Scott Powers, Author at Florida Politics

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

Democrats push Hurricane Maria response as campaign issue; Republicans cite efforts

On the one-year mark of Hurricane Maria’s devastating landfall on Puerto Rico, Florida Democrats are charging that Republicans in Washington and Tallahassee neglected the island while Republicans are countering with statements on efforts they undertook.

The bottom line may be the still-hobbled island, parts of which went months without adequate power, drinking water, and health care, while thousands of Puerto Ricans at least temporarily relocated to Florida. Many of them are still here, and many still struggle to find housing and help.

Democrats in particular charged that the struggles on the island and for many Puerto Ricans who came to Florida can be blamed in large part on the inadequate responses from President Donald Trump. And in a press call Thursday they also charged that Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Republican gubernatorial nominee U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis cannot hide from their long and deep ties to Trump, regardless of statements they may have made recently seeking to distance themselves from him on Puerto Rico.

“We know that post-Maria there was a catastrophic failure by the administration in its response to fellow U.S. citizens, not just in Puerto Rico but in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Democratic state Rep. Robert Asencio of Miami said in the press call organized by the Florida Democratic Party. “That is at the direction of, or at the administration of, our President.”

“They [Scott and DeSantis] are fully aligned,” added Democratic state Rep. Amy Mercado. “They can’t do anything without the President’s blessing.”

Democrats also charged that Florida’s efforts failed to adequately address the housing needs of Puerto Rico refugees in the state or to provide any “wrap-around case management” services that Democrats had requested in the days after the storm.

“It’s a shame that we haven’t really moved to help these families in our state as we promised a year ago,” said state Sen. Victor Torres of Orlando.

In various statements and letters they released Thursday, a number of Republicans pointed to actions taken by Scott’s administration and by the federal government, while allowing that the problems simply were overwhelming. Scott proclaimed a commitment to continue helping at a rally Tuesday in a Puerto Rican region of Orlando. He is in Puerto Rico on Thursday to join with the island’s leaders to commemorate the storm, his eighth trip to the island since the storm. He also ordered that Florida’s flags be flown at half-staff Thursday in sympathy.

“The days, weeks and months that followed have been tough,” Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs wrote in a statement Thursday. “The widespread devastation left in the wake of this catastrophic natural disaster put many island residents in dire straights. But it also provided Florida with an opportunity to shine as we welcomed many Puerto Ricans to the Sunshine State.”

Noting the efforts to welcome storm refugees with centers directing them to services and efforts to eliminate much red tape for social assistance, employment and education as families relocated here with nothing, Cortes concluded, “I’m proud of the way Florida has given our fellow Americans from Puerto Rico a warm welcome.”

The White House also put out a statement declaring, “The Federal Government has helped lead a historic recovery effort in Puerto Rico in the year since Hurricane Maria hit.” It cited more than $25 billion in aid and other efforts including, “the longest sustained domestic air mission of food and water response in our history.”

Florida’s Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to Trump Thursday urging him to “renew his commitment to the long-term stability of those impacted by the storm.” Rubio’s letter, in the first sentence, declared that the storm “contributing to the deaths of an estimated 2,975 people,” a clear break with Trump, who outraged many last week by tweeting that he believes that estimated death toll is fake news pushed by his political enemies.

Scott and DeSantis, in their own tweets, both also have disavowed the president’s claims about the death toll being fake.

Nonetheless, those Trump tweets continued the pattern the president has asserted from the beginning that the federal efforts toward Puerto Rico were historically strong, not slow and inadequate. Those claims remain at the heart of the awkward position many Florida Republicans are in, and which the Democrats are moving forward to highlight in the campaigns this fall, in the battle for votes for the estimated 1.2 million Puerto Ricans living in Florida. Full electricity was not restored on the island until last month, and reports throughout the year indicated much of the island was hampered so much by inadequate recovery that thousands of people died from while many others who fled to Florida continue to struggle to adjust.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum pledged not just hurricane aid but future partnerships with the island on cultural and other exchanges, in an open letter to the Puerto Rican community that he released Thursday afternoon.

“I still believe, as many of you do, that the way in which our government responded to our fellow U.S. citizens was a complete disaster,” Gillum wrote. “You deserved better. Puerto Rico deserved better. Our nation deserved better. And again, I want you to know here in the state of Florida we stand in solidarity with you.”

DeSantis’s campaign sought to address the matter last week with a statement from his Communications Director Stephen Lawson.

