An icon remembered
Much of the weekend was spent lauding the life and achievements of civil rights icon John Lewis, who died on the evening of July 17. The term “icon” is frequently tossed around, but it is a perfect fit for Lewis for a multitude of reasons.
Their followers often love icons, but at a minimum, they have the respect of others who admire what they stood for even if politics would have them on opposite sides of a multitude of issues. To illustrate the point, nearly every member of the Florida delegation offered public comments, encapsulated below, on Lewis’s passing and what he stood for.
President Donald Trump simply described Lewis as a “civil rights hero” in a tweet. Others offered various comments covering his life as a fearless civil rights pioneer and his service in Congress covering more than 30 years.
Lewis was arrested dozens of times as he marched for equality. In their tributes, Democratic Reps. Val Demings, Stephanie Murphy, Alcee Hastings and Ted Deutch spoke of his penchant for getting into “good trouble.” Along with Hastings, fellow Democrats Charlie Crist and Donna Shalala described him as the “conscience of Congress.”
Sen. Rick Scott said Lewis “spent his entire life giving a voice to the voiceless.” Sen. Marco Rubio called him “a genuine American hero,” but that tweet posted an incorrect photo that kept the media busy for hours (see “Mistaken identity”) below.
Each year, Lewis would return to Selma, Alabama and the Edmund Pettus Bridge to remember the events of March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday. He invited colleagues from both parties to join him each year, something Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor recalled and Republican Rep. Michael Waltz regretted that he would not be able to take Lewis up on the offer to join him.
Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson knew Lewis as well as anyone, having attended college together at Fisk University and serving with him in Congress. She said “the world has lost a true giant and a role model.” Republican Rep. Neal Dunn said: “Regardless of party affiliation, we have lost a great American and friend,” while GOP Rep. Daniel Webster called him a “fighter for freedom.”
Democratic Reps. Darren Soto and Lois Frankel, as well as Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart aptly described Lewis as “an American hero.” Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz said America is a “better, more just nation because we had the blessing to call John Lewis our fellow American.”
Lewis was said to be soft-spoken and expressed no bitterness, prompting Republican Rep. Ted Yoho to describe him as a “pillar of humility,” while GOP colleagues Vern Buchanan and Gus Bilirakis served long enough with the Georgia Democrat to describe him as “a friend.” Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said he “exemplified goodness and kindness.”
Republican Rep. Ross Spano described Lewis as “an institution in the halls of Congress,” while fellow Republican John Rutherford said: “America is a better and freer place because of him.”
Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell recalled words from Lewis to “use our voices for justice,” as Rep. Al Lawson called him “my hero and my friend.” Republican Rep. Greg Steube offered that Lewis “used the system to continue his fight for justice.”
It might be easy to dismiss much of the above as mere words, but it demonstrates that Lewis left his mark around the country, not just Capitol Hill. As a man who suffered a fractured skull on that March day in 1965, he contributed his own blood to Bloody Sunday.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is named after a Confederate Brigadier General, U.S. Senator, and a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Calls to rename the structure have simmered, but now South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn is leading an effort to have it renamed in honor of Lewis.
Expect that movement to gain strength. The John R. Lewis Bridge has a nice ring to it.
As tributes came pouring in over the weekend on the life and legacy of Lewis, Rubio was among those offering his thoughts and condolences. Unfortunately, both Rubio and Alaska Sen. Don Sullivan posted photos of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings along with their messages, prompting a derisive response from the media.
“Two out of a hundred Senators; both getting this wrong; both within hours; neither learning from the other,” said CNN’s Brian Stelter, one of several weighing in. “What can you say other than this is humiliating for the Senators and I hope that they and their staffs learn a thing or two from this episode.”
Rubio acknowledged the mistake and posted a new tweet with the proper photo. While some would argue that a negative story should not be kept alive, Rubio and his staff did learn a thing or two and posted instances where the national media made the same mistake, including CNN.
“Never post a photo unless it has been verified as accurate by a major media outlet such as @CNN,” he said. “These people are trained professionals who never make mistakes such as using the wrong photo or misidentifying someone.”
Stelter did say in his report that “the two men have been mixed up over the years,” and credited both Senators with quickly “correcting the record.” He did not mention that CNN was one of those confusing Lewis and Cummings in the past.
Another trillion, please
This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to unveil the Republican version of the next coronavirus aid bill. The pending bill received greater attention when The Washington Post cited anonymous sources indicating the White House is opposed to sending billions to the states for contact tracing and testing, preferring to exhaust remaining unspent funds.
Unspent funds are a key factor in determining the size of the GOP proposal. Scott wrote to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin asking for details on how already appropriated funding is being spent.
