Joe Henderson - SaintPetersBlog

Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

Joe Henderson: If some Democrats don’t care about ‘issues’ maybe that’s leaders’ fault

Um, Sally Boynton Brown?

If you’re trying to explain why Democratic voters didn’t turn out in sufficient numbers last November to deliver Florida to Hillary Clinton, I suggest a different approach than saying basically “they don’t get it.”

That’s not a direct quote from the newly hired executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, but it is the essence of her intemperate remarks at a progressive caucus gathering in Broward County.

The Miami New Times, on the scene at the event, quoted Brown saying, “This is not going to be popular, but this is my belief of the time and place we’re in now: I believe that we’re in a place where it’s very hard to get voters excited about ‘issues,’ the type of voters that are not voting.”

She was right about one thing: that isn’t popular. In fact, that’s just plain dumb.

First, let’s just say what everyone knows: She is effectively blaming lower-income people and minorities for her party’s problems, as if it’s their civic duty to vote for Democrats.

These are people profoundly affected by the issues of the day, and you can be damn sure they care about those things. If they aren’t voting, it’s because there is a disconnect between them and party leaders.

Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 330,000 voters in Florida, according to state elections data. There also are about 3.5 million voters unaffiliated to either major party.

With numbers like that, how do Democrats keep losing?

Start with their message — or lack thereof.

Republicans have been consistent about how they want to shape state government: fewer regulations, pro-business, lower taxes, squash any attempt at gun control, charter school expansion.

Republicans repeat those talking points until they’re ingrained in voters’ minds, particularly the independents. It worked well enough to give the GOP and Donald Trump wins in 58 of Florida’s 67 counties last November.

Issues obviously matter to Republicans. Is Brown saying they’re more passionate and responsive than those of her party? If that’s the case, point the finger at the person looking back in the mirror.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that Democrats approached the last election with a cocksure smugness. They didn’t explain themselves to voters because their attitude seemed to be that no one would be dumb enough to vote for Trump.

Guess what, Dems? There are millions of people right here in Florida who believe all you want to do is take their guns and give their money to someone else. Democrats used to be the party of working people, but now are painted as the playground of Hollywood elite. It’s their own fault.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of the people, Democrats seem to have lost the zest for battling in the trenches.

One stray word from a Democrat about gun control can send the National Rifle Association into rapid response. Democrats have allowed themselves to be pushed, shoved, bullied and ultimately defeated, and yet their response always seems to be “How could you?”

That, Sally Boynton Brown, is the problem that you don’t get. If you want more people to turn out on Election Day for your candidates, they need a better reason than, “It’s your duty to vote for us because we’re not them.”

Joe Henderson: When NFL suddenly needed a Super host, it knew who to call

It wasn’t luck that Tampa was selected Tuesday to host its fifth Super Bowl.

When the National Football League learned the new stadium being built in Los Angeles won’t be ready in time for the game in 2021, it had to find a city not only ready to step in on short notice, but one with a proven record of excellence.

Tampa checks all the boxes, and that’s because the team Rob Higgins has assembled at the Tampa Bay Sports Commission is as fine as any in the country and better than most.

Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer deserves applause. Tampa’s battle-tested political leaders, especially County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Mayor Bob Buckhorn, should take a bow. Higgins is the guy who really makes it happen though.

Smart, well-connected and experienced, Higgins understands better than anyone what has to be done in the trenches to successfully pull off a Super Bowl. NFL owners and leaders know that, which is why I have to believe the decision about what to do took about 10 seconds.

“Hey guys, that new stadium in Los Angeles won’t be ready for the 2021 Super Bowl. What should we do?”

“Um, let’s move it Tampa.”

“All in favor?”

“Aye!”

“Opposed? Anyone? No, great. Let’s go eat.”

I would imagine Higgins’ No. 1 obstacle in the coming months will be keeping his cellphone charged. The man is going to be busy. He will have to get renewed pledges from business, civic and political leaders that were part of Tampa’s bid package for the 2019 and 2020 games, but I can’t imagine that will be much of a problem. I am certain he will have cooperation from all the major players in the area: the convention and visitors bureau, Tampa International Airport, local and state security agencies, and so on.

