Kathy Castor – Page 2 – Florida Politics
Gus Bilirakis

Gus Bilirakis, Kathy Castor set sights on ‘zombie campaigns’

U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Kathy Castor are sponsoring a bipartisan bill to close the campaign finance loopholes highlighted in “Zombie Campaigns,” an investigative report from the Tampa Bay Times and 10News WTSP.

Bilirakis, a Tarpon Springs Republican, and Castor, a Tampa Democrat, told the Times they were sponsoring the “Honest Elections and Campaign, No Gain Act,” as a direct result of the investigative report.

Zombie Campaigns examined political accounts that were still paying staff and making purchases years after candidates had left office, seven of which were for Florida politicians.

Among them was the campaign account for disgraced former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, who had used leftover funds to dine out in Palm Beach as recently as 2017. He left office more than a decade ago.

Bilirakis said some of those zombie account holders would be against the change.

“You’re going to get some resistance,” he told the Times. “Probably some former members of Congress will lobby against this bill.”

Bilirakis and Castor’s bill would require lawmakers to begin shutting down their campaign accounts if they don’t qualify for another election the cycle after leaving office, while ex-pols looking to break into the lobbying industry would need to shut accounts down before they start the new job.

The bill, in its current form, would not make any changes when it comes to lawmakers who have died.

The lead item in the “Zombie Campaigns” account was the re-election campaign for Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai. Despite Takai’s death in 2016, the re-election campaign paid his chief strategist $5,700 a month for at least 17 months. The strategist was the one signing the checks.

Kathy Castor urges Rex Tillerson to restore U.S. diplomats to Cuba

Fresh off a Cuban visit last week, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is calling on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to return consular officials and diplomatic personnel to the U.S. Embassy in Havana as soon as possible.

Tillerson withdrew 60 percent of diplomats from the embassy in Havana last fall after unexplained attacks harmed at least 22 American government workers and family members. Investigators explored the possibility of a “sonic attack” injuring diplomats through sound waves; they discovered no device nor a culprit.

“While I appreciate your overriding concern with the health and safety of our diplomats following the unexplained health incidents, it is time to increase staffing and re-establish an American presence to serve our interests and our citizens,” the Tampa Democrat wrote in the letter to Tillerson sent Wednesday.

The State Department is scheduled to decide the status of the embassy by next week.

Shortly after Tillerson ordered the removal of U.S. diplomats from Cuba, the State Department then opted to suspend all visa processing in Havana, moving that function to Bogota, Columbia.

Castor, representing a district that is home to one of the largest Cuban-American populations in the country, said it’s “unreasonable and unaffordable” for Cubans who want to travel to Tampa or Miami to go to another country to do so.

The U.S. had provided 1,100 visas a month to Cuban immigrants last year before the diplomatic imbroglio; that number has since trickled down to just 350 per month.

In 2013, Castor became the first member of Congress from Florida to call for removing the Cuban economic embargo, a decision that can only happen via a congressional vote. She has consistently championed the liberalization of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba since the early part of this decade.

But the diplomatic breakthrough started by President Barack Obama in late 2014 came to a screeching halt when Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Among the policy changes his administration rolled back from the Obama White House was travel.

Last summer, Trump announced that Americans would no longer be able to plan their own private trips to Cuba, and those who did had to go through authorized educational tours, subject to strict new rules and audits to ensure that they are not going just as tourists.

Castor calls that plan “overreaching.”

“This is counterproductive and complicates America’s ability to support everyday Cubans and promote the exchange of ideas,” The Tampa Democrat complains.

Castor visited Cuba earlier this month with fellow Democratic Reps. James McGovern from Massachusetts and Susan Davis from California, as well as Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Gary Peters from Michigan and Ron Wyden from Oregon.

The entire delegation, except for Castor, chose to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro during the visit. Castro will step down in April.

You can read Castor’s letter here.

Former Tampa firefighter who won sex discrimination lawsuit speaks out

Until Tuesday, only those in a courtroom heard former firefighter Tanja Vidovic detail the sexual harassment and discrimination she suffered inside the Tampa Fire Rescue Department.

