Jack Latvala – Page 3 – Florida Politics

Sexual harassment training mandate for senators heads to Senate floor

Florida senators could soon be required to complete one-hour mandatory sexual harassment training every year as part of a new policy change advanced Thursday that came amid calls for overhauling the chamber’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

Intensifying bipartisan talk to improve the Senate’s sexual harassment policy began last year after two former senators, Jeff Clemens and Jack Latvala, were accused of sexual misconduct, and a top Senate staffer filed a formal complaint against Latvala detailing sexual harassment over four years.

Awareness of sexual harassment at the Capitol spiked after two separate Senate investigations into Latvala’s misconduct laid out the testimony of dozens of women claiming to have been sexually harassed and at least one female lobbyists saying the Clearwater Republican was willing to trade his support for legislation for a “sexual encounter.”

According to the report, she said she “finally left her work as a lobbyist in large part so (she) would never have to owe (Latvala) anything.”

The month-long investigations conducted by a special master recommended sexual harassment training for Senate members and staff, and a review of the overall Senate culture.

In the midst of these investigations, Senate Rules Chair Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto was tasked with revising the Senate administrative policies regarding harassment after Senate President Joe Negron faces backlash for making policy changes that some said would make it harder to report sexual or workplace harassment.

“I want to make it even more abundantly clear to employees that they can and should report sexual or workplace harassment to anyone they feel comfortable speaking with,” Negron said.

Benacquisto met with several senators to gather input and on Thursday the Rules Committee unanimously voted to mandate annual sexual harassment training for senators. The policy change now heads to the full Senate floor for final approval.

Miami Democrat Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez was among the senators Benacquisto met with. He advocated for anti-harassment training — something the Florida House already mandates — as well as a clear definition that bans “retaliatory behavior” when a complaint is filed.

“The Senate took a step in the right direction by voting to require ethics trainings on sexual harassment, but it is not enough,” Rodriguez said. “Retaliation is still not defined and prohibited.”

Rodriguez took a jab at the defense tactics by Latvala as he faces anonymous allegations. His behavior even sparked a formal Rules complaint by Sen. Lauren Book who alleged he was interfering with the Senate investigation.

“The retaliatory actions taken by Senator Latvala to subvert the investigation into his misconduct still would not have been explicitly prohibited,” Rodriguez said.

“We must do more to ensure that everyone that works at and visits the Capitol feels safe.”

Joe Negron opens 2018 Session by addressing sexual harassment

Before talking about his legislative priorities on Opening Day of Session, Senate President Joe Negron addressed the elephant in the room: sexual harassment.

“I would like to begin today by addressing a very important issue that addressed not only the Florida Senate, but also our counterparts in Congress, the entertainment industry, employers large and small across the country and our culture in general,” Negron said.

After a series of rumors, two month-long Senate investigations and senators acknowledging extramarital affairs, the sex scandal-plagued Senate came back to Tallahassee for the 60-day Legislative Session with two of its members gone. Former Sens. Jeff Clemens and Jack Latvala resigned last year after being accused of sexual misconduct.

Minutes before delivering his speech, Sens. Anitere Flores and Oscar Braynon acknowledged that their “longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret.” This admission came hours after an anonymous site went live with private eye, grainy footage allegedly showing one senator staying overnight at another senator’s apartment.

“Let me be clear: The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any type against any employee or visitor,” he added.

Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto continues to review the chamber’s sexual harassment policy after it received backlash last year.

Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, has also filed a proposal that would bring tougher penalties for sexual harassers in state government as well as create a task force to ensure public officials behave properly and do not violate existing laws. A similar bill has also been introduced in the House.

After anonymous site outs them as couple, Sens. Oscar Braynon, Anitere Flores admit to affair

[Updated 9:30 a.m. with statement from Flores and Braynon.]

Apparently exposing new depths of Florida political espionage, an anonymous internet website appeared Tuesday morning claiming to show secretly-taped videos and secretly-shot photographs supporting allegations of a rendezvous between Republican state Sen. Anitere Flores and Democratic state Sen. Oscar Braynon II.

The pair of Miami-Dade lawmakers issued a statement Tuesday morning acknowledging a relationship they regret and asking for privacy.

“As this 2018 session of the Florida Legislature gets underway, we do not want gossip and rumors to distract from the important business of the people,” Braynon and Flores stated in a joint-statement issued shortly after news reports of the website.

“That’s why we are issuing this brief statement to acknowledge that our longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret. We have sought the forgiveness of our families, and also seek the forgiveness of our constituents and God. We ask everyone else to respect and provide our families the privacy that they deserve as we move past this to focus on the important work ahead,” they wrote.

The website — floresbraynonaffair.com — and its contents claim that the videos, photographs, surveillance and other research presented by the unidentified author(s) offer evidence of an extramarital affair between the two married lawmakers from Miami-Dade County.

One Florida Politics reporter had the website texted to him early Tuesday with the message, “Senators Flores (R) & Braynon (D) Caught Caucusing!”

The website features grainy, black-and-white video shot through a pinhole lens purported to be of a hallway in The Tennyson, a condominium building in Tallahassee. Accompanying text states that Braynon and Flores had rented rooms there last April, across the hall from one another, and alleges that the surveillance suggested Flores spent several nights in Braynon’s unit.

As first reported in Sunburn Tuesday morning, there is no clear showing of who is behind the surveillance, conducted last spring, or the website. The website is marked “private” on ICANN WHOIS, a registry of owners of domain names.

The first video shows a woman leaving one room and then going across the hall and entering another room. A second video shows a woman leaving that second room, going across the hall and re-entering the first room. The accompanying text claims the woman was Flores, going from her room to Braynon’s the night of April 21, and returning to her own room the next morning.

Neither video captures a face.

The website also includes photographs and video of a woman purported to be Flores entering and leaving a car in the parking garage of The Tennyson, and of a man purported to be Braynon also in the parking garage, and in the hallway.

In none of the shots are there any clear images of faces.

Sunburn reported Tuesday morning that rumors had circulated of an alleged affair between Flores and Braynon, especially in recent weeks.

Sunburn also reported a source who alerted Florida Politics to the existence of the website. That person suggested it is the work of former Sen. Frank Artiles, who privately had threatened to expose the two lawmakers referenced in the domain name.

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican also from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b****h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor, but eventually resigned this April rather than face a hearing that could have resulted in his expulsion.

Others suggest this is the first of what could be many clandestine efforts by former Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and former Senate Appropriations Chairman, to exact revenge on his former colleagues.

Latvala also resigned this month after two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment, including an allegation he offered a favorable vote on legislation pushed by a female lobbyist if she agreed to have sex with him.

