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High-profile St. Pete Democrats now backing Vito Sheeley in contentious HD 70 primary

Wengay Newton received a rebuke Monday when several high-profile St. Petersburg Democrats announced their support of Vito Sheeley, the political operative challenging the incumbent in the overwhelmingly Democratic House District 70 this year.

In a joint statement, Pinellas County School Board Chair Rene Flowers, Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and City Council Chair Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said they were backing Sheeley’s bid to unseat Newton.

Sheeley is a former district aide to both U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist, and spent some time this year in an unusual alliance with former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, the Republican who Crist defeated last November.

Kriseman’s endorsement of Sheeley shouldn’t be a complete surprise. Newton alienated several Democratic activists in St. Pete last year after endorsing Republican Rick Baker over Kriseman in the hyper-intense mayoral contest.

“Vito’s track record speaks for itself,” Kriseman said in a statement. “I’ve known Vito for years, and know his heart and how hard he will work on behalf of the people of his District and this community. We need Vito’s leadership in District 70.”

 In the 2016 Democratic primary for HD 70, Kriseman endorsed Dan Fiorini, one of Newton’s opponents.

“I went to Kriseman for support in my House race. He told me to pound sand,” Newton said last year when asked about supporting Baker. But Newton insisted that backing Baker had nothing to do with that snub, saying that the former two-term mayor was the best man to lead St. Petersburg in the future.

“Rick Baker is my friend for over ten years. It’s a shame that in the areas of greatest need, they’re still talking about that here in 2017,” Newton said about the economic conditions in South St. Pete.

Welch, Wheeler-Bowman and Flowers were also strong Kriseman supporters in the 2017 mayoral race.

“Vito brings people together to listen to stakeholders, work as a team, solve problems and uplift our community — that’s something we desperately need in Tallahassee,” Welch said Monday. “I know that Vito will continue his service to our community and bring common sense solutions to the capital.

“The continued attacks aimed at diminishing our education system is besieged with unfunded mandates, and any sense of integrity has eroded daily, we need representation in line and in tune with the needs of District 70,” Flowers said. “For a strong leader aligned with our values and ideals, Vito Sheeley receives my endorsement as the next member of the House of Representatives, District 70.”

“Vito has the skills, the temperament, and the drive to represent our community successfully,” added Wheeler-Bowman, who was officially elected to chair the St. Pete City Council this year last week. “South St. Pete needs a strong voice who can go to Tallahassee, work constructively, and bring home results.”

“Simply put, Vito is the right person for the job.”

Newton held a campaign kickoff barbecue at Dell Holmes Park in South St. Pete on Saturday. He has raised $17,370 in the race. Sheeley has raised just $4,722, though his numbers for December have yet to be reported.

Sheeley said he was “humbled” by the support.

“They know me as an advocate who will always put my constituents above the broken politics we’ve had to endure for too long. I look forward to continuing that work representing District 70.”

Newton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

St. Petersburg attorney and civic activist Keisha Bell announced last week that she would soon officially enter the HD 70 Democratic race.

HD 70 covers parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

Kathy Castor is Mariella Smith’s first major endorsement for county commission bid

Kathy Castor is endorsing longtime neighborhood and environmentalist activist Mariella Smith in her bid for Hillsborough County Commission District 5.

“Mariella Smith is a champion for citizens, our neighborhoods, a healthy environment and a strong local economy,” the Hillsborough County congresswoman said in a statement Monday. “She has a deep understanding of how to move Hillsborough County forward on transportation, smart growth, the environment, and economic prosperity. She is a vigilant advocate for open and honest government and an outspoken partner on issues important to Hillsborough families.

“I have seen firsthand how she is not afraid to stand up to powerful special interests. I strongly endorse and support Mariella Smith for Hillsborough County Commission.”

Castor’s endorsement is a huge shot in the arm for Smith, who officially announced her first run for office less than a week ago. Smith is one of five Democrats who has entered the race in District 5, in what is theoretically an open seat after the departure of a term-limited Ken Hagan later this year.

However, District 2 Republican Commissioner Victor Crist already announced a run for the District 5 seat, and after having spent the past seven years on the board (and 25 years in public office), Crist is considered essentially the de facto incumbent in the race.

Crist is also one of three Republicans currently serving on the Board of County Commission seeking different seats on the board in 2018.

