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Tom Lee stays on sidelines in congressional race

Saying “this is simply not the right time for me,” state Sen. Tom Lee announced Thursday he will not run for a Central Florida congressional seat that became open when U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross decided against seeking re-election.

It was not immediately clear whether Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate president, will seek re-election in November to his Senate seat.

Lee, who mulled running for a variety of offices, issued a statement saying he will not enter the contest in Congressional District 15, which covers parts of Polk, Hillsborough and Lake counties.

“The outreach and encouragement from across the district has been truly humbling,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, this is simply not the right time for me to go to Washington.”

With qualifying for federal offices ending at noon Friday, four Republicans — former state Rep. Neil Combee of Auburndale, Sean Harper of Lakeland, Curt Rogers of Dover and Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland — and a trio of Democrats — Kristen Carlson of Lakeland, Andrew Learned of Valrico and Ray Pena of Lakeland — had filed paperwork as of late Thursday afternoon to run for Ross’ seat.

State Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, has announced he will run for the seat after initially running for state attorney general. Spano was not listed on the state Division of Elections website as having qualified Thursday afternoon.

Lee, who did not immediately return a call for comment, can run for re-election in state Senate District 20, which includes parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Pasco counties. Qualifying for legislative races is from June 18 to June 22.

Lee, a vice president of Sabal Homes of Florida who served in the Senate from 1996 to 2006 and returned in 2012, has said he is attempting to balance his family and political aspirations.

On April 19, Lee ended the possibility of running for state chief financial officer, pointing to the time and travel needed to mount a statewide campaign. At the time, he also noted, “I really would love to continue to be serving (in the Senate), but I have to be pragmatic about it and put my kids first.”

Heading into the final half-day of federal qualifying, all 23 congressional incumbents seeking re-election had qualified for the November ballot, with Congressman Daniel Webster, a Republican who once served as state House speaker, getting his paperwork in on Thursday.

At least 21 of the state’s 27 seats will feature Republican-Democrat contests in November.

As of late Thursday afternoon, all but Democratic congresswomen Kathy Castor and Lois Frankel faced opponents who had qualified for the ballot. Democratic incumbent Alcee Hastings only had a write-in challenger.

Four Republican-held U.S. House seats are being vacated this year, with Ross, Tom Rooney and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen retiring and Ron DeSantis running for governor.

Democrat Donna Shalala, a former University of Miami president who served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, has joined a crowded field in South Florida to replace Ros-Lehtinen.

Meanwhile, as expected, a Democratic primary has emerged in the race for a Treasure Coast seat held by freshman Republican Congressman Brian Mast. Pam Keith, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2016, and Lauren Baer, a foreign policy official in the Obama administration whose family owns Baer’s Furniture, qualified to run for the seat this week.

Joe Negron to leave Senate early

Senate President Joe Negron tendered his resignation from elected office to Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday, to be effective Nov. 6, “the same day his term as Senate President ends.”

Despite his current and final term not ending till 2020, Negron had telegraphed his decision his recent months in ‘exit interviews’ he gave to state news media, including Florida Politics. He was last elected in 2016.

“I have always been a big believer in term limits,” the Stuart Republican said in a statement. “I have had the privilege of representing the Treasure Coast and parts of Palm Beach County in the Florida Senate for nine years.

“The way I see it, I actually received an extra year because I came to the Senate in a Special Election in 2009. The additional two years of my final term were added only through the vagaries of reapportionment litigation.”

He replaced former Senate President Ken Pruitt, a St. Lucie County Republican who himself left office early after the 2009 Legislative Session.

In his resignation letter, Negron said he wanted “to afford as much notice as possible to allow the next State Senator from District 25 to be elected in the regular 2018 primary and general election cycle without the necessity of a special election.”

“I would respectfully request that you consider scheduling the dates of the special primary election and special general election to coincide with the dates of the primary election and general election,” Negron told Scott.

“With key election-related deadlines and activities scheduled in the ensuing weeks and months, I believe this proposed course of action would be in the best interests of constituents.”