“Ron DeSantis has always worked to help the Puerto Rican community, both on the Island and here in Florida. As chairman of the National Security Subcommittee, he conducted an oversight hearing earlier this year to identify deficiencies in the federal response to Hurricane Maria. He has worked alongside Rep. Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon to secure support for rebuilding efforts. In August, he visited the island to meet with elected leaders and get the latest briefing from FEMA regarding recovery efforts,” Lawson wrote. “Ron DeSantis is committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community, especially after such a tragic loss of life. He doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated. Ron is focused on continuing to help our Puerto Rican neighbors recover and create opportunities for those who have moved to Florida succeed.”

Veterans’ businesses group endorses Bobby Olszewski in HD 44

Republican state Rep. Robert “Bobby O” Olszewski has been endorsed by the Florida Association of Veteran-Owned Businesses for his re-election in Florida House District 44, his campaign announced.

The group representing military veterans seeks to promote and unite established and start-up companies owned by veterans and disabled veterans throughout the state of Florida, a pool estimated at more than 180,000.

Olszewski faces Democratic former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson in the battle for HD 44, which covers southwest Orange County.

“Our state is home to many active armed service members in addition to our veterans who have chosen to live here in Florida after their military service, adding so much to our quality of life. We need to ensure our veterans have the ability to prosper after their sacrifice to our nation while growing our economy throughout Florida,”  Olszewski stated in a news release issued by his campaign.

Bill Cowles contends ACLU rejected-votes study used ‘incorrect data’

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles is calling out as flawed an ACLU-produced study that found county elections offices’ had high rejections of mail-in ballots, especially in some counties like Orange.

Cowles office released a statement late Wednesday charging that his office had determined before the study’s release that it was using 2016 election data submitted to the state in January 2017. That data contained not just ballot rejection information, the statement said, but also numbers on undeliverable vote-by-mail ballots. The statement said Cowles’ office sought to alert the ACLU in advance of the report’s release that the study apparently was using incorrect data that would have inflated some rejection rates.

The ACLU of Florida study, “Vote-By-Mail Ballots Cast in Florida,” reported a higher rejection rate in the 2012 and 2016 general elections for mail ballots than those cast in person, with ballots cast by younger and minority voters more likely to get rejected. The study found that some counties, particularly Orange and Miami-Dade, had particularly high rejection rates.

Cowles office said it sought to bring to the attention of the study’s chief researcher, Dan Smith, that the data he was using may have included the undeliverable ballot numbers. Orange officials also sought to alert the ACLU of Florida in advance of the report’s release on Wednesday that the study might be using bad data, Cowles office said in the statement.

“Notwithstanding these representations, the report the ACLU produced today failed to modify or even annotate the incorrect data contained in the “rejection” total for Orange County Vote-by-Mail ballots cast in Florida in the 2016 General Election,” the Orange County statement declares.

First two unions weigh in with Tracey Kagan in HD 29

Democratic Florida House candidate Tracy Kagan has gotten the backing of the first two labor union groups, the Florida AFL-CIO and the Seminole UniServe PAC, weighing in on this year’s House District 29 election, her campaign announced Wednesday.

“Labor unions aren’t just important—they’re a matter of survival for the middle class,” Kagan stated in a news release from her campaign. “Wealth inequality is skyrocketing in Florida and across the country, and collective bargaining power is a key toward closing that gap.”

And in this district, they could become more active than in most.

Kagan, a Longwood lawyer, is running against Republican incumbent state Rep. Scott Plakon, a Sanford publisher, in HD 29 in Central Seminole County.

Plakon is expected to have the union target label on his back in this year’s election, as he has pushed bills the past two sessions that would have forced public unions to recertify if they couldn’t sustain minimum thresholds of dues-paying members. Unions fought the bills vigorously.

The AFL-CIO and UniServe are the first two labor organizations to join Kagan’s campaign with an endorsement, and she had not yet received any union money for her campaign, at least not through  the most recent campaign finance reporting deadline, Aug. 31. However, she had only just won the Democratic primary for the district thee days prior to that reporting date, and she had run against an opponent, Darryl Block, who had strong union ties.

The Florida AFL-CIO represents more than 500 locals of various unions which have more than 1 million union members, retirees and their families in Florida, including some public employee unions that would have been covered in Plakon’s proposal.

Seminole UniServ is an umbrella group for unions representing teachers, education support staff, and school bus drivers through four unions that each would have been affected if Plakon’s House Bill 25 had been adopted this year: Seminole Educators Association, Seminole Education Clerical Association, Seminole County School Bus Drivers Association, and Non-Instructional Personnel of Seminole County.