In the case of Crist and Hagan, it’s because they are term-limited out of their current seats in Districts 2 and 5, respectively. Critics are calling that a violation in spirit of term-limit rules, and it was referred to by Smith in her campaign kickoff announcement last week.

“It’s time to stop the musical chairs by the same old politicians who are more interested in deals for special interests than serving our citizens,” Smith said.

Crist has raised $70,905 to date, the most of any candidate in the field.

Mark Nash has raised the most funds of any Democrat with $39,940. Elvis Pigott is next with $12,221.

Todd Marks

Republican Todd Marks takes aim at Hillsborough Commission District 1 seat

Republican Todd Marks has to run for the District 1 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.

The attorney and small-business owner joins Aakash Patel in the race for the GOP nomination. Florida House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, who is term-limited from running again, is the lone Democrat in the race.

Marks runs Westchase Law, a Tampa-based law firm specializing in family and business law.

“For my entire life, I’ve been a consistent and common-sense conservative,” Marks said in a statement announcing his candidacy. “As a local small business owner and attorney, I know the importance of creating good jobs and, conversely, the hardships that government can place on business. Common sense, experience-oriented leadership is vital to protect our quality of life.”

District 1 encompasses South Tampa, much of Town ‘n’ Country and West Tampa, and much of the South Shore area. Voters there tend to elect political moderates. It’s been held by Republican Sandy Murman since 2010. Murman was just elected to a four-year term in November 2016 but announced last year that she would pursue the opportunity to serve even longer on the board by running for the countywide District 7 seat.

Before Murman, the seat was held by Rose Ferlita, and before her, Kathy Castor.

Marks is a graduate of the George Mason School of Law and began his legal career in Washington D.C. and McLean, Virginia.

He’s been an active presence in Republican politics for years, and ran previously for office in 2010, when he lost to Dana Young for the GOP nomination for House District 57 (now District 60).

Marks has a formidable opponent in the GOP race in Patel, who has raised a startling $327,000 in campaign contributions and donations to his political committee, Elevate Tampa.

Bill Nelson slams GOP response to Puerto Rico

Senator Bill Nelson met with local representatives from the Tampa Bay Puerto Rican community on Friday, blasting recent actions (and non-actions) by congressional Republicans in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on the island exactly 100 days ago.

“A knife was put to the neck of Puerto Rico.”

That’s the phrase the Florida Democrat employed in discussing how the island fared out of the recently passed GOP tax reform bill. He was referring to a provision of the legislation that places a 12.5 percent tax rate on intellectual property. Manufacturing accounts for nearly half of the island’s economy and a third of government revenues.

“This is not right. This is not fair,” Nelson told the group who gathered at his Tampa district office on Friday. It followed the senator’s one-day trip on the island on Wednesday with Orlando U.S. Rep Darren Soto, who announced on Thursday the formation of a regional task force to address the needs of displaced Puerto Rican evacuees who have arrived in Central Florida since Hurricane Maria’s landfall.

Over 250,000 Puerto Rican residents have left the island for Florida, half to the Orlando Metro area, according to Nelson.

Nelson also criticized Republicans for including Puerto Rico in a recently passed federal disaster relief bill, but requiring the territory to provide FEMA with a percentage of marching funds – something that he says the cash-strapped island government can’t afford.

“This is how the island – our fellow American citizens – are being treated. They are not being treated like fellow American citizens,’ the senator said.

Authorities on the island said that nearly half of power customers – 55 percent of the nearly 1.5 million customers – have electricity.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the entire nation won’t have power until May.

Nelson’s criticism of the Republican Party’s handling of the crisis also has a political dimension. The 75-year-old lawmaker is on the ballot next fall in what he hopes will be a successful bid to remain in the Senate. He he was first elected in 2000.

He said that Puerto Ricans relocating to Florida are angry about the federal government’s response to their issues, which could have an impact on next year’s election.

“Most of them would like to return to the island,” Nelson said on behalf of the more than 250,000 who now live in the Sunshine State. But he acknowledged that the “hard realities of recovery” dictate that many of them won’t be returning anytime soon.

“If they are going to stay, I think they are going to know who helped them and who didn’t help them, and I assuredly want them to register to vote and express their feelings by the way they cast their vote,” he said candidly.

In the weeks following Maria, retired U.S. Air Force Col. E.J. Otero created Course of Action PR, under the umbrella of the Course of Action Foundation to send approximately 40 containers of goods to the island from Tampa. Otero says he’ll meet with officials from the USF business school next month on conducting a study on the economic impact of the storm on Florida and Puerto Rico.