Not Just A Body Of Water — 1.7.18

Tampa Bay is more than a body of water — so much more.

To start, an admission: I really missed writing about Tampa Bay, particularly its politics.

With all that is going on in the region surrounding my beloved St. Petersburg, it was tough to resist being drawn back into the fray.

And in the post-Rick Baker/Jack Latvala era, our political landscape here has changed.

Will those changes prove to be for the better? Only time will tell.

Either way, to rectify this absence is Not Just A Body Of Water — a new weekly newsletter focusing exclusively on Tampa Bay, its politics and players.

As a new venture, “Body of Water” presents no small challenge; we must get back up to speed, reconnect with the region, learn some fresh faces. The long-term goal is to provide you, our loyal fan base, an exclusive, subscription-only service by summer 2018.

So, among the features in “Body of Water” are big-picture analysis, interviews, and highlights in the notable work of others. There will be data, photos and interviews with the personalities helping to keep our community dynamic.

Above all, we will focus on the people and issues that make Tampa Bay — more than a humble body of water — one of hottest spots in Florida politics and beyond.


Term-limited Tampa Mayor Buckhorn, facing a last full calendar year in office, has been busy securing his agenda priorities — and his legacy.

While the city’s municipal elections won’t be until April 2019, Buckhorn — or at least his reputation — will be front and center throughout 2018, as voters experience what could be a contentious campaign to choose his successor.

“I have no intention of being a lame duck,” Buckhorn told Janelle Irwin of the Tampa Bay Business Journal. “I am not going to let up on one iota of the job I came to do.”

Among Buckhorn’s most visible accomplishments include the demolition, and upcoming revitalization, of the North Boulevard Homes public housing development, to make way for a $200 million mixed-use project on the Hillsborough River waterfront.

Buckhorn also intends to collaborate further with Tampa Bay Lightning owner and Strategic Property Partners co-partner Jeff Vinik on the high-profile $3 billion Water Street Tampa project, which seeks to transform the city’s Channelside neighborhood.

Hizzonor has also been quick to promote both himself and his performance, as shown in a recent email to Tampa residents, mostly touting a recent poll giving Buckhorn high marks:

— “Buckhorn does his own poll on transit, Donald Trump and Puerto Rico and … Bob Buckhorn” via Richard Danielson of the Tampa Bay Times

— “New survey shows Tampa voters really like Buckhorn, police” via Florida Politics

— “Transit is a top priority for Tampa residents, Buckhorn survey shows” via Janelle Irwin of the Tampa Bay Business Journal

— “Hero: Tampa firefighter works full shift, arrives home to rescue neighbor from burning house” via WFLA

In addition to polishing his legacy, Buckhorn will spend 2018 sizing up what will soon be a growing field to vie for the mayor’s office. As of yet, no one has filed, but several names are being floated: former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, City Councilmembers Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, and civic activist David Straz.

Bob Buckhorn joins WWE superstar Titus O’Neil and other community partners for the 8th Annual Joy of Giving to give out more than 10,000 gifts for the holiday season.


On the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall, Rick Kriseman is sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 2, for his second term as mayor. Photo credit: Kim DeFalco


The sky really isn’t much of a limit for developers in St. Petersburg.

“Construction cranes in every direction,” writes the Tampa Bay Times’ Susan Taylor Martin. “High-rises where single-story buildings once stood.”

“This isn’t your father’s St. Petersburg.”

Estimated construction costs in the 130-year old town have reached $500 million, and there are 17 major projects underway. Five of those projects will add 1,500 rental units in St. Petersburg — complementing the 1,340 finished in the last three years.

The Beach Drive condos in the area have fared well, perhaps serving as a successful case study for investors. But the significant investments also mirror that of what’s going on in the city across the bay. The success of the Fusion 1560 complex also isn’t making investors shy away, writes Morgan.

Still, questions remain about whether St. Petersburg’s identity is enough to support major real estate ventures.

Ahead of demand?: Darron Kattan, managing director of Tampa’s Franklin Street brokerage, acknowledged there could be difficulty filling hundreds of new apartments immediately. St. Petersburg’s Avanti Apartments — one of the five underway — already is offering a free month’s rent.

But there’s optimism: “Downtown St. Pete is so dynamic that in the long run, it will support thousands more units,” Kattan said. “There’s been a fundamental kind of shift of people wanting to live in the core that we have not seen since the ‘60s.”

And the longtime residents don’t seem to mind: Former City Councilman Herbert Polson, who’s lived in St. Petersburg since 1959, “likes what he sees happening in downtown and the rest of St. Petersburg.”


Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille was selected to be the restaurant four the newly rebuilt St. Petersburg Pier, with a spot in what is currently the city’s Pelican parking lot.

As first reported by Janelle Irwin of the Tampa Bay Business Journal, Mayor Kriseman chose the Florida chain over a local concept by Steve Westphal, a St. Pete restaurateur — and a donor and supporter of Baker, who lost to Kriseman in his campaign for mayor.

Westphal owns the Hangar Restaurant & Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport, Cafe Gala at the Dali Museum and the Annex at 400 Beach.

Doc Ford’s, named after a character in a series of novels from Florida-based author Randy Wayne White, has locations in Sanibel Island, Captiva Island and Fort Myers Beach. White is a partner in the restaurant chain.

“Doc Ford’s has already established a reputation as a highly successful destination restaurant. The restaurant’s name and Florida theme, based on the novels by New York Times best-selling author Randy Wayne White, will appeal to both residents and visitors,” Kriseman wrote in a January memo announcing the choice.

The project, as well as the renovated Pier, is scheduled to open next year.


St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce will be making its annual Tallahassee trip Jan. 30-31, to meet with legislative leaders and advocate for its city and members.

To register, visit stpete.com/Tallahassee.

Members of the chamber Public Policy Committee can use the promotion code “PP17” to save 10 percent on registration. This discount is available through Jan. 12.

In a celebration of accomplishments in 2017, the Chamber will also hold its annual meeting to honor community leaders and discuss the future of the Chamber and the community.

Scheduled Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 6 p.m. in St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater, the event will name the Chamber’s Member of the Year as well as pass the gavel from the outgoing Board of Governors Chair to the incoming Chair.

Event sponsors include Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, Duke Energy, St. Anthony’s Hospital and the Tampa International/Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Chamber members received two free tickets, with more information and sponsorship opportunities at stpete.com/annualmeeting.

>>>As of November, Matt Lettelleir, has joined the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce as Advocacy Manager. The former director of communications for the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee will now oversee tracking city, county and state legislation on behalf of Chamber members.


While former Sen. Latvala faces a possible criminal investigation after his abrupt resignation, some prominent Pinellas County lawmakers are withholding judgment on the Clearwater Republican.