It was her testimony in federal court last fall that resulted in a successful lawsuit, which she won in December.

Now it was the public’s turn to hear Vidovic speak about her life and career and how things went so wrong during her tenure at the department.

Vidovic gave a riveting and disturbing 22-minute account of her seven and half year career with Tampa Fire Rescue, which culminated in her firing in 2016 — one day after she filed a lawsuit against the city.

In December, a seven-person federal jury sided with Vidovic against Tampa, awarding her $245,000, saying the city discriminated because she was pregnant and retaliated when she complained.

In Vidovic’s account, no one — not the (male-dominated) hierarchy at Tampa Fire Rescue nor many of her colleagues — come out looking very well.

Particular villains in the tale include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), unions, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and most prominently, the city’s human resources department.

Among the instances of discrimination that Vidovic told the jury, as well as the audience gathered Tuesday morning for a workshop on sexual harassment at the Student Center on Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry campus (convened by Rep. Kathy Castor):

— Receiving inappropriate text messages from her department captains requesting sex with her. After she complained to human resources, she was banished to a busier station “as punishment.”

— Her personnel captain told her, after learning she was pregnant, that she should have said no and “just keep her legs closed” next time.

— Vidovic was often locked out of a coed bathroom and was written up if she entered when a man was already in there.

— She was subjected to a “fit-for-duty” test — wearing gear while pregnant. It was a test Vidovic said nobody had ever heard of, neither man nor woman.

— When Vidovic did file a complaint, superiors refused to take her grievances up the chain of command.

— She was labeled as failing an annual evaluation due to her pregnancy.

When Vidovic emailed Tampa’s human resources department for help on harassment claims, the department actually forwarded her emails back to the Fire Department, which she claimed resulted in further harassment.

HR told Vidovic that, in fact, she wasn’t being harassed, and did nothing to help her. A meeting with her captain about harassment claims resulted in a downgrade in her evaluation forms for complaining.

She then went to Tampa Fire Rescue’s Fire Chief Tom Forward, also to no avail.

Next was an unproductive meeting with Buckhorn.

“I requested five times to meet with the Mayor of Tampa … once in person,” she told the audience. “He just laughed at me and said no. (He) looked down at his phone and started texting.”

Vidovic said harassment didn’t just occur on a daily basis, but often multiple times in a day. She felt like the department wanted to fire her, but she believed she was a good employee, albeit one who was also pregnant and complaining about harassment.

Feeling pressured, Vidovic noted how some of her male colleagues were doing notorious things, like “DUI’s, solicitation of prostitutes, strippers at the stations being in photo shoots, throwing knives at other employees, insurance fraud.”

“But all these men kept their jobs,” she said.

Vidovic was refused help from the local firefighters union as well as the International Association of Fire Fighters. Once she learned that the EEOC offered mediation, she was excited, thinking that would solve her continuing problems in the department.

She then decided to file a complaint with that federal agency. After waiting for a response, she received a letter months later saying that if she wanted, she could sue the city.

Vidovic said she wanted mediation, and that pursuing a lawsuit was never her initial intention. But once the EEOC and Dept. of Justice notified the city about her filing a complaint, she says it ignited an uproar in the department and put a bigger target on her back.

On March 23, 2016, she filed a lawsuit against the city of Tampa. A day later, Tampa Fire Rescue fired her,  just two years before she qualified for a pension.

Vidovic had two kids at home with her husband; a third child was on the way.

After seven years of paying union dues, Vidovic believed she had union support. She was wrong.

“I was abandoned by them, and now faced to go to court on my own and pay my expenses out of pocket.”

It took more than a year and a half before she got her day in court last fall, where (after several weeks) a jury ruled in her favor.

But Vidovic didn’t sound triumphant in recounting the details of the past several years.

“Not only did I lose my job, my pension, my career, my friends at the city of Tampa, my reputation,” she said. “I also lost fee charges and court expenses which are close to $30,000.”

It’s not over. Far from it. The city of Tampa has filed for U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich to declare a mistrial. “The city of Tampa has deep pockets and they know I have to continue to pay my attorney because the union refused to arbitrate for me,” she says.

