Kathy Castor Archives - Page 2 of 31 - Florida Politics

Kathy Castor vows Cuba-Tampa Bay engagement will continue, despite Donald Trump’s rollback

President Donald Trump told a crowd in Miami Friday he was keeping a campaign promise to roll back the “terrible and misleading deal” the Obama administration made with the Castro government in Cuba in 2014.

Two hours later, U.S. Representative Kathy Castor told reporters that the work of engaging the Tampa Bay area and the communist island will continue.

“I think President Trump’s new policy is regrettable and it takes us backward, because what it will do will really complicate our neighbor’s ability to travel to Cuba,” said Castor, a Democrat who has been a House leader in trying to end the economic embargo since flying to Cuba in 2013. “It’s going to make it more expensive, more costly and add bureaucratic red tape.”

Trump’s new policy will directly limit commerce with GAESA, the business and commerce wing of the Cuban military.

On non-Cuban-American travel, one change would make Americans visiting under the Obama administration categories of permitted travel subject to a Treasury Department audit, which could have a cooling effect on travel by adding a potential layer of inconvenience.

In his speech, Trump mentioned the lack of political and religious freedom for the Cuban people, as well as the release of political prisoners.

Of course, this is the same politician who said in Saudi Arabia last month“We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”

“When you look at what they’ve said in Saudi Arabia, the relationship with Turkey, the Philippines, where the leader there is outright taking the lives of some of his citizens there’s a great inconsistency there,” Castor acknowledged.

In the years before Obama’s 2014 announcement, a group of local business and political leaders began pushing for more liberal relations with Cuba, saying that the Tampa region — the third largest area of the country for Cuban-Americans — was strategically behind getting prepared for when the fifty-year plus economic embargo was ultimately a thing of the past.

Nobody has been a bigger leader in the local movement than Al Fox, president of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. He called Trump’s announcement one of the worst foreign policy decisions in the country’s history.

“A new Trump policy change does nothing to benefit Cuba and more importantly, treats United States citizens as second-class citizens,” Fox said in a statement. “By what logic can Dennis Rodman, as an American citizen, travel freely to North Korea but not to Cuba? You will not find one Cuban on the island of Cuba that will support President Trump’s anticipated announcement, including the small dissident movement.”

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. E.J. Otero, who has family in Cuba, has been a virulent critic of Obama’s move to end the diplomatic freeze out of Cuba back in December of 2014. He said Trump’s announcement “achieves a sense of balance,” adding that it didn’t go as far as the exile community would have liked but (obviously) will annoy supporters of rapprochement such as Castor and Fox.

The most significant fact “is the hotels,” Otero says. “If they’re state-run, you can’t stay there.”

Retired Tampa CPA and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce official Jose Valiente also has family in Tampa. For years, he was a critic of any type of exchange with the Castro-led government but changed his attitude after a trip with the Chamber to Cuba a few years back.

Valiente said the announcement will affect the burgeoning entrepreneur movement in Cuba, specifically mentioning those who have started up restaurants, bars, bed-and-breakfasts, and farms in recent years and who were getting ready for “an avalanche” of American tourists that were going to be coming to Cuba.

“He said it was a great day in Cuba, ” Valiente said of Trump’s remarks. “I’m still trying to figure that out still what was so great about the announcement today to benefit the Cubans there today.”

Castor held her news conference at Tampa International Airport, which began offering commercial flights to Havana in 2011, and to other Cuban cities last winter.

Joining her at the news conference were officials from the Florida Orchestra, the University of Tampa and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, all of whom have worked with their Cuban counterparts in recent years. The Aquarium agreed to cooperate with the National Aquarium of Cuba on research affecting their shared marine environment back in 2015.

“We’ve got a lot to learn from them, so the exchange has been tremendously helpful for us, and hopefully productive for them too,” said Margo McKnight, Florida Aquarium’s senior vice president of conservation, science and research. She vowed to continue that relationship,

“We won’t be daunted,” she said. “We have lots more to do and a lot more to learn.”

Castor maintained a similar attitude. She said the Tampa Bay area will continue to be a leader in cultural and scientific exchanges, but said that the loosening of travel restrictions over the past few years is being reversed, costing travelers money and more bureaucracy.

She said her greatest concern was that a reduction of U.S. tourists will erode the ability of private entrepreneurs on the island to grow their business.

Although the Tampa Democrat has a been a leader in trying to increase relations between the two nations, she’s by far not the only member in Congress who believes in that strategy.

Last month, 55 U.S. Senators, led by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, reintroduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would eliminate current restrictions on traveling to Cuba for tourism purposes.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” Flake said Friday. “It is time Senate leadership finally allowed a vote on my bipartisan bill to fully lift these archaic restrictions which do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world.”

Castor has also entered a bipartisan bill in Congress calling for the elimination of the economic embargo. That measure does not have a majority in the House, however.

On Pulse anniversary, Equality Florida calls Rick Scott to ban LGBTQ discrimination statewide

In a statement proclaiming Monday as “Pulse Remembrance Day,” Gov. Rick Scott  described the Pulse nightclub shooting that killed 49 people a year ago as “an attack on Orlando, our state, the Hispanic community and on the LGBTQ community.”

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the leading advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Florida, is “glad” Scott acknowledges the killings were a direct attack on the gay community, specifically the Latino gay community.

But Smith believes the governor could go even further — by signing an executive order to include sexual orientation and gender identity in an anti-discrimination measure.