“Without a comprehensive understanding of how the more than $1 trillion in state and local government funding already allocated for coronavirus response is being spent, it would be reckless and irresponsible for Congress to consider additional spending,” Scott wrote. “We need a clear picture of what has been spent or unspent in order to make informed decisions to help the American people.”
McConnell said the proposal would be a starting point to begin negotiating with Democrats and the White House toward agreement on a package. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate “needs to immediately pass at least $1 trillion in aid to states, cities, and towns upon return from a two-week July recess.”
Scott has long believed some governors and federally-elected officials representing states with large pension fund debts are trying to use coronavirus funds to plug some budget holes. He accused Schumer of furthering that goal with his latest request.
“It’s irresponsible and reckless that Schumer wants to take money from American taxpayers and use it to save liberal politicians like Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo from the consequences of their poor budget choices,” Scott said in a statement. “Floridians shouldn’t have to backfill New York’s state budget and pension fund, and I won’t let it happen.”
Two weeks ago, a shortage of the COVID-19 treatment drug remdesivir brought calls from delegation Democrats, led by Crist, to expedite a shipment of the medication that usually lessens the effects of the virus. A resupply arrived, but a bipartisan group of delegation members was again begging for more by the end of last week.
In a letter led by Rubio and Shalala to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and signed by every member of the delegation, the lawmakers thanked the administration for the 17,080 vials, but is “far short of what Florida hospitals still require and were led to believe would be allotted.” Rubio indicated the wires are crossed between the state and federal governments.
Within 24 hours, Gov. Ron DeSantis said help toward treating “five or six thousand patients” was on the way. He said Vice President Mike Pence assured him the new supply was scheduled to arrive by the first of the week, which was met with great relief.
“(Saturday’s) announcement is a welcome one, and I appreciate everything the White House did to make this happen,” Rubio said in a statement. “I will continue working with the administration to ensure Florida’s hospitals and the health care professionals battling this pandemic on the front lines have every available federal resource at their disposal.”
Drain the swamp
It is no secret that Gaetz is not camera-shy, appearing on political programs on all of the cable networks. He will soon be featured in an upcoming HBO production, along with two of his GOP conservative colleagues.
The HBO documentary “The Swamp,” scheduled to premiere August 4, follows Gaetz and Republican Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Ken Buck of Colorado. Gaetz shared the trailer on his Twitter account last week with the caption, “Move over Joe Exotic,” referring to the former media sensation now incarcerated for multiple charges of animal abuse and murder for hire.
“I didn’t run as someone to unify Washington, I ran to change Washington,” Gaetz says in the trailer, which opens with a shot of the Fort Walton Beach Republican receiving praise from Trump.
To watch the trailer, click on the image below:
The title refers to a campaign promise made by the President, and many others before him, in 2016 when he pledged to “drain the swamp” of lobbyist-influenced policy. It is expected to cover how control and power work behind closed doors in Washington while focusing on “money-raising above all else, plaguing Congress on both sides of the aisle.”
The documentary will provide behind-the-scenes access to the U.S. House’s inner workings and events such as the Robert Mueller investigation and the President’s impeachment proceedings.
Helping the homeless
Rep. Rutherford and Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, met July 20 at Sulzbacher’s EnVision Center in Jacksonville to celebrate the work being done to support the homeless population of Northeast Florida.
Rutherford serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees HUD, and he supported the passage of the bipartisan CARES Act earlier this year.
The Sulzberger Center places more than 500 people in permanent housing every year, and it serves more than 500,000 nutritious meals throughout the year.
Northeast Florida has seen an 82% reduction in homeless veterans and a 46% reduction of homeless families from 2009 to 2019. The chronically homeless have been reduced by 60% in that span, and Rutherford lauded the work done in that sphere.
“Public-private partnerships like the Sulzbacher Center, are critical in our fight against homelessness,” Rutherford said. “By investing in our communities and providing individuals with the support they need to lead independent lives, Northeast Florida has been able to consistently reduce homelessness in the region.
“I am proud to work with Secretary Carson and my colleagues in Congress to ensure homeless individuals and families have the resources they need to find permanent housing and get back on their feet.”
Demings bill advances
A bicameral resolution originally introduced September by Demings calling for increased diversity in American media is one step closer to passage. Last week, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce reviewed and forwarded the legislation.
The resolution reaffirms Congress’ commitment to increasing media diversity and also pledges to work with the media and diverse stakeholders to develop common-ground solutions designed to eliminate media diversity barriers and facilitate “an informed and engaged electorate.”
“America is the greatest country in the world, and we can realize our exceptionalism when America’s greatness is accessible to everyone,” the Orlando Democrat said in a news release.
