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It's been a big week for Darren Soto.


After a heartbreaking Polk County deportation, introspective Darren Soto lays it out at Tiger Bay

Friday should have been a victory lap of sorts for Democratic Congressman Darren Soto — he was still receiving rave reviews from many in the party for his debate with primary challenger former Congressman Alan Grayson, and he had many local accomplishments to tout in his first term in Congress.

But he arrived at the Thursday luncheon of the Polk County Tiger Bay Club tired and introspective. The deportation to Mexico of 20-year Polk County resident Alejandra Juarez earlier in the day and his long fight to prevent it had taken a toll.

After a campaign to get support in Congress and with federal agencies, Soto accompanied the family to the airport in Orlando to say goodbye to the wife of a Marine veteran.

Temo Juarez is a naturalized citizen and Marine veteran who served two deployments to Iraq and Africa. Her two daughters were born in the United States; both are citizens.

“It was highly emotional and (the deportation order) just puzzled minds,” Soto said. “It was a sad morning.”

Alejandra Juarez says goodbye to daughters Pamela, 16, and Estella, 8, as U.S. Rep. Darren Soto looks on.

There are two options, Soto said.

“We are seeking an appeal for reconsideration by the Department of Homeland Security. The second option is if there is a change in Congress,” referring to a possible Democratic majority after the midterm elections in November.

Many Democrats at the luncheon were boisterous that Soto would be the one returned to the seat from Florida’s 9th Congressional District. They viewed the primary debate Wednesday with Grayson as a victory and cited all of his endorsements. The Republican candidate would face an overwhelming “blue wave” regardless of who wins the primary, they said, because of the heavily Democratic registration in the district.

Soto began with a litany of grants and bills he had brought to Polk County in his first term. Part of that legislative recounting to the group may have been to combat Grayson’s campaign ads claiming he brought back more benefits to the district when he was in Congress.

Thirteen of the 17 cities in Polk County is within CD 9, which also includes all of Osceola County and portions of Orange County.

The shopping list was frugal, though widely distributed:

— Money for improvement of the airports in Winter Haven and Lake Wales, along with the Bartow airport which is in his district, but the city is not. “All emerging cities,” he said

— New police cars for Lake Hamilton.

— Additional funds for fighting last year’s wildfires, which he worked with Congressman Dennis Ross a Lakeland Republican,

“These are the day-to-day things done to solve people’s problems,” he said.

He also refuted Grayson’s claims in television ads that he was in Washington when Hurricane Irma hit.

“I was in with my wife in our home in Celebration. I returned before the hurricane and was flying back with (Congresswoman) Val Demings. The plane was almost empty flying into Florida with a hurricane approaching,” he said. “Then I was out to emergency centers.”

An obvious question from a Polk County crowd — What about citrus greening? — put Soto in a nearly professorial role, considering his position on the House Agriculture Committee, where he discusses plant biology, pesticides and grower-developed treatments of trace metals.

It is crucial to solve the disease, Soto said, noting that in a single year citrus production had dropped from a projected 70 million boxes to 30 million boxes — cutting work for many in the large juice production companies.

He praised the research station in Lake Alfred noting that a new gift fruit species, known as Sugar Bell has shown signs of being resistant to the greening disease.

When asked about the dissent and combativeness in Congress, Soto replied that while there are massive differences on large bills, there is bipartisan cooperation on key everyday issues.

“Eighty percent of our bills pass every day,” Soto said. “A few weeks ago, I passed a bill to protect sharks, marlins and swordfish. It passed House and Senate on voice votes … there are hundreds of examples like that.”

On Puerto Rico statehood, he said there likely could be a bill or resolution in the next few months.

Written By

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

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