The Super Bowl occupies an outsized place in Americana. By the time 2021 rolls around, it will be 37 years since Tampa hosted its first Super Bowl.

That game represented important psychological validation to people here that Tampa Bay had a place among the important locations in the country. Interestingly, Tampa’s main competitor to host that game was Los Angeles. The winning team that year? The Los Angeles Raiders, who beat the Washington Redskins 38-9.

Tampa essentially turned itself over that week to the NFL, and in return team owners basked in the love. That set a standard for future bids by other cities, which meant Tampa had to keep getting better and more creative to stay among the regular sites that get to host this game.

It must have worked because with this game Tampa will rank fourth on the list of cities that have hosted the largest number of Super Bowls.

We live in a pretty cool place, huh?

“Aye!”

Opposed? Anyone?

Didn’t think so.

Joe Henderson: FDOT’s Tampa Bay transit plan has new name, but really needs new ideas

Transportation issues in the Tampa Bay area have been well-documented and they will get worse before they get better — assuming, of course, “better” ever comes.

The Florida Department of Transportation wanted to attack the problem with a plan called Tampa Bay Express, or TBX. I’ll simplify: It called for building more roads, including 90 miles of highway people would have to pay tolls to use. A lot of people hated that idea and they raised such a ruckus that FDOT finally punted and came up with Plan B.

It still leaves open the idea of more toll roads, including express lanes across a rebuilt Howard Frankland Bridge. So, what’s different about this plan?

Er, um … it has a new name! Tampa Bay Next.

Other than that, it seems like basically the same ol’ sow’s ear, which, according to the Tampa Bay Times, is upsetting for FDOT officials to hear.

FDOT says a lot of things about this plan are different, starting with its claim the community will have much more input on what it does or doesn’t want. These meetings will take place over a couple of years.

“If the department didn’t really care about what these communities valued … why would I have even be having these meetings?” local DOT Secretary Paul Steinman told the Times. “If I was going to do what I planned on doing, I would have just gone and done it.”

I can save everyone some time by identifying one major issue. Most people don’t want to have to pay a toll every time they drive somewhere.

Especially bothersome is FDOT’s love affair with express lanes, where users pay a fee — which can be hefty, depending on the time of day — to get where they’re going quicker than the schleps stuck in the so-called free lanes.

Even FDOT has conceded the express lanes aren’t designed for everyday use by the common folk, so that’s a problem. A big problem. FDOT proposes a $6 billion attack on traffic congestion around lanes drivers need the income of a starting NFL quarterback to use.

How does that help?

I was in Texas recently and drove from Houston to Austin. Toll roads and express lanes are big there. It seemed like everywhere I went was a road that required a fee to use. By the time I got back, I had racked up about $60 in toll charges — and I was only there for three days.

In case you’re wondering, no — I didn’t use an express lane. I did notice while sitting bumper-to-bumper in evening rush hour that the express lane didn’t seem to be getting much use. Interestingly, a commuter train I saw near Rice University appeared to be nearly full.

Now, Houston is like Tampa Bay on a case of steroids. As bad as our sprawl is, I doubt we’ll ever see the kind of spread that Houston now has. What we have is bad enough, though, and if the anecdotal evidence I saw there is any indication, FDOT’s vision for Tampa Bay’s future is similar to what our friends in Texas now have as a large part of their lives.

That won’t solve the problem.

We have to get more cars off the road. And a plan that rewards those with large incomes disproportionally over those with more modest means just isn’t right.

There has to be a better way.

Joe Henderson: We already term limits. They’re called ‘elections’

I am not a fan of term limits.

I understand the argument from those who say we need a law that limits the power of incumbency. They say the longer a politician stays in office, the more likely they are to accumulate so much recognition and money that it becomes almost impossible to beat them.

What they’re really saying is that voters need protection from themselves. I have a problem with that because it still comes down to this basic fact: We already have term limits. They’re called elections.

