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At East Tampa workday, Gwen Graham ignores opponents’ attacks

Gwen Graham held her latest “Workday” in East Tampa, spending Friday afternoon learning about technical education at a nonprofit dedicated to teaching computer skills in Hillsborough County middle schools.

As a former U.S. Rep. and current Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Graham is the early front-runner in the race for her party’s nomination — attempting to take a seat Republicans have had locked for nearly two decades.

Besides the verbal shots from Democratic competitors, Graham has also been subjected this week to some harsh invectives from the Republican Governors Association.

It’s criticism she ignores.

An RGA statement chastised Graham for hypocrisy on the issue of transparency, noting that her office didn’t respond to a 2016 Freedom of Information request for documents and correspondence out of her congressional office that involved Graham Cos. (a private family business), the American Dream Miami mall project, as well as any real estate or land deals.

“Graham talks a big game on transparency, claiming that she goes ‘above and beyond’ while attacking others on the issue,” the RGA statement said.

“But, before leaving Congress, she refused to release records that would have provided voters valuable insight into how she used her influence as a Washington politician to benefit her political ambitions.”

“I’m not going to comment on what the RGA does for political purposes,” Graham told Florida Politics Friday afternoon. “I think anybody who knows me knows that I’m an extremely transparent person. “

Graham spokesman Matt Harringer added on Monday that the RGA attack began immediately after Graham started asking for public records regarding a massive sinkhole beneath a Mosaic gypsum stack that was kept secret in 2016.

He also said that FOIA does not apply to Congress.

“Even though FOIA does not apply to Congress, when the press inquired about the RGA’s request for information, we went above and beyond what was required, performed the search they asked for and answered the question to the press,” Harringer wrote in an email, adding that there were no records to even give “because the subject was never discussed in our office.”

“It’s just politics,” Graham said Friday about the RGA attack. “I don’t play politics.”

In fact, running for governor is about as political as it gets, but the daughter of former Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham made it clear she will not engage with the RGA.

Instead, she stayed on message — saying she’s committed to talking to the people of Florida about what she’ll do for them if elected this fall.

The field of candidates vying to succeed Rick Scott grew by one last week with the entry of Ponte Vedra Beach GOP U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.

Democrats noted that DeSantis’ declaration that he’ll “drain the swamp” in Tallahassee (controlled by Republicans for decades) and his admission that he didn’t have an opinion on a proposed ballot initiative to allow people who’ve paid their debt to society to earn back their voting rights supports the idea that he seems a candidate best suited to run for federal office, not state government.

“If you’re going to run for governor,” Graham allowed, “you better be able to talk about Florida issues and what you’re committed to doing.”

Another potential GOP gubernatorial candidate, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, also ignited a firestorm of criticism this week when his political action committee aired a television ad depicting a man (presumed to be an undocumented immigrant) shooting a frightened young white woman.

When asked, Graham concluded: “There’s no place for ads like that. We all need to hold each other to a higher standard, and we all know what that ad was intended to invoke.”

On the complex issue of illegal immigration, Graham said there’s a need for Congress to address the issue with a comprehensive reform bill, something currently not on the table at the moment.

However, as for some 690,000 people in the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) program, their fate rests with a Donald Trump-imposed March 5 deadline to deal with their status before deportation.

Graham said that “we’ve gotta take care of the DREAMers” now, ideally through a “clean” DACA bill.

“We’re better than this,” she said. “Border security is something that we can talk about, but let’s talk about in a productive way.”

She says it will require members of both parties to have a conversation to reach an agreement, but believes that Trump’s recently unveiled “four pillars” proposal on immigration that includes a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers will never get out of the conservative GOP-led House of Representatives.

State Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat vying for attorney general, facilitated Friday’s workday event at Computer Mentors in East Tampa.

The organization was created to bridge the digital divide, with its primary mission directed toward getting technology into inner-city homes. Its primary goal currently is to make sure that computer skills get into the inner city, said Ralph Smith, the founder and executive director of Computer Mentors.

Graham will continue to make frequent visits to the Tampa Bay area, she said, facilitated in part by her campaign’s recent decision to move her headquarters to Orlando on the east side of the I-4 corridor.

Ron DeSantis’ less-than-spectacular first week on the trail

Does Ron DeSantis have a problem with honesty?

One could argue that (at a minimum) the North Florida congressman and newly minted gubernatorial candidate is struggling with the truth on the campaign trail.

Among those who might agree is Fred Costello, the former Ormond Beach mayor and Republican state Representative. Costello — who is again seeking Florida’s 6th Congressional District — faced DeSantis in 2016, giving up his Florida House seat to do so.

As Costello puts it, DeSantis — at the time, a candidate for Marco Rubio’s U.S. Senate seat — assured him he wasn’t getting back in the CD 6 race. Relying on that guidance, Costello abandoned his spot in the Legislature.

But once DeSantis reversed course (after Rubio dropped his presidential campaign to stay in the Senate race) Costello felt honor-bound to “keep his word” and follow through.

Costello continued his run for Congress, but this time against an incumbent, a difficult feat for any political campaign. Ultimately, he lost the primary, finishing a distant second to DeSantis with only 24 percent of the vote.

Since DeSantis reneged on his promise not return to the congressional race, Costello vacated a safe House seat.

In another dubious move, a Republican claiming to have a link to the DeSantis for Governor campaign sent a bombshell email last week to drum up support among the donors for a Northeast Florida fundraiser: “We anticipate Gov. [Rick] Scott‘s endorsement of Ron soon after Gov. Scott’s [sic] announces his own bid for the Senate race.”

Scott has continued to insist he is not running for the Senate (yet), and as such, doesn’t plan to endorse in the Republican primary to replace him.

Nevertheless, the DeSantis campaign officially disavowed Ricky King, the email’s author. And even King, when asked by POLITICO Florida if he was indeed associated with DeSantis’ campaign, said “No.”

Also, King suggested someone manipulated the “textual body” of the original email, without explaining how that might have happened. And he added that POLITICO had no permission to print the email’s contents in the first place.

It gets weirder. As POLITICO notes: “The only Ricky King from Northeast Florida who works in GOP politics briefly ran for Duval County’s school board in 2016 — but quit after a woman filed a police report saying that the one-time high school teacher sent a 16-year-old student at least two inappropriate text messages seeking bikini pictures of her. In one of the texted requests, King reportedly explained ‘Cuz I miss dat ass.’”

Even DeSantis’ campaign kickoff last week raised questions.

While the audience heard useless trivia — like that his batting average at Yale University was 90 points better than former President George H.W. Bush — what DeSantis didn’t say spoke volumes.

Among the things DeSantis failed to mention: What he thought of giving public money to charter schools, Scott’s Enterprise Florida business subsidy program or any of the other hot-button issues facing Florida.

“I haven’t looked at it yet,” DeSantis said when reporters asked his thoughts on the upcoming November ballot question on restoring voting rights to more than 1 million ex-felons in Florida. “But I’ll look at it.”

Refusing to take a stand implies DeSantis is either purposely hiding his views from the public (bad) or is merely uninformed on the issues (even worse).

And good luck trying to find out through his campaign website — which doesn’t list even a single issue or policy.

While announcing his gubernatorial campaign on “FOX and Friends,” DeSantis praised Scott’s leadership — while at the same time decrying the Tallahassee “swamp.”

DeSantis said: “I’m in a position to exercise the leadership that can build on the great work that Gov. Rick Scott has done to advance economic opportunity, reform education and drain the swamp in Tallahassee, which needs to be drained just like Washington.”

