Orlando – Florida Politics

Alan Grayson: Things like SunRail money aren’t being brought home anymore

With SunRail holding an open house for its soon-to-open Poinciana commuter rail station, former U.S. Rep. and current congressional candidate Alan Grayson is declaring it an example of things Central Florida was able to get while he was in Congress and isn’t getting anymore.

Grayson is challenging his successor U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in the August 28 Democratic primary this year seeking to return to Congress, where he sat from 2009-’10 and again from 2013-’16. The winner will face Republican Wayne Liebnitzky in the November election.

The SunRail stations opening this summer in Meadow Woods, at Tupperware, in downtown Kissimmee and in Poinciana wouldn’t be there were it not for his efforts to get the money out of the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2013, Grayson said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.

That kind of federal money has stopped coming home to Central Florida, he added, indirectly criticizing Soto, but not naming him.

“Right now nobody is actively working to solve these problems. Most you hear is they are either ignored or they are whining without any constructive action to solve them,” Grayson charged.

Soto’s campaign spokesperson Harry Kruglik disputed Grayson’s comments, insisting that Grayson did not have the impact he claims on the original funding, that Soto was instrumental in getting state funding for that section of SunRail, and that Soto has is now working on getting funding for the next phase of SunRail.

Saturday’s SunRail open house at the Poinciana SunRail station is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is the first of four open houses the commuter rail agency has scheduled in coming weeks. The actual train is set to begin rolling down those tracks, connecting those stations to the line now running from Sand Lake Road to DeBary, in “mid-2018.”

Grayson said he, with assistance from Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, secured the $80 million that the federal government gave SunRail for the rail leg connecting Sand Lake through to Poinciana.

Grayson said he met with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in 2013 and explained that the first, north, leg of SunRail principally serves primarily middle-class, affluent and largely white areas of Central Florida, while the proposed south leg would begin to bring in lower-income and minority riders, principally Hispanic. Grayson said he also pointed out that the north leg essentially paralleled a major transportation artery, I-4, while the southern leg veered into areas that do not have any good north-south highways, Kissimmee and Poinciana.

Grayson said Foxx bought in on the plan based on those arguments, and the money appeared in President Barack Obama’s next budget.

“Everyone knows Former Reps John Mica and Corrine Brown as chair and ranking member on Transportation Committee did most of the work to bring back the SunRail funding,” Kruglik argued. “In contrast, Congressman Soto was recognized by the Orlando Sentinel and other news outlets for his work in the Florida House bringing Republicans and Democrats together for key policy and funding matters on the state level to make Sunrail happen.

Grayson charged that he’s not seeing that kind of activity by the congressional delegation since he and Mica (they were bipartisan rivals who worked together) left office. Grayson ran for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and lost in the primary. Mica lost his seat to Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

And charged that the region’s transportation network is lagging now as a result, with no major new projects emerging with funding, other than the toll roads.

“As far as I know, nobody is making the effort to bring in that kind of money,” Grayson said. “The way that you do that is engage, the way I did, sit down with the secretary face-to-face. I did that over and over again.

Teresa Jacobs’ state of Orange Co. finds fiscal strength, prosperity, community

Outgoing Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs‘ last State of the County speech found it “strong” with strong fiscal indicators, a robust economy, a more open, business-friendly government, and a community spirit of collaboration and unity.

“The upshot of these and so many other strategies, ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to announce that the state of Orange County is in fact very strong,” Jacobs declared.

Her speech in many ways looked back across her entire seven and a half years in office, focused on her commitments to delivering fiscal conservatism and responsible government, and helping bond and balm the community, particularly after the crises of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre and the 2017 Hurricane Irma.

“Together, we weathered these storms,” she said.

“Never would I have imagined the outpouring of love and unity or the depth of our strength and unity,” she said of the period after the Pulse massacre. “As a community we share a commitment to make sure the world never forgets our 49 Pulse angels.”

Yet she pointed to few if any landmark legacies for which she might be remembered, or anything that spoke of bold initiatives that could bear her name in future generations. She did not mention the International Drive urban-center planning underway, or commitments to rural and environmental preservation.

