Kathy Castor Archives - Page 5 of 26 - Florida Politics

Patrick Murphy and David Jolly ask Congressional leaders to pass Zika funding bill now

After an eight-week break, Congress has returned to Washington this week, and the matter mostly on the minds of Florida’s delegation is to somehow finding a way to break the logjam regarding funding for the Zika virus.

On Wednesday, Jupiter Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy and Pinellas County Republican Congressman David Jolly penned a letter to the leaders in the House and Senate — Speaker Paul Ryan, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid — calling on them to take immediate action to pass emergency funding to combat the Zika virus.

“Seven months have passed since the administration submitted its $1.9 billion request for Zika response efforts, and nearly four months since initial legislative action in the House. Emergency funding is needed now for vital vaccine research and diagnostic development, mosquito surveillance and control efforts, and education initiatives to warn of the serious risk the virus poses, particularly for fetal development in pregnant women,” the authors wrote in the letter, which also was signed by Democrats Kathy Castor, Gwen Graham, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch as well as Republicans Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo, and Dennis Ross.  

“With federal funding for Zika response set to expire at the end of the fiscal year, Congress’ continued failure to act will halt federally funded vaccine research, mosquito control, testing, and surveillance.”

The inability of Congress to come up with funding plan that pleases both sides of the aisle is clearly becoming a problem here in Florida. Eight days ago, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that federal funds to fight the Zika virus were nearly exhausted, and that if Congress did not replenish them soon, there would be no money to fight a new outbreak. Frieden said that the CDC had spent $194 million of the $222 million it was allocated to fight the virus.

“As Floridians we are proud of our beautiful tropical community, but Zika has the potential to pose a public health crisis that could threaten our tourism industry and impact the well-being of our friends, families and neighbors,” said Jolly. “It is time to pass a comprehensive bipartisan funding package that will give health officials what they need to protect Floridians and others from the spread of Zika before this threat becomes a crisis.”

“It is clear to us in Florida that Zika is not a partisan issue — it’s about protecting our families and our children,” Murphy said in a statement. “As the number of Zika cases across the nation continues to grow, including more than 50 local transmissions in Florida alone, this prolonged inaction is unacceptable. We hope Congress will come together to take immediate action on a clean funding bill to provide the critical resources needed for this fight.”

But it certainly seemed partisan when it comes to Murphy arguing with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio about Zika funding. On Tuesday, the two U.S. Senate candidates feuded about who was more culpable for the fact that a legislation package hasn’t been funded. Murphy said Rubio should be working harder to convince his party’s leadership to put reasonable legislation before lawmakers. Rubio says Murphy should have voted for previous bills that included Zika funding.

Here’s the letter in full:

September 8, 2016

Dear Speaker Ryan, Leader Pelosi, Leader McConnell, and Leader Reid:

As Members of the Florida delegation, it is our hope that Congress take immediate action to pass emergency funding to combat the Zika virus.

Seven months have passed since the Administration submitted its $1.9 billion request for Zika response efforts, and nearly four months since initial legislative action in the House.  Emergency funding is needed now for vital vaccine research and diagnostic development, mosquito surveillance and control efforts, and education initiatives to warn of the serious risk the virus poses, particularly for fetal development in pregnant women.

In that time, the virus has taken hold in the continental United States, hitting our home state of Florida especially hard.  To date, more than 16,000 Americans have been infected with the Zika virus, of which more than 1,600 are pregnant women.   The spread of this disease has now resulted in 17 babies being born in the U.S. with Zika-related birth defects.

With federal funding for Zika response set to expire at the end of the Fiscal Year, Congress’ continued failure to act will halt federally funded vaccine research, mosquito control, testing, and surveillance.

Our most fundamental responsibility is protecting the health and safety of Americans.  Please present a clean funding package to fight the Zika virus as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

It’s (virtually) official: Darryl Rouson has won the SD 19 Dem primary over Ed Narain

With machine and manual recounts now finished in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Darryl Rouson is the winner in the Democratic primary for Senate District 19.

He defeated Ed Narain by a mere 66 votes (that’s what the Rouson campaign told us. The Florida Division of Elections website shows the difference to be 77 votes. The Tampa Bay Times reports that Rouson received 73 more votes than Narain).

