When Dunedin-based Democrat Bernie Fensterwald III entered the local political scene two years ago, there was significant attention paid to his personal finances after documents showed he was worth $19.8 million.
Criticism ultimately followed after he lost his challenge to Republican Chris Sprowls in the House District 65 seat, spending just $35,000 in the race, compared to Sprowls’ $472,000.
But Fensterwald says that while the financial disclosure form is accurate, it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s because his finances are tied up in real estate.
“It’s by nature illiquid,” Fensterwald explained in an interview at a Panera Bread in Clearwater earlier this week. “The mere fact that I have in my case $19 million doesn’t mean that there’s the liquidity to that kind of thing. Unfortunately, that’s the way it was taken.”
Fensterwald is now running for Senate District 16, which was vacated last December by Jack Latvala. There won’t be a special early election, however, leaving the voters in the Pinellas/Pasco district without representation this Session.
Former state legislator Ed Hooper is the Republican in the race, and he’s already on a Sprowls-like pace in fundraising, collecting more than $275,000 in the race to date, including $11,625 in December.
Fensterwald raised less than a thousand dollars in December and has raised $11,825 so far. When asked how much he would spend on the campaign, Fensterwald says, “Enough to win the race,” adding that he’ll make up the cash gap with people power.
Fensterwald says he’s running on a platform of public integrity.
He says Tallahassee has become a place for the permanent political class and few others, which is why he supports a proposal filed earlier this week by Boca Raton House Republican Bill Hager (HB 1335) to have a committee study moving the Legislature and the offices of the Governor and Cabinet to a location that can be accessible to more citizens.
Buttressing his point is a Harvard Kennedy School of Government study conducted in 2012 that found a correlation between political corruption in state capitals and population density. He says Orlando would be an ideal spot.
A northern Virginia native who moved to the Sunshine State in 2009, Fensterwald has been a lifelong political junkie, but he says it was the Legislature’s attempt to preempt local governments in a fracking bill in the 2016 Session that inspired his candidacy against Sprowls last year.
He was a volunteer in politics for more than two decades in the Commonwealth while making a living as an attorney, including a few years with his late father, Bernard Fensterwald Jr., a former government lawyer who later defended James W. McCord Jr., a Watergate burglar.
Fensterwald is a fierce critic of the GOP-led Legislature’s encroachment on home rule, saying he’ll never vote for a bill that preempts local governments.
The 66-year-old Fensterwald is the director and vice president of a self-storage company with locations across the Washington, D.C., area and in Daytona Beach. He supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Florida and dismisses the business community’s criticism of such a plan. He adds that he “believes it’s true'” that all of his full-time employees make at least that wage at his company.
“I think the business community in my experience has a knee-jerk reaction to any increase in wages, regardless of whether it is a legitimate concern or not,” he says.
Fensterwald says he’s split on the issue of term limits, at least in Tallahassee. He absolutely abhors legislators switching from the House to the Senate (or vice versa) to extend their political careers, but says if it were up to him, the eight-year limit in a specific House and/or Senate seat would be eliminated.
“I would prefer not to have term limits because I think what you do is you sacrifice institutional knowledge,” he says, adding that if the Legislature is going to insist on having them, “they ought to be meaningful. They shouldn’t be able to switch back and forth like that.”
For an example, Fensterwald calls the idea absurd that in some cases, Republicans who aren’t even elected yet are or have only served one term quickly size up their chances of being in line to become House Speaker. (He cites Sprowls as an example. Sprowls was votedin 2016 to become Speaker in 2020 — before he had finished his first term in office).
The Pasco-Pinellas Senate District has been considered safe GOP territory for years, but Fensterwald claims Hooper is vulnerable this year, since he’s coming off a loss in the Pinellas County Commission race to Pat Gerard in 2014.
He derides Hooper as being a career politician, an epithet that no one can ever accuse Fensterwald of.
“I think people should go up to the Legislature, apply their expertise and their knowledge, give back to the community, and go back to where they came from and resume their lives as before,” he says.
“Too many people up there who switch from the Florida House to the Florida Senate, they eventually become lobbyists, and then, they’re just part of that industry.”