“I’m old enough and wise enough and I’ve been around long enough to know that you can say anything about anybody,” says Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, a Democrat. “But the last time I checked this is still the United States and you’re still supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.”

Long’s stance was similar that taken by Latvala and his legal team when he was initially accused by six women of inappropriate touching or uttering demeaning remarks about their bodies, as reported by POLITICO Florida in early November.

But Latvala gave up the fight only hours after a second blockbuster report on his misconduct went public Dec. 20 — the most explosive claim centering on allegations of a quid pro quo of legislative support for sexual intimacy with an unnamed lobbyist — now under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Among the fallout felt throughout Pinellas:

— Former Pinellas County Congressman David Jolly was “shocked” to read the report from retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson, named Special Master for the Senate, who referred his sexual harassment report to law enforcement for criminal investigation. “This isn’t the Jack Latvala that we know … I think that Jack made the right decision, and now it’s a matter for him personally and his family.”

— In resigning, “the Senator did the right thing,” says Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee Chair Nick DiCeglie. “It was a very difficult situation for him. It was a very difficult situation for his family. And I think ultimately he did the right thing there.”

— “I was certainly surprised, like everybody” reading the Swanson report, says Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “I had no idea.”

— “He’s a character, no question. He can be a bully and he’s a tough, tough guy when it comes to getting stuff done, but it’s a tough, tough atmosphere,” says Long, who has known Latvala for more than 40 years. He always treated her with dignity and respect, Long adds, and was proud that she was never on the receiving end of what she labels his “hissy fits.”

— “Not only Clearwater, not only Pinellas, but really the Tampa Bay area is going to not have the chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, so we are all going to have to work a little harder, and our delegation is going to have to work a little bit harder, and I’m confident that they will,” says Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos.


Less than three weeks after winning a special election in a Hillsborough County House district, Republican Lawrence McClure is planning a re-election bid this fall.

McClure, who defeated three other candidates Dec. 19 to replace former Rep. Dan Raulerson opened a campaign account Friday for the November election, according to the state Division of Elections website.

Unaffiliated candidate Shawn Gilliam of Plant City also has opened an account for the District 58 race.


Nothing says post-Session in Florida like a good, old-fashioned fundraising frenzy.

And with the balance of the Senate in play, especially with an expected “wave election,” raising big money for campaigns is more essential than ever.

On Tuesday, March 27, just after the end of the annual 60-day legislative work session, a group of first-term Republican state lawmakers from across Florida is holding a joint fundraiser in Tampa to support their re-election efforts.

Listed on the invite are Sens. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Doug Broxson of Pensacola, Panama City’s George Gainer, Travis Hutson of Palm Coast, Melbourne’s Debbie Mayfield, Kathleen Passidomo of Naples, Gainesville’s Keith Perry, Sarasota’s Greg Steube and Dana Young of Tampa.

The event begins 5 p.m. at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club, 5320 Interbay Blvd. in Tampa.


Mary Thomas, a former top attorney at the Department of Elder Affairs under Gov. Scott, is under consideration for a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judgeship.

Thomas, who was a onetime candidate for North Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, is a finalist on the list of 11 names for the 6th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), sent to Scott in November to fill two vacancies created by the retirements of Mark I. Shames and John A. Schaefer.

After years living in Tallahassee, Thomas, a former state government lawyer under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, relocated to Pinellas County. In 2016, she lost the GOP primary to Panama City urological surgeon Neal Dunn, who later went on to win the now GOP-leaning district.

“Mary came aboard with me right after I got elected back in 2010 and worked in my general counsel office, and to give her bragging rights, everything she touched, it worked,” Scott said at a Club for Growth event in 2016, as reported by POLITICO. “So, thank you for helping her, and hopefully she has a big win.”

“If Gov. Rick Scott selects Thomas, she will oversee cases like divorces, child support issues and adoptions,” The Tampa Bay Times writes.


A handful of municipal offices throughout Pinellas County are up for election March 13, including mayors of the cities of Belleair, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Treasure Island and Pinellas Park.

Also, up for grabs are council seats in Belleair Beach, Clearwater, Gulfport, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Madeira Beach, Redington Beach, Safety Harbor, South Pasadena and Treasure Island.

— “Qualifying period begins for St. Pete Beach City Commission

— “Four candidates qualify for South Pasadena City Commission election

— “Patrick Soranno goes uncontested for Indian Shores mayor

— “St. Pete Beach commissioners re-elected without opposition

— “Indian Rocks Beach voters set to pick new mayor, commissioners in 2018

— “Qualifying period begins for Treasure Island commission seats

— “Six candidates qualify for Belleair Beach City Council race

— “Qualifying period begins for three Safety Harbor commission seats

— “Six qualify for three seats in Treasure Island election

— “Realtor group endorses David Allbritton for Clearwater City Council


Pinellas Park Fire Chief Guy Keirn is retiring after last three years as chief. Deputy Chief Brett Schlatterer will be Keirn’s replacement.

Keirn’s last day is Jan. 22.

In his retirement letter, Keirn, a 33-year veteran of the fire department, said he wants to spend more time with family and his 1-year-old grandson.

Keirn said while having dinner recently, he and his wife, Susie, began discussing retirement, where he said: “It’s time.” He added that working for the Pinellas Park Fire Department was the “best decision I made in my life.”


It is that time of year again for the Gulf Coast — Gasparilla.

Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla named former Tampa Bay Lightning Center Vincent Lecavalier as Grand Marshal of the 2018 Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Pirate Fest and Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates.

This year, Pirate Fest will be Saturday, January 27. EventFest Inc. produces the annual celebration; Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino — Tampa serves as title sponsor.

“Tampa Bay is a special place with great traditions, and the Lightning and Gasparilla are two of them. I look forward to representing both with pride in the parade,” Lecavalier, an NHL All-Star, said in a statement.

Gasparilla is Tampa’s historic community celebration of the apocryphal legend of pirate José Gaspar, featuring a series of events (for both adults and kids) that include the Gasparilla Invasion, Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, the Gasparilla Distance Classic, a film festival, and the Parade of the Pirates, which has been presented by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla since 1904.

Gasparilla’s 2015 centennial was the third largest parade in the United States, with more than 300,000 people — over a million people attending at least one of the various events — generating nearly $23 million for Tampa’s economy.

Events also include the Pirate Fest Street Festival, presented by Budweiser with live entertainment in downtown Tampa both before and after the parade.

Details are at GasparillaPirateFest.com, which is regularly updated; reserved Gasparilla Invasion Brunch and Gasparilla Parade tickets are available at GasparillaTreasures.com, or by calling (813) 251-8844.