A registered Republican who ran against Kathy Castor for Congress in 2012, Otero initially declined to comment specifically on Nelson’s anti-GOP remarks, saying that “both parties’ emergency response leave a lot to be desired.”

He later added however, that he wished the meeting had been solely about Puerto Rico and “inclusion into the economy” rather than talk of partisan issues.

(Photo credit: Kim DeFalco).

Bill Nelson

Local DEA raids lead Bill Nelson to inquire on Canadian drug availability

Recent DEA raids on storefront shops that specialize in selling Canadian prescriptions drugs to Central Florida seniors have U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and others in Florida’s congressional delegation wondering whether there has been an unannounced change in federal policy.

In the past few weeks, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided nine shops in the region Central Florida region including Tampa Bay, The Villages and Orlando, seizing records including customer lists, Canadian pharmacy vendors, drug transactions, and electric bills.

According to Bill Hepscher, co-owner of Canadian MedStore, which runs six of the raided stores, the businesses have been operating for up to 15 years, using direct computer links to allow customers, mostly senior citizens, to buy lower-priced prescription medications such as blood-pressure drugs.

Hepscher insisted the shops do not deal with any controlled substances such as opioids, and do not handle cash or medicines, but provide direct-link services to accredited pharmacies for mail delivery to Florida.

The FDA did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday from Florida Politics but has indicated that it is concerned about the quality of prescription medicines not approved under U.S. regulations.

Hepscher just returned from a trip to Washington D.C., where he met with Nelson and members of Congress or their staffs, including those of Republican U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Dennis Ross, and Democratic U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist, Kathy Castor, and Stephanie Murphy.

Nelson immediately responded Wednesday with a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. demanding answers about why the DEA raided the Central Florida companies, and whether this meant the administration of President Donald Trump would oppose Americans buying lower-cost Canadian medicines when they are available. Hepscher said he received assurances of similar concerns from other Congressional offices.

“I appreciate that we need to keep dangerous drugs like fentanyl and counterfeit pharmaceuticals out of our country, but many of my constituents are confused about why they are suddenly receiving a seizure notice instead of their necessary medication — if there has been no change in policy,” Nelson wrote. “To the best of my knowledge, no new FDA policies have been publicly announced or shared with Congress.”

American access to Canadian drugs has been a long-standing issue for Nelson, who first got involved in 2004, according to a news release from his office. That year he sent a similar letter to the heads of the FDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection after the government seized an elderly Florida couple’s medication ordered from Canada.

Two years later, at Nelson’s request, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee launched an investigation into the customs department seizure of prescription drugs purchased for personal use from pharmacies outside the U.S.

Later that same year, Nelson, along with Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, filed legislation, which Congress passed and the president signed into law, that allowed Americans crossing the Canadian border to bring back small amounts of prescription drugs.

Shortly after Nelson’s bill was approved, U.S. customs officials announced in Oct. 2006 that it would no longer seize individuals’ prescription drugs purchased from pharmacies outside the U.S.

That same year, Nelson received assurances from the FDA that it, too, would no longer act on small amounts of prescription drugs being imported into the U.S. for individual use, according to the news release.

Despite the agency’s 2006 announcement, some Floridians have reportedly received notices in the past couple of months indicating their prescription drugs are being held at their local post office at the request of the FDA, Nelson’s office reported Wednesday. That occurred around the same time as the raids on the Central Florida storefront operations.

“If there has been a change in policy, I urge the FDA to announce those changes publicly,” Nelson wrote. “Americans, especially our seniors, shouldn’t be left in the dark waiting for needed medication to arrive without clear guidance from the agency.”

Kathy Castor offers a list of objections to GOP tax bill

As one of only five Democrats on the joint Senate-House Tax Conference committee charged with reconciling the two GOP-passed bills, Kathy Castor is the only representative from Florida.

And like most members of her party, Castor has serious objections about the legislation, as detailed in a new letter to Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the conference committee chair.

“The tax bill fails to ensure fairness and economic growth for America in the long term,” Castor wrote.

While realizing she is one of a handful of Democrats in the room who has the potential to reframe the proposals, Castor offered in her letter to Brady a series of suggested improvements, starting with education spending, specifically on keeping the graduate tuition waiver, student-loan interest deduction, teacher deductions and lifetime learning credit.