No matter how long a politician has been in office, voters still have the final say. If they decide that lawmaker is doing good work, there should be no reason that person can’t stay on the job.

I mention this because of what is happening with the Hillsborough County Commission. Three of the board’s seven members are in a game of musical chairs that on the surface seems a goofy way to stay in office.

There is a loophole the size of the Grand Canyon in the Hillsborough charter that allows a commissioner restart their term-limit clock if they are elected in a different district than the one they currently serve.

That’s how we get this: Sandy Murman and Victor Crist have announced intentions to run for two of the board’s three countywide seats because they are prohibited from running for a third consecutive stay in the single district each represents.

While that is going on, long-serving Commissioner Ken Hagan is mandated to leave the countywide seat he has held for two terms, so he will run in District 2. That’s the district Hagan represented when he was first elected to the Commission in 2002 before he had to run for the at-large chair in 2010 and, oh man … this makes my head ache.

State Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, who has mentioned once or 300 times that he might prefer a Commission seat to the one he currently occupies in Tallahassee, is considering a push to outlaw the chair-swapping that Crist, Murman and Hagan are using.

In theory, that means they could keep jumping from seat to seat and stay on the board until they are called to the Great Beyond. Lee has said the practice violates the spirit of the charter and he is considering a push for an amendment that would stop that.

There is some merit to Lee’s argument, but I think a better idea is doing away with mandated term limits. Voters would still be able to pass judgment at the ballot box and it would stop the kind of silliness we’re now seeing.

Joe Henderson: Be wary of consultant’s report on St. Pete Pier project

The new St. Pete Pier – stop laughing – was originally supposed to cost around $45 million, give or take a couple of grouper. We know how that goes though. It’s kind of like when your cable company promises to provide a million channels for 99 cents, or something like that.

Then you get handed the bill.

Anyway, as the back-and-forth went on and cost estimates increased, former Mayor Bill Foster famously said, “For $50 million, the people will get a pier.”

That was in 2012.

That also may help explain why Foster is the “former” mayor, because the cost has risen to $66 million, except that the St. Pete City Council voted 5-3 recently to request $14 million in “enhancements” from a special taxing district that was supposed to go toward a transportation hub.

So, what’s a civic-minded, Pier-preachin’ group of elected officials to do when faced with a project carrying a sticker now approaching double the original cost?

Hey! I’ve got it! Let’s call a consultant!

The Lambert Advisory consulting firm produced a report that told St. Pete officials and residents not to worry (paraphrasing here) about the cost because the Pier and spin-off development will generate $80 million from eating, shopping and hotel nights.

Let’s see … 66 plus 14 … adding cost together, carry the 1 … hey, that’s $80 million!

The study says the income and the outgo will balance because of the 1.7 million visitors it estimates the Pier will attract in its first year.

Uh huh.

But, hey, these are professionals and the study says, the project, “is estimated to generate considerable expenditures directly within the Pier District, as well as off-Pier in the surrounding downtown area of approximately $30 million in food and beverage expenditures, $10 million in additional miscellaneous retail expenditures, and $15 million in annual hotel expenditure.”

It also ESTIMATES the Pier will generate, “1,080 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs within Pinellas County, creating $33 million in total direct and indirect wages.”

Go on …

Well, there is this qualifier: The study estimates the POTENTIAL annual demand for 102,000 hotel room nights from the Pier. In sports, there is a saying that “potential” is just “production” that hasn’t happened.

What could go wrong?

A lot of things.

Just look a few miles to the east at the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. Built in the mid-1990s, it never came close to meeting original projections of attendance of 1.8 million the first year. Consultants also said it would make about a $3 million profit that first year.

Instead, it lost money – and kept losing money.

It took decades and millions of extra dollars to turn the Aquarium – derided locally as a glorified fish tank – into something people actually wanted to see.

Then again, consultants always have a get out of jail free card when their ESTIMATES go sour. They can blame a changing economy, bad weather, or Donald Trump. Without trying to disparage the noble profession of consulting, in the end, they are playing with other people’s money and producing glorified guesses subject to human nature.

