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Victor Torres seeking FEMA help for housing for Puerto Rico evacuees

State Sen. Victor Torres is urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide more housing relief programs in Florida for Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island Hurricane Maria refugees to afford housing in Florida.

Torres’s request follows a similar call earlier this week from the Central Florida Heart of Florida United Way, seeking federal assistance to help tens of thousands of people fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico to come to Florida, when many arrive finding dire options on where to live.

Torres said he’s pushing for FEMA to provide Temporary Stabilization Assistance grants, which would allow Puerto Rico evacuees to use FEMA money immediately to rent hotel or motel rooms for up to 14 days while they find a longer-term place to stay. FEMA also has programs that could provide vouchers for longer term rentals, and set up temporary housing in mobile homes — provided the local governments assist in identifying places to put them.

As of a week ago, more than 60,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived in Florida. Some estimates suggest the number will climb over 100,000. The two primary places they are arriving, Miami and Orlando, already have housing shortages, especially for affordable housing.

“The impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are placing huge demands on our public services,” Torres said in a news release. “We need to focus on building and expanding more housing options for Floridians and evacuees from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico who are seeking refuge in our great state.”

Torres gave impassioned testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday when he called on members to increase funds for state education, healthcare and housing needs to accommodate the refugee migration.

Earlier this week, Central Florida Heart of Florida United Way Executive Director Jeff Hayward called on the federal government, through FEMA, to engage in providing support for additional housing options in central Florida.

Torres’ district includes parts of both Orange and Osceola counties which contain the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans living in Florida.

FEMA has designated Florida as a go-to state for evacuees from the islands and approved costs could be eligible for 100 percent reimbursement by the federal government. Torres said he is working with local and state officials for FEMA approval of both the deployment of mobile housing units and authorization of TSA for evacuees to receive rental housing funds.

National Republicans backing both Mike Miller and Scott Sturgill in CD 7

The National Republican Campaign Committee announced Thursday it is backing both state Rep. Mike Miller and his primary challenger Scott Sturgill in the race to take on U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in Florida’s 7th Congressional District.

The NRCC announced it was including both Miller and Sturgill in its “On the Radar” level of support, among 31 candidates nationally thus designated Thursday. The NRCC also named Bruno Barreiro in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, where there is a scramble to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

The announcement adds fuel to Sturgill’s campaign, signaling a clear race in what many initially considered Miller’s.

Miller, a two-term representative from Winter Park, entered the race in late June and has grabbed a number of big-name endorsements including those of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez of Orlando and Connie Mack III of Fort Myers.

Yet Sturgill, a small business owner from Sanford who entered the race in mid-July, loaned his own campaign $100,000, and with that raised more money than Miller, $206,000 to $156,000, through the end of September reporting period. He also grabbed the endorsement of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

The district covers Seminole County and much of north central Orange County, and appears to be splitting along county lines between the more conservative Seminole and more moderate Orange.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat from Winter Park, had raised more than $1 million.

Barreiro, a Miami-Dade County commissioner, is one of three Republicans and a half-dozen Democrats making serious runs in CD 27.

Officially an NRCC effort for the past four election cycles, the On the Radar program requires the candidates to hit specific goals throughout the cycle to ensure their campaigns remain competitive, well-funded and communicative within their districts. On the Radar is the first of three levels in the NRCC’s Young Guns program.

“These 31 candidates are formidable competitors against the liberal agenda of Nancy Pelosi and the left,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers stated in a news release. “We look forward to working with these candidates to grow our Republican majority and enact policies that help hard working Americans.”

Democrats eying possible takeover of Orange County in 2018

Democrats are looking ahead to the 2018 Orange County elections thinking it might be the year they finally take over county government.

The Orange County Board of County Commissioners and the mayor’s office are officially nonpartisan, but the two main parties in Orange County don’t see it that way. So while voters have the chance to vote strictly by the candidate, behind those candidates the Democrats and Republicans are pushing their own, and seeking to hold onto or take control of Orange County’s agenda.