Diane Bailey Morton is starting the new year as executive director of the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District by launching a new membership drive. Local business executive and community advocate Lorna Taylor is pledging a $10,000 match if the Warehouse Arts District Association can add 200 new members during the drive.

For more information, a schedule of Arts District events for January, to donate or become a continuing member, visit warehouseartsdistrictstpete.com/Membership.


A healthy lifestyle can start early, according to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

But it starts with family support — a perfect household New Year’s Resolution.

Per All Children’s, “Families that eat right, get plenty of physical activity, limit screen time and have good sleep habits are more likely to raise children with a normal body weight.”

The hospital recommends the following each day: nine hours of sleep, five servings of fruit and vegetables, no more than two hours in front of a screen, and an hour of physical activity.

Oh, and stop the sweetened drinks, too. That means no soda, sweet tea, lemonade, sports drinks, or even juice.

Need some help?: First Steps: Fit4AllKids is a free six-week program available for families with overweight children in the community. It’s offered year-round in St. Pete for children ages seven-plus.

Don’t forget about the flu: The Bay area already is seeing an increase in patients with the flu virus, according to All Children’s, and over a dozen pediatric deaths have occurred from the flu nationwide. The hospital recommends getting a flu shot (it’s not too late) and routinely washing hands to avoid the virus.

Dance against cancer: Dance Marathon is a nationwide movement that raises funds for Children’s Miracle Network through a multi-hour long “dance marathon.” It’s coming to Braden River High School on Jan. 20.

Personnel note: George Meros joins Holland & Knight

Longtime GrayRobinson attorney George Meros, who’s been involved with high-profile state government-related lawsuits in recent years, is next heading to Holland & Knight.

The firm announced the move Wednesday in a press release.

Meros was most recently involved as outside counsel for the Senate in the high-profile case of embattled Sen. Jack Latvala, who eventually resigned after multiple sexual misconduct allegations.

Meros, first admitted to the Florida bar in 1978, joins H&K as a partner.

“George has an incredible reputation throughout the state of Florida,” said Larry Hamilton, leader of the firm’s North Florida Litigation Group. “He’s entrusted by clients to handle their most complex, ‘bet-the-company’ cases and has also worked on some of the most important cases affecting government and public policy, which makes him a great fit for Holland & Knight.”

Meros was most recently part of a team of attorneys that helped Senate President Joe Negron navigate internal investigations into sexual harassment allegations against Latvala.

The Clearwater Republican resigned after two separate probes concluded he groped and harassed women in his influence orbit and may have engaged in a quid quo pro, sex for votes relationship with a female lobbyist.

In another prominent case, he acted as lead counsel for the Florida House as it defended its redistricting plan. And he recently represented state CFO Jimmy Patronis in a case over a new law requiring insurance companies to track down beneficiaries.

Karen Walker, an executive partner of Holland & Knight, touted Meros as one the “most respected and well-connected lawyers in Tallahassee and throughout the state.”

Meros will also be working with Mark Delegal, a well-known lobbyist in the law firm who served on Gov. Rick Scott’s finance team.

Meros’ arrival “allows us to expand out litigation and Florida government advocacy capabilities, particularly with respect to high-profile matters involving the government,” Walker said.

He received an undergraduate degree from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. After law school, he clerked for Justice Alan Sundberg of the Florida Supreme Court.

2017 Roundup: Turbulent times in Tallahassee

Scandal, storms and sniping were the hallmarks of 2017 in Florida, where political squalls and natural disasters created havoc in the Capitol and sent tremors through the Sunshine State.

The resignations of not one, not two, but three state senators, the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria and infighting among Republican lawmakers were just some of the highlights of a year to which many are eager to bid adieu and perhaps even more wish never happened at all.

Sexual harassment, parts I and II

The political drama that gripped the Senate and rocked the Capitol this fall is atypical of an election off-year.

But the scandal that eventually forced out one of the Legislature’s most powerful members mirrored the ignominies that brought down powerful men in the media, in the movies and in boardrooms across the country.

The toppling of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, and the ensuing #MeToo social-media campaign emboldened women to tell stories of abuse or inappropriate treatment that remained under wraps in state capitols like Florida’s — among other work environs populated by powerful men — in some cases for decades.

In Florida, the focus on sexual conduct began in late October with the resignation of former state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who left the Legislature after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who resigned after a report in Politico Florida about the dalliance, was slated to take over as leader of the Senate Democrats following the 2018 elections.

Instead, constituents in his District 31 will remain without a senator until after the Legislative Session ends in March.

Before Capitol insiders even caught their breath following Clemens’s resignation, an even-more prominent senator — Jack Latvala — was in the spotlight.

For years, Latvala flexed his muscle as a power broker, often putting the brakes on right-wing priorities of his fellow Republicans and championing legislation that benefited teachers, firefighters, cops and prison guards.

But the Clearwater Republican likely will go down in history as a villain accused of engaging in a pattern of sexual harassment and possibly breaking ethics rules and laws.

To the end, Latvala steadfastly maintained his innocence, pointing the finger for his downfall at political foes and even a special master brought in to investigate the senator’s alleged wrongdoing.

Latvala, 66, announced his resignation Dec. 20, less than a day after Special Master Ronald Swanson, a former judge, recommended a criminal probe into allegations that the longtime lawmaker had promised legislative favors for sex.

Latvala quit amid increasing pressure — including from Gov. Rick Scott — to step down after Swanson found probable cause to support allegations that the senator had repeatedly groped Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers and engaged in a pattern of making unwelcome remarks about women’s bodies.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is handling a preliminary inquiry into allegations of possible public corruption.

The inquiry is based on Swanson’s findings related to an unidentified former lobbyist. Swanson found that the testimony of the former lobbyist and text-message exchanges between the senator and the woman indicated that Latvala may have violated ethics rules as well as “laws prohibiting public corruption” by agreeing to support the lobbyist’s legislative priorities if she would have sex with him or “allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner.”

Latvala — a churlish and sometimes crass curmudgeon — has been a political player for four decades. He returned to the Senate in 2010 after an earlier stint that ended because of term limits.

But his political fortunes quickly plummeted in the aftermath of the revelations. Less than two months ago, he held the powerful title of Senate appropriations chairman, a post he lost after the allegations were made public.

In his resignation letter to Senate President Joe Negron, Latvala condemned the process that resulted in Swanson’s damning report. The resignation is effective Jan. 5, four days before the start of the 2018 Legislative Session.

An unyielding Latvala — painted as a vindictive bully by witnesses — took some parting shots at Negron in what might have been his final words to the Senate, saying he hated to leave his constituents in the lurch.