Either Scott is a “great leader” or “presided over a swamp” for the past eight years — just choose one. It can’t be both.

Florida members of Congress: sharp, partisan outrage over content, release of ‘Nunes memo’

The release Friday afternoon of the controversial House Intelligence Committee Republicans’ memo has Florida’s congressional delegation predictably abuzz, with hardline supporters of President Donald Trump such as U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz finding plenty of justification, and staunch opponents of Trump such as Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings finding potential damage to the country.

Others in Florida politics, too, are weighing in, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine, who decried the memo’s impact on the FBI, and then used it to go after U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican gubernatorial candidate who is carrying Trump’s endorsement.

Among the immediate responses to the memo’s release:

Gaetz. of Fort Walton Beach:

“The recently-released “FISA memo” from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence should cause all American citizens to be outraged, regardless of political affiliation. Truth, justice, and transparency are not partisan concepts — they are pillars of the American government.

“For FISA surveillance to be used for partisan political gamesmanship is nothing less than an assault on democracy itself. The DOJ and FBI spied on American citizens associated with the Trump campaign based on the unverified claims made in a dossier paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC. This is repugnant on every possible level. The other abuses detailed in the memo are equally horrifying. FBI agents leaked information to the media, then used the ensuing news stories as a justification for renewed FISA surveillance. This is a wanton miscarriage of justice, and the stuff of tin-pot dictatorships and banana republics — not the United States of America.

“I read the memo as soon as it was released to Members of Congress, and my heart sank. Not only did it lay bare a systemic pattern of abuse within the FBI and the DOJ, it confirmed my worst fear: America’s free and fair elections were being threatened from within. Our own Justice Department worked to tip the scales of justice, exploiting the tools of the intelligence community in order to benefit one political candidate. This is an American nightmare.

“I immediately sent a letter to Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, asking for the memo to be released to the public. I believe that the American people deserved to see it. I believe the American people deserve a transparent, fair government. I believe that all Americans deserve to know that their vote, and their voice, matters. I believe in elections by the American people — WE THE PEOPLE — and free from corruption.

“Sixty-four other Congressmen joined my letter, and my fight to release the memo. Our calls for transparency were met with opposition from Democrats, from the Justice Department, and from FBI leadership. Today, with the release of the memo, our hard work came to fruition.

“I call on every American citizen to read this memo, not with preconceived partisan rancor, but with clear eyes and open minds. We must work together to ensure these atrocities never happen again.”

 Hastings, of Miramar:

“As the Former Vice Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I am outraged that Republicans wrote a classified memo and then voted to make it public in order to undermine the Mueller investigation. The partisan memo is rife with misrepresentations and inaccuracies, and it was released for purely political reasons against the advice of the FBI and the Justice Department.

“Even more shocking is the fact that House Republicans on the Committee blocked a counter-memo on the same subject from being released, preventing any refutation of their partisan smear-campaign. Their decision to politicize the intelligence and selectively release information to drive a political narrative is extraordinarily reckless, and does a grave disservice to the brave men and women in our Intelligence Community. For weeks, social media accounts linked to Russian networks have saturated the airwaves calling for a release of the memo. I am stunned that Republicans actually fell for it.”

U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney of Okeechobee:

“As part of this committee’s responsibility to conduct oversight over the U.S. Intelligence Community, we must ensure that individuals in the IC are not using political work product as a means to obtain warrants to conduct surveillance on American citizens.

“We feel that the so-called dossier was just that – a political document – and the American people need to know that. The intent of this memo is to shed light on past abuses in order to effectively prevent future abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and similar laws governing the activities of the IC. It is not, in any way, intended to influence or undermine FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa:

“Trump and Republicans in Congress are undermining American law enforcement, the Department of Justice and intelligence professionals in an attempt to discredit the Special Prosecutor’s investigation into Russian interference with our election, financial payoffs and obstruction of justice. The refusal to allow the release of a corresponding comprehensive response memo by Intelligence Committee Democrats is an intentional attempt to suppress the full truth. I doubt the American people will be fooled by these deceptions.

“So far, Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has been charged and pleaded guilty to giving false statements to the FBI. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort has been charged with a host of conspiracy charges related to his foreign lobbying. Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to giving false statements to the FBI. Trump campaign aide Richard Gates was indicted in October in connection with foreign lobbying work and pleaded not guilty. His charges are the same as Manafort’s, ranging from conspiracy against the U.S. to conspiracy to launder money.

“The DOJ emphasized to Chairman Nunes (who was supposedly recused from the investigation) that the decision to release classified information without DOJ and FBI vetting was ‘extraordinarily reckless.’ The selective release and politicization of classified information sets a terrible precedent and will do long-term damage to the Intelligence Community and our law enforcement agencies. If potential intelligence sources know that their identities might be compromised, those sources will simply dry up at great cost to our individual safety and national security. The Republican document mischaracterizes highly sensitive classified information. It fails to provide vital context and information contained in DOJ’s FISA application and renewals, and ignores why and how the FBI initiated, and the Special Prosecutor has continued, its counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s election interference and links to the Trump campaign. The sole purpose of the Republican document is to confuse the American people and undermine confidence in the Special Prosecutor’s investigation. This is one of the more shameful episodes in the history of the U.S. Presidency and some in Congress who are trying to protect their personal interest at the expense of the national interest.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson:

“By releasing this memo, the president of the United States is undermining the credibility of our intelligence community and serving a huge victory to Vladimir Putin, the Russian government, and many other intelligence services.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn of Panama City:

“President Trump made the right decision to allow for the release of the memo to the American people.

“The memo demonstrates how politicized federal law enforcement had become during the Obama administration. The police power of the state must be blind to politics. There cannot be two standards of justice, one for Republicans and another for Democrats. We must return to a Federal Bureau of Investigation and a Department of Justice that we can trust. The American people deserve transparency and releasing this memo is a step in the right direction in restoring faith in our justice system.

“I urge Attorney General Sessions to continue doing all he can to ensure each and every American receives equal justice under the law.”

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

“This is a deliberate and desperate effort by Donald Trump and the Republicans to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s interference with our election and possible obstruction of justice by White House officials. Not only has the FBI expressed grave concerns about the memo’s accuracy, but Justice Department officials believe its release endangers our national security. Republican efforts hands yet another win to Vladimir Putin. The Democrat’s memo must be released so that the public can get to the truth.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, of Naples:

“I am a strong believer in open and transparent governance. Making this memo public is the right thing to do and those that seek the truth should welcome the opportunity to expose any flaws in the process used by their government to gather information. No information vital to national security has been released and the leadership at the FBI should welcome this factual information, not seek to discredit it. When presented with the facts, the American people tend to get it right. In December I called for a purge, not of anti-Trump employees, as some have critics have claimed, but of the bad actors within the FBI and DOJ. The overwhelming majority of those employed by these agencies do an outstanding job every day, and we must make certain that the few who choose to politicize intelligence gathering and law enforcement are removed.”

DeSantis, from Ponte Vedra Beach, got a quick gig on Fox News to talk about the memo, and then he added this on Twitter:

“It answers the question about did the @FBI used this Democrat Party-funded dossier to obtain surveillance – and the answer to that question is yes.”

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

“The interesting thing about this memo was that a lot of journalists in Washington were against releasing this.