The results will not be certified until Thursday, September 8, but the vote tally will not change.

Early polling in the Senate District 19 race that encompasses both parts of both Hillsborough and Pinellas County showed that while nearly three-quarters of the district was situated in Hillsborough, the quarter of voters in Pinellas County were more likely to go to the polls. And that’s what happened in Tuesday’s election that for now has given St. Petersburg-based Darryl Rouson an extremely narrow lead over Tampa’s Ed Narain, with a recount scheduled to take place on Friday. The two candidates remain just 75 votes apart on Thursday night, after more than 37,000 ballots were cast in the two counties.

Although only 26.4 percent of the district is in Pinellas, 42 percent of the total vote in the contest came from Pinellas County, says Barry Edwards, Rouson’s campaign manager, who says flatly, “We had the best field operation in the state of Florida in any Senate race, and that’s why he won.”

There were four candidates in the race, two based in Hillsborough (Narain and former state Representative Betty Reed), and two in Pinellas (Rouson and civil justice attorney Augie Ribeiro).  Although Narain went after Ribeiro in some of his advertising materials, the fact is that Ribeiro’s late entry into the race split up some of that Pinellas vote that was clearly destined for Rouson. Of the 15,809 people who voted in the SD 19 race in Pinellas, 12,683 went to either Rouson or Ribeiro, with Rouson getting twice as many votes in Pinellas than Ribeiro did.

The conventional wisdom was that Narain and Betty Reed would share a bulk of the Hillsborough vote, and that’s exactly what happened in the early vote and on Tuesday night. Narain and Reed combined for more than 52 percent of the Hillsborough vote, while Rouson and Ribeiro took 28 percent of it. Ribeiro actually received nearly 1,000 more votes in Hillsborough than did Rouson.

Redistricting expert Matthew Isbell says that, “Narain was hurt by Reed’s entry into the race,” which is accurate, though Reed supporters would take issue that comment, since Reed had in fact declared for the seat months before Narain had entered into it. The Reed camp (and others in the district) were angered when Narain entered the race back in March, considering that Reed’s endorsement of Narain might have been the key factor in his winning his House District 61 seat over Sean Shaw back in 2014. As Florida Politics reported earlier this year, a meeting was held last December with the idea of Reed and Narain “trading seats,” with Narain entering the Senate 19 race and Reed going back to running for HD 61, a seat that she held from 2004-2012. Reed rejected the proposal.

What also shouldn’t be overlooked is the power that still resides with the region’s only major newspaper in town, the Tampa Bay Times, who endorsed Rouson in the race.

And while Narain had major endorsements from Kathy Castor and Bob Buckhorn in Hillsborough County, Rouson won the backing of the entire St. Petersburg City Council (including Republican Ed Montanari), Gulfport officials like Mayor Sam Henderson and Councilwoman Yolanda Roman, and all of the Democrats on the Pinellas County Commission.

An early poll that showed Rouson leading and Narain in third received huge criticism after it’s release, but Edwards says it was prescient. When it was released, St. Pete Polls pollster Matt Florell said that, “The geographical split is interesting in Senate District 19, with 25 percent of the population residing in Pinellas County and 75 percent in Hillsborough County,” Florell said. “But when it comes to the active Democratic primary voting population, Pinellas County jumps to a 41 percent share. Our poll had 43 percent of the respondents from Pinellas County, so it is a fairly accurate representation of who will vote in this primary race.”

Rouson himself said on Thursday that it was too soon to analyze how he (apparently) won the contest, but did share that “we are focused.”

“We had a strategy,” he said. “We did out best not to let other campaign’s take us off our game. The people came out all over the district. Hillsborough to Pinellas, From Riverview to East Tampa, from Midtown to downtown, and they expressed themselves.”

Gwen Graham says she gets part of Donald Trump’s appeal

Gwen Graham cut short her trip to Tampa Thursday, returning to Tallahassee to contend with Tropical Storm Hermine, which is expected to make landfall as a hurricane by early Friday in North Florida.