This lifelong Democrat feels the energy from his party and says he’s seen it in the Democratic clubs he attends, especially in Northern Pinellas County. Whether that can carry him to get over 50 percent in November is a formidable challenge, but Fensterwald is nothing if not an optimist.
“I think District 16 is one of those seats that is doable,” he says. “I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think that it was doable,” adding that he thinks the Democrats can swing five seats this fall, taking over the Legislature’s upper chamber.
“If they can get their act together, they have a tremendous opportunity to forestall any further gerrymandering,” he says of his own party.
The Tampa Bay area will have three Senate seats and 14 House seats on the 2018 ballot; while most of the Pinellas and Hillsborough delegations will be the same when the 2019 Legislative Session rolls around, a few races are starting to heat up.
First, the sure things.
Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young is still running solo for re-election to SD 18 and looks primed to win it with $160,000 on hand in her campaign account and another $690,000 stashed away in her political committee, Friends of Dana Young.
While that money could be put to use against a worthy challenger in the Hillsborough seat, Young has planned some other uses for it behind the scenes, perhaps helping some allies win in tougher battlegrounds.
In Pinellas-based SD 16, go ahead and pencil in former Republican Rep. Ed Hooper as the odds-on favorite to take over for Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who resigned the seat ahead of the 2018 Legislative Session after a pair of damning reports detailing alleged sexual harassment was released.
Hooper has more than three decades of public service under his belt — eight years as a lawmaker and 24 as a firefighter — and primed for a return to the Legislature. Through the end of the year, the Clearwater Republican had amassed $245,000 in campaign cash and another $85,500 through his political committee, Friends of Ed Hooper.
His Dem challenger, Bernie Fensterwald, is limping along with less than $5,000 on hand.
On the House side, most incumbents can expect a smooth pathway to re-election. Republican Reps. Shawn Harrison, Chris Latvala, Jake Raburn and Chris Sprowls are running unopposed, and all but Harrison hold safe GOP seats. He’s nearly hit $100,000 in total fundraising, however, so he should be well-equipped to stave off a Democratic challenger.
Republican Joe Wicker is also unopposed and posting decent numbers in HD 59, which is opening up due to current Rep. Ross Spano running for Attorney General. Wicker’s also snagged Spano’s endorsement.
HD 60 Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo and HD 58 Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure are facing challengers, but each holds a substantial advantage — McClure’s district, which he recently won in a special election, has been held by a Republican since its inception despite Democrats holding a 3,300-person edge in voter registrations. Ditto for Toledo, who took over for Young in 2016.
Toledo had $77,000 banked at the end of 2017, and challenger Debra Bellanti has yet to post a report as she filed for the seat on Jan. 3. McClure hasn’t published a report for his 2018 bid, but he had $36,635 left over when he cruised through the special last month, while NPA challenger Shawn Mathis Gilliam hasn’t shown a dime since filing in April.
For Democrats, HD 68 Rep. Ben Diamond can be counted as a surefire win. He’s got $83,000 stashed away in his campaign account and his only opponent is Republican Neelam Taneja-Uppal, who has raised $0 through four months in the race.
The St. Pete-based district looks competitive on paper, but if Bill Young II couldn’t get within 5 points in an off-cycle election, Taneja-Uppal can’t have much hope to fare better.
There’s a slim possibility a couple incumbents could be knocked out in primary races.
Rep. Jamie Grant will need to get through Terry Power in the Republican Primary for HD 64, and while the longtime lawmaker likely has a handle on things, Power didn’t try to spare any feelings when he filed.
Grant has about $31,000 in his campaign account compared to about $4,000 for Power. Grant is likely to keep the money edge through the primary season, and if he wins, the district’s GOP majority will kick in and send him back to Tallahassee for another two years.
The same situation is unfolding in heavily Democratic HD 70, where first-term Rep. Wengay Newton is facing two primary challengers.
Through December, Newton had about $15,000 on hand, while challenger Vito Sheeley had about $1,000 banked. St. Petersburg attorney and civic activist Keisha Bell announced last week that she would enter the race soon, but hasn’t done so yet.
Sheeley has picked up some major endorsements, including one from St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, whom Newton snubbed in favor of former Mayor Rick Baker in the contentious mayoral election last year.
