Andy Gardiner Archives - Florida Politics

Fate of program for disabled children rests with Rick Scott

Debby Dawson, who lives in southwest Florida, has a simple message to Gov. Rick Scott: The state’s existing scholarship program for disabled children is “life changing” and has helped her 7-year-old autistic son “develop by leaps and bounds.”

Dawson is part of a chorus of parents from around the state who have mounted a campaign through letters, emails and phone calls urging the Republican governor to sign a sweeping education bill that will soon come to his desk.

But that same bill has sparked an outpouring of an even larger negative reaction to Scott both directly and on social media.

School superintendents, the state’s teacher union, parent-teacher groups and Democrats have called on the governor to veto the bill. Even Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the leading Republican candidate for governor in 2018, called the legislation a “train wreck” on Tuesday and said Scott should take a “hard look” at vetoing the bill.

That’s because GOP legislators crafted the 300-page bill largely in secret, and included in it portions that would steer more state and local money to privately-run charter schools. The legislation (HB 7069) also mandates recess in elementary schools, expands virtual education courses to private and home schooled students, and tweaks Florida’s testing system.

Scott, who supported the creation of the scholarship program, has not yet said what he plans to do.

But if he vetoes the bill, however, he will wipe out an extra $30 million for the Gardiner Scholarship program that provides tuition, therapy and other services to roughly 8,000 disabled students. Legislators included $73 million in the state budget for scholarships, but those who operate the program say it is growing and they may not have enough money to serve everyone without the extra money. Additionally, legislators passed a separate bill that would expand those eligible for the program.

That’s why Dawson wrote Scott asking him to sign the bill. She said without the extra money her other son – who is about to turn 3-years-old – may not get a scholarship in the coming year.

“As a parent who has seen how life changing this grant is, and knowing my second child may not have the same opportunities as my oldest, it is heartbreaking, to say the least,” Dawson wrote in an email to a reporter. “This grant opens up doors for our children where the doors were once shut and locked tight.”

Legislative leaders have not given a detailed explanation on why they put the extra money for the scholarship program in the bill, which was not released publicly until two days before a final vote. Initially, the state Senate had more than $100 million in its budget for the program but then agreed to lower it during budget negotiations.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the budget chairman, said the decision to include the money in the bill and not the budget was at the urging of House Speaker Richard Corcoran. When asked Corcoran called it a “compromise” since the House did not include the higher amount in its initial budget.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat opposed to the bill, argued that legislative leaders crafted the legislation this way in order to make it harder for Scott to veto the bill.

“I was deeply disturbed that (the families of disabled children) were hijacked and used as pawns to mollify opposition to an otherwise bad bill,” Farmer said.

School choice advocates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, are asking Scott to sign the bill. Former Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has a son with Down syndrome and helped create the program, said he hopes the “governor is mindful” that the bill isn’t just about charter schools and that many families will be affected by his decision.

Barbara Beasley, whose 9-year-old daughter receives a Gardiner scholarship, says it has dramatically improved her daughter’s life, but she said that “lawmakers sold us down the river with their backroom dealing on the education bill.” She said other parts of the legislation are detrimental to public schools and should be stopped.

“I beg Governor Scott to order lawmakers back to session to fix their mistakes, separate these items from the bad and push them through,” Beasley said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

As Orange County mayor’s race awaits major candidates, can Rich Crotty run again?

As the future race for Orange County mayor continues to be a mystery involving potential major candidates still thinking about it but none yet committing, one name that keeps coming up raises questions of precedent and interpretation of curious language differences in the county charter.

Former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, who served two-plus terms leading the county’s administration over the past decade, is considering running again. He’s thinking about reclaiming the office that he held for ten years, between the brief tenure of Mel Martinez and the current tenure of Mayor Teresa Jacobs.

Crotty told FloridaPolitics.com that he is being “strongly encouraged” to run for the 2018 opening. Jacobs is certainly barred from running for re-election, by the charter’s term-limit language.

Crotty’s potential candidacy is like that of at least a couple of others — notably Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings or former Florida Speaker Andy Gardiner — with weight is so intimidating that other potential candidates are sitting back, waiting to see if they do or don’t, before stepping in.

