities controlled by the Assad regime after chemical weapons were used on Syrian civilians.

Ballard’s ties to Trump led him to expand his lobbying firm to Washington shortly after Trump’s inauguration, and it has quickly found success. Since the expansion, Ballard Partners has added several major clients, including the governments of Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Qatar and the Maldives.

Ballard Partners topped all Florida firms in lobbying compensation last year, bringing in an average of $4 million in fees each quarter for its legislative and executive work at the state level.

Adam Putnam delivers general election pitch, disarms protesters in Jacksonville

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is still the frontrunner in the money race on the Republican side of the primary, even as U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis is effectively even in the polls.

As Putnam has done since he launched what he called a “complete campaign” months ago, his Jacksonville appearance was full of familiar anecdotes, but also featured sharper attacks against the Democratic field than he leveled at DeSantis, whose challenge was not directly addressed in remarks to a crowd of roughly 50 supporters inside a Southside Jacksonville diner (and 15 protesters outside, chanting “Shame on you” and “Putnam don’t pay” as he wound through his remarks Wednesday morning).

Putnam’s pitch was blunt and homespun, particularly when mentioning that unnamed Democrats are criticizing him for BBQ events.

“What kind of pinko communist attacks people for doing barbeques,” Putnam asked, suggesting that the Democratic candidate spend more time at barbecues so they can figure out why voters are rejecting their message, and adding that “three quarters of [the candidates in last week’s debate] say they start their day by reading the New York Times.”

In a gaggle after his remarks, Putnam said more about the Democratic debate, including stressing that he starts his day reading “Florida sources … Florida blogs, Florida newspapers.”

“You have to start your day with a healthy dose of Florida news and a healthy dose of SEC sports, with Saturday Down South,” Putnam added.

Regarding the question on the education budget, Putnam noted that “no one knew the answer,” with candidates off by “a billion here, a billion there.”

“The Democratic debate was so disturbing and so unsatisfying to the Democrats that they’re now talking about recruiting yet another former Republican to be their standard bearer, who would be running with a current Republican running mate,” Putnam said, referring to the hypothetical Patrick Murphy/David Jolly ticket.

“The debacle speaks for itself,” Putnam said.

His critiques extended to the left wing as well.

“They’re so mad about who’s in the White House that they can’t see straight,” Putnam said. “The left is trying to hijack Florida.”

Putnam would not condemn DeSantis, nor would he take the bait on the decision of President Donald Trump to endorse the Northeast Florida Congressman, saying he’s “focused on running the best campaign [he] can run.”

“Washington’s not going to fix our problems,” Putnam said, “and Floridians expect their Governor to be in their neighborhood, in their community.”

“You cannot run for Governor from a D.C. studio,” he said. “I’m running a Florida first campaign. I’m in people’s living rooms, in their coffee shops and diners. I am spending every single day looking people in the eye, shaking people’s hands, and sharing my Florida First agenda with them on what I would do as their Governor.”

After the event wrapped, 10 of the protesters were still outside. Putnam made the choice to engage them, shaking hands and making small talk about where they went to school and the like.

Then he closed with an extended conversation with the regional director for “For Our Future,” a left-leaning group who showed up to protest reports that in 2008, Putnam’s family farm had paid four contractors sub-minimum wage rates (which he framed as a bookkeeping error when addressing it with press).

For those who might have expected any of the protesters, who had signs condemning the candidate, to engage him directly on the issues, they would have been disappointed.

Putnam and the regional director bantered, with her describing working in the celery fields “on the mule train.”

Discussions of celery grating and “firing the grove” in what Putnam called “the celery capital of the world” followed, with Putnam describing ways of said firing.

“I know about those wages,” she said to Putnam. “You basically said you took care of that situation.”

Putnam confirmed that, adding that “our people are the most important part of any business.”

They closed with a high-five.

“That’s my girl, right there,” Putnam said, with protesters telling him to “have a good day” as he headed to his next stop.

Campaign note: Tammy Duckworth endorses Gwen Graham

Democratic candidate for governor Gwen Graham says she’s gotten the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, referred to as “a progressive trailblazer leading the charge against Trump in Congress.”

“No one is better equipped to defend Florida against Donald Trump and his harmful policies than Gwen Graham,” Duckworth said in a statement released by the Graham campaign.

Duckworth “was deployed to serve in the Iraq War in 2004 and lost both of her legs when her helicopter was struck,” according to

She was elected to the U.S. House in 2012 and to the Senate four years later, “thereby becoming the first disabled woman and the second Asian-American woman in the Senate. In April 2018, Duckworth became the first female senator to give birth while holding office.”