Since the 1990s the Republicans have dominated county government even though Democrats have increasingly dominated the voter registration. Linda Chapin, the last Democratic Orange County chair [now called mayor,] left office in 1998. The Democrats have not had a majority on the Orange County Board of Commissioners since 1994.

Currently Republicans hold the mayor’s office [Teresa Jacobs] and four of the six county commission districts. This time last year they held five of the six commissioner seats, or six of seven votes including the mayor’s vote.

Next year, Democrats are projecting they would take the mayor’s office and wind up with four, maybe five, of the six seats on the board of commissioners.

“That is the plan,” said Orange County Democratic Chair Wes Hodge.

“Too soon to tell…. I think we’ll be OK, actually,” said his counterpart, Orange County Republican Chair Lew Oliver.

The Democrats have 43 percent of Orange County’s voters, and Republicans just 27 percent, with another 31 percent of voters registering as either independents or minor parties. The Democrats advantage has been steadily widening for years.

The Democrats’ prospects in 2018 are led by their candidate for mayor, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, who’s got a high name recognition, three county-wide election victories, and strong community support, and who is expecting some crossover support from the business community.

The Republicans have three strong candidates in Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette, Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, and businessman Rob Panepinto, president of Orlando Inc., the greater Orlando chamber of commerce.

Yet in a nonpartisan primary next August, it’s likely Demings will emerge to face one of the Republicans in a runoff election in November — in a county which Democrats now hold a 16-point lead over Republicans in voter registration. The Democrats intend to milk that advantage.

“I have no issue with using our resources to let the voters know who our candidates are,” Hodge said.

Orange County Commissioner Victoria Siplin, one of only two Democrats on the board, is seeking re-election and does not have an opponent yet. It’s a safe district for the Democrats, with a big majority overall in voter registration. Sixty-three percent of all District 2 voters are registered Democrats. Just 10 percent are Republicans.

Right now the Democrats also like their chances to flip Orange County District 4, currently held by term-limited Republican Jennifer Thompson. Three Democrats are vying, Kevin Ballinger, Maribel Gomez Cordero and Nicolette Springer, in a district in which Democrats now have a 16-point advantage in voter registration. Lawyer Gina Perez-Calhoun is running for the Republicans.

With Clarke’s entry into the mayor’s race, that could open up District 3 for a special election next year, provided he doesn’t change his mind by next June. Last week, Orange County Soil & Water Conservation District Chair Eric Rollings, a well-known official expected to get strong party backing, entered the Democratic race.

Democrats have a 15-point advantage in District 3.

Republicans appear to have at least a momentum advantage in keeping the District 2 seat that will be vacated by Bryan Nelson, who is running for mayor of Apopka instead of for re-election. His predecessor, Fred Brummer; Brummer’s former campaign manager, Christine Moore; and Apopka greenhouse grower Mark Byrd all are Republican candidates with established campaigns or campaign experience, and Brummer and Byrd are off to strong starts raising money. Moore just got in.

Democrat Patricia Rumph‘s campaign has not raised much in ten months. Yet she reportedly has been building a ground game. And Democrats actually have a 17-point advantage in voter registration in District 2, thanks to inclusion of much of the Pine Hills neighborhood, a largely African-American community. So Hodge and other Democrats are in no way conceding the district.

But there is a lot left to happen, Republican Chair Oliver said. And there is a reason Republicans have held control for 20-plus years: Orange County voters apparently feel comfortable with what Republicans have done.

“We’ve got a bunch of good candidates either in the wings, or in play,” Oliver said.

At least two prominent Republicans have been mentioned in political circles for Clarke’s District 3 seat, including former Orange County Clerk of Courts Eddie Fernandez and real estate agent Dean Asher, though each has told people he’s not interested at this time. They both have until next June to decide.

The District 2 race could change depending on what happens in the Apopka election in March 2018. Should Nelson lose, he could still file to run for re-election, though he has said he would not do so. Should Democratic Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer lose his re-election bid, he’s been mentioned as a possible Orange County Commission District 2 candidate.