“We want to make sure that is in addition to, and not a substitute for, the real work of making sure that discrimination is not acceptable in the state of Florida, and he can do that with an executive order and a stroke of a pen,” Smith said at a Ybor City news conference Monday morning.

Also at the event were Congresswoman Kathy Castor and GaYBOR District co-founder Carrie West. 

“We hope he does that, and we hope any candidate running for office that invokes the name of Pulse has the courage to name the victims and make clear their stance, not in platitudes, but in real promises,” Smith added.

That last comment referred to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a leading Republican candidate for governor next year. On Sunday, Putnam issued a statement that neglected to mention that many of those of those killed last year in what was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history were gay and/or Latino.

Just a week after the shootings last year, Equality Florida called on Scott to take executive action to protect people from discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity. Although many local governments include the LGBTQ community in their own human rights ordinances (including St. Petersburg, Tampa, Miami and a host of others), the state of Florida does not include sexual orientation and/or gender identity in its statewide laws.

The Florida Legislature once again opted not to pass the Florida Competitive Workforce Act this spring, the bill that would sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s list of groups that cannot be discriminated against. That’s despite the fact that the bill had its most momentum ever going into a session with 36 different co-sponsors, including Republicans like Dana Young, Chris Latvala and Joe Gruters.

The FBI declared the Pulse nightclub shooting an act of terror — but not a hate crime — despite the shooter targeting a gay club during Latin night.

“This was a hate crime, but the federal government did not follow through and designate it as a hate crime,” Castor said. “The march toward equal rights and civil rights in America has been steady, but sometimes it’s been slow.”

“Hate was clearly at the center of it,” Smith said, a reference to how the father of killer Omar Mateen had openly spoken about his disgust for gay people.

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage two summers ago was a wonderful achievement, Smith said there is still much work to be done “in the face of a rather ugly backlash” with the LGBTQ community.

“Everybody can stop that joke being told at the dinner table, they can intervene when they see street harassment, they can speak up in their workplace and ask ‘do we have policies that make it clear that everybody is going to be respected and treated equally?'” Smith asked rhetorically.

Just hours after the shooting, Equality Florida set up a GoFundMe page for the victims and their families. They took in $9.5 million before merging with the OneOrlando Fund, which ultimately raised more than $31 million.

In August, the organization also set up its new two-month “Safe & Health Schools Project.” That program is designed to provide all Florida school districts with resources necessary to support and affirm LGBTQ students.

Castor and Smith both said that Pulse victims need to be honored with action (the name of a hashtag campaign that Equality Florida has created which calls for people to commit to direct actions to honor the victims).

And Castor said that there’s a lot of work to be done, referring specifically to President Donald Trump‘s selection of Roger Severino, a former Heritage Foundation staffer.

Severino has argued that same-sex marriage threatens religious liberty and that civil rights protections should not extend to transgender patients.

Castor also said that Congress continues to refuse to support ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has failed to gather support back in the 1990s.

“As we remember our neighbors who lost their lives at the Pulse nightclub, it’s very important to honor them with action, and all of us can join together tonight in Ybor and come together but then demand that policymakers across the country really do action on equal rights for everyone,” Castor said, referring to an event commemorating the event scheduled to take place at Ybor’s Centennial Park at 7 p.m.

Kathy Castor, Florida Dems say Donald Trump ‘intentionally’ sabotaged health insurance markets

A day after Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price refused to say if the Donald Trump administration would fund cost-sharing insurer subsidies next year, Kathy Castor and other Florida congressional Democrats say uncertainty is undermining the stability of the health care insurance marketplace.

“President Trump and his administration should focus on helping hardworking families keep their affordable health coverage rather than sticking Americans with much higher insurance bills,” the Tampa Democrat writes in a letter urging the president to commit to maintaining cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments or else be responsible for higher insurance costs. “Support is critical for affordable quality health coverage, and President Trump should not ‘play politics’ and threaten the peace of mind of parents and small business owners.”

Those CSR payments are reimbursement to the insurance companies for lower copays and deductibles given to low-income customers of the Affordable Care Act. There were 1.24 million people in Florida receiving such subsidies in 2016, according to a March 2017 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

At the Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow noted how proposed rate insurance increases in Pennsylvania are slated to rise nearly 9 percent next year. But if cost-sharing reduction payments are stopped, that increase would rise to approximately 30 percent.

“Instead of working together to build on such successes as the number of uninsured Americans at its lowest in history and ending discrimination against my neighbors with pre-existing conditions, Trump is actively working to put the marketplace in jeopardy by not committing to these vital payments, which help provide my neighbors with affordable quality health care coverage options,” Castor added. “Trump’s inaction on CSR payments is causing instability in the federal marketplace, which in turn is forcing health insurance companies to raise their rates for 2018 or pull out altogether. He is intentionally sabotaging our health insurance markets and leaving hardworking American families and small businesses to bear the brunt.”

The insurance commissioner of Washington state blamed the Trump administration this week for the planned departure of two insurers from the state, attributing it to their refusal to guarantee the billions of dollars in reimbursements expected by the health insurers.

“For months, we’ve worked closely with our health insurers and other stakeholders in a concerted effort to try to explain to the Trump administration and congressional leaders what the impact could be to our market and most importantly, to our consumers, if this level of uncertainty and volatility continued,” said Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

“Today, our predictions came true.”

