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Bill Nelson and Hillsborough County DEC Steering Committee now backing Stephen Bittel for FDP Chair

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson has made it clear what had been strongly rumored for the past month now – he’s firmly behind Coconut Grove real estate developer and Democratic party donor Stephen Bittel in the race for the Florida Democratic Party Chair position.

“I have known Stephen Bittel for over 30 years and believe he will be an extraordinary Chair of the Florida Democratic Party,” Nelson said on Tuesday, just four days before the state’s executive committee votes on a new leader. “Stephen has been a dedicated advocate for the principles of the Democratic Party for many years and is a leader who has the smarts and heart to unite the party in addition to implementing plans that will help rebuild the party from the ground up. While there are several qualified candidates in this race, I am convinced that Stephen is the right person to chair the Florida Democratic Party,  he has my full support and I ask that you join me in this effort.”

Nelson told this reporter on December 15 that while he did not want to put his considerable influence in the race just yet, he said it was “time for us to get a very professionally run Democratic Party that has a chance of standing up against a very organized and very well-funded Republican Party,” adding that, “I think Stephen Bittle would bring that type of professionalism to the organization.”

Momentum has been going Bittel’s way to lead the party before he was even eligible to compete for the position. In fact, the circumstances allowing him to first be named a precinct captain with the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee and then state committeeman is now the source of a lawsuit (as reported today in the Miami New Times).

Bittel also received good news Monday night in the form of a formal declaration of support from the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Steering Committee.

“We decided that we would back Bittel as long as he was in running,” said Hillsborough DEC Chair Ione Townsend, who said of all the candidates that “at this point they all have the same platform, they’ve all adopted all  the same language and all the same ideas and the platforms are basically the same, so it boils down for us who we thought had the best chance of executing that plan, and we thought that Mr. Bittel had the best chance of executing that plan.”

When asked how the steering committee came to that conclusion, Townsend noted Bittel’s “proven record for fundraising and as a CEO.”

“We think that the FDP needs to be run more professionally and more business like,” she added.

The Hillsborough support for Bittel is another seeming blow to the chances of Alan Clendenin, the South Tampa based longtime DNC committeeman who lost a bid for state committee in his own DEC last month, and ultimately relocated to Bradford County to make himself eligible in the race this Saturday. When asked if there was any support among the 20 or so members of the steering committee on Monday night, Townsend diplomatically replied, “Let’s just say we decided we would back Mr Bittel.”

The race for FDP chair takes place this Saturday in Orlando. Along with Bittel and Clendenin, former state Senator Dwight Bullard, Duval County committeewoman Lisa King and Osceola County DEC Chair Leah Carius are on the ballot.

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Charlie Crist lands ‘A-list’ assignment on Financial Services Committee

In just his second official week as a congressman, Charlie Crist lands a plum assignment on the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services.

Known as an “A-list” committee, Financial Services has oversight on several significant issues, including federal monetary policy, banking and financial institutions, insurance and housing.

 “I am deeply thankful for this opportunity to serve in a role directly impacting many of the key issues facing Pinellas County,” said the St. Petersburg Democrat in a statement.

Crist – now representing Florida’s 13th Congressional District – said he has a proven record as both a former Florida governor and Attorney General for advocating consumer protections in the insurance, utilities, housing and banking industries. During his tenure, Crist noted he had issued rules keeping companies from abandoning Florida consumers, as well as vetoing deregulation legislation that would have put the insurance companies “back in charge.”

“From this platform,” Crist said of his new congressional appointment, “I will fight to make flood insurance more affordable, defend and strengthen reform of Wall Street, and provide greater access to capital for aspiring entrepreneurs and small businesses – from the local barbershop to technology startups.”

More information of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services is available online.

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Safety Harbor draws full slate of candidates

After qualifying closed Tuesday, eight candidates are vying for three seats on the Safety Harbor City Commission.

Running for mayor are Joe Ayoub and Janet Hooper. Ayoub is a former mayor who also served on the commission. He is facing Hooper, who is in her first term as a commissioner. She resigned from Seat 1 to run for mayor. Hooper’s resignation is effective March 21, the week after the election.

Four candidates are lining up to serve the remainder of Hooper’s term on the commission: Nancy J. Besore, Cameron Boozarjomehri, Damon Lister and Scott Long. Boozarjomehri originally was a candidate for Seat 4 but switched to Seat 1.

