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International elections award winners: Australia, Ecuador, Ireland, Seminole County

The Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Office has won an international award for elections, winning a first-place honor for reaching first-time voters, from the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies’ International Electoral Awards.

The award put the Seminole County office on the same stage as elections’ honorees from Australia, Ecuador, Ireland, Canada, and Mexico, among other countries. The only other American elections’ office to win one of the awards was from Los Angeles.

Seminole County won in the category of the First Time Voter Award, with honorable mentions being given to the Permanent Electoral Authority of Romania, and The League of Young Voters of the United Kingdom.

Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel did not attend the awards ceremony, held in Jordan. Dean Logan, county clerk for the Los Angeles County Registrar, picked it up for him.

Ertel said the award recognizes the efforts Seminole County has undertaken to register new voters in high schools, and then to engage them in thinking about how much power their votes give them. He said he’ll go into a high school, register the students to vote, and then tell them they’ve just gained power. He said invariably the students respond with “yeah, right,” attitudes and grumbling about the lack of power of young people.

He’s set them up.

After engaging them in a town-hall conversation about what things they’d like to see changed, and still getting some skeptical, cynical responses, Ertel calls on someone he’s planted in the back of the room, or calls someone on the phone and puts the speaker next to the microphone. A mayor. A school board chairman. Some other elected official. And that person then explains what 200 votes from that auditorium would do to his or her next election.

“It’s really cool,” Ertel said. “The students eat it up.”

This is the second major award his office has won recently. Last week Ertel announced his offices website had won a “Golden Web Award” from the The International Association of Web Masters and Designers,

After cutting murder plea deal, Aramis Ayala demands answers from Rick Scott

The ongoing conflict between Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and Gov. Rick Scott over her death penalty policies took another turn as Ayala cut a murder deal with a suspect that avoids a death penalty then answered the governor’s questions by asking her own questions.

Scott and Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, have been battling, at high stakes, since March when she first announced she would not seek capital punishment. Yet even since the Florida Supreme Court told her she cannot take that position and she relented, the conflict continues.

It’s now in a war of public records requests and information demands. Part of that has to do with the case of Emerita Mapp, who would have been Ayala’s first death penalty case. Scott charged Ayala missed a critical deadline, blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that, but then on Friday cut a plea bargain with Mapp in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence in an April slaying in Kissimmee.

Last week Scott’s General Counsel Daniel Nordby demanded detailed reports on how Ayala’s death penalty review process operated, and why she missed the deadline, and what she would do about it. Her response Monday continued to deny that the capital punishment case was compromised, and once again charged that the governor himself missed the case back when he was reassigning all potential death penalty cases to another state attorney.

“I would like to know what method/procedure you used in determining which cases you decided to take from my office,” Ayala wrote the governor on Monday.

She made it a records request. And she informed the governor that she had forwarded Nordby’s requests for information to her own public records department.

Brooke Renney to run Rob Panepinto’s Orange County mayoral campaign

Orange County mayoral candidate Rob Panepinto has hired seasoned Republican campaign grassroots organizer Brooke Renney to be his campaign manager.

Renney has led field operations for a number of campaigns including Gov. Rick Scott‘s re-election campaign in 2014, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera‘s U.S. Senate campaign in 2016, and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry‘s campaign. She’s also worked for the Republican Party of Florida and the Republican National Committee, and on the state of Republican state Sen. Tom Lee.

“I am excited to have Brooke on the team leading our day-to-day campaign efforts. Brooke has a demonstrated record of success working on campaigns all over Florida,” Panepinto, a Winter Park businessman, stated in a news release issued by his campaign. “I am confident Brooke will build a top-notch organization that will carry us to victory in 2018.”

The Orange County mayor’s race is officially non-partisan, but the parties are lining up to win it. Panepinto is up against Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, a Democrat; and Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette and Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, both Republicans. They seek to succeed Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who is term-limted, in the 2018 election.

“I am excited to work to elect the right mayor for Orange County. I believe Rob Panepinto is naturally suited for this seat and genuinely understands what it will take to make a thriving and dynamic community even better. Rob has the experience, vision and, most importantly, a plan to move Orange County forward by creating more economic diversity, educational opportunities, and public safety improvements. It will be an honor to introduce Rob to my friends in Orange County.”

Jerry Demings raises $109K in Orange County mayor’s race

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings reported raising more than $109,000 in November in his quest to get elected next year as Orange County mayor.

Demings’ November campaign finance reports are only for his official campaign fund. He also has an independent political committee, United For Orange County, which has not yet reported its November activity.

The November haul in his campaign fund brings its total to $305,603 in contributions. With expenses, Demings’ campaign had $277,130 left on Dec. 1.

Another candidate, Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke of Orlando reported raising $9,900 in November, bringing his total contributions to $19,200 since he entered the race in early October. Clarke had $18,400 in the bank on Dec. 1.