Jacobs referenced the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the rebuild of what is now called Camping World Stadium, and the Amway Center. Yet while Jacobs battled to make those three economically feasible, it was Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer who drove them forward. She referenced big transportation projects, notably the I-4 ultimate build-out, SunRail, and the Wekiva Parkway, projects driven largely by state and federal officials.

She also briefly discussed two areas emerging in the 2018 mayoral election as major concerns for the county, wage levels and affordable housing, but offered no specifics, other than to say a housing plan would be rolled out later this year.

Jacobs, who now is running for the position of chair of the school board, got emotional only when she spoke of the schools, specifically of school shootings, at Parkland earlier this year, and in Santa Fe, Texas, just a few hours before her speech. She broke down and needed a moment as she asked for people to remember those who are grieving,  saying, “Our community did for us. Our nation did as well. And it makes a difference.”

And she repeatedly stressed collaboration and community partnerships.

“Let’s not forget what sets this community apart in tough issues like this,” she said. “It’s our ability to collaborate. It’s our ability to set aside partisan politics and other barriers to insure that we are working in unison for the safety and welfare of our citizens.”

Jacobs had plenty to offer for her declaration that the county was “very strong:”

– When she took office in 2011, the county was still mired in the Great Recession, during which it lost $150 million in annual revenue. The county overcame that dip by 2016.

– The county’s bond and credit worthiness “are routinely rated “Triple A.”

– The county added more than 160,000 new jobs, and won 50 business projects.

– The unemployment rate fell from 10.7 percent to 3.2 percent today.

– The tourism business has boomed, and consequently the county’s tourism development tax has boomed, bridging in more than $255 million last year.

– Building permits “are being issued at a pace we haven’t seen in years,” she said: 84,000 last year, with more than $2.3 billion in valuation.

– She declared that the culture of county government has been changed, emphasizing access and accountability, beginning with her 2008 “Citizen Participation Bill of Rights,” and including a variety of internet aps to provide citizens with information and services.

– The county began addressing the opioid crisis early, in 2015, when she commissioned a heroin task force which led to numerous policy initiatives.

– The county first set out to begin hardening schools and against attacks and addressing youth mental health problems shortly after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.

– She led the county commission earlier this month to adopt a three-day waiting period for all firearms purchases in the county, including those at gun shows. She did not mention that in 2011 she led the commission to repeal a previous three-day waiting period requirement.

Geraldine Thompson rolling out bipartisan backing in HD 44 race

Democratic former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson is planning to roll out a bipartisan base of supporters next week following endorsements of her House District 44 campaign by fellow Democrats state Sen. Randolph Bracy and state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Republican former Orange County Commissioner Scott Boyd.

Thompson’s campaign announced those and other endorsements Friday morning while announcing a campaign kickoff for next Thursday in Oakland.

Thompson, of Orlando, who served six years previously in the Florida House of Representatives representing another district, and four years in the Florida Senate, is one of several Democrats setting their sights on  the HD 44 seat covering southwest Orange County. The area has long been represented by Republicans and HD 44 is now represented by Republican state Rep. Bobby Olszewski of Winter Garden, who is seeking re-election.

She left the Florida Senate in 2016 when she ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Bracy, of Oakland, succeeded her in the senate district that covers HD 44. Bracy’s mother, longtime Central Florida civil rights leader LaVon Bracy, is Thompson’s campaign manager. Smith is of Orlando.

Boyd’s endorsement represents bipartisan backing for Thompson, though Boyd also is known for his strong rivalry with Olszewski in internal Republican politics in west Orange County.

Also expected to join Thompson at next week’s campaign kickoff event are Oakland Mayor Kathy Stark, Oakland Commissioners Joseph McMullen and Rick Polland,  Winter Garden Theatre co-founder Becky Roper, and Orange County Clerk of Courts Tiffany Moore Russell, Thompson’s campaign announced Friday.