As a firefighter, Vidovic was making $55,000 annually. She is now working part-time, making just $11.24 an hour at a local park. As far as she knows, none of the men who allegedly harassed her on the job have suffered any consequences.

Vidovic claims that the same captain who propositioned her for sex via text has done it with a current female member of the department.

After that woman complained, she was given a three-day suspension, and ultimately quit.

Vidovic has also heard from other female firefighters claiming harassment, but don’t dare come forward, seeing what she has experienced.

“They saw that I lost my pension. And nobody wants that. Nobody can afford that. Especially these days.”

Following Vidovic on stage at the forum was an official with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, then by Evangeline Hawthorne with the Tampa EEOC office — the same agency Vidovic said was not there for her.

Hawthorne began her presentation by commending the former firefighter for her courage and bravery.

“When you do file a complaint with us, as you can tell from her story, it’s long, often arduous process, but certainly it’s worthwhile,” Hawthorne said, looking over at Vidovic. She respectfully disagreed with Vidovic’s take that the “harassers won.”

“The fact that you’re standing here with your testimony, I don’t think that’s true at all. I think you were victorious,” Hawthorne said, adding that she is an inspiration for others experiencing similar circumstances.

This week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Tampa’s legal costs in the continuing fight in court against Vidovic could ultimately reach more than $3 million.

Victor Crist leads all candidates in HCC District 5 fundraising

Republican Victor Crist is the closest thing to an incumbent in the District 5 race this fall, as he has served on the Hillsborough County Commission for the past eight years in District 2.

He’s now switching to District 5 to run countywide for the first time, and has taken in $76,905 so far.

Among those contributing the maximum of $1,000 to his campaign in January were Tampa business leaders Ron Christaldi and Charles Sykes, the two men in charge of Tampa Bay Rays 2020, a privately funded non-profit organization behind the effort to bring a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark to Tampa.

Sykes’ wife, Rebecca, also dropped a $1,000 check to Crist in January.

On the Democratic side, Mark Nash leads in what is now a four-person field, but environmental activist Mariella Smith is gaining on him after entering the race last month.

Smith brought in more than $39,000 in January, her first month as a candidate in the countywide seat that will become vacant after Republican Ken Hagan vacates it later this year (Hagan is running again for commissioner in District 2).

Smith received contributions from 195 individuals in January. She also has the backing of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and County Commissioner Pat Kemp.

Nash filed to run in the seat last fall, and has had a three-month head start in terms of fundraising over Smith in the race. He raised $6,063 in January, and has now a total of $51, 378 in the race.

Next up in terms of fundraising is Elvis Pigott, a Riverview based pastor who has now raised $16,538. Activist and military veteran Jae Passmore has raised $2,245,

Corey L. Reynolds, the fifth Democrat in the race, has just withdrawn from the contest.

An earlier version of this story said that Ed Turanchik was also endorsing Smith. Though he was in attendance at her campaign kickoff, Turanchik tells Florida Politics that he has not endorsed anyone in any race.

Kathy Castor to host panel discussion on how to prevent sexual harassment Tuesday

As revelations of sexual misconduct continue to dominate headlines, Kathy Castor is seeking a way for those who have been harassed to know their rights.

On Tuesday, the Tampa U.S. Rep. is hosting a community forum with a panel of experts to discuss resources for preventing and reporting sexual harassment. The event is between 10 a.m. and noon at the Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry campus’ Student Services Building, 4001 W. Tampa Bay Blvd.

A featured guest on the program will be Tanja Vidovic, a former Tampa firefighter who was awarded $245,000 in damages by a federal jury in December after suing the city, claiming she was the victim of repeated discrimination and harassment during seven and a half years with the fire department.

Also part of the forum will be representatives from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Centre for Women, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) labor law.

In November, Castor introduced legislation to end taxpayer-funded awards and settlements for workplace discrimination in Congress, including sexual harassment. That provision was included in the “Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act,” a bill the House passed last week in direct response to reports and allegations of lawmakers from both parties sexually harassing female staffers.