The Tallahassee-based Democratic representative, already considered a leading candidate to run for governor in 2018, has been hobnobbing around the state this week. She appeared at a campaign phone bank with New Port Richey state Rep. Amanda Murphy on Wednesday before attending a house party for Hillary Clinton supporters at a private residence in Tampa. She had been scheduled to visit MacDill Air Force Base on Thursday with Kathy Castor, as well as meet up with Rod Smith in Gainesville. Both of those events were canceled, however, with the storm approaching.

Ideologically speaking, Graham is considered a centrist, and she definitely made a statement shortly after she was elected to serve in Washington in early 2015 when Graham voted against Nancy Pelosi’s election as House Minority Leader, a promise she made while campaigning against Republican Steve Southerland. Graham paints that vote as less a statement against Pelosi, and more for a change of leadership Washington.

“I believe — and this has been confirmed — that we need new leadership in the House of Representatives for Democrats and Republicans,” Graham said on Wednesday.

“The Republicans have brought in Paul Ryan, and I think it would be a very positive effect, not only on the Democrats in Congress but also in encouraging other people to want to enter into elected office, to have new, fresh leadership for the House of Representatives,” Graham said, adding that she never intended it to be criticism of the San Francisco Democrat, who she praised for becoming the first female Speaker of the House.

And while Graham’s an ardent Democrat supporting Clinton for president, she says she understands part of the appeal of Donald Trump, who remains extremely competitive in Florida, despite the fact that he has had only one campaign office in the entire state (and despite reports that he would soon open up two dozen offices, which has yet to happen).

“Mr. Trump has been able to tap into a frustration and disappointment in some areas in the way that our government is functioning, and in that respect, I don’t disagree with him,” she says. “He is a symptom of what I see at times, which is that people don’t put those that you’re elected to serve first, and when you allow partisanship to stand in the way of getting things done, then people have a rightful reason and a rightful frustration about government. I hope this is a wake-up call to those who take more of an ideological position when they’re making decisions that it’s time to get back to really governing again.”

Graham’s Democratic Party bonafides are most prominent when talking about the environment, as she rains down criticism on Rick Scott’s leadership — or lack thereof. She says if she ran the state government, she would add scientists and conservationists to water management boards around the state, and not political appointees.

On Monday, Scott announced he had selected Miami attorney and Bacardi Family Foundation board member Federico Fernandez to fill a space on the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Fernandez would replace Sandy Batchelor, a Charlie Crist appointee in 2010 who was reappointed by Scott to a four-year term in 2012. Batchelor has a master’s degree in forest conservation, and was coincidentally the lone board member this year to oppose tax cuts advocated by Scott.

“I don’t think that’s someone who actually has the expertise to be making water quality decisions,” Graham, said, adding that she agrees with recent comments by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam that water was Florida’s most important element of its economy, but didn’t believe that his, nor Governor’s Scott’s, actual water policies indicate that’s really the case.

“I don’t think you can say in one breath that you believe that water is most important for the economy in Florida, and then support something that does the complete opposite,” she said, referring specifically to the state’s Environmental Regulation Commission vote to approve a proposal by state regulators that would impose new standards on 39 chemicals not currently regulated by the state, and change the regulations on 43 other chemicals.

In July, Graham called on Scott to hold a special session to deal with the toxic algae bloom that had just then begun to engulf South Florida. In that letter, she said that in her discussions with local stakeholders, she learned the problem was the nutrient-rich stormwater runoff that flows from central Florida into Lake Okeechobee.

Scott will be coming to Washington next week, and Graham says she wants to work with him in addressing water quality in Florida as well as the growing issues with the Zika virus.

“I look forward to working hand-in-hand from a federal perspective, in building the bridges and relationships with those in the federal government that would allow us to hopefully move forward and get additional funding” for Zika.

Mitch Perry Report for 8.30.16 — Election Day questions

Primary Election Day is here, finally, for those of us who care. Because that isn’t close to the majority of registered voters in Florida.

Going into today, the turnout by percentage via early and absentee voting here in Hillsborough County where I’m located was lower than it turned out to be in 2012, which Congresswoman Kathy Castor says is disappointing.

We’re talking below 20 percent, folks. Whether that percentage might increase if the election weren’t held in the last week of August is something really not worth contemplating, since tradition has kept it at this time for, well, ever since I came to this state back in 2000. Then again, we still had runoff primary elections in the state at that time.