Businessman Rob Panepinto of Winter Park reported his campaign totals earlier this week. He raised $34,100 for his official campaign fund and another $15,000 into his political committee, Vision Orange County. With the money he raised in October, including a $100,000 loan he made to his campaign, Panepinto now has $204,530 in his campaign and $84,530 in Vision Orange County.

November reports still have not been posted for the fourth major candidate, Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette. He finished October with $52,000 in the bank.

Demings’ November haul was by far his largest, nearly three times greater than his previous best month. He received 210 individual checks, with 70 of them coming in for the maximum $1,000 donation. Ten of those maximum checks came from various companies and individuals associated with Full Sail University.

Pulse first responder with PTSD spurs call for mental health coverage

Stories of first responders to the 2016 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder, including a police officer dismissed Tuesday night, spurred several Orlando lawmakers Wednesday to renew their call for Florida’s Workers Compensation to provide mental health coverage for them.

Democratic state Sen. Victor Torres of Orlando and Democratic state Reps. Amy Mercado, and Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando responded Wednesday in particular to Corporal Omar Delgado, who on Tuesday was dismissed effective Dec. 31, from the Eatonville Police Department.

There are several bills in both the House and the Senate that seek to expand Workers Comp to cover first responder PTSD cases.

According to a news release issued Wednesday by the Florida Senate Democrats, Delgado has been struggling with PTSD since rescuing Angel Colon, a Pulse nightclub victim who was shot six times during the early morning of June 12, 2016, when a madman killed 49 and wounded 53 inside the popular gay nightclub. For the past few months Delgado has been working on administrative tasks for the police department. Tuesday evening the Eatonville Town council dismissed him.

“When our first responders engage in acts of bravery and display amazing valor in the line of duty they are rightfully praised and awarded medals. Too often, however, when they need treatment for work-related mental traumas they become disposable and struggle to receive the support they deserve,” Torres stated in the release.

Smith noted the Delgado case is not the first involving a Pulse first responder being terminated, and noted there are other cases statewide of first responders struggling with PTSD and even committing suicide.

“The story of Corporal Omar Delgado is just the latest example of how first responders in Florida are systematically denied the support they need when coping with PTSD. It is time we take action to change Florida law and start taking their mental health seriously.”

And Mercado added, “We ask and expect our first responders to put their lives on the line every day. But when we need to protect them we fail.”

Smith is a cosponsor of HB 629, introduced by state Rep. Robert Asencio, a Democrat from Miami who is a retired police captain, which would extend the workers comp benefits. There also is HB 227 by state Reps. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican, and Matt Willhite, a Wellington Democrat, which has numerous co-sponsors, including Smith and Democratic state Rep. John Cortes of Kissimmee, and Republican state Reps. Mike Miller of Winter Park and Scott Plakon of Altamonte Springs.

Torres’s senate version, SB 126, also has numerous co-sponsors, including Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Oakland. And another measure, SB 376 by state Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation, was unanimously approved Wednesday by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.

Yet several attempts failed in last spring’s Session.

“I have been fighting for two years to make sure the first responders who protect the public get the treatment they need,” Torres continued. “It is the right thing to do, not just for the first responders, but also for their families who are impacted by these mental traumatic injuries and need our support.”

House panel approves $750K to man injured in Orange County wreck

A House of Representatives panel approved a bill that would award $750,000 from Orange County to a man injured when his motorcycle was struck by a county work van in 2006.

The award, if it receives ultimate approval by the Florida Legislature, is far less than the $2.9 million awarded to Robert Allan Smith in a 2012 jury trial in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit Court, and less than the $2.8 million requested in a bill approved by the House last year.

But that previous bill failed in the Florida Senate, and the claim amount has since been reduced through settlements in the past year, according to the sponsor of HB 6517, state Rep. Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican.

Democratic state Sens. Victor Torres and Linda Stewart of Orlando are sponsoring the Florida Senate companion bill, SB 54.

Smith was injured on a residential street in the College Park neighborhood of Orlando when his motorcycle was struck by an Orange County government van. Smith wound up losing most of his right leg and fractured his lift fibula, foot and pelvis. He incurred more than a half-million dollars in medical bills, though most of that was paid by health care coverage, and continues to have medical problems and costs from the crash, including annual replacement or maintenance of his prosthetic leg, according to a special master’s report provided to the House Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee.

Smith sued Orange County. A jury found the van driver to be 67 percent responsible, and Smith 33 percent responsible, and recommended a judgment of more than $4.8 million. The court ultimately ruled for a $2.9 million judgment. Orange County paid the first $100,000, with the rest of the claim going to the Florida Legislature.

Orange County contended the accident was 75 percent Smith’s fault, but House Special Master Jordan Jones sided with the court, and called the $750,000 claim, “reasonable.”