Incumbent Carlos Diaz is running for re-election to Seat 4. He’s being challenged by Luanne Lambert.

So far, Ayoub is the fundraising winner in the mayor’s race, raising $8,770 according to the latest financial reports ending Dec. 31. One of his contributors is newly elected Democratic state Rep. Ben Diamond, who donated $150.

Hooper raised $5,233 to date.

With $1,450, Long is the fundraising leader in the Seat 1 race. Among Long’s contributors is Neil Brickfield, who served on both the Pinellas County and Safety Harbor commissions.

Lister follows closely with $1,330. Boozarjomehri raised $50. No report was available for Besore, who did not open a campaign account until this month.

In the race for Seat 4, Diaz is ahead of Lambert with $200. Lambert raised $50.

The election is March 14.

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In wake of Orlando shooting, Vern Buchanan renews call to pass bill imposing death penalty for cop killers

One day after Debra Clayton was shot and killed, Sarasota area Republican Vern Buchanan is once again calling Congress to pass his bill making it easier to sentence cop killers to death.

Clayton, a 17-year veteran of the Orlando Police Department, died Monday morning while attempting to arrest a murder suspect. Hours later, an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy also died in an auto accident during the pursuit of the alleged killer wanted in the slaying of his pregnant former girlfriend.

“These vicious attacks against police must end,” Buchanan said. “My legislation sends a strong message to those who target police — you will be held accountable.”

Buchanan’s “Thin Blue Line Act” (H.R. 115), would make the murder or attempted murder of a police officer, firefighter or other first responders an “aggravating” factor in death penalty determinations.

Former Pinellas County Congressman David Jolly sponsored a similar bill in 2015.

Deadly shootings and ambush attacks contributed to a five-year high in U.S. law-enforcement fatalities in 2016, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

There were 135 officers killed on the job last year, and gun-related incidents were the leading cause of death, a report released last month indicated.

William J. Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), praised Buchanan’s bill in a statement issued out by the congressman’s office, saying assaults against police have increased sharply in recent years. In 2016 alone, ambush-style killings of law enforcement officers increased by 167 percent, according to NAPO.

“Establishing stricter penalties for those who harm or target law enforcement officers will deter crime,” Johnson said. “Any persons contemplating harming an officer must know that they will face serious punishments.”

The legislation would be applicable when a murdered individual is on duty, in the performance of their duty, or because of their status as a public official.

The proposal covers federal, state, and local police officers, firefighters and first responders. The only requirement is that the homicide involves federal jurisdiction, such as an interstate homicide of an officer, one killed on federal land, or while serving as part of a joint task force.

Buchanan’s press staff said it is unclear at this time if the Thin Blue Line Act would apply in the case of the incident Monday in Orlando.

“We owe a great debt to police officers and first responders across the country,” Buchanan said. “Just as we recently witnessed during the Fort Lauderdale airport attack, these brave individuals put their lives on the line to keep us safe.”

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Rick Scott is non-committal whether he would sign a bill allowing Floridians to carry guns in airport terminals

Rick Scott says he doesn’t have an opinion on whether or not he’d support a law that would allow licensed gun owners to carry guns in airport terminals.

The question came to him on Tuesday, four days after 26-year-old Army Veteran Esteban Santiago, who is accused of killing five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday after he recovered his gun that he had picked in his suitcase and then retrieved at the baggage claim area.

A proposal by Sarasota Republican Greg Steube that would allow a licensed gun owner to carry a gun in airports throughout the state is on the agenda for the Florida Legislature when they begin their session in March. The Steube bill (SB 140) does more than just allow for guns in airports – it would also allow the 1.7 million concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns on college campuses and in government meetings as well as carry openly in public.

“We’re in the middle of an investigation, and I’m looking forward to what happens at the end of that investigation,” Scott told reporters in New Tampa on Tuesday morning. “Right now my goal is to mourn with those who lost their lives, for those who are still in the hospital, and there will be time for politics once we finish this.”

Scott was asked twice more about the bill by reporters who wanted to get his general sense of the bill. He initially responded by again repeating the fact that there is an ongoing investigation into Santiago, as well as an ongoing manhunt for Markeith Lloyd, who Orlando Police say killed Master Sgt. Debra Clayton as she tried to confront him outside a Walmart.