Latvala’s woes may not be over, due to the criminal investigation and a possible civil lawsuit by Perrin Rogers, who took to social media following the senator’s resignation announcement.

Perrin Rogers, whose Twitter avatar is Wonder Woman, said she came forward “as the mother of a son.”

“I could no longer look myself in the mirror; I could no longer in good faith encourage him to have courage and be kind,” she tweeted on Dec. 21. “Because having courage means standing up against wrongdoing. Especially when others are in harm’s way. To the women who have been harmed, I offer support, love and strength.”

Sexual harassment, part III

In the midst of the Latvala inquiry, allegations of sexual harassment ended the career of a utility regulator before it even began.

Ritch Workman, a former state representative picked by Scott for a spot on the Public Service Commission, withdrew from the job after Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, said he manhandled her at a charity event last year.

Workman’s appointment to the Public Service Commission was slated to take effect in January and would have been subject to later Senate confirmation. Benacquisto said she wouldn’t put his appointment on her committee’s agenda because of his “abhorrent” behavior more than a year ago.

Workman, a Melbourne Republican, “approached me from behind, pushed his body up against me and made vulgar and inappropriate gestures,” Benacquisto said in a statement, describing the incident.

Benacquisto, who has said publicly that she was raped as a teenager, said she immediately asked Workman to stop, but he continued to make the comments and gestures until others intervened.

An emotional Workman told The News Service of Florida he did not recall the incident, but that “the right thing to do is to get out of the way.”

“I have absolutely no recollection of being inappropriate with Sen. Benacquisto. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her. It breaks my heart that this has come out like this because it’s not the kind of person that I am,” he said.

A different kind of harassment

Long before the #MeToo cultural revolution began, another state senator was forced to resign after a profanity-tinged and racially charged outburst at a private club near the Capitol.

Miami Republican Frank Artiles left the Senate after the 2017 Legislative Session began and less than six months after he defeated incumbent Democrat Dwight Bullard in a brutal contest for the newly redrawn District 40 seat.

The former House member — a tough-talking, U.S. Marine veteran who earned the moniker “Frank the Tank” from fellow lawmakers — stepped down amid a Senate investigation into reports that he had insulted two black colleagues and others at the members-only club.

Artiles faced widespread condemnation for a rant that reportedly included calling Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, “girl,” a “bitch,” and a “f—ing ass—-.” Artiles also reportedly used the word “niggers” or “niggas,” though he contended that he did not direct the word at anyone in particular.

“It is clear to me my recent actions and words that I spoke fell far short of what I expect for myself, and for this I am very sorry. I apologize to my friends and I apologize to all of my fellow senators and lawmakers. To the people of my district and all of Miami-Dade, I am sorry I have let you down and ask for your forgiveness,” Artiles wrote in a resignation letter to Negron, a Stuart Republican.

‘Cardiac Kids’ make peace

Lawmakers were forced to return to the Capitol for a June special Session after Scott — who could be gearing up for a U.S. Senate run next year — vetoed the state’s public-education funding formula that had been included in a budget passed a month earlier.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran spent much of this year’s 60-day regular session on a legislative jihad against the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida and tourism-marketer Visit Florida. Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, clashed frequently with Scott about the agencies.

Among the speaker’s more prominent complaints about Visit Florida was a $1 million deal with Miami rapper Pitbull, along with sponsorships of Fulham Football Club in England and the Visit Florida racing team.

After months of bickering between Scott and Corcoran, the June special Session focused on funding for public schools and economic development.

But the special Session quickly devolved into another opportunity for an intra-party boxing match, with Democrats gleefully painting a narrative of dysfunctional Republican leadership and rumors of a special Session collapse.

Hours after the Session seemed on the verge of falling apart, legislative leaders and Scott struck an agreement salvaging their priorities but setting off renewed criticism over backroom dealing. Among other things, lawmakers pumped more dollars into public schools, agreed on money for Visit Florida and set up a new economic-development fund.

Lawmakers also approved legislation setting the framework for the state’s growing medical-marijuana industry after a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalized the product.

The deal emerged after a 30-minute harangue on the penultimate day of the week-long Session by Negron, who told reporters that the Senate would need more concessions from Scott and the House for the Session to end successfully.

That led many observers to predict that lawmakers might miss a deadline to end the special Session, much as they needed overtime to finish the state budget in May following a similarly chaotic process during the regular Session.

But on the final day of the special Session, out of the backrooms came a compromise that Scott, Corcoran and Negron supported.

“We call ourselves the cardiac kids,” Corcoran told reporters. “We get you guys all worked up, and then we come to a nice smooth landing and we accomplish a tremendous amount of policy.”

Celebration, then scandals

State Senate Democrats had some celebrating to do, at least for a while, after a closely watched victory in the race to replace Artiles.

In a campaign viewed as a litmus test of President Donald Trump and Florida Democrats’ ability to make gains in local and statewide elections next year, Miami businesswoman Annette Taddeo coasted to victory, defeating former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Republican who stepped down from his House seat to run for the Senate.

Taddeo’s victory in Senate District 40 bolstered the hopes of Democrats, who have been outnumbered in the Senate for more than two decades, as they prepare to combat Republicans in local and statewide races in 2018.

But fallout from sexual harassment scandals quickly put the damper on Florida Democrats’ revelry.

Clemens, who was in charge of fundraising for Senate Democrats and took some of the credit for Taddeo’s win, walked away from the Legislature in late October.

Less than a month later, then-Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel abruptly resigned. The hurried exit of Bittel, a veteran fundraiser chosen to head the state party in January after a fractious leadership contest, came hours after a news report accused him of creating an uncomfortable work environment by leering at women and making suggestive remarks.

Blowing in the wind

State officials have yet to put an overall price tag on Florida’s costs from Irma, which left destruction from the Keys to Jacksonville.

But the historic storm caused an estimated $2.5 billion hit on crops and agriculture facilities, $6.55 billion in insured losses and a more-than $1 billion price tag for utility customers to cover the costs of power restoration.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam‘s department estimated in October that the state’s already-reeling citrus industry took a $761 million hit from Hurricane Irma. Since then, a number of lawmakers and Putnam said the damage estimate has grown to possibly more than $1 billion, as fruit continued to fall early from trees that were flooded by the September storm.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Maria — which battered Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — also had a major impact on Florida, as evacuees from the territories continue to flood into the state.

According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, more than 269,000 people have traveled from Puerto Rico to Florida in the past three months, but it is unknown how many are considered to have relocated from the island. More than 10,000 Puerto Rican children have enrolled in Florida schools since the storm.

Nearly one-third of the island remains without power, and water supplies are getting worse, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hospitals also remain in disrepair, according to a report by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who visited the island Thursday.