House Republicans filed suit in 2014 saying that those CSR payments should have been funded through a congressional appropriation. Republicans estimated these payments are about $7 billion a year.

In May 2016, a federal judge agreed with them, ruling that the Obama administration had been making illegal payments to health insurance companies participating in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges. The Obama administration appealed that ruling.

House Republicans successfully asked for a delay in the case. after Trump was elected last November.

The letter to the president was co-signed by Congress members Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy, Al Lawson, Frederica Wilson, Charlie Crist, Val Demings and Alcee Hastings.

Kathy Castor: Investigations on Russia, Trump administration are ‘cloud’ over D.C.

While there are many things both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill want to accomplish, Kathy Castor laments the business of Congress has slowed considerably by what she calls a “cloud” over the Trump administration’s possible collusion with Russia during last year’s election.

“What an atmosphere it is,” the Tampa Democratic congresswoman said in opening remarks at the Oxford Exchange Friday morning.

“I hope we can remove this cloud. The economy is better. People are generally hopeful, they want America to be a world leader, and this cloud has got to go away, because I think that everything that we have going for us, as long as that cloud remains over the White House in Washington. We’re not able to reach our full potential.”

For months, Castor had been among Congressional Democrats calling for an independent commission to investigate allegations about members of the Trump administration and the Russian government. She called the recent Justice Department appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate the situation a positive development.

“I think that broke the fever a little bit,” she said, adding that the constant news revelations about Trump and the Russians have “stalled a lot of the business going on in the Congress.”

“There have been some things going on,” she acknowledged, “but the pace of lawmaking is much slower than I’ve seen over the past ten years.”

The Tampa Representative touched on just a few of those items not being covered in the media that she worries about, such as the president’s signing of a Congressional resolution repealing rules that would have required internet service providers to get customer permission to collect, use and sell information about one’s online habits.

Castor says the role of Congress should now be to do a “broader dive” into recommendations on how to prevent the interference of foreign governments into our elections. In March, former FBI Director James Comey told a congressional panel the FBI was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination.

No member of Congress has been more active in promoting relations between Cuba and the U.S. than Castor, who represents one of the largest Cuban-American communities in the U.S. She admitted that recent reports of the Trump administration being ready to roll back some of the major pieces of the Obama administration’s opening with Cuba and reinstating limits on travel and commerce, citing human rights abuses by the Castro government as justification for a more punitive approach.

“I’ve been an optimist on these until the last few days,” she confessed, charging Trump with being on a path “just to flex his muscles, notwithstanding logic and facts.”

“I think we are somewhat in risk of President Trump in his pledge to change Cuban policy and that would be a real shame for the families in this community and families across the country,” she added.

Castor’s appearance at the weekly “Cafe Con Tampa” meeting was, in essence, a regular town-hall meeting. It was the type of event she has eschewed in recent years, opting for events where she invites the public to meetings, meeting up on a one-on-one basis.

Traditional town hall meetings haven’t been scheduled very often after an explosive encounter with Tea Party activists during the discussions about the Affordable Care Act back in 2009.

All of the questions were of a friendly nature, including a softball from an official with the Hillsborough County School Board who asked her opinion of HB 7069, a charter-school-friendly $419 million school bill in the Florida Legislature that she had already vocally opposed. Public education officials and organizations vehemently opposed the legislation.

“What the Florida Legislature has been doing to our public schools is criminal, and we have got to stand up and fight for it,” she said, adding that it wasn’t too late to have people contact Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill.

‘Morally repugnant,’ ‘cruel,’ ‘obscene,’ ‘inhumane,’ ‘heartless:” Democrats react to Donald Trump budget

Florida’s Democratic congressional caucus reacted Tuesday to President Donald Trump‘s proposed 2018 budget with a shower of outrage over cuts to Amtrak, environmental programs, food stamps, student loans, disability funding, infrastructure grants, food stamps, and Medicare, while one Republican responded: “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.”

“The president’s cruel and inhumane budget should be dead on arrival,” demanded Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando.

If Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Kendall has anything to do with it – and he’ll have more say than Demings or any of the other Democrats, it mostly could be.

“As the House looks to begin its own budget and appropriations process, my colleagues and I will work to ensure many of these programs remain adequately funded,” Curbelo stated in a news release that issued almost as many objections to cuts as many of the Democrats raised.

“Today’s budget proposed by the Administration does not reflect the appropriate allocation of funds to get our country back on sound fiscal footing,” Curbelo stated. “From cuts to agencies needed to protect our environment and combat the threats of climate change, to cuts to our safety nets for the most-needy Americans, to complete slashing of public broadcasting funds, this budget abandons progress already made on programs that enjoy bipartisan support.

And as he and many of Florida’s other members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – Curbelo pledged to look out for key environmental protections.

“I’m committed to standing together to advocate for the many bipartisan priorities of our Florida delegation such as funding for transportation projects, the Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Program, and Everglades Restoration,” he stated in a news release.

By early Tuesday evening, no other Florida Republicans had publicly weighed in on Trump’s budget proposal.

Democrats lined up to express outrage not just over proposed cuts, but over tax cuts and incentives offered elsewhere, to the rich, they said.

Demings pointed out numerous proposed cuts she said “would will have devastating effects on working families, women and children, and those with disabilities.”

