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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plasencia fears the needs will get more acute.

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

Brightline February train car derailment comes to light; critics call it ‘disturbing’

A Brightline train derailed in February and opponents of the planned, east-coast, high-speed passenger rail service expressed frustration Monday that they only recently learned about the accident and criticized the company for not mentioning it during Florida Legislature testimony about rail safety.

Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida and the counties of Indian River and Martin said Monday that it took them months to confirm the Feb. 11 accident, and only after they hired a Washington, D.C. law firm to pursue it. They criticized All Aboard Florida (AAF) for not disclosing the incident to the Florida Legislature while company officials offered opposition to bills that had sought to set state safety regulations on the railroad.

“Soon after this incident, officials attended not one but two state legislative hearings about rail safety and never once disclosed facts about the derailment, while they sought to table the safety legislation under consideration,” Brent Hanlon, chairman of CARE FL, stated in a news release issued Monday by that group and the two counties.

The critics said records show the accident caused $408,000 in damage.

“The disconnect between the derailment and AAF’s failure to make it public is disturbing,” Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold stated in the release. “The safety and well- being of our communities require greater transparency.”

A letter from the Federal Railroad Administration indicated that one car derailed, at low speed, at an All Aboard Florida rail yard.

A Brightline spokesperson called the incident minor, on private property, and fully and properly reported, and then dismissed the critics’ concern raised Monday as a “baseless fear tactic.”

“As confirmed by the Federal Railroad Administration, Brightline followed all applicable rules by providing prompt notification about the minor incident that occurred on its private property. This is another baseless fear tactic by Treasure Coast consultants,” the statement read.

Brightline is planning to open a private passenger train service from West Palm Beach to Miami later this year. Eventually the company intends to extend the line through Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Brevard counties, and then into Orange County to connect the Orlando International Airport by high-speed train to West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Some residents and public officials of those ride-through counties have arisen in opposition, arguing safety, environmental, and other concerns regarding a train that would be traveling through their communities at up to 110 mph. Last February the two sides battled in Florida House and Senate committee meetings over House Bill 269 and Senate Bill 386. Those bills, which failed, would have imposed additional, state-mandated safety requirements. Company officials insisted the train already would be governed by the highest-possible federal standards, meeting all the strict requirements for high-speed rail service.

All Aboard Florida also has had a couple major victories in court against opponents who contended more environmental requirements were needed. One as recently as Sept. 29, from a Florida administrative law judge denied a challenge brought by Martin and St. Lucie counties and the Town of St. Lucie Village on the South Florida Water Management District’s decision to issue an environmental resource permit. That court victory for All Aboard Florida essentially cleared away all pending litigation, allowing the company to go forward.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, on Feb. 11, “a Brightline locomotive derailed its trailing truck while negotiating a switch at four miles per hour within the Brightline yard facility.

“The derailed Brightline locomotive was the second locomotive in a consist led by an FEC [Florida East Coast Railroad] locomotive into the Brightline yard and maintenance facility,” reads an Aug. 21 Federal Railroad Administration letter to a law firm hired by CARE FL and Martin County. “Brightline and FEC promptly notified FRA of the incident.”

That letter came after the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery had inquired to the FRA, on May 30, about unconfirmed reports of the incident.

“It is unfortunate that Martin County is forced to spend taxpayer money to make sure our safety concerns are addressed at the state and federal levels. A simple confirmation of a derailment took three months to get from DOT, but six months after the derailment itself. We would have never known about this significant public safety issue had we not demanded to know the facts,” Ruth Holmes, senior assistant Martin County attorney, stated in the news release.

Mike Pence to keynote Republicans’ conference in Orlando

Vice President Mike Pence is slated to be the keynote speaker at the Republican Party of Florida’s annual Statesman Diner during their November state conference in Orlando.

Pence – with “special guest” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio –  is to highlight the dinner set for Thursday, Nov. 2 at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, kicking off the two-day conference.