Graham, she said, “will take on Trump to defend the Affordable Care Act and expand healthcare for Florida families. Gwen will protect Florida’s waters from Trump’s dangerous oil drilling plans. And she will put people — not special interests — first by passing an increased minimum wage.

“Serving together in Congress, I saw Gwen fight for our shared progressive values,” Duckworth continued. Duckworth, a Purple Heart recipient, and Graham served together in Congress. Graham served one term in 2015-17.

“When Republicans tried to repeal Obamacare, Gwen voted to save it. She defended a woman’s right to choose and sponsored legislation to improve healthcare for mothers and babies. And after the devastating shooting (at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando), Gwen took on Paul Ryan to demand a vote on common sense gun safety legislation.”

Graham returned the favor, calling Duckworth “one of the toughest women I know.”

“She sets an incredible example for all Americans, and I am honored to have her endorsement,” Graham said. “As governor, I will fight with her to take on Donald Trump and fight to expand healthcare, protect our environment, and defend Floridians from his bullyish attacks.”

Gas prices hit three-year high at Florida pumps

Florida gas prices hit a three-year high over the weekend, as oil prices are up about 25 percent from a year ago and the global supply glut has tightened, according to AAA auto club.

And while the annual summer peak is still a couple of weeks away, AAA spokesman W.D. Williams said Monday the travel group doesn’t foresee dramatic price increases “at this point.”

The auto group put the state average at $2.74 a gallon of regular gas on Sunday, up 11 cents from a week ago and 28 cents more than a year ago.

“Crude oil prices are higher than they have been,” Williams said. “Plus, fuel companies are switching over to what is called the summer blend of gasoline, which is more expensive to produce. We have several factors in play, so gasoline prices are up a bit.”

Florida is still far below its all-time high of $4.08 per gallon in July 2008.

The rise in gas prices caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who tweeted Friday that OPEC was “artificially” propping up the price.

“Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea, Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!” Trump tweeted.

Marco Rubio looks to ‘reinvigorate’ conservative movement in challenging political environment

Sen. Marco Rubio has made moves in the last week to re-establish his bona fides with the conservative movement, concerns of which have been somewhat eclipsed despite Republican control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress.

Last week, Rubio brought forth one of the most prominent members of the movement, Mike Needham, as a chief of staff.

Needham came from Heritage Action, and one of the outlets most historically friendly to Rubio — National Review — lauded the hire, and credited Heritage Action as “looking for ways to make sense of the interplay of populism and conservatism since before most people on the right noticed anything was changing.”

Days after the rollout of the hire, Rubio expanded on his vision of the conservative movement, and how it has changed since his failed run for President in 2016, in an op-ed for that same publication.

Building a national American conservatism” is not the catchiest title imaginable; however, the piece is worth reading for those who want to understand where Rubio is headed, both in terms of policy prescriptions and a larger understanding that the tropes that work with the donor class fall flat with the working class.

Rubio’s article is notable for a number of regions, one of which being spotlighting daylight between town hall stump speeches and donor class conclaves.

“[B]y day, I had town halls in cities throughout New Hampshire hollowed out by the new economy, and events in Iowa with Americans who esteemed the traditional values of hard work, family, faith, and community, but who felt that the people in charge of our country did not,” Rubio observed. “By night, I traveled to California, Chicago, Palm Beach, and New York to raise money at the homes of people who lived very different lives.”

Ultimately, Rubio’s approach, though lauded in conservative movement publications like NR and The Weekly Standard, didn’t resonate with GOP primary voters.

“Ultimately, President [Donald] Trump won the office I sought. As a participant in that campaign, I can attest that he owes his victory to the fact that he was the candidate who best understood that our political parties no longer appealed to millions of Americans — that being hailed as a ‘reasonable conservative’ by CNN, or a ‘pure conservative’ by conservative think tanks didn’t mean anything to the millions of Americans who felt forgotten and left behind,” the Senator contended.

Rubio’s essay goes on to point out myriad existential threats to average Americans. Economic pressures engendered by globalization, Rubio contends, threaten both the “American work culture” and families, “buffeted by economic pressures that discourage family life, and by social engineering that seeks to replace it.”

Then the Senator poses some not-exactly-rhetorical questions.

“What happens to a nation when the only economic-policy options offered are narrow economic growth without redistribution, or narrow economic growth with redistribution? Or when the social security provided by strong families is replaced by accumulating wealth or by becoming dependent on government programs? What happens when what is right and wrong is relative instead of rooted in absolute truth found by faith? What happens when citizens of a nation abandon their shared inheritance for the identity politics of wealth, race, or ideology?”

Rubio’s answer: that’s what’s happening in America today.