Among items she decried: additional Medicaid cuts, together with those in the American Health Care Act, would total $1.4 billion over ten years. The Home Investment Partnership Program, which fuels efforts like Habitat For Humanity, would be eliminated. After school early learning center grants would be cut. Funding for community-based drug abuse centers would be slashed. Homeland Security grants to cities would be cut 25 percent. The Social Security Administration’s administrative funding would be reduced. Prices would be raised on student loans.

“While a balanced budget is a top priority in this country, leaving working families, seniors and children without services they need, and veterans without coverage they deserve, is not a practical solution to going about it,” she wrote.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa also found a long list of objections, calling the proposed budget, “an immediate threat to my neighbors, families and small business owners. If we were discussing the budget around the kitchen table, you would be aghast at its fundamental policy choices,” she stated in a release.

Among the items she denounced: elimination of Meals on Wheels, reduced help for Alzheimer patients in nursing homes, reduced basic living allowances for disabled people relying on Social Security SSI assistance; reductions in assistance for victims of sexual or domestic abuse and basic access to reproductive health care; a $7 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health, which she said will impact cancer treatment centers like Moffitt in Tampa; and elimination of TIGER grants to help communities with local infrastructure improvements.

“If Trump really wanted to help working families he would reject policies and budgets like this one that put his millionaire and billionaire family and friends first,” Castor added. “Instead he would invest in research, education and our crumbling roads and bridges and create jobs for families struggling to achieve the American Dream.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee also had plenty of specific beefs, adding cuts in food stamps to many of those cited by Demings and Castor.

“President Trump’s budget calls for extreme cuts to vital funding for programs that help our nation’s poor, from health care and food stamps to student loans and disability payments,” Lawson said in a news release. “It is a short-sighted plan that seeks to give tax breaks to the wealthiest while taking away lifelines for those who need it most.”

Among other reactions:

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson expressed alarm over elimination of Amtrak’s long-distance routes, which include all three routes in Florida, the Auto Train running from Sanford to Virginia, and the Silver Meteor, which connect numerous Florida cities from Miami through Orlando to Jacksonville, before going on to New York.

“Eliminating Amtrak service in Florida not only affects the nearly one million Floridians who ride the train each year, it would have a real impact on our tourism-driven economy,” Nelson stated.

Nelson also sent a separate release declaring, “This plan cuts some of our most critical programs including Medicaid and food stamps. It also cuts funding to agencies such as NIH, which is working to find cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s, and the EPA, which protects our environment. Slashing these vital programs will hurt millions of hardworking families. We should be focused on helping people, not hurting those who need our help the most.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg called the proposed budget “fiscally irresponsible and morally repugnant.”

“A budget is a reflection of our principles and this proposal illustrates a complete lack of values. It decimates vital programs – from environmental protections to public education to medical research. It cuts taxes for the very wealthy while leaving the poor, sick, and disabled out in the cold. It doubles down on cruel cuts to Medicaid – despite promising not to touch it. In Pinellas County where 40 percent of our children depend on Medicaid and CHIP for their care, what could be more heartless?”

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park offered a similar observation, calling the budget proposal “both morally and fiscally irresponsible.

She accused it of “using smoke and mirrors to make false claims about its real fiscal impact. It also makes us less safe, cutting critical anti-terrorism programs—which hurts cities like Orlando—and slashing State Department funding during a perilous time in the world. This budget especially punishes children and families, seniors in nursing homes, college students with debt, families that rely on Planned Parenthood for life-saving health care, communities that need better roads and bridges, and all of us who depend on clean air and water.”

“Congress has the final authority over our nation’s budget, and I plan to work with my Democratic and Republican colleagues to pass a bipartisan budget that keeps us safe, upholds our values, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path to prosperity for all,” she added.

Democrat U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach called the budget “a broken promise to hard-working families.”

“I call on Congress to reject this and instead focus on protecting Social Security and Medicare, fixing crumbling roads and bridges, and preparing students and workers for jobs in an ever-changing economy,” she said in a statement.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando took to the floor of the House of Representatives to denounce the budget as “more broken promises.” He read some of Trump’s past statements promising to keep Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid whole; offer insurance for everybody; and a strong safety net for the nation’s farmers.

“Yet he cuts $50 billion in over ten years from farm subsidies, including critical citrus greening research dollars for Central Florida,” Soto said on the floor. “He says, I quote, ‘I’ll be the greatest president for jobs that God’s ever created.’ He’s cutting the National Institute for Health, crucial research dollars does by $5.8 million, cuts NASA by $200 million, cuts the National Science Foundation, by $776 million.”

Soto also took to Facebook, and posted: “Pres Trump unveils his heartless 2018 budget that hurts seniors, children, families and students in order to pay for tax cuts for millionaires,” Soto posted. “He cuts Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, School Lunch, Kidcare, Meals on Wheels, Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness and so many other programs critical to America’s working families. Another promise broken!”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston said the budget should be “cast aside.”

“The Trump budget ignores the needs of America’s hard-working families and brutally assaults our health care and public education system, while all but abandoning those struggling to make ends meet. It hollows out crucial commitments to housing, nutrition assistance, and the environment, along with job training and medical research investments. Yet it delivers obscene tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, and relies on unrealistic revenue projections that no respected economist would embrace.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miami wanted to know: “who is the President fighting for?”