The bill will streamline the process a House employee must go through to report a workplace claim, including eliminating the mandatory 30-day counseling and mediation period.

The new law also requires that within 90 days, members of Congress must repay the Treasury fund controlled by the Office of Compliance. That includes members who left office and would require each claim resulting in an award or settlement be referred to the House Ethics Committee — something that is currently not automatic.

In December, Castor also co-signed a letter — joined by more than 100 of her Democratic Party colleagues — calling on Congress to open an investigation into the multiple sexual misconduct allegations against President Donald Trump.

At the time, the congresswoman told Florida Politics the movement to call out those guilty of sexual misconduct that began in the fall was “an extraordinary moment of social change.”

“I think about my daughters, who are 20 and 18, and what this means for them and other women,” Castor said. “I think we’ve got to take great care now to make sure that this movement applies to every sector of the workplace, not just entertainment and politics but folks working on farms, folks working in domestic situations in the retail and hospitality industries.

“This has to have real meaning; we’ve gotta make sure this movement is as widespread as possible.”

Environmental attorney says Florida more vulnerable to offshore drilling after Ryan Zinke’s remarks

An environmental law professor said Thursday that Ryan Zinke saying last month that drilling off Florida’s coasts was “off the table” in reality gives the state no legal protections at all.

Alyson Flournoy believes the Interior Secretary’s comments may make it more difficult for the Office of Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to defend a final decision that excludes Florida from the White House’s announcement to consider allowing drilling nearly everywhere along the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and almost anywhere off the coasts around Alaska.

Flournoya professor with the University of Florida Levin College of Law, said Zinke’s January 4 statement at the Tallahassee airport with Gov. Rick Scott was not an official decision, and was without legal meaning, since it was made well before the conclusion of the 60-day comment period required for the proposal, which officials unveiled Dec. 29.

“An announcement on the fifth day of the comment period is jumping the gun,” Flournoy said Thursday during a conference call.

Ironically, Flournoy said Zinke’s premature declaration now makes Florida more vulnerable to offshore drilling than if he had merely kept his mouth shut since a final decision could be interpreted as being “tainted.”

“President Trump has directed me to rebuild our offshore oil and gas program in a manner that supports our national energy policy and also takes into consideration the local and state voice,” Zinke said after meeting with Scott.

“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique, and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of a discussion with Gov. Scott and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”

Zinke’s decision to bypass Florida outraged legislators from both parties in states on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, citing the same argument as made by Scott. In addition to California Democrats, criticism rained down from Republicans, such as (former) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina’s Republican Gov. (and Trump supporter) Henry McMaster.

Interior Department officials seemed to be wary of the legal jeopardy that Zinke had put the agency when he refused to back up his statement ten days later when speaking at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“Until such time as all those analyses are complete and we have all those comments to put in the record and consider, we will not have any indication of where the secretary wants to go,” said Walter Cruickshank, the acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, on Jan. 19.

The original plan announced by the Trump administration would reverse the Obama-era order placing 94 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf off-limits to drillers. Obama’s 2017-2022 plan would be replaced by the new program when finalized.

Tampa Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor encouraged Floridians to oppose Trump’s proposal by contacting the Interior Department before the 60-day comment period ends March 9.

Castor is also co-sponsoring a bill in the House, from Naples Republican Frances Rooney, to make permanent a moratorium on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Environment Florida State Director Jennifer Rubiello said removing Florida doesn’t mean it’s entirely out of danger. An oil spill in a neighboring state could still end up on Sunshine State beaches, she said.

“That’s why we’re working to reject this reckless plan in its entirety,” Rubiello added.

Victor Crist calls Mariella Smith a ‘political wannabe’ with little to show for herself

Victor Crist is hitting back hard at comments from Democrat Mariella Smith and her campaign over his intention to extend his career on the Hillsborough County Commission by running for the District 5 countywide seat.

Smith is one of five Democrats seeking an opportunity this year to take on the GOP incumbent this fall.

The Smith campaign said that Crist was “disingenuous” when it told Florida Politics last week that while his public service has been his “passion” since 1992, his work in the advertising industry was his true career.