“This is a deliberate and desperate effort by Donald Trump and the Republicans to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s interference with our election and possible obstruction of justice by White House officials. Not only has the FBI expressed grave concerns about the memo’s accuracy, but Justice Department officials believe its release endangers our national security. Republican efforts hands yet another win to Vladimir Putin. The Democrat’s memo must be released so that the public can get to the truth.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami:

“The release of the HPSCI memo today was important for greater transparency and oversight, serving the public interest. FISA collections are part of a uniquely critical program that supports global US national security. The recently passed and signed FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act will help provide some additional important oversight of this program, to prevent abuse and violation of American citizens’ civil liberties. There are thousands of courageous and dedicated men and women who serve the FBI, DoJ, and other federal intelligence agencies, and it is disappointing that the missteps of several high-ranking officials are tarnishing their work.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando, on Facebook:

In order for Americans to have trust in our democracy, Republicans must put partisanship aside and abandon efforts to shield the President from a legitimate investigation. It’s on all of us to prove that justice is worth defending.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, on Twitter:

“The DOJ called this ‘extraordinary reckless.’ The FBI expressed ‘grave concern.’ The memo-istas speak of a coup d’etat by the deep state.

“I’m on the side of the men and women who are working tirelessly to defend our country.”

Outside of Congress, the comments included this from Levine, on Twitter:

He also tweeted, “It is a sad day when Washington politicians choose to attack the agencies that keep us safe, rather than work together on the problems that affect our families.”

Former Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly of St. Petersburg, who now is a strong #NeverTrump critic of the administration and its supporters in the party:

Florida Democratic Party spokesperson Caroline Rowland:

“Florida Republicans are helping to sabotage the Federal Bureau of Investigation, risk our country’s security, and defy the requests of the leaders of our intelligence agencies, including the Trump Justice Department. Florida Republican Congressional members failed to protect Americans, that includes Rep. Tom Rooney, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtihen, who sit on the House Intelligence Committee and could have prevented this memo from being released.

“Gubernatorial candidate and Congressman Ron DeSantis has also been one of the most vocal supporters of releasing the memo. Over the past week, DeSantis proudly undermined American law enforcement in a blatantly partisan effort to help Donald Trump. In the process, he has proved that he cares more about defending Donald Trump than standing with the law enforcement officers who protect this country everyday. Floridians deserve a governor who will proudly support law enforcement, whether it’s the FBI or our local police officer, not a politician who will happily kowtow to the president.”

Ron DeSantis says memo release reveals media, FBI bias against Donald Trump

Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for Governor, extolled President Donald Trump‘s decision to release a previously classified House Intelligence Committee memo about the Trump-Russia investigation on Fox News Friday.

“It answered a lot of important questions, but it raises others,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis noted the connections between Fusion GPS, the Obama administration, the Democratic Party, and the media, describing the “confluence” as one raising concerns and questions.

Among those questions: why surveillance was “re-upped” into the Trump administration.

“The interesting thing about this memo was that a lot of journalists in Washington were against releasing this,” DeSantis said, an irony given that the same journalists have no issue releasing and using classified information.

“This whole Russia stuff,” said DeSantis, was “wishful thinking” by anti-Trump media and FBI agents.

“The press,” added DeSantis, “is so invested in this collusion narrative.”

And DeSantis notes that even here in 2018, evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump has not been presented.

DeSantis wants Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to come in front of the Congress and justify extending the surveillance. Conservatives, including Ann Coulter, have called for Rosenstein’s dismissal.

Rep. Matt Gaetz likewise lauded the release, urging FBI reform and legislation passed “so that this type of thing never happens again.”

“The truth is out,” Gaetz said.

The classified memo, which has been a point of contention for some weeks between Republicans and Democrats, alleges that there was bias and misconduct among FBI officials in the 2016 campaign in favor of defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The memo, prepared by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, challenges the FBI’s application for surveillance authority on Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act grounds.

Democrats, it is worth noting, are in opposition of the memo release.

“By releasing this memo, the President of the United States is undermining the credibility of our intelligence community and serving a huge victory to Vladimir Putin, the Russian government, and many other intelligence services,” said Sen. Bill Nelson.

The Florida Democratic Party likewise had its take.

“Florida Republicans are helping to sabotage the Federal Bureau of Investigation, risk our country’s security, and defy the requests of the leaders of our intelligence agencies, including the Trump Justice Department. Florida Republican Congressional members failed to protect Americans, that includes Rep. Tom Rooney and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtihen who sit on the House Intelligence Committee and could have prevented this memo from being released.

“Gubernatorial candidate and Congressman Ron DeSantis has also been one of the most vocal supporters of releasing the memo. Over the past week, DeSantis proudly undermined American law enforcement in a blatantly partisan effort to help Donald Trump. In the process, he has proved that he cares more about defending Donald Trump than standing with the law enforcement officers who protect this country everyday. Floridians deserve a governor who will proudly support law enforcement, whether it’s the FBI or our local police officer, not a politician who will happily kowtow to the president.”

The Democratic National Committee asserted that “Trump and his henchmen on Capitol Hill will do anything necessary to obstruct this investigation.”

Nancy Soderberg, John Ward dominate fundraising in race to replace Ron DeSantis

Former Ambassador Nancy Soderberg represents one of the brightest hopes in Florida to flip a Republican seat Democratic.

For the second straight quarter, her campaign in Florida’s 6th Congressional District shows real momentum with donors, as she prepares to face the eventual Republican nominee.

Per a Tuesday night news release from Soderberg’s campaign, the candidate raised $207,949 last quarter, putting her above the $544,000 mark.

The news release does not include cash on hand, but her third quarter only showed $77,000+ spent.

Soderberg, a veteran of the Bill Clinton administration, notes in a statement that she is “honored to receive so many grassroots donations.”

Soderberg likely will face one of the following Republicans: former Ormond Beach state Rep. Fred Costello, businessman John Ward, former Green Beret Michael Waltz, or St. Johns County Commissioner Jimmy Johns (who opened a campaign account this week, but has yet to announce formally).

Ward has $644,000 cash on hand, giving him the money lead. He has put in $552,000 of his own money, against just over $200,000 in contributions, with the vast majority of them outside Florida.

Despite those caveats, Ward is in the lead and used the substantial haul to draw contrasts between himself and Soderberg, and his Republican opponents also.

“Our campaign is off to a very strong start for victory in November, and I couldn’t be more excited at the opportunity to serve and support the President’s agenda, an agenda that puts America first both domestically and overseas,” says Ward. “The clear feedback we are getting from voters is telling us that they will enthusiastically support a candidate who is in lockstep with President Trump’s agenda instead of my opponents who have either attacked President Trump or they favor policies that will kill millions of jobs through taxes, overregulation, & illegal immigration.”

(Ward’s main line of attack on Waltz has been spotlighting an ad he cut against then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 primary season, back when Trump’s ascendance was dreaded by many of the Republicans who now embrace him as a standard-bearer.)

Campaign spokesman Brian Swensen adds: “If the Democrats and the #NeverTrump crowd had it their way, we would be seeing our taxes going back up, a return to a reckless foreign policy that apologizes for American exceptionalism, and even more frightening: Hillary Clinton in the White House with Nancy Soderberg in Congress. Florida’s voters don’t want a return to the failed policies of Obama and Nancy Pelosi which is why this November they will vote for candidates like John Ward who will fight every day for more tax cuts, a secure border, an end to sanctuary cities, and a strong military.”

Ward could put more money in also by the end; he had pledged to put in up to a million dollars.

Costello reports $556 cash on hand; he entered the race at the tail end of December.

Waltz, who entered the race this month, will not have to file until April for the first quarter of 2018.

Jacksonville Bold for 2.2.18 — Hot like fire

2018 is lit — as you will see.