The bill also agrees to waive the state’s Medicaid claims against Smith, and limits attorney and lobbyist fees.

If the bill passes, Orange County would pay the settlement largely from its self-insured retention fund, and partly from an excess insurance policy.

Governor’s office accuses Aramis Ayala of negligence, possible ‘willful disregard’

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration upped the pressure on Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala with a letter Monday demanding answers on why she apparently missed a deadline for filing notice of a death penalty case and accusing her of possible “willful disregard” of the law.

The letter from Scott’s general counsel Daniel Nordby might be setting the stage for a new round of battles between the governor and the state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit who refused for months to recognize Florida’s capital-punishment law, until she lost a legal battle with Scott in the Florida Supreme Court in August.

Scott had stripped 30 death-penalty cases from her jurisdiction during that time, but resisted harsher calls from her critics who wanted to see him take action, including possible ouster proceedings, against Ayala, who was elected in the fall of 2016, becoming Florida’s first African-American state attorney.

Nordby’s letter seems to be setting the stage for possible additional actions.

Ayala’s office replied late Monday that it had only just received the letter and would reserve any comments until after the office had looked into it.

The current matter hinges on the case of murder suspect Emerita Mapp, charged with killing one man and wounding another during a violent April encounter at a Kissimmee motel. After Ayala agreed to pursue death penalty cases following the Supreme Court decision, using a panel of assistant state attorneys that would not include her, Mapp became the first case that her office elevated to first-degree, capital murder.

But according to Scott, Ayala missed the filing deadline for a required Notice of Intent to Seek Death, when she filed it on Oct. 31, more than three weeks late.

“More troubling, your more recent public comments indicate that you were well aware of the deadline, but knowingly filed the notice long after it had elapsed,” Nordby wrote. “At best, this suggests negligence — and at worst, willful disregard — in the faithful performance of the duties of your constitutional office.”

Two weeks ago, after Scott first criticized her handling of the Mapp case, Ayala’s office disputed that she had missed the deadline, and contended that the capital case against Mapp had not been compromised in any way. She accused Scott of making misleading statements about the case. She also charged that if a deadline had been missed, it would have been Scott’s fault, because the governor’s office was meticulously identifying and transferring cases out of her office while their dispute over powers was underway at the Florida Supreme Court. And that period included the period of the Mapp case, she argued.

Nordby’s letter sought a number of things from Ayala, including explanations about how her dealt penalty review panel works, when it meets, and what it has done so far; explanations of why she had rejected an offer for assistance from Brad King, state attorney for Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit; and all records pertaining to the law firm and public relations firm she hired earlier this year to represent her in the case that went to the Supreme Court.

“In light of your office’s delinquent filing — and your ongoing attempts to blame others for your office’s failures — Floridians deserve to better understand what happened and what you intend to do to remedy the situation, and what steps you intend to take to ensure that a similar failure will never occur again,” Nordby wrote.

Gary McKechnie riding into SD 12 race

Travel writer, speaker, history enthusiast, and motorcyclist Gary McKechnie has filed as a Democratic candidate to run for the Florida Senate against Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley in Senate District 12.

McKechnie, 55, of Mount Dora, is promising a platform that will be heavy on Florida-centric advocacy and perhaps lighter on Democratic ideology, in a district that is heavily Republican, covering parts of Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, including The Villages.

“I’m registered as a Democrat; I’m running as an American. I’m running as a Floridian,” said McKechnie.

Calling himself a “motojournalist,” he has made most of his career riding the backroads of Florida, as well as all of America, then writing about it. He and his wife Nancy also have a bed-and-breakfast and some other small businesses, he said.

For years McKechnie was VISIT FLORIDA’s “Off the Beaten Path Insider.” And for decades he has published his writings in magazines, newspapers, and books, including a series of books published by National Geographic, as well as a top motorcyclist touring book, winning two major national travel writing awards. He also leads school student tours in Washington D.C., lectures to international audiences on America’s history and cultural heritage aboard on Cunard cruise ships, and is frequently interviewed on television and radio talk shows about travel and American culture and history.

History and cultural heritage, and respect for how they have molded the best government, he said, fuels his desire to go into politics, and will hone his messages, which he said he’s still developing. He said he’s not interested in “red meat” issues, but what makes sense for Florida, citing President Harry Truman as his “North Star” of politics.

“I know what I’m passionate about, but… I want to prioritize it,” McKechnie said.

“It’s just what you do. It doesn’t have to be nasty. It doesn’t have to be vindictive. It doesn’t have to be character assassinations. You run a good race, you present your ideas and the people with the better ideas will win. If it’s a level playing field, the people with the better ideas will win.”

Baxley is a staunchly-conservative incumbent from Ocala who had spent 16 years in the Florida House, before beating state Rep. Marlene O’Toole in a primary and then winning the SD 12 seat against only a write-in candidate in 2016. There also is another Republican in the field, Kaesha Gray of Ocala.