Crist spent the last 25 years in public office — 18 years in the state Legislature and now began his eighth year on the County Commission.

“First of all, my career has been advertising,” Crist said in an interview last week. “I’ve owned and operated an ad agency for 35 years, of which I’m still president of and still work for today. That’s my career.”

Crist was referring to Metropolitan Communications, an advertising and marketing agency where he serves as president and CEO.

However, the Smith campaign notes that Crist listed just $16,014 of income in 2016 from Metropolitan Communications, while his salary with the BOCC was $98,783, with another $2,796 payment to cover travel as a commissioner.

“After 26 years of serving in electoral politics, it is silly of him to claim he’s ‘not a career politician,'” said Shelley Reback, Smith’s campaign manager, in an email last Friday.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that his income from the County exceeds his income from his ad business; after all, being a County Commissioner should be a full-time job for whoever has it. We would object if the facts were the other way around! But, there’s something wrong when he makes misrepresentations about facts to serve his political ends,” Reback’s email said.

“He’s a career politician, buoyed by corporate interests, and the record of the BOCC these last eight years is squarely on his shoulders. He should own that and not try to position himself as an ad man with a politics hobby.”

On Monday, Crist repeated that his “elected service is his public service,” but his “career” has been in the advertising industry, which he insisted is affording him the ability to serve in public office.

That certainly makes sense on a certain level, since during 18 years in the Legislature, he was making an incredibly modest salary ( state legislators currently make less than $30K annually).

However, Crist now makes more than $98,000 annually (and has for the past seven years).

“What I show as a net profit is after all my deductions and write-offs,” Crist says, adding that “I do have to use a portion of my compensation to pay others.”

The longtime legislator touted his decades in public service, saying he has helped build schools, health centers, community centers, parks, and various programs that have helped out many in the community over the years.

“I have been recognized by hundreds of nonprofits and professional organizations,” he said, including police officers, state attorneys, children and families and faith-based service organization among others.

And he took verbal aim at Smith, disparaging her work as a community activist.

“She claims to be a civic activist, but has little to show for it. I put my record up any day. She can’t even come close to it.”

Referring to Smith’s castigating the current commission as being more for corporations than the people, Crist asked if she would include the two Democrats on the board in such criticism?

“Let’s call it what it is — political gamesmanship by a political wannabe that’s got little to show for herself in leadership and accomplishments, so she’d rather run on attacking me than in what she can or has done. When you’ve got done little to nothing to show for yourself, you attack, you attack you attack, and that’s what she’s doing. “

“Sounds like he’s the one attacking actually,” Smith retorted, adding that she was surprised “that he would make this ugly personal attack.”

Smith has won several awards for her work as a community advocate and environmental activist over the years; Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor, County Commissioner Pat Kemp, and former Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena have heartily endorsed her.

“There is no one like Mariella that I know that is more qualified, has a bigger heart and is more determined to make things right here in Hillsborough County, ” Castor said while introducing Smith at her campaign kickoff in Ybor City last week.

Smith received the Citizen Planning Advocacy Award from the American Planning Association’s Suncoast Section for advocating for smart growth management and organizing public participation in community planning. Along with the leaders of United Citizens Action Network, Smith won the Hillsborough County Planning Commission Chairman’s Award.

And she was recently awarded the “Black Bear” award from the Sierra Club.

Smith and other Democrats have been critical of Crist, accusing him of playing “musical chairs” on the BOCC, as he is now running for the countywide commission District 5 seat after already serving two terms representing District 2.

Crist said other Democrats had done it, and questioned why Smith hadn’t called them out.

“I find it odd that she didn’t raise the issue when Phyllis Busansky did it,” Crist told Florida Politics last week. “I find it odd she didn’t raise the issue when Ed Turanchik did it. I find it odd when she didn’t raise the issue when Jan Platt did it. I find it odd that she hasn’t raised the issue when any member of her political party has done it.”

Crist added that the law is clear: “You are allowed to serve two terms in a single member district and then graduate up to being able to serve two terms in a countywide district … that is usually the way it’s done. And to criticize me for it is strictly political folly.”