No major candidates have entered the race yet. The seat is non-partisan, so, though party affiliations will be critical to lining up support, and potentially in winning votes, they won’t appear on the ballot.

But unlike Democrat Demings, Republican Gardiner, Republican Orange County School Board Chair Bill Sublette, Democratic Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh, Democratic Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, former Republican Orange County commissioners Scott Boyd and John Martinez, and other talked-about Orange County mayoral candidates including Orlando’s chamber of commerce chair Rob Panepinto, a Republican, and former Republican Clerk of Courts Eddie Fernandez, Crotty’s possible candidacy might be challenged on a legal interpretation.

The Orange County Charter has untested language about whether someone can run for a third term as mayor, and no one has ever tried.

Current Orange County Attorney Jeffrey Newton, and the lawyer who wrote that language in the late 1980s, Linda Weinberg, both said they believe the door is open to a third term because it is nonconsecutive.

Others who might not want to see Crotty in the race, might challenge that, arguing that the language seems to limit the mayor to two full terms.

“The county mayor shall be elected for a term of four years and shall be limited to two full consecutive terms,” is how the Orange County Charter states it.

That is distinctly different from the language written on the term limits of county commissioners, and commissioners have run for three nonconsecutive terms.

The commissioners’ charter language reads:

“A county commissioner who has held the same commission district office for the preceding two full terms is prohibited from appearing on the ballot for re-election to that office.”

So was the mayor’s term limit language written differently, in order to limit the mayor differently?

As Weinberg recalls, no.

“While the language is quite different, they both essentially provide that the elected official is limited to two consecutive terms and then cannot run for re-election during the next election cycle,” she stated, responding to a question from Orlando-Rising. “However, there is nothing that expressly prohibits either a commissioner or the mayor for running for election to the same office at a future time. And indeed, there was never any discussion or intent to prohibit a mayor from ever seeking the office again after having served his or her two terms.

“I believe the language is different because that section related to the mayoral terms has not been modified since the original charter, whereas the section related to terms for county commissioners has been modified on a number of occasions [we went to single-member commission districts and redistricting,]” she continued.

“I suspect that a lawyer involved in the re-drafting process felt like they could draft that provision more clearly.”

INFLUENCE Magazine talks with Jack Latvala on life, political success and ‘what he’s learned’

Recounting an impressive list of achievements spanning four decades, veteran lawmaker Jack Latvala seems to have done it all: an effective Florida senator and political consultant, a self-described “environmentally-conscious” Republican and the proud father to state Rep. Chris Latvala.

The Clearwater senator, chair of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, recently sat down with FloridaPolitics.com’s Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster to reflect on his life, successes and years in Tallahassee.

“Most senators are sincere,” the 65-year-old Latvala said. “I learned who in this body can be counted on and who can keep their word. Of course, I’ve always been a good vote counter on issues or whatever, because I look people in the eye and then I can usually tell if they’re sincere or not.”

Born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1951, Latvala talked about his start in politics, working for the Republican Party of Florida in 1975, a role he continued for five years.

“The last couple of years, I was the ex­ecutive director of the legislative campaign committee,” he said. “After Jack Eckerd ran for gov­ernor, he agreed to stay active in the party, and he was the chair of that committee. He hired me and brought me to Pinellas County.”

It was there Latvala started Largo-based GCI Printing Services, his government affairs and direct mail business, which the senator said grew into one of the largest GOP direct mail companies in the nation outside of Washington, D.C.

“I did the direct mail fundraising for the state Repub­lican Party in 28 states at our zenith,” Latvala said, including all of George H.W. Bush’s direct mail in the South. After Bush’s election in 1988, Latvala said they split he became one of the three vendors nationwide for direct mail services.

That experience helped Latvala hone his talents for his own political ambition.

In 1993, after local state Rep. Sandra Mortham chose to run for Secretary of State, Latvala made the decision to run for the Florida House.

“I raised money and had a lot of money in the bank, and 10 days before qualifying in ’94,” he said, “the incumbent Republi­can state Senator in my district resigned to run statewide for Lieutenant Governor. So I shifted over to the Senate race.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It was a lot different (then),” Latvala said “There were 40 leaders raised up by their communities, who came to Tallahassee and did what they thought was best for their communities. No one told a Florida Senator how to vote. You could get 21 votes; you could pass something.”

