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#4 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Rick Kriseman

As the 2017 mayoral race ramped up last year, re-election was never a sure thing for incumbent St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. It was far from it at times.

Yet despite a significant challenge from former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who was often ahead in the polls, he and his allies pulled it off.

Whether it was a sign of a blue wave or the result of constant door-knocking or one of many other potential factors, we’ll never know. But Kriseman’s re-election helped solidify the city’s status as a (mostly) progressive haven.

A former state Representative who’s a lawyer by trade, observers say Kriseman is as likable as he is serious about policymaking.

“It’s not often you meet an elected official you want to go to a Jimmy Buffett concert with and also work with on major policy issues. Mayor Kriseman is that guy. Faced with many challenges, Rick has shown that he is not only extremely well-liked but is leaving behind a legacy of progressive leadership,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Laura Boehmer.

Since sworn in for his second time, Kriseman has championed a proposed ban on offshore drilling, joined a lawsuit against Governor Rick Scott over a 2011 barring cities and counties from passing local gun laws and renamed the main branch of the city’s library after former President Barack Obama. While he and other mayors’ hands are tied on gun laws per se, he’s also vowed to divest city dollars from gun manufacturers and vendors.

The city (downtown in particular) is seeing an influx of development under Kriseman’s watch. While Chamber of Commerce types herald these projects for their economic development potential, some are concerned that the diverse population that made downtown appealing are being priced out of their neighborhoods and Central Avenue storefronts.

Remaining to be seen is whether the Pier will finish on time. There’s also that little thing that almost cost him his re-election: whether the city’s wastewater system overhaul will be completed in time to prevent any more sewage dumps.

What significantly boosts Kriseman’s power factor is the fact that the majority of St. Petersburg City Council members support his agenda. It can’t hurt to have the bulk of the Pinellas County Commission generally on his side, either.

Unlike Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who terms out in early 2019 with an uncertain, Kriseman has more than three-and-a-half years to go as mayor. That gives him room to step up as a regional figure. We saw that potential in his willingness to let the Rays look at potential stadium sites in Tampa (even though he seemed to think team officials would ultimately stay in St. Pete) and in his ability to get Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to pitch in for a ferry service pilot in 2016.

Kriseman ranked seventh in 2017.

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Wengay "Newt" Newton

Wengay Newton to hold St. Pete town hall June 28

Democratic Rep. Wengay “Newt” Newton will host a town hall meeting later this month to field questions from his constituents in the Pinellas part of House District 70.

The June 28 event will be at the Enoch Davis Recreational Center in St. Petersburg, 1111 18th Ave. South, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. HD 70 residents looking for more information on the town hall can call up Newton’s district office at 727-892-2468.

The upcoming town hall continues Newton’s trend of being an accessible lawmaker — the former St. Petersburg City Council member has already held three such meetings since the 2018 Legislative Session wrapped in mid-March.

Though more than half of his constituents live in Pinellas County, he also represents slices of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties. He met with the Sarasota crowd on April 19, followed by a May 10 stop in Palmetto and a May 31 town hall in Ruskin.

Newton was elected to the Florida House in 2016, succeeding now-Sen. Darryl Rouson. He took 62 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary before cruising past a Republican challenger with 76 percent of the vote on Election Day.

Despite those landslide wins two years ago, Newton faces some opposition in his quest for a second term.

Democrat Vito Sheeley filed to challenge Newton in July 2017 and Keisha Bell made it a three-way primary race when she entered at the beginning of February.

Newton has so far held them at bay in the money race, with total fundraising of about $33,000 and $23,000 on hand at the end of May. That puts him ahead of the combined totals for his two challengers in both metrics.

The town hall flyer is below.

Wengay Newton - 6.28.2018 town hall

#5 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Wilton Simpson

An egg farmer by trade, Wilton Simpson currently serves as Senate Majority Leader. The Trilby Republican’s prestige doesn’t end there, though. Simpson, 51, is slated to become Senate President in 2020, on the heels of incoming Senate President Bill Galvano. (Both presidencies, of course, hinge on GOP dominance in that chamber following the 2018 and 2020 elections.)

Voted to represent Senate District 10 in 2012 with no prior political experience (unless you count the million or so chickens under his watch), Simpson has established himself as a strong conservative, albeit one that gets along with many members of the environmental community. In 2016, he filed a bill that would have allowed guns in airport terminals. That same year he also sponsored a measure that would have banned “certain refugees and immigrants” from entering the state.

On the flip side, this year he co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution encouraging the feds to extend a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico east of the Military Mission Line.

“It is rare in politics to have a leader who has proved himself successful in so many ways in the business world. It is even rarer to have a leader who connects with people, who is humble, and who genuinely acts on principle. Wilton manages to do both and will undoubtedly be a powerful and productive leader for the state in the next four years,” said David Browning of Southern Strategy Group.

