Back in the day, a heavy hitter’s sway could be measured by the contents of their Rolodex. With a spin of the dial, they could come up with a card inscribed with the phone number of somebody who could Make Things Happen.
In 2020, Tallahasseeans Brice and Houston Barnes decided to work their Rolodexes (metaphorically, like other office devices, it has been supplanted by smartphones and spreadsheets) in support of Democratic campaigns, organizations and causes.
Most notably, the couple went all-in for Joe Biden, working their network and raising more than $3 million to support the President-elect’s campaign, transition and inauguration.
The pair also managed to raise more than $200,000 — in one night — for the campaigns of Georgia U.S. Senators-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and substantial amounts for other groups, including Latino Victory, the Clinton Foundation, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Brice Barnes described how early last year, when “the primaries were over and we were home during the lockdown of COVID, we decided to get very involved on a volunteer basis and raise money. I think this Zoom environment where everyone is home lent itself for us to build and use our national network in some areas of impact.”
Barnes was recruited to Tallahassee in 2014 by Allison Tant (at the time chair of the Florida Democratic Party and now a freshman legislator in the Florida House) to be finance director for the state party. She now owns Greenprint Strategies, a political fundraising and strategy consultancy, so Barnes had spent years developing donors for Democrats in the South and across the country.
The Barneses tapped high-dollar donors and cast a wider net by encouraging others to stroke a check.
“When the primary field settled very quickly in 2020, and Joe Biden was the presumptive nominee, we were very anxious to get behind him and talk to people about why they should be behind him,” she explained. “In terms of our network, a lot of people were giving for the first time. Some of it was an anti-Trump. And some of it was just restore democracy, and some of it was with hard-core Democrats. It was kind of across the board, depending on who we were talking to.”
With the tried-and-true method of house parties and fundraisers unavailable to them, “everything was done virtually by Zoom events.” But phone calls also were essential, too.
“One of the things that Brice has learned being in this industry and passed on to me is that people — especially larger donors — but everybody, even the smaller donors, they want that connection,” Houston Barnes said. “They want to have your cellphone number. They want to talk to you. They want to be involved in the process.”
While Houston Barnes’ day job is as an attorney specializing in franchises, he said as a couple, they decided a few years ago to make Democratic politics focus. “We wanted to be more than just a business. Democratic politics was a passion of ours and making the country a better place,” he said. “The resource we had is connections, and we wanted to be donors and raisers in our own right and get involved that way.”
One of those events brought Biden to the Barnes’ home in 2018 for a fundraiser supporting U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson‘s unsuccessful reelection race. “So we have a personal connection … to Joe Biden over the years,” Houston Barnes said.
When asked why the Barneses were so gung-ho on things Democratic, he mentioned their school-aged sons.
“This passion of ours is helping build a better world for our children,” he said. “And we think the most effective way we can do that is through our large national network of donors, friends and contacts, both personally and professionally.”
In the meantime, Brice Barnes has set her sights on 2022. “There’s a lot of work to be done in Florida, and I think Georgia is a good example of what’s possible,” she said. “I think ’22 could be a good opportunity to remind folks what it is Democrats can do for them personally.”
Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Peter Schorsch, Drew Wilson, Renzo Downey, Jason Delgado and the staff of Florida Politics.
The “Take-away 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:
Anti-violent protest legislation fast-tracked — In the wake of the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Republican leadership in Florida fast-tracked legislation increasing penalties for violent protests. The insurrection, carried out by President Donald Trump supporters, underscores the need for heightened criminal penalties, Republicans argue, regardless of political motivation. Sen. Danny Burgess and Rep. Juan Fernandez Barquin are carrying the legislation, which Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls first announced in September, following Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd and as a counter to the “Defund the Police” movement.
Florida investigates vaccine line cutters — Florida has launched an investigation into reports that a West Palm Beach nursing home reserved COVID-19 vaccines, intended for its residents and staff, for its board of directors and donors. DeSantis said Thursday the state started the investigation “as soon as we found out about it.” The Department of Health has concluded its investigation into MorseLife Health System chief executive Keith Myers, and Florida Inspector General Melinda Miguel is investigating the recent allegations. DeSantis expects more updates to come soon.