Also billed for the kickoff dinner to the quarterly party meeting are three of the four members of the Florida Cabinet, though not Gov. Rick Scott. The other advertised guests include Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi,  Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Florida Senate President Joe Negron, and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

General tickets are $200 for the dinner, with executive committee members and College Republicans getting discounts.

Rick Scott declares emergency in Florida for Puerto Rico, opens relief centers

Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency in Florida Monday covering all 67 counties to provide assistance to Puerto Rico, and he announced the creation of Puerto Rican disaster relief centers in Orlando and Miami for people fleeing the devastation left behind by Hurricane Maria nearly two weeks ago.

“Today, to ensure Florida has every available resource ready to assist families displaced by Hurricane Maria, I signed Executive Order 17-259, declaring a state of emergency in all 67 Florida counties,” Scott stated in a news release issued by his office. “Puerto Rico was totally devastated by Hurricane Maria and so many families lost everything. With families displaced by Hurricane Maria already present and still arriving in Florida, it is critical that our state is prepared to provide the resources they need upon entering our state.”

The order includes authorizing the state’s adjutant general, Florida National Guard Army Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, to activate the Florida National Guard as needed. The order instructs newly-appointed Florida Director of Emergency Management Wes Maul to execute the state’s emergency management plan as needed. It instructs local authorities including law enforcement agencies to identify staff to coordinate local efforts. And it suspends any laws, rules, or orders that “would in any way prevent, hinder or delay any mitigation response or recovery action necessary.”

In a separate move, Scott announced the creation of disaster relief centers at Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami, to assist Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria. The centers, which will be fully operational Tuesday, will provide “all available resources from the state” to incoming evacuees.

Most of those efforts appear to be in response and anticipation of a mass exodus of Puerto Rican evacuees coming to Florida because their homes, towns, villages, and businesses were wiped out in Puerto Rico, leaving them with nothing to live on there. No one is certain how many would come, and any initial exodus has been slowed by the limited numbers of flights and ships available. Some have suggested more than 100,000 evacuees might come to the Sunshine State, particularly to areas such as Central Florida that already are home to hundreds of thousands of their relatives and friends.

Lawmakers and others, particularly Democats, had been calling on Scott to take actions all weekend, particularly to open the relief centers. On Friday,  state Sens. Jeff Clemens, Randolph Bracy, Jose Javier Rodriguez, Linda Stewart, and Victor Torres and state Reps. Janet Cruz, Robert Asencio, Daisy Baez, John Cortes, Nicholas Duran, Amy Mercado, and Carlos Guillermo Smith signed a letter to Scott urging him to open disaster relief centers for evacuees, and to take other steps. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham joined their call Sunday. Some, led by Smith of Orlando, also called on the Florida Legislature to hold a special session and “take action in preparation for the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans expected to resettle in Florida in the near future.”

The governor’s office indicated these moves were in the works for nearly a week, and took time to set up.

Scott visited Puerto Rico on Thursday and said then he was willing to do whatever Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló  requested of Florida, but that his first goal was to help Rosselló help his constituents in Puerto Rico.

“Our goal is to make sure that while Gov. Rosselló is working to rebuild Puerto Rico, any families displaced by Maria that come to Florida are welcomed and offered every available resource from the state,” Scott stated on Monday.

 

Joining relief effort, Gwen Graham blasts Donald Trump’s Puerto Rico response as ‘appalling’

While joining a relief effort in Orlando that included U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy and several Florida lawmakers and local leaders, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham blasted President Donald Trump‘s response to Puerto Rico as “appalling” Saturday.

Graham said that the world was witnessing “a failure of planning” for a deadly hurricane that was seen coming at Puerto Rico almost a week out.

“Puerto Ricans are Americans and they deserve the same attention and response that the people of Texas has seen and what the people of Florida have seen. It’s appalling what this administration has done,” Graham said.

Graham, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Tallahassee, also said, “I don’t even have words for his tweets this morning,” referring to Trump’s tweets blasting San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and charging that Puerto Rican workers were not helping with the relief effort, and that all was going well, despite what “fake news” media were reporting.

