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Gwen Graham moving campaign HQ to Orlando

Gwen Graham is moving to Orlando.

At least her gubernatorial campaign is doing so. The campaign confirmed Thursday that it’s moving its headquarters from Tallahassee, her home for decades, to settle into the City Beautiful, taking advantage of its centralized location to better accommodate campaigning and putting focus on the I-4 corridor battle.

The campaign expects to open an Orlando-area headquarters “in coming months” while keeping its Tallahassee office open, according to a statement.

“Gwen learned in 2014 to win in Florida you have to talk to every voter in every community. From day one of her gubernatorial campaign, we have been dedicated to building a statewide operation,” campaign manager Julia Woodward said in the statement. “Opening an Orlando area headquarters will allow us to reach even more voters along the I-4 corridor and easily travel to any corner of this state.”

She’ll be moving her campaign from sharing a town with Democratic rival candidate Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, to sharing a town with Democratic rival candidate Chris King, a Winter Park businessman. It also will put her in a much easier distance to South Florida, with its critical mass of Democratic voters. Graham has roots there, and it’s also home to her other Democratic rival, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

“I was born and raised in Miami, started a family in Tallahassee and have spent my life traveling this state,” Graham said in the statement. “Wherever I am in Florida, whether it’s talking to members of our military in Pensacola or discussing environmental protection in the Keys, I feel at home.”

Since announcing in May, Graham has put more than 50,000 miles on her SUV, which she calls the “Chev Victory,” according to the statement.

She is not, her campaign implied, giving up on North Florida, where her father, former U.S. Sen. and former Gov. Bob Graham, always fared well, and where she was elected to Congress.

Winning the election from Tallahassee in her off-year 2014 race, Graham outperformed Barack Obama in North Florida by 4.5 percent — a wide margin in a year only one other Democrat in the nation was able to defeat an incumbent Republican congressman, the campaign noted.

“By opening offices in Leon County and conservative counties like Bay and Jackson in 2014, we were able to energize progressive voters in deep blue areas and win over older Democrats, independents, and even Republicans in cities and towns Democrats typically don’t campaign in,” Woodward said.

Graham is planning to keep her Tallahassee office active and already has an active volunteer base in Miami, along with her parents, Bob and Adele Graham.

“We are replicating that same 2014 strategy by exciting our base in North Florida, South Florida and the I-4 corridor — along with reaching out to voters in conservative counties and rural areas,” Woodward said. “We are building an Obama-style coalition to take back the Governor’s Office,” she added.

King sent a welcome basket, of sorts.

“Kristien & I are pleased to welcome @GwenGraham to Central FL,” King tweeted. “This community raised me, educated me & has lifted my candidacy to serve as the next #FlGov. I Trust Gwen will find my hometown a diverse, dynamic & welcoming place.”

Orlando contemplating immigrant ‘trust’ resolution

The city of Orlando is considering a resolution that would have the City Council and Mayor Buddy Dyer formally declare their policy that police and other city officials not get involved in immigration matters, including a policy against questioning people whether their status is legal or not.

The resolution would state what already is the city’s policy. Under Dyer and Police Chief John Mina, police and other officials are not supposed to inquire about whether a traffic stop driver, a suspect, a victim, a witness, or anyone else interacting with city officials is a citizen or properly documented immigrant.

But that’s not on enforceable paper.

And while a resolution would put it on paper, it wouldn’t make it law.

The resolution proposal, pushed by Dyer and others in recent weeks, is a compromise offer between the city’s informal policies that essentially make it unofficially a safe city for undocumented residents, and immigration activists that have been pushing last summer for an ordinance that would make it law.

The debate in Orlando, at least in all public ways, is not about whether the city should be assisting federal authorities in identifying and detaining undocumented immigrants. It’s about how far the city wants to go in rejecting that approach.

A coalition of activists that includes 35 social justice, labor, and progressive groups and is part of a national movement, has been pushing for an ordinance since last summer, with rallies on the City Hall steps, art protests, and meetings and negotiations with city officials.