We take a look at Jacksonville native Ron DeSantis’ curious launch of his gubernatorial campaign.

And we look at the five-alarm drama between U.S. Rep. Al Lawson and former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown in Florida’s 5th Congressional District.

As well, there’s room for the pending Senate race between Democratic Leader-Designate Audrey Gibson and Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Brown.

These are all hot storylines. But there’s more inside.

We also take a look at the Legislative Session in Tallahassee, including the latest bizarre Kim Daniels proposal.

There’s so much more, and no need to drag out the intro.

You have enough to read as it is.

Retirement match

The long-rumored clash between former Jacksonville Mayor Brown and Congressman Lawson started this week, with Brown announcing his campaign to primary the Tallahassee Democrat.

Brown served up a written statement in which he described himself as a “visionary leader.”

The primary battle of the year in North Florida is on.

Lawson? He drew a more interesting narrative in an exclusive no-holds-barred conversation with Florida Politics.

“He’s been telling people for months he is going to run,” Lawson said. “We welcome the challenge.”

“Alvin failed as mayor,” Lawson said bluntly, “and a lot of people in Duval are saying he’s just looking for a job. If he’s looking for a job, this is the wrong place to look.”

When asked if the Congressional Black Caucus would back Brown, Lawson was blunt.

“That won’t happen,” Lawson said. “The leadership in the CBC is all behind me. I meet with them every week.”

(A day later, a former CBC Chair endorsed Brown, poking a hole in that assertion.)

“People I speak to weren’t thrilled with [Brown] as Mayor,” Lawson said, adding that he believes Brown is running because “he needs a job.”

“He was trying to be Edward Waters College President,” Lawson said, “but he didn’t make the shortlist.” [Note: EWC President Nat Glover denies the claim].

Lawson saw it as ironic that Brown was running against him, given that at multiple points in the past, “he wanted me to help him raise money.”

Now he’s going to help Brown with something else.

“We’re going to retire him,” Lawson said.

Lawson will need to step up his fundraising; he ended 2017 with only $100,000 cash on hand, after a quarter where he burned almost the entire $44,000 he raised on consulting services.

Meanwhile, Brown’s campaign offered counternarrative.

“After Mayor Brown heard from voters in CD-5, there is a clear sense that Lawson generally seems uninterested in serving the district and has gone Washington. At a time when civil rights, voting rights, immigrant rights and women’s rights are under attack, Lawson seems content to live the life of a privileged Congressman who refuses to fight for the people of his district,” the campaign said via written statement.

Rutherford talks train crash

Tragedy struck in Virginia Wednesday when a chartered Amtrak train that was taking Republican lawmakers to a retreat in West Virginia crashed into a trash truck en route.

A somber retreat awaited Republican lawmakers after a Virginia train crash.

The accident happened west of Charlottesville; as of this writing [Wednesday afternoon], the train is moving back to Charlottesville, where lawmakers will be put on a bus to proceed to the retreat — where concerns will be different from they were before the accident happened.

Not every Northeast Florida Republican lawmaker was aboard; DeSantis was not.

However, U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, a first-term Republican congressman and former Jacksonville Sheriff, was on the train.

Rutherford was not physically harmed, he said; though he had just been handed a cup of hot coffee at impact and was doused, he was able to stay on his feet.

However, there were injuries and fatalities, he said.

“Three workers on the truck. One was Signal 7 (killed), one with life-threatening injuries, and the driver is walking,” Rutherford said.

Capitol Police, reported Fox News, was supposed to be keeping the track clear, going ahead of the train with helicopters. Apparently, they failed in the case of the garbage truck, and we asked Rutherford — who spent a lifetime in public safety — what happened there.

“Looks like the truck went around the arms,” Rutherford said. “I didn’t see the impact, but the arms were down when I got off the train to assist the injured.”

Rutherford noted that Congress members on the train were praying for the injured, and that there would be a “somber” tone over the retreat.

Yoho draws primary challenge

U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho epitomizes the post-Tea Party rock-ribbed Republican type … yet he won’t stay in Congress forever.

Yoho, elected in 2012, pledged in that campaign to only serve eight years in Congress.

Is Ted Yoho a no-no? Judson Sapp says it’s time for the incumbent to go-go.

If that pledge holds true, Yoho’s last campaign will be this year’s.

One opponent can’t wait.

Self-styled “new Republican” Judson Sapp is launching his campaign to unseat Yoho currently.

“I am more convinced than ever that the beginning of 2018 places us at a crossroads as a nation. Our Congress has not been delivering its promises,” Sapp asserted in his announcement.

Sapp bemoans the “current state of the U.S. Congress, where a culture of egotism, backstabbing and unbridled ambition for power reigns. It is no wonder we live in a culture of fear, hatred and revenge. Our politicians stoke these elements because it is easier to fundraise, get media attention and be re-elected by appealing to the darkest nature of our culture.”

No word in the announcement whether that describes the incumbent.

Sapp has a huge hill to climb. As of the end of September (the latest filing available on the Federal Election Commission website), Yoho had $315,000+ cash on hand, and an open line to Fox News to discuss priorities.

Yoho also stumped for Donald Trump, and  — should this race somehow be close — he would be able to draw on that network of support.

4 Republicans vie to face Soderberg in race to replace DeSantis

The Republican race to succeed DeSantis in Florida’s 6th Congressional District added another serious contender this week.

St. Johns County Commissioner Jimmy Johns became the fifth candidate in the field.

Jimmy Johns joins an increasingly crowded GOP field in CD 6.

Johns, an engineering consultant by trade, holds dual degrees in Applied Physics from Jacksonville University and Civil Engineering from the University of Florida.

Johns won election to the county commission in 2016 with 62 percent of the vote against another Republican, a year after being appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to fill the term of current State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson.

This will mark the second straight year that a St. Johns County Commissioner attempted to parlay that position into a Congressional run.

As the sole officeholder from St. Johns County in the race, Johns may be well-positioned to consolidate support among power brokers in the county, offsetting advantages enjoyed by the other candidate with legislative experience in the race, former Ormond Beach Mayor and State Rep. Fred Costello.

The two have competition in the race: businessman John Ward and Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret and adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, who is often seen on Fox News.

The eventual winner of this dogfight of a primary will move on to face presumptive Democratic nominee Nancy Soderberg.

Soderberg, a former U.N. Ambassador during the Bill Clinton Administration, is currently a professor at the University of North Florida.

To date, she has raised over half a million dollars.

DeSantis launches in South Florida

If DeSantis campaign launch were a song, it might be called “Livin’ La Vida Boca.”

Ron DeSantis’ launch was heavy on Fox News red meat. Will GOP primary voters bite?

The Jacksonville native and Congressman representing St. Johns, Flagler and Volusia counties chose Boca Raton to launch his campaign — hopefully, there was at least a fundraising payoff for that geographic anomaly.

The launch speech was heavy on biography, with references to DeSantis’ rise from humble beginnings to Yale, then Harvard Law School. It had a lot of defenses of and apologias for Trump. And when it came down to policy, a lot of laudatory comments for Gov. Scott.

He credited Scott with “exemplary leadership” during hurricanes, and creating “1.4 million jobs.”

“We can’t have the insiders pick the candidate in 2018. We need someone who is going to follow Rick Scott’s legacy and shake things up,” DeSantis said.

“Florida cannot afford to adopt policies that make it hard to create jobs,” DeSantis said, setting up a straw man contrast between Florida and Connecticut.

DeSantis also wants to “improve education in the state of Florida,” though — taking a line from Adam Putnam and Gwen Graham both — “this doesn’t mean that every student needs to go to a four-year school,” citing “vocational training” as a focus.

