Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 10.15.23

As the House Speaker spectacle goes on (and on and on), the animosity toward Matt Gaetz is only growing.

Former state Rep. Joe Harding’s legal troubles are finally wrapped up, with Harding being sentenced to four months in prison following charges that he improperly obtained COVID-19 relief money.

Harding’s sentence will be followed by two years of supervised release. But all in all it’s on the lighter side of what Harding could have faced: a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

Such a severe punishment was likely never in the cards, however. Sentencing guidelines would have suggested a 14-month prison sentence. But prosecutors recommended a lesser sentence given Harding’s cooperation.

“In this case, the need for general deterrence is the most important factor, and it weighs in favor of a guideline sentence,” Keen wrote. “However, the Government acknowledges that mitigating circumstances — including Harding’s genuine remorse and exceptional acceptance of responsibility — may warrant a downward variance.”

After news broke of the charges in December 2022, Harding briefly vowed to plead not guilty. But he soon resigned his House seat and eventually pleaded guilty.

His resignation was appropriate given the charges. Then he eventually acknowledged his wrongdoing and will now spend time in prison as a result. Yes, four months is better than 14 months, but any time in prison will be time for reflection for a former elected official like Harding.

We hope he gets the message and that he, as he said last month, will “focus on the future and making this wrong right.”

Now, it’s on to our weekly game of winners and losers.


Honorable mention: Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Wasserman Schultz was part of a congressional delegation in the Middle East when Hamas launched their barbaric attack against Israel on Oct. 7. She and her colleagues visited Israel shortly after the attack, and Wasserman Schultz spoke emotionally earlier this week about the impact of that visit.

“I can’t even begin to describe to you how sickening it was, and horrifying,” Wasserman Schultz said, per Anthony Man of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

“It’s hard to describe the conversations that we had when we got to Israel.”

Recognition is due for Wasserman Schultz who — along with Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Democratic U.S. Reps. Donald Norcross of New Jersey and Jimmy Panetta of California — stopped in Israel following the attack despite U.S. State Department warnings advising otherwise.

The lawmakers could have traveled elsewhere to avoid any security risks. But as Wasserman Schultz explained this week, it was important for members of Congress to appear in solidarity with Israel following the attack.

“To see the vicious savagery, the brutality of the atrocities that were perpetrated on Jews in Israel, simply because they are Jewish because the Hamas charter — this vicious terrorist organization exists only to eradicate Israel and to kill Jews — and to be on the ground … the immediate aftermath was so important because it’s one thing to talk about support for Israel, it’s another thing to demonstrate the United States stands with Israel and will not stand idly by and just allow that kind of carnage and viciousness to occur,” she said.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Jason Pizzo. As the number of registered Republicans has topped the number of registered Democrats in Florida in recent years, the minority party will need to do more than just turn out voters to crawl out of the hole Republicans put them in last cycle.

That said, turnout is still key, and Pizzo, the Senate Democratic Leader-designate, recognizes that starting on typically blue college campuses is a great place to start for that objective. .

Pizzo this week launched a tour of 12 colleges and universities to help push young voters to the polls next year. “Jason recognizes the value, the need, and the urgency, to engage and collaborate with our emerging generation of leaders,” read a Senate Democratic Caucus media release spotlighting the tour.

The Senator hit Florida State University and Florida A&M University this week, and the tour will run all the way until Nov. 28, just over a month before the 2024 Session begins.

Democrats have a lot of work to do to gain ground on Republicans (stop us if you’ve heard that before).

Pizzo is whip smart though, and an effective member of leadership who can deliver an compelling message to young voters who have opted to sit on the sidelines in elections past.

Even if it does help Democrats next cycle, it won’t alone make up the double-digit margins Republicans won by in 2022. But Democrats need to make gains regardless, and Pizzo is an excellent person to lead this outreach effort.

The biggest winner: Marsha Ervin. At last, some sanity in this case. Prosecutors decided to drop charges against Ervin, a 69-year-old woman arrested for purportedly violating Florida’s election laws.

After former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and began contending it was stolen via voter fraud — a lie he still tells now — Gov. Ron DeSantis sought to appease the conspiracy-minded among us that he would come to the rescue and catch the dastardly vote fabricators in the act.

Instead, what we got were arrests of people like Ervin, individuals who often obtained voter cards from the government, only to be told those cards should never have been issued in the first place, and oh by the way, you’re under arrest.

In Ervin’s case, she registered to vote in 2020 while still on probation. Ervin was charged after failing to get medical help for her mother, who was dealing with numerous serious health conditions. Ervin cited the family’s religious beliefs to explain why her mother hadn’t seen a doctor in 15 years.

That’s a tragic case and we definitely do not advocate holing up your elderly parents inside your home and refusing to get them proper care.

But Ervin’s actions which led to her conviction are not the issue here. She got out of prison in 2018 and was on probation when a third-party group reached out with an application to get her registered to vote. Individuals must complete their probation in Florida before registering, however.

“Apparently, there is a group that sends persons like Ms. Ervin forms indicating how they can re-register to vote,” State Attorney Jack Campbell wrote. “These forms appearance is such that many would believe them to be coming from the Supervisor of Elections Office. The Defendant’s application seems to be one of these forms.”

So she registered. She got a voting card from the government. She voted.

This was not illegally casting a vote in the name of a dead person. This wasn’t fabricating votes that didn’t exist. This was a system that dropped the ball and led this woman to believe she could legally vote when she couldn’t. This wasn’t a part of a vast voter fraud conspiracy.