Negron was elected to the House in 2000, serving for six years, including a term as Appropriations Committee chair in 2005-06 under then-House Speaker Allen Bense. He was first elected to the Senate in 2009, and also served as budget chair there in 2012-14 before becoming president for 2016-18.

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, is slated to take over the presidency from Negron after the November election, assuming the GOP holds its majority in the chamber.

“I know @joenegronfl has been thoughtfully considering this choice for some time, and I support his decision,” he tweeted Wednesday. “Julie and I will certainly miss having Joe and Rebecca in Tallahassee. We wish their family well as they prepare to conclude his term as Senate President in November.”

In a March interview with Florida Politics, Negron said lawmakers over the last two Sessions “made tremendous progress” on goals he set out in his 2015 designation speech, “a blueprint of things I tried to accomplish.”

Among those, beefing up higher education “with world class faculties,” addressing pollution in Lake Okeechobee, and “decriminalizing adolescence” with pre-arrest diversion programs and making it easier to expunge juvenile arrest records.

What “didn’t get a lot of attention” last year, he added, was reforming eyewitness identifications in criminal cases “to reduce the chance of wrongful convictions.”

Negron then he hadn’t yet decided whether he would serve his bonus time: “I’m going to take a few weeks to think about it … Term limits are there for a reason.”

He said in the interview he plans to focus on his business litigation work for the Akerman firm in its West Palm Beach office.

“I’m a lawyer first, a legislator second,” Negron said. “This was one part of my life that I greatly value … but my primary professional identity is as a lawyer. I’m back in the office. I enjoy what I do.”

On Wednesday he added: “I believe in a citizen Legislature where women and men from all walks of life serve for a reasonable period of time and then return to the private sector. I have done my very best to fight for my community in Tallahassee and November is the right time to retire from my service in the Legislature.”

The resignation letter is below.

After a year, families hear nothing on calls for justice for the Groveland Four

A year ago, the families of the “Groveland Four” fought back tears, joined with Florida Legislature leaders, and watching as lawmakers sought to do what they could to right a 68-year-old injustice from the Jim Crow era in Florida.

On April 18, 2017, the Florida House of Representatives approved CS/HCR 631 by 117-0. On April 27, 2017, a year ago Friday, the Florida Senate followed up with a 36-0 vote, apologizing for the “grave injustices perpetrated against Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas.” The injustices had emerged from the 1949 wrongful accusation of four young, black men, of raping a white woman in a rural area outside of Groveland, in Lake County, triggering events that led to the deaths of Shepherd and Thomas, and imprisonments of Greenlee and Irvin.

The Florida Legislature’s resolution urged the governor and the Florida Cabinet to “expedite review” of clemency, granting full pardons.

Following the House vote, the bill’s backers, state Rep. Bobby DuBose, state Sen. Gary Farmer, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and other lawmakers joined the families to praise the day.

It is now a year later, and the families still are waiting, and have heard nothing about any expedited clemency review, let alone the granting of full pardons. That moment of praise seems so long ago to them now.

“We want closure. We want them to come out and pardon, or whatever it may be,” said Walter Irvin’s nephew, Eddie Lee Irvin Jr. “They got the proof now, the stuff from the FBI, that they were innocent the whole time.”

“I’m very disappointed at this point. I would like to know: What’s the holdup? What’s going on? Is there something else we have to do? Or just, why hasn’t there been any movement, any activity toward the pardons?” expressed Charles Greenlee’s daughter Carol Greenlee.

“We haven’t heard anything from anyone,” said Vivian Shepherd, Samuel Shepherd’s niece. And without any information, she fears the pardons are not being expedited, but are at the bottom of very tall stack, “so it’s like saying, ‘It’ll never happen.'”

[FloridaPolitics has not been able to track down any family of Ernest Thomas.]