As well, DeSantis wants to improve citizenship education — which may or may not help with STEM skills, but was a strong applause line.

Additionally, DeSantis addressed “the drug epidemic,” vowing “tough enforcement for the lowlife trash who peddle these pills.”

Is DeSantis as clued into Tallahassee issues and realities as his opponents? And does that matter?

His 2018 campaign will answer those questions.

Democrats are taking him seriously already; within hours after he entered the race, the liberal activist group American Bridge pilloried the candidate for voting to deny SNAP benefits to anyone who quit their job, even if they walked due to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Indeed, DeSantis voted in favor of a failed amendment to the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 that would have stripped SNAP eligibility for two months from any “able-bodied individual” who quit their job “voluntarily.”

Fant presses Senate on sanctuary issue

On Tuesday afternoon, the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee was the first Senate panel to mull the sanctuary cities ban bill (HB 9) that passed the House already.

And one of the House co-sponsors of that measure — Jacksonville Republican Jay Fant, a candidate for Attorney General — sent an email to supporters last night, urging them to press committee members on the matter.

“Sanctuary cities are home to illegal immigrants and are extremely dangerous. We need all the supporters we can get to sign our petition and keep our state, and our country, safe,” Fant writes in the email.

Will the sanctuary cities ban be a winner for AG hopeful Jay Fant?

Fant also offers a 30-second video in the email, a video from his AG campaign.

“The difference between immigration and illegal immigration is that illegal immigration is illegal,” Fant asserts. “Elected officials who prop up this paradigm of illegal immigration need to be prosecuted. They’re breaking the law.”

Fant is the second statewide politician to release a video this week inveighing against sanctuary jurisdictions.

The political committee of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a man widely expected to run for Governor once the Legislative Session wraps, spent $100,000 on a Fox News ad buy warning against the dangers of sanctuary cities.

Some might say these are quixotic positions, as there are no sanctuary jurisdictions in Florida.

However, certain Democratic Mayors, such as St. Petersburg’s Rick Kriseman and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum, have indicated conceptual support for the sanctuary concept.

For Republican politicians attempting to build name identification with the kinds of super-voters who turn out for and decide GOP primaries, taking a strong stance on the sanctuary jurisdiction issue is essential, as Corcoran and Fant clearly believe.

However, with the sanctuary cities bill languishing in the Senate, this may all be theater.

Brown still wants to challenge Gibson

Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Brown is even closer to challenging Senate Democratic Leader-designate Audrey Gibson in a Democratic Primary this year.

The word on the street has been that Brown was being put up to it by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, as payback for Gibson opposing Jacksonville’s 2016 pension reform referendum.

That word includes allegations of potential quid pro quo, such as a job with the Curry Administration, or a paying gig with the new Kids Hope Alliance.

Lenny Curry did not put Reggie Brown up to running against Gibson, Brown says.

Brown says that’s hogwash.

“I’ve never had that discussion with the Mayor’s team or the Mayor. This is a tactic used to distract our community,” Brown said, adding that “politicians on every level of government never agree on every issue; hence, to conclude that Mayor Curry is retaliating is an interesting position.”

“They are trying to discredit me in the community by saying I’m being pushed by the Mayor’s team … the people know differently and no one is buying the foolishness,” Brown said.

“I’ve served Jacksonville well and have used a balanced approach with local government to get things accomplished. If anyone has made a decision to support Reggie Brown,” the Councilman said, it’s because “I have a proven track record of moving both legislations and appropriations.”

Brown has been exploring a potential run for State Senate since late last year, which he previously discussed in detail with this outlet.

Worth noting: state powerbrokers are taking an interest in this nascent race already. The Fraternal Order of Police released an endorsement of Gibson, which was tweeted out this week by local FOP head Steve Zona.

The news release asserted that she “continues to be the best choice” in SD 6, a “true Champion for Public Safety,” a “voice of reason” in the legislature.

Brown noted that he didn’t get an opportunity to make his case to the police union — but that he had beaten those odds before, in his 2008 run for City Council.

NPA challenge for Daniels

State Rep. Kim Daniels is going to face an electoral challenge this year after all — and it will come from an unexpected NPA candidate, Darcy Richardson.

Darcy Richardson will start the race — and finish it — as an underdog against Kim Daniels.

“I’m running to win,” Richardson says, spitting in the face of the long, if not prohibitive, odds faced by almost every independent candidates.

Richardson, an author of multiple books on populist politicians and movements and a man who has run for office off and on for decades, sets up an interesting contrast to Daniels, a preacher by trade whose nickname is the “demon-buster.”

Richardson made it clear that he is running solely because he sees Daniels as singularly unacceptable.

“Like many others, I was hoping that a credible Democratic candidate — possibly somebody like Leslie Jean-Bart, who waged a solid campaign in the crowded Democratic primary two years ago — would challenge Daniels in this year’s Democratic primary, but that possibility is beginning to look increasingly unlikely,” Richardson said.

“I’m not even sure at this point that the GOP — a party fully capable of putting up a candidate even worse than the deeply-flawed and controversial Democratic incumbent — will even bother to field a candidate against her in November,” Richardson added, calling Daniels a “national embarrassment.”

Speaking of embarrassments, Daniels drew heat in Tallahassee this week with a curious amendment to a bill banning child marriage.

The amendment, as reported by Florida Politics’ Ana Ceballos, changes the lewd and lascivious criminal statute to include a break for an 18- or 19-year-old first-time offender who has sex with a child as young as 14, but not older than 16.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican who championed the bill that strictly bans all child marriages under the age of 18, said she finds Daniels’ proposal “appalling.”

Daniels withdrew the amendment before the week ended.

Bean ‘sanctuary cities’ bill stalls in Senate panel

Bad news for those who hoped Aaron Bean’s sanctuary cities bill would clear the Senate. It may not get out of its first committee.

Bean requested his bill be temporarily postponed as it did not “yet meet the concerns” of the 10-member Senate Judiciary Committee — a sign that the measure did not have enough votes.

Bad news for the Aaron Bean team, as sanctuary cities ban gets TP’d.

In order to pass its first of three committee assignments, the bill needs at least six votes from the panel, which has four Democrats and two Miami Republicans who have a track record of blocking hardline immigration proposals.

The Fernandina Beach Republican said some senators had issues with the severity of penalties for governments that declare themselves sanctuaries from immigration enforcement, according to a News Service of Florida report.

“I’m still negotiating to see what we can do. … The makeup of that committee is a tough committee to get through sometimes,” he said.

The House version passed with ease; the Senate rejected it last year, and doesn’t seem ready for it this year either.

Yarborough ‘Healthy Marriage’ bill gets Dem pushback

Legislation aimed at reducing the divorce rate by having couples read a marriage guide before their nuptials is making its way through the Legislature — though at least one Democrat has raised concerns about conservative ideology tainting the document.

Is Clay Yarborough’s ‘Healthy Marriage’ guide a right-wing front? A Dem says yes.

The “Healthy Marriage Guide” (HB 1323) is sponsored in the House by Republicans Clay Yarborough of Jacksonville and Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills. It would contain resources addressing “conflict management, communication skills, family expectations, financial responsibilities and management, domestic violence resources and parenting responsibilities.”

Like so many other bills, it’s not an original idea, as six other states have similar guides, Yarborough told the House Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee.

Cutler Bay Democrat Kionne McGhee said he had serious concerns about the potential for a conservative slant in the guide.