The House tax plan would increase taxes for graduate students by roughly 400 percent and repeal the student loan interest deduction, which allows people with student debt to save up to $625 a year.

The Senate tax bill would also cause a significant loss for recent college graduates.

An average recent college graduate makes $39,000 a year. According to the CBO’s analysis of the Senate tax plan, individuals in every tax bracket below $75,000 will experience a year in which they record a net loss — meaning they’ll pay more in taxes, experience diminished services, or both — by 2027.

“If Republicans intend to make college more expensive for students and families, the approach in the tax framework is how you do it,” the congresswoman snarked sarcastically.

Castor also said the final bill needs to expand clean energy tax credits and maintain the medical expense deduction and the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

She also noted that the bill should not eliminate the private activity bonds that help local communities invest in infrastructure projects. Tampa International Airport officials said that say that if those bonds were eliminated, previous plans to bond a $683 million project would cost an additional $263 million.

And she opposes the elimination of historic preservation tax credits.

“The West River project might go back on the shelf if we don’t have those tax credits,” Castor told Florida Politics Monday. “The YMCA, Metropolitan Ministries and others have relied a lot on these bond programs and tax credits. They’ve gotta be restored or else what the GOP would be doing would be kind of ripping the rug out from under a lot of our redevelopment efforts.”

Republicans claimed Monday they made progress on the bill over the weekend, but the biggest questions regarding the negotiations haven’t been worked out yet.

Though GOP leaders repeatedly affirm that the tax cuts will pay for themselves through economic growth, the Joint Committee on Taxation has said that both versions would add about $1 trillion to the deficit, even after accounting for expected growth.

A Treasury report Monday sought to assure lawmakers that the cost of the package would be more than paid for by future economic growth. It said that the Trump administration’s overall economic agenda would generate about $1.8 trillion in additional revenue over 10 years, more than offsetting the roughly $1.5 trillion cost of the tax cuts.

Nevertheless, the one-page report was widely criticized because it relied heavily on separate and as-of-yet unannounced future initiatives for infrastructure development and welfare reform.

Although proud to serve on the committee, as a Democrat, Castor acknowledged her suggestions aren’t likely to get much of a hearing from the GOP-led board.

“I haven’t seen the GOP’s willingness to work together on it,” Castor said. “It’s unfortunate, and I think folks will remember in November.”

Kathy Castor: If Al Franken must go, so should Blake Farenthold

Last week, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken announced he would soon resign from office following multiple reports of women accusing him of groping and forcibly kissing them.

Immediately after, some rank and file Democrats said Franken was a sacrificial lamb, so the party could go all-in attacking President Donald Trump and Alabama Sen. candidate Roy Moore for their alleged acts of sexual assault.

Tampa U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor does not agree.

“After the seventh women came forward to talk about Sen. Franken, I think people have the right to expect the highest standards of ethics from their elected officials, and they shouldn’t make a lot of exceptions,” the Congresswoman said Monday following a news conference at St. Joseph’s Hospital to note the upcoming deadline for Affordable Care Act sign-ups.

A group of women who have publicly accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault detailed their accounts of being groped, fondled and forcibly kissed by the businessman-turned-politician at a news conference Monday.

At least 13 women have now accused Trump of a range of offenses, from sexual harassment and misconduct to sexual assault, including unwanted kissing and groping. All the alleged incidents took place before he assumed the presidency.

“Folks need to look at President Trump for his past behavior,” Castor said. “I think he has a lot to answer for his very low standards of conduct on sexual harassment and so much more.”

Another member of Congress that Castor feels needs to go is Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold following reports that he had used $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle an allegation of sexual harassment from a former communications director in his office in 2015.

“I think it’s outrageous that he’s still there in the current climate with the other resignations,” she said. “I don’ think the Ethics Committee process functions right now. It’s not fast enough. It doesn’t provide the transparency that we need, so I’m hopeful that maybe the GOP will find some religion here and begin to act in a consistent manner.”

To address that issue, Castor is co-sponsoring legislation (HR 4497) with Nebraska Republican Don Bacon to prohibit the use of public funds to pay settlements and awards for workplace harassment and discrimination claims under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, arising from acts committed by members of Congress.

Farenthold announced Friday that he and his entire congressional staff underwent sensitivity and sexual harassment training last year after two female staffers complained of gender discrimination and “sexualized commentary in his Capitol Hill office, now bringing the total to three women who have complained of either sexual harassment, gender discrimination, or a hostile work environment in his office.