“So my goal is to just finish these,” Scott said, referring to both cases.

But a television reporter asked again straight up – would he support the Steube bill if it landed on his desk?

“We have a legislative session that begins in the first part of March, so I know there will be a lot of legislation about a lot of different things. If it makes it to my desk I’ll review it,” he said.

Fort Lauderdale Democratic state Senator Gary Farmer was planning on announcing a gun control bill on Tuesday in response to the Fort Lauderdale killings.

Scott has had to contend with the killings in both Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in the past week.

“My heart goes out to the families impacted,” he said on Tuesday. “I went and visited many of them at the hospital at Broward Health and there was one family who just found out that they lost their mother and I talked to one who was active Air Force….Your heart goes out to them.”

Steube isn’t backing down from his bill in the wake of the airport shootings. If anything, he’s doubling down, telling the Orlando Sentinel that another armed person could have mowed down Santiago.”Had a licensed permit holder been one of those people standing right behind him, he’d have gotten one shot off and somebody would’ve pulled a gun out and shot him,” Steube said.

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Raulerson, Dan

Dan Raulerson qualifying challenge now in judge’s hands

A Tallahassee judge now will decide whether a lawsuit challenging state Rep. Dan Raulerson‘s re-election over the use of “Wite Out” will go forward.

“I’m going to review this and get an order out,” Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson said Tuesday, after a half-hour hearing. “Good luck.”

Raulerson’s attorney had moved to toss out the case, saying it was moot with the Plant City Republican having won in November and been sworn in to represent House District 58. 

Only the House of Representatives, which is constitutionally the sole judge of its membership, now has jurisdiction over any challenge to Raulerson being seated, lawyer Emmett Mitchell said.

Vazquez (via Facebook)

Jose N. Vazquez Figueroa, who is representing himself, is seeking to disqualify Raulerson; Vazquez was his unsuccessful Democratic opponent last year.

The suit says Raulerson’s notary had incorrectly used “correction fluid” on his filing paperwork. The state’s notary manual says no correction fluid of any kind is allowed on notarized documents.

Specifically, Vazquez has said Raulerson’s notary “improperly completed” his paperwork by whiting out the date on her notarization of his financial disclosure, changing it from an April to a June date.

He sued Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer; Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state’s chief elections officer; and Kristi Reid Bronson, records bureau chief for the Division of Elections, faulting all of them for not catching the error and allowing Raulerson to run in the first place.

“I never challenged his constitutional qualifications,” Vazquez told the court. “That’s a big difference … the fact is, Mr. Raulerson never qualified as a candidate. The document is not valid and so it’s a forfeit.”

Otherwise, Vazquez added, “we open a big Pandora’s box in the state of Florida where anybody can just ‘white out’ documents.”

Dodson did not say when he would issue an order.

Vazquez made the news in 2008 when he ran for the District 58 seat as a state prisoner. He was serving time on a charge of driving on a revoked license, records show. He himself was disqualified when he failed to include his full name on a written oath.

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St. Pete schedules second session to discuss sewer plant improvements

St. Petersburg has scheduled a second informational meeting to discuss proposed improvements to the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility and the 31st Street Sports Complex.

The meetings are designed to inform residents about a proposal to drill wells at both facilities to increase the storage capacity for reclaimed water. An increased storage capacity will help handle the increase in water during storms and help prevent overflows. Last year, the city dumped thousands of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay because the system was unable to handle the amount of water that two tropical storms dropped on the county.

Since then, the city has created a multimillion plan to repair its aging sewer infrastructure to prevent rain- and groundwaters from getting into the system. The plan also calls for other improvements such as the construction of injection wells at Southwest and 31st Street. Each site is slated to have two 1,100-foot-deep injection wells, for a total of four new wells. The four wells ill be in addition to injection wells already in place at the Southwest plan, which pumps treated reclaimed water deep into confined salt aquifers.

The city held one informational meeting last year. Like the last, this second meeting, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Lake Vista Center, 1401 62nd Ave. S, is meant to explain the projects to residents, particularly those who will be affected by the construction. But St. Petersburg officials say they also want to hear residents’ ideas and suggestions concerning the proposal.