Indeed, there have been commissioners who have done what Crist is attempting to do — seeking to stay on the board by running for another seat. (Most recently, it was Ken Hagan, who is closing in on having served on the commission for 16 consecutive years and is pursuing a run for a different seat that could give him another 4-8 years on the board).

Florida Politics reviewed whether Crist was accurate in citing those three Democrats as having pursued similar extensions on the board:

Busansky did not. She served two terms from 1988-1996, followed by a run for the Hillsborough congressional seat vacated by Sam Gibbons in 1996, where she lost in a Democratic primary to Jim Davis.

Turanchik did not either. He served two terms from 1990-1998. He did not pursue another seat on the board when his second term ended. He instead became the lead public official in the attempt to bring the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to the Tampa Bay area.

And what about Platt, the revered longtime public servant who served decades on the commission before passing away last November at the age of 81? That’s a bit more complicated.

Platt was first elected in 1978 before there were single-member districts or term limits. She was re-elected to that same seat in 1982.

In 1983, five years into Platt’s tenure, the county created a charter which introduced term-limited and single-member districts. The charter says that no commissioner who serves more than six years and two consecutive terms in one of the four geographically defined districts can run for another term in any of those districts. The same rules apply to commissioners representing countywide districts. Anyone who has served two terms as a district commissioner can run for election countywide, and vice versa.

Platt then ran for office for her same seat under the new charter in 1986 and won, and ran for a second and final four-year term for that seat in 1990. Term-limited in 1994, she did not immediately attempt to run for another seat on the board.

Instead, Platt ran and lost a Tampa mayoral bid to Dick Greco in 1995. She next ran again for Hillsborough County Commission in the at-large District 6 seat in 1996 and ran for re-election in 2000.

Platt retired from the board in 2004, at the conclusion of her second term.

“I’m finding a lot of people are really disturbed by this musical chairs seat switching of these career politicians,” Smith says of some of her exchanges with voters on the campaign trail.

She’s only calling out board members attempting to continue their careers on the board after term-limits kept them from the seat for which they were initially elected, Smith added.

“Victor Crist has 26 years of being paid public money as a career politician,” she repeated. “It is what it is. It’s silly to try to call it anything else.”

Mariella Smith says facing Victor Crist is like ‘David and Goliath’

Five Democrats have already filed for the Hillsborough County Commission District 5 seat, but there’s no doubt the Party establishment is putting all their chips behind community activist Mariella Smith.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, former Education Commissioner Betty Castor and current County Commissioner Pat Kemp were part of Smith’s kickoff event Tuesday night.

An audience of around 200 people filled the basement of the Italian Club in Ybor City to hear the Ruskin-based Democrat formally jump-start her first run for public office.

“I’ll be a commissioner who works for the citizens and not corporate cronies,” Smith said to cheers (while acknowledging she doesn’t even have corporate cronies). She added her campaign would be a battle between a grassroots candidate against a “corporate-backed politician.”

That last bit was a nod to Victor Crist, the most prominent Republican name to enter the race, which is considered an open seat.

Crist said the comment is “untruthful and deceptive” saying that his career has been spent operating an advertising agency for the past 35 years. He calls his 25 years in public office in the state Legislature and county commission his “passion.”

Term-limited in his current District 2 seat, Crist is now hoping for another four (or eight) years on the board in District 5, where his only Republican competition is Tea Party activist Tim Curtis.

The District 5 incumbent, Ken Hagan, is also term-limited, which is why he intends to also extend his political career with another run for the northern Hillsborough District 2, a seat he formally held from 2002-2010.

As for switching of seats between the two Republicans, Smith said it was “time to stop the musical chairs of career politicians who are more interested in deals for special interests than in serving us citizens.”

Crist pushes back on that as well, saying he never heard Smith complain when Democrats like Jan Platt moved from a single district to a countywide seat.

As a two-decade community activist, Smith said she’d learned plenty about zoning, the county’s comprehensive plan, the urban service boundaries, its transportation plan and its environmental resources. Smith declared she’s now “ready to take that hard earned knowledge and experience and put it into work on the county commission working for us citizens.”