While Republican control of the Senate might not be a definite thing, Simpson will probably have an easy time getting re-elected. His district covers Citrus, Hernando and part of Pasco counties, which are all reliably red. So far, his campaign has raised nearly $421,000 — not that he’d need it all. While state records suggest former Sen. John Legg as a primary challenger to Simpson, Legg has confirmed he’s not actually running. Simpson has not drawn a Democratic challenger, either.

Simpson’s PAC, Jobs for Florida, has raised more than ten times the money his campaign has; as of this writing that committee has amassed more than $4.3 million.

Simpson ranked sixth in last year’s survey.

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

#6 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Kathy Castor

Whether it’s a string of good decisions — or that she has had an impossibly charmed life in politics thus far — Congresswoman Kathy Castor doesn’t really seem capable of having a bad year. Yet the Tampa Democrat has certainly been an underdog more than once; first, as a Hillsborough County Commissioner in the Ronda Storms era, then as a member of Congress starting her third term amid the tea party wave.

Her Tampa district, which voters first sent her to represent in 2006, is safely blue. And even though lawmakers added thousands of Republicans to it because of the gerrymandering lawsuit, she easily won re-election in 2016 against Trump-supporting Republican Christine Quinn, whom she beat by an astonishing 24 points.

This year, she won re-election by default when not one person filed to challenge her.

Castor hasn’t been afraid to espouse progressive causes. She’s passionately opposed to offshore drilling and will speak out against any Trump administration attempt to roll back environmental protections. She’s been an outspoken advocate for protecting — and enhancing — the Affordable Care Act. In the wake of recent mass shootings, she’s taken to the House floor — and the airwaves — to express her frustration with her GOP colleagues’ unwillingness to consider what she sees as preventive measures.

In 2014, Castor helped the Obama administration develop its plan to re-establish diplomacy with Cuba.

In other words, she and her district are part of the reason Florida is a purple state.

Last year, there was speculation that, given how little power Congressional Democrats presently have, she may step down and run for mayor of Tampa, but she since declined to jump in.

The possibility that a blue wave will have enough might to flip the House could prove a boon to Castor, who would finally, after eight years in the minority, have Congressional leadership that listens to her. Important committee assignments wouldn’t be out of the question, either.

Whatever happens in November, Castor probably won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Castor was No. 8 on this list in 2017.

Joe Henderson‘s take: “She has one of the safest seats in the U.S. House and could emerge as a major power if ‘Blue Wave’ happens this fall.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Southern Strategy Group lands Pinellas Co. lobbying contract

The Pinellas County Commission has selected Southern Strategy Group (SSG) to handle its lobbying needs in Tallahassee for the next two years.

SSG was one of several firms to respond to the Pinellas Commission’s call for contract proposals and, as reported last week, their pitch made the shortlist alongside Dean Mead and GrayRobinson.

Dean Mead had held the contract for years, and though they made the top three, it seems the writing was on the wall.

As one commissioner, who did not want to be named, earlier told Florida Politics: “Dean Mead sold their relationship with [former state Sen. Jack] Latvala to their advantage. With him gone, most likely so is their contract.”

While the choice was likely a smart one in a post-Latvala world, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice said Thursday that the decision to move forward with another firm wasn’t easy.

“It was a tough decision. We appreciate the good work of Pete Dunbar and his team. I think the commission wanted to make the change to be more focused on the appropriations process. We look forward to working with Laura Boehmer and Seth McKeel to get the job done for Pinellas,” he said.

Southern Strategy Group, which is consistently among the top-grossing Florida lobbying firms, said it would represent Pinellas County for $158,000 in lobbying pay over the next two years. Dean Mead asked for $200,000 in pay and GrayRobinson asked for $144,000.

While GrayRobinson didn’t snag the Pinellas County gig this go around, they haven’t struck out on other county or municipal clients.

Their most recent lobbying compensation reports, also among the best in the state, showed they were the firm of choice among many municipal clients. Making their client roster were a half-dozen county governments and some of the largest metros in the state, including Miami-Dade County, Tampa and Orlando.

Susan Valdes sidesteps special treatment allegations, refers questions to attorney

Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes, now running for House District 62, slammed Democratic primary opponent Mike Alvarez Thursday for running a negative campaign.

At issue is Valdes’ resign-to-run letter. A new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year requires elected officials to turn in a resignation letter for their current office 10 days before qualifying for another.

After the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections told media and Alvarez’ political consultant that Valdes missed the deadline, the office changed course in a Monday news release, saying it had accepted Valdes’ resignation letter.