COVID-19 liability bills filed — Sprowls vowed Wednesday that the House of Representatives would prioritize legislation to protect Florida businesses from “frivolous” related to COVID-19. Legislation filed that day by Sen. Jeff Brandes and Rep. Lawrence McClure would extend protections to businesses, schools, nonprofits and religious institutions who make a “good-faith effort” to follow government health guidelines. The protections would apply retroactively. Sprowls argues the bill’s language is the most aggressive proposed liability protections in the country. Twenty-one states already have COVID-19 liability legislation. Sprowls has requested that the House Health and Human Services Committee discuss protections for health care providers next week.
House targets vaccine fraudsters — Sprowls is also highlighting a bill creating penalties for vaccine-related fraud schemes. That bill is the only one on the agenda Thursday for the newly-created Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee. The nationwide vaccine rollout began in December, but vaccines will become more widely available in the coming months. Already, vaccines are available to people 65 and older, including some of the people most susceptible to COVID-19 and fraud. “It is a priority of the Florida House to protect Floridians who just want to get a COVID vaccine without being fleeced,” Sprowls said. Rep. Ardian Zika is sponsoring the legislation. No companion bill has yet been filed in the Senate.
Prioritizing efficient hospitals — Vaccine distributors with doses left over at the end of each week might have future allocations redirected to facilities that are administering shots with greater efficiency, DeSantis warned Monday. “We do not want the vaccine to just be idle at some hospital system,” he said. There are legitimate reasons some hospitals might be sitting on vaccines, he acknowledged Thursday, “but if you have two weeks worth, we know we’re going to continue to get more, so let’s take some of that and send that to places that are going to be doing a good job and doing it quickly.”
— 1,423,510 FL residents (+122,982 since Dec. 31)
— 25,742 Non-FL residents (+2,955 since Dec. 31)
— 11,806 Travel related
— 531,999 Contact with a confirmed case
— 15,484 Both
— 864,221 Under investigation
— 65,063 in FL
— 23,011 in FL
Rebuild Florida expands
The Rebuild Florida Business Loan expanded its lending guidelines this week.
DeSantis announced that up to $2.5 million in financing is now available for a single business applicant through the loan fund.
The money is targeted at industries the state identified as strategic for future growth and resiliency.
“My administration is committed to ensuring that Florida businesses remain strong and resilient,” DeSantis said in a news release. “The expansion of lending guidelines for the Rebuild Florida Business Loan Fund program allows the state to provide access to capital that certain businesses may otherwise not be able to access.”
Small businesses in Florida can also access up to $40 million to “create and enhance the diversification and resiliency of Florida’s economy,” the news release added.
What’s more, an additional $10 million is available to help small businesses impacted by Hurricane Michael in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Leon, Liberty, Taylor, Wakulla and Washington counties.
“Now more than ever, it is important for DEO to continue to champion programs that help Florida businesses gain access to affordable capital,” said Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle. “The expansion of lending guidelines for the Rebuild Florida Business Loan Fund is an example of our commitment to ensure Florida businesses have resources available to continue to grow and prosper.”
Diploma mill shuttered
Attorney General Ashley Moody shutdown a Florida diploma mill this week and secured restitution for its students.
Ellenwood Academy in Riverview is accused of marketing illegitimate high school diplomas to consumers nationwide. Despite a $195 enrollment cost, the school had no faculty and provided no instructions.
Joseph Williams owns the diploma mill, a news release said.
“For many, obtaining a high school education or equivalent diploma is a steppingstone to a better career and more prosperous life,” Moody said. “It is deeply discouraging that the defendants in this case took advantage of those aspirations to rip off students attempting to work toward a better life. On top of taking fees from consumers for spurious diplomas, Ellenwood Academy also cost some graduates their jobs once employers discovered their diplomas were not meaningfully accredited.”
The school’s website wrongfully claimed to issue accredited high school diplomas.