“We need leadership. We need people are willing to have a moral high ground and do what’s right for every American, and he has not shown that leadership,” she continued.

Graham also criticized efforts by Gov. Rick Scott to offer assistance, saying “I haven’t seen anything.”

Graham, has been outspoken about the need for more help for Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island almost two weeks ago. She stepped up her criticism Saturday while joining the relief effort led by CASA at the Acacia Florida Puerto Rican Center in Orlando.

Her comments were not alone. On Friday both of her fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Winter Park developer Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, also blasted the federal response. King accused the administration of letting “self-importance and arrogance” get in the way of help. Gillum accused Trump of showing disregard for the lives and property of people in Puerto Rico.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, also has been outspoken about the need for more relief help for Puerto Rico. He urged such help to the Florida Chamber of Commerce at a conference earlier in the week.

On Saturday Graham joined in on a relief effort that is filling a parking lot at Acacia in east Orange County with water, nonperishable foods, and supplies bound for Puerto Rico, in a largely private, volunteer effort organized by CASA, or Coordinadora de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Ayuda [coordinated support of solidarity and help], and other community groups.

Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith helped organize an additional effort there Saturday through Orlando United, a Pulse support organization,  to draw volunteers from among the families, friends, and survivors, and first responders, of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre.

They also were joined by Graham, Murphy, the Winter Park Democrat, and a number of other mostly Democratic political leaders, including state Sen. Victor Torres of Orlando, state Reps. Amy Mercado of Orlando, John Cortes of Kissimmee, and Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer also had planned to stop by. Republican elected official and leaders also have contributed time, supplies, and visibility to the CASA efforts at Acacia and elsewhere, though this day was largely a time for the Democrats.

Murphy declined to comment, saying she wanted the day to be about helping Puerto Rico. And then, in an Orlando United/Pulse T-shirt, she went into a relief supplies tent and helped sort donated items, as a long line of cars backed up onto Econlockhatchee Road, full of goods coming in for delivery.

“This is a great event. There were over 600 people who said they are going, on Facebook, over 3,000 people who said they were interested. This is a movement of people in Orlando who want to show their solidarity for the people in Puerto Rico,” Smith said.

“The idea for this event was to bring together a group of Pulse moms, survivors and first responders together, to be there for Puerto Rico in the same way they were with us last year. The Puerto Rican community, they grieved together with us last year, and they were disproportionately affected by the tragedy at Pulse,” Smith added. “This is our community’s way of paying it back to Puerto Rico and sending a message that we are still there for them.”

While King and Gillum were not part of the event, they released statements demanding more federal attention and aid for Puerto Rico.

“The people on the ground in Puerto Rico are reporting grave conditions and lack of food and water. Relief organizations are appealing to the public to donate and help with relief efforts because the need is that urgent,” King’s statement read.

“Meanwhile, President Trump and his DHS Secretary are claiming the U.S. government’s support in Puerto Rico has been ‘great,’ praising their own ability to address the Island’s urgent needs. The Trump Administration’s claims are undermining the relief organizations’ efforts to rally the public to donate and provide support for hurricane victims. We cannot let this administration‘s self-importance and arrogance thwart efforts of relief organizations and workers on the ground in Puerto Rico.”

Gillum’s statement read: “The president’s disregard for the lives and property of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico is outrageous. This storm turned into a man-made disaster through the inaction and incompetence of this administration. These Americans need immediate relief from anyone and anywhere — and to date, our federal government hasn’t allowed that to happen. It’s past time for Trump to step up and allow the federal government, our military, and humanitarians provide all the relief possible.”

Darren Soto defends fundraiser as not affecting his efforts for Puerto Rico

While Puerto Rico got hammered by Hurricane Maria, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto defended his re-election campaign fundraiser he is holding Wednesday night in Kissimmee, home to Florida’s most concentrated Puerto Rican population.

Soto, a Democrat from Orlando, said he’s been in constant contact with Puerto Rico officials and readying federal financial support for the country’s recovery following both Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, and that those efforts will not be affected by Wednesday night’s event.