Emails released by the Alvarez campaign earlier Thursday show Valdes’ resignation letter was delivered to the home of Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer at 10:30 p.m. Friday, hours after his office told reporters Valdes had missed the deadline, interpreted as 5 p.m. Friday, June 8, by Mary Helen Farris of the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office.

In a release Thursday sent by consultant Victor DiMaio — Valdes panned Alvarez for “hiding behind his high-paid, out-of-town consultant” and for “trying to impugn the integrity of the supervisor of elections and 14-year School Board Member Susan Valdes, who are fellow Democrats.”

“Instead of having an honest discussion about education, the affordable housing crisis, healthcare and all the other critical issues facing the voters of District 62, my opponent is choosing to throw mud,” Valdes said. “Instead of a new day, Alvarez is offering politics as usual.

“That is why Rep. Janet Cruz and former Representative and Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez are endorsing my candidacy. We share a long history of service and working together to advance the cause of the people we represent and also supporting our fellow Democrats.”

Though she chastises Alvarez for mudslinging, at no point in her release does Valdes deny, or even respond to, the crux of his accusations — that through the after-hours lobbying of Latimer and the supervisor’s office, she was permitted to have her resign-to-run letter delivered to Latimer’s home, a privilege that is almost certainly unavailable to other candidates.

DiMaio referred any questions on the legality of Valdes’ resignation to Tallahassee-based election law attorney Ron Meyer. Florida Politics attempted to contact Meyer but had not received any response as of Thursday evening.

No matter Meyer’s take on how the resign-to-run law applied to Valdes, the Avalrez campaign is not backing down.

In a statement to Florida Politics, the Tampa Democrat said he “couldn’t help but notice that Board Member Valdes doesn’t deny that she received special treatment or that this is just the latest in a series of ethical lapses. When calls for accountability, transparency, and honesty are a political attack — you’ve been in politics too long.

“When I talk with the hard-working people in Hillsborough County, they value honesty and integrity above everything else. I don’t have 14 years of political favors and shady transactions with the downtown crowd, but my advice to Susan would be to stop hiding from the voters and address these issues. I think the voters deserve to know if you’ll break this streak of bad behavior and start playing by the rules that the rest of us live by every day.

“I believe the voters deserve someone who will fight to change the culture in Tallahassee — not someone who wants to join the party.”

Alvarez filed for the seat, a Democratic stronghold, in May 2017. Fellow Democrat Christopher Carlos Cano entered the race June 1.

Tampa Tiger Bay Club to host bipartisan CD 15 candidate forum

The Tampa Tiger Bay Club will host all candidates who are running to fill the vacancy in Florida’s 15th Congressional District at a meeting Friday at the Ferguson Law Center in Tampa.

Tiger Bay officials invited the three Democrats and six Republicans competing to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland, who is retiring from the CD 15 after eight years.

By Thursday afternoon, all three Democrats — Andrew Learned of Valrico, Ray Pena and Kristen Carlson, both of Lakeland, had accepted.

Of the six Republicans who want the job, five had confirmed — Sean Harper and Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland, former state Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City, Danny Kushmer of Brandon, state Rep. Ross Spano, Dover. By late Thursday, Curt Rogers of Dover had not confirmed.

Both parties face tough primaries Aug. 28 before the two winners meet in the Nov. 6 general election.

Registration opens at 11:30 a.m., the event begins at noon. Chester Ferguson Law Center is at 1610 N. Tampa St. in Tampa. Tickets for members and first-time guests are $30; $40 for nonmembers. More information is at tigerbayclub.com.

Terry Power owes alimony, records show; he says no

Terry Power, a Republican candidate for House District 64, owes nearly $88,000 in alimony, according to court records reviewed this week.

A document in the case from Pinellas County shows a “payoff amount” of $87,904. It also lists a “balance due” of only $4,668.

In a statement to Florida Politics, however, Power says he doesn’t legally owe any of that money: “I am 100 percent current on all of my court-ordered alimony obligations.”

Power, an Oldsmar retirement plan consultant, is challenging incumbent state Rep. Jamie Grant in the Republican primary for the seat, which covers northwest Hillsborough County and a slice of eastern Pinellas County. The area leans heavily Republican.

Further, Power says his ex-wife reopened their 10-year-old divorce case: “I’m sure it’s only a coincidence that I’m a candidate for the Florida House.”

But campaign records also show he put $79,000 of his own money into his campaign, leading his critics to privately question whether he is trying to “manipulate the system.”

Power denies that as well: “I am in full compliance with all State of Florida election laws. Any representation to the contrary is libelous and will be dealt with in the proper venue.”

He went on: “There was an alimony arrearage calculated by the court in my final divorce order (from 2012). I am not under any sort of obligation or court order to pay any of that outstanding amount at this time.”

Power also sent Florida Politics a copy of a 2013 court order “denying my ex-wife from forcing me to pay anything other than the $1,500 a month that I’ve paid since 2013.”