Williams awarded diplomas to students when they passed an online exam that allowed unlimited attempts.
Students were awarded monetary relief, including consumer restitution, civil penalties and fees.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office encourages those enrolled with Ellenwood Academy to contact the Attorney General’s office online or by phone at 1 (866) 9NO-SCAM.
Moody stressed to Floridians this week to beware of misleading webpages charging for vaccine appointments.
“Consumer Protection investigators and criminal prosecutors in my office are aggressively pursuing reports of scammers taking money in exchange for phony COVID-19 vaccine reservations,” Moody said. “If you have been a victim of this scam, please contact my office so we can end this fraud and help protect those seeking vaccinations.”
The warning comes as scammers begin to use Eventbrite, a popular event scheduling website, to pose as county health departments. The scammers often take payments in exchange for fake COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
Moody noted that states are offering vaccines for free, not the federal government. While some Florida counties are indeed using Eventbrite, she stressed that no county is charging for inoculations.
Moody offered several tips to help protect consumers. Among them, Moody said that any pop-up ad soliciting vaccines is likely a scam.
“Know that anyone asking for money in exchange for an appointment is a scam,” she added.
Moody finally encouraged all Floridians who receive a suspicious solicitation to contact the Attorney General’s Office online or by phone at 1 (866) 9NO-SCAM.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and the Office of Energy in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released the Florida Electric Vehicle Roadmap this week.
The Florida EV Roadmap is the first comprehensive investigation into the current status and future needs of EV charging infrastructure in Florida.
Florida, the third-largest state, is also home to the nation’s third-most electric vehicles, with 60,000 registered light-duty electric vehicles. The state also ranks third in EV charging capacity with 3,907 Level 2 charging plugs and 844 direct current fast charges (DCFC) plugs.
According to the report, Florida currently has enough chargers to meet demand through 2025.
The Roadmap plots out where those plugs are and recommend sites for where new plugs should meet the state’s growing needs and planning recommendations on topics including permitting, emergency evacuation needs, and EV education.
“Electric vehicles are critical to reducing energy consumption, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating a sustainable transportation system in Florida,” Fried said. “As home to the state’s Office of Energy, we are committed to establishing this roadmap that will guide the development of the nation’s best, most efficient, most equitable EV network.”
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a legislative leader on EVs and emergent mobility, added, “By 2030, 15—25% of all new cars sold in Florida will be electric. This will be the biggest transition we have seen in transportation in one hundred years.
“The ramifications of this shift will transform the automobile industry. It will require new infrastructure investments, and it will require us to re-imagine mobility in Florida. The Florida EV Roadmap will help us to identify challenges and opportunities that lie on the road ahead.”
Financial Wellness Month
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is recognizing January as Financial Wellness Month by encouraging Floridians to study the warning signs of a financial scam.
To that end, Patronis offered Floridians several tips.
“With people spending more time than ever in front of their computers due to COVID, cybercriminals have ample opportunities to target their next victim,” Patronis said. “While budgeting, savings, planning for retirement, and good credit management are important tools to keep your finances in order, a critical part of any financial plan is fraud prevention. Knowing what to look for and how to spot fraud before it happens can help ensure your family’s financial security.”
Patronis said Floridians should monitor their account balances. If anything seems suspicious, report it.
He also encouraged consumers to purchase goods with a credit card instead of cash or debit. Credit cards offer more protection against fraud, he said.
Speaking of fraud, Patronis said: “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.” He encouraged residents to be wary of unfamiliar merchants and or items at prices far below average.
Fraud victims or those suspecting fraud can contact the Department of Financial Services online.
Patronis released a statement this week after two credit reporting agencies reaffirmed Florida’s General Obligation AAA credit rating.
Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings reaffirmed the ratings just before the new year. The AAA credit rating is the highest long-term rating awarded, according to the Moody’s Investors Service website.
“As Florida continues to recover following the pandemic, I am pleased that both credit rating agencies have reaffirmed a Triple-A Bond status to Florida’s General Obligation Credit Rating,” Patronis said. “This announcement speaks to Florida’s sound financial management and commitment to smart investment decisions. By managing our finances in a prudent way, we will be able to continue to get our state back on its feet following the impact of COVID-19, and build a better, stronger Florida.”
