Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 12.3.23

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Christian and Bridget Ziegler are continuing to try and fight through controversy as calls to resign intensify.

Florida Supreme Court Justices are signaling they are ready to uphold Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension of Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell. But a new report by the Orlando Sentinel shows the backlash against Worrell for the lack of prosecutions in certain cases has been overblown.

The Sentinel does a great job at showing how Worrell’s Office was not simply deciding at will to forgo prosecution in these cases. We encourage you to read their analysis in full.

Sometimes, judges threw out cases after finding an illegal search took place. Other times, the amount of drugs in certain cases simply didn’t meet the legal threshold for “trafficking.” And sometimes, tests submitted by deputies in the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office — whose leader criticized Worrell and helped set in motion her suspension — were insufficient to justify charges, leaving fault with the deputies rather than Worrell’s team.

Sure, Worrell’s Office still made decisions Republicans can latch onto and criticize. And that’s where we are these days in today’s political culture, where political arguments increasingly operate like a courtroom with citizens sitting at one table or another.

What do we mean? Well, in the real world, people should normally take in the same information and adapt their worldview to it, changing their conclusions when new evidence presents itself.

That’s not, however, how a courtroom operates. Once the trial starts, each side is locked into their version of events. The prosecutor/plaintiff is making their case against the defendant. The defense is pushing back. You’re never going to see a prosecutor swap sides mid-trial because the defense made a really good point.

And when new facts come out that runs counter to your narrative? Easy, you either find a way to explain why it’s irrelevant, or you ignore it and hope the other side fails to use it effectively.

Our legal system is set up this way, with a jury weighing in at the end and a judge giving guidance along the way. Having two intractable sides going at it and manipulating facts to tell their own set, conclusive story is a fine way to operate in a system designed for that reality.

But as political ideologies become hardened, real life increasingly looks like a courtroom, where each side of the political aisle is manipulating all incoming information to make their case and half of the country is working toward defeating the other half.

It appears the same will inevitably happen here with the Worrell case. DeSantis made this move to signal to his base that he’s tough as he mounts a presidential run. His view of Worrell as a delinquent, soft-on-crime prosecutor is locked, and his supporters don’t appear ready to budge here either, regardless of what new evidence comes out.

Those new facts will inevitably be explained away or ignored entirely.

That’s a shame when the conversation we should be having is whether a Governor should be this heavy-handed in removing elected officials who are acting in ways he may not like. Will Republicans cheer on Democrats when they do the same?

Of course not, because they’re sitting at the other table.

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

Winners

Honorable mention: Mike Redondo. Redondo is the newly elected Representative in House District 118, succeeding Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin after winning a Special Election Tuesday.

The race between Redondo, a Republican, and Democratic candidate Johnny Farias was far closer than expected. In 2022, DeSantis and Marco Rubio both won the district by more than 30 points. Farias himself lost to Fernandez-Barquin by 36 points. True, that was an unusually good year for Republicans, but Donald Trump also won the district by 17 points in 2020.

Redondo, meanwhile, escaped Tuesday with just a 6-point win. In a low turnout election, he won by about 540 votes.

But a win is a win, and Redondo is now set to serve out the remainder of Fernandez-Barquin’s term after the Governor appointed Fernandez-Barquin to serve as Miami-Dade County Clerk.

Residency questions about Redondo have swirled since his win. Questions were raised this week about whether Redondo’s permanent residence is in HD 118 after Redondo recently bought a condo in House District 113 requiring him to live there for one year. Redondo said he signed a lease within HD 118 earlier this year and that he wasn’t aware whether the arrangement violates his condo mortgage clause.

It remains to be seen how that issue will shake out or whether it’s a real threat to Redondo’s ability to serve in the district. It’s possible this is simply an issue to be hashed out with the mortgage lender rather than a residency issue. Farias has floated a formal challenge, however.

But as it stands, Redondo pulled out a win and will help the GOP maintain their House supermajority. And we’ll keep our eyes on this story as it moves forward.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: DeSantis. DeSantis appeared to come out on top in this week’s presidential debate. Whether it will do anything to change the trajectory of the race is an open question, however.

