Eric Lynn out of running for CD 13, into running for HD 68

Reading the writing on the wall – also known as the polls – Florida Congressional District 13 Democratic candidate Eric Lynn is jettisoning his race for Congress, and has announced he will run in the state House District 68 seat in Pinellas County recently vacated last week by Dwight Dudley.

“Today begins a fresh start in a new race with new opportunities. I am proud of the excellent campaign we ran for Congressional District 13 here in Pinellas County, which is projected to elect our first Democratic Congressman in over 50 years.  With my decision to run for State House, Charlie Crist and I will forego spending almost a million dollars each against each other in a Democratic primary. I am honored to help ensure that both State House District 68 and Congressional District 13 elect strong Democrats who will fight for the good of the community and the values that we share.”

As Lynn said, his exit means that Crist will probably no longer have to spend much money in a contested Democratic Primary this August and could very well skate to winning the now Democratic friendly district seat easily in November.

Crist was all smiles, now that he no longer has a Democratic challenger in his race to serve in Washington for the first time in his political career.

“I’m grateful to Eric Lynn for his public service and I’m also proud of my friend Ben Diamond, another great public servant,” he said in a statement. “With today’s news, Pinellas County now has two great and qualified candidates in Florida House District 68, and I trust the voters to nominate the candidate that will best fight for fairness, great schools, our environment, and new high-wage jobs. Our Party will be unified in November.”

“I’m happy because that’s going to be a Democratic pick up,” added Pinellas County Democratic chair Susan McGrath. “Charlie Crist will represent the people of district 13 well. He’s going to be another voice of sanity that we need in Congress right now.”

Much more intriguing is the fact that a number of prominent Pinellas County Democrats got out in front of endorsing attorney Ben Diamond in the HD 68 race last week, just hours after Dudley announced he would not be running for the House in the Pinellas County seat.

Democrats who have already announced that they are endorsing Diamond include Crist, Alex Sink and Mayor Rick Kriseman. In the case of Kriseman and McGrath, they had already backed Lynn in the CD 13 race.

Rumors had been circulating for weeks that the Florida Democratic Party had reached out to Lynn to drop out of the CD13 race, where he is trailing in some polls to Crist by some 60 percentage points, to instead run for a state legislative swing district race where his odds were considerably better of him getting elected. He steadfastly refused those entreaties, until now.

McGrath said she was just getting used to the idea that two new and talented Democrats – Diamond and Lynn – were now opposing each other, less than nine days after Dudley said he wouldn’t run for the seat.

“The bottom line is, Democrats are going to keep that seat,” she said, adding that “this is a year where it’s good to be a democrat.”

“You look at what’s going on at the top of the ticket and on down. Presidential years are good for democratic turnout to begin with, so that’s always good for us to be able to pick up seats, and you add things like the Republican nominee being Donald Trump, who had such an incredible unfavorability index among key constituencies like women and Hispanics, and you know, NPA’s and all of that. This is going to be a great opportunity for us.”

There is one Republican who had filed to run in HD 68 – Joseph JB Bensmihen. Bensmihen announced on Tuesday that he has named Matt Lettelleir to be his campaign manager. Lettelier has worked on previous campaigns of Jeff Brandes, Frank Farkas and John Legg, and will be taking a leave of absence from the Pinellas County Republican Party, where he serves as the Director of Party Development, to join the campaign.

(An earlier version of this story reported that Susan McGrath had endorsed Lynn in CD 13 and Diamond in HD 68. That was before either had any Democratic competitor. She says she now is neutral in the HD 68 race. The story also reported that Lynn had been encouraged by Dwight Dudley, Peter Wallace and Charlie Justice to run in the race. That was incorrect. SaintPetersBlog regrets the error).

In Pinellas Commission race, Charlie Justice slightly edges Mike Mikurak in Q1 fundraising

In the latest round of financial reports, Republican Mike Mikurak continues his substantial lead over incumbent Charlie Justice  in the Pinellas County Commission race.

According to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, Mikurak — who has been campaigning for the District 3 seat since last September — has raised exactly $80,805. While Justice, who didn’t formally file to run until a month after his opponent, has brought in approximately $40,357.

However, recent figures from each camp show a much closer race.

Since January, Mikurak has brought in close to $18,000. Justice, in the same amount of time, has raked in almost $21,000.

In fact, for March alone, Justice raised nearly $12,000 on 55 unique contributions. It marks the second highest fundraising total he’s accumulated in one finance period since entering the race. And Justice can thank — at least in part — the recent endorsement from the Pinellas Realtor Organization (PRO), one of Tampa Bay’s largest trade organizations, for his big March. 

Last month, the County Commission Chairman’s three maximum allowable $1,000 contributions came from the Realtors Political Action Committee, the Realtors Political Activity Committee, and the Realtors Political Advocacy Committee. All three are located at 200 Monroe Street, in Tallahassee.