“We’ve looked for middle ground, a resolution, which is passed in a similar manner as an ordinance, to supplement the policy,” said Deputy City Attorney Jody Litchford.

“But frankly, unfortunately, we are not in agreement,” she added.

Litchford and others, including Dyer’s Senior Advisor Lori Pampilo Harris, argue that Orlando already is doing everything in practice that the advocates want. The city neither questions people about their status, nor detains them — even at requests from the U.S. Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But too many of the undocumented immigrants living in Orlando still remain fearful of coming out of the shadows, even as a witness to crime, the activists argue.

If Orlando wants to make undocumented residents comfortable enough to work with city officials, to not fear encounters, it needs something more than a policy. It needs a law, argued Curtis Hierro, organizing director of the Central Florida AFL-CIO and one of the leaders of the Trust Ordinance Coalition that has been pushing Orlando for an ordinance.

Hierro insisted they coalition is far from done with its effort.

“The reason we’re pushing for an ordinance is it is the strongest act a city can take to codify policy, something with real teeth,” Hierro said.

Without it, Hierro said, there have been at least isolated incidents of police officers or others asking people about immigration status, Hierro said. Word spreads. Trust erodes. People stay in the shadows. That’s why the ordinance they have drafted and offered the city that’s called the “Trust Ordinance.”

But an ordinance, besides being an inappropriate way to deal with city policies, Litchford said, also opens up liability issues for the city. That may start with threats from President Donald Trump‘s administration that it intends to reduce federal grants to cities that are formally sanctuary cities.

The city is offering not just the resolution, but a communication effort, an outreach program that would explicitly try to spread the word that city police and other officials would not do anything to “out” people who came here without visas, or overstayed their visas.

Puerto Rican coalition calls for full recovery funding and debt relief

A national coalition of Puerto Rican groups with heavy representation in Central Florida urged in Orlando Monday for Congress to offer full relief funding for the hurricane-ravaged island and for Florida and federal relief for evacuee housing in the Sunshine State.

Joined at Acacia’s El Centro Borinqueño by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, and Orlando Democrat, and state Rep. John Cortes, a Kissimmee Democrat, Power4PuertoRico criticized federal relief efforts as inadequate and worse, given that still more than half the island is without electricity, water remains a critical shortage, many hospitals are operating on generators, and schools remain closed.

The group also turned its attention to the needs of Puerto Rican evacuees in Florida and elsewhere stateside, particularly making an urgent call for housing assistance, especially in the Central Florida area.

For the group, whose members include Orlando-based Hispanic Federation, Chicago-based Puerto Rican Cultural Center and various non-profit and labor groups, the coalition also called for major federal relief efforts that go beyond addressing Hurricane Maria’s landfall two months ago, on Sept. 20. Saying that broader economic reforms are necessary for Puerto Rico to fully recover, the group called for debt relief for the island’s government, something that is tied up in bankruptcy proceedings under the Promesa Act approved in 2016, and for repeal of the Jones Act, which restricts maritime commerce in and out of the island.

“We have come together to focus on economic recovery through significant investments in infrastructure, workforce development, and health care,” said Zoe Colon, a local organizer of Power4PuertoRico. “We are asking for longterm solutions to the crisis in Puerto Rico.”

Colon and others in the coalition’s press conference decried that two full months after the hurricane, “more than half of the island is still without power, disease is spreading, and people don’t have the resources they ned to build their homes.”

Soto said he supports reform of the Jones Act but not full repeal, and supports Congressional actions that could address the island government’s debts beyond what is the domain of the bankruptcy proceedings. “We’ve had assurances that every debt that can be challenged, will be challenged … and that Congress needs to do everything we can so that Puerto Rico isn’t drowned in a sea of debt during this crisis.

He said the $4.9 million loan, an initial federal Hurricane Maria relief package, “must be forgiven” and that any future FEMA funds must be exempt from creditors. “This is essential for the recovery. It would a twisted, cruel fate to have this money go down and only be taken by opportunistic creditors.”