Smith says that one distinct difference between her and Crist is how she would have handled the Confederate monument decision.

Crist was one of four Republicans on the board to initially vote to keep the monument in place, a surprise decision in comparison to what other communities in the South have decided on the controversial artifacts from the Civil War. The vote made national headlines, and the board chose to reverse its position and month later by voting to remove it (a vote that Crist did not cast as he was out of the state at the time).

In August, commissioners then reversed themselves once again, voting to keep the monument in place if the private sector couldn’t come up with half the costs ($140,000) for moving it to a Brandon cemetery.

Citizens, joined by the business community, rallied to raise that money in less than 24 hours.

Smith blasted Crist’s role in the monument debacle.

“I think he made a mess of the Confederate monument,” Smith said Tuesday. “Rather than  leading the community to a resolution, he fostered and churned up more divisiveness than needed to be by first voting against it and then bringing up a ridiculous idea of the mural and another statue.”

Initially voting to keep the monument, Crist also proposed the board pay for another memorial, located behind the controversial statue, that would highlight the diversity in Hillsborough County. That plan never got off the ground.

“They just kept opening up the wounds,” Smith said of the monthslong saga. “That was poor leadership.”

“She is certainly entitled to her opinion, as incorrect and unfactual as it may be,” Crist responded. “It is obvious that she lacks the skill, knowledge and experience to handle the explosive, divisive and dangerous issues to make those kinds of comments.”

Crist added that he accurately predicted during the board’s third vote on the issue that the private sector would raise the necessary funds within 24 hours. “That’s because I had already made phone calls and already knew in advance that the private sector was ready to step up to the plate and cover the tab.” He went on to say that the board handled the issue “extremely well, and brought this entire issue to an end, and we did it safely.”

Smith still has a long way to become the party’s nominee, however. Mark Nash, Jae Passmore, Elvis Pigott and Corey Reynolds are also Democrats vying to compete in November.

What those candidates don’t have, however, is the star power of Congresswoman Kathy Castor and her mother Betty in their corner.

“I think her strong views on planning, land growth and on environmental issues and the fact that she’s come up through the grassroots and has a lot of support in South County, I think that’s good,” said Betty Castor, who became the first female elected to the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners in 1972.

“There is no one like Mariella that I know that is more qualified, has a bigger heart and is more determined to make things right here in Hillsborough County, ” said Kathy Castor, adding that she leaned on Smith to educate her on some issues back when she served on the board more than a decade ago.

It is a countywide seat, and Hillsborough is a large county, Kathy Castor told the audience.

“It’s time to start having events, organizing them all across the county with your friends from New Tampa to Citrus Park to Westchase to South Tampa to Dover,” she said. “They need to meet her. They need to contribute to her. You’ve gotta walk door to door, and you’ve gotta write checks. This is a big county and to get the message out without the Tampa Tribune anymore, people not reading the newspaper like they used to. It’s time to have a little shoe leather.”

Smith even received a quasi-endorsement (of sorts) from one of her opponents.

“I like Mariella, and if she were to beat me in this race, I think she could do a good job. I respect her for the work she’s done, and if she beats me, she beats me,” said activist George Niemann, who is running as a write-in candidate in District 5.

Democratic activist Shelley Reback is running Smith’s campaign. She’s worked on previous countywide runs with Kemp and Mary Mulhern, and says several other people have campaign experience helping right now.

At some point, Reback said the campaign could decide to bring in someone with more professional experience, but everything in the early going appears to be working pretty well.

Smith says if the election this fall is between her and Crist, it will be a “David vs. Goliath fight.”

“Which is my favorite kind of fight,” she said in her concluding remarks. “Many of you have worked with me on many David vs. Goliath fights. If I’m your county commissioner, we’re going to win a lot more.”

Majority of Florida Delegation demands clarity on White House offshore drilling position

Both of Florida’s U.S. senators and 22 of its House members are in a dither over mixed signals on offshore oil drilling from Washington.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke assured Gov. Rick Scott that Florida was “off the table” earlier this month.