Kagan expressed her ties to educators in the news release.

“My father was a public school principal,” Kagan stated. “I’m the proud product of public education, and so are my three daughters. Meanwhile, Florida ranks 42nd in the nation for teacher pay. Our public schools need a fighter in Tallahassee, and I can’t wait to get there and get to work.”

Republican mailer highlights potty-mouth words from Anna Eskamani

The Republican Party of Florida has sent out a mailer in the House District 47 contest citing potty-mouth language attributed to Democratic nominee Anna Eskamani in speeches and declaring “she’s everything wrong with politics today.”

Eskamani reacted Wednesday by charging the Republican Party is attacking her character because “you can’t win on the issues,” and essentially owning up to the words attributed to her in the mailer, characterizing them as coming from her refusal to back down.

The mailer’s one side declares, “EXPLICIT MATERIALS ON OPPOSITE SIDE”

That opposite side: “EXPLICIT LANGUAGE WARNING: Edited to Meet Decency Standards. Anna Eskamani in her own words: ‘I don’t take SH*T ever’ ‘Look at the SH*T we have to put up with’ ‘F*CK the patriarchy.’

“Ask yourself, is this the example our leaders should be setting for our children?” the mailer inquires. Then it states, “Anna Eskmanai Extremely Partisan. Extremely Vulgar. Extremely Wrong for Central Florida.”

Eskamani is running against Republican Stockton Reeves for the seat opening up in HD 47, representing much of central Orange County including downtown Orlando.

Eskamani provided her reaction on Facebook:

“And our Republican opponent starts his campaign with negative ads, funded by the Republican Party of Florida. I guess when you can’t win on the issues, all you can do is try to attack me and my character,” she wrote in a post Wednesday.

“This mailer has some truth to it, because I refuse to back down when it comes to fighting for the hard working families of Orange County,” she added.

RPOF Executive Director George Riley took that as a full confirmation.

“The Anna Eskamani mailer is meant to reaffirm that she is not the right choice for Central Florida HD 47. We cannot correct the record for Eskamani, nor can she hide from it. As a matter of fact, according to her social media posts, she is unapologetic for her behavior. But we can however, educate the voter on her bad judgement and divisive choice of words before Central Floridians head to the polls this November,”  Riley said in a written response to her post.

Orlando airport contract workers get Democratic support

The union organizing an effort to raise wages and benefits for thousands of contract workers at the Orlando International Airport is becoming a symbol of Democrats’ living wage push in Florida.

On Tuesday, several dozen workers, some making as little as $5.23 an hour working for airport contractors, declared the airport to be a sweatshop.

They received full-throated backing from Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Chris King, as well as U.S. Rep Darren Soto, state Sen. Victor Torres, and state Rep. Amy Mercado.

The Service Employees International Union, together with Orlando Local 32BJ, are trying to organize contractor employees at the airport, with the goal of $15 an hour wages and benefits, as has been done at other airports.

All summer long, the union highlighted the low wages paid to airport workers who carry bags, push wheelchairs, greet visitors and other jobs, while working for contract companies hired by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

The minimum wage at the airport does not include tips those employees may receive, but the employees said tips are unreliable (and frequently nonexistent).

On Wednesday, the union released findings of a study of wages at the Orlando airport; 78 percent of employees make less than $20,000 a year, with 13 percent making less than $12,000 a year. The study highlighted efforts at other airports, including at Fort Lauderdale, to raise wages universally.

“This airport that is the gateway to the ‘happiest place on Earth’ is run like a sweatshop,” declared Sheyla Ascencios, political director for the SEIU in Orlando.

“We are committed, [Tallahassee] Mayor Andrew Gillum and myself to righting this wrong and making this airport work like it should,” King declared in response, citing his running mate, gubernatorial candidate Gillum.

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority put out a statement Wednesday that the airport authority itself employees only 850 of the 21,000 or so who work at the airport, and that the rest are employed by private companies or federal agencies. GOAA declared it pays its direct employees at least federal minimum wage.

At a separate news conference announcing the airport received a JD Power award as the top-ranked major airport in the country, GOAA Board Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher said he was asking for an independent review of the union’s study and would discuss it at the October board meeting.

But Kruppenbacher expressed skepticism about the report, cautioning that he had heard from “a number of employees” that they would rather have the low wages plus tips than a $15 an hour minimum wage and no tips.

King, Soto, Torres, and Mercado called for changes soon, and even suggested that if the current GOAA board won’t do it, an election of Gillum and King would bring a new board that would.

