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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.

Jennifer Sullivan cedes ground in HD 31 money race

Mount Dora Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan has gone three months without raising a dime for her House District 31 re-election bid, allowing challenger Debra Kaplan to continue playing catchup.

April saw the Eustis Democrat bring in $2,430 – nearly double what she raised through the first three months of the year and her best fundraising report since filing for HD 31 in March 2017.

That haul came in across 33 contributions, most of them from small-dollar donors chipping in $100 or less. Tavaraes retiree Belita Grassel topped the monthly donor roll with a $500 check.

That total was offset by about $100 in spending, half of it for postage and the rest for petition signature verification, web hosting and credit card processing fees through fundraising platform ActBlue.

Kaplan finished April with just shy of $10,000 in total fundraising and $7,000 in the bank.

That total still puts her far behind Sullivan who, thanks to HD 31’s voter split, is nearly ensured a third term. Thanks to hitting the fundraising trail prior to the 2018 Legislative Session, the second-term lawmaker still has more than half of the $39,800 she’s raised in her campaign account.

After spending $2,350 in April, including $1,000 for consulting work from Gainesville-based Data Targeting Research, she had $21,121 in the bank.

HD 31 covers northeast Lake County and northwest Orange County and has a strong Republican base. GOP voters make up 44 percent of the electorate compared to a 31 percent share for Democrats, who haven’t fielded a candidate since the seat was redrawn ahead of the 2012 elections.

Sullivan was elected to the seat without an Election Day challenger in 2014 after taking nearly 35 percent of the vote in a five-way Republican Primary. Her only opposition in 2016 came from unaffiliated candidate Robert Rightmyer, whom she beat 73-27. The seat voted 59-36 for Donald Trump.

Bob Cortes

Bob Cortes cracks $100K raised for HD 30 re-election

Altamonte Springs Republican Rep. Bob Cortes crossed $100,000 in total fundraising last month in his bid for a third term representing House District 30.

Cortes’ April campaign finance report shows $10,650 in new money and $2,775 in spending, bringing his to-date total to $105,325 with more than $85,000 banked.

The new report lists 16 contributions, half of which were for the campaign maximum of $1,000. Top donors included towing company Emerald Transportation and political committees tied to incoming House Speaker Jose Olvia, Palm Coast Republican Rep. Paul Renner and St. Petersburg Republican Rep. Chris Sprowls, who is set to take the gavel after the 2020 elections.

Topping the expenditure list was a $1,500 payment to Tallahassee-based Silver Productions for video work and nearly $1,000 to D&D Enterprises of Sanford for campaign promotional items.

Two Democratic challengers stand between Cortes and a third term: Clark Anderson and Maitland City Commissioner Joy Goff-Marcil.

Goff-Marcil, who filed in mid-February, saw her contributions halve compared to her first two months in the race, though she still holds a substantial lead over Anderson. She raised $3,748 in April and spent $4,350. Through three finance reports, she’s raised $18,638 and has $14,256 in the bank.

Anderson, the first-in Democrat, added $350 to his coffers through more than a dozen small-dollar donations. He spent $500 more than he brought in, however, causing him to dip into the candidate loans he used to jumpstart his campaign in January.

He’s brought in $13,875 since filing, including $10,000 in loans. He has $9,858 on hand.

HD 30 straddles the border of Seminole and Orange counties and includes the communities of Altamonte Springs, Casselberry, Eatonville, Fern Park, Forest City, Goldenrod, Lockhart and Maitland. About two-thirds of HD 30 voters live on the Seminole side.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by about 3,000, though Cortes was able to kick out former Democratic Rep. Karen Castor Dentel with a 3-point win in 2014. He followed that up with a 7-point win over Democrat Ryan Neal Yadav in his 2016 re-election campaign.

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