Thompson first must get through a Democratic primary on August 28, which also includes longtime progressive activist Margaret Melanie Gold, businessman Eddy Dominguez, and real estate agent Matt Matin.

Bobby Olszewski picks up I-Drive Chamber endorsement

Republican state Rep. Bobby Olszewski has picked up the endorsement of the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce, the powerful Orlando tourism organization that also is in his district.

Olszewski, who came to office in a special election last October, represents Florida House District 44 covering southwest Orange County, including most of the Orlando area’s major tourism attractions. The I-Drive Chamber membership includes almost all but the Walt Disney World theme parks, the Orange County Convention Center and scores of resort hotels and smaller attractions.

Earlier Olszewski picked up the endorsement of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.

“I am honored to receive the endorsement today from the International Drive Chamber of Commerce for my re-election in Florida House District 44,” Olszewski, of Winter Garden, stated in a news release issued by his re-election campaign. “With the Orange County Convention Center, Universal Studios, and Sea World in addition to all of the world-class hotels, restaurants, and attractions serving the I-Drive area, I look forward to doing all I can to help promote a positive tourism, hospitality, and pro-business environment.”

Normally the district is an easy Republican hold, but Olszewski has drawn a number of Democratic challengers this year, including businessman Eddy Dominguez, whom Olszewski defeated last October; former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson; progressive activist Margaret Melanie Gold; and real estate agent Matt Matin.

Darren Soto picks up endorsement from U.S. Rep. John Lewis

Orlando U.S. Rep. Darren Soto has picked up the endorsement of fellow Democratic congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis of Georgia in Soto’s re-election bid.

The endorsement gives Soto another notch in the progressive-Democrat belt he’s seeking to fashion for his August 28 primary bout with his predecessor in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a nationally-recognized leader of progressive Democratic politics.

In a statement issued by Soto’s re-election campaign, Lewis called Soto “a champion of Civil Rights and progressive values,  fighting to preserve Social Security and Medicare, standing up for affordable education, and protecting the environment.”

“Darren Soto is exactly the kind of leader we need in our country today. He brings a passion for fairness, justice, and equality for all. Against a tide of hatred, Darren knows that only love can save our country,” Lewis said in the statement.

CD 9 covers Osceola County, south Orange County and east Polk County. The winner of the Soto-Grayson primary will face Republican businessman Wayne Liebnitzky.

Lewis was one of the leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and has served in Congress since 1987. He called Soto a “rising star.”

“He’s working to build the beloved community and give truth to America’s founding credo that out of many, we are one,” Lewis added. “Soto stands with the people of every race, religion, and creed in this country who need someone to speak up for them, so I am proud to stand with Darren. He has my full support and I hope the people of Central Florida will send him back to Congress, because we need him.”

Chris King backs Orange County children’s initiative

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King weighed in on an Orange County local issue, saying the push for a children’s trust fund fits in for his call for sweeping criminal justice reform in Florida.

A coalition of children’s advocates is pushing this year to get a children’s services independent taxing authority, like those found in other Florida metropolitan cities, created through a ballot initiative this November.

However, the effort all but stalled when they took it to the Orange County Commission last month; Mayor Teresa Jacobs is no fan of the idea of creating a new taxing entity. She put the county’s efforts on the children’s trust proposal into study gear.

On Wednesday, King joined former state Rep. Dick Batchelor, chairman of The Children’s Trust of Orange County committee, former Orange County chair Linda Chapin, businessman Harold Mills, and the Rev. Derrick McRae of the Experience Christian Center to argue that the initiative is a criminal justice reform issue.

“I am on day three of a massive trip around the state talking about criminal justice reform. It is deeply, as Dick said, deeply interconnected to the issues of the children’s trust,” King said.

“What I have been arguing is the next governor of Florida needs to be someone who can bring these issues together. I have thrown up a North Star that over the next 10 years I see a Florida where we can reduce mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders by 50 percent through a series of policies,” King said. “And when we do that, we are able to invest in the types of things that Dick has dedicated his life fighting for, children’s welfare services, subsidized child care, access to health care.”