Soto also said the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, on which he sits, will push for the island’s power generation and distribution grid to not just be restored, but replaced with 21st century, renewable technologies.

He turned attention toward Thanksgiving, saying, “Here in Florida we have much to be thankful for, but we have much to do,” he said. “Puerto Rico, in short, is still in crisis.”

Cortes offered praise for efforts of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, for offering Florida help on the island, and for doing much to welcome Puerto Ricans coming to Florida, saying efforts must be bipartisan.

He said the next step must be to get state money to address the housing shortages, particularly in Central Florida where most of the 160,000 evacuees appear to be settling. He decried Scott’s budget proposal for taking $132 million from the Sadowski Fund for affordable housing, and redirecting it to other spending. That has to be stopped, and the money has to be used to develop more affordable housing, Cortes said.

“In my area in Osceola County, forget about getting an apartment, because either they’re too much, or FEMA doesn’t give you enough voucher for them. And your voucher is going to end, and after that you’re going to be homeless.”

 

Anna Eskamani

Ruth’s List Florida backs Anna Eskamani in HD 47 contest

Florida House District 47 Democratic candidate Anna Eskamani has received the endorsement of Ruth’s List Florida, a backing that usually comes with fundraising assistance.

“Anna is a lifelong advocate for reproductive health and women’s rights. She is a dynamic leader who has already proven herself to be a passionate and effective advocate,” Ruth’s List Florida Executive Director Marley Wilkes stated in a press release issued by Eskamani’s campaign. “The Ruth’s List community – now tens of thousands members strong – is excited to support her candidacy.”

The endorsement is a natural fit. Ruth’s List promotes Democratic women for office. Eskamani, of Orlando, faces Republican Stockton Reeves in a quest to replace Republican state Rep. Mike Miller, who is running for Congress rather than re-election.

“I am grateful to the grassroots aid Ruth’s List Florida provides Democratic women in Florida,” Eskamani stated in the release. “My commitment to women and families is unmatched and driven by my own personal story as an Orlando native and daughter of immigrants who lost her mom to cancer at age thirteen. Women face deep disparities compared to our male counterparts, and as more allegations of sexual harassment and assault are made across the country and right here in Florida, the need for more women’s voices in Tallahassee has become even more apparent and important.”

Val Demings calls reported Stephen Bittel conduct ‘extremely inappropriate’

U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando denounced reported conduct by Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel Friday though stopped short of describing it as sexual harassment.

The former Orlando chief of police said she told Bittel that this morning.

“As a former law enforcement officer and a member of Congress, sexual harassment is an issue I take very seriously,” Demings said in a written statement. “While I do not believe the behavior (as described) rises to that level, I do believe the behavior was extremely inappropriate and a result of poor judgment. I shared my concerns with Chairman Bittel.”

Demings is the first member of Florida’s Congressional delegation to weigh in.

UPDATE: On Friday morning, Bittel announced he is resigning following reports that he created a hostile work environment for women by “belittling” them in front of male staffers and making suggestive remarks.

Mike Pence, Rick Scott find support for tax cuts

Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Rick Scott found widespread support among a dozen or so business owners gathered in an Orlando factory Thursday for the kinds of tax cuts President Donald Trump is pushing in Washington.

Members of the business roundtable assembled to meet with Pence at the Correct Craft factory that makes Nautique and other recreational boats, Pence asked: “How important would reducing taxes be to your business?”

Plenty important, they all agreed.

The roundtable group, which included a variety of business owners such as Orlando consultant and lobbyist Bertica Cabrera Morris and former Orange County Clerk of Courts Eddie Fernandez, who now has a private law practice, lauded the prospects of tax reform for their businesses. Many charged that overtaxation has put some of their friends out of business. And assured that they would share any tax savings benefits they received with their employees.