But with term limits and more House members winning Senate seats, Latvala believes there’s a lot more “follow the leader.”

“It was the worst when I came back in 2011,” Latvala said. “Then after I stood up to them and got a group of other people to stand up to them, it slowed down a little bit. But the House members that are coming over are very used to following their Speaker, to following their leader. I don’t think it’s all that good. That means one Speaker, one President makes all the decisions. And I just don’t think people want that.”

For Latvala, the most difficult years in the Senate were 2011—12, under President Mike Haridopolos. The last two years with Senate Pres­ident Andy Gardiner weren’t that great either, he said.

“The House ran over us on redistricting, ran over us on Medicaid expansion,” Latvala said. “Now it’s like nobody wants to extend the session because it makes you look bad. So, if you can get all the way to 60 days, you get your way.”

Latvala’s proudest accomplishments include the Florida Forever bill, which extended the state’s land-buying program, as well as measures creating the state’s chief financial officer office after constitutional amendments. He also played a key role in implementing the net ban law in 1994, taking another three years “to close all the loopholes,” as well as passing series of criminal justice bills that became a crucial part of Florida’s now 45-year low crime rate.

When Latvala returned to the Senate, he said he came back an “environmentally conscious Republican,” something a little bit harder to find than back in the 1990s.

“I’m kind of a conservative, but I’m a centrist,” he said “I take care of a lot of issues that independents and Democrats are concerned about, whether its environmental or whether it’s protecting our public employees, public safety employees, public schools.

“A lot of Democrats and independents care about that.”

Read Latvala’s entire interview, now available in the spring 2017 edition of INFLUENCE Magazine.

 

Senate Judiciary Committee gives big win for ridesharing regulation

Momentum remains strong in Tallahassee for the first bill in Florida to regulate ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the proposal (SB 340) unanimously without debate.

The bill, sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, would require ride-sharing companies to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app but hasn’t secured a passenger. While with a rider, drivers would be required to have $1 million worth of coverage.

It also requires transportation network companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers.

While all indications are the bill will get through the Legislature this spring, opposition from certain groups continues.

Former state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, now a lobbyist for the Florida Taxi Association, said the bill would tie the hands of local governments from regulating their own communities. Bogdanoff referenced problems with “exorbitant” numbers of cars circling around Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Port Everglades. She said issues that had been resolved between local governments and Uber and Lyft would be removed from the books, and also acknowledged the cold hard reality of the political calculus this session.

“I realize the train has left the station, or the car has left the Port, or whatever you want to call it,” she said.

Megan Samples, with the Florida League of Cities, again called the bill a pre-emption on local governments, particularly decrying what she said would be looser background checks for ride-sharing drivers.

Rich Templin, representing the Florida AFL-CIO, testified on behalf of the Amalgamated Transit Union. He said he was hoping to draft an amendment before the next stop for the bill that would address additional safety guidelines in the bill, considering that more public transit agencies are working with Uber and Lyft on options like first-mile last mile and paratransit options. He said he was worried the Brandes bill would undue guidelines already in place.

Immediately after the bill’s passage in committee, spokespersons for Uber and Lyft immediately issued statements praising the vote.

“Lyft applauds Chairman Greg Steube and sponsor Sen. Jeff Brandes for guiding SB 340 to approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Chelsea Harrison, communications manager for Lyft.

“This is important legislation that brings Florida one step closer to a consistent statewide framework for innovative services like Lyft,” Harrison added. “Floridians want access to ridesharing, and we look forward to providing the state’s residents and visitors with a safe, reliable transportation option for many years to come.”

“Today’s unanimous vote on Senate Bill 340 by the Senate Committee on Judiciary is a positive indication that Florida lawmakers support the safety, economic, and mobility benefits that come from ridesharing services like Uber,” said Stephanie Smith, Uber’s senior manager for public policy. “We are grateful to all of the Senators who voted ‘yes’ on the bill, with special thanks to Sen. Jeff Brandes … who continues to be a champion for modern transportation options.”

During the past two sessions, the House had pushed similar bills, but the issue tangled up in the Senate, where former President Andy Gardiner wanted to address more narrow issues such as insurance requirements for ridesharing drivers. After Gardiner left office last fall, the way eased a bit in the Legislature’s upper body.