Batchelor, Chapin (a King family friend and early supporter of his campaign) and others in The Children’s Trust of Orange County campaign want the investments sooner than that. Batchelor said that internal polling by the trust found 62 percent of people would vote yes, and 82 percent at least want it on the ballot.

“A need has created that is undeniable for this in this community,” King said. “Let the voters decide. And if you’ve got a better idea, if got resources somewhere else that can address these issues show us, show us now. Because the need is now. We haven’t seen that.”

Jacobs, who is running for the chair position of the Orange County School Board, came out against the proposal. She argued that she believes the proposal includes some inaccuracies and unproven statements, and because she is skeptical of the accountability of independent authorities, particularly after the county had to endure scandals at some, such as the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority and Lynx.

And, she argued, there are better ways to make sure children’s services are adequately funded and run.

Last month she said a consensus of the board of county commissioners agreed with her that more needs to be known and done, and she asked staff to provide a presentation at the July county budget hearings. Batchelor called that “running out the clock,” making it almost impossible to get commission approval in time to put it on the ballot.

“As a result of a poll conducted by the Children’s Trust, the growing mantra is “let the voters vote” — which makes for a compelling sound bite. However, it is the responsibility of the BCC to ensure that the voters are told the truth, that the information they are provided is accurate, complete and unbiased,” Jacobs stated in a May newsletter to constituents. “The BCC also has a responsibility to our children, voters, and taxpayers to make sure there is a sufficient level of accountability to ensure that the outcomes promised can and will be achieved.

“The Children’s Trust proposal does not meet these minimum standards, and upon closer review, there are many concerns and, in my opinion, there are better options to address unmet needs of our children sooner and with greater transparency and accountability.”

King and Batchelor both urged Jacobs to put the proposal on the Orange County Commission’s agenda, for possible approval to appear on the November ballot. King argued that the idea needs with a taxing district because the state has failed to adequately address issues ranging from child abuse to homeless children.

“That’s the mayor’s burden. If she does not want to go forward with this, she can’t ignore the fact that the need is extraordinary. So it’s her burden to give us another vision,” King said. “I think our concern is there might not be another vision for it and the need is so great.”

Late Thursday Jacobs responded with this statement:

“While I appreciate Mr. King’s interest in this issue, I’m not sure he has been provided all of the facts. I have been a very strong advocate for children and for enhancing children’s services. However, there are serious problems with the proposal presented to our board by the political committee behind this campaign. First, the studies on which this political committee is basing their request contain inaccurate, outdated and misleading information. Second, the political committee is advocating for the creation of an independent taxing agency, run by a governing board wherein the majority of the members are not elected by the citizens. Yet, this board would have the sole authority to determine the level of tax up to ½ mill, which amounts to over a half billion dollars over ten years. This same board would have the sole authority to determine how those tax dollars would be spent.

“We are hiring an independent consultant to review the needs assessments conducted by the political committee and conduct their own assessment. We have asked them to provide a status to our board during our budget work sessions in July.”

David Smith picks up more city endorsements in HD 28 race

Republican David Smith announced that Winter Springs Commissioners Kevin Cannon and Ken Greenberg are endorsing his campaign for Florida House District 28.

“It is my privilege to endorse David Smith for the Florida House of Representatives,” Cannon stated in a news release Wednesday by Smith’s campaign. “David’s military service, leadership experience, listening skills and temperament will enable him to serve as a very effective Representative for our community in the Florida Legislature.”

Smith, of Winter Springs, is a retired U.S. Marine colonel and business consultant. He is running against Democrat Lee Mangold, a cybersecurity business owner from Casselberry. They both want to succeed Republican state Rep. Jason Brodeur of Sanford.

“Although I’m the newest Winter Springs City Commissioner, I’ve been serving our community for many years,” Greenberg stated in the release. “It’s this experience that gives me the confidence to endorse David Smith for Florida House District 28. He too has served his county and community for many years, however, it’s David’s business experience and conservative values that make him the best person to represent the people of Seminole County. He has without reservation, my full support.”