So, what will I be looking at tonight? In my neighborhood of V.M. Ybor in Tampa, there are open seats for the House (between Sean Shaw, Dianne Hart, and Walter Smith) and Senate (Ed Narain, Augie Ribeiro, Darryl Rouson, and Betty Reed). Both are too close to call in my opinion at this time.

The House District 68 seat is up for grabs as well between Ben Diamond and Eric Lynn.

I suppose the most competitive congressional race in the Tampa Bay area is probably in CD 11, where first-time Republican candidate Justin Grabelle will try to defeat Daniel Webster, a well-known name in Florida Republican politics who has never run in the district, which encompasses Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumter counties.

But there isn’t any drama in our U.S. Senate races. The Alan GraysonPatrick Murphy matchup had the potential to be one of the greats, but it’s devolved. Will underdog Pam Keith get into the high single digits after her endorsement from the Miami Herald?

At least Murphy is talking substance as he likely moves on the general. Yesterday, in Tampa, he told me he’ll push for a public option to be added to the Affordable Care Act if elected in November. He has to win tonight first, though.

And tonight we have the Pat FrankKevin Beckner campaign mercifully comes to an end. Despite criticism for running what has been dubbed by some as a negative campaign, Beckner says he has no regrets.

Victory seems assured for Debbie Wasserman Schultz in her bid for re-election against Tim Canova in Florida’s 23rd Congressional District, but by what margin? Does she win by double digits, and if so, how much?

Stay tuned to this site later tonight, where we’ll have complete coverage throughout the state of the primary results.

On eve of primary election, Kathy Castor laments low turnout so far in Hillsborough County

Tampa Bay Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor expressed disappointment Monday that only 13 percent of eligible voters in Hillsborough County have voted by mail or at the polls heading into Election Day on Tuesday, the last day to vote in this year’s primary election.

“We can do a lot better,” said Castor, who will face Republican Christine Quinn when she runs for her seat in Florida’s 14th Congressional District this November. “People need to value their right to vote, and they need to get out there tomorrow and exercise it. Thirteen percent is pretty dismal, so we can do better.”

Castor spoke at a press conference held at the Hillsborough County NAACP branch in Tampa. Dr. Bennie Small, local NAACP chairman, attributed the paltry voting participation rate to apathy, as well as the fact that a primary election in late August doesn’t excite voters like a November general election.

Of course, there are also more than 1.5 million people in Florida who aren’t legally allowed to vote, thanks to the state’s outlier status when it comes to denying the automatic restoration of voting rights to ex-felons, or what Castor dubbed “the largest voter suppression effort in the entire country.”

Florida Democrats continue to talk about growing momentum to change that law, with Small saying, “we understand the attorney general is going to take another look it.” The law could change if Gov. Rick Scott and two of the three members of the Cabinet follow his lead. However, Scott has shown no inclination to do so.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi told the Miami Herald recently she was open to reducing the wait time for ex-felons (now numbering over 10,000) to three years, but she still does not support automatic restoration for non-violent felons. Fellow Cabinet members Jeff Atwater and Adam Putnam did say they were prepared to revisit the current law.

However, most of the energy on trying to change that law is a ballot initiative being pushed by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

“We’re not going to make it in 2016, but the petition drive is very close to the number of signatures needed to have the Florida Supreme Court approve the ballot language,” said Adam Tebrugge, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “Once it’s approved, that really should give a lot of impetus this campaign. “

Another barrier to full voter participation in this year’s elections, Castor said, is the fact that for the first time in a presidential election in 50 years, the Voting Rights Act has been stripped of some its protections. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down the formula used in the 1965 Voting Rights Act to determine which states and localities must “preclear” voting procedures with the Justice Department or a federal court. Nine states, most in the South, and parts of Florida and five other states were subject to the law. Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties were the ones under the VRA.

That change means that changes by local officials — say, moving a polling site — no longer has to be “pre-cleared” by the U.S. Department of Justice. “Instead, you have to go a very expensive and time-consuming route to court,” Castor said. She added that Democrats in the House will again try to pass legislation through the GOP-led House to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and restore protections removed by the high court’s decision.

Pinellas schools need greater flexibility to meet needs of students, Charlie Crist says

Former Gov. Charlie Crist heard many messages from Pinellas educators during a roundtable discussion Thursday.