“The people of Puerto Rico are our fellow American citizens. They should not be treated like they’re being treated. It’s just not right,” Nelson tweeted.

Story of the year: Allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct roiled the Capitol, resulting in Clearwater Republican Latvala and Lake Worth Democrat Clemens resigning from the Senate and former Rep. Workman withdrawing from an appointment to the Public Service Commission.

Quote of the year: “But I have had enough. If this is the process our party and Senate leadership desires, then I have no interest in continuing to serve with you. I, therefore, will resign my seat in the Florida Senate at midnight, January 5, 2018.” Clearwater Republican Latvala, in a Dec. 20 letter to Senate President Negron.

Jack Latvala deletes Twitter account after sexual misconduct scandal

Sexual harassment and quid quo pro allegations raised by several women against Sen. Jack Latvala have put an end to his career in the Florida Senate and his Twitter presence.

Shortly after two separate Senate investigations concluded that he sexually harassed women in his orbit and that he may have traded support for legislation for a sexual encounter  — accusations the state’s law enforcement agency is reviewing — his Twitter account vanished, along with his tweets.

Throughout the investigations, Twitter was a vehicle to mount defense against allegations by five unnamed women and Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top Senate staffer.

Along with his personal account, his son, state Rep. Chris Latvala, also used Twitter to fight accusations. The junior Latvala continues to use his account, lately using it as a venue for sport-related retweets.

“Friends of Latvala,” a Twitter account that emerged shortly after POLITICO Florida first reported the damning accusations and was used to show support for the once powerful senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate, is no longer active.

Vacant seats to dot Legislature during Session

More than 1.1 million Florida voters won’t have a representative in one of the legislative chambers when the 2018 Session begins next month.

Resignations and a recent death have created six open seats, with most expected to remain vacant through the 60-day Session because of scheduling requirements for special elections.

The vacancies do little to alter the Republican hold on both chambers, with the GOP up 23-15 in the Senate and 76-40 in the House entering the 2018 Session.

But a vacancy can mean additional work for other lawmakers.

More importantly, Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida, said people in districts short of full representation could struggle to see local needs and funding advanced.

“Some districts have certain issues that are important which may not be pursued at all or pursued with the same vigor,” Jewett said. “Every district may have specific issues or projects that they would like funded. In the absence of representation, it is likely they will not get their share of the appropriations pie.”

“The system is set up so that most members primarily listen to and try to help their own constituents — under normal circumstances it is considered bad form to work with a constituent who does not live in your district,” Jewett added. “Some years ago, when I was in college, I interned with my state representative. One of the first things that I was taught when being contacted by someone was to get their address and find out if they lived in the district or not. If they did not, I was directed to steer them towards their appropriate elected official.”

However, he noted that district staff members usually remain in place until new lawmakers are seated, which helps with some constituent services.

Jewett also said a lawmaker leaving unexpectedly could affect bills that the lawmaker sponsored or planned to champion.

“If no other member has the passion for one of these issues, then it is likely that the policies will not have an advocate and will have a harder time becoming law or being funded,” Jewett said.

As an example, former Rep. Alex Miller, a Sarasota Republican, resigned in August, pointing to family and work obligations as well as House leadership issues. She had earlier announced plans to pursue new state wildlife laws after videos surfaced of people abusing sharks. Since Miller’s departure, no one has picked up issue.

As another example, Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, a Republican from The Villages who died of cancer Sunday, backed five local projects, including proposals that would provide money to Lake-Sumter State College and make improvements to County Road 466A, which runs through The Villages.

Having co-sponsors could help keep proposals moving after the departure of lawmakers.

Hahnfeldt, for instance, was sponsoring a bill (HB 1029) that calls for raising the legal age for smoking from 18 to 21. Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill, intends to move forward with the proposal.

“I was honored to have worked with him on raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 and will pursue this important issue in his legacy,” Berman tweeted on Tuesday. Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican, also is sponsoring a Senate version of the bill.

Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida, said the vacancies highlight the importance of coalition building.

“It is never optimal in a representative democracy for vacancies during a Legislative Session,” MacManus said in an email. “But constituents missing a representative or senator have little choice other than to turn to others who share(d) his, her interests whether via a political party or committee assignment or interest group.”

With legislative seats vacant for months after the exits of lawmakers, MacManus said it is important for voters to understand the necessity of special-election timelines. That includes providing time for overseas voters to receive and cast ballots.

“Too many voters see this as an intentional delay rather than as mandated protection of overseas voters’ right to vote,” MacManus said.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson this month rejected arguments by Florida Democratic Party leaders that special elections in two legislative districts should be held more quickly so the seats could be filled for at least part of the Legislative Session.

Dodson described as “unfortunate” the timing of the resignations of former Sen. Jeff Clemens in Palm Beach County’s Senate District 31 and former Rep. Daisy Baez in Miami-Dade County’s House District 114. But he said moving up special election dates set by Gov. Rick Scott could lead to an argument that shorter windows for absentee voting would prevent people from casting ballots.

“I wish I could do something,” Dodson said as he ruled against the party’s request. “But there really isn’t time to do it.”

State law requires 45 days for absentee voting before special and general elections. The party argued the requirement shouldn’t apply to special elections.

Here are details of the seats that will be vacant for all or part of the Session, which starts Jan. 9 and is scheduled to end March 9:


— Vacant because of the death of Republican Rep. Hahnfeldt of The Villages.

— Includes Sumter County and parts of Lake and Marion counties.

— Election dates have not been set.

— Registered voters as of October 2016: 140,817.


— Vacant because of the resignation of Auburndale Republican Neil Combee.

— Includes parts of Osceola and Polk counties.

— Special primary election: Feb. 20.

— Special general election: May 1.

— Registered voters as of October 2016: 112,258.


— Vacant because of the resignation of Sarasota Republican former Rep. Miller.

— Includes part of Sarasota County.

— Special primary election: Was held Dec. 5.

— Special general election: Feb. 13.

— Registered voters: 124,346.


— Vacant because of the resignation of Coral Gables Democrat Baez.

— Includes part of Miami-Dade County.

— Special primary election: Feb. 20

— Special general election: May 1

— Registered voters as of October 2016: 96,381


— Vacant because of the resignation of Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, which will take effect Jan. 5.

— Includes parts of Pasco and Pinellas counties.

— Election dates have not been set.

— Registered voters as of October 2016: 336,940.


— Vacant because of the resignation of Lake Worth Democrat Clemens.

— Includes part of Palm Beach County.

— Special primary election Jan. 30.

— Special general election: April 10.