“This is an attempt to use an ideology to overpower people’s ideas and thoughts,” McGhee said, adding that “I actually honestly believe that it’s being used — and we’re going to use our government agencies like clerk of court to carry out right-wing ideology to destroy the sanctity of marriage and parenting, and I think that is a very, very dangerous thing that we have to guard against.”

Downtown discussion between Curry and Scott

Gov. Scott met with Curry Wednesday in Tallahassee.

Lenny Curry and Rick Scott go way back, as shown in this picture taken when Curry was RPOF chair.

Scott and Curry align politically, and as the only Republican Mayor of a major city in Florida, Curry’s visits to Tallahassee are always worth noting.

Conversation with the Governor Wednesday, Curry said, was about jobs, economic development, investment in downtown — and removing regulatory hurdles.

Curry described his administration as “aggressively” wanting to make more progress on downtown development, but there is “regulatory stuff to work through.”

Gov. Scott, Curry said, has been “helpful” on issues — and Curry expects that to continue.

Further detail wasn’t forthcoming from Gov. Scott’s office.

“Governor Scott routinely meets with mayors from around the state. The Governor and Mayor Curry met to discuss issues important to Jacksonville,” asserted spokesperson Lauren Schenone.

Curry met with legislators from the region and beyond this week in Tallahassee also.

From the Senate, he met with Sen. Bean, Senate Minority Leader Designate Audrey Gibson, Travis Hutson and Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, along with Wilton Simpson.

Curry also met with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, in addition to meeting with regional representatives Travis Cummings, Jason Fischer, Yarborough and Tracie Davis.

Jacksonville has a number of asks — among them, an appropriation for $15 million for septic tank phaseout that is being carried by Davis in the House and Gibson in the Senate — and as has been typical throughout his term, the city’s mayor is making his case in person to powerbrokers.

Jacksonville Civic Council revives downtown task force

Per the Jax Daily Record, the Jacksonville Civic Council will be more aggressive in attempting to put its stamp on downtown planning.

“We’ve had plenty of master plans, but we turn over city leadership, arguably, every year. We have a new City Council president every year. We have a new Finance (Committee) chairman every year. Those are powerful people in the implementation of a master plan in a city of our size,” immediate past chair Ed Burr said.

Ed Burr wants the Civic Council to weigh in on downtown.

“We have mayors every four or eight years. And it’s not the lack of planning. It’s the lack of consistent implementation because you can’t tell anybody today that this master plan is going to be the same thing that’s going to be here 10 years from now,” he said.

Burr also seemed to hint at repurposing jail property downtown, calling the current setup obsolete.

“What’s going to happen to the jail? The jail’s obsolete. The sheriff told me that they can’t even find replacement parts for the lighting mechanisms anymore. They have to be custom-made every time they have a problem,” Burr said.

Cynics will say that it may be cheaper just to replace the lighting mechanisms.

Jacksonville Chamber Chair John Peyton, a former Mayor, likewise is bullish on downtown development, he told the Jax Daily Record.

Klan poison

The city of Jacksonville took well over a week to respond to multiple complaints about Ku Klux Klan flyers.

Another batch of Klan flyers dropped in Duval, and City Hall can’t fight them.

“I am visiting Jacksonville and was disturbed to see these flyers (such as those pictured) rolled up and strewed along Riverside Avenue in Five Points in short intervals. They are everywhere in the area between the Publix and Bell Riverside Apartments, and beyond. Regardless of the content of the messages, it is illegal to litter City rights of way and private property like this, per the Florida Litter Law, Section 403.413(4)(a) and (c), Florida Statutes,” one complainant wrote.

The cover described the “Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” as “fighting for the white race.” The interior text referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “communist alcoholic pervert.”

After well over a week had passed in the cases of both complaints, Neighborhoods head Stephanie Burch wrote back to let them know that there was little that City Hall could or would do about Klan flyers.

“Unfortunately, the City’s litter law can only be enforced by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and an officer must witness a person littering. In this case, I am not aware that any citations were able to be issued for the litter,” wrote Burch.

“However, I have asked Dan Durbec, our Environmental Programs Coordinator and Adopt A Road representative to reach out to the neighboring businesses to encourage them to assist in clean-up efforts on their properties and potentially setting up an Adopt A Road program for the area, if one currently doesn’t exist. Thank you for contacting the City, we appreciate your feedback,” Burch added.

Will Riverside residents and businesses be reassured by an official response that, in the face of leaflets from a domestic terrorist organization, they should set up an Adopt A Road program?

Nelson continues reform path

Via the Florida Times-Union, more evidence of the reform path on which 4th Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson has the office.

Melissa Nelson continues her crusade toward meaningful restorative justice work.

Nelson hired someone to exonerate inmates who may have been wrongfully convicted: the fledgling beginnings of a conviction integrity review unit.

“This CIR will be a first for Florida,” Nelson said Jan. 5, “and will be an invaluable tool for us both internally and externally. The work of the CIR will lead to learning opportunities and improved processes in the review and prosecution of cases, and — just as important — it shows the people of the Fourth Circuit of our commitment to accountability and transparency in the work we do every day.”

State Senators from the 4th Circuit laud the move.

Sen. Bradley, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said that whether “it is something that expands to other areas of the state is going to be largely dependent on the model that is being built right now by Ms. Nelson.”

Sen. Bean, who secured the appropriation, added that “there’s nothing [sadder] than discovering we’ve convicted an innocent person. Hopefully, this is going to bring trust and faith in the judicial system.”

Nassau County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis will be the keynote speaker at the Nassau County Republican Executive Committee’s Lincoln Day Dinner in April.

The Lincoln Day dinner is an annual celebration and fundraising event featuring Nassau County’s political and community leaders, who gather to celebrate the Republican accomplishments of the year.

For 2018, the party will be Friday, April 6, at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, 4750 Amelia Island Pkwy. in Fernandina Beach. The event begins at 6 p.m. with a cocktail reception and silent auction; dinner starts at 7 p.m.

Also scheduled to appear are Justin Taylor, vice chair of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners and the West Nassau High School AFJROTC Color Guard.

Attending the black-tie-optional event is $125 for general admission, $225 for admission and an invite to the private reception. For more information and tickets, visit nassaugop.eventbrite.com. For table sponsorship information, contact Lincoln Day Chair William Lusk at (727) 215-8929.

UF Health physician first to implant ‘bio envelop’ to protect defibrillators

University of Florida College of Medicine — Jacksonville physician performed the world’s first successful implant of a device under the skin to protect cardiac defibrillators.

Called “regenerative bio envelope,” the procedure could help improve patient recovery from implant surgery.

John Catanzaro, M.D., a cardiac electrophysiologist and assistant professor of medicine in the UF cardiology division, implanted the envelope and defibrillator early last month in a 39-year old patient suffering from a genetic condition that could cause the heart to stop suddenly.

Dr. John Catanzaro performed the world’s first implant of a regenerative bio envelope.

The device, known as a subcutaneous implantable cardioverter defibrillator, is placed under the skin close to the heart using the novel bio envelope, which Catanzaro helped develop. Defibrillators can instantly treat life-threatening arrhythmia by defibrillation, which resets the heart back to its normal rhythm, thereby saving a patient’s life.

“This is truly a breakthrough because this bio envelope not only physically protects the defibrillator, it also facilitates protection of the patient,” Catanzaro said in a statement. “A healthy environment is created within the implant site of the SICD, stabilizing it in a comfortable, natural fashion.”