Soon, Zinke’s position was undercut by Ocean Energy Management Acting Director Walter Cruickshank’s telling the House Natural Resources Committee that areas off Florida’s coast are still under consideration.

With inchoate policy guidance from the Executive Branch, Florida legislators demanded answers Wednesday from the Donald Trump administration in a letter.

“In light of Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Acting Director Walter Cruickshank’s recent statement before the House Natural Resources Committee that the Planning Areas off Florida’s coasts are still under consideration for offshore drilling, we write to reiterate our strong opposition to any attempt to open up the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling,” the lawmakers wrote. “We object to any efforts to open the eastern Gulf of Mexico to drilling, and we urge you to remove this area from the five-year plan immediately.”

The letter notes that these areas have been off limits since 2006, and that since the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, local and regional stakeholders and leaders have been adamant in opposition.

The letter also cites the “critical” nature of the Eastern Gulf Test and Training range for training missions for F-22 and F-35 pilots. And on the eastern side, facilities like Patrick Air Force Base, Kennedy Space Center, and the Jacksonville Naval Air Station would be impacted.

Some Florida politicians — notably, Scott — took Zinke at his word, even after the Cruickshank remarks became news.

“Secretary Zinke is a man of his word. He’s a Navy Seal. He promised me that Florida would be off the table, and I believe Florida is off the table,” Scott said.

“Secretary Zinke has made a commitment,” Scott added, “and he’ll live up to his commitments.”

However, Sen. Bill Nelson, who will likely face Scott in his re-election contest this year, called Zinke’s declaration and Scott’s trumpeting thereof a “political stunt.”

Joining Sens. Nelson and Marco Rubio signing the letter: Reps. Stephanie MurphyTed DeutchIleana Ros-LehtinenKathy CastorAlcee HastingsVern BuchananVal DemingsDebbie Wasserman SchultzFrederica WilsonDarren SotoBill PoseyAl LawsonGus BilirakisLois FrankelBrian MastCharlie CristJohn RutherfordRon DeSantisDennis RossFrancis RooneyNeal Dunn, and Matt Gaetz.

Dianne Hart already emerging as frontrunner to replace Sean Shaw in HD 61

Democrat Dianne Hart announced Wednesday that she will give it another go in House District 61, which is opening up this year due to Tampa Democratic Rep. Sean Shaw’s entry into the Attorney General race.

“I know firsthand the struggles and the needs facing this District and spent a lifetime working to help our children and better our neighborhoods,” said Hart. “For far too long we have been ignored by those in power. Our children deserve a better education, our families need access to affordable healthcare and we must have better services for our elderly and disadvantaged families. I vow to continue to work tirelessly for and with the people of our community, small business owners, and neighborhood watch organizations to improve the quality of life for everyone, not just the privileged few.”

Hart was one of three candidates on the ballot in the 2016 Democratic Primary for HD 61. She and Shaw were separated by just 101 votes, each taking about 42 percent followed by Walter Smith in third with 15.5 percent of the vote.

This go around, Hart starts off with a slew of endorsements from current and former elected leaders, including U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, St. Petersburg Sen. Darryl Rouson and former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis.

“I am proud to support a woman of integrity like Dianne Hart,” Davis said. “Dianne has always worked hard to serve our community and has led countless community events, from stop the violence rallies and healthcare forums, to job and vocational training fairs. Dianne Hart is a cornerstone in our community and will be a powerful advocate for us in Tallahassee.”

The Tampa Democrat is the CEO of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association, and has owned and operated a small business, Ms. Dee’s World of Beauty, for more than 30 years.

Hart is also a member of the Hillsborough County Children’s Advisory Board and NFL YET Center, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Task Force and was recently appointed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller to serve on the Commission of the Status of Women.

She joins fellow Democrat Byron Henry in the race. He filed his paperwork to run on Dec. 21, but didn’t report any contributions in his first campaign finance report.

HD 61 covers downtown Tampa, Ybor City, and Seminole Heights. Democrats hold an overwhelming advantage at the polls.

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