“It’s a disgrace,” Mercado said. “But I tell you what; it is a good time to come to the table and negotiate.”

Said Torres: “Guess what: You can change the board with a new government.”

For them, the Orlando airport symbolizes the Democrats’ call for mandated living wages. King and Soto cited the deal struck two weeks ago between Walt Disney World and its unions to raise the minimum wage there over time to $15 an hour.

“Orlando is not unique, but it is a microcosm of a very large problem in Florida, which, for too long, we have not cared for, we have not invested in, we have not built a fair economy that works for all of our families,” King said. “It’s why Mayor Andrew Gillum and I will be fighting for a living wage and a $15 an hour minimum wage in the state of Florida.”

The call reflects the stark difference in the economic theories on the table in the Nov. 6 election, where Gillum and King face Republican nominees U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and state Rep. Jeanette Nunez; Soto is facing Wayne Liebnitzky, and Mercado faces George Chandler, who argues that a free economy lets businesses prosper, and wages would rise naturally as a result.

Democrats say they see a thriving economy at Orlando airport, but with stagnant low wages.

“No one in this nation should work 40 hours a week or more and live in poverty,” Soto said. “It also good for the economy as well as being the right thing to do. That deal for Disney pumps another billion into our Central Florida economy over the next four years. When Central Floridians have more money than just to pay their bills, small businesses win, everybody wins.”

Ron DeSantis says nothing has changed with Donald Trump

With reports that his political benefactor President Donald Trump considers him disloyal because of their differences on Puerto Rico death tolls, Ron DeSantis insisted Wednesday that nothing has changed between the two.

“I don’t think anything has changed. I think we’re good,” the Republican nominee for Governor said when asked for comment on reports Trump was upset with him.

DeSantis, in Ocoee Wednesday to discuss his education platform at a private Christian school, said he still expects Trump to campaign for him in Florida, though a POLITICO story Tuesday reported that insiders say the president was furious with the congressman, calling him disloyal for backing Trump’s claims that his political enemies are exaggerating Hurricane Maria death tolls.

Last week, DeSantis tweeted he saw no reason to dismiss estimates that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the massive hurricane one year ago Thursday, as well as during the long recovery for much of the year in which parts of the island were without power, clean running water and health care services.

When asked if he thought Trump would still campaign for him, DeSantis replied with one word:

“Sure.”

He did not elaborate. And he was not asked and did not clarify from what point nothing had changed.

Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis, and his campaign event with him in Tampa in July propelled the Ponte Vedra Beach congressman far ahead of his Republican primary rival, Adam Putnam, and the agriculture commissioner never recovered. Throughout the primary campaign, DeSantis made a strong case that he and Trump stood together, touting that relationship as a central part of his campaign advertising.

In recent weeks, however, DeSantis toned down (if not turned off) discussion of his connection with Trump. For example, he selected Jeanette Nunez, once a fervent #NeverTrump Republican, as his running mate. And at the Republican Party’s big fall campaign kickoff rally two weeks ago in Orlando, DeSantis never mentioned Trump in his speech.

On Wednesday DeSantis also declined to say whether he recently spoke with Trump.

“That’s private,” he said.

Mike Miller campaign calling Stephanie Murphy hand-picked by Nancy Pelosi

Republican state Rep. Mike Miller‘s campaign is challenging claims by his congressional opponent — Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy — that she is a moderate, bipartisan-seeking representative, charging she was hand-picked by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, taking tens of thousands of campaign dollars from Pelosi-related groups.

The charges come after Murphy launched a television commercial Tuesday touting her efforts to hold Congress accountable through bills demanding members pass a budget or not get paid and to ban them from becoming lobbyists, and her statements that she supports a balanced budget, though she voted against a bill that Miller pledged to back calling for a Constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets.

The two face each other in Florida’s 7th Congressional District, representing Seminole County and north and central Orange County.

Murphy previously charged that the balanced budget bill Miller pledged to support would require automatic cuts in Social Security and Medicare, which she could not accept.

Miller’s campaign insisted the bill had bipartisan support, and charged that Murphy’s refusal to support it defies her claims to be willing to work across party lines.

“Voters should not fall for Congresswoman Murphy’s deceptively moderate tone,” Miller’s campaign manager Alex Bolton stated in a news release.

“The voters have a choice here. On one hand, they have an entrenched liberal political insider, or they have Mike Miller, who will follow through on his word, vote for a balanced budget, and lower the cost of health care,” Bolton added.