Pence was in town Thursday to give the keynote speech to the Republican Party of Florida’s state conference Statesman Dinner. But he also was on tour to solicit and demonstrate support for the tax reform package that the Trump administration is finally unveiling, backed by a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday, and another expected to drop in the U.S. Senate on Monday.

Pence pushed the plan several times as one that will help “working families, small businesses, and family farms,” an assessment that will be central to whether Congress and the American people buy it. The plan would reduce the tax code to four brackets of 12, 25, 35 and 39.6 percent, eliminate the estate tax by 2024, increase child care tax credits, but eliminate deductions for state and local taxes.

Yet Pence and Scott also made it clear that the intentions were focused on corporations and business owners, the “jobs creators,’ a point driven home by the plan’s marquee reductions, of the maximum corporate tax to 20 percent, and the maximum “pass through” tax paid by many small business owners to 25 percent.

“It’s the jobs creators that are here today that we feel the greatest debt to, men and women that put their resources and time on the line to create opportunities,” Pence said.

Victor Torres seeking FEMA help for housing for Puerto Rico evacuees

State Sen. Victor Torres is urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide more housing relief programs in Florida for Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island Hurricane Maria refugees to afford housing in Florida.

Torres’s request follows a similar call earlier this week from the Central Florida Heart of Florida United Way, seeking federal assistance to help tens of thousands of people fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico to come to Florida, when many arrive finding dire options on where to live.

Torres said he’s pushing for FEMA to provide Temporary Stabilization Assistance grants, which would allow Puerto Rico evacuees to use FEMA money immediately to rent hotel or motel rooms for up to 14 days while they find a longer-term place to stay. FEMA also has programs that could provide vouchers for longer term rentals, and set up temporary housing in mobile homes — provided the local governments assist in identifying places to put them.

As of a week ago, more than 60,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived in Florida. Some estimates suggest the number will climb over 100,000. The two primary places they are arriving, Miami and Orlando, already have housing shortages, especially for affordable housing.

“The impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are placing huge demands on our public services,” Torres said in a news release. “We need to focus on building and expanding more housing options for Floridians and evacuees from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico who are seeking refuge in our great state.”

Torres gave impassioned testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday when he called on members to increase funds for state education, healthcare and housing needs to accommodate the refugee migration.

Earlier this week, Central Florida Heart of Florida United Way Executive Director Jeff Hayward called on the federal government, through FEMA, to engage in providing support for additional housing options in central Florida.

Torres’ district includes parts of both Orange and Osceola counties which contain the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans living in Florida.

FEMA has designated Florida as a go-to state for evacuees from the islands and approved costs could be eligible for 100 percent reimbursement by the federal government. Torres said he is working with local and state officials for FEMA approval of both the deployment of mobile housing units and authorization of TSA for evacuees to receive rental housing funds.

Anguish, relief, fear, hope: Relief efforts serving thousands of Puerto Rico storm refugees

Rene Plasencia sees it in the faces of countless Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria refugees when he or someone else says, “we’re here to help you.”

A mixture of anguish, relief, pain, joy, fear, confidence, hopelessness, hope — all the emotions of losing everything and traveling to a strange, new place with almost nothing, and then encountering someone who at least is there to hold a hand, if not help.

It’s happening hundreds of times a day at Florida’s Puerto Rico Disaster Relief Centers at the Orlando and Miami airports, the Port of Miami, and at LatinoLeadership as well as other local nonprofits reaching out to help people arriving from Puerto Rican homes who are not necessarily looking for a fresh start, but just for a place to live.

Sometimes when home-cooked hot meals are brought in by volunteers, it’s the first home-cooked hot meal people have eaten in a month or more, he said.

“It would blow you away,” said Plasencia, a Republican state Representative from Orlando with Puerto Rican roots. His family runs LatinoLeadership, a social services center in Orlando that is helping about 150 Puerto Ricans walking in each day seeking help, and taking hundreds of calls a day. He’s spending a couple of hours a day there himself, and helping at Orlando International Airport, in the state’s official Disaster Relief Center there.