So good on prosecutors from backing off. It’s still a shame these cases were brought in the first place just to assuage people who are ultimately going to find another government conspiracy to be angry with anyway. We absolutely need laws to ensure one person gets one vote only, and we should enforce them. But chasing down old people who were issued voting cards by the government is silly and ineffective.


Dishonorable mention: City & State Florida. City & State Florida, which worked as a sister public to the News Service of Florida, has folded.

The outlet had a good team, led by Editor-in-Chief Jim Rosica, a former member of the Florida Politics. Rosica confirmed Tuesday that the site had folded, saying he wanted to “thank that team for the opportunity to create something pretty much from scratch over the last year and a half.”

The City & State brand developed in New York, but has since expanded into Pennsylvania. With Florida at the center of the political world for the 2024 cycle (two residents are running for the GOP nomination, after all) the company moved last year to open a Florida bureau.

But the media landscape can be tricky (see longtime Tampa Bay Times stalwart C.T. Bowen announcing this week he’s leaving the paper). Despite moves to cover the daily beat, establish a Power 100 list and even launch a magazine, City & State’s Florida arm never quite got off the ground and is now shuttering a year and a half later.

As we said, they had a strong team, and we certainly don’t like to kick our media cohorts while they are down. We wish Jim and the rest nothing but luck in their next moves.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Manatee County Commission. There’s brown-nosing, and then there’s Manatee County dedicating a park to Gov. DeSantis, who still has three years left in his second term and is very much still alive.

Typically, these things are done posthumously (see a recent push to name A1A after Jimmy Buffett) or at the very least when a former notable Florida man or woman has reached their twilight years to cap off a lifetime of achievements. DeSantis is 45 years old and is mounting a presidential bid. He’s still got years to establish his legacy, good or bad.

But a majority of the Manatee County Commission decided to buck precedent and instead pay fealty to DeSantis in exchange, we suppose, for some extra state funding in DeSantis’ final term.

The pick wasn’t without contention, as some Commissioners preferred naming the park based on a local person or location. You know, the way cities and counties normally operate.

But Commissioner Mike Rahn pushed residents to voice support for slapping DeSantis’ name on it. So this week, DeSantis took a break from his presidential campaign to attend the unveiling.

Props to former Commissioner Reggie Bellamy, Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore for voting against the change. But they not only lost the vote, they also lost their seats on the Commission.

Seems like kissing up to those in power has its perks.

The biggest loser: Matt Gaetz. We’ve written multiple times in recent weeks about Gaetz’s mutiny against former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. And for much of that time, Gaetz appeared to be in control, both practically in terms of successfully ousting McCarthy, and politically, as the government did not shut down and Gaetz therefore dodged any ill effects of such an event.

We can also recognize, however, when the tide of public opinion is turning against the Congressman. And as Republicans are now in their third week stumbling around like Mr. Magoo and failing to select a new Speaker, the sustained backlash and anger directed at Gaetz by his opponents in the Republican conference is only building.

That reportedly led to U.S. Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois lunging at Gaetz during a Thursday meeting. That’s a repeat from the original Speaker fight in January, when U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama was pictured being restrained by his colleagues while dressing down Gaetz.

Yes, it took more than Gaetz to vote out McCarthy. But he filed the motion to vacate that triggered this all. And the more time that elapses showing that Gaetz and his cohorts had no viable plan to find a McCarthy replacement, the more blame will lay at his feet as the House sits stalled with a funding deadline closing in and a war breaking out in Israel.

Gaetz is also vocally opposing a stopgap plan of empowering Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a move several Republicans are resisting.

That leaves two likely paths forward: trying to find a consensus among Republicans for a new, permanent Speaker (a process which so far has caused nothing but chaos and where no resolution appears imminent) or moderate Republicans working with Democrats on a temporary solution (an outcome Gaetz would surely not be happy with).

We will note, however, that while overall public opinion may be shifting against Gaetz, that if his ultimate goal is a 2026 run for Governor, this still may not be a losing play.

Yes, he’s upset a lot of power brokers who would likely oppose his bid. But there is a part of the base who backed his ouster motion and is angry that Republicans aren’t coalescing against Gaetz ally Jim Jordan as Speaker. If former President Trump gets behind Gaetz, that may put him over the hump in a crowded Primary.

Gaetz may be getting dumped on by the general population, but it’s the GOP base that decides Primaries. And if the last decade-plus has taught us anything — from government shutdowns to the adoration of Trump, a chaos agent if there ever was one — it’s that the GOP base is fine with some theatrics just to prove a point.

What point? That’s becoming harder to see the more this circus drags on.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


  • He Flew the Cooper

    October 22, 2023 at 7:43 am

    “(see longtime Tampa Bay Times stalwart C.T. Bowen announcing this week he’s leaving the paper)”
    in this time when Americans have lost faith in hulking institutions like the Times, it’s no surprise to see it dwindling into history. We take this lesson from astrophysics: even the biggest, most blazing of stars eventually burns our, shrinks into a dwarf and finally collapses into a black hole. Thus the progressives of old St. Pete. Can Poynter be far behind? (And please take Anderson Cooper with you as you leave the scene.)

    • TJC

      October 22, 2023 at 12:18 pm

      C.T. Bowen is leaving the Tampa Bay Times, in his words, “After 43 years in daily newspapers including 25 at @TB_Times.”
      How your mind turns that into the Times “dwindling into history” is a mental leap only a Trump Sucker could pull off.

      • My Take

        October 22, 2023 at 1:18 pm

        The astrophysics is wrong too.

  • Mark H.

    October 22, 2023 at 1:39 pm

    Want to bet that Gaetz gets primaried next year?

Comments are closed.


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