Safety Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls and Tampa Republican Jamie Grant are sponsoring the companion bill moving in the House (CS/HB 221).

Draft-Anna Eskamani for Orange Mayor movement draws Bob Poe backing

A social media campaign to draft Anna Eskamani to run for Orange County mayor is catching steam on Facebook and has convinced at least one major potential mayoral candidate to declare he won’t run because he’d rather back her – Bob Poe.

Eskamani, a 26-year-old Orlando Democrat who is director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said Tuesday she is inspired and humbled, and is exploring the possibility of running for the top job in Orange County this year.

“I’m definitely giving it serious thought. But at the end of the day, I’m listening to the people,” she said.

So far, no serious candidates have filed, though several are known to be organizing support for a run in 2018, when incumbent Republican Mayor Teresa Jacobs will be term-limited. The two registered candidates are Harry Legrand-Torres and Robert Edward Melanson.

Poe was one such potential candidate. A businessman and major Democratic campaign fundraiser, fresh off a failed run for Congress, Poe said on Tuesday that he has decided to not run for mayor. Instead, after he saw the draft-Anna page, Poe decided he wants to back Eskamani, and is urging others in his orbit to do so as well.

“I’m out,” Poe said. “And I’m encouraging Anna.”

By late Tuesday, the “We Want Anna Eskamani for Orange County Mayor” page started Sunday afternoon on Facebook had more than 700 likes.

Eskamani is young, but an already well-established figure in Central Florida Democratic circles. She’s known for strong progressive views, fiery speeches, sharp preparation on issues, and appearing at nearly every progressive politics event in the area.

She has a twin sister Ida Eskamani, who fits the same bill and serves as a legislative aide to Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando.

“We deserve an authentic voice,” Anna Eskamani said. “We deserve a mayor who works for all people and pushes back against dangerous policies that come from Washington D.C. and Tallahassee. For me, organizing, fighting for equality, is what I have committed my life to.

“And I’m absolutely inspired by this new-found energy around the potential of me running for mayor. And I would be honored to serve this county and its people.”

Poe said he is attracted to her youthful energy and fearlessness, and his belief that the Democratic Party needs a new generation of leaders. He called her a leader who does her homework.

“She’s been on the cutting edge of what has been happening politically here,” Poe said. “She is a driver. I’m encouraging Anna to run. And I’m going to encourage other people to encourage Anna to run.”

While they make up their minds, so are several other potential candidates and their backers. Another draft page has been started on Facebook for Democratic Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh. Democratic Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph and Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings also been frequently projected as candidates. Potential Republican candidates have included Orange County School Board Chair Bill Sublette, former Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and Former Orange County Commissioner Scott Boyd.

Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition pushes for statewide bill to get passed this year

Last year in the Florida Legislature, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to create statewide regulations regarding ridesharing, but the bill died ignominiously in the state Senate.

Similar bills are winding their way through committees in both chambers already in 2017, and on Wednesday, the group Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition announced their support for that legislation, being sponsored in the House by Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls and Tampa Republican Jamie Grant and in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes.

“We fully support legislation that embraces innovation, and legislation that creates predictable regulatory climate across the entire state for ridesharing companies,” said Frank Walker, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce on a conference call.

Florida is one of only 12 states in the nation that has yet to create a statewide law regarding ridesharing, or transportation network companies (TNC’s) as they are also known.

In 2016, the drama was in the Florida Senate, where Uber blamed Senate President Andy Gardiner for the inability for the ridesharing legislation to advance. He’s been succeeded by Palm City Republican Joe Negron, who has praised the current legislation.

“I think you’ve got two different bodies then you had last year,” said Walker, when asked why he’s more optimistic that the bill will pass this year. He also said that there is simply more demand for Uber and Lyft. “Environment plays a big role, and so does demand,” he said.

No region of the state has more interest in seeing a ridesharing bill passed than in the Tampa Bay area. That’s because of the large unpopularity with the body charged in Hillsborough County to regulate Uber and Lyft, the Public Transportation Commission.

Over the years, PTC officers have cited numerous Lyft and Uber drivers for operating illegally. Those actions ceased after the PTC finally passed a bill last fall bringing the two companies into compliance.