There also is the potential impact of the ongoing migration of people from Puerto Rico, greatly accelerated by a flow of evacuees from the island since Hurricane Maria devastated it. So far, Puerto Ricans have largely registered as either Democrats or independents, not Republicans. The Puerto Rican migration was widely credited for flipping neighboring Osceola County to Democratic control three years ago.

Anguish, relief, fear, hope: Relief efforts serving thousands of Puerto Rico storm refugees

Rene Plasencia sees it in the faces of countless Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria refugees when he or someone else says, “we’re here to help you.”

A mixture of anguish, relief, pain, joy, fear, confidence, hopelessness, hope — all the emotions of losing everything and traveling to a strange, new place with almost nothing, and then encountering someone who at least is there to hold a hand, if not help.

It’s happening hundreds of times a day at Florida’s Puerto Rico Disaster Relief Centers at the Orlando and Miami airports, the Port of Miami, and at LatinoLeadership as well as other local nonprofits reaching out to help people arriving from Puerto Rican homes who are not necessarily looking for a fresh start, but just for a place to live.

Sometimes when home-cooked hot meals are brought in by volunteers, it’s the first home-cooked hot meal people have eaten in a month or more, he said.

“It would blow you away,” said Plasencia, a Republican state Representative from Orlando with Puerto Rican roots. His family runs LatinoLeadership, a social services center in Orlando that is helping about 150 Puerto Ricans walking in each day seeking help, and taking hundreds of calls a day. He’s spending a couple of hours a day there himself, and helping at Orlando International Airport, in the state’s official Disaster Relief Center there.

“It gives me both a sense of hope in humanity, and it also gives me a sense of despair,” he said, “because people have so much need for help.”

It was a month ago, on Sept. 20, that Hurricane Maria completely wiped out much of that island’s housing, power, water supply, hospitals, schools, businesses, and infrastructure,

Since Florida’s official Puerto Rico Disaster Relief Centers opened Oct. 3, at least 60,000 people from the island have arrived in Florida on airplanes and ships. It’s unknown how many of them are actual storm refugees, and how many are relief workers and others shuttling from the island.

But the vast majority are people leaving their beloved, but devastated, homeland.

The three Florida Disaster Relief Centers have directly met with more than 12,000 displaced Puerto Ricans, many representing families or groups sitting outside in the airports or Port of Miami waiting for news on where they can go, and what they can do. Some days, centers assist more than 900 people.

About 4,000-6,000 more people from Puerto Rico are getting off planes in Orlando or Miami every day, said Alberto Moscoso, communications director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

“Folks coming off the planes are hopeful. Many are intending to return to Puerto Rico when the situation improves, and they’re grateful that the resources are there and the airport has helped them out,” Moscoso said.

Most, he said, are arriving with some sort of plan, and with family in Florida. Yet not all, and housing remains the highest immediate need.

At the centers, they meet with officials from FEMA and the U.S. Veterans Benefits Administration; nine state agencies, including health, children and families, elder affairs, and economic opportunity; a handful of local agencies; and a number of private organizations.

Among those at Orlando International Airport include LatinoLeadership, American Red Cross, United Way, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Health Insurance Story, Calvario City Church, Aspire Health Partners, Shepard’s Hope, Halo Office, and the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Puerto Rico relief effort is among  Gov. Rick Scott‘s highest priorities right now,  press secretary Lauren Schenone said.

Plasencia said it shows, not just with the services at the airport, but with the several times a day he said he’s personally calling the governor’s office looking for specific points of help, and getting it.

“The airport is a great service,” he said. “The biggest problem at this point is a lot of the passengers who get off the planes aren’t going to the receiving centers; they’re going off property, and meeting with family, and then maybe a couple days later they’re going back to the receiving center.”

Plasencia, however, was highly critical of the assistance from local governments, particularly Orlando and Orange County.