“President Trump’s budget envisions an America that has abdicated its responsibilities to its citizens; an America that takes a back-seat in innovation, education, research, and economic progress in order to funnel millions in taxpayer funding to corporate executives and special interests. His proposal continues the cruel Republican trend of targeting poor people, eviscerating nutrition assistance programs and cutting $1.4 trillion from Medicaid. All the while, the proposal relies on pipe-dream mathematics in a poor attempt to mimic sound economic policy,” he said in a written statement. “This entire proposal should immediately be rejected out of hand.”

Universal support for Robert Mueller so far from Florida’s members of Congress

Across the aisles and across the Sunshine State Florida’s members of Congress are universally praising the announcement that former FBI Director Robert Mueller will lead a special investigation into Russian interference in American elections.

Some Democrats, while praising the appointment and Mueller’s integrity, still called for more, including the special commission that Democrats have been pushing for in a bill in the House of Representatives. They also almost universally expressed hope that Mueller will conduct a broad investigation that includes pursuing obstruction of justice allegations against President Donald Trump.

Fewer Florida Republicans than Democrats responded Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, but those who did expressed confidence that Mueller’s appointment is the right move, and that Mueller is the right man for the job.

Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Kendall once again got out front of other Republican in expressing concerns over Russia, going on MSNBC Wednesday night and alluding to the prospect that the Russians had American insiders helping them with their election influence operation.

“Because we all want to get to the bottom of what the Russians did to influence this election, and we need to know if any U.S. persons collaborated or colluded with the Russians, this is something that will get us much closer to the truth,” Curbelo told Greta Van Susteren on the For The Record With Greta show. “And it’s something we should be very happy about.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who’d been among the first and most vocal of Republicans to raise concerns about Russian interference last fall, but who had remained fairly quiet as news bombs exploded earlier this week, applauded the Mueller appointment, while cautioning that he still wants the Senate to run its own investigation.

“Mr. Mueller is widely respected for his independence and professionalism. I have confidence that he will conduct a fair and thorough investigation,” Rubio said in a written statement. “For the sake of the country, all parties must fully cooperate with his efforts that are focused on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. This effort should in no way be allowed to impede the ability of the Senate Intelligence Committee to conduct and conclude its investigation into the same subject. It is my hope that these investigations will now move expeditiously.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson offered the hope that Mueller will get everything he needs.

“Bob Mueller has the experience to conduct a thorough investigation. Now, the administration must provide him the resources and independent authority he needs to follow the facts wherever they lead,” Nelson said in his statement.

Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key called Mueller “a man of integrity and independence.”

“Bob Mueller is a great choice to lead the investigation as the newly appointed special counsel. A former FBI director, Mueller is a man of integrity and independence who can be expected to conduct a thorough inquiry into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Mueller will get to the truth and give the American people confidence in the outcome of the investigation.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City called for truth.

“We should never run or hide from the truth,” Mast stated in a release. “If we seek out truth and embrace it then Americans can know we all play by the same set of rules.  I hope Former FBI Director Robert Mueller can be looked at as unbiased and his finding respected by all involved.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami called Mueller “no-nonsense.”

“I applaud the appointment of no-nonsense Mueller to lead the investigation of the negative interference of Russia in our democratic process,” she tweeted.

Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami said the matter deserves the attention.

“By appointing former FBI Director Mueller as special counsel, the Justice Department recognizes the attention this matter requires,” he wrote in a statement. I expect Mr. Mueller will conduct this in a professional and thorough manner, just as he led the FBI for 12 years through two presidencies.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando called the move “brilliant” but held out a demand that the commission House Democrats have been seeking still gets established.

“The American people deserve answers. The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller is a brilliant choice. Based on my knowledge of him, he will be relentless in his pursuit of the facts. He is well up to the task,” she wrote in a statement. “Now, we need an independent commission to ensure we protect our democracy and send a strong message that we will not tolerate any  interference in our elections from anyone.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park agreed, on social media posts.

“The appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel for the Russia investigation is a positive step toward uncovering the truth. We must follow the facts,” she wrote. “However, we still need an independent commission on Russia’s interference and hacking in our 2016 elections to inform the public and to determine how we can prevent future attacks on our democracy. “

Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg expressed his confidence in Mueller.

“This is a very significant step and a win for our democracy and the American people,” he declared in a written statement. “Robert Mueller has broad respect across party lines and is the right person to lead such an important and sensitive investigation. We must get to the bottom of the Russia question, letting facts guide us to the truth.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa urged everyone, including Trump, to fully cooperate with Mueller.

“The appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate potential wrongdoing between Russia and President Trump is an important and overdue step to fully uncover the extent of Russian meddling in our political system and potential obstruction of justice,” she wrote. “A fully independent investigation outside of the partisan politics of Congress is required to restore public trust. This is a tall order and I hope the Special Counsel is up to this task. The appointment comes on the heels of intransigence by Congressional Republicans who as late as this afternoon refused to bring to the House floor a bipartisan bill I have co-sponsored to establish a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate the malign Russian influence on our democratic system, the Trump campaign, and his administration. I urge President Trump, all of his associates and all who love this country to be forthright and do everything they can to cooperate and aid the investigation. The American people deserve no less.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston insisted the investigation must be as broad as possible.

“I’m encouraged by the Justice Department’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump-Russia connection, and I have a deep respect for former FBI Director Mueller. Assuming he is given true independence, this appointment will remove some of the clouds that have hung over our system of justice during this deeply troubling situation. It’s certainly overdue,” she said in a written statement. “However, the investigation must include Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, the Kremlin’s possible ties to the Trump campaign, and the President’s alleged interference in the Michael Flynn investigation. This is a positive step, but more still needs to be done to ensure that we provide the whole truth to the American people.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton said something similar in a tweet:

“Important step in Russia investigation. But any investigation must include possible obstruction of justice by POTUS,” he tweeted.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach called for vigilance.

