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Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of September 20, 2020

After months of trailing in Florida polls, Republicans have a reason to (cautiously) celebrate.

More than 20 years ago, Desmond Meade was convicted of drug dealing and spent three years in prison. For many people in his situation, that starts a cycle of prison, to the streets, and to prison again. Meade, though, beat the odds.

Upon his release, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Miami Dade College and earned a law degree from Florida International University. His record since prison is clean. He wants to practice law in Florida, but convicted felons are barred from that.

So, Meade sought a pardon from the state clemency board. But last week the Republican-controlled body said, um, not yet bub. Gov. Ron DeSantis brought up a three-decade-old court martial and told Meade the board would take his request “under advisement.”

Translation: Florida’s figurative boot remains on the necks of felons who either have turned their lives around or would like to.

Last year, Meade was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. He founded the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which worked to pass Amendment 4 in 2018 to give felons who have done their prison time the right to vote again.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, but Republicans did an end run to block it. They tacked on a requirement that felons also had to pay all fines and court costs to get their voting rights restored. That’s an impossible hill for many, so Meade’s Coalition raised more than $23 million to assist them.

That move wouldn’t have anything to do with the board’s decision, would it? Oh, of course not; that would be mean-spirited.

Meade has maintained a strong sense of grace and determination, even with the most recent disappointment.

As Orlando Weekly reported, Meade told reporters after the hearing, “I walked out of that clemency hearing a little disappointed, but I would say more enthused and committed to continuing the work that we’re doing.”

It’s a gargantuan task.

Since 2019, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the board had approved only 30 cases out of 24,000 applications to restore voting rights since DeSantis and his Cabinet took office.

That’s compared to Governors Charlie Crist (155,000), Jeb Bush (76,000), and Rick Scott (3,000).

Fried added that DeSantis had taken no action on more than 800 applications that she and Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis recommended for approval.

“Florida’s broken clemency system is restrictive, arbitrary, and designed to fail our citizens seeking a fresh start. It’s an absolute mockery that in nearly two years under Governor DeSantis, only 30 Floridians have earned back their rights, compared to 234,000 under his three predecessors,” Fried said.

“We can clear the backlog of 11,000 Floridians waiting for a hearing, and the more than 850 eligible today for rights restoration without a hearing. We can drop the endless appeals of Amendment 4 at taxpayer expense. If restoring and protecting Floridians’ constitutional rights were a priority for this Governor, it would happen – but it’s not, so it won’t. And that’s a damn shame.”

OK, on to our weekly game of Winners and Losers.

Winners

Honorable(ish) mention: New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft knows a lot about winning Super Bowls. He now can add a triumph in the Snooper Bowl to that list.

South Florida prosecutors dropped a misdemeanor charge of solicitation against Kraft. He faced that allegation after surveillance cameras recorded video of Kraft receiving massages on consecutive days at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter.

Kraft, 79, apologized, but fought the charge, and judges ruled that police acted improperly in planting the cameras. Without video evidence, prosecutors decided, there was no way to convict.

It wasn’t a total win, though.

At least the judges didn’t rule that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to return Tom Brady to the Patriots.

Almost (but not quite) biggest winner: All Florida businesses. DeSantis, on Friday, ordered that all businesses can open without restriction, effective immediately. After months of economic decay and uncertainty because of COVID-19, that normally would be a slam dunk biggest winner.

It removes all state COVID-related restrictions and overrides any local regulations on that matter.

If you don’t mind, though, we’ll hold off just a bit before declaring victory.

Remember in June when the Governor tried to reopen bars and restaurants, only to beat a hasty retreat as the virus infections spiked? Health experts warn the same thing can happen this time.

We’re certainly sending all the good vibes we can, especially to small business owners and every employee. This has been a nightmare.

Everyone needs to remain cautious, though.

Virus rates are climbing slightly – nowhere near the rapid escalation earlier this year. Any increase, though, is a cause for concern.

The biggest winner: Florida GOP. Polls have bounced all over creation in this election season, but the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll of likely Florida voters bounced Trump’s way.

After consistently running behind Joe Biden in the Sunshine State, Trump held a 51%-47% lead. That’s within the +4.5% error margin, but still, it is something for Republicans to celebrate as they head toward Tuesday’s debate.

The same poll gave the President a 49%-48% lead in Arizona, another state in which he has consistently trailed.

Top Florida Democrats never expected the early margins, which had Biden ahead by double-digits, to hold up. Both sides always expected a tight race, because that’s how Florida elections go.

No Republican has won the presidency without winning Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

 Losers

Dishonorable mention: el Nuevo Herald. The shoe apparently fell on Nancy San Martín, the now-former managing editor of the Spanish edition of the Miami Herald. She resigned after a reader flagged the LIBRE independent, a paid supplement of that newspaper, for a racist and anti-Semitic comment.

The commentary by Roberto Luque Escalona said American Jews support “thieves and arsonists” and equated Black Lives Matter protesters to Nazis.

The resulting outrage prompted the Herald to drop the supplement. Upon further review of LIBRE, it reported that such racist comments had made it into print for months. Leaders admitted they didn’t have a review process for the insert.

 Almost (but not quite) biggest loser: Senator Rick Scott. Florida’s junior Republican Senator and former Governor has shown a penchant for making likely voters for the other party clear as many obstacles as possible to cast a ballot.

It’s what he does, and he just did it again.

Scott introduced a bill to require states to count and report all ballots within 24 hours after polls close on Election Day.

He called it the Verifiable, Orderly, & Timely Election Results (VOTER) Act, but it’s really the Stop The Obvious People That Vote Against Trump Act.

OK, so STOP(tvat) doesn’t have the same acronym ring as Scott’s plan. That doesn’t mean Scott’s not trying to mess with the election any way he can.

Biden likely will attract a record number of mail-in ballots. One theory goes that Trump will likely benefit from in-person voting and hold a solid lead as the midnight hour approaches on Election Night. He will then declare victory, and his supporters will cry foul if subsequent mail ballots turn the election to Biden.

It’s a conspiracy theory, with no factual basis, that Trump has been shouting for months. Scott’s looney butt-kiss on Trump with his proposal is just part of that game plan to block blue votes.

“We need standards nationwide to ensure voters decide the outcomes of elections – not the courts,” Scott said in a press release.

With the election closing in like a runaway freight train, implementing a demand like that on a national scale is impossible.

It gets Scott a headline, though.

But he’s not the biggest loser, no, not this week.

The biggest loser: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban American elected to Congress, is under federal investigation by the Justice Department. CBS Miami reported the feds are checking whether Ros-Lehtinen spent campaign money on personal trips and vacations for her and her family.

The TV station said former staff members were subpoenaed to provide records or appear before a grand jury. The money, the station said, amounts to “tens of thousands of dollars.”

It included a 2017 trip to Walt Disney World with her children and grandchildren.

Her attorney, Jeffrey Weiner, provided a statement to CBS Miami.

“She and her former staff members and volunteers are cooperating fully with the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice,” Weiner said.

“We are gathering the information requested by the Department of Justice and are confident that, if bookkeeping errors were committed, they were due to negligence, and not willful or intentional misconduct by the former congresswoman or anyone on her staff, or her accountants.”

Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, was first elected in a 1989 Special Election after the death of Democrat Claude Pepper. She represented Florida’s 27th Congressional District from then until her retirement in 2018.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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