Smith continues to roll in endorsements from municipal and county officials and state legislators in the largely-Republican Seminole County. These from Winter Springs are from his hometown.

“I’m honored to have the support of Commissioner Cannon and Commissioner Greenberg,” Smith stated in the release. “Both of these gentlemen are principled leaders in Winter Springs, the community that I’m blessed to call home. Their hard work and commitment to serve is making our community a better place for residents and businesses.”

UCF post-traumatic stress clinic notches $10M grant

The University of Central Florida has been awarded a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense for the university’s RESTORES Trauma Management Therapy Program working with veterans, service members, and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Winter Park’s U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy announced the award Wednesday evening via Twitter. She and Orlando’s U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, both Democrats, had been pushing for the federal grant.

The UCF RESTORES program is a clinical research center in the university’s Department of Psychology that uses virtual reality to help veterans, active duty servicemembers, and first responders with PTSD overcome their trauma. The university set it up in part with $2.5 million in state funding secured in 2017, pushed by state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and state Sen. Linda Stewart, both Democrats.

The new grant from the DOD’s  Joint Warfighter Medical Research Program is for $10,572,866.

“Our men and women in uniform deserve to have the best quality care possible,” Murphy tweeted.

And then she added in a follow-up tweet, “US Rep Darren Soto and I have been working hard to support the UCF RESTORES Clinic since we arrived in Congress and we’ll keep fighting to secure more federal investment in this amazing asset.”

Aramis Ayala will seek non-monetary bail in non-violent, low-risk crime cases

In a second ground-breaking criminal justice reform initiative of her short tenure, 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala will begin pushing for non-monetary releases rather than bail in many cases involving people charged with non-violent crimes.

Ayala contends that the state’s law on bail is not being followed. The result, she said, is too many people who are not flight risks or threats to the public are sitting in jails awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford to post bail.

“We want to make certain we are not perpetuating a debtor’s prison,” she told FloridaPolitics.

Her first major initiative, banning the death penalty in her circuit in 2017 shortly after she took office, didn’t go so well. After she announced it, the death penalty ban blew up into heated, six-month legal fight with Gov. Rick Scott that she eventually lost. That policy, too, was based on her views of Florida law.

Her new policy, which she said she will initiate on June 1, would have her office seek recognizance releases for residents of Orange or Osceola counties who are arrested for a list of non-violent offenses including possession of small amounts of cannabis, driving while license suspended, disorderly conduct, and loitering, provided there is no reason to presume the suspects are flight risks.

Further, the new policy would seek pretrial releases without monetary bail for local residents arrested for most other non-violent offenses, presuming there is no reason to think of them as flight risks. Under that program, suspects receive supervision from the circuit’s pre-trial services supervisors, and other conditions may also apply.

Ayala contends her new policy is in keeping with the letter and spirit of Florida law which explicitly calls for “a presumption in favor of release on non-monetary conditions” for non-dangerous offenses.

She said the system in place now, which her office inherited and continues, and which other state attorneys’ offices in Florida also use, calls for prosecutors to routinely seek money bail on almost all arrests.

Ayala’s office stated that over 75 percent of the people held in county jail are awaiting trial, and she said 74 percent of the people in the Orange County Jail are there on misdemeanors. She did not have deeper-dig numbers available to say how many of them fall into both of those groups and also were deemed non-flight risks, and who do not have prior arrests that would suggest them to be dangers to the community. Still, she said it is clear that many shouldn’t have to be in jail.

Her policy would insist on monetary bail for anyone arrested for crimes associated with domestic violence, stalking, firearms, and dangerous felonies. She also would seek monetary bail from anyone who wasn’t a local resident.

“There are violent, wealthy people who walk around our communities pre-trial, yet there are non-dangerous people who are sitting in custody because they can’t post a $250 bond,” Ayala said.

The current policy also affects communities of color most severely, she said.