“Thanks to public outcry, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein names a special counsel in Russia probe. Americans must stay vigilant,” she tweeted.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens specifically cited Trump’s presidential campaign as a target.

“The appointment of Robert Mueller to investigate possible ties between President Trump’s campaign and the Russian government is a long-awaited step in the right direction,” she said in a written statement. “After a week of constant controversy, Americans’ faith in government may begin to be restored. I applaud Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for having the courage to name a special counselor, a decision that Mr. Trump has denounced as a ‘witch hunt.’ My view is that if there is no connection between the president or his campaign and Russia, he should have nothing to worry about. Mr. Mueller is widely viewed as a man of the highest integrity who can be counted on to maintain that standard. I hope he will have all of the authority and resources necessary to conduct a thorough investigation, no matter where it may lead him.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee called the appointment a step in the right direction, but insisted on the independent commission.

“Appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel is a step in the right direction for continuing the investigation into Russia’s possible involvement in our democracy, but we still need an independent commission in order to ensure a thorough investigation,” Lawson said in a written statement. “The American people deserve to know the full truth.”

 

In Tampa, public officials blast education bill, urge Rick Scott veto

A host of political and education issues came together Tuesday in West Tampa to trash the massive $419 million public education bill that GOP lawmakers unveiled and passed in the final days of the Legislative Session.

“This is the mother of all education bills, ” said Rep. Sean Shaw. The Tampa Democrat was referring to House Bill 7069, a 278-page conforming bill agreed to in secret and barely surviving a vote in the Senate before the Legislature adjourned earlier this month.

HB 7069, a massive 278-page education conforming bill that was agreed to in secret, barely survived a full vote in the Senate. Public school officials throughout the state have blasted the bill for its enormous incentives for privately run charter schools.

As a freshman who just completed his first session in the Florida House, Shaw said that the way he thought things were supposed to work in Tallahassee is that a bill is introduced in a committee and goes through other committees. Then, if it survives that process, the bill is ultimately voted on in the House and/or Senate.

Not this time.

“Not only is it filled with bad policy, the procedure with which it was done was way out of wack,” Shaw lamented.

Three members of the Hillsborough County School Board — Susan Valdes, Sally Harris and Cindy Stuart — all appeared at the news conference held at West Tampa Elementary.

On Monday, the Florida School Boards Association became the latest organization calling on Gov. Rick Scott to veto HB 7069. In addition to criticizing the lack of transparency in the crafting of the bill, the FSBA have an issue on how Title 1 dollars would be spent if the bill passed.

“The way that the state has now taken a federal law and reregulated it basically at the state level is going to siphon millions and millions of dollars away from our schools that have the highest concentration of poverty,” said a concerned Jeff Eakins, the superintendent of the Hillsborough County School District.

Another controversial provision allocates $140 million for the House’s “schools of hope” proposal, aimed mostly at encouraging charter schools with a track record of helping academically struggling students. The measure would help open branches of charter schools near traditional schools that continually do poorly on state report cards.

“So if we’re going to incentive the charter school that works down the street from a ‘failing school,’ what happens to the failing school that we’ve given no funds to get better?” asked a frustrated Shaw. “What happens in the next five years? The next 10 years?

“This harmful education bill continues to divert our tax dollars from our public schools, many going to for-profit corporations that act as charter schools,” said Tampa-area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor.

Mindy Taylor, an advocate for the Alliance for Public Schools, says her organization is most concerned about parental engagement, increasing funding for public schools, and maintaining local control of schools.

“The provision in HB 7069 violate each of these priorities,” Taylor said.

Eakins stated that Hillsborough receives about $8 million annually for a recruitment retention program to lure nationally certified teachers to teach in some of the county’s poorest area. “That’s $8 million we will not be able to use in that particular program,” he said. “The impact is going to be real.”

Other provisions in the bill include additional funding for social services at a limited number of traditional public schools that are failing, an expanded bonus program for teachers and principals, restrictions on teacher tenure-like policies, a recess mandate for elementary schools, and the elimination of a required high school math exam.

A report from POLITICO on Monday indicated that Scott may, in fact, veto HB 7069.

“We’ve got to make sure we properly fund education, whether we have a great state college system, we have a great K-12 system,” the governor said. “We’ve got to continue to do that.”

Florida’s Democrats, Carlos Curbelo call for investigation after James Comey firing

Florida’s Democratic members of Congress are expressing outrage over Tuesday evening’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and saying it solidifies their demands for an independent investigation into ties between President Donald Trump and Russia.

In statements released last night, Democrats were using words like “disgusting,” “disturbing” and “preposterous,” even as many acknowledged that they were unhappy with Comey dating to his announced findings about Hillary Clinton‘s email scandal on the even of the 2016 election.

At least two Florida Republicans weighed in, as U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Kendall expressed concern about the questions the Trump’s firing of Comey raises and called for a special investigation by Congress, while U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach called it “the right decision.”

Typical of many of the Democrats was U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who called Tuesday,  “a dark day for justice in America,” and then went on to criticize Comey for his past actions.