There is much that is secretive about Florida’s clemency review process. Cases are confidential until they actually reach the point of appearing on the docket for public consideration by the Commission on Offender Review. As of late last fall, the commission had more than 22,000 requests pending for pardons and other forms of clemency. The commission takes them up for review in chronological order based on the filing dates, unless a member of the Florida cabinet intervenes and requests that any particular case is expedited.

Formal applications for pardons have been filed for Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, the two who survived long enough to be fully convicted and sent to prison. Their families filed for those pardons last summer, as did a young activist who took an interest in the case, Josh Venkataraman.

Normally, without requests to expedite cases, Commission on Offender Review cases are, as Vivian Shepherd feared, backlogged for many years.

Has anyone in the cabinet sought to expedite the Groveland Four cases?

Florida Politics asked all the cabinet members early last week: Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Only Scott’s office responded, and the response did not answer that question, or whether the governor even supports the requested pardons. The response was essentially the same statement his office offered the last time he was publicly asked about the matter, in November, noting that the cases were going through “standard procedure” and the governor was keeping options open.

DuBose and Farmer also did not respond to inquiries to their offices about progress in the cases.

“Governor Scott is aware of the Groveland Four case and is strongly against any form of racial injustice or discrimination. Currently, the families of Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee have applications pending with the Commission on Offender Review which conducts clemency investigations per standard procedure and the Florida Constitution. After the Commission concludes clemency investigation, their findings are presented to the four-member Board of Executive Clemency,” Scott’s spokesman McKinley Lewis said in a written statement. “We continue to review all of our options.”

Charles Greenlee was a young father, only 17 in July 1949, when he came from Alachua to Groveland looking for work. That was his path into what now is the infamous, nightmare episode of false accusations, arrests, beatings, shootings, railroaded justice, killings, and imprisonments of four men since demonstrated to be innocent. The narrative was spelled out in the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King.

Some of it also was spelled out in the resolution approved last year by the Florida Legislature. The resolution declared, “We hereby acknowledge that Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, who came to be known as ‘the Groveland Four,’ were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history.”

Greenlee and Irvin were paroled in the 1960s. Irvin died in 1969, Greenlee in 2012. His daughter Carol Greenlee finally got to know him when she went off to college and stayed with him in Nashville. At that time, he was working in maintenance at a funeral home and a department store.

“My father was, in my eyes, a great man, a very compassionate person, considerate, a family man who loved his children, and he was just a calm, gentle person, in spite of all that he had gone through,” she said. “He embraced life, and was very considerate of others.

A pardon, she said, “would, number one, lift the clouds over our heads in terms of his being sent to prison for something he did not do. It would give my nieces and nephews a sense of dignity, of respect, some confidence in themselves. When you’re associated with someone in prison, it leaves a cloud there.”

“For me, it hurts, to have lost the time that I’d never get back with my father. [There also is] a sense, a recognition that we are not descendant of a criminal. It will restore my father’s dignity and honor, even after his death,” she said.

Vivian Shepherd’s uncle, her father’s younger brother, Sam, was shot and killed while being transported to a pre-trial hearing, long before she was born. She’s 56 now, living in Clermont.

Like the others, she was thrilled with the resolution. Frustration is mounting now, though. The resolution was an apology. The pardons, she said, offer a concrete legal statement, and that’s what they want.

She has turned her frustration specifically toward Gov. Scott.

“From what we’re told, he can do it. He doesn’t have to go through the committee, but he calls himself ‘following protocol’ here, but we know he can do it,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe he just choses not to do it. What reason? I don’t know.

“If not him, we’ll look to the next governor,” she added.

Walter Irvin’s nephew, Eddie Lee Irvin Jr., 56, of Clermont, said he also believes politics is holding up the pardons process. And he fears there may not be the luxury of time for delays. Walter Irvin has a surviving sister, and two surviving brothers, including Eddie Lee Irvin’s father.

“I’d just like to see something done, we’ve got three siblings left, before they leave this Earth,” Eddie Lee Irvin Jr. said. “My Dad’s sister, Henrietta, she’s very sick right now, and she’s been battling for this [justice] a long time. Before she leaves this Earth, I would like to see something done, so she can go and be at peace.”