FiveThirtyEight and The Washington Post have been teaming up to measure candidate support before and after each debate of the GOP Presidential Primary cycle. They’ve mostly found DeSantis performing at or near the top of the field.

This week, 30% of respondents said DeSantis “performed best,” putting him 7 points ahead of second-place Nikki Haley (23%). Only 7% said he “performed worst,” which was also the best number and slightly better than Haley’s 9% in that metric.

That’s good news for DeSantis, with the Iowa caucuses taking place next month.

But did that praise move the needle? Not necessarily. The same survey saw 55% of voters open to considering DeSantis before the debate. That put him slightly ahead of Haley (53%) and 7 points behind Trump (62%).

Post-debate, each of those candidates moved just 1 point. DeSantis gained 1 point of support, while Haley and Trump each lost a point.

That is, nothing much changed.

Every debate, DeSantis performs well enough. The polling has shown that. Analysts agreed this time around as well.

But as we’ve noted before, those debate “wins” have coincided with a continued collapse of DeSantis’ poll numbers. Part of that could be a continued drop in viewership as Trump refuses to face his opponents onstage. A win among debate watchers means less as a smaller portion of the overall electorate tunes in.

This is a weekly column though, and DeSantis did perform well at the highest-profile GOP event of this week. He deserves credit there. And his chief rival on the stage in Haley had her weakest debate performance yet as her opponents, including DeSantis, were increasingly aggressive as Haley has risen in the polls and attracted major donors.

But in the end, these performances would be perfect for a candidate leading the race. Show off your conservative bona fides, don’t make any unforced errors and hold onto your edge. For a candidate needing a Hail Mary to catch up to Trump, it’s not clear this will be enough to change the game.

The biggest winner: Florida homeowners. We are still a few weeks away from the start of the 2024 Session, and a lot can still change, but the Governor’s proposed budget this week had some positive signs for Florida’s homeowners.

Two items jumped out. The Governor is proposing $409 million go toward property insurance relief for those dealing with skyrocketing costs. Another part of the budget fully funds affordable housing initiatives, drawing praise from advocates.

Once again, this is early. These funding levels aren’t set in stone. The Legislature isn’t even meeting yet, and these are simply the Governor’s requests. Legislators are the ones who write the budget.

But at the very least, this is a signal that there is support from the Governor’s Office for more relief for homeowners. And with Republicans holding supermajorities in both chambers, they can easily choose to work with a Republican Governor to accomplish these goals.

Whether that relief comes in the precise form as appears in the Governor’s budget proposal remains to be seen. But homeowners have reason to hope that some help is coming from Tallahassee next year, with few signs the private housing and property insurance markets are close to being fixed.

Losers

Dishonorable mention: NCAA. “Holy shit, this is really going to suck to do this.”

Those were reportedly the words of one member of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, who left the Florida State University (FSU) Seminoles out of the College Football Playoff despite FSU going undefeated, winning a Power 5 conference and entering the penultimate week as the No. 4 team. Oh, and the No. 1 team then lost, dropping out of the Top 4, meaning FSU should have been No. 3 at worst.

Instead, two one-loss teams (Alabama and Texas) leapfrogged them, and the rest is history. Literally, this will be a historical nugget for NCAA football forever. It’s the only time it has happened in the College Football Playoff era.

And it’s almost certain it’s the only time it ever will. The College Football Playoff is expanding to 12 teams next year, a surefire way of avoiding these difficult decisions. Sure, the No. 13 team will be upset each year. But it’s far harder to make the case that any such team would be a serious national championship contender anyway.

In weighing whether this was the right decision, two distinct camps formed. One argued that results on the field should matter. FSU played in a major conference, beat every team in front of them (even with their star quarterback injured) after scheduling a tough nonconference opponent in LSU to start the season, and went into the final week as a Top 4 team. What else could they possibly have done?

Then there is the eye test camp. They argue that with Jordan Travis in at QB, FSU was at best a long shot to win the title. It’s not that they couldn’t, stranger things have happened before. But Texas and Alabama were more ready right now, regardless of what happened over the course of the entire season, to seriously compete for the title.