But one message stood out: There’s a “disconnect” between schools, upper-level administrators and policymakers. Policymakers and administrators have created a rigid, one-size-fits-all system that prevents teachers and schools from being flexible enough to meet the needs of individual students and the needs of the schools themselves.

“There needs to be greater flexibility because, just like all kids are not the same, all schools are not the same,” Crist said.

The discussion was one of several Crist has scheduled during his campaign for the Congressional District 13 seat held by David Jolly. Jolly is facing a challenge from retired Gen. Mark Bircher in Tuesday’s primary. The winner will face Crist, a Democrat, in the Nov. 8 General Election.

Crist has scheduled the roundtable discussions to hear from the people most affected by issues that have ranged from veterans’ benefits to Social Security to education. Crist has said he plans to use the information in crafting position papers and proposed legislation should he be elected.

At Thursday’s discussion about education, he heard from educators who talked about a system that was composed of “round holes” that doesn’t serve children who, like “square pegs,” don’t fit the mold. Instead of trying to figure out how to help those children, they are penalized with suspensions.

He also heard from teachers who say there is an atmosphere of fear in Pinellas schools. That fear comes from a lack of job security and anxiety that, if guidelines aren’t followed to the letter, job loss could follow.

Charlie Crist Education RoundtableCrist also learned about parents who feel they are not welcome at schools and who do not understand educational jargon. Those parents, he was told, need mentors to help them navigate the system and to understand what options their children have.

The problem is systemic, said Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education of Black Students. Making sure all students are successful will require a comprehensive approach to changing the system.

Crist said that, if elected, he could do many things to help the Pinellas educational system. In particular, he said he could follow the lead of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who called for a federal review of the school system. She convinced U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to tour some Pinellas schools, earning the district a rebuke for allowing five predominantly black schools to decline.

Putting a light on the problems, Crist said, raises concerns and focuses on the problem.

Realtors join up with Kathy Castor to push for student debt reduction legislation

With nearly seven out of every 10 college graduates contending with a student debt topping more than $35,000, the immediate economic future of our best and brightest has never been hazier. But they’re not the only ones hurting.

Take Realtors, for example.

That was the message that came out of a news conference held Monday at the Greater Realtors Association in Tampa.

“When they try to qualify for a mortgage, that debt is thrown into the mix with any other debt that they would have, and it would impact the amount of loan that they would be to get,” complained Jack Rodriguez with the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors. “With the ability to refinance into a lower interest rate or stretch it out, they would bring down their payment which would allow them to purchase more house.”

Legislation that has been stalled in Congress the past few years would allow student loan borrowers to refinance their loans at current rates.

“A citizen can refinance their car loan. They can refinance their boat loan. They can refinance their credit card loan. But they’re not allowed to refinance their student loans,” said Tampa Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor. “And this would be a very good time to allow them to do that because interests are low.”

The bill she was touting is the “Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act,” first introduced in the Senate by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2014. The bill has more than 170 co-sponsors, but hasn’t moved in the GOP-led House of Representatives over the past few years.

Joining Castor and Rodriguez were a handful of students leaders from the area’s three biggest universities: the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and Hillsborough Community College.

“We urge Congress to listen to the students, and listen to those living in debt,” said Alec Waid, the USF student body vice president. “Our universities are supposed to be setting us up for success, but how can we be successful, how can we reach out potential, if we’re living with the fear and living with the insecurity of this debt, because once we graduate, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s scary, that’s terrifying for a young person.”

“Many of my peers at my school and all over the country are also having the same struggles of being able to afford their education,” said James Scudero, the student government president at the University of Tampa. “They have no idea what the future holds for them. Some of them actually have to drop out of their colleges because they’re so high in student loans and they just don’t know what to do but to drop out and give up on their dreams.”

Earlier this year the National Association of Realtors and American Student Assistance released a report on how college student debt is deleteriously affecting the housing market. The report showed 71 percent believe student debt has delayed them from buying a home.

When asked why the bill has stalled in Congress, Castor said it was sadly due to “inertia” that has enveloped the institution in recent years. “Whether it’s having a hearing on a Supreme Court Justice, regrouping to pass emergency funding for the Zika virus, or action in Flint, Michigan,” she said. “I would put this in the category of a Congress unable and unwilling to deal with the issues that impact Middle America.”