“Local regulations at best have been problematic and dysfunctional, and have not been helping to foster and grow the local economy, and that’s why we need a statewide regulation,” said Bob Rohrlack, President/CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Rohrlack blamed “the status quo,” meaning the taxicab industry predominantly, for putting up roadblocks to protect, and not grow markets. “The local regulations penalize entrepreneurs. That’s something that none of us should be accepting,” he said.

In previous years, there has been criticism that the ridesharing companies have not been accommodating towards the disabled. But Kim Galban-Countryman, Executive Director of Lighthouse of the Big Bend, says the TNC’s are helping people with disabilities, especially those living with vision loss.

“Convenient transportation options are an absolute necessity for people with vision loss, and ridesharing introduces a simple affordable means to get around,” Galban-Countryman says.”Through various voice activated systems and services, individuals with visual impairments who otherwise would not have access to convenient transportation options can maintain their independence, and call a Lyft or Uber driver to take them where they need to go.”

Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition was formed before the 2016 Legislative Session.

 

 

Legislature to hear this week bills regulating ridesharing companies

Will 2017 finally be the year the state of Florida implements a statewide regulatory framework for ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft to operate under?

Legislators have failed to produce a bill over the past three regular sessions in Tallahassee, but hope springs eternal that all parties can come together this year.

On Wednesday, members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will discuss a bill sponsored by Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls (HB 221). St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.

The bill has the backing of Uber and Lyft, as well as Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Technology Council and the Tampa Bay Partnership.

A similar bill failed last year, but because of a change in Senate leadership, Brandes is predicting it will have a better chance of passing in the upcoming session. Uber contended that former Senate President Andy Gardiner was the obstacle to the Senate passing the bill that was sponsored by former Rep. Matt Gaetz in the House.

As has been the case at the local level, the taxi industry is intensely against the bill, arguing it gives transportation network companies an advantage. County governments have long regulated taxi cabs, setting their rates, determining how many can be on the road, requiring background checks and demanding services such as the ability to accept credit cards or serve disadvantaged people and neighborhoods.

2016 in Orlando politics: Pulse, outside money, hotel taxes, frogs

Story co-written by Orlando-Rising staff reporters Scott Powers and Lawrence Griffin.

In Orlando, 2016 will always be remembered as the year of the Pulse gay nightclub massacre, and Pulse redefined everything; but it’s not the only major event to have shaped politics in Orlando during the year.

Here are a few events that defined politics in Central Florida in 2016 and which promise to continue being game-changers in 2017:

1. The Pulse massacre – The hours of horror early on June 12 changed how Orlando sees itself and how the world sees Orlando. While nothing good can ever be attributed to the tragedy itself, the post-tragedy saw one region-wide group hug after another, often with Orlando’s LGBT and Hispanic communities being embraced by all. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer rallied the business community to support the victims, while Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs brought people together. Orlando’s faith community united to support all the region’s people regardless of their personal identities. Orlando’s Republicans united to support gay rights. Time will tell if this is just a moment of mass grief or a genuine pronouncement of brotherhood and sisterhood. But for now everyone in Orlando politics has a shared vision of universal love.

2. Stephanie Murphy‘s shock of John Mica – Lost to many, in the realization that national Democrats spent more than $6 million to get her elected, is just how identically U.S. Rep.-elect Murphy reflects the look and views of the 21st-Century Florida’s 7th Congressional District: a young, well-educated, business-oriented, minority (Vietnamese-American) woman with fairly conservative fiscal and foreign-policy views, and liberal social values; or how much 12-term incumbent Mica was SO-20th Century. Before she’s cast her first vote Republicans already are targeting her. But they might wind up liking her.

3. Teresa Jacobs‘ battles with the tourism industry – Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association president Rich Maladecki and Teresa Jacobs had a falling-out over the allocation of Tourist Development Tax funds in the spring. Maladecki wanted to fast-track a proposal to use the funds in a way Jacobs wasn’t happy with – it would have given less than she wanted to the Orange County Convention Center and put an undue burden on the county’s revenues. Maladecki declined to present anything to the Tourist Development Council on the plan, saying he wanted to pass it quick and not discuss it more as Jacobs wanted. However, a new deal was struck later that Jacobs could get on board with, putting $45 million towards the completion of the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center’s Phase II, finishing the acoustic Steinmetz Hall.