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Janet Cruz among those backing Stephen Bittel’s bid for Florida Democratic Party leadership post

Coconut Grove real estate developer and major political donor Stephen Bittel rolled out a list of new endorsements of bid for Florida Democratic Party chair on Monday, including South Florida congressional members Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, and Alcee Hastings .

Also backing Bittel is Janet Cruz, the House Minority Leader from Tampa, which also is the (once and former) home of Alan Clendenin, who is running again for the leadership post after losing a close race in 2013 to outgoing chair Allison Tant.

Clendenin lost his bid for state committeeman in Hillsborough County last month, losing by 12 votes to Russ Patterson. Although much was made about a bylaw interpretation by party chair Ione Townsend that precluded local elected officials from voting in the race, those votes would not have put Clendenin over the top in his own county. He ultimately moved to Bradford County and was elected as a state committeeman there, making him eligible to run for the chair position (a similar fate that occurred with Dwight Bullard, who, after losing to Bittel last month in Miami Dade County, moved to Gadsden County to become a committeeman and keep himself viable).

When Clendenin ran for party chair in 2013, there were some local Democrats who were not in his corner. Some of those sentiments were expressed in the aftermath of last month’s Hillsborough DEC vote.

On Tuesday night, Cruz issued this statement to FloridaPolitics.com.

“Alan Clendenin has been a dear friend of mine for many years. I supported Alan for his first bid for Party Chair and there is no doubt that there is a great need for his voice within the Party.

However, if we are going to be successful in 2018 & beyond, we need a Chair with a proven record of delivering victories for Democrats up and down the ballot. Stephen Bittel is a dedicated, progressive warrior with the business and grassroots organizing experience necessary to execute a 67-county strategy that energizes Florida Democrats as we head into a crucial midterm election cycle.

I believe Stephen has the vision and the ability to raise the resources we will need to ensure Senator Bill Nelson is reelected, that we elect a Democratic Governor for the first time in 20 years, and that we continue to grow our legislative caucuses in the State House and State Senate. For the future of Florida’s working families, we need Stephen Bittel as the next Chair of the Florida Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Bittel and Bullard both released a list of endorsements on Monday.

“In the past month, I’ve traveled from Destin to Dade, listening to the ideas of Democratic leaders in more than 40 Counties across the State,” Bittel said in a statement.“If we are to win statewide, we need to make sure that every voice is heard.  Today, we announce the endorsement of two dozen caucus chairs, Counties and voters who represent all the best Florida has to offer.  I’m proud to have their support, because together we will build a Democratic Party that will win for Florida’s families.”

Rounding out the field is Duval County’s Lisa King and Osceola Democratic party chair Leah Carius.

The election takes place this Saturday in Orlando.

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Protesters in Tampa tell Marco Rubio to hold Rex Tillerson accountable during confirmation hearing

Rex Tillerson‘s confirmation hearing for Secretary of State begins Wednesday morning at 9 a.m., and dozens of activists in Tampa want to make sure that Marco Rubio holds Tillerson’s feet to the fire during that hearing.

At a rally in front of the Senator’s district office in Tampa’s Westshore area on Monday afternoon, approximately 75 people stood alongside Kennedy Boulevard denouncing Tillerson, with many critics mentioning his close ties to Vladimir Putin and the Russian government as a reason to oppose his nomination.

“Marco Rubio can stop this madness of Rex Tillerson’s appointment, and we’re out here to stand by him and say we agree with your concerns and thank you for looking out for us. You can be the one that stops this,” said Dayna Lazarus with Organize Now in Tampa.

Lazarus isn’t overhyping Rubio’s power in the confirmation process. With Republicans having just a one-seat majority on the 19-member Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio’s opposition — combined with ten Democrats on the panel — could keep the nomination from advancing out of committee, although his nomination would still ultimately come up before the entire U.S. Senate.

Rubio has already expressed some skepticism about Donald Trump’s nomination of Tillerson, who built a close relationship with Putin through his leadership as CEO of ExxonMobil. Putin awarded Tillerson with Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013, a special honor bestowed upon foreign citizens who contribute to Russia’s culture, economy or international relations.

Rubio’s initial reaction to the pick wasn’t positive.

Rubio later said that he had “serious concerns about Tillerson’s nomination.