Alan Collinge, the founder of StudentLoanJustice.Org and author of “The Student Loan Scam,” has criticized the bill, writing in The Hill last year that the legislation “does nothing to lower the price of college, nothing to decrease the amount of debt having to be borrowed, and nothing to address the perverted fiscal incentives that have turned this lending system structurally predatory.”

Mitch Perry Report for 8.2.16 — Hob Nob vote indicative of Jim Norman’s vulnerabilities?

Let’s stipulate at the top that the results in last night’s Hillsborough County Hob Nob hosted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce isn’t indicative of much of anything, except what several hundred well-heeled folks who mostly live in Tampa think about the various races that will be on the ballot later this month and in November. It’s a heavily corporate crowd, where Republicans who have no chance of doing that well in some districts fare pretty well with this particular demographic.

Having said that, two things stand out from the results that came in last night.

One is this: Will Jim Norman survive his GOP primary race against Tim Schock in the Hillsborough County District 6 race later this month? Norman got smoked by Schock, 124-58. That ain’t close, obviously. The longtime county commissioner and one-term state senator’s political career was stunted four years ago when he opted not to run for re-election after admitting to ethics violations involving an Arkansas vacation home. We’re not going to revisit those charges, but obviously, some people remember. Not that Norman thinks that’s the case.

“I had an opponent who makes an allegation, I went through the process, and I was 100 percent cleared,” Norman told us last night. “The news media is the only one that hasn’t really caught on to that fact.”

Maybe it’s not just the news media, Jim?

The other, somewhat surprising, result was in the Hillsborough County District 60 seat currently occupied by Republican Dana Young. Although there’s been a lot of focus on the GOP race between Rebecca Smith and Jackie Toledo, the Democrat in the race, land-use attorney David Singer, edged out Toledo amongst the Hob Nobbers, 128-125. Smith received 106 votes.

Again, we’re not going to make too much of that, which is why we’re not even writing a separate story about it.

In other news…

With the deadline to register for Florida’s Aug. 30 primary taking place, advocates who want the state to repeal its outlier status on refusing to give ex-felons the automatic right to vote held news conferences up and down the state.

It ain’t the general yet, but Patrick Murphy isn’t wasting his advertising dollars on his Democratic rivals, preferring to attack Marco Rubio in a new ad regarding his voting attendance record.

Things are heating up in the Hillsborough County District 6 race — Democrat Brian Willis says Pat Kemp ought to apologize for getting behind the sentiment of a supporter that she’s the only candidate with has a transit plan that would work immediately after getting elected.

And the just-concluded political conventions were a study in contrasts. As one critic noted, it was “Blade Runner” vs. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but we asked one prominent Democrat: was it really that sunny in Philly?

And there’s a Hillsborough County PTC meeting today — and an attorney for Uber doesn’t like what’s on the agenda.

 

Kathy Castor says DNC message of optimism is in tune with where America is at

Nearly three-quarters of voters believe the nation has gone off on the wrong track, the highest mark of pessimism in three years. Some 73 percent say in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released two weeks ago that things gone off-course, with only 18 percent saying the country is headed in the right direction.

Yet at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last week, the message was that, in contrast to the dark vision expressed in Cleveland at the RNC a week earlier, things are pretty darn good in America.

“While this nation has been tested by war and recession and all manner of challenge,” President Barack Obama declared in his primetime speech last Wednesday night, “I stand before you again tonight, after almost two terms as your president, to tell you I am even more optimistic about the future of America. How could I not be, after all we’ve achieved together?”

Hillsborough County area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor says her party’s message IS in synch with the mood of the country.

“We have a lot going for us,” Castor said after attending a press conference regarding the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons in Florida.”If you look at how far we’ve come since the Great Recession: unemployment is low, inflation is low, gas prices are low, the housing market has recovered. But that doesn’t mean that everything is going fabulously; yes, we have work to do,” she says.