In an excerpt from Moody’s report provided in a news release, Moody’s said Florida “has a proven track record of rebounding from severe weather events while the two main state-sponsored insurance and reinsurance entities have built up strong claims-paying resources and reduced exposure to future liabilities.”
In an excerpt from Finch Ratings provided via news release, the agency noted Florida’s “sound fiscal management” and “suitable reserves.”
The agency also recognized Florida’s commitment to paying down debt over the past decade.
Patronis, acting as State Fire Marshal, discussed vaccine rollout and fire service needs this week on a call with the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and Florida Professional Fighters.
“On the call today, we discussed progress on vaccine distribution to first responders as well as how firefighters can be an incredible asset in the war against the coronavirus,” Patronis said.
“With the vast majority of firefighters serving as paramedics and EMTs, local county health units have an incredible workforce that’s ready to step up and get these vaccines distributed in our communities. In different parts of the state, firefighters have been utilized to benefit the community, so we want to do our part in getting the word out. For example, the deployment of vaccines is being handled by the local fire services within St. Johns’ County.
Patronis described Florida’s fire service community as “instrumental” in the COVID-19 fight.
He called for first responders to be vaccinated as soon as possible,
“It’s also critical we get our first responders vaccinated, and so as vaccines become available, we’re working to ensure they’re prioritized,” Patronis said. “Since March 2020, hundreds of Florida’s firefighters have been infected, which has at times impacted the workforce. It’s important our heroes protect themselves and get vaccinated when the opportunity presents itself.”’
Instagram of the week
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The Department of Economic Opportunity’s Rebuild Florida General Planning Support Program has awarded nearly $20 million to 37 counties, municipalities, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations across the state.
DeSantis on Friday announced those grants, which funds programs to help the state withstand future disasters. The program is funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant — Mitigation program.
“The resiliency of the state of Florida remains a top priority for my administration as we approach the second anniversary of my executive order to achieve more now for Florida’s environment,” DeSantis said. “I’m pleased to build on our environmental achievements with this first-of-its-kind mitigation program that will provide Florida’s communities the opportunity to become more resilient to future storms.”
The largest grant, worth more than $2 million, is going to Miami-Dade County to develop a mitigation plan for community stakeholders and conduct a mitigation assessment on critical facilities.
“Under Gov. DeSantis’ leadership, Florida has become better prepared for future disasters, and the Rebuild Florida General Planning Support Program will take these communities’ storm preparedness to the next level,” DEO Director Eagle said. “We look forward to supporting these communities as they rebuild and prepare for the future.”
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reminds motorists to move over and slow down when they see emergency lights.
It’s the law.
“Each move-over related crash or citation is not simply a statistic; it represents a first responder or service professional — all with family and loved ones — who were carelessly put in danger while trying to serve and protect Floridians along the roadway,” said FLHSMV Executive Director Terry L. Rhodes. “Please, give law enforcement, first responders, and service and utility professionals space to safely do their jobs by moving over or slowing down — it’s the law, and it could save a life.”
Watch a video reminder to ‘move over’ by clicking the image below:
In 2020, there were 159 crashes and over 12,000 citations issued for motorists failing to move over in Florida, according to officials.
The Florida Highway Patrol is partnering with the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Police Chiefs Association, Florida Sheriffs Association, and AAA throughout January to recognize January as Move Over Month.
“Florida’s Move Over law helps provide a safe work environment for first responders and everyone who delivers critical services along our roadways,” said Florida Highway Patrol Colonel Gene Spaulding. “Please do your part while traveling our roadways and abide by the Move Over law to help protect our emergency personnel and their loved ones.”
Teach to Lead
Rep. Yvonne Hinson has filed two bills to improve Florida’s primary school education system.
The first bill (HB 127) would create a program called “Teach to Lead,” encouraging teachers to improve their peers through new leadership opportunities. The bill also asks teachers to be more involved in policymaking.