Two weeks ago Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs declined a request from three county commissioners, Emily Bonilla, Pete Clarke, and Jennifer Thompson, for the county to set up its own Puerto Rico relief efforts, saying it was the state’s role. Last week Plasencia, at a meeting of the Orange County Legislative Delegation, implored her to reconsider.

He said the local efforts are nothing compared with the overwhelming way that Orange County and Orlando responded to the horrific nightclub massacre at Pulse on June 12, 2016.

The county has provided a representative from its Department of Family Services. Orlando has provided a representative from its Hispanic Office for Local Assistance office. The Orange County School Board has provided a representative, as has the Osceola County School Board, and Lynx, the regional public bus system.

What’s most missing is shelter, Plasencia said. He said the governor’s office said the state could not set up any temporary emergent shelters because that was a local responsibility.

“The sad part of this is the lack of support and even the lack of acknowledgment by our local government,” he said. “Where has Teresa Jacobs been, or [Orlando Mayor] Buddy Dyer throughout this whole process?”

Other groups are stepping in. A coalition of churches is finding some housing. Others are providing job leads, notably Eddy Dominguez‘s human resources company Resource Employment Solutions, and the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.

Plasencia fears the needs will get more acute.

“Most of the people who come so far are living with family. They are people who have come here, typically have a little more means,” Plasencia said. “The next group of people who come may not be that way.”

Teresa Jacobs to Gainesville: Stay away from Richard Spencer’s appearance

In the aftermath of Orlando’s tragic massacre at the Pulse nightclub last year Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs was central in a community effort to socially unite in opposition to hatred and extremism, and on Thursday she urged the people of Gainesville to not give a visiting white supremacist’s platform a boost by going anywhere near him.

Jacobs and Gov. Rick Scott spoke out against the hatred and white supremacy Richard Spencer represents while the mayor and governor were surrounded by young children at the Roth Family Jewish Community Center in Maitland Thursday morning.

In discussing Spencer, Scott briefly outlined the preparations he and Alachua County and Gainesville officials were taking to prepare to prevent violence, and both Scott and Jacobs condemned in advance any violence that might spark from Spencer’s speech.

Jacobs began by declaring that Orange County does not tolerate white supremacy or white supremacists, and said she is confident most people in Gainesville feel the same way.

“I would just urge everyone to protest and who wants to be heard to do it by just staying at home and walking away from that opportunity to respond,” Jacobs said. “Sometimes the best response is no response.

“Don’t give this man the dignity of your time and your attention this evening. Keep our community safe and remember really what we’re all about as a community and don’t let one person distract us from that,” Jacobs added.

 

Bob Cortes heads for Puerto Rico on relief mission organized through speaker’s office

State Rep. Bob Cortes went to Puerto Rico Monday to oversee a disaster relief effort arranged by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and coordinated by him and other members of the Seminole County Legislative Caucus.

Cortes, a Republican from Altamonte Springs, is overseeing delivery of about four tons of supplies headed for the hard-hit eastern part of the island commonwealth.

Puerto Rico is his family home, where he still has numerous family members struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. On Monday Cortes expressed hope to get supplies through to some of the 3.5 million people who lost so much, most still without power, many without running water, and all struggling.

He also expects to meet with officials there, possibly including Gov. Ricardo Rossello, to talk about future cooperative efforts between Florida and Puerto Rico.

“We want to make sure what we do here will set the tone for the future as we try to help,” Cortes said by phone from San Juan.

This effort, he said, was arranged through conversations between Corcoran and Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Johnny Méndez.

Seminole County’s Legislative Caucus of Cortes, state Sen. Dave Simmons, and state Reps. Scott Plakon, and Jason Brodeur worked with the Orlando Sanford International Airport, Allegiant Airlines and the Course of Action Foundation to make it happen.

“I’m so proud to be part of this effort to do our part in helping our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico who continue to suffer in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria,” Cortes stated in a news release issued by his office. “Everyone has worked tirelessly to coordinate this project.”

Darren Soto’s slow campaign fundraising still unchallenged

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando raised just $83,000 during the last quarter for his re-election campaign in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, yet neither of his Republican challengers in Florida’s 9th Congressional District raised much of anything.