Lantana Democrat Lori Berman

Lori Berman’s special election victory certified

Lantana Democrat Lori Berman’s special election victory for a Palm Beach County Senate district, which moved her up from the Florida House, was quickly certified Tuesday.

The Elections Canvassing Commission — comprised of Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — certified the April 10 election results in which Berman defeated Lake Worth Republican Tami Donnally. Secretary of State Ken Detzner oversaw the brief telephonic meeting in which all three members of the commission participated.

Berman captured 75 percent of the vote for the Democratic-leaning Senate District 31 seat that was vacated in October by Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who stepped down after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

Berman’s Senate term will expire after the 2020 Legislative Session.

Less than 10 percent of the 312,967 registered voters in the district participated in the special general election, according to the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections website.

Berman’s District 90 Palm Beach County House seat will be filled in the November general election.

Berman’s election to the 40-member Senate leaves the upper chamber with one empty chair. The lone vacancy, District 16 in Pinellas and Pasco counties, will be filled in November. Former Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, resigned from the seat in December, following a sexual-harassment investigation.

Electoral map scrambles race for Senate presidency

For the first time this decade, a race to one day lead the Florida Senate is not confined to an intra-party scrum among Republican lawmakers.

And while Naples Republican Kathleen Passidomo is now the slight front-runner to hold the gavel beginning in 2022, she and her GOP colleagues must first navigate two election cycles in which control of the Senate could be at stake.

Passidomo is emerging as the leading candidate to succeed Senate President-designate Bill Galvano and Majority Leader Wilton Simpson after Tampa Republican Dana Young declared that she would not pursue the Senate presidency. That left Passidomo and St. Augustine Republican Travis Hutson as the two contenders for the position.

Based on not-for-attribution conversations with at least four members of the 2016 class of the Florida Senate, other Senators, and key staff and lobbyists close to Passidomo, Hutson, Galvano, and Simpson, it appears that Passidomo holds a one-  or two-vote lead over Hutson within the nine-member class of Republicans.

In addition to Passidomo, Hutson, and Young, the other Republican members of the 2016 class are Dennis Baxley, Doug Broxson, George Gainer, Debbie Mayfield, Keith Perry and Greg Steube.

Steube is exiting the Senate to run for Congress, so he’s not part of the math here.

Almost all of those tracking the race peg the vote at 5 to 3 for Passidomo with Baxley, Broxson, Gainer and Young behind her. Hutson can count on the support of Perry and Mayfield.

The consensus that Passidomo is leading the race gelled last week when Senate leaders and elite-level lobbyists raised money for the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee at a series of events in Nashville. According to an itinerary obtained by Florida Politics, lawmakers were treated to a private concert by Phil Vassar at the Loveless Barn and a songwriters luncheon at the famous Bluebird Cafe.

With the twang of country music in the background, a handful of Senators and other Adams Street players talked openly about two factors driving the race in Passidomo’s direction.

The first is Young bowing out of the race and squarely backing Passidomo. Sources close to both Passidomo and Young say that the Tampa Republican has, indeed, signed a pledge card for Passidomo.

The second factor has a tinge of post hoc ergo propter hoc, specifically that since Hutson was not able to win his own class, he could not win the race at large.

“If you can’t even win your own class, your butt has no business being up there [in the president’s rostrum],” said one member aligned with Passidomo, who asked to speak without attribution so as to provide clearer insight into the workings of the Senate.

Hutson has told a handful of Republican lobbyists and donors that he expects the contest between him and Passidomo to be a “long slog” and may involve the votes of members from the incoming class of Senators.

However, Hutson’s position runs counter to what President-designate Galvano and Leader Simpson have reportedly told other members. Fearing a repeat of the kind of race between President Joe Negron and Jack Latvala, which divided the chamber for years, the incoming leaders want the matter settled before the November elections.