Meanwhile, Rubio contends, the world is sliding toward the contracts of adhesion created by authoritarianism: “By our example, we have inspired the world to favor the side of liberty. But if we fail to correct our current course, we could end up emboldening the cause of autocracy.”

Rubio namechecks U.S. allies, such as the Philippines and Turkey, as examples thereof, in addition to China and Russia.

In that context, Rubio vows to work to “reinvigorate a national American conservatism that puts the strength of family, community, faith, and work first.”

Doing that, and striking the balance between ideological sinecures and places where voters live, may be a challenge for Rubio, as his messaging in recent months on the Republican tax reform package may indicate.

In December, reported The Hill, Rubio contended that the tax bill “probably went too far” in offering benefits to corporations.

“You’re going to see a lot of these multinationals buy back shares to drive up the price. Some of them will be forced, because they’re sitting on historic levels of cash, to pay out dividends to shareholders,” Rubio said. “That isn’t going to create dramatic economic growth.”

Yet by March, Rubio was selling the bill in the Jacksonville market, an event that focused on how tax cuts allowed a given business to expand.

The willingness to drive up deficits to grow the economy is one of the hallmarks of John Maynard Keynes‘ economic theory, and Rubio sounded like a Keynesian as he lauded tax cuts in the face of increased deficit spending under the Trump administration.

“When a business is able to keep more of the money that they are earning,” Rubio said in response to a question from this reporter about how the deficit-financed tax cuts were conservative, “they’re able to reinvest it. That reinvestment creates jobs, not just in that business but in all the businesses that support them. Those jobs become taxpayers.”

Of course, this issue was addressed last decade, during the Bush administration, when VP Dick Cheney noted President Ronald Reagan proved that “deficits don’t matter” by way of pushing through tax cuts in 2003.

The Bush economy hummed along, until it didn’t. The 2008 economic crash led to a slow-burn recovery that still hasn’t reached rural areas, including in Florida, a decade later.

Rubio and his colleagues will be forced, at least through the next 2 1/2 years, to reconcile contradictions between movement conservatism and how the game of politics actually is played.

And as recent moves suggest, Rubio intends to take a lead on what could be a politically difficult process.

Adam Putnam’s latest Jacksonville visit shows difference with Ron DeSantis

The Republican campaign for Florida Governor, as it stands now, is a two-man race between Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Rep. Ron DeSantis.

Each candidate is betting on different paths to the nomination.

While DeSantis’ press shop sends out regular media advisories spotlighting DeSantis hits on Fox News and Fox Business, Putnam is running a more traditional campaign.

He’s not given equal time on Fox News; his opinions aren’t sought on the Robert Mueller investigation.

So Putnam does what candidates have typically done, schlepping from town to town and market to market in an effort to pitch his message — one that rarely changes — to audiences.

Jacksonville has seen Putnam many times and will see him again Wednesday morning, for an “Up and Adam” breakfast event at the Beach Diner in Mandarin.

Local reporters have gotten to hear Putnam’s stump speech enough to be able to recite it on cue. Florida, Putnam has said and will say, needs to be a “launchpad for the American dream.” And there needs to be more attention given to trade education in schools, as we learn every time the state recovers from hurricanes.

To his credit, Putnam typically takes press questions at the end of his events. For example, after an opioid roundtable in Jacksonville weeks ago, Putnam had to address a hot topic at the time: the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act.

While Putnam took issue with gun restrictions in the legislation, such as barring gun sales for those under the age of 21, he stopped short of saying he would push for a legislative repeal of the bill.

Those press encounters are spirited back-and-forths, and they help Putnam clarify his positions in local markets, even if some of them are more pleasant for the candidate than others.

DeSantis, meanwhile, teased his candidacy for months before getting into the race at the beginning of the year.

Aside from a late January rally in Boca Raton where the candidate pledged to drain the swamp in Tallahassee, DeSantis has not been a fixture in local markets.

While the Fox News perch is a unique value-add suggesting a future as a host for an “Ingraham Angle” style program if DeSantis doesn’t become Governor, weeks of inactivity on the trail have become months.

There has been little evidence of a ground operation for the candidate, who nonetheless is holding his own in polls against Putnam — no small feat, given that Putnam has been a statewide officeholder for the last eight years.

The contrast between Putnam and DeSantis, in their approaches to chasing the state’s top job, has been stark. One candidate has run a textbook campaign, boots on the ground in every county.

The other candidate has run a campaign in which the satellite dish and the cable connection have largely been substitutes.

The DeSantis approach challenges the paradigm of retail politics; while he has promised that President Donald Trump will campaign with him “very soon,” the question is what will that involvement look like.

If a Trump endorsement and cable news hits carry DeSantis to the nomination over Putnam, then it is clear that the game of politics in the Sunshine State has shifted seismically.

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