4. The retirement of Martha Haynie – Perhaps no one in Central Florida politics has a more sterling reputation for credibility and accountability than Orange County’s retiring longtime Comptroller Haynie. She’ll be succeeded by former Orlando City Commissioner Phil Diamond, who arrives with high marks for his own integrity, including her endorsement. But whether the more-laid-back Diamond can continue Haynie’s fearless way of speaking truth to power, often annoying the hell out of even fellow Republicans like Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, will be crucial to keeping checks and balances working in local politics.

5. George Soros‘ election of a state attorney for Orlando – New York billionaire and Democratic-cause financier decided he wanted African-American district attorneys throughout America and he didn’t care who they are. He’d never met nor spoken to Aramis Ayala, yet poured $1 million into what had been her long-shot bid for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit state attorney’s race. Low and behold, she beat incumbent Jeff Ashton in the Democratic primary, essentially winning the job then. Ayala has her own strengths and charms but now she’s got to run a huge prosecutor’s office for Orange and Osceola counties based on her short experience as an assistant state attorney.

6. East of Econlochachee River development – The two large developments called the Lake Pickett projects, The Grow and Sustany, would have brought hundreds of new apartment buildings to an area east of the Econlockhatchee River that many wanted to keep an environmental safe haven. Opponents of the projects had a litany of complaints, saying the project would damage everything from the environment to the already-congested traffic. Then in November, Lake Pickett North (Sustany) was shot down altogether at a hearing for its comp plan and a zoning change. That was due to the changed vote of District 6 commissioner Victoria Siplin, who, after hearing the complaints of citizens, couldn’t in good conscience allow the project to go through.

7. Heroin and rising crime – In April, the Heroin Task Force’s work came to an end and they concluded with a set of recommendations Mayor Teresa Jacobs vowed to implement, including: continuing joint enforcement details among law enforcement, increasing bond amounts for heroin trafficking and growing availability of drugs such as Naloxone that could save a heroin addict’s life. Meanwhile, in both the Parramore neighborhood and Pine Hills, violent crime has been surging. City officials and residents have cited a lack of good education and a lack of good jobs as the symptoms for much of it. Sheriff Jerry Demings’ new plan Operation RISE will offer more visibility and opportunities for the community to come forward with what they know. That’s Demings’ big hope – that people will start coming forward. But the bodies are still piling up.

8. The Fall of the House of Grayson – They sought to become the most politically powerful family in Central Florida, maybe in all of Florida, but voters had different plans. Orlando’s liberal lion U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson stumbled through his own pratfalls in the U.S. Senate race to become an also-ran. His newlywed Dena Grayson’s largely stealth campaign supported by large networks of her her outside backers discovered none of them could vote in Florida’s 9th Congressional District. And his daughter young Star Grayson discovered that name recognition might not be a good thing, in her poor showing for the Orange County Water & Sewer District.

9. Darren Soto‘s win as the first Puerto Rican congressman from Florida – All along, from back when it was drawn as a Hispanic-access district in Florida’s most-Puerto Rican community in 2011, Florida’s 9th Congressional District was to be Soto’s for the taking. But that didn’t prevent him from having to earn it in a bruising primary, before easily vanquishing yet another white Republican, albeit a good one in Wayne Liebnitzky, in the general. Now the former state senator who spent his whole life in New Jersey or Orlando, yet uses a Puerto Rican coquí campaign mascot to symbolize his heritage, will have the responsibility to demonstrate it’s a good thing for Central Florida to have a Puerto Rican in Congress.

10. Emily Bonilla‘s upending of Ted Edwards – District 5 incumbent Ted Edwards started feeling the burn over the summer as opposition kept growing louder to what many said was his overly corporation-friendly style of governing. Though there were three contenders at first, all vying as the populist answers to Edwards, it was ultimately environmental activist and businesswoman Emily Bonilla who succeeded, not without help from an onslaught of George Soros-paid mailers that attacked Edwards hard. Bonilla’s message of balanced, smart growth that didn’t encroach upon the environment resonated with many voters disillusioned with Edwards, and she ultimately won the day.

11. Fight over legal statuses of the county officials – Orange is a Democratic-voter dominated county with a Republican-dominated leadership, except in the constitutional offices like sheriff, property appraiser and tax collector. In one of the less-heralded but critical political battles, Democrats Scott Randolph and Rick Singh won a court case keeping their offices partisan and likely Democrat, while Mayor Teresa Jacobs got voters to pass what could turn out to be only symbolic statements that they should be charter, not constitutional offices, and non-partisan. For now, the Democrats won. But Jacobs is still in charge.

12. Linda Stewart‘s grab of Andy Gardiner’s Senate seat – Senate President Andy Gardiner termed out in 2016 and his seat was up for grabs between the progressive, environment-friendly Democrat Linda Stewart and Republican Dean Asher. Stewart, who has served on a myriad of other governing boards, won the election and is now in the Senate, currently trying to pass a bill to force Gov. Rick Scott to fill up the Environmental Regulation Committee faster. With her election, all of Orange County’s senators are now Democrats. That’s good for the Democratic party, but in a GOP senate that Gardiner used to rule, what does it mean for Orange County’s clout?

13. The political resurrection of Val Demings – By the election of 2014, Val Demings’ name was mud in this town, at least among many Orange County Democrats, because she inexplicably abandoned her party’s only hope of winning the mayor’s race that year. But that wasn’t the real Demings. Her steamroll run to election in Florida’s 10th Congressional District showed who she really is: an ambitious, determined, streetwise fighter and fire-and-brimstone orator whose progressive views mix with her deeply-held values of a cop and a janitor’s daughter.

14. Groundbreaking on Creative Village – Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s vision for Orlando includes an ambitious plan for a work-live-play-learn community focusing on high-tech enterprises in a 68-acre corner of downtown, but for several year’s it’s been pretty much just plans. That changed when University of Central Florida President John Hitt and others finally managed to push through their cornerstone plan for a downtown UCF campus, with $20 million in state money, $20 million in UCF money $20 million in private money, and $67 million worth of contributions from Orlando. Now it’ll be up to Dyer and Creative Village developer Craig Ustler to make the proposed 150,000 square feet of retail and commercial, 225 hotel rooms and more than 1,500 residential units start happening.

15. Orange County’s tightening of citizen initiatives – The citizen-petition charter-change route has been hostile partisan territory for several years as Democrats out of power in county politics have used it when they couldn’t get Mayor Teresa Jacobs and the Board of Commissioners to pursue Democratic priorities, while Republicans charged their ideas were irresponsible. So Jacobs, her Charter Review Commission and the commissioners crafted their own charter amendment and got voters to overwhelmingly approve it, making that process much tougher, setting new rules on how and where petitions can be collected.

16. Shakeup at the Orange Democratic Executive Committee, but not at the GOP – Orange County Democratic chair Juan Lopez stepped down in November, the latest in a long line of short-term local DEC chairs. The election of new chair Wes Hodge was swift, and it was accompanied by a complete turnover of Orange Democratic executive committee office holders. But he still faces the problem of slim turnout at local meetings – something he hopes to turn around, especially as Democrats are by and large the biggest political party in the area. Local Republicans’ election went smoothly and without drama as long-running chairman Lew Oliver was re-elected for another four-year term over Trump-enthused challenger Randy Ross.

17. Betsy VanderLey‘s victory – Orange County District 1 Commissioner Scott Boyd termed out in 2016, and his seat was the lone one open for grabs on the county commission board. There were numerous contenders, among them local Muslim leader Nuren Haider, Dr. Usha Jain and Winter Garden politician Bobby Olszewski, but Betsy VanderLey – boasting recommendations from Teresa Jacobs and Boyd himself – came out on top in the end. VanderLey is a longtime resident of District 1. Her priorities on the board will be tackling school overcrowding and urban sprawl. And, as a non-politician (a theme in this year’s election if there ever was one), she says residents can trust her not to make decisions on her own behalf to climb ladders rather than representing the community.

18. Carlos Guillermo Smith‘s unavoidable LGBT voice in the Legislature – This was the year that had so much promise for LGBT rights advocates, with seven openly-gay candidates running for election to the Florida Legislature. But Smith was the only newcomer to win, joining Miami Beach’s incumbent state Rep. David Richardson. Smith, an Orlando Democrat, is likely to be a force though, even in a Democratic minority. A former lobbyist for Equality Florida, he’s as comfortable with a megaphone in his hand as he is in looking for ways to craft deals.