— Registered voters as of October 2016: 305,998

Poll finds an independent John Morgan as spoiler, even contender, in Governor’s race

A new poll from Gravis Marketing finds that if Orlando lawyer John Morgan gets into the Florida Governor’s race as an independent candidate, he could spoil the chances of Democrats, and might present the strongest independent challenge in memory.

The poll finds that, in head-to-head matchups, leading Republican candidate Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam runs dead-even against either of the top Democratic candidates, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham or Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

Gravis Marketing, of Winter Springs, then introduced the third candidate, Morgan, who declared earlier this month he would not run for governor as a Democrat but left the door open, slightly, for an independent challenge. The poll found Morgan would take far more votes away from either of the top two Democrats and Putnam wins handily.

Yet the poll also shows that without campaigning, Morgan already appears as an independent with contender-caliber support against the two major parties’ candidates.

The Gravis poll finds that nine months out from the primaries, 18 percent of Democrats prefer Graham and 12 percent favor Gillum, while former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine gets 6 percent, Winter Park businessman Chris King receives 3, and noncandidate Jeff Greene, a South Florida businessman, 2 percent.

On the Republican side, Putnam draws 23 percent while U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, who has not announced his intentions to run, would get 12 percent. The only other major declared candidate, state Sen. Jack Latvala, who submitted his resignation from the Senate last week amid allegations and investigation of sexual misconduct, would get 3 percent.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who, like DeSantis, has made no move yet, would get 2 percent. Maverick Republican candidate Bob White drew 1 percent.

The poll also finds Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson leading Republican Gov. Rick Scott 44-39 in a potential contest for the U.S. Senate election next November.

The poll, conducted Dec. 19-24 of 5,778 registered voters across Florida, has a 1.3 percent margin of error, according to Gravis.

In head-to-head Republican-Democratic contests for the governor’s office, Putnam and Graham tie at 32 percent, while Putnam and Gillum tie at 31 percent.

With Morgan in the race, Putnam draws 27 percent, Graham 23, and Morgan 17. With Gillum representing the Democrats instead of Graham, Putnam draws 26 percent, Gillum 22; and Morgan 18.

In head-to-head matchups with Corcoran as the Republican, Graham leads 33 percent to 24 percent, while Gillum leads Corcoran 33 to 22 percent.

With Morgan in those races, Graham and Gillum still lead, but by only 3 or 4 points, while Morgan enters right behind, essentially creating tight three-way packs, 24 to 20 to 18 in the Graham question, and 23 to 20 to 19 in the Gillum scenario.

Gravis did not test DeSantis in head-to-head or three-way general election contests.

Mitch Perry’s review of top Tampa Bay stories of 2017

While most of the country considered 2017 an electoral “off-year,” that wasn’t the case in the Tampa Bay region, thanks to the St. Petersburg municipal elections.

Here’s this reporter’s list of the top ten political news stories of the year:

10. — Bob Buckhorn decides not to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

For years, the Tampa mayor’s name was always listed in Florida political reporters stories about potential 2018 Democratic gubernatorial possibilities, and the mayor did nothing to quash such speculation.

But his ascendant trajectory took a significant hit in 2015, shortly after his re-election victory by an otherworldly 96 percent. First and foremost was the backlash to his reaction to a Tampa Bay Times expose of the Tampa Police Department’s disproportionate citing of black cyclists for infractions. That issue led to a variety of progressive groups to call for a police citizen’s review board, but the mayor initially resisted those efforts, alienating him from many of his Democratic Party friends.

Fallout from the failed Go Hillsborough transit effort also bruised his brand, to the point that by early 2016, all such talk about being a candidate in 2018 began dying down. It revived (momentarily) after a stirring speech to the Florida delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 2016, but very few people responded by donating to his political committee formed around his potential gubernatorial candidacy.

When Buckhorn announced in March he would not run for governor, very few expressed surprise. In the aftermath of Donald Trump‘s election, Buckhorn said he didn’t see a path for himself in Tallahassee, and he always wanted to continue to stay close to Tampa as his daughters grow up.

9. — Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan announces that the Tampa Bay Rays selected a site in Ybor City for potentially relocating and building a stadium.

If you count when news first leaked that the Rays were in discussions with the Rick Baker administration about an open-air stadium to be built at the Al Lang site in the fall of 2007, it’s been a full decade of speculation about where the Bay area’s Major League Baseball franchise would ultimately go.

The decades-long saga had innumerable twists and turns, to the extent that when Hagan leaked word that the Rays had selected the Ybor area, it wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering announcement.

Maybe because there’s a lot of doubt about how to fund this purported $600-$700 million stadium, and how many people actually care at this point? The Rays have suffered four straight losing years, but have an even longer streak of finishing dead last in attendance.

Owner Stuart Sternberg‘s announcement that he could see the Rays perhaps paying just $150 million of the final price tag was also a non-inspiring moment.

8. — Katharine Eagan leaves HART — Hillsborough PTC dissolves.

Transportation remains the biggest vexing issue in the community, a year after the Go Hillsborough proposal died without ever getting before the voters.

Eagan’s announcement in November that she would be departing as CEO of HART to run the transit agency in Pittsburgh was a tough blow for some transit advocates in Hillsborough to stomach, but nobody could blame her. In addition to getting a $40,000 raise for becoming the new CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, she was also going to an agency with four times the budget of HART.

“It’s your gain and our loss,” HART Board Chair Les Miller told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, adding, “I’m very, very, very troubled to see her leave. It hurts.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there are very few people mourning the dissolution of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC). The controversial agency, created by a special act by the Legislature in the mid-70s and killed by it during the 2017 Session, had become a bureaucratic behemoth whose public image was shattered during the two-and-a-half years that it battled Uber and Lyft’s entry into the Bay area.

While many other local governments around the country and the world had similar problems with what some call Uber’s “arrogance,” it was never a fair fight on where the public came down, ostensibly due to the agency’s previous reputation for corruption (Kevin White, anyone?)

7. — A killer stalks Seminole Heights for 51 days.

While not inherently “political,” the search for the person who killed four people in the half-mile part of Southeast Seminole Heights this fall became a national story that climaxed when McDonald’s employee Delonda Walker went up to Tampa Police Officer Randi Whitney in Ybor with a gun that an employee left with a co-worker.

That employee was Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, who has since been criminally charged in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, 22; Monica Hoffa, 32; Anthony Naiboa, 20; and Ronald Felton, 60.

Although some were critical of Chief Brian Dugan‘s decision to arrest a lot of people in Seminole Heights during the manhunt, overall the new chief (awarded the job full-time by the mayor during the search) earned plaudits from the community for his handling of an incredibly tense time in recent Tampa history.

6. — Hurricane Irma grazes the Tampa Bay area.