This said, Galvano and Simpson are both said to want to be careful about not interfering in the Passidomo vs. Hutson contest. They, like other Senators, prefer not to openly discuss leadership races other than to note that the Senate conducts its business differently than the Florida House, which has endured back-to-back internal conflicts about who will lead the chamber after Jose Oliva.

Yet what is really concerning Galvano, Simpson, and other GOP members is not which Republican will follow them, but whether it will even be a Republican.

With Lantana Democrat Lori Berman‘s unsurprising win Tuesday night in a special election for a seat in the Florida Senate, the chamber is now divided 23 to 16 between Republicans and Democrats.

As previously reported on Florida Politics, state Democrats are systematically laying out a plan to recapture the upper chamber. They hope to win at least four of seven battleground seats on the ballot in 2018.

To that end, Rep. Janet Cruz has entered the race for SD 18, where she will try to pick off Young and trial lawyer Carrie Pilon has filed to challenge incumbent Jeff Brandes in SD 24. The party likes its chances with the campaigns of Kayser Enneking and Bob Doyel, two first-time candidates challenging Republican incumbents Keith Perry and Kelli Stargel, respectively.

It is also recruiting former state Rep. Amanda Murphy to run for the open seat in Senate District 16, once held by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala and Alex Penelas, the former mayor of Miami-Dade County, to run for SD 36, where Republican Rene Garcia is term-limited.

On Wednesday, Democrats were relieved to learn that Jose Javier Rodriguez will remain in SD 37, giving the party a better shot of funding those campaigns.

Even if Democrats fall short of winning control of the Florida Senate, the results in these competitive seats could impact Passidomo vs. Hutson (assuming Passidomo doesn’t have the race locked-up by November. If Perry loses his re-election bid, Passidomo would have a hammer-lock on the contest, but her chances could be hurt if Young were to lose.

All the more reason for Passidomo to conclude her business by the summer.

Scott Maddox campaign contributors OK with covering legal bills

Are Scott Maddox’s financial supporters mad that he spent $125,000 in political donations on legal fees arising from the federal investigation into Tallahassee’s City Hall?

Not especially, judging from conversations with some of those supporters.

“I don’t blame him for using it for that. It doesn’t bother me,” said Kevin Collins, a Tallahassee real estate agent who contributed $500.

Added Karen Koelemij, president of Orange State Construction Inc., “Whenever you give money to a politician, you don’t know how they’re going to spend it.”

She gave Maddox, a Democrat, $500 because she liked his record as mayor of Tallahassee. Her brother, Kevin Koelemij, also was an aide to Maddox when he was the city’s ‘leadership’ mayor.

“No objection at all,” attorney Reginald Garcia, another $500 donor, said. “I understand Commissioner Maddox got a legal opinion stating it was a permissible campaign-related expense. His lawyer. Mr. Stephen Dobson, is a former FDLE agent and assistant U.S. attorney, so Scott is in good hands.”

Florida Politics reached out to people who contributed money to the city commissioner’s 2016 campaign for Leon County school superintendent. Maddox dropped out of that race and rolled the contributions into a state Senate campaign planned for 2020. The seat he was aiming for is now held by Democrat Bill Montford, whose term is up then.

With an FBI corruption investigation pending, Maddox nearly zeroed out that campaign chest with his March 23 payment to the Baker Donelson law firm. He said he got a legal opinion that the expenditure was legally proper, and considered it necessary to keep his Senate hopes alive.

Maddox’s contributors include people well familiar with the political process, both at the Capitol and at City Hall, as well as retired public employees and homemakers.

Collins described Maddox as an old friend. They grew up in Tallahassee and attended high school together. “He’s somebody I’ve known for a long time. I just chose to support him,” he said.

Collins has given to a range of candidates over the years, and said he understands these gifts as expressing broad support for their careers. “It depends on the candidate,” he said. “It could be a personal relationship. It could be somebody I’ve known for a long time. I’m going to support their political positions.”