How can anyone say people who were planning a trip to the Grand Canyon decided to change course because St. Pete spent millions on a Pier. Maybe they were coming to St. Pete anyway to visit grandma. If so, they might drop by the Pier. And how many of those 102,000 hotel room nights would have been filled anyway because of an improving economy and the fact that St. Pete has a lovely beach and other attributes?

I am not against the Pier. If St. Petersburg is determined to build a Pier, then officials should do it because they think it will make the city better.

But if those same officials think of it as a something that will send visitors stampeding downtown waving their platinum gold cards in the air, proceed with caution.

Joe Henderson: Stench from St. Pete sewage spill last year hangs over Rick Kriseman campaign

If I’m St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, the results of a new poll in his re-election bid against Republican Rick Baker might keep me up at night.

I usually don’t pay a lot of attention to early surveys in political races but this one by St. Pete Polls, conducted for FloridaPolitics.com, is different. It shows how steep a hill Kriseman has to climb.

It’s not just that the overall poll shows him trailing Baker 46-33, although that’s a significant number. Twenty percent are undecided.

His biggest problem may be that while 73 percent of Republicans have a favorable impression of Baker (which would be expected), nearly half of Democrats (49 percent) and 57 percent of independents feel the same way.

And if Kriseman thought the smell from last year’s massive sewage spill would go away in time, it’s clear that was wishful thinking; 44 percent say last year’s sewage problem remains a big deal. Kriseman was widely criticized for the way he mishandled it.

He first tried to deflect blame onto some now-former members of his senior staff, and then faced an extended grilling at a City Council meeting.  Chairwoman Darden Rice, a Democrat, pounded Kriseman on the lack of transparency over this problem and even suggested she might call for a special investigation if things didn’t get better.

Although there are about 3 ½ months until the Aug. 29 Election Day, Kriseman clearly has significant obstacles standing in the way of a second term.

Baker consistently has been ahead by double-digits in these polls, even before he officially announced his candidacy earlier this month. In local elections, people tend to already have an opinion locked in on the candidates and it’s hard to change hearts and minds.

What can Kriseman do?

He does have more than $400,000 in the bank, a goodly amount for a local election. He’ll try to chip away by linking Baker to Donald Trump and so on, but that seems like a Hail Mary play to me.

The high favorable percentage Baker enjoys from Democrats shows people remember his performance as St. Pete’s mayor from 2001-2010 and they wouldn’t mind more of the same, so long as sewage doesn’t spill into the streets. I don’t think party affiliation will count for much, except maybe with liberal newcomers to the city who spit on the ground at the mention of President Trump’s name.

As this poll shows, Kriseman will need much more than that.

Joe Henderson: If Rick Scott stands on principle, then he must use budget veto pen

Take your seats, folks. This is going to be good. We are about to find out who is the boss in Florida.

If Gov. Rick Scott wants to remind everyone in the Legislature who has the most stripes on their shoulder, then he has to follow through on his threat to start vetoing major — or all — parts of the $82.4 billion budget presented to him by the House and Senate.

Special session? Bring it on.

The budget eviscerates two of Scott’s most cherished programs — VISIT Florida and Enterprise Florida. It is a direct frontal assault on public education, laughingly in the name of “reform.” There are so many damaging aspects to this bill, picking it apart piece by piece could take days.

Educators are lining up, bullhorns at the ready, to plead with Scott to just veto the 278-page conforming bill they say will cut public schools to the marrow. House Speaker Richard Corcoran calls it “transformational” and released an explaining that all those “liberals” have it wrong. It’s going to be great.

Does he mean those well-known liberals from the Tea Party? Yes, even the Tea Party Network tweeted that the bill is a “monstrosity” and called for it to be vetoed.

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association called it “a budget that will be devastating to public schools, our students.”

Hello!