With the 2018 Legislative Session pausing fundraising efforts for sitting lawmakers, Sheeley and Bell will have some time to catch up to Newton and make it a race.
Now to the unknowns.
Tampa Bay will have new blood in at least four House Seats and another new representative and senator could make the 2018 class depending on how things shake out for Tampa Democratic Rep. Sean Shaw and Brandon Republican Sen. Tom Lee.
Lee is currently running for re-election to SD 20, but don’t expect him to be on the ballot come Election Day unless it’s for Chief Financial Officer.
That leaves Republican John Houman as the de facto front-runner for the GOP leaning seat.
Yes, that John Houman, the candidate who goes by “Mr. Manners” and bravely attempted to explain that the only reason he has a felony DUI while most politicians got through life without one is that the politicians had “a good lawyer.”
Also running is Democrat Kathy Lynn Lewis, who filed on Jan. 3, and but in reality, it’s likely Lee’s successor hasn’t filed yet.
Shaw is running for re-election to HD 61 and had $41,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2017, but he’s currently deciding whether he’ll make a go for Attorney General. If he does, Democrat Byron Henry is waiting in the wings to take over his seat in the House.
New blood is also for sure coming to House Districts 62, 66 and 69, due to the exits of Reps. Janet Cruz, Larry Ahern and Kathleen Peters, respectively.
Democrats filed for Cruz’ seat are Michael Alvarez and Carlos Frontela.
John Rodriguez had filed for the HD 62 race but has since dropped out. He is expected to become the legislative affairs point person for the city of St. Petersburg, replacing the retiring Sally Everett.
Only Alvarez has made progress in the money race, with about $19,000 raised and $11,400 on hand through December. By the same date, Frontela had approximately $1,000 in his campaign account; Rodriguez had $631.
HD 66 is turning into a tough primary battle between Pinellas GOP chair Nick DiCeglie and St. Pete attorney Berny Jacques.
Jacques currently leads the money race with $106,302 cash on hand between his campaign account and political committee, Protect Pinellas, but DiCeglie has outpaced him since he filed for the seat in September. The sum of his four campaign finance reports shows him with $59,427 on hand at the start of the year.
In HD 69, it’s Jeremy Bailie against Raymond Blacklidge in the Republican Primary, and Blacklidge leads with $58,000 in his campaign account and $19,000 in his political committee, Friends of Ray Blacklidge. Bailie has a little over $25,000 for in his campaign account.
Democrat Jennifer Webb has also refiled for the race after losing to Peters in 2016; she’s off to a good start with more than $33,000 on hand, including more than $13,000 raised in December.
HD 69 has kept voting for Republicans, but without an incumbent in the race, it has the potential to be a swing district. The electorate is broken into equal thirds of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
EverBank Field was lit Sunday, as the Jacksonville Jaguars laid a smackdown on the Buffalo Bills, in a 10-3 defensive struggle that was best watched live and in the stands.
Jacksonville hadn’t hosted a playoff game this century; the crowd was hyped. And mostly Jaguar fans.
The media derided the win — but for those who saw the end, when Jalen Ramsey picked off the Bills’ QB, it was a moment of triumph.
People stayed in the stadium — a few Bills fans aside — until it was over.
It was Jacksonville’s moment.
As we enter what will be a bruising political year, it’s useful to remember that community is what brings us together.
It’s the teal, yes. But it’s more than that.
It’s the realization that it’s Duval against the world.
There are those who bet on the world.
But Sunday showed that it feels better to bet on Duval.
Especially when the Jags go over.
Doctor, heal thyself
Problems with your marriage?
Is it unhealthy?
The Florida Legislature is willing to help future couples avoid such troubles as they traipse into connubial bliss.
The solution: a “guide to a healthy marriage.”
The version filed in the House is a guide that would contain resources addressing “conflict management, communication skills, family expectations, financial responsibilities and management, domestic violence resources and parenting responsibilities.”
Monday saw Jacksonville Republican state Rep. Clay Yarborough file the House version of the legislation (HB 1323).
The Legislature wouldn’t write this guide on its own (probably for the best given that philandering ended the careers of two Senators in recent months, with another former Senator and current state Representative going through a prolonged high-profile and messy divorce).