“At a time when America feels more divided than ever, now is the time to promote a diversity of artistic voices and journalistic enterprises, to ensure that every American has the opportunity to have their stories told, their songs sung, and their experiences valued. Who tells the story matters.”
Demings’ office notes that the resolution expresses “having independent, diverse, and local media that provide exposure to a broad range of viewpoints and the ability to contribute to the political debate is central to sustaining that informed engagement.”
Last year, Demings also hosted the inaugural Media Diversity Innovation Summit on Capitol Hill. Additionally, she formed the Media Diversity Congressional Brain Trust to support efforts to access and expand opportunities for “professionals of color” in the media industry.
Republican Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico is the resolution’s original co-sponsor. Joining to sponsor the resolution in the Senate are Rubio and Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen.
Last week, Bilirakis, who sits on the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, co-introduced bipartisan legislation to improve the quality of medical care to veterans from private providers. Bilirakis and California Democrat Mike Levin are the original co-sponsors of the bill sponsored by Delaware Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester.
The VA Clinical Training in Evidence-based Treatments and Military (TEAM) Culture Act would require that veterans receive culturally competent, evidence-based mental health treatment from private providers, as is already required of VA mental health providers. The difficulties confronting veterans continue to rise, putting their overall health in great jeopardy.
“The staggering suicide rate that continues to plague the veteran community is much higher than the rates found in the general population,” Bilirakis said in a news release. “This problem is indicative of the fact that we are not doing enough to recognize the warning signs of those who may be at risk and providing effective interventions and support needed to prevent this tragic outcome.”
The legislation requires all private mental health providers to follow the same standards and requirements as VA mental health providers, require providers to take courses on military culture as well as the evaluation and management of suicide, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and military sexual trauma (MST).
Bilirakis points to the most recent Veterans Affairs report, which reveals that in 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was one and one-half times the rate for a non-veteran adult. After adjusting for population differences in age and sex, the average for veterans was 16.8 suicides per day. Additionally, there were 919 suicides among never federally activated former National Guard and Reserve members, an average of between two and three suicides per day.
“It is imperative that both those within the VA and out in the community are properly trained on veteran-specific mental health issues and that they all better understand treating those from a military culture,” the Palm Harbor Republican added. “I’m glad to join forces in this bipartisan initiative to ensure our heroes get the help they need.”
Improving vet housing
Bilirakis achieved a victory for wounded veterans this week when he helped pass the Ryan Kules Specially Adaptive Housing Improvement Act. The legislation, named after former Army officer and current Wounded Warrior Project emissary Ryan Kules, will help expand the Veterans Association Specially Adapted Housing Grant Program.
Grants from the program can be used to help provide for the unique housing needs of veterans, including assistance in building, revising or remodeling an adapted home. Veterans eligible for the grant typically have lost two limbs and are relying on a wheelchair.
Kules was injured in November 2005 during a deployment to Iraq when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. He survived and was ultimately in a coma for two weeks before his rehabilitation, and he spoke to the VA Economic Opportunity Subcommittee last year.
“When I heard of the challenges Ryan faced when he wanted to buy a new home to accommodate his growing family, because he could not use the SAH benefit a second time due to program limitations, I knew something needed to be done,” said Bilirakis. “Many of these young and severely wounded warriors are returning home in their early twenties.
As they mature and their circumstances change through marriage, the birth of additional children, etc., they need a benefit that changes with them so that they can fully enjoy their lives. Our bill helps to make that happen. I am proud we were finally able to push this important bill across the finish line.”
Kules, for his part, was thrilled for the changes this will make for his fellow veterans.
“This vote is a great step toward ensuring wounded veterans have access to flexible resources to adapt their homes, which helps meet their changing needs throughout life,” he said. “The proposed changes will reduce financial stress for families like mine who use or need the Specially Adapted Housing benefit, and it will give them more peace of mind, freedom, and comfort in their homes. I’m grateful for the representatives who supported this act.”
Treatment courts approved
Veterans and Crist both gained significant wins this week when the House passed the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act and is headed to the President’s desk for signature. The bill, sponsored by Crist, calls for coordination of care, counseling, and support for veterans.
A growing number of veterans face mental issues after they leave the military and often land in the criminal justice system. Veteran treatment courts, which are designed to focus on treatment in lieu of incarceration, are currently supported by volunteers, but are not coordinated with the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“Our veterans sacrificed to keep us safe. They have earned our support and understanding for the unique challenges they often face,” Crist said in a news release. “I have seen firsthand the life-changing impact veteran treatment courts can have, getting veterans into treatment instead of jail.”