The new contributions through Sept. 30, minus $28,000 in campaign expenses, left Soto with $222,318 in the bank on Oct. 1, according to the latest campaign finance reports posted on the Federal Election Commission website.

To date, Soto had raised $282,727 for his campaign, most of that coming from political action committee donations. Those committee donations include $10,000 from the No Labels Problem Solvers PAC, created by a bipartisan group of Congress members.

Two Republican challengers, Wayne Liebnitzky and Sean Alan Buchan, both reported raising less than $1,000 during the quarter covering July, August and September. Buchan finished the quarter with no money, while Liebnitzky reported having $362 in the bank.

Scott Sturgill raises $200K in CD 7 race

Republican candidate Scott Sturgill raised more than $200,000 in the third quarter of 2017 for his campaign to win Florida’s 7th Congressional District in Central Florida.

Sturgilll, a Sanford businessman, sits well behind Democratic incumbent Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park in the early money race toward the 2018 election. Last week Murphy reported that her fundraising had topped $1 million toward her re-election bid.

However, Sturgill leads state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park heading toward the 2018 Republican primary. Miller reported raising $156,000.

Sturgill’s big showing came in part through his own wallet. The chief executive officer of  Durable Safety Products contributed $100,250 through a personal loan to his campaign. His total came in at $206,395. After expenses, he reported having $177,499 going into October.

“We are excited for the support my campaign has received so far,” Sturgill said. “We hit our target and I then matched from my own pocket dollar for dollar up to $100,000.”

Sturgill has notable endorsements from Florida Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma, former Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary.

“Inside the district, our team is growing everyday as we seek to end the career of Nancy Pelosi’s puppet congresswoman,” Sturgill said of Murphy. “Our district will have a real voice again, not one that is funded primarily by outside liberal interests.”

The other Democrat in the race, Chardo Richardson, reported raising $11,724.

CD 7 covers all of Seminole County and north and central Orange County, through and including downtown Orlando.

Say it isn’t so: Pluto no longer ‘top dog’ at Disney?

Don’t worry: Pluto is still the main canine at Walt Disney World Resort—but he won’t be the only dog.

The theme park will welcome dogs to four hotels for the first time ever beginning Sunday.

Dog lovers will find plenty of Disney perks for their four-legged friends. At check-in, dog owners will receive Pluto’s Welcome Kit, which includes a mat, bowls, a pet ID tag, disposable bags, puppy pads and dog walking maps. The kit also includes a Pluto “Do Not Disturb” door hanger to let hotel staff know that a pet is in the room.

Disney has partnered with Best Friends Pet Care, an on-property, full-service facility that can provide pet daycare and other pet services, for a fee.

Guests will also be able to purchase pet merchandise at the pet-friendly resorts.

Here are a list of the hotels and the per night/per room pet-cleaning rates:

Disney’s Art of Animation Resort — $50

Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside Resort — $50

Disney’s Yacht Club Resort — $75

Cabins at Disney’s Ft. Wilderness Resort — $50

A maximum of two dogs per room are allowed. Each guest room will have access to outdoor pet walkways for exercise and green spaces with pet relief areas.

A caveat: While dogs will be allowed to stay in guest rooms, they will be expected to be well behaved, leashed in public resort areas and properly vaccinated.

John Ward announces run for Ron DeSantis’ seat

A Republican Florida businessman isn’t waiting for Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis to make up his mind about his political future before running for his seat.

John Ward announced Thursday he’s running for DeSantis’ seat as the incumbent decides whether to run for governor or seek a fourth term.

Ward, a business investor and Navy veteran, is running as a pro-President Donald Trump candidate and an outsider who’s frustrated with business as usual in Washington.

He’s a multi-millionaire who plans to combine traditional fundraising with his own wealth to pay for the campaign, pledging to have at least $1 million in his account by January.

Democrat Nancy Soderberg, who once served as ambassador to the United Nations, is also running for the seat in the northeast Florida district that favors Republicans.

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