The 51-year-old Castor calls the revelations of sexual harassment that have brought down major figures in show business, the media and politics “remarkable,” and says it needs to spread to other less glamorous industries with similar bad actors.

“We are living through an extraordinary moment of social change in my lifetime,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of trailblazing women around here and in the state of Florida, but it always seems like we’re not able to break through on equal pay and equal treatment in the workplace, and I think this has to do with the millennial generation. That’s a little bit different and a little more focused on equity, and the older generations are catching up.

“I think about my daughters, who are 20 and 18, and what this means for them and other women. 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.”

Wengay Newton shrugs off Vito Sheeley criticism of car theft measure

Vito Sheeley, who has filed to oppose Wengay Newton in 2018 for House District 70, blasted the St. Petersburg Democrat Friday for proposing legislation that would criminally charge car theft victims.

“This is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard out of Wengay Newton,” Sheeley said. “And that’s saying a lot.”

Making his first run toward elective office, Sheeley had served as an aide to Democrats like Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist.

“We can have a productive conversation about car theft, but throwing victims in jail is just crazy. It’s time for our community to have a serious advocate in Tallahassee — this is embarrassing.”

Newton’s legislation (HB 927) calls for criminal penalties if a car is left unattended without first stopping the engine, removing the key from the ignition, and locking the door. It would be a second-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.

There are laws on the books right now that allow law enforcement to cite motorists for a noncriminal traffic violation for leaving their car running.  It would enhance the penalty.

Members of the South St. Pete community — including Crist, Newton and state Sen. Darryl Rouson — have convened meetings over the past year with members of the community to address the explosion of youth stealing automobiles. Newton’s proposal is the first piece of legislation proposed to try to address the problem.

When contacted to respond to Sheeley’s criticism, Newton said he didn’t know who Sheeley was and didn’t believe he had to answer to anything he had to say.

“Who is he?” Newton asked. “What has he done for juveniles?”

Newton then told Florida Politics he had to leave for a television interview but would be willing to come back to speak about the bill itself later in the day. He did acknowledge seeing Facebook comments on the bill.

Since entering the race in July, Sheeley has raised $4,222; Newton has raised $14,870.

HD 70 covers parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

Alma Gonzalez backed by Kathy Castor and Democratic Labor Caucus as chair election nears

Less than 48 hours before a select group of Florida Democrats chooses their new state leader, Alma Gonzalez announced a series of new endorsements in the race for the party’s state chair.

Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor announced that she was backing the Hillsborough County State Committeewoman, who is competing against Palm Beach County Democratic Executive Committee Chair Terrie Rizzo and Brevard County Democratic Executive Chair Stacey Patel.

“Alma Gonzalez has been fighting for working Floridians, students and seniors her entire career,” Castor said in a statement. “Alma is a passionate advocate for affordable health care, high-quality education, higher wages and a healthy and clean environment.  She is the right leader at the right time for our diverse and growing Florida Democratic Party, and I am proud to endorse her for Chair of the Party.  With Alma’s leadership, we are going to win the Governor’s mansion, keep  U.S. Senator Bill Nelson working for us, and win seats at every level — up and down the ballot — to benefit our neighbors across our great state.”

Tallahassee U.S. Rep. Al Lawson and state Reps. Bobby Dubose of Fort Lauderdale and Joseph Geller from Hollywood also announced their endorsements for Gonzalez, as did the Democratic Labor Caucus of Florida.

“Her long-held support of the struggle for economic justice for all working men and women, continuous union membership, professional legal background, institutional knowledge and experience as a past executive officer in the FDP, two-term member of the Democratic National Committee and experience as an elected county committeewoman has resulted in a majority vote of our governing council, in her favor,” said John C. Parker, the president of the Democratic Labor Caucus.

“As a lifelong union member and activist, my labor brothers and sisters are family. I am proud to have their support,” Gonzalez said. “My involvement in the labor movement has taught me the importance of standing together in solidarity to face the challenges that our working families are dealing with every day.”

That previous labor background includes years serving as legal counsel for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the state’s biggest government employees union and a potent political force in Tallahassee.

The Florida Democratic Black, Hispanic and Caribbean caucuses have each previously endorsed Gonzalez.

Approximately 182 Florida Democrats will decide on who will become the next party chair Saturday in Orlando.

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