“The conduct of FBI Director James Comey before the 2016 Election was certainly disturbing, and undoubtedly deserved criticism and scrutiny,” Wasserman Schultz declared. “But the reasoning and timing behind this firing is absolutely preposterous and unbelievable. It smacks of a Nixon-esque cover up of President Trump’s Kremlin ties. And with this egregious political power play, there is now no question that a special prosecutor is needed, because Americans absolutely deserve an open, independent investigation into Trump’s Russian connections.”

Some were more measured. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park said the firing, “gives rise to many questions, which I have no doubt will be examined in the coming days.

“However,” Murphy continued. “the President’s action makes one thing crystal clear: there needs to be a swift, independent and non-partisan investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Congress and the American people deserve to know all the facts, especially if we are to prevent further foreign interferences in our democracy. We should follow the evidence wherever it leads—regardless of whom it may implicate. The American people deserve an inquiry that is above partisan politics and is solely devoted to uncovering the truth.”

On the Republican side, Curbelo called the firing “an extraordinary decision that “raises many questions all of which must be answered.

“Congress and the American people need a transparent explanation as to how this decision was reached and why it was executed at this time,” Curbelo continued. “It is critical that the FBI can continue all of its pending work with independence and integrity – especially the investigation into the Russian government’s efforts to influence our last election and undermine American democracy. Today I reiterate the need for Congress to establish a Select Committee with full investigatory powers to thoroughly examine this matter.”

DeSantis stressed that the firing should rightfully remove the concerns about politics in the FBI.

“President Trump made the right decision to relieve FBI Director James Comey of his duties,” DeSantis stated. “I look forward to the President nominating a strong director who will keep the FBI focused on its core mission and out of the political thicket.”

Among other Democrats weighing in:

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson:

“Now it is more clear than ever that we need an independent commission to get to the truth of Russia’s interference with our election.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa:

“President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is a blatant attempt to stall the FBI’s ongoing investigation of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It is also part of a disturbing trend — first, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates is fired by Trump after informing the White House of deep concerns about Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his activities with Russia. Now, Comey is fired by Trump a week after testifying that the FBI is conducting its investigation.

“Trump may well be trying to distract the American people from the very troubling conflicts of interest, and those connections between Trump’s former national security adviser and Russia that were known about for some 18 days before Trump reluctantly fired Flynn. It is past time for an independent, bipartisan investigation. Trump may want to bury the investigation, but his presidency will continue under a cloud unless a special prosecutor or independent commission is established and the facts are fully presented to the American people.”

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg:

“I don’t disagree with the decision to remove Director Comey from his post given his actions over the past year. But the timing is extremely suspect given the FBI recently announced they are investigating the Trump administration for alleged ties to Russia.

“Now President Trump gets to nominate the head of the agency leading that investigation. We need a special prosecutor to take over the Russia investigation, and the Senate must drill down to a degree like never before on whoever is nominated to replace Director Comey. The integrity of our top law enforcement agency – and our democracy – is at stake!”

U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando:

“The circumstances surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey, from the timing, to the justification, to the individuals involved, are very concerning.

“We need to restore the American people’s faith in the ability of the FBI to conduct a fair and non-partisan investigation. That starts with the investigation into the Russian interference of the 2016 election, and the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia.

“It’s time for all of us to put partisanship aside, and do what’s best for the future of our democracy.”

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton:

“Not since President Nixon have we seen such a disgraceful abuse of power and attack on the integrity of our system of justice. During one of the most important national security investigations of our time, Director Comey’s firing is a blatant attack on the independence of the Justice Department. This behavior – firing the person who is investigating you – may pass in [Vladimir] Putin’s Russia, but it is disgracefully below the office of the President of the United States.

“This is only the latest in a string of alarming moves by the White House: first they fired acting-Attorney General Yates for calling attention to their compromised National Security Advisor, then Preet Bharara, and now Director Comey.

“Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions has lost any remaining credibility by getting involved in an investigation from which he promised to recuse himself. Given the actions of the White House, the American people unfortunately must now question whether anyone affiliated with this Administration can investigate this case of Russian influence honestly, thoroughly, and independently. We need a special prosecutor and an independent commission to continue this investigation without the whiff of political oversight or interference.”

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar:

“The FBI Director’s firing cries out for a Special Prosecutor. Up until the moment of his dismissal, Director Comey was actively investigating President Donald John Trumps’ connection to Russian interference in the 2016 election. The American people deserve to know why Director Comey was fired without reason and Donald Trump needs to explain himself immediately.”

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens:

“Like many, I was stunned to learn that President Trump has fired FBI director James Comey. This dismissal came as Comey was leading an investigation into whether individuals connected to the president coordinated with Russia to impact the 2016 presidential election.

“This abrupt action raises many serious questions and is further proof that an independent prosecutor should be named to head the Russia investigation. It also could make the possibility of such an appointment more likely. The president may think that firing Comey will help his case, but no matter who conducts the investigation, Comey will now likely be called to testify under oath and his words could do the administration far more harm than good.”

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach:

“I am no fan of Director Comey, but I’m deeply disturbed by President Trump’s decision to fire the man who is investigating him. This just goes to show that it’s now more important than ever to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in our presidential election, and possible Russian coordination with the Trump campaign.”