Murphy’s campaign spokeswoman Christie Stephenson countered that Murphy’s record of cross-line voting is clear, with enough examples to show she actually voted in line with President Donald Trump’s positions nearly 50 percent of the time.

“Stephanie Murphy has been rated the most effective member of her freshman class in Congress, and one of the most bipartisan members of the U.S. House,” Stephenson said in a written response. “The Orlando Sentinel has even praised Murphy’s work from the middle, calling her a ‘get-the-job-done pragmatist,’ whereas Miller would be an ‘unquestioning Donald Trump loyalist in Congress.’”

David Smith picks up endorsement from military veterans’ business group

Republican David Smith has picked up the endorsement of the Florida Association of Veteran-Owned Businesses in his campaign for Florida House District 28.

The group representing military veterans seeks to promote and unite established and start-up companies owned by veterans and disabled veterans throughout the state of Florida, a pool estimated at more than 180,000.

FAVOB Chairman Donald Morrell said the group based its endorsement on his “commitment to veterans and veteran-owned businesses.”

Smith, a Winter Springs business consultant, faces Democrat Lee Mangold, a Casselberry businessman, in Nov. 6 election for the open seat in HD 28, representing northeast Seminole County.

“I’m honored to have the endorsement and support of so many of my fellow veterans,” Smith, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, stated in a news release from his campaign. “FAVOB is making a real difference in Florida, but has mostly gone unnoticed. I hope to change that when I get to Tallahassee. Florida Veterans deserve a strong advocate in the legislature.”

Rick Scott takes Puerto Rico praise, defends red tide efforts

If Puerto Rico didn’t get what it neaded after Hurricane Maria, that’s a learning experience for everyone and doesn’t reflect on all that Florida Gov. Rick Scott did, and if Florida is experiencing its worst red tides in decades, that doesn’t reflect all that Scott did either.

At a U.S. Senate campaign rally in the Puerto Rico sector of Orlando Tuesday, Scott defended his administration’s record for addressing the water management issues that lead to the Lake Okeechobee discharges, and his administration’s increased investments in efforts to study address  the  algae blooms. But he also  blamed nature for the red tides and said for now only easterly winds could fix them.

Scott also took praise for his administration’s efforts to help Puerto Rico from the commonwealth’s Lt. Gov. Luis Rivera Marín  and other supportive Puerto Ricans in Orlando, who said he helped make life easer for Puerto Ricans on the island and for those who evacuated to Florida.

“It was thanks to the leadership of Rick Scott, a friend, a friend of Puerto Rico,” Rivera Marín said.

And during a brief press availability Scott highlighted Florida’s efforts to help its neighbor, and allowed that if the hurricane response was not all it could be, it was a learning experience.  He declined to say much more in response to a question about the federal response to Puerto Rico’s difficult recovery. He also did not elaborate on the statements he made last week disagreeing with President Donald Trump. who had suggested all went well, and that death counts were exaggerated by his political opponents.

“What you do is you learn,” Scott said of the response to Hurricane Maria, which hit a year ago Thursday.

“I think all of us can do a better job of, one, getting services faster to Puerto Rico. We know it’s more difficult because it’s an island. We could pre-position things better,” Scott said. “Clearly the island has been struggling with a utility system that was already struggling…. But we have got to get services there faster. Hopefully, everybody has learned how to do that.

“As a U.S. Senator, I’ll do everything I can to help build their economy,” Scott added.

There was no mention during the brief rally of the red tides that plague Florida and led to Scott facing large protests in his home terrotory of southwest Florida earlier, except from a media question. And on that, too, Scott suggested his administration was doing all that could be expected and more, touting increases over time in environmental spending. He also took shots at his opponent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, whom he said was doing nothing in Washington.

But ultimately Scott blamed nature, and said that the only thing that could help now is easterly winds.

“It’s horrible. The red tide is horrible,” Scott said. “I think all of us hope the red tide would be gone. It’s naturally occuring. It’s part of the gulf. It’s been around. We’ve had records of it since the 1840s. We’ve done a lot. But it’s not gone, right?

“We need really good easterly winds right now,” he added.

As for the protesters who reportedly all but overwhelmed his stops in southwest Florida, Scott offered that they were exercizing their rights.

After the rally, at the Rigo Tile Gallery Orlando, there were just a dozen or so protesters of the state’s response to the red tides and algae blooms. The protesters actually may have caused less of a scene than a few heated exchanges that took place prior to the rally in the overwhelmed parking lot, as the campaign’s advance people tried to control the flow, with traffic gridlocking in the lot and backing up onto the busy Goldenrod Road.

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