Hinson said passing the bill would improve student achievement and close Florida’s education gap to other states.
“‘Teach to Lead’ envisions a Florida in which teachers are valued as the foremost experts in instruction and, as such, are leaders in developing, informing and implementing education policy,” she added. “This would increase teacher effectiveness, which impacts learning disparities in our children.”
The second bill (HB 129) would raise corporate income taxes by 1 percentage point to 6.5% to support the Florida Education Finance Program. Rep. Anna Eskamani is co-sponsoring that bill.
Both bills are Hinson’s first bills filed since she was elected to the House in November. She is a former educator and school principal.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues to create a stronger and more prosperous Florida by investing our resources into educating the next generation,” Hinson said.
Break the chain
Rep. Emily Slosberg of Boca Raton filed legislation this week that would require a tethered animal to be attended to and supervised at all times.
“Unfortunately, we have repeatedly seen dogs and cats tethered in inhumane conditions across the state. Many are kept in deplorable conditions for their entire lives. Imagine living your entire life chained up, without clean water, without social contact,” Slosberg said.
“These bills are crucial to fighting these cruel living conditions and creating safer environments for the animals we love the most.”
Slosberg’s proposal, HB 177, has garnered attention from The League of Human Voters’ Florida Chapter.
“Countless chained dogs have strangled themselves and died from heat exhaustion, not to mention the neglect of living on a chain 24/7,” said Renee Rivard, the Legislative Representative for The League of Humane Voters’ Florida Chapter.
“The two goals that we want to accomplish with an anti-dog chaining law are public safety and safety for the dog. A law that requires an able-bodied person to be present while the dog is tethered will prevent the tragedies and neglect we have seen.”
If signed into law, the measure would take effect July 1.
Legislators in uniform
Florida Veterans Foundation recognizes the 21 members of the Legislature that are military members or veterans with a social media program this January and February.
Beginning this week, FVF is promoting those lawmakers and their achievements, including military services. The group will routinely post a lawmaker’s short bio on its Facebook page.
“We encourage you to share this background so that Floridians know the military heritage that exists in the Legislature and how some legislators are serving their country in two ways, by being a legislator and a service member,” FVF said.
Six members are currently reservists or Florida National Guard members. Sen. Burgess and Reps. Bryan Avila, Mike Giallombardo and Anthony Sabatini are currently serving in the Florida National Guard. Reps. Andrew Learned and Fiona McFarland are reservists in the United States Navy.
Before joining the Senate, Burgess was the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ executive director.
Among the retirees is Rep. Patt Maney, who was inducted into the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame in 2018. He survived an explosion while deployed to Afghanistan, and after recovering from the significant injuries sustained during the attack, he returned to the bench as one of Okaloosa County’s longest-serving judges.
Bios on all 21 lawmakers are available at helpflvets.org/veteran-legislators.
The Office of Sheriff in Florida turns 200 this year.
The first Sheriffs of Florida were appointed in 1821, before the Civil War and before Florida became a state, when Gov. Andrew Jackson issued the Jackson Ordinance and established Florida’s first two counties: Escambia in the west and St. Johns in the east.
Jackson named James Hannam Sheriff of St. Johns County, and Henri Peire Sheriff of Escambia County.
Two centuries later, there are 67 counties and 67 Sheriffs. While many have been appointed over the years, today they are elected in every county except Miami-Dade, which is set to start electing their Sheriff in 2024.
The Office of Sheriff was founded to protect residents and enforce the law. Today’s Sheriffs are still charged with those same duties while also serving as public safety leaders, community liaisons, and law enforcement advocates.
While the responsibilities of Florida’s Sheriffs have changed, so have their training, learning, and leadership roles.
Through smart law enforcement solutions, today’s Sheriffs are working to break cycles of crime and change the lives of troubled youth with programs like the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch and mentorships.
They have also established best-in-class training and certifications for law enforcement and corrections professionals to make Florida communities safer.
More information about Florida Sheriffs is available on www.flsheriffs.org.
To watch a video honoring the anniversary, click on the image below: