Headlines Archives - Florida Politics

Darryl Rouson files constitutional amendment extending lobbying ban

State Sen. and Constitution Revision Commissioner Darryl Rouson has filed a proposed constitutional amendment extending the state’s lobbying ban on former lawmakers and other elected officials from two to six years.

The amendment language was posted late Wednesday on the commission’s website.

The extended ban, however, would apply only “to those individuals who were members of the legislature or who were statewide elected officers at any time after November 6, 2018.”

If added to the state constitution, a 6-year lobbying ban would be the longest in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But it previously has raised constitutional concerns over free speech and restraint of trade among critics.

Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, is one of GOP House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s nine appointees to the commission, which convenes every 20 years to review and suggest changes to Florida’s governing document.

Rouson was elected to the Senate last year after serving in the House of Representatives from 2008-16.

Extending the lobbying ban has been a priority of Corcoran’s since his September 2015 designation speech.

That was when Corcoran, whose brother Michael is a prominent lobbyist, first called for a constitutional amendment banning “any state elected official from lobbying the legislative or executive branch for a period of six years.”

“We must close the revolving door between the Legislature and the lobby corps,” Corcoran said. “We need to restore the distance between those who seek to influence the laws and those of us who make the laws.”

Corcoran had once singled out healthcare lobbyists in Tallahassee during closing remarks on the budget, calling them “Gucci-loafing, shoe-wearing special interest powers.”

He later rewrote the House Rules to say that a “lobbyist who was a member of the Legislature at any time after November 8, 2016, may not lobby the House for a period of 6 years following vacation of office as a member of the Legislature.”

This past Legislative Session, the House passed an lobbying-ban extension bill (HB 7003) by a 110-3 vote. It too would have applied “only to those individuals who were members of the Legislature after November 8, 2016, or who were statewide elected officers after November 8, 2016.”

The measure later died in the Senate.

Larry Metz, the Yalaha Republican who chairs the House’s Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, has said he thought a longer ban would withstand legal attack because it addresses only paid lobbying.

The commission can place amendments directly on the 2018 statewide ballot, but they still must be OK’d by 60 percent of voters to be added to Florida’s constitution.

Kent Fuchs: Security cost for Richard Spencer speech ‘unfair’

A day before white nationalist Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak at the University of Florida, its president affirmed his belief in free speech but said the security costs of holding such an event at a public university put an unfair burden on taxpayers.

UF President W. Kent Fuchs said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press that Spencer is “hijacking” public universities — which are compelled by the First Amendment to provide a speaking forum — and forcing taxpayers to pay the resulting security costs.

Fuchs estimates the school will spend $600,000 on security for Spencer’s planned speech Thursday. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government, in this case a public university, cannot charge speakers for security costs.

Spencer’s National Policy Institute is paying $10,564 to rent space for the speaking event.

“I fully understand freedom of speech cannot be burdened legally with the full cost of this, but on the other hand we’re being burdened,” said Fuchs, sitting in his office on campus in Gainesville. “So taxpayers are subsidizing hate speech.”

Following the August violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one counter demonstrator dead, Fuchs said high security costs are required to ensure a reasonable amount of safety.

The school has called in hundreds of law enforcement officers from federal, state, county and city sources. Streets will be blocked off, and movement around the campus tightly controlled.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Monday, saying a “threat of a potential emergency is imminent” in Alachua County, where the school is located. The order allowed local law enforcement to partner with other agencies.

Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who organized the event at University of Florida for Spencer, called the high security costs “discouraging,” and said anyone from either side who incites violence should be arrested.

“That money should be used for scholarships, more research or stay with the taxpayers. But at the end of the day free speech needs to be protected,” he said.

After Scott’s emergency declaration, Fuchs said the school received many calls from parents concerned about safety. Fuchs had told students prior to the governor’s announcement to go to class as usual, and said the campus would remain open.

Fuchs said he supported the governor’s decision because it was requested by law enforcement, but admitted it created challenges for his administration.

“Parents want to know, ‘Why is the governor declaring a state of emergency and yet you President Fuchs are saying my son or daughter should be going to class?’ That (announcement) elevated that tension, locally with parents and brought a national visibility to this,” Fuchs said.

Fuchs said he hopes the event will end up bringing the community closer together, and that it can be used to create a dialogue about race.

Student leaders are hosting a “virtual assembly” via Facebook during Spencer’s event to discuss race relations and diversity.

Richard Corcoran: ‘We’re done with talking heads,’ Congress must OK Trump’s tax cuts

House Speaker Richard Corcoran joined other GOP lawmakers for a meeting Wednesday with business owners in Tampa, during which he delivered a stern message to Congress: Get behind Donald Trump and his proposed tax cuts.

“The time to act is now,” the Land O’Lakes Republican said at a downtown Tampa news conference. “We’re done with sound bite politics. We’re done with talking heads. What we need is for those guys to get into a room and pass meaningful tax reform.”

The plan (as currently outlined) would cut the top personal income tax rate; eliminate estate taxes (which presently only tax estates worth at least $5.5 million); kill the alternative minimum tax, and slashes rates on pass-through income. While Democrats predictably turned up noses to the proposal when it was unveiled last month, Senate Republicans have also objected to the proposed plan.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker indicated he would not vote for any bill that significantly adds to the deficit.

“With realistic growth projections, it cannot produce a deficit,” Corker said. “There is no way in hell I’m voting for it.”

“I will not vote for the budget unless it keeps within the spending caps,” Rand Paul said Tuesday.

In a conversation earlier in the day with Trump, the Kentucky senator told the president, who is a fellow Republican: “I’m all in. I want to be supportive. I’m a ‘yes’ vote. But we have to obey our own rules.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argues that robust growth, fueled by tax cuts, will actually pay down the national debt by $1 trillion.

However, that’s not what the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says, contending the Trump tax cut plan would cut revenues to the U.S. Treasury by $5.6 trillion over 20 years.

Corcoran doesn’t agree, saying those calculations are through  “static” scoring — as opposed to “dynamic” scoring, which doesn’t make room for higher growth rates that bring in more revenue.

“Read any economist, any foundation, out there,” he said. “They’re predicting in the first five years, this could lead to  3.2 percent growth rate, which is an additional $2.5 trillion in revenues over ten years. So that more than pays for the tax plan.”

Not every foundation is saying that, however.

The nonpartisan balanced-budget advocacy group Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget believes the cuts will not be self-financing.

In a paper produced earlier this month, the Washington-based group argued the economy “would need to grow by $5 to $6 for every $1 of tax cuts,” to avoid adding to the deficit.

They also said that past tax cuts in 1981 and the early 2000s “have led to widening budget deficits and lower revenue, not the reverse as some claim.”

Corcoran also pushed back on the premise that the Trump tax cut plan rewards the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. The Speaker noted a provision in the plan to double the standard deduction for the majority of taxpayers who don’t take deductions. He also said an increase in the Child Tax Credit (CTC) would be a huge benefit for the middle class.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Marco Rubio said flatly that the Trump tax cut plan wouldn’t pass without a “significant” increase in the CTC.

Joining Corcoran at the event were state Rep. Neil Combee of Polk County and Tampa-area Reps. Jackie Toledo and Shawn Harrison, touting that the economies of Tampa Bay and the state were flourishing “based on good, solid conservative pro-business values and policies.”

It was a similar message Corcoran attempted to drive home to Congress, urging them to look at Florida as a laboratory of democracy to be emulated when it comes to fiscal health.

“When you cut 75 taxes over seven years, totaling $7 billion,” he said. “When you get rid of 5,000 regulations, what happens? You become the number one state in the entire union for fiscal health. You become the number four state for tax simplicity.”

Karen Pence spotlights art therapy at FSU, rolls out agenda

Second Lady Karen Pence will use the next three years, if not more, to promote the legitimacy and reach of art therapy—and Florida State University is along for the ride.

On the university’s Tallahassee campus, Mrs. Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, on Wednesday announced she will use her position to champion art therapy, a healing philosophy that integrates art-making, the creative process, applied psychological theory and human experience to better mental health.

The roll-out was accompanied with an element of pomp and circumstance. The invite-only event began with an introduction from former House Speaker, state senator and current FSU President John Thrasher, followed by Florida’s own first lady, Ann Scott.

As Thrasher introduced the Second Lady, he took pride in his school’s program.

“Art therapy is truly one of the academic disciplines that many people, frankly, don’t know a whole lot about,” Thrasher said. “It’s a rigorous program that produces graduates who are scholars, educators, practitioners and researchers.

“By coming to Florida State University, [Pence] is shining a light on what I believe—obviously I’m a little biased—is one of the best art therapy programs in America.”

The university established an art therapy graduate-level program in 1987. Now, FSU says it’s one of just five institutions in the U.S. that offers an art therapy doctorate.

When Pence took the podium, she began her speech with a nod to the state’s handling of Hurricane Irma, a storm that had postponed her visit, originally planned for September. She also weaved the disaster into the cause she plans to champion.

“Of course, it should not come as a surprise that the art therapy community is also stepping up to help,“ Pence told the crowd, adding that the Florida Art Therapy Association is creating long-term plans to help those that suffered through the storm.

She provided anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of art therapy, telling the audience her experiences and observations from meeting those who’ve participated in the unique healing process.

Mrs. Pence shared the story of a young woman who had recovered from a stroke through art therapy, along with a military veteran who uses the process to manage his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pence, an artist, did not become aware of art therapy until 2006. Since then, she’s visited programs and spoken with art therapists around the world. She says she will prioritize elevating the understanding of the profession as something more than arts and crafts.

“I am not an art therapist,” she said. “This is a master’s or doctorate-level degree; these are highly-trained individuals.”

She also wants to help people understand it is a versatile treatment option, and encourage young people to pursue the profession.

The specific role FSU will hold in this initiative wasn’t discussed in detail, but lauding the university’s program and students was a common thread between the speakers.

“I am inspired by the FSU students in this room who are studying to become art therapists and I applaud you for your commitment to a life-changing profession,” Pence told the crowd.

Dr. Dave Gussak, chair of art education and professor of art therapy at FSU, said hosting the rollout at the university was a “worthy distinction.”

The Trump administration event was relatively quiet, especially when compared to Trump’s visit to Tallahassee last year. Still, there were small groups of proponents and protesters outside the venue.

Following the announcement, Mrs. Pence toured FSU’s art therapy program, and later the Canopy Cove Eating Disorder Treatment Center in Tallahassee, where art therapy is practiced.

Vice President Pence will travel to Orlando Nov. 2 to be a keynote speaker at a state GOP fundraising event. He met today with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to further discussions held between Tsipras and President Donald Trump.

In latest attack on private schools, Orlando Sentinel works ‘without rules’

School choice is again under attack, with private schools facing a renewed onslaught of well-worn, tired and inaccurate claims.

But the worst bias against Florida’s popular school scholarship programs runs throughout an new Orlando Sentinel series (“Schools Without Rules,” which debuted Wednesday) that seeks to relitigate the questionable case against well-proven private schools: weak oversight, underqualified staff, falsified records and more.

In reality, the Sentinel (and its reporters) appear to be the ones working “without rules.” A closer examination of the first entry in a three-part series reveals a disturbing pattern of cherry-picking facts, ignoring others and taking data out of context.

Few can deny the state’s scholarship programs are popular. Even the Sentinel admits: “Despite the problems, the number of children using Florida’s scholarship programs has more than tripled in the past decade to 140,000 students this year at nearly 2,000 private schools.”

Next, an interesting statistic: If students using the Florida Tax Credit, McKay and Gardiner scholarships were their own district, it would be Florida’s sixth-largest in student population, bigger than that of the Jacksonville area. And the 30,000 students in Central Florida make up one-quarter of all scholarship recipients — with $175.6 million and 390 private schools in the region.

But while the Sentinel series can be forgiven for raising legitimate problems with a handful of facilities — issues that certainly merit discussion — the series also blatantly ignores facts that do not support its confirmation bias against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and its member schools.

When looking at the full body of evidence, Florida’s scholarship program is far from broken, and is, in fact, very successful.

One example is a report released last month by the Washington D.C.-based Urban Institute, which found students in a statewide private school choice program for four years or more are 40 percent more likely to enroll in college than their public-school peers.

While the Sentinel received an early version of the Urban Institute study and even interviewed the researcher — who urged reporters to include the findings in its series — the paper declined, ultimately downplaying the results by using a single statistic out of context.

Other research, this time by Northwestern University, proved that private schools actually have a positive effect on public schools, through a statistically significant improvement in student performance on state math and reading tests.

And while the Sentinel series discusses (in detail) the overall cost to administer the state’s scholarship programs, according to the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) the program saves taxpayers $39-million per year.

“The reason for the savings is that the students receive scholarships to private schools that cost less than the amount the state would spend on the student in a public school,” says a statement from Step Up for Students — the organization that administers the Gardiner and Tax Credit Scholarships. “The result, according to OPPAGA, is that for each $1 lost through corporate tax credits, the state saves $1.49 in general revenue.”

To further belabor its point, the Sentinel also distorted per-pupil spending for Florida public schools, comparing the tax credit scholarship values to public per-pupil operating costs alone. A review by Florida TaxWatch found that the per-pupil figure in Florida public schools was $10,308 last year; scholarship students receive less than 60 percent of the amount for their public-school counterparts.

Similarly listed as “proof,” the Sentinel cited Orlando-area TDR Academy — founded by a couple frustrated by the struggle of their son (who has learning disabilities) in public school — as an example of “poor choices” made by parents.

But a deeper look at the paper’s methodology reveals blatantly superficial assumptions and subjective hyperbole.

Reporters came to their conclusion on TDR through just two visits — less than two hours in all — completely disregarding the school’s record of learning gains for low-income and special needs students.

As Step Up’s Jon East and Ron Matus note: “The reporters never explained how they chose the 30 schools they would visit. But they did offer two obscure backhanded references — that ‘some private schools offer rigorous academics’ and that ‘Catholic schools are among some of the most well-regarded and long-established private schools that take Florida’s scholarships’ — by way of presumably acknowledging that they steered clear of any school they thought might be high-performing.”

Another interesting comparison: Over five years, state regulators removed 18 schools from scholarship programs, denying participation to 18 applicants, with sanctions on many others — a stark contrast to public school districts, which rarely (if ever) shut down poorly performing schools.

Of course, no education sector has a perfect compliance record, and it is impossible to eliminate bad actors completely from any industry. Nevertheless, supporters of Florida’s educational scholarships as a whole are committed to providing the best for children, especially low-income and at-risk students, something the Sentinel series also chose to ignore.

Court upholds $35 million verdict in smoker’s death

A South Florida appeals court Wednesday upheld a $35 million verdict — including $25 million in punitive damages — in a lawsuit filed against two cigarette makers over a lung-cancer death.

The Miami-Dade County case, filed by the estate of Patricia Mary Ledoux, is one of thousands that have targeted cigarette makers in Florida during past decade. The cases — known as Engle progeny cases — stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

In the Ledoux case, a jury ruled against Philip Morris USA, Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, awarding $10 million in compensatory damages and saying each company should pay $12.5 million in punitive damages. The companies appealed and raised a series of issues, including that a plaintiff’s attorney made improper statements during closing arguments and that the $10 million in compensatory damages was excessive.

But a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal rejected the arguments.

“Upon our consideration of the record in this case as well as other compensatory damages awards in similar Engle-progeny cases, and giving proper deference to the jury’s award and the trial court’s subsequent review of that award, we cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in denying defendants’ motion” to reduce the award, said the 19-page opinion, written by Judge Kevin Emas and joined by Chief Judge Leslie Rothenberg and Judge Ivan Fernandez.

U.S. Senate panel to investigate Hollywood Hills tragedy, at Bill Nelson’s request

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee announced today that it is launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 14 residents at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills nursing home in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The investigation comes following a request from Florida’s U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a senior member of the committee.

The residents of the nursing home were left without power and no air conditioning in the days following the Sept. 10-11 devastation by Hurricane Irma. Two days after the storm left, two residents were found dead in their beds and others were rushed to the hospital, where 12 more would die after apparently being baked in the sweltering facility.

Florida is investigating, and has revoked the home’s license, and the owners of the home are suing the state over that revocation.

“It is my understanding that it is the state’s responsibility to certify a nursing home’s compliance with all federal emergency preparedness regulations in order to receive federal payments under the Medicare and Medicaid programs,” Nelson wrote on Sept. 29 to U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, who serve as the panel’s Chairman and Ranking Member respectively.

“Because the certification for a skilled nursing facility is subject to CMS approval, and the Senate Committee on Finance has jurisdiction over the Medicare and Medicaid programs, I urge the Committee to use its authority to conduct a complete investigation into the State of Florida’s certification of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills to determine what led to the deaths of 12 seniors there in the wake of Hurricane Irma,” Nelson’s letter continued.

Responding to Nelson’s request, Hatch and Wyden sent letters Tuesday to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, requesting information about its new nursing home emergency preparedness requirements, and to the state of Florida seeking answers to questions regarding the state’s emergency preparedness plans and response to Hurricane Irma.

The committee also requested similar information from Texas, regarding nursing homes affected there by Hurricane Harvey.

“Similar reports after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma raise concerns about the adequacy of emergency preparedness and response at nursing homes and other facilities,” they wrote. “Our committee would like information about the federal requirements that were applicable during these events and the actions CMS has taken since.”

“We are writing to request information from Florida about its preparations for and responses to Hurricane Irma as it relates to nursing homes and other similar facilities,” the senators wrote in a letter to Florida’s Secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, Justin Senior. “The Senate Committee on Finance has jurisdiction over both the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs. As part of our oversight responsibilities, we want to ensure the safety of residents and patients in nursing homes and other similar facilities during natural and manmade disasters.”

In 2016, CMS finalized new national emergency preparedness requirements for Medicare- and Medicaid-participating providers and suppliers. This new rule requires long-term care facilities to develop emergency preparedness plans to ensure that staff’s and residents’ basic needs are met in the event of natural or man-made disasters, including hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding. It also explicitly requires facilities to have policies and procedures in place to address alternate sources of energy to maintain temperatures during these emergencies.

According to federal regulations, it is the state’s responsibility to certify that a nursing home is in compliance with all applicable federal rules and regulations, including the new rules put in place 2016.

Despite receiving state certification, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills did not have an alternate source of energy powering its air conditioning unit and, as a result, was unable to maintain temperatures after the facility lost power.

At a hearing last week of the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Health and Human Services, Molly McKinstry, deputy secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration said her agency and other state agencies were in constant contact before, during and after Hurricane Irma with all the state’s nursing homes.

McKinstry said that many nursing homes and assisted living facilities lost power and quite a few visited by state officials had interior temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, despite meeting all the current state requirements. She said loss of power and heating issues were a “prevalent” problem.

Family of slain sergeant says Donald Trump showed disrespect

The mother of an Army sergeant killed in Niger said Wednesday that President Donald Trump, in a call offering condolences, showed “disrespect” to the soldier’s loved ones as they drove to the airport to meet his body. Trump, engulfed in controversy over the appropriate way for presidents to show compassion for slain soldiers, strongly disputed that account.

Sgt. La David Johnson was one of four American military personnel killed nearly two weeks ago whose families had not heard from Trump until Tuesday. Rep. Frederica Wilson said that Trump told the widow that Johnson “knew what he signed up for.”

The Florida Democrat said she was in the car with the widow, Myeshia Johnson, on the way to Miami International Airport to meet the body when Trump called. La David Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Associated Press Wednesday that the congresswoman’s account was correct.

“Yes the statement is true,” Jones-Johnson said. “I was in the car and I heard the full conversation.

That’s simply not so, Trump said Wednesday. He declared on Twitter: “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”

And in a White House meeting on tax reform, Trump said that he “didn’t say what that congresswoman said, didn’t say it at all. She knows it.”

Wilson did not back down from her account, suggesting that Trump “never wants to take ownership” of a mistake.

“If you are the leader of the free world, if you are president of the United States and you want to convey sympathy to a grieving family, a grieving widow, you choose your words carefully,” Wilson told the Associated Press Wednesday. “And everyone knows that Donald Trump does not choose his words carefully.”

“She was crying for the whole time,” Wilson said of the new widow. “And the worst part of it: when he hung up you know what she turned to me and said? She said he didn’t even remember his name.”

Like presidents before him, Trump has made personal contact with some families of the fallen but not all. What’s different is that Trump, alone among them, has picked a political fight over who’s done better to honor the war dead and their families.

He placed himself at the top of the list, saying on Tuesday, “I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died” while past presidents didn’t place such calls.

But The Associated Press found relatives of two soldiers who died overseas during Trump’s presidency who said they never received a call or a letter from him, as well as relatives of a third who did not get a call. And proof is plentiful that Barack Obama and George W. Bush — saddled with far more combat casualties than the roughly two dozen so far under Trump, took painstaking steps to write, call or meet bereaved military families.

After her Army son died in an armored vehicle rollover in Syria in May, Sheila Murphy says, she got no call or letter from Trump, even as she waited months for his condolences and wrote him that “some days I don’t want to live.”

In contrast, Trump called to comfort Eddie and Aldene Lee about 10 days after their Army son was killed in an explosion while on patrol in Iraq in April. “Lovely young man,” Trump said, according to Aldene. She thought that was a beautiful word to hear about her boy, “lovely.”

Trump’s delay in publicly discussing the men lost at Niger did not appear to be extraordinary, judging from past examples, but his politicization of the matter is. He went so far Tuesday as to cite the death of chief of staff John Kelly’s son in Afghanistan to question whether Obama had properly honored the war dead.

Kelly was a Marine general under Obama when his Marine son Robert died in 2010. “You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?” Trump said on Fox News radio.

A White House official said later that Obama did not call Kelly but not respond to questions whether some other sort of outreach was made. Kelly, who was absent from a pair of public White House events on Tuesday, was sitting near the president in his tax reform meeting on Wednesday but did not address reporters.

Democrats and some former government officials were livid, accusing Trump of “inane cruelty” and a “sick game.”

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, an Iraq veteran who lost both legs when her helicopter was attacked, said: “I just wish that this commander in chief would stop using Gold Star families as pawns in whatever sick game he’s trying to play here.”

For their part, Gold Star families, which have lost members in wartime, told AP of acts of intimate kindness from Obama and Bush when those commanders in chief consoled them.

Trump initially claimed that only he among presidents made sure to call families. Obama may have done so on occasion, he said, but “other presidents did not call.”

He equivocated Tuesday as the record made plain that his characterization was false. “I don’t know,” he said of past calls. But he said his own practice was to call all families of the war dead.

But that hasn’t happened.

No White House protocol demands that presidents speak or meet with the families of Americans killed in action — an impossible task in a war’s bloodiest stages. But they often do.

Altogether some 6,900 Americans have been killed in overseas wars since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the overwhelming majority under Bush and Obama.

Despite the much heavier toll on his watch — more than 800 dead each year from 2004 through 2007 — Bush wrote to all bereaved military families and met or spoke with hundreds if not thousands, said his spokesman, Freddy Ford.

Veterans groups said they had no quarrel with how presidents have recognized the fallen or their families.

“I don’t think there is any president I know of who hasn’t called families,” said Rick Weidman, co-founder and executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America. “President Obama called often and President Bush called often. They also made regular visits to Walter Reed and Bethesda Medical Center, going in the evenings and on Saturdays.”

Trump feuded with one Gold Star family during last year’s campaign, assailing the parents of slain Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq in 2004, after they criticized him from the stage at the Democratic National Convention.

Richard Spencer group denies being ‘hateful’ as UF braces

Supporters of Richard Spencer, the firebrand white nationalist whose upcoming appearance at the University of Florida sparked a state of emergency, say he’s not a racist.

And, they insist, he’s not to blame for violent clashes like the one at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead and dozens more injured.

But the Anti-Defamation League brands Spencer as a white supremacist whose buttoned-down appearance and articulate speech belies a hateful, anti-Semitic ideology.

Attorney General Pam Bondi this week painted Spencer, the head of the National Policy Institute, as a dangerous provocateur who has incited violence across the nation.

“This guy is out there espousing violence and hatred and anger,” Bondi told reporters Tuesday.

Gov. Rick Scott, who declared a state of emergency in Alachua County this week, has also urged people to avoid the event Thursday.

Bondi’s and Scott’s take on Spencer and his followers is “complete nonsense,” Evan McLaren, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Policy Institute, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview.

“And they know it’s nonsense, because they have no substantial or serious response to our message and to our presence and so they’re trying to deal with it by portraying us as violent and hateful,” McLaren said. “There’s nothing hateful about what Richard or myself or National Policy Institute expresses.”

Spencer calls himself an “identitarian” who wants “to preserve the white majority” in the country.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs also urged people to boycott Spencer’s speech as Gainesville braces for the kinds of skirmishes between Spencer’s supporters and opponents, including “Antifa,” or anti-fascists, that have erupted on campuses elsewhere.

The university initially balked at allowing Spencer to speak, but relented after his attorney threatened to sue.

“I think Gov. Scott and the attorney general would be well-advised to see that the First Amendment is protected and upheld instead of injecting themselves into a political dialogue that they are obviously not able to handle like responsible adults,” McLaren said.

McLaren blamed Antifa, many of whom wear black helmets and carry pepper spray, for the melees at Spencer’s other appearances.

“When we hold events by ourselves that we control, there is no violence,” McLaren said. “The only time that there is violence is when the left shows up to counter-demonstrate and attack us, or even when elements of the left show up on their own.”

At the Charlottesville rally in August, Spencer supporters carried tiki torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us” before a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.

But counter-protesters and Spencer supporters may not be the only ones in danger.

McLaren went to work for Spencer shortly after passing the Bar exam in late July.

“My first business purchase was a ballistics vest. So we’re definitely mindful of the threat that we face. But this is just how the game is played. If you want to say something serious and meaningful and change-oriented, then obviously it’s going to upset a lot of people,” McLaren said.

Antifa members from Atlanta and Orlando are expected to flood into Gainesville, even though they may not have access to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where Spencer will speak.

Organizers of the event decided to distribute tickets to the speech, instead of the typical process in which the center provides the tickets, after reports that ticket-holders could exchange the passes for free beer or even money.

McLaren said he will hand out tickets inside the venue to people who make it through a primary security check, and he won’t give them to anybody who looks like they are there to create a disturbance.

The selective ticket situation could heighten tensions already ramping up at the university.

“It made us all upset because it’s happening on our campus and we can’t even attend the event,” said Christopher Wilde, a 21-year-old senior from Miramar who is a member of the “No Nazis at UF” group opposing Spencer’s speech and the university administration’s handling of it.

In Gainesville, barricades are already erected, streets will be shut down and Florida Highway Patrol officers are on the ground, creating a forbidding aura.

Many students are torn between boycotting the speech, as advised by Fuchs and others, protesting or attending. Despite the state of emergency issued by Scott, Fuchs has not canceled classes Thursday.

Dozens of members of the “No Nazis at UF” group marched to the school’s administrative offices Monday to protest Spencer’s appearance, pledging to show up en masse on Thursday. The group, which collected more than 3,500 online petitions urging the university to cancel the speech, participated in a sit-in on campus Tuesday evening to protest the university’s refusal to cancel classes.

“They’re pretending you can go to campus safely if you stay away from the Phillips Center, but they’re shutting down buildings that are far away,” Wilde said in a telephone interview. “It’s a mixed message. School isn’t closed but we’re going to have cops and National Guard all over campus and buildings are shut down. If it’s safe out there, why is there such a heavy police presence and why are buildings being closed early?”

Wilde is ignoring advice from his parents, who told him to treat the rest of the week like a hurricane and stay shuttered in his apartment, even though he said he is afraid of what might happen Thursday.

“I’m worried for everyone’s safety but I also know that we have to show our opposition to this kind of ideology because in history the only thing that has stopped it is opposition to Nazism or white supremacy,” he said. “It’s scary but it’s the only way.

Meanwhile, a group of students has organized an online event scheduled to take place at the same time as Spencer’s 2:30 p.m. speech.

“If people want to protest, they’re going to protest. But there’s also people on campus who feel very unsafe and would rather stay inside so this gives them an outlet to engage with the university community and not be alone on that day,” said Cassie Bell, a 22-year-old senior from Margate who is one of the organizers of “TogetherUF.”

The Facebook event, which Bell called an “online assembly” and will be accompanied by live social media posts, gives students “an opportunity to stay safe and be inside if that’s what they prefer to do.”

The speech coincides with exams for most students, adding to anxiety, said Bell, who hasn’t decided what she will do on Thursday.

But participating in the TogetherUF group has given students like Bell an outlet to protest Spencer’s platform, even if only from afar.

“I obviously don’t agree (with him). I have yet to meet somebody that does. But I almost feel that they’re so radical I’m not sure what I can do as an individual to combat their beliefs,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s given me a sense that I’m not just sitting on my hands, that we’re actively making an effort.”

Frank White gets endorsements from N.W. Fla. lawmakers

Three GOP lawmakers from Florida’s Panhandle are lending their support to fellow state Rep. Frank White to become the state’s attorney general, the campaign announced.

Reps. Brad Drake of Eucheeanna, Jayer Williamson of Pace, and Mel Ponder of Destin endorsed White, of Pensacola, on Wednesday.

White “will be the Attorney General Florida needs,” Drake said in a statement. “Frank has the work ethic, leadership skills, and values to make for an effective and outstanding Attorney General. I’m proud to endorse a consistent conservative in Frank White.”

Williamson added: “I couldn’t be more proud to endorse Frank White, a committed conservative and principled candidate for Attorney General. Frank has demonstrated an upmost dedication to the values we in Northwest Florida hold dear: The strongest commitment to family, faith and freedom.”

And Ponder said Florida “needs a conservative Attorney General with great character and integrity. I’m honored to endorse such a candidate in Frank White.

“I’ve had the privilege of working alongside Frank in the legislature, where he has exemplified exceptional leadership, character, and values,”Ponder said. “Florida couldn’t ask for a greater conservative champion for Attorney General than Frank White.”

After receiving the endorsements, White said, “I am honored to have the support of my fellow conservatives here in Northwest Florida.”

White, a general counsel and chief financial officer for a group of auto dealerships, was first elected to the House last year. He joins a GOP primary battle that includes state Rep. Jay Fant of Jacksonville and former Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ashley Moody.

The Cabinet post is open next year because term limits prevent current Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Tampa Republican, from seeking re-election. Democrat Ryan Torrens, an attorney from Hillsborough County, also has filed to run for the seat.

Background from the News Service of Florida, republished with permission. 

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