Scott can score lots of points with educators if he turns thumbs-down on this budget (consider that alliance for a moment, will you). He also can make a potent argument about preserving the $100 million he wants for VISIT Florida. In a budget of nearly $83 billion, it’s not a great amount of money and, considering that Florida just had a record year for tourism, something must be working.

It’s tricky, though.

During Scott’s sparring with Corcoran during the Legislative Session, the Speaker won nearly every round. If Scott were to veto the budget, he would risk having the Legislature override that with a two-thirds vote (pretty good chance it could happen, too).

What’s it going to be — capitulation or principle?

We got here because Corcoran stood on his core principle of lower spending, no corporate welfare, and a move toward privatization of, well, everything — especially schools.

Scott should stand on his principles as well. If the Legislature overrides it, well, the governor can at least say he did all he could. It won’t be his fault if tourism falls off, and the blood from the mess this budget makes of education will be on the hands of the lawmakers who voted in favor of “transformational” change.

Joe Henderson: Richard Corcoran in the governor’s race? Adam Putnam would be hard to catch

Well, I guess that is settled.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has emphatically ruled out running for the U.S. Senate, and I admit I’m a little disappointed. The thought of a bare-knuckle campaign between him and Gov. Rick Scott for the Republican nomination would have been immensely entertaining.

Not gonna happen.

“Those are the only two choices — (run for) governor or not run for office,” Corcoran told the Tampa Bay Times.

Well, that could work. The knuckles would still be bare between Corcoran and Adam Putnam for the GOP nomination to succeed Scott as governor if the Speaker decides to jump in that race. It would get even more interesting if state Sen. Jack Latvala decides to go for it.

Thinking about that potential matchup raises an important question Corcoran could force Putnam to answer.

While everyone has known for a long time about Putnam’s ambition to be governor, he will have to offer a clear explanation of why it’s so important to him — I mean, beyond the usual talking points of jobs, Florida’s future, yadda yadda yadda.

Corcoran is on a mission to change the way business is done in Tallahassee. He made that clear as soon as he became Speaker, even if it meant taking on a sitting governor in his own party. He would be able to clearly demonstrate how life would be different for the state with him in charge.

It will be Putnam’s challenge to do the same.

Putnam has been stashing away a considerable campaign war chest — more than $8 million in the bank. His Florida Grown PAC has raised about $2.5 million just since the end of March, but Corcoran has the blessing of the Koch Brothers if he runs raising money probably wouldn’t be a problem.

The thought of a fight wouldn’t scare off Corcoran or Latvala, though, and if that happens, Putnam probably would be forced to the right during the primary fight. Put it this way: Putnam is conservative, but compared to Corcoran he looks like a moderate. That could be a factor in the primary, where it’s important to appeal to the almighty base.

Things could get really interesting if there is a primary debate between the three. Corcoran is a lawyer and knows how to frame an argument, but I haven’t seen a potential Republican candidate who is better on stage and the stump than Putnam.

That’s getting ahead of things, though. Corcoran and Latvala have decisions to make, while Putnam is already off and running. Even with all the variables in play, I think he’s going to be hard to catch.

Joe Henderson: Betsy DeVos pleaded for students to listen, but shouldn’t she do the same?

As students at Bethune-Cookman University turned their backs and lustily booed commencement speaker Betsy DeVos, the rattled education secretary pleaded, “Let’s choose to hear each other out.”

It’s ironic that DeVos chose those words to find middle ground, considering Republicans across the land, and particularly in the Washington establishment she now represents, have demonstrated no interest in hearing anything but the echo of their own voices.

The best leaders spend a long time listening before they speak. Perhaps DeVos should choose to hear the voices of those who believe we are seeing what may later be viewed as a historic assault on public education.

Republicans — including those in the Florida Legislature — are showing barely restrained glee at that prospect. As the highest-ranking agency leader in that charge, DeVos and many in her party have shown almost willful ignorance of the havoc this is causing.

A story in Thursday’s Tampa Bay Times quoted Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins warning the district, which services more than 200,000 students, may see a deepening financial crisis.