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando tweeted this on Twitter:

“Trump fires Comey while under investigation about Russia-Watergate all over again! #Sayfie @FlaDems @HispanicCaucus”

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee posted this on Facebook:

“The American people deserve to know the truth about the full Russia investigation and we need an independent special prosecutor to oversee it. #ComeyFiring”

Charlie Crist leads Florida congressional pack in first quarter fundraising

First quarter fundraising numbers are in for U.S. Representatives and first-term Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist leads the Florida Delegation with $720,000 raised between Jan. 1 and March 31.

Crist brought in $578,000 of that money through individual contributions, while $137,000 came in through committees. He also kicked in $5,400 of his own money for his CD 13 re-election campaign. He started the second quarter with $672,000 in the bank.

Crist’s performance was far and away better than any of the other incumbent Democrats, though fellow first-termer Stephanie Murphy posted a strong $286,000 report in the Orlando-based 7th Congressional District.

She spent just $41,000, leaving her with $256,000 in her war chest at the end of the quarter.

Former Democratic Party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz also broke the $250,000 mark for the quarter with $287,000 in total receipts which left her with $236,000 on hand on March 31.

The only other Democrat to break the six figure mark was Lois Frankel, who raised about $206,000 in her re-election campaign for CD 21. The South Florida Democrat spent about $65,000 leaving her with $926,500 in her campaign account on April 1.

The other Democrats didn’t fare as well. Freshman Rep. Al Lawson brought in $72,000 in CD 5, and Darren Soto raised $41,000 in CD 9. Rep. Ted Deutch raised $51,000, Fredrica Wilson brought in $33,000, Alcee Hastings added just under $29,000, Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor raised just $23,500, and Val Demings has yet to file a report for the quarter.

Republicans had more incumbents breach the six-figure mark, though none were close to Crist’s monster Q1.

The top GOP fundraiser this quarter was Brian Mast, who took over the CD 18 seat from former Rep. Patrick Murphy after he decided to run against Marco Rubio for Senate. Mast was able to raise just under $430,000 and spent about $114,000, leaving him with $410,000 in the bank.

Rep. Vern Buchanan came in second among Florida Republicans with $395,000 raised. His $1.8 million in cash on hand is the highest among Republican incumbents.

Not far behind in total assets is Ron DeSantis, who despite only raising $14,500 for the quarter has nearly $1.7 million in the bank.

The bulk of the rest of the GOP incumbents hovered around the $100,000 zone in fundraising.

Gus Bilirakis raised just shy of $150,000 and has $160,000 on hand; first-term Rep. Matt Gaetz brought in $122,000 and has $129,000 on hand; Neal Dunn brought in $114,000 and has $67,000 on hand; Daniel Webster raised $105,000 and finished the quarter with $76,000 in the bank; and Dennis Ross raised $146,000 and has $126,000 in the bank.

The other incumbents are lagging behind the pack.

Rep. Tom Rooney took in $73,000 and spent $60,000 to finish the quarter with $85,000 on hand, while John Rutherford raised $45,700 and spent $16,000 for an on hand total of $32,000.

Finally, Gainesville Republican Rep. Ted Yoho raised a lowly $15,000 for the quarter and has about $100,000 in the bank.

Only 7 members of Florida’s congressional delegation hosting town halls during Easter break

(Updated) Gainesville Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho held a raucous town hall meeting Monday night, as he was jeered by members of the audience before he finished his opening statement.

“I really, really expected them to be a little more civil,” Yoho to the Gainesville Sun after the event.“This was the rowdiest crowd.”

Similar statements have been made by congressional Republicans around the country in 2017, as angry Democrats have crowded town halls in some of the most conservative parts of the country, expressing their unhappiness about GOP plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, issues with the Trump administration, or other events since the election.

Yoho is scheduled to go back out on the road Tuesday night, where he’ll host another town hall meeting in Palatka.

However, most members of Florida’s congressional delegation don’t have any town halls scheduled over their two week break which began on Monday. According to the website townhallproject.com, only seven of Florida’s 27 Representatives have such events planned in April.

However, that doesn’t mean their staying idle during their Easter recess.

“The Congressman is in the district throughout the break,” said Gus Bilirakis spokesperson Elena Hernandez. “He’s spending a majority of the next couple of weeks meeting with constituents, holding open office hours, visiting local businesses, hosting a student government roundtable. Also he’s meeting with Pasco County officials, local doctors, touring a substance abuse center, and hosting a Veterans Resource Fair next week.”

Polk County Republican Dennis Ross was scheduled to return on Tuesday from an official congressional delegation trip to Kuwait and Iraq, where he met with members of the Florida National Guard stationed in Kuwait, as well as with the U.S. Ambassadors to Kuwait and Iraq and other government officials.

Ross spokesperson Joni Schockley adds that Ross has “multiple meetings scheduled throughout the district during the next two weeks.

Tampa Representative Kathy Castor  appeared at the USF College of Medicine on Monday, where she met with scientists to denounce President Trump’s proposed 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health. She also held a town hall at the University Area Community Center last Friday, according to her district director, Marcia Mejia.

Charlie Crist will be holding a veterans roundtable, walking in the march for science, and speaking at the rededication of the Jordan Park complex in St. Petersburg, according to spokesperson Erin Moffet.

 Florida District 11 Republican Dan Webster is one of the seven Florida congressional members who is holding a town hall this week.  He held two on Monday.

The other members holding town halls this week include Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, Darren Soto, Brian Mast, Al Lawson and Yoho.

Representatives for Vern Buchanan did not respond to our requests for comment.

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