“Realistically, it’s inherently discriminatory, because looking at the numbers and all of research, excessive bail disproportionately harms people of low income communities, which tend to be communities of color. We don’t have the local statistics, but nationally-speaking the Pretrial Justice Institute finds that black men face 35 percent higher bonds and Hispanics face 19 percent higher bonds,” she said.

“So there is a systemic race issue that we ought to be able to address. And if we can address it without endangering the community, I think it’s a requirement,” she concluded.

Ultimately, bail is always the decision of judges, though they take into consideration what the state attorney’s office is requesting.

Ayala has met with corrections officials in judges in Orange and Osceola counties to discuss her new policy.

“There is a national movement toward non-monetary bond,” Fred Lauten, chief judge in the 9th Judicial Circuit stated in a news release issued by Ayala’s office. “One of the issues with monetary release is it benefits the wealthy while it is an impediment to people with lesser means.”

Ayala said the bail system also can make it difficult for people to get their lives going, leading to more crime. If they can’t afford bail money and wind up sitting in jail awaiting trial, they’re probably losing their jobs and homes, and sending any family into financial tailspins, she suggested.

“All the research proves that the longer people sit behind bars the more likely they are to commit crimes when they get out. You’re dealing with low-level criminals. Let’s get them back into their jobs, into their homes, back with their families, to pursue the societal obligation that they have, versus keeping them away from jobs until they don’t have jobs, and they get into that cycle of crime.”

Will there be political and legal blowback? Ayala says she has the law squarely on her side. Yet she said something similar when she rolled out her death penalty ban in March 2017, only to lose in the Florida Supreme Court.

“If anyone responded, it doesn’t matter who they are or at what level, if anyone responds negatively they’re responding contrary to Florida law, because I am making certain that we are being consistent with Florida law,” Ayala said of her new bail policy. “And I would hope all who are involved in our system of justice would honor that as well.”

Margaret Gold antes up in HD 44 Dem. Primary

Orlando Democrat Margaret Gold is betting big on her campaign to unseat freshman Republican Rep. Robert “Bobby O” Olszewski in House District 44.

Gold filed for the seat in mid-April and showed $5,430 in contributions during her first two weeks in the race, but she matched that haul nearly four times over with a $20,000 loan.

After spending about $3,300, mostly on campaign staff, she has $22,130 in the bank. That’s good enough to put her on top in the four-way primary race for the southwest Orange County seat.

Olszewski was able to top that without pulling out his own checkbook.

He raised $28,000, including $1,000 checks coming in from several familiar names, including Southern Strategy Group lobbyist Brian Bautista, Disney, the Florida Transportation Builders Association, NBC Universal as well as political committees tied to Palm Coast Republican Rep. Paul Renner, St. Pete Republican Rep. Chris Sprowls and incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva.

The April haul goes down as Olszewski’s best of the 2018 cycle. As of April 30, he’s raised a total of $71,300 and has nearly $60,000 in the bank.

HD 44 has been in Republican control since it was redrawn, though Olszewski has only been in the job for the six months since voters elected him in a special election to replace former Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, who left to accept a judicial appointment.

Olszewski won that race over Democrat Eduardo Dominguez by 10 points.

Fellow Republican Usha Jain, who was the fourth-place finisher in the Republican Primary for the special election, continued being a non-factor by posting another fundraising waiver. He has $0 in the bank.

There was more action in the Democratic Primary, however. Gold faces Dominguez, James Matin and former Sen. Geraldine Thompson in the primary race.

Thompson filed in March, but she didn’t show any contributions for the two days she was a candidate that month. Her April report shows $1,060 raised as well as $4,000 of her own money. Her spending was minimal, leaving her with nearly $5,000 on hand at the end of the month.

Matin led the Democratic field in cash on hand prior to Gold’s entry, and after tacking on $2,500 and spending $1,872 he’s firmly in the No. 2 spot with $10,258 in the bank. Dominguez had been the total fundraising leader on the Democratic side, but he also lost that distinction in April. He raised $1,050 for the month and has $5,317 in the bank. His $16,600 fundraising total includes $12,000 in loans.

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