The Tampa representative says the key is to focus on higher wages for workers in Florida. “The Democrats have a plan to do that, and (Donald) Trump has no plan at all. Everyone has the right to be optimistic in the United States of America. This is the greatest country on Earth. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges that we’ve got to work on and right here in Florida, that means higher wages, support for public education and then fundamentally we’ve got to keep our neighbors safe here at home and abroad.”

Although the public is down on the immediate future, President Obama’s approval ratings are above 50 percent, a key figure to watch going into this fall’s general election.

Advocates call for repeal of Florida’s ban on automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons

Florida is one of only three states in the nation where felons and ex-felons permanently lose their right to vote, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. So on the last day to register to vote in the Aug. 30 primary election, advocates throughout the Sunshine State called for a repeal of that law Monday.

“The voting ban is the single most powerful voter suppression tactic in the country,” said Dr. Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of advocacy for the ACLU of Florida, at a press conference held outside of the supervisor of elections offices in East Tampa. Similar events were held in Orlando, West Palm Beach and Tallahassee.

According to an analysis by The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, an estimated 5.85 million are unable to vote because felony convictions, and more than one-fourth — 1.5 million — reside in Florida. Hamilton Henry noted roughly one of four blacks of voting age in Florida are denied the right to vote because of a previous felony, and said that the racist impact of the voting ban is “no surprise to those of us who know the racist origins of this policy.”

As a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said back in 2008, despite Constitutional voting protections under the 15th Amendment, for more than 100 years following the Civil War most blacks were denied the right to vote in many parts of the South, including Florida.

The 1.5 million figure of those disenfranchised because of their felon status in Florida dates from 2010. When Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he immediately rolled back a policy of his predecessor, Charlie Crist, who automatically restored the rights of many felony offenders who had completed their sentences. Scott introduced new rules requiring people convicted of nonviolent felonies wait five years before they can apply to have their civil rights restored; those convicted of violent and certain more serious felonies must wait seven years to apply. Under Crist, tens of thousands of felons, on average, won back their right to vote each year. As of the end of last year, Gov. Scott had restored the rights of just 1,866 ex-felons.

Hamilton Henry called on Gov. Scott to change the law, but there has never been much interest by state Republicans to do so over the years. That means the only way to change the law under present circumstances is to collect nearly 700,000 signatures from registered voters to get the issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. A drive last year by activist Demond Meade to get the issue on the 2016 ballot failed because of a lack of support. He’s the man behind the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who appeared at the rally but did not participate in it, says that the state of Florida can’t reach it’s full potential until “all of its neighbors reach their full potential.”

“It’s a Jim Crow relic of the past that makes Florida a complete outlier on how we treat our neighbors,” said Castor, adding she’s confident the current statewide ban on ex-felons will be history in a couple of years.

One way to address it would be if Florida elects a Democrat as governor in 2018. The new governor has the authority to change the law, as has been previously done under Govs. Scott and Crist. The Hillsborough County area’s representative also says Congress could address the ban when it addresses the Voting Rights Act following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision gutting the law, but proposals in both 2014 and 2015, both which have bipartisan support, have not moved in Congress.

“The church comes to speak as a voice not as political awareness, not as a voice of social correctness, but a voice of moral imperative, believing that we cannot continue to allow such a large segment of our population to not participate fully in the benefits of this society,” declared the Rev. James Golden, the social justice chair, 11th Jurisdiction with AME Churches, who spoke at the press conference.

“Law enforcement, faith leaders, employers, and a large majority of Floridians from all walks of life support people being able to earn back their right to vote because it gives them a stake in the community and makes it less likely they will end up back in prison,” said Dr. Benny Smalls, president of the Hillsborough NAACP.

While Florida is one of only three states with such a restrictive ban on ex-felons voting, the governor of one of the other two outlying states, Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe, recently took matters into his own hand by signing an executive order seeking to reinstate the right to vote to approximately 206,000 Virginians who had been convicted of a felony but had completed their sentences. After the Virginia Supreme Court ruled McAuliffe’s blanket order unconstitutional last month, McAuliffe announced he will individually sign nearly 13,000 individual orders to restore voting rights to felons, and will continue to do so until there has been a complete restoration for all 200,000 Virginians.

“My faith remains strong in all of our citizens to choose their leaders, and I am prepared to back up that faith with my executive pen,” McAuliffe said.

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