Jacksonville Zoo links conservation efforts to new baby tigers

The Jacksonville Business Journal got a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Jacksonville Zoo’s newest babies — two Sumatran tiger cubs, Jaggar and Rocky — born November 20.

Senior mammal specialist Tirzah Nichols conducted the tour as the tigers’ mother, Dorcas, sat just outside the cubs’ enclosure.

Jacksonville Zoo’s newest babies. Photo courtesy Jacksonville Business Journal.

“We had to build up to this point where she’s comfortable with us hanging out with them,” Nichols said. “Even though they were born in captivity and see us every day, they’re not domesticated. They don’t act like domesticated kittens. They definitely know that they are what they are and we are what we are.”

Already having very different personalities, the pair just learned to “chuff,” the friendly greeting sound similar to a purr.

“They just discovered pine cones for the first time. They love to wrestle with them and chew on them,” Nichols told the Journal. She placed cones in front of the babies. “Look, it’s a brand-new pine cone! Oh, come and get it!”

Scrutiny emerging of Philip Levine’s support from Florida’s Russian-American tycoon Len Blavatnik

While Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine’s campaign spent money on January TV advertising as if it was already July of this election year, questions arose among political insiders about one of the sources of some of that political campaign money.

Questions starting with: Is there such a thing as a good billionaire Russian tycoon getting involved in American politics, even someone who who had become an American citizen decades before he made a fortune in the post-soviet Russian economy?

On Jan. 17, a global conglomerate called Access Industries Inc., with corporate offices in New York, London, and Moscow, founded and run by Russian-American multi-billioniare Leonard [Len] Blavatnik, donated $100,000 to All About Florida, the independent political committee bankrolling Levine’s television commercials.

It’s the second major donation Access Industries has made to All About Florida, following $200,000 contributed last June 21. Together, the two donations make Access Industries the largest outside contributor to Levine’s campaign.

In addition, Len Blavatnik’s brother, Alex Blavatnik, executive vice president of Access Industries, donated another $25,000 to All About Florida.

Levine’s campaign told Florida Politics Wednesday that, as mayor of Miami Beach, he had become friends with both Len and Alex Blavatnik, who bought and developed real estate and maintained residences there in recent years, and that Levine respects the family’s bipartisan political interests and philanthropy. Levine’s campaign dismissed as not relevant any allegations raised about the Blavatnik family’s connections in Russia, its involvement in oil and gas exploration techniques that Levine opposes on policy, and the company’s support for President Donald Trump inauguration.

The Blavatniks could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for Access Industries, Jason Juceam of the Brunswick Group business consulting firm, initially declined comment, but a few hours after this story was originally published on Thursday he responded with some statements, and this story was updated later. Thursday to reflect those statements.

The Blavatniks are, like many billionaire families, citizens of the world, with homes and real estate holdings in Miami, New York, Connecticut, and London, and presumably also in Tel Aviv and Moscow where they have substantial business holdings and personal interests.

Len Blavatnik was born in Odessa, when it was part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republican, back when the Ukrainian population was as peppered with ethnic Russians as Florida is today with Yankees. Blavatnik was “thrown out of Russia in 1978 as a ‘Refusenik,’ along with his family,” and became an American citizen in 1984,  Juceam stated in an email.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Odessa became part of the independent Ukraine, and then in 2014 Russian Leader Vladimir Putin took it for Russia when he sent in the Russian military to occupy and claim the Crimea region. Blavatnik spent most of those years living in the United States and the United Kingdom. Today he has has both American and British citizenship, and was knighted in England.

The Blavatniks today also are major political contributors in the United States, making scores of donations over the past two decades, totaling many million dollars, to campaigns, candidates, parties, political committees, and political causes. That started to draw international attention with Access Industries’ $1 million donation to the inauguration committee for President Donald Trump’s inauguration in late 2016, plus $12,000 to Trumps’ legal defense fund last year. The Blavatniks often are referred to as big Republican donors, evidenced by big checks written to Republican party committees and to the 2016 campaigns of  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell, and Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio‘s and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker‘s presidential runs.

[Len Blavatnik’s wife Emily Blavatnik, also a frequent and big campaign contributor, donated to Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2016. DeSantis is running for governor this year, and presumably could face Levine in November.]

But the Blavatniks and their company did not donate to Trump’s campaign.

And they’ve also donated, in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars ranges, totaling millions, to Democrats, including to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Len Blavatnik also is known as one of the most generous philanthropists in the world today, having given tens of millions of dollars to Oxford University in England and to Harvard, Columbia, and Yale universities in the United States, and for having established a major foundation to award young scientists, among other causes.

He had been reported to have had close associations with Putin [which he has denied through his lawyers,] and with Russian tycoons reported to be in Putin’s inner circle, such as Viktor Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska. In some cases, those reports and his contributions to Trump had led to sharp criticism of some of his beneficiaries for having accepted his money. One such critical story in The Guardian of London that had labeled him a “Putin Pal” last September led to this retraction from the paper: “Leonard Blavatnik’s lawyers have informed us that their client has had no personal contact with President Putin since 2000 and that he has never been a close friend or confidant of President Putin.”

[The Guardian also reported that Blavatnik’s lawyers objected to the story’s use of the description “oligarch” but that the editors were sticking with it.]

Len Blavatnik reportedly is worth more than $20 billion. Much of that fortune came from businesses he started in the 1980s from London and New York, and then aggressively pursued in Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the 2000s he sold off some of those companies for billions.

His company Access Industries has bought and sold large aluminum, oil, petrochemical, and plastics companies in Russia. At one time it partnered with BP Oil for controlling interests in TNK, Russia’s third-largest oil company. Today Access Industries or Len Blavatnik himself own EP Energy in Houston, holdings in aluminum, communications, technology, pharmaceuticals, real estate, fashion, and other interests around the world, including Israel’s largest TV station, Warner Music in Nashville, Parlophone in the UK, and luxury properties, including some in Miami and Miami Beach.

And that’s where Len Blavatnik and his brother Alex met then-Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

Levine’s spokesman Christian Ulvert said Levine befriended the Blavatnik brothers in 2015 when Len Blavatnik co-developed the ultra-luxury Faena Hotel Miami Beach, seen as a game-changing project in the city.

“They clearly believe in Mayor Levine’s message of reshaping Florida’s political landscape after one-party rule has dominated Tallahassee for two decades. They saw firsthand his successful tenure as mayor of Miami Beach and his belief of putting residents first,” Ulvert stated when asked why the Blavatniks so strongly support Levine.

They have no business ventures together, Ulvert said.

Miami Beach, of course, is as good a place as any to befriend the kinds of people who might contribute generously to a political campaign. Levine’s All About Florida raised $5.7 million in the past year or so. About half of that came out of his own pocket; but besides Access Industries’ $300,000, the committee also got $100,000 or more from four other donors who are at least part-time Miami-area residents, plus  a couple dozen more checks of at least $25,000 apiece from residents or businesses there.

Levine is in a contest with former state Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and Winter Park businessman Chris King seeking the Democratic primary nomination to run for governor this year. The leading Republicans are DeSantis and Florida Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam of Bartow.

Any support the Blavatnik family gave to Trump is more than balanced by all the support given to Democrats and to philanthropic causes, and such Trump support clearly does not reflect Levine’s well-publicized stance, Ulvert maintained.

“Mayor Levine spent 2016 campaigning against Donald Trump and exposing his deep flaws and shortcomings as a businessperson and why the American people should be concerned with enrolling in Trump University,” Ulvert stated in written answers to questions. “If Floridians want to be worried about who funds campaigns, they should look at the other gubernatorial candidates who are being funded by Tallahassee special interests with millions and millions of dollars. That should be a deep concern for every day Floridians who are tired of being left behind and left out by the politicians who control Florida government.”