19. The rise of women – Sure, Hillary Clinton lost, but not in Orange County. And locally, freshmen U.S. Reps. Val Demings and Stephanie Murphy, state Sen. Linda Stewart, state Reps. Amy Mercado and Kamia Brown, and Orange County Commissioners Emily Bonilla and Betsy VanderLey all replaced men, and each except Demings defeated a man to do so. Only U.S. Rep. Darren Soto and state Reps. Bruce Antone and Mike Miller defeated women in significantly races, and Soto and Antone did so in primaries.

20. Marijuana’s approvals – Under a new City of Orlando rule, local law enforcement can now choose to write a warning citation rather than arrest for marijuana possession in the city. Some were concerned that this could still lead to marijuana arrests of minorities if police act in a discriminatory manner, and Chief John Mina‘s assurance that it wouldn’t happen is all they had to console themselves. But many were very pleased with the change. Buddy Dyer isn’t taking any chances with medical marijuana not running smoothly – he’s put a moratorium on marijuana dispensaries opening here, beyond the three they’ve already licensed, until they see what gets done in the coming legislative session in terms of zoning for them. The first medical marijuana production plant, Knox Medical, also opened late this year after Amendment 2’s passing, and will deliver medical cannabis to patients with untreatable epilepsy or neurological disorders.

Andy Gardiner, Linda Stewart arrange moments of silence for Pulse victims

As one of his last acts on behalf of the state of Florida, outgoing Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner arranged a moment of silence Tuesday for those killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting just outside his district on June 12.

Gardiner, the Orlando Republican who now is a private citizen, did so on the request of his successor, now state Sen. Linda Stewart, the Democrat from Orlando, who also arranged for a moment of silence at the Democratic Caucus organizational meeting Monday night.

Gardiner did so, in a highly unusual move, just before the 2017 senators were sworn in, he said, “Because it is the right thing to do.

“I took the presidential privilege to do a moment of silence. You know, we lived — all of us — through it, and the impact of it. And certainly in my role at Orlando Health … we were there,” Gardiner said.

Gardiner’s day job is as senior vice president of external affairs and community relations at Orlando Health, the parent company for the Orlando Regional Medical Center. A few blocks away from Pulse, the facility treated most of the 53 wounded survivors and other victims from the massacre played out by the gay-hating, ISIS-pledging mad gunman Omar Mateen. Forty-nine people were killed before police killed Mateen.

So on Tuesday, after the invocation prayer, Gardiner called for the senators to please remain standing.

“I would like to ask my colleagues and the individuals in the gallery, a lot has happened since the last time we met,” he told them. “And for my community and for the country and state we faced one of the worst tragedies that you can ever imagine in the Pulse nightclub. Forty-nine individuals lost their lives. And for those of us that were there shortly after, it has made a huge impact on our future. And for those in the Orange County delegation it would mean quite a bit to us for a moment of silence.”

Stewart said a similar moment of silence was requested in the House of Representatives, but was not held.

She said the moment in the Florida Senate meant a lot to her, as did the moment — 49 seconds long — that she arranged in the Democratic Caucus meeting the night before. Pulse now is in her district, thanks to last year’s redistricting, which expanded Senate District 13 farther south from the area that Gardiner represented.

“Twas a moment in time where I wanted to make sure that every day that representatives of the state of Florida remember that this tragedy happened,” Stewart said.

 

 

Florida Senate reopens chamber after $6 million upgrade

The chamber of the Florida Senate is reopening after a $6 million upgrade.

Outgoing Senate President Andy Gardiner showed off the renovated chamber on Monday.

Workers spent the last eight months tearing out carpet, replacing desks and installing a new stained glass dome and new wood columns. The state motto of “In God We Trust” is now displayed prominently above the president’s rostrum.

Senate leaders had been considering renovations for more than a decade, but Gardiner said they went ahead with the renovations because the 2016 session ended in early March.

The renovations mark the first substantial work that has been done to the Senate chambers since it was opened in the late ’70s. The Florida House renovated its chamber in 2000.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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