“I do not have an obligation to pay the ‘arrearage’ in my divorce,” he said. “If she wants to file a motion to revisit that, it’s certainly her prerogative,” which explains “writs of garnishment” against him filed this month.

“The Court denied her request in 2013,” he said. “But I’m 100 percent current in what the court has ordered me to pay.

“… The Tallahassee Swamp must be getting desperate,” Power also said. “Is this really all they’ve got?”

The primary is Aug. 28; the general election is Nov. 6.

#7 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Richard Corcoran

Although he had a good run in his two years as House Speaker — and managed to make a splash as a prospective candidate for governor, the Land O’ Lakes Republican falls five spots this year.

He claimed the No. 2 slot last year after his raucous showdown with Gov. Rick Scott over VISIT FLORIDA and Enterprise Florida funding.

Richard Corcoran might have ranked higher than he did this year had the political winds not shifted as they did over the course of the last several months — and if he wasn’t about to term out and face an uncertain future in politics.

Earlier this year, he seemed to be sowing momentum. His Watchdog PAC released a TV ad demonizing immigrants via an inaccurate depiction of the shooting death of Kate Steinle, followed by Corcoran’s plea to Floridians to support a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities. That ad was red meat to potential GOP primary voters, but critics said it was racist.

Barely two weeks after it first aired, in the middle of the 2018 Legislative Session, gunman Nikolas Cruz killed 19 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. As students across the state rallied for stricter gun laws, Corcoran’s PAC released yet another ad targeting illegal immigration, which some critics considered tone-deaf, given how the gun debate still raged.

Corcoran demonstrated his muscle in shepherding through a compromised gun law that raised the gun-buying age from 18 to 21 and mandated that schools train certain personnel to carry guns on campus. The NRA panned the bill for what it saw as limitations to the Second Amendment, though Corcoran seemed to make amends with the group in a letter to the Constitution Revision Commission calling on the panel to turn down a proposed amendment that could have banned assault-style rifles (which the commission did).

Another legislative win for Corcoran was an education package that shifts state dollars away from public schools and toward scholarship programs that favor charter schools, which school choice advocates heralded earlier this year. It also set new membership requirements that could potentially diminish teachers’ unions.

“The Speaker’s left a mark on the region,” said Seth McKeel of Southern Strategy Group. “He’s been a powerful and constant voice of conservatism in Florida.”

By the end of Session, many observers were ready for Corcoran to announce a run for governor, but a couple of forces were working against him. First, his potential primary opponents were way ahead of him in their fundraising. Second, the two major Republican candidates — Trump favorite Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — would have made it difficult for him to craft a message that stood out to primary voters. In May, he announced he would not run and endorsed Putnam.

Corcoran’s Watchdog PAC had some $2 million when he dropped his bid for governor.

Corcoran ranked second in 2017.

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

#8 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Jeff Brandes

The Republican state Senator from St. Petersburg fell a few slots this year. That’s not to say Jeff Brandes doesn’t have the juice he did in prior years.

And like in previous years, he had a busy 2018 Session. He sponsored some 65 bills and co-sponsored dozens more. He sat on seven committees, including as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

He did have a couple of legislative losses, including on measures aimed at overhauling transportation as well as criminal justice reform. Among his wins: a law that bars state and local government agencies from doing with business with companies that boycott Israel, a measure protecting consumers from having to pay security fees on credit reports and a bill reducing the minimum age of corrections officers from 19 to 18 to help meet staffing demands.

Over the years, Brandes has earned a reputation for being a maverick who’s ahead of his time on everything from criminal justice to transportation. He was an early backer for ride-share technology and is a major proponent of incorporating driverless electric vehicles into the state’s public transit infrastructure.

“Sen. Brandes is a visionary, and he’s carved a powerful pathway as Florida’s thought leader on advanced technology,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Seth McKeel.

Brandes’ Senate District 24, covers most of southern Pinellas County, save for a large swath of south St. Petersburg, which is part of Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson’s district. It was a seat newly redrawn in 2012; Brandes left the state House seat he won in 2010 to launch his successful bid for it. In 2014, he bested Democratic opponent Judithanne McLauchlan by four points, and he had no significant opposition in 2016.

This year is different, though. Brandes has a potentially strong opponent in St. Petersburg attorney Carrie Pilon, a Democrat whose husband is the son of former State Rep. Ray Pilon, a Republican.

Recent polling suggests an early lead for Brandes over his Pilon, but it’s still early, and there’s no accounting for what kind of impact the blue wave can have in a district like the HD 24.

A key advantage for Brandes is his access to seemingly boundless volumes of cash via his campaign coffers as well as his PAC, Liberty Florida.

Brandes came in fifth in 2017.

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

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