Koelemij takes the same approach. She doesn’t consider herself “heavy-duty into politics,” and doesn’t want a refund.

“You put them on the honor system, but when you give them the money, you give them the money,” she said.

Honor roll: State legislators receive high marks from Florida Chamber

The grades are in, and from the perspective of those pushing for a more fertile business climate in the Sunshine State, the Legislature is getting better — but there’s still work to be done.

Each year the Florida Chamber grades state legislators after tabulating votes on measures backed by the pro-business group. The 2018 Legislative Report Card, released Thursday, showed significant improvement from the 2017 Session.

Forty-seven percent of legislators earned an A — that’s up from a mere 9 percent in 2017. The average GPA for both chambers came in at 78 percent, up from last year’s 73 percent.

The House performed better than the Senate; 64 representatives earned an A and the chamber’s GPA came to 79 percent, compared to eight A-earning senators and an average GPA of 74 percent for the upper chamber. House Speaker Richard Corcoran earned an A. Senate President Joe Negron earned a C.

A news release from the Chamber attributed the higher overall scores to “cutting red tape, chipping away at Florida-only taxes, funding for economic development, tourism marketing and infrastructure investments, and targeted education reforms.”

Unresolved matters, the Chamber contends, include reforming assignment of benefits and lawsuit abuses, stabilizing workers’ compensation and increasing investments in Florida’s workforce colleges.

“While there is always room for improvement and more work to be done, this legislative session’s grades showed many legislators took steps in the right direction on several policy fronts and voted to prevent harmful ideas from becoming law. We look forward to a session when every legislator earns an ‘A’ and Florida’s competitiveness outranks every other state,” said David Hart, executive vice president of the Chamber. 

The grades shouldn’t come as a surprise to lawmakers. The Chamber released its legislative priorities ahead of the 2018 Session and hand-delivered its agenda to every legislator. The group alerted lawmakers prior to each time it intended to factor a vote into its report card. In total, the Chamber scored 2,900 votes.

Along with the report card, the chamber announced its Distinguished Advocate award winners. The recognition is reserved for a handful of legislators who fought tirelessly for the passage of pro-business legislation – no matter how difficult – and furthered the Florida Chamber’s goals of securing Florida’s future through job creation and economic development,” according to the Chamber. 

Fifteen lawmakers received the distinction this year. Most were recognized for their pro-business efforts. St. Petersburg Rep. Ben Diamond, the lone Democrat on the list, was honored for championing a lawsuit-limiting amendment. Incoming chamber leaders, Republicans Rep. Jose Oliva and Sen. Bill Galvanowere recognized for their roles in championing school safety measures in the wake of the Parkland tragedy.

“We’re pleased to recognize members of the Florida Legislature with Distinguished Advocate awards who had the courage to put free enterprise principles for job creation above special interest,” said Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson.

Other honorees include:

– Rep. Manny Diaz

– Rep. Joe Gruters

– Rep. Clay Ingram

– Rep. Mike La Rosa

– Rep. Scott Plakon

– Rep. Holly Raschein

– Rep. Paul Renner

– Rep. Jay Trumbull

– Sen. Dennis Baxley

– Sen. David Simmons

– Sen. Wilton Simpson

– Sen. Kelli Stargel

Geraldine Thompson is back, filing to run in HD 44

Former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson filed for a chance to return to the Florida Legislature, entering the race for Florida’s House District 44 in southwest Orange County.

Thompson, of Orlando, served four years in the Florida Senate, representing Senate District 12, and six in the Florida House, representing House District 39 before redistricting. She left the Legislature to run for Congress in 2016, losing the Democratic primary to now-U. S. Rep. Val Demings.

“This [HD 44] was a district that previously had been so gerrymandered that a Democrat could not compete. After redistricting, people now will have a choice,” Thompson said.

She hopes to take on incumbent state Rep. Bobby Olszewski of Winter Garden, who won a special election to fill the seat last October.