Instead, the guide would be written by the Marriage Education Committee: a panel of six marriage education and family advocates, two picked by the Governor, two by the Senate President, and two more by the House Speaker.
In other words, the same formula that has led to a smooth-running Constitutional Revision Commission could be brought to bear on Florida marriages.
Private funds would pay for the guide w, and reading it would be a prerequisite for a marriage license.
Jay Fant files monument protection bill
Rep. Fant, a Jacksonville Republican running for Attorney General, presented the latest in a series of base-pleasing bills for the 2018 Legislative Session Monday.
Fant’s HB 1359 (the “Soldiers’ and Heroes’ Monuments and Memorials Protection Act”) contends that any wartime monument erected after 1822 on public property may only be moved for its repair or the repair of the property containing it.
The bill’s primary imports: forestalling removal of Confederate monuments, as happened most recently in Memphis. And establishing criminal penalties for tampering — penalties that would supersede the ordinance code or enforcement inclinations of rogue municipalities.
Fant’s hometown Jacksonville dealt with a Confederate monument removal debate in 2017; Jacksonville City Council President Anna Brosche took a position in favor of moving monuments to museums, as they divided the community
Fant’s legislative docket is serving up more red meat than the butcher at Avondale’s renowned Pinegrove market.
If enacted, his “Free Enterprise Protection Act” will “ensure that Florida business owners are protected from government sanctions and penalties when they are exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Fant was inspired to file FEPA by the case of a Colorado baker who balked at making a wedding cake for a gay couple, as said baker saw the act of baking as lending sanction to their choice to marry. FEPA would protect the free speech rights of businesses.
Fant also is carrying the House version of a Senate bill that would allow people to carry guns to, from, and during events in Florida’s great outdoors; if it clears the governor’s desk, everyone from crabbers to dog-walkers will be protected while packing heat.
Aaron Bean talks Rob Bradley, sanctuary cities
Sen. Bean spent some time giving his thoughts on the Legislative Session — including the benefits of an appropriations chair from Northeast Florida (Fleming Island Republican Sen. Bradley), and potential pitfalls for a bill he is carrying.
Bean was voluble on what Bradley means, both for the Senate and the region.
“I have known Sen. Bradley for almost 30 years,” Bean asserted, “and he is going to be outstanding as Appropriations Chair. He makes it look easy, but he is always the most prepared member in the room from his constant reading and research.
“As a sub-chair for the criminal justice and environmental appropriations committees,” Bean added, “members could be sure that Senator Bradley was going to know why funds were being spent, and he would be sure it was a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
“He is going to be great for Florida. It is a bonus that he is from North Florida. North Florida Legislators are still going to have to work for any requests, because Bradley is not going to give anyone a pass just because they are from our area, but he is going to deliver a budget we can all be proud of,” Bean said.
Bean is carrying 23 bills — but the most high-profile measure (a ban on sanctuary cities that should clear the House easily) may not get through the Senate.
“Our Sanctuary City bill faces a tough opening as it has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. We don’t have the votes to get it passed — yet — so we are working hard to get that done,” Bean said.
Big month for Bradley committee
Fleming Island Republican Sen. Bradley saw his political committee raise more money in November than in any other single month.
And in December, Bradley’s Working for Florida’s Families exceeded that sum, setting an internal record level of fundraising for the second straight month.
The committee hauled in $173,000, with significant buy-in from U.S. Sugar, Walmart, Florida Blue, Associated Industries of Florida and the associated Florida Prosperity Fund.
All told, the committee has over $720,000 on hand.
Bradley became the Appropriations Chair after the removal of now-resigned Sen. Jack Latvala, his predecessor in the role.
Northeast Florida legislators expect that he will be in a position to ensure that the oft-neglected region gets its fair share in the budget process.
Bradley backs Wyman Duggan
A key endorsement in the House District 15 race, as Sen. Bradley backs Duggan — thus far, the sole Republican candidate.
Bradley described Duggan as “a respected community leader who will serve with honor, integrity, and commitment to our shared conservative values.”