While there were problems with debris pickup and the electricity companies fully restoring power to hundreds of thousands of people in the aftermath of the storm, Tampa Bay lucked out (again) during Hurricane Irma, which barreled through the state on the night of Sunday, Sept. 10.

What had been increasing anxiety broke out into a full-on panic for many residents when the forecast for the storm shifted directly toward the Tampa Bay area late Friday night, Sept. 8. That led to a mass exodus that clogged the state’s highways for days both before and after the storm.

Buckhorn’s decision to impose a curfew in the city as the storm approached became an issue when Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill contradicted the action hours later.

Questions remain about who has authority to call for mandatory evacuations.

5. — The Women’s March in St. Petersburg.

The announced crowd of more than 20,000 people who gathered in the ‘Burg on that sunny Saturday in January was called the largest demonstration in the city’s history, indicating how powerful “the resistance” would be against President Donald Trump.

Meeting five weeks before the scheduled date of Jan. 21, organizers in St. Petersburg contemplated forming a crowd of several hundred people but instead were blown away when several thousand of people of all genders, ages and races gathered at Demens Landing Park before marching.

Organizers scheduled a second such protest rally again in January.

4. — St. Petersburg voters add two more females to City Council, to go along with three LGBT members on the eight-member board.

Being a Republican in St. Petersburg was never more divisive than in 2017, when Democratic activists rallied around Gina Driscoll as she easily defeated businessman Justin Bean in the District 6 City Council race.

In the August primary (limited only to voters who actually live in District 6), Bean took the most votes, while Driscoll barely survived elimination, receiving a mere two more votes than the only other Republican in the eight-person field, Robert Blackmon.

Bean immediately went on the defensive over his GOP bona fides (not helped by the fact that he attended Trump’s inauguration), as well as his issues with the law, which included a DUI and resisting arrest charge about which Driscoll and her campaign team were surprisingly aggressive.

The District 2 race featured two classy candidates, Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless. Call it the year of the woman (or something similar), but in the end, it wasn’t close — Gabbard, a realtor, easily bested Harless.

Council Chair Darden Rice vanquished her young challenger, 21-year-old Jerick Johnson, while Amy Foster ran unopposed.

Meanwhile, in December, the council members named Lisa Wheeler-Bowman as chair.

3. — Sen. Jack Latvala is accused of sexual harassment, resigns six weeks later.

Our world changed (perhaps forever?) in October when The New York Times published a lengthy story detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against famed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein (followed up almost immediately with an equally devastating New Yorker story).

Numerous other famous men in politics, media, Hollywood and other industries were soon outed over allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior.

But the story hit home in Tallahassee and Pinellas County when POLITICO Florida reported the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 3, in which six unidentified women claimed the Clearwater Republican senator (and GOP gubernatorial candidate) had inappropriately touched them without consent or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies.

Latvala immediately denied the story, and — unlike many of the men accused of such actions — continued fighting to clear his good name as the weeks progressed. The Florida Legislature intervened.

Almost immediately, Latvala’s quixotic gubernatorial ambitions dissolved, and after a special master filed what became the 2017 Florida version of the Starr Report, Latvala is a now-resigned senator facing a criminal investigation for quid pro quo, or sex-for-votes, propositions that surfaced in two earlier investigations.

2. — Rick Kriseman defeats Rick Baker by two points for re-election as St. Pete mayor.

As the six-month campaign ebbed and flowed, the race carried plenty of emotion, seemingly dividing the city between the progressive incumbent and his more conservative-leaning predecessor.

In the end, Baker’s goodwill — particularly in St. Pete’s black community — made this an extremely close race throughout.

Kriseman’s handling of the sewage situation hung around him like an albatross, with the Tampa Bay Times editorial page making sure it never strayed too far from the top of the agenda.

Sewage was probably not what Kriseman wanted to talk too much about, since it was clear his handling of it was not his finest hour of the first term.

Knowing that the city is growing more progressive by the day, the mayor and his team emphasized Kriseman’s liberal ideology, which became a major value in helping him.

Baker knew his vulnerability was in his relationship with LGBT community going back to his first two terms, with the Pride Parade, in particular, becoming an even more significant event in the city since he left City Hall seven years earlier.

And then there was Trump.

Simply put, the former mayor’s inability to handle the Kriseman campaign’s linkage to the Republican standard-bearer killed him in the end.

Baker simply could not man up and confess that he had probably voted for Trump, instead arguing the question was irrelevant, and federal politics had no place in a municipal election.

On a certain level, he was right, but not in the world as it is today, where everybody holds an opinion about the 45th POTUS.

Kriseman looked like a dead-incumbent-walking after an internal poll by the Florida Democratic Party leaked to the public in early August showed him trailing by 11 points. Conventional wisdom had most people speculating whether Baker would gather enough votes on the Aug. 29 primary to win outright, but Kriseman stunned the world that night with a narrow victory by only 70 votes.

Baker’s advisers say their polling showed Trump’s disturbing comments in August after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, changed the trajectory of the race. Anti-Trump sentiment trickled down and ultimately hurt Baker.

1. — Hillsborough County business and members of the public rally to get financial support to move a Confederate monument after the County Commission flip-flops.

In this saga, Charlottesville also played a part, because it was only resolved after white supremacists and counter-demonstrators clashed that Saturday in mid-August.

To rehash:

In late June, the Commission stunningly voted 4-3 to keep the memorial in place, unlike other southern communities that decided such monuments were a relic of the Jim Crow era — no longer appropriate in 2017.

After the vote garnered both local and national outrage, the board returned in late July, voting 4-2 to move the monument. Commissioner Sandy Murman changed her vote, with the proviso that it could only happen if the money to move the statue was raised privately. County Administrator Mike Merrill said such an effort could not be guaranteed, and the county would be responsible for raising the remaining funds needed if the private sector could not come up with more than $200,000 to move it.

Attorney Tom Scarritt, who had led the private fundraising campaign,  found it tough going, with contributions not coming close to what was necessary for the move.

Then on Saturday, August 12, Charlottesville happened; Trump weighed in later that day — notably by not specifically criticizing the white nationalist rally and its neo-Nazi slogans, but blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”

Contributions started kicking in, but only after the BOCC voted five days later to reverse themselves once again and keep the monument in place — provided Scarritt could raise the $140,000 required within the 30 days.

What followed was an avalanche of contributions; none was more than that from Bob Gries, the founder and managing partner of Gries Investment Funds in Tampa.

Watching CNN that Wednesday night, Gries learned the Board of County Commissioners reversed its position yet again on moving the monument. His $50,000 donation spurred others (including the owners of Tampa Bay’s three professional sports franchises that initially turned Scarritt down) to help move the monument.

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