Other PACs to donate to Justice in March include the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas — a group which champions equal rights for the LGBT community — and the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Democratic Club. Each donated $500.

University of South Florida St. Petersburg Dean Bill Heller also tossed in $500 last month for the re-election effort.

As for the March expenditures, Justice only dished out about $200 for office supplies and postage.

His opponent, however, dropped a little more last month. Mikurak spent just over $3,000: $1,200 on campaign T-shirts and exactly $2,000 to pay his campaign staff.

Mikurak’s received contributions for the month include $1,000 donations from Largo’s 6365 53rd Street N. LLC, Pinellas Park’s Hydrologic Distribution Company, and Gulfport sales and marketing firm VP Jeffrey Plummer.

Political consultant Craig Chown also donated to the Mikurak campaign in the form of a $500 check, while the St. Petersburg-based Young Floridians for Opportunity PAC contributed $100.

Both candidates will square off in November, as residents countywide will vote for their preferred District 3 County Commissioner.

And the outcome will have some massive political ramifications.

If Mikurak wins, he’ll most likely be re-establishing the County Commission as a Republican-heavy board. Currently, no other sitting Commissioner whose seat is up for grabs in November — Republican Karen Seel, and Democrats Janet Long, and Ken Welch — has drawn a challenger.

As of now, the board is controlled by the Democrats, with four of its seven members belonging to the blue party.

Charlie Justice highlights strong Hillsborough-Pinellas relationship during Tampa campaign stop

“By joining together, we can be more effective,” said Pinellas County Commission Chairman Charlie Justice at a Tampa fundraiser for his re-election campaign.

Justice has been on the trail since last October, so far drawing one competitor, the well-funded Republican Mike Mikurak.

But Thursday night, at Southern Strategy Group’s Tampa Bay office, Justice’s message wasn’t focused on competition, but cooperation between local governments — an issue which Justice believes Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties have recently excelled at.

“Over the last year, Pinellas and Hillsborough have joined together on a couple issues I think are important to all of us,” said Justice to the crowd.

“We have formed the International Export Alliance,” continued Justice, “which joins the Hillsborough Economic Development Council and the Pinellas Economic Development Council, and helps our local businesses […] get their goods on the international market.”

To date, according to Justice, the IEA has had successful trips to Chile, Toronto, and Costa Rica, among other places.

Justice also pointed to the recent work done through the Tampa Bay Estuary Board, which includes Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as well as the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa.

“The work that this board has done has led to the quality of Tampa Bay being the best it’s been in 50 years.”

According to the TBEB, Tampa Bay is seeing the highest levels of sea grass, the largest snook population, and the best water clarity it has since the late 1950s.

“All those things are important if you like to fish or be on the water,” said Justice. “And all those things are very important to the economic viability of our area.”

Justice also highlighted Hillsborough and Pinellas’ decision to back off from this year’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery [TIGER] grant money. Instead, both counties will support the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s joint application for those same dollars.

According to Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard, the move, “sends not only a powerful symbolic sign of partnership at the regional level, but, in a very real way, could advantage this application and make it more successful.”

Should the tactic pay off, the TIGER dollars would go toward a regional fare box system aimed at providing a consistent bus payment plan for Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Citrus and Hernando counties.

As Justice put it, the decision was made, “to better serve the public – whether they’re on a HART bus or a PSTA bus.”

Justice also mentioned another joint effort by Pinellas and Hillsborough in the near future, but didn’t disclose any details.

His next fundraiser is slated for 5:30 p.m. April 19 at Pipo’s Cuban Café in St. Pete.

Pinellas may ban late-night towing from bars, restaurants to curb drunken driving

Pinellas County Commission has agreed to to gather more information regarding the creation of a possible ordinance to ban late-night towing from bar and restaurant parking lots.

During the closing minutes of Commission’s Tuesday regular meeting, Chairman Charlie Justice presented the idea to the rest of the board.

“Hopefully it’ll encourage people to get a cab, get an Uber, get a friend to give them a ride home, as oppose to worrying about their car so much that they’re going to gamble and take the car home, potentially putting people at risk,” Justice said.

Hillsborough County already has a similar ordinance in place which bans the towing of a vehicle from an establishment that serves alcohol until noon the next day.

“I certainly want to look at it further,” said Commissioner Ken Welch. “I think it makes a lot of sense […] We’ve got an epidemic of folks drinking too much, driving the wrong way, and that’s taken lives recently. So I think anything we can do to get a better grip on that, is something I would certainly be in support of. “

Welch also asked if Pinellas’ version of the ordinance would give cities the chance to opt out, which it most likely will, should the county get that far.

For now though, that the next step will be to collect more information on the subject. Commissioners Janet Long, John Maronni, and Karen Seel all said they’d like to get input from some people who’ve been towed under such circumstances.

Commissioner Dave Eggers also considered the proprietors, saying, “I’m sure they would like to encourage people [who have had too much to drink] not to drive as well.”

Before the meeting adjourned, Justice made sure to point out that business owners would still have the option to have individual cars towed at their request.