Rubio “has a responsibility to the state of Florida” to thoroughly vet Tillerson, said Marina Welch, who is heading up the Tampa Bay area region’s trip to Washington for the Women’s March on D.C. the day after Trump’s inauguration on January 21.

“We are out here to show Senator Rubio that we support his skepticism about this Rex Tillerson appointment, ” said Kent Bailey, chair of the Tampa Bay area chapter of the Sierra Club. “We want him to feel supported in doing the right thing, the courageous thing in standing up to the expected appointment of a man who has no business being Secretary of State, a man who has been Putin’s partner in crime for decades.”

Referring to the report that in 2001 Tillerson became the long-time director of a US-Russian oil firm based in the tax haven of the Bahamas, Bailey said that was a very profitable relationship for both Tillerson and Putin. “Tillerson got a friendship award from Putin just months before Russian invaded the Crimea and went into Ukraine. Our country put sanctions on Russia, which Rex Tillerson publicly and loudy argued against.”

About halfway through the event, protestors began chanting, “Reject Rex! Reject Rex!” Later, group of five were allowed to enter Rubio’s office and tell his staffers their feelings about why they want him to reject Tillerson.

On NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday, Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham both said they still have questions about they can support Tillerson.

There were many in the crowd who are also suspicious of Tillerson when it comes to his stance on global warming. In a 2012 speech, Tillerson said about the issue (which he does believe is a problem) that,”We have spent our entire existence adapting. We’ll adapt,” he said. “It’s an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.”

“Who’s going to pay for this engineering problem?” asked Tampa activist Jim Shirk at the protest. “Is he foisting off the response to global warming on everybody else except the people causing it?”

Tillerson’s confirmation hearing begins at 9 a.m. on Wednesday in Washington.

 

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Others see Tampa Bay Rowdies as ‘silent assassins’ in MLS expansion race

Among industry insiders, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are known as “silent assassins” in the race for the next Major League Soccer expansion team.

While the Rowdies are relative newcomers to the MLS expansion conversation, after formally throwing their hat in the ring December, Patrick Brennan of Cincinnati.com warns that it shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a “hurried and premature” MLS pitch.

The Rowdies’ announcement is a result of years of behind-the-scenes work and investment by both the team and owner Bill Edwards.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s hands down that we belong in MLS and probably ahead of a lot of the guys that are on the list,” Edwards told The Cincinnati Enquirer.

The Rowdies shouldn’t be dismissed easily in the MLS expansion race, Brennan says, and what’s happening on the St. Petersburg waterfront should come as a reminder to Futbol Club Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic FC and others involved in the expansion application process.

While each team is desperately fighting for the same prize, winners will eventually be “moneyed contenders with compelling pitches.” And the strongest parts of Edwards’ pitch are plans for a privately-funded, $80 million expansion of Al Lang Stadium, the iconic baseball field already transformed into a soccer venue that Brennan says is “essentially ready-made for the expansion, which would upgrade the facility and increase capacity from 7,200-plus to about 18,000.”

Edwards also believes the expanded site will be operational by 2019.

Al Lang is also several steps ahead of the game, with $4 million in newly remodeled soccer amenities such as upgraded locker rooms, an in-stadium production studio for match broadcast with up to 13 cameras available. Few baseball-specific features remain at the historic waterfront stadium.

“The biggest day of my life is when I took the batter’s eye out of that place,” Edwards joked. “Everything you could possibly imagine that you could do with that stadium, we did it.”

Remodeling has already brought the stadium up to international playing standards, Brennan writes.

Boosting the Rowdies’ chances is a new report from Missouri governor-elect Eric Greitens ruling out public funding for stadiums, which raise doubts about an expansion slot for St. Louis – one of nine other cities vying for an MLS team.

“We have a lot of people in this town that are very wealthy of their own right and I’m working on putting together a local group of people rather than going to Wall Street. Rather than going to other institutional people,” Edwards told The Enquirer. “Now, I’m not waving them off. I’ll take their money, but in the same instance, if we can put together all the money here, we will.

“The people we pick will be the best people we want to be in our league and in our team. You know, I’m not going to bring people in that I’m not going to get along with … I’m a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy that gets things done.”

“Then again, this is a competition, isn’t it?” Edwards added. “There’s great people in Ohio … but you can’t beat Florida – it doesn’t snow in Florida.”

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