“It gives me both a sense of hope in humanity, and it also gives me a sense of despair,” he said, “because people have so much need for help.”

It was a month ago, on Sept. 20, that Hurricane Maria completely wiped out much of that island’s housing, power, water supply, hospitals, schools, businesses, and infrastructure,

Since Florida’s official Puerto Rico Disaster Relief Centers opened Oct. 3, at least 60,000 people from the island have arrived in Florida on airplanes and ships. It’s unknown how many of them are actual storm refugees, and how many are relief workers and others shuttling from the island.

But the vast majority are people leaving their beloved, but devastated, homeland.

The three Florida Disaster Relief Centers have directly met with more than 12,000 displaced Puerto Ricans, many representing families or groups sitting outside in the airports or Port of Miami waiting for news on where they can go, and what they can do. Some days, centers assist more than 900 people.

About 4,000-6,000 more people from Puerto Rico are getting off planes in Orlando or Miami every day, said Alberto Moscoso, communications director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

“Folks coming off the planes are hopeful. Many are intending to return to Puerto Rico when the situation improves, and they’re grateful that the resources are there and the airport has helped them out,” Moscoso said.

Most, he said, are arriving with some sort of plan, and with family in Florida. Yet not all, and housing remains the highest immediate need.

At the centers, they meet with officials from FEMA and the U.S. Veterans Benefits Administration; nine state agencies, including health, children and families, elder affairs, and economic opportunity; a handful of local agencies; and a number of private organizations.

Among those at Orlando International Airport include LatinoLeadership, American Red Cross, United Way, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Health Insurance Story, Calvario City Church, Aspire Health Partners, Shepard’s Hope, Halo Office, and the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Puerto Rico relief effort is among  Gov. Rick Scott‘s highest priorities right now,  press secretary Lauren Schenone said.

Plasencia said it shows, not just with the services at the airport, but with the several times a day he said he’s personally calling the governor’s office looking for specific points of help, and getting it.

“The airport is a great service,” he said. “The biggest problem at this point is a lot of the passengers who get off the planes aren’t going to the receiving centers; they’re going off property, and meeting with family, and then maybe a couple days later they’re going back to the receiving center.”

Plasencia, however, was highly critical of the assistance from local governments, particularly Orlando and Orange County.

Two weeks ago Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs declined a request from three county commissioners, Emily Bonilla, Pete Clarke, and Jennifer Thompson, for the county to set up its own Puerto Rico relief efforts, saying it was the state’s role. Last week Plasencia, at a meeting of the Orange County Legislative Delegation, implored her to reconsider.

He said the local efforts are nothing compared with the overwhelming way that Orange County and Orlando responded to the horrific nightclub massacre at Pulse on June 12, 2016.

The county has provided a representative from its Department of Family Services. Orlando has provided a representative from its Hispanic Office for Local Assistance office. The Orange County School Board has provided a representative, as has the Osceola County School Board, and Lynx, the regional public bus system.

What’s most missing is shelter, Plasencia said. He said the governor’s office said the state could not set up any temporary emergent shelters because that was a local responsibility.

“The sad part of this is the lack of support and even the lack of acknowledgment by our local government,” he said. “Where has Teresa Jacobs been, or [Orlando Mayor] Buddy Dyer throughout this whole process?”

Other groups are stepping in. A coalition of churches is finding some housing. Others are providing job leads, notably Eddy Dominguez‘s human resources company Resource Employment Solutions, and the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.

Plasencia fears the needs will get more acute.

“Most of the people who come so far are living with family. They are people who have come here, typically have a little more means,” Plasencia said. “The next group of people who come may not be that way.”

Brightline February train car derailment comes to light; critics call it ‘disturbing’

A Brightline train derailed in February and opponents of the planned, east-coast, high-speed passenger rail service expressed frustration Monday that they only recently learned about the accident and criticized the company for not mentioning it during Florida Legislature testimony about rail safety.

Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida and the counties of Indian River and Martin said Monday that it took them months to confirm the Feb. 11 accident, and only after they hired a Washington, D.C. law firm to pursue it. They criticized All Aboard Florida (AAF) for not disclosing the incident to the Florida Legislature while company officials offered opposition to bills that had sought to set state safety regulations on the railroad.

“Soon after this incident, officials attended not one but two state legislative hearings about rail safety and never once disclosed facts about the derailment, while they sought to table the safety legislation under consideration,” Brent Hanlon, chairman of CARE FL, stated in a news release issued Monday by that group and the two counties.

The critics said records show the accident caused $408,000 in damage.

“The disconnect between the derailment and AAF’s failure to make it public is disturbing,” Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold stated in the release. “The safety and well- being of our communities require greater transparency.”

A letter from the Federal Railroad Administration indicated that one car derailed, at low speed, at an All Aboard Florida rail yard.

A Brightline spokesperson called the incident minor, on private property, and fully and properly reported, and then dismissed the critics’ concern raised Monday as a “baseless fear tactic.”

“As confirmed by the Federal Railroad Administration, Brightline followed all applicable rules by providing prompt notification about the minor incident that occurred on its private property. This is another baseless fear tactic by Treasure Coast consultants,” the statement read.

Brightline is planning to open a private passenger train service from West Palm Beach to Miami later this year. Eventually the company intends to extend the line through Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Brevard counties, and then into Orange County to connect the Orlando International Airport by high-speed train to West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Some residents and public officials of those ride-through counties have arisen in opposition, arguing safety, environmental, and other concerns regarding a train that would be traveling through their communities at up to 110 mph. Last February the two sides battled in Florida House and Senate committee meetings over House Bill 269 and Senate Bill 386. Those bills, which failed, would have imposed additional, state-mandated safety requirements. Company officials insisted the train already would be governed by the highest-possible federal standards, meeting all the strict requirements for high-speed rail service.

All Aboard Florida also has had a couple major victories in court against opponents who contended more environmental requirements were needed. One as recently as Sept. 29, from a Florida administrative law judge denied a challenge brought by Martin and St. Lucie counties and the Town of St. Lucie Village on the South Florida Water Management District’s decision to issue an environmental resource permit. That court victory for All Aboard Florida essentially cleared away all pending litigation, allowing the company to go forward.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, on Feb. 11, “a Brightline locomotive derailed its trailing truck while negotiating a switch at four miles per hour within the Brightline yard facility.

“The derailed Brightline locomotive was the second locomotive in a consist led by an FEC [Florida East Coast Railroad] locomotive into the Brightline yard and maintenance facility,” reads an Aug. 21 Federal Railroad Administration letter to a law firm hired by CARE FL and Martin County. “Brightline and FEC promptly notified FRA of the incident.”

That letter came after the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery had inquired to the FRA, on May 30, about unconfirmed reports of the incident.

“It is unfortunate that Martin County is forced to spend taxpayer money to make sure our safety concerns are addressed at the state and federal levels. A simple confirmation of a derailment took three months to get from DOT, but six months after the derailment itself. We would have never known about this significant public safety issue had we not demanded to know the facts,” Ruth Holmes, senior assistant Martin County attorney, stated in the news release.

Mike Pence to keynote Republicans’ conference in Orlando

Vice President Mike Pence is slated to be the keynote speaker at the Republican Party of Florida’s annual Statesman Dinner during their November state conference in Orlando.

Pence – with “special guest” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio –  is to highlight the dinner set for Thursday, Nov. 2 at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, kicking off the two-day conference.

Also billed for the kickoff dinner to the quarterly party meeting are three of the four members of the Florida Cabinet, though not Gov. Rick Scott. The other advertised guests include Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi,  Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Florida Senate President Joe Negron, and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

General tickets are $200 for the dinner, with executive committee members and College Republicans getting discounts.

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