Baxley’s re-election campaign has raised $65,000 so far, including $33,000 just last month.

“I know I will be outspent. I know Dennis Baxley has a lot of money. But I know: ‘shame on me’ if I don’t run,” McKechnie said.

Linda Stewart files for re-election to SD 13

Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart opened a campaign account to run for re-election to Senate District 13 this week, joining 10 of her Senate colleagues who have already taken similar steps toward another term.

Stewart is the only candidate filed to run for SD 13. Likewise, all other incumbents who have filed for re-election are running solo in the 2020 cycle so far.

Stewart also was the final senator eligible for re-election in 2020 to open her account.

The Orlando Democrat served in the House from 2012 through the 2014 election, when she was defeated in a surprise upset by GOP Rep. Mike Miller in a successful cycle for Republicans across the board.

After sitting out for two years, she bested better-funded former Democratic Rep. Mike Clelland as well as Judge “Rick” Roach in the three-way primary race.

SD 13 gained a sizable Democratic advantage when new district lines were approved by Florida courts, which gave Stewart the go-ahead win over Dean Asher, a well-funded Republican who would have otherwise likely fared well.

Sitting Republican Sens. Doug Broxson, Travis Hutson, Debbie Mayfield and Greg Steube have filed for 2020, as have Democratic Sens. Randolph Bracy, Victor Torres, Darryl Rouson, Kevin Rader, Perry Thurston and Jose Javier Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who is running in a Democratic Primary for Congress in 2018, was the only incumbent to have had a challenger in the nascent 2020 election cycle, but he is currently running uncontested after former Republican Rep. Erik Fresen withdrew after pleading guilty to not filing a tax return in 2011.

Frezen, currently finishing up the first of four court-ordered stays in jail, zeroed out his campaign account earlier this week.

Eight of the other nine seats up for grabs in 2020 are held by termed-out senators, while SD 31 is vacant due to the resignation of Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens and will be filled via a special election next year.

Gwen Graham moving campaign HQ to Orlando

Gwen Graham is moving to Orlando.

At least her gubernatorial campaign is doing so. The campaign confirmed Thursday that it’s moving its headquarters from Tallahassee, her home for decades, to settle into the City Beautiful, taking advantage of its centralized location to better accommodate campaigning and putting focus on the I-4 corridor battle.

The campaign expects to open an Orlando-area headquarters “in coming months” while keeping its Tallahassee office open, according to a statement.

“Gwen learned in 2014 to win in Florida you have to talk to every voter in every community. From day one of her gubernatorial campaign, we have been dedicated to building a statewide operation,” campaign manager Julia Woodward said in the statement. “Opening an Orlando area headquarters will allow us to reach even more voters along the I-4 corridor and easily travel to any corner of this state.”

She’ll be moving her campaign from sharing a town with Democratic rival candidate Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, to sharing a town with Democratic rival candidate Chris King, a Winter Park businessman. It also will put her in a much easier distance to South Florida, with its critical mass of Democratic voters. Graham has roots there, and it’s also home to her other Democratic rival, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

“I was born and raised in Miami, started a family in Tallahassee and have spent my life traveling this state,” Graham said in the statement. “Wherever I am in Florida, whether it’s talking to members of our military in Pensacola or discussing environmental protection in the Keys, I feel at home.”

Since announcing in May, Graham has put more than 50,000 miles on her SUV, which she calls the “Chev Victory,” according to the statement.

She is not, her campaign implied, giving up on North Florida, where her father, former U.S. Sen. and former Gov. Bob Graham, always fared well, and where she was elected to Congress.

Winning the election from Tallahassee in her off-year 2014 race, Graham outperformed Barack Obama in North Florida by 4.5 percent — a wide margin in a year only one other Democrat in the nation was able to defeat an incumbent Republican congressman, the campaign noted.

“By opening offices in Leon County and conservative counties like Bay and Jackson in 2014, we were able to energize progressive voters in deep blue areas and win over older Democrats, independents, and even Republicans in cities and towns Democrats typically don’t campaign in,” Woodward said.

Graham is planning to keep her Tallahassee office active and already has an active volunteer base in Miami, along with her parents, Bob and Adele Graham.

“We are replicating that same 2014 strategy by exciting our base in North Florida, South Florida and the I-4 corridor — along with reaching out to voters in conservative counties and rural areas,” Woodward said. “We are building an Obama-style coalition to take back the Governor’s Office,” she added.

King sent a welcome basket, of sorts.

“Kristien & I are pleased to welcome @GwenGraham to Central FL,” King tweeted. “This community raised me, educated me & has lifted my candidacy to serve as the next #FlGov. I Trust Gwen will find my hometown a diverse, dynamic & welcoming place.”

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