The former camp makes a clear-cut case that FSU should have been in. For the latter, it’s a fair case to exclude FSU, but even that requires an argument that Alabama looked better, when they struggled in multiple games over the course of the season.

The only crystal clear truth here is this: the playoff should not be, and never should have been, limited to four teams. We have 5 major conferences for God’s sake (for now). Why were there only four playoff spots to go around, especially as non-Power 5 teams repeatedly made the case that they belonged in the playoff over the years as well.

Look nowhere else than the fact that the NCAA is expanding next year! Is 12 teams the sweet spot? It may be a bit of overkill, but putting in at least the best eight teams would have solved the most difficult calls over the last several years. The NCAA would have loved an easy final call in the last year of the four-team playoff era. Instead, they got the season which most clearly showed what a joke the whole setup is to begin with.

The decision was heart-breaking for FSU’s players, all of whom played their tails off and fought through adversity to win out. Hats off to them, and all eyes are now on the bowl matchup with Georgia. It will be interesting to see who the Governor will bet on.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Florida Atlantic University. An audit commissioned by the Board of Governors (BOG) is formally recommending FAU restart its search for a new President.

The audit cited transparency concerns, specifically the shielding of a questionnaire asking search committee members to privately rank preferred applicants.

That’s the one item we acknowledged was a legitimate gripe with the process back in July, when the BOG stepped in to save state Rep. Randy Fine after he was left off the list of finalists. Now that Fine and the Governor have had a falling out, don’t be surprised if he remains absent from the next list.

Nevertheless, interrupting FAU’s search process appeared to be a political move from the start. Yes, state-level Republicans have been selective about when they think the public has a right to be informed on these types of processes. But FAU also shouldn’t have given the state any reason to question the search, given the type of scrutiny they were under at the time to deliver a win for the Governor here.

“The Presidential Search Committee’s use of an anonymous preference survey to narrow the presidential applicants to replace or limit discussion at a future meeting violated Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law,” the audit stated.

FAU Board of Trustees Chair Brad Levine got much of the blame in the new audit report, even triggering a recommendation that he sit out the next round. The BOG will now have a say about what to do going forward, and how many of the audit’s recommendations they will adopt.

The biggest loser: Christian and Bridget Ziegler. The Zieglers were in the exact same spot in last week’s column, and they land here again amid increased pressure on them to step away from public-facing roles.

To recap: a woman who had a previous sexual encounter with both Christian and Bridget Ziegler is accusing Christian Ziegler of rape due to a separate encounter. New details show Christian Ziegler tried to set up another three-way with the woman. But by the time she responded, Christian said Bridget was unavailable. The woman then tried to back out, but he came over anyway.

As those details emerged this week, more and more Republican leaders have called on Christian Ziegler to resign as Republican Party of Florida Chair. That includes U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, House Speaker Paul Renner, the entire Florida Cabinet, former Florida GOP Chair and now-state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, and the Sarasota County Republican Party, based in Ziegler’s home county.

The Florida GOP has also begun the process to sanction Ziegler, calling a meeting for Dec. 17.

Newly recovered video of the extramarital encounter, filmed on Ziegler’s cell phone, have called into question at least some of the woman’s claims. But that text message of her seeking to call off the meeting still lingers, and it remains to be seen how the video will impact the criminal investigation.

Regardless, it comes after major movement against Ziegler and it’s hard to see these leaders pulling back on their calls for him to step down.

There is also the (admittedly far less important) issue of Christian and Bridget Ziegler leading the cause against LGBTQ topics being taught in schools while being involved in a three-way of their own.

Though Bridget Ziegler has been accused of no criminal wrongdoing, she has still stepped down from a leadership role with a conservative nonprofit. And Karen Rose, arguably her strongest ally on the Sarasota County School Board, is also calling for Bridget Ziegler to resign her seat on that body.

As we said last week, Christian Ziegler is entitled to due process and the criminal case may ultimately go nowhere. But this is a case of moral hypocrisy at the very least, and it seems clear that Republican leaders don’t want to tie themselves in knots defending the Zieglers as they hold on to significant levers of power.

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].


One comment

  • She’s worse than he is

    December 10, 2023 at 10:55 am

    Both Zieglers are a pox on our state.

Comments are closed.


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