His fundraiser, starting at $100 for individual donations and going up to $1,000 donations for hosts, is set for 6 p.m. at the Seasons Florida Resort in Kissimmee.

Soto has touted his Puerto Rican heritage and advocated for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in Florida while in Congress. His district, which includes southern Orange County, eastern Polk County and all of Osceola County, has an estimated Puerto Rican population in the hundred thousands.

Hurricane Maria crossed onto the island Wednesday morning as a Category 4 storm and reports of  widespread damage and flooding are pouring from the island. The storm is expected to continue to ravage Puerto Rico well into the night.

Criticism of his decision to go forward with the fundraiser has been widespread on social media. Republican Wayne Liebnitzky, who faced Soto in the 2016 election and is campaigning for a rematch in 2018, called Soto’s decision “in poor taste.”

“I think it’s absolutely shocking, disgraceful,” Liebnitzky said. “That event needs to be cancelled. He needs to postpone it to a later date.”

Soto defended the event as not relevant to his efforts to help Puerto Rico.

“I have been in hourly contact with [Puerto Rico] Gov. [Ricardo] Rosselló‘s office, spoke at length with our House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen today in Jacksonville about Puerto Rico, FEMA funding, and am leading letters to ensure full financial support of Puerto Rico’s recovery over the next few days,” Soto said in a message to Orlando-Rising.com.

“Our efforts and readiness to advocate for an effective federal response will not be affected by an Osceola event with local Democratic activists,” he added.

Val Demings, Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy push antiterrorism funding for Orlando

Central Florida’s three Democratic members of the U.S. Congress have introduced an amendment to the federal spending bill that would set aside additional antiterrorism money for cities like Orlando that miss the cut from Homeland Security.

Central Florida’s delegation – dating back to the three previous incumbents – has argued that Homeland Security’s rules for distributing local antiterrorism money are unfair because they do not adequately take into account tourism visitors and other factors that would rank Orlando as a higher potential terrorism target.

That argument began before the June 12, 2016, attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub that killed 49 and wounded 53.

U.S. Reps. Val Demings and Darren Soto of Orlando and Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park introduced an amendment to the federal budget bill that would provide an additional $20 million for cities on the bubble like Orlando and San Antonio, which also has been pushing for a change in federal rules.

The money would go toward federal Urban Area Security Initiative grants to sustain training and equipment that was obtained with previous federal funds.

“This funding would help Orlando and other cities avoid losing ground on preparedness,” Demings, who’s been particularly outspoken about the issue, stated in a news release. “The federal government has a continuing responsibility to assist this nation’s cities in preventing and preparing to respond to acts of terrorism. I believe we have no greater obligation than to keep the people that we represent safe from harm.”

Demings is a member of the House Committee On Homeland Security.

“We have seen too many recent international and national tragedies, including in our beloved Orlando. In this era of growing terror threats, it is vital we are proactive with our preparedness and prevention plans. Additional funding for UASI counter-terror programs will equip our Central Florida police departments and first responders with the necessary training and resources to better protect our community in case of the unexpected. Orlando is a thriving, global city, and we must continue to do all we can to keep Floridians and our visitors safe and secure,” stated Soto.

“The safety of our communities must be a top priority. Additional funding for the UASI program will help ensure that cities like Orlando are prepared to handle potential terrorist attacks. As a global tourist destination, Orlando faces unique security challenges. An increase in UASI funding will give law enforcement and first responders the training and tools they need to keep our families safe,” Murphy stated.

Last year their predecessors, U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Alan Grayson and John Mica also implored the Department of Homeland Security to reevaluate its ranking system. Orlando had gotten antiterrorism money in previous years, but failed to qualify in 2015 and 2016. Demings’ husband, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, and Orlando Police Chief John Mina testified before Congress on the need for such grants to Orlando.

Earlier this year, Demings, Soto, and Murphy voted for legislation that passed the House, House Resolution 2825, with a provision authored by Demings to create a new, permanent grant program to assist former UASI jurisdictions.