Already in the race are Olszewski’s Democratic opponent in the 2017 election, Eddy Dominguez of Orlando, Democrat Matthew Matin, of Winter Garden, and Republican Usha Jain of Windermere, who finished a distant fourth in a four-way Republican primary last year.

Thompson said she ran for Congress wanting to expand her ability to serve her constituency, but now believes the best platform for her to do so is the Florida Legislature. Her old Florida Senate District 12 seat is now held by Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Oakland. Due to the redistricting, Thompson had to run for re-election in 2014 after just two years, and won the re-election in SD 12 in a landslide.

HD 44 includes some of west Orlando, parts of Ocoee and Winter Garden, Windermere, and southwest Orange County.

“I think I have solid name recognition in the district. I’ve served the district. I’ve worked with the mayors in the cities of the district, so I think that gives me an advantage,” Thompson said Monday. “With regard to House District 44, I think this is a race where there is an opportunity break down years of history of exclusion. I’m interested in being a part of that.

“Because of gerrymandering … for years the Democrats didn’t really field a candidate.”

Dennis Baxley and Linda Stewart turn debate to defining assault weapons, defense rifles

The breadth of the chasm between Second Amendment advocates and gun law reformers became apparent Tuesday when the Florida Senate’s leading pro-gun champion squared off against the same chamber’s top advocate for firearms reform at the Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida.

Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley defined a fear among firearm owners that gun control advocates want to take away their weapons, deny them freedom, and strip away their abilities to defend their homes and families against even the most extreme of threats.

The guns of question should be considered defense rifles, Baxley, author of the state’s Stand Your Ground Law, stressed repeatedly.

He argued that the gun debate now is that of an urban mindset versus a rural one. Those who believe guns are key to freedom, he said, are quiet now but will storm the polls in November.

“This [attempt to ban sales of certain kinds of guns] is only the beginning of taking your personal freedom,” Baxley said.

Democratic state Sen. Linda Stewart defined a belief that the high-powered, rapid-fire rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines used in the mass shootings at Parkland, Pulse, Las Vegas and so many other places are the reasons for mass fatalities in such incidents, and their sales should be banned to stop their proliferation.

The guns in question should be known as military-style assault weapons, Stewart, author of the assault weapons sales ban bills the past two years, insisted, adding that even the National Rifle Association defines them as assault weapons.

And she said the wave of protests led by young people wanting action is not going to stop, and she predicted it will send a message in the November elections.

“What I am proposing does not take any of your guns away. It allows you to protect your family,” Stewart said.

The question from Baxley: To what extent?

Baxley openly hypothesized dystopian scenarios in which society either breaks down into violent lawlessness, and he offered New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina as an example; or the American government becomes totalitarian and comes after people, and he offered Cuba as an example. This, he said, is what the Second Amendment protects against, and why it must be defended.

“The last thing we want to be is underpowered for whatever is coming at you,” Baxley said. “And we have that potential for society. We’ve seen it happen all around the world. If society unravels, what are you going to do to be safe in that environment?”

“If we lose this ability, it’s all gone,” he said.

But Stewart argued that the preponderance of mass shootings has risen since the ban on assault weapons was lifted 10 years ago.

“If you look at what the causes of these massacres are, it’ s not just mental health… The root cause of all of these is the assault weapons,” Stewart said.

Bill Montford still on the fence on TLH mayoral run

State Sen. Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, had said he would announce a decision on running for mayor of Tallahassee this past weekend, but a spokesman said the longtime elected official has not yet made up his mind.

Montford did not respond to calls and messages left Sunday.

Montford, 70, was a popular school principal, Leon County commissioner and schools superintendent before running for and winning his current position in 2010. His current Senate term is up in 2020.

Montford has faced growing local pressure to run for mayor. Since late January, he has said he would wait until after the end of the legislative session to decide. The session ended March 11.

If he leaves the chamber early, Democratic Rep. Loranne Ausley of Tallahassee and GOP Rep. Halsey Beshears of Monticello are said to be interested in the seat.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

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