The budget passed this week by the Legislature cuts per-student funding by $27 at a time when Florida’s population is booming. Eakins said there may have to be a teacher hiring freeze. He also has to find a way to pay for about $3 billion total in new school construction, repairs for existing schools, and debt on previous construction.

It’s also odd that Republicans complain about the treatment DeVos received, many calling it rude and so forth. Yet, how many of them chanted “lock her up … lock her up” at the mention of Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, or even as late as March as President Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Nashville?

By that standard, I thought students at Bethune-Cookman were kind to the representative of a government that increasingly is turning its back on them.

DeVos at one point declared, “We can choose to listen, be respectful and continue to learn from each other’s experience.”

This is the same person who earlier declared that so-called historically black colleges represented the original school choice plan.

Choice, huh? The University of Florida didn’t admit its first black student until 1958 — the year DeVos was born, the daughter of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. Florida State didn’t begin admitting black students until 1962.

The memory of that kind of school “choice” is still fresh for many of the parents or grandparents of black students today. Education was their path to a better life. They see a government trying to change that.

They see DeVos as someone who doesn’t understand them and doesn’t seem too interested in learning. Maybe what happened at Bethune-Cookman will change that, but I doubt it.

There was widespread anger across the campus when DeVos was originally announced as the commencement speaker. There was a petition drive to have the offer rescinded.

I would give her credit for showing up anyway, except I think she probably thought she could turn this into a photo op with smiling, applauding students endorsing what she has planned.

She got that photo op all right, just not the one she wanted.

The question is, was she listening to what all those booing students were really saying? Is anyone?

Joe Henderson: Rick Scott came to Tally as an outsider, and that’s just how he might leave

For as much as Gov. Rick Scott loves to deride what he calls “career politicians” — even those in his own party — those same people have forced him into what looks more and more like an inescapable trap.

Does he veto the just-passed $83 billion state budget and force lawmakers to return to Tallahassee to override him, which they almost certainly would?

Risky.

Losing would continue the parliamentary butt-whipping Scott received during the Legislative Session at the hands of, er, um … his own party.

Does he continue to build on his bromance with President Donald Trump, whom, you may have heard, has made a few headlines lately? A story by Gary Fineout in The Associated Press pointed out that Scott’s good standing with the president won a payday that included $1 billion for the state’s mental hospitals as well as repairs on a federally owned dike that contributed to last year’s disastrous algae bloom from Lake Okeechobee.

Or does he cover his ears, hold his nose, and sign the budget so he can at least take that issue out of the headlines, while moving at least an arms-length distance away from Trump. That might help him avoid some of the splatter that seems ongoing with this president.

Or not.

While political fortunes can change with the next news cycle, Gov. Scott seems to be on a losing streak that rivals the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen.

The drubbing he took over his most-favored VISIT Florida and Enterprise Florida programs — from, er, um, as I think we mentioned, his own party — are sure to dog him all the way to the ballot box if he challenges Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year.

Where does the governor turn now? He rode to Tallahassee on the tea party wave in 2011 only to adopt positions now his party’s leaders believe aren’t conservative enough.

How does he sell that in what still is a hypothetical run for his party’s Senate nomination in 2018? I mean, after state Republican leadership — especially House Speaker Richard Corcoran — took him on and won, they sure aren’t going to care what he wants in an election year.

He obviously doesn’t have enough allies in the Legislature to successfully challenge Corcoran, and his attempt to stir up a populist revolt by going on a statewide speaking jag to save his budget priorities was met with a resounding yawn.

All the while, his closeness to Trump was turning into a potential liability, and we can’t even judge the ramifications of that. If Scott is the Senate nominee and the president continues his current path, expect nonstop TV images of the governor and the president arm-in-arm, ad nauseam.

If things continue to deteriorate, it might even open the door for a serious challenge to Scott from the right.

As Yul Brenner sang in the King and I, which certainly seems apropos just now, it’s a puzzlement.

Here is some clarity though. Scott came to Tallahassee as an outsider. At the moment, it looks like that is how he will leave.

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