Duggan, meanwhile, is “honored to have the support of Sen. Bradley who has served as a conservative leader in the Florida Senate. I look forward to working with Sen. Bradley throughout my campaign and in the Florida legislature fighting for a more prosperous and brighter future for Florida.”
Duggan has scored a swath of endorsements from Republican electeds, setting up the “Your leaders trust Duggan … shouldn’t you?” mailpieces.
Jacksonville City Councilmen Danny Becton, Matt Schellenberg, Greg Anderson, Aaron Bowman, Scott Wilson, Doyle Carter, Jim Love and Sam Newby are on board. So are former Councilmen Jim Overton and Kevin Hyde. And Rep. John Rutherford, State Sen. Aaron Bean, State Rep. Jason Fischer, Duval Clerk of Courts Ronnie Fussell, Duval Tax Collector Michael Corrigan also back Duggan.
$142K haul for Lenny Curry committee
It was a December to remember for Build Something That Lasts, the political committee of Jacksonville Mayor Curry.
The Curry committee cleaned up to end the year, raking in $142,000, pushing the committee up to $603,000 on hand.
The strong month comes at a pivotal time for the Mayor’s policy and political operations. The Mayor’s Office aligns with a proposal to privatize JEA, a pitch which has floated periodically over the years but returned at the end of last year, via a proposal from a key political supporter and outgoing board member Tom Petway.
Additionally, Curry likely will face at least a nominal opponent for re-election. Whether he does or not, however, his committee likely will play in Jacksonville City Council races — supporting candidates who align with his vision, and working against less cooperative Council incumbents.
Danny Becton, Sam Newby launch Jax Council VP runs
An annual tradition in Jacksonville City Council is beginning anew: the race for Jacksonville City Council VP.
Often — but not always — the VP slot is a springboard to the presidency the next year.
Two Republican Councilmen — Becton and Newby — are in the race already.
Two more — Republican Scott Wilson and Democrat Tommy Hazouri — are giving the race a close look.
All are first-termers.
Wilson finished second in the VP race in 2017; Hazouri, meanwhile, is a former mayor and the only Democrat in the mix.
One Jacksonville City Council member who doesn’t need to wonder about Curry targeting him in 2019: Gaffney.
Democrat Gaffney is a strong supporter of Jacksonville’s Republican Mayor, standing by Curry even when many other Council members cast aspersions, and the Councilman hopes that a record of tangible achievements in his district outweighs negative press.
A recent video, cut with an unseen interviewer, reveals more about Gaffney’s platform.
“District 7 is a very large district,” Gaffney said. “I like to think of District 7 as three different communities all with different needs.”
While there are many “priority projects” he could cite, Gaffney says that Amazon — “because it’s about jobs” — is No. 1.
Meanwhile, Gaffney takes credit for fixing the collapsed Liberty Street Bridge, calling it his “first project.”
Gaffney also takes credit for compelling Curry to address drainage issues in the flood-prone Lower Eastside.
Gaffney then asserted his key role in getting money for the stadium improvement projects (amphitheater, covered practice field and club seat renovations) approved in his term.
“The mayor said, ‘I need your help,’” Gaffney said, and he was willing to — as it meant “jobs” for his district.
“I said ‘let’s make it happen,’” Gaffney related.
Honors for HRO sponsors, as theocons challenge bill
Last February, Jacksonville expanded its Human Rights Ordinance, giving protections to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the workplace, public accommodations and housing markets.
It is Feb. 3 at the Florida Yacht Club; EqualityFlorida will honor the three sponsors of the legislation: City Council VP Aaron Bowman and Councilman Jim Love (two Republicans), and Councilman Tommy Hazouri (a Democrat).
Unsurprisingly, Equality Florida gives itself credit for passage.
“After a nearly 10-year campaign, Jacksonville ended its reign as the only major city in Florida without an LGBT-inclusive Human Rights Ordinance. In February 2017, we saw unprecedented leadership and investment in this battle by Equality Florida, the citizens of Jacksonville, and these three elected leaders — resulting in the updated HRO on Valentine’s Day.”
Props for FPL, JEA from environmental groups
St. Johns River Power Park, the largest operating coal power plant in Florida, has been shut down, co-owners Florida Power & Light and JEA announced Tuesday.