 

Hard Rock International to move Orlando headquarters

Hard Rock International is moving its corporate headquarters from Orlando to Hollywood in 2018.

The casino, hotel and restaurant conglomerate made the announcement on its website. It will bring staffers together by joining with its ownership, The Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Gaming organization.

Hard Rock has been based in Orlando since the Seminole Tribe bought it in 2007.

“The opportunity to combine the world-class talent of all three companies will create an even more powerful organization,” a statement from the company said. “At this time, details of the move and timing are still to be determined.”

The move may have been triggered by the resignation last year of CEO Hamish Dodds, who was based in Orlando. The current CEO Jim Allen leads the company from its South Florida casino.

Hard Rock International has venues in 75 countries, including 176 cafes, 24 hotels and 11 casinos. One of the company’s two most successful hotel and casino properties is in Hollywood and operated by the Seminole Tribe. The other is in Tampa.

Todd Wilcox expands private defense and intelligence business

Former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Todd Wilcox is expanding his private defense and intelligence specialist company with the acquisition of a rival company.

Wilcox’s primary company Patriot Defense Group announced the acquisition of Virginia based Silverback 7 marking the beginning of a 10-year strategy to grow its Maitland headquarters. The company will add 13 high-wage jobs in the Orlando region and employ hundreds of independent contractors, he reported.

Wilcox, of Orlando, also said he is remaining active in politics, keeping his super political action committee Restore American Leadership to influence federal elections

Wilcox ran in the 2016 primary field until incumbent U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio decided, in July 2016, to seek re-election.

Patriot Defense Group provides highly-specialized training and operational support to the U.S. government, U.S. military, and U.S. law enforcement communities is possible by working with officers from the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Special Operations Command, the Department of Justice, and the Department of State.

Silverback 7 also provides specialized defense and intelligence training, boasting on its website that it offers a hybrid team of special operations and intelligence personnel with national-level experience.

“The acquisition of Silverback 7 will expand our ability to support vital national security programs,” Wilcox stated in a news release issued by his company. “And there is no better business friendly environment to do that in than right here in Central Florida.”

Buddy Dyer casts backing to Anna Eskamani in HD 47

Insisting he endorses based on the person, not the party, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer Tuesday threw his support behind Democrat Anna Eskamani in the House District 47 race.

Dyer’s endorsement was no surprise, as Eskamani signaled last week that the Democrat mayor of 14 years, and a former state lawmaker himself, was coming to her corner. But it was no certainty, as Dyer chose to endorse the Republican, state Rep. Mike Miller, for the seat last year.

“I think it shows that I always endorse the best person for the position, rather than simply going by party. So it is somewhat relevant that I endorsed the Republican in this race last time around, because I thought he was the best candidate. And this time I endorse Anna because I think she is the best candidate,” Dyer said.

This year Miller is running for Congress, opening the seat representing north and central Orange County, including Winter Park, downtown Orlando, Dyer’s neighborhood of College Park, and a quilt of distinctive neighborhoods and small suburbs stretching to Belle Isle. Eskamani faces Winter Park businessman and longtime Republican operative Stockton Reeves for the seat.

“She’s tough, but caring. She can identify with the identify with the struggles of hard-working families and the challenges that small-business owner face. She knows that the only way to get things done is by building consensus across party lines, bridging cultural divides and making room for everyone at the table,” Dyer said at a press conference on the steps of Orlando City Hall. “She fights for meaningful change and not just to grab the spotlight. And she never shies away from a challenge.”

It may be one of the biggest endorsements in the race, as Dyer long has done well among Republican and independent voters, and his leadership of Orlando after last year’s Pulse massacre led to widespread talk of unity.

“As an Orlando native, I can’t think of a more meaningful endorsement,” she said afterwards. “Buddy Dyer has led this city through both triumph and tragedy. He is trusted voice across Central Florida. The fact that he trusts me to be a partner in Tallahassee is incredibly powerful.”

 

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