He also said the Blavatniks business interests, which have included companies that perform off-shore oil exploration and fracking, two techniques Levine denounced in some of those TV commercials that Access Industries’ money helped pay for, should be considered no different than any other special interests that Levine has vowed to reject as governor.

“As Mayor, Philip Levine had one message for the special interests: the party is over! As governor, he will do the same and those who have seen Mayor Levine in action know that his commitment to seeing through his agenda will not be compromised by anyone as he is ready to shake up the levers of our state government and return government back to the people,” Ulvert wrote.

In the photograph above: Len Blavatnik, Alan Faena, Philip Levine and Ximena Caminos, director of the Faena Arts Center, appear at the Dec. 1, 2015, opening celebration of the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach. [Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images North America.]

John Rutherford describes impact, aftermath of Virginia train crash

Tragedy struck in Virginia Wednesday when a chartered Amtrak train taking Republican lawmakers to a retreat in West Virginia crashed into a trash truck en route.

The accident happened west of Charlottesville; as of this writing (Wednesday afternoon), the train is moving back to Charlottesville, where lawmakers will be put on a bus to continue to the retreat — where concerns will be different from they were before the accident.

Not every Northeast Florida Republican lawmaker was aboard; U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis was not.

However, Rep. John Rutherford, a first-term Republican Congressman and former Jacksonville sheriff, was on the train.

Rutherford was not physically harmed, he said; though he had just been handed a cup of hot coffee at impact and was doused, he was able to stay on his feet.

However, there were injuries and fatalities, he said.

“Three workers on the truck. One was Signal 7 (killed), one with life-threatening injuries, and the driver is walking,” Rutherford said.

“By the time I got off the train the worker was 7 and several doctors from the train were working on both,” Rutherford said. “Pray for the three garbage truck workers.”

Capitol Police, reported Fox News, were tasked with keeping the track clear, going ahead of the train with helicopters.

Obviously, they failed in the case of the garbage truck; we asked Rutherford — who spent a lifetime in public safety — what happened there.

“Looks like the truck went around the arms,” Rutherford said. “I didn’t see the impact but the arms were down when I got off the train to assist the injured.”

Rutherford noted that Congress members on the train were praying for the injured, and there would be a “somber” tone over the retreat.

“I’m sure when we get there, there will be a joint prayer,” Rutherford said.

Tragically, this is the second accident Rutherford has dealt with since declaring an interest in Congress.

Rutherford dealt with a semi-truck crash on the campaign trail in 2016; he and another candidate got out of their vehicles to help disentangle bodies from the wreckage.

Richard Corcoran’s next challenge: Master the expectations game

“Is it a matter of if, Burr, or which one?” — Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton: An American Musical.

Is it a matter of *if* Richard Corcoran, who undoubtedly sees himself as a modern-day revolutionary, or *when* he announces he’s running for Florida governor?

If this week — one in which Corcoran’s political committee began airing a TV commercial that some have confused with footage from “The Purge” — is any indication, Corcoran is already running.

It’s just a matter of when he makes it official (sometime after the 2018 Session is the obvious, anticlimactic answer).

So if Corcoran is already running, how high a bar must he clear when he formally announces? After all, Corcoran’s been an unofficial candidate for so many months now, if his campaign kickoff isn’t a Broadway spectacular, will he have underperformed the vicious expectations game everyone likes to play?

Corcoran will be hard-pressed to match the county fair atmosphere Adam Putnam assembled in Bartow for his launch.

Standing in front of a huge Florida flag covering the stately pillars of a century-old county courthouse with orange crates on the steps, Putnam used a combination of small-town nostalgia, conservative politics and deep knowledge of his home state to launch his gubernatorial campaign.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam kicks off his gubernatorial campaign at the Old Polk County Courthouse in Bartow on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Workforce development, job training and education are what Putnam says are his top priorities as the Republican runs for Governor.

As my blogging colleague Brian Burgess writes, “the Bartow visuals speak volumes about Putnam’s ability to organize and mobilize a massive support network. It is truly a magnificent image in political terms.”

Putnam followed up his Bartow event with a 10-day bus tour of the state that took him to 22 communities. Contra Putnam’s pitch-perfect launch with U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis‘ entrance into the race.

The three-term congressman also had large American and Florida flags draped behind him, but that’s about where the similarities with Putnam end.

As several insiders have noted, DeSantis drew a much smaller crowd than Putnam while delivering a speech that sounded as if was auditioning for the 4 p.m. slot on Fox News.

And although the picture was taken long before DeSantis took the stage, a shot of a nearly-empty hotel ballroom is making the rounds in Tallahassee and Washington D.C. (although, per Burgess, the room DeSantis rented was totally full after all. Not Bartow full, but full).

Photo courtesy of The Capitolist.

It’s unclear what, if anything DeSantis, has done since leaving Boca Raton. We know he was in D.C. for the State of the Union because he was spotted angling for a shot with Trump as the President entered the U.S. House. But, other than that, I don’t know if there has been much in the way of follow-up.

As for media coverage of his kickoff, type “Ron DeSantis” into Google News and you’ll see how few articles were written about his announcement. It’s not what-if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest quiet, but it ain’t much.

So, somewhere between Putnam’s ticker tape parade and DeSantis soft opening, Richard Corcoran must make his gubernatorial candidate presence felt when he makes it official.

Fortunately for the Speaker, Corcoran’s Tea Party allies should be able to turn out a crowd.

But it will be interesting to see what Corcoran — who has only won one serious political race in his career and that was a primary in a state House district — can do on the statewide stump.

Corcoran has transformed the job of House Speaker into a proconsul-level position. The Pasco Republican has been omnipresent in political media for going on two years. And now he’s on TV with an ad that scares the sh*t out of people.

In order for Corcoran to win in September and November, he will first need to win the expectations game of March and April.

Material from The Associated Press and the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

Email Insights: FDP says Ron DeSantis needs to dump Steve Wynn

The Florida Democratic Party says Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the newest entrant into the 2018 race for governor, needs to “break ties” with Steve Wynn.

An FDP email says DeSantis has “repeatedly bragged about earning the casino magnate’s support,” and points out that Wynn was one of the North Florida Republican’s biggest backers for his U.S. Senate run last cycle – a campaign DeSantis put aside when Marco Rubio decided to run for re-election.

After a damning report accusing Wynn of sexual misconduct with dozens of his employees, FDP says it’s time to walk back that braggadociosness.

“Just hours after Congressman Ron DeSantis launched his campaign for governor, he continues to remain silent over accusations of sexual harassment by one of his biggest supporters, Steve Wynn,” FDP said in an email, adding that Wynn “has been a long-time supporter of DeSantis.”

FDP spox Caroline Rowland said DeSantis break-up with Wynn needs to happen “immediately” if he wants “to make it clear that he has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and misconduct.”

”In Congress, and now as a candidate for Governor, DeSantis has styled himself as a champion against sexual harassment, making his failure to denounce Wynn not only egregious, but hypocritical,” she said.

DeSantis has been hinting at a run for governor for months and officially kicked off his campaign Monday in Boca Raton. He joins Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam in the GOP primary battle, which will more than likely turn into a three-way race when House Speaker Richard Corcoran enters after the 2018 Legislative Session.

The FDP email comes after a message blasted out Monday night by American Bridge claiming the lawmaker “voted to deny SNAP benefits to women who quit their job, even if it was due to sexual harassment.”

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