The utilities said the historic Jacksonville plant was aging and no longer economical as one of the highest-cost facilities among both FPL’s and JEA’s generating systems.
At nearly the same time, FPL lit up four new solar power plants — some of the largest ever built — and says it is nearing completion on four more new solar farms in a matter of weeks.
The ambitious moves earned kudos from leading environmental groups.
“FPL has a forward-looking strategy of making smart, innovative, long-term investments, including solar, to reduce emissions while providing affordable, clean energy for its customers,” said Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida’s interim executive director.
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to addressing climate change,” said Greg Knecht, deputy executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “Anytime we can replace less-efficient sources of energy with cleaner fuels or solar it’s a benefit for people and nature. Investments such as FPL’s in clean-energy technologies are key to Florida’s future health and prosperity.”
JAXPORT adds direct New Zealand, Australia service
Beginning March, JAXPORT will offer direct service to New Zealand and Australia for roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) cargo through Höegh Autoliners’ new U.S. to Oceania direct express Ro/Ro service.
JAXPORT’s Blount Island Marine Terminal will serve as the last East Coast port of call in the rotation.
The monthly service will start with the first vessel, the 6,500-CEU (car capacity) Höegh Jeddah, sailing out of Jacksonville. Vessel rotation will include Auckland in New Zealand as well as Brisbane, Port Kembla, Melbourne and Fremantle in Australia.
Horizon Terminal Services, Höegh Autoliners’ fully owned terminal owning and operating company headquartered in Jacksonville, will provide fumigation and wash down services at Blount Island.
Additional information on Höegh’s trade route to Oceania is available at icptrack.com.
UNF tops in U.S. News & World Report’s ‘Best Online’ bachelor’s programs
The University of North Florida earned a top spot in U.S. News & World Report’s 2018 Best Online Programs rankings.
Released this week, UNF is among the Top 40 colleges and universities in the country for “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs,” ranking included data from nearly 1,500 distance-education degree programs nationwide.
At No. 31, UNF jumped 17 spots from last year’s ranking, and is the only higher education institution from the Jacksonville area listed among the rankings in this category. The University also landed on the “Best Online Education Programs” list, a graduate-level ranking. Only degree-granting programs offering classes entirely online were considered.
“It’s very rewarding to have U.S. News & World Report rank our bachelor’s and our graduate education online programs among the best in the nation,” said UNF President John Delaney. “Faculty in our online programs are committed to this form of program delivery and have developed course materials and teaching methods that are second to none.”
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.”
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.
[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. PerryThurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. AudreyGibson, 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. JackLatvala, 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.
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.
— BOB BUCKHORN’S LAST YEAR —
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.
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:
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.
— PIC OF THE WEEK —
— THE ‘BURG IS SPRAWLING —
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.”
— RICK KRISEMAN REJECTS LOCAL PIER RESTAURANT CONCEPT BY RICK BAKER SUPPORTER —
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. PETE CHAMBER SCHEDULES TALLY TRIP, ANNUAL MTG. —
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.
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.
— PINELLAS POLS RUE JACK LATVALA’S ABSENCE —
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.
— NEW LAWMAKER READY FOR RE-ELECTION RUN —
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.
— POST-SESSION FUNDRAISING FRENZY BEGINS IN TAMPA —
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.
— FORMER RICK SCOTT OFFICIAL IN LINE FOR PINELLAS-PASCO JUDGESHIP —
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.
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.”
— GRAND MARSHAL —
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 centennialwas 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.
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.
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.
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 LarryHamilton, 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.”
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 AlanSundberg of the Florida Supreme Court.
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 HarveyWeinstein, 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.
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 RonaldSwanson, 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. RickScott — to step down after Swanson found probable cause to support allegations that the senator had repeatedly groped Senate aide RachelPerrinRogers 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 JoeNegron, 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.”
RitchWorkman, 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 DwightBullard 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 RichardCorcoran 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.
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 DonaldTrump and Florida Democrats’ ability to make gains in local and statewide elections next year, Miami businesswoman AnnetteTaddeo coasted to victory, defeating former state Rep. JoseFelixDiaz, 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 StephenBittel 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 AdamPutnam‘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. BillNelson, 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.
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.