Coordination with DOJ would help provide technical assistance, grants, and best practices for communities, who either have a treatment court or seek to establish one. The bill establishes the Veteran Treatment Court Program within the Office of Justice Programs, providing coordinated technical assistance to veteran advocates and local officials to help them stand up and expand treatment court programs.
“While Pinellas has a model veterans treatment court, most communities do not,” Crist added. “Our bill is not just a win for Pinellas and Pasco veterans, it will help expand and bolster programs nationwide — providing the counseling, care, and support our veterans need.”
Crist’s bill attracted 135 co-sponsors, including 22 from within the delegation. The Senate companion bill was sponsored by Arizona Republican Martha McSally and co-sponsored by both Scott and Rubio.
TikTok ban urged
A group of Republican lawmakers are backing efforts to ban the social media app known as TikTok. The app, highly popular among young people around the world, is linked to the Chinese Communist Party, prompting the members to urge Trump to take action against “to stop the CCP’s sophisticated espionage.”
In a letter to Trump led by Reps. Buck of Colorado and Jim Banks of Indiana, the members point to the personal data TikTok admits to collecting and, according to the signers of the letter, “shares with the CCP.” Among those signing the letter are Reps. Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, Dunn of Panama City, Spano of Dover, Yoho of Gainesville, and Steube of Sarasota.
“It is clear the United States should not trust TikTok or any other Chinese-affiliated social media websites or apps to protect Americans’ data, privacy, or security,” they wrote. “As such, we urge you to take strong action to stop the CCP’s sophisticated espionage campaign against our country and protect our national security.”
He also stated that in June, India banned several Chinese-affiliated apps, including TikTok. Last December, the United States Army banned soldiers from using TikTok since it was considered a security threat by the Department of Defense.
“Using apps like TikTok to collect American data and violate our privacy and safety is just another tactic the Chinese Communist Party uses to spy on our citizens,” Steube said. “These types of apps should be investigated, banned, and the CCP leaders responsible should be held accountable.”
As large numbers of Floridians continue to become infected with the coronavirus, calls to take bolder steps to stop the threat also continue to increase. An unpublished report dated July 14, was prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force which recommends that hotspot states such as Florida roll back reopenings in some areas.
The article about the coronavirus red zone was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.
The portion devoted to Florida divides the states into zones depending on the level of positive tests and hospitalizations. Florida has 22 counties and dozens of cities designated as “red zones,” where wearing masks would be urged, some businesses would be further limited while others would be closed again.
“None of us want to go through another shutdown, but here’s the thing; the Governor’s unsafe and reckless rush to reopen, maybe the very thing that forces our state to shut down again,” said Deutch.
DeSantis has pledged the state will not close for a second time.
While guidelines from the White House should be well received, Deutch wonders why the states have not seen them.
“This morning we found out that the White House has been preparing guidance for our state,” said Deutch. “Recommendations that they have not shared publicly.”
Despite a voting record showcasing a reliable progressive, Wasserman Schultz has attracted primary opponents during recent election cycles. This year is no different.
Jen Perelman, a lawyer, is running against Wasserman Schultz in the August 18 primary for the District 23 seat. She established two websites to help voters learn more about Perelman and her views.
Perelman was shocked to learn those clicking onto either link are directed to Wasserman Schultz’s Congressional site. Perelman apparently failed to check whether the domains were available, but called out the Weston Democrat’s team on Twitter.
Wasserman Schultz is backed for reelection by Democratic-leaning organizations and institutions in the region, as well as the Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
On this day
July 21, 2011 — The landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis at Cape Canaveral marked not only the end of the mission, but the end of an era. The 30-year shuttle program officially signed off with no replacement on the horizon, which means more than 1,500 workers are set to be laid off.
Space program proponents criticized former President George W. Bush and his successor, President Barack Obama for letting the space program end, both for scientific and economic reasons. Sen. Bill Nelson, who flew on the Shuttle Columbia in 1986, said he and fellow lawmakers are “working to make sure NASA has post-shuttle plans and the resources to build a new rocket that’ll get us to Mars.”
July 21, 2016 — Something most believed unimaginable is now official: Donald Trump is the nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States. The New York real estate mogul accepted his party’s nomination at the GOP convention in Cleveland, highlighting a to-do list that can be accomplished by “breaking free from the petty politics of the past.”
“Remember: all of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want are the same people that said Trump doesn’t have a chance,” he told the assembled delegates and guests at the Quicken Loans Arena. While the delegates appeared happy with their nominee, on the previous day Texas Sen. Ted Cruz declined to publicly endorse Trump, leaving the stage to a chorus of boos.