Commission has yet to set a date to workshop the idea.

Pinellas County Democratic Chair thinks Dems can pick up legislative seats this year

With great fanfare last week, Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia proudly boasted about the fact that seven counties in Florida have now switched from majority Democratic to majority Republican in 2016.

“I have always maintained that a strong Republican party with a strong grassroots infrastructure is the key to winning elections,” Ingoglia said in a statement. “We remain committed to registering new voters to the GOP during this election cycle while training new volunteers and leaders who will join us in paving the road to the White House. Our message of opportunity is spreading far and wide, and counties are flipping from blue to red! The Republican Party of Florida would like to congratulate these county leaders for all of their hard work and dedication.”

Among those seven counties flipping from blue to red include Pinellas County.

Democratic Executive Committee Chair Susan McGrath downplays that jump, saying it’s all about the energy that Donald Trump has engendered — both for and against the New York City business mogul.

“I think the important point will be how people vote in this presidential year, and I don’t see any indication that there’s going to be something attractive for voters on the other side with Donald Trump on the ticket,” she says.

There has been a 50 percent increase in voters participating in GOP presidential primaries and caucuses in 2016, with most analysts attributing that directly to the Trump phenomenon. A recent study by The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin and Scott Clement suggests that while it probably is related to Trump, that surge is not exclusively with people voting GOP in support of him.

“Republicans’ turnout surge is not being caused by a hypodermic shot of Trump voters into the primary electorate,” the authors conclude. “Non-Trump Republicans also have been inspired to vote at higher rates — some probably in opposition to Trump and others simply because the contest is competitive.”

While some analysts like to call Florida a purple state regarding its ideology, it certainly doesn’t feel that way when one visits Tallahassee, where Republicans have controlled all branches of government for the past 18 years. However, the fact that more Democrats fare better in state legislative races in swing districts in presidential election years does reflect a certain schizophrenia in the body politic. But it’s questionable how successful the Democrats might be in Pinellas on swinging some of those legislative seats. Take District 65, the Northern Pinellas seat that Democrat Carl Zimmerman won in 2012. He lost it to Chris Sprowls in ’14, and there is no Democrat on the ballot to challenge the man who has already been named a future House Speaker.

McGrath says it’s too early to know exactly in the election cycle to say where Democrats could take back a seat currently controlled by a Republican this fall, but says she believes it will happen.

“We feel really good that based on what’s happening with the Republican Party this year,” she said on Tuesday after participating in a news conference urging Republican senators to take a vote on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. “That it’s going to be a good electoral cycle for Democrats. Not all of the candidates have qualified yet, so I can’t speak on their behalf yet, but I know that there’s good interest in seats and there’s opportunities for us to be competitive, and I think we will pick up seats.”

One form of government where McGrath feels very confident is with the Pinellas County Commission, which for the first time in decades has more Democrats than Republicans on the board.

Democratic incumbents Charlie Justice, Janet Long and Ken Welch are all back on the ballot this fall (along with Republican Karen Seel), and McGrath says she’s certain there won’t be any loss of power among the D’s following the November election. “We think there is every reason that voters will continue to recognize that good work and continue to re-elect those commissioners in office.”

Hillsborough, Pinellas hoping joint transit grant bid finds favor with feds

Thanks to some smart planning and a little federal insight, Pinellas County Commission won’t be going after this year’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery [TIGER] grant money.

Instead, commissioners will support the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s joint application for those same dollars.

The Board of County Commissioners formally agreed to approve a letter of support for the move at its March 29 regular meeting.

“For several years, Pinellas County has submitted our own application for TIGER funding,” reads the letter written by Commission Chairman Charlie Justice and addressed to the U.S. Department of Transportation. “But this year we are withholding our application in order to put our full support behind this regional priority.”

Hillsborough County Commission is expected to back the move as well, providing the type of unified front the federal government seems to be looking for in TIGER grant candidates.

“In discussions with our federal lobbyists,” said County Administrator Mark Woodard. “I was told that this action […] sends not only a powerful symbolic sign of partnership at the regional level, but, in a very real way, could advantage this application and make it more successful.”

Commissioner Janet Long, who also serves on the PSTA Board, made similar comments, saying that during PSTA’s recent trip to Washington D.C., “We got very good, positive responses from people we spoke with at the Federal Transportation Administration. They were very upfront about […] this being exactly the kind of thing they want to see — in a regional way — throughout the country.”

Should the county’s move toward a unified front pay off, the TIGER dollars would go toward a regional fare box system aimed at providing a consistent bus payment plan for Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Citrus and Hernando counties.

“The implementation of the regional fare box system will allow riders to use the latest technology in order to seamlessly move throughout the entire Tampa Bay region to access educational, cultural and employment opportunities,” reads Justice’s letter.

Ideally, smart cards will expedite the entire public bus riding experience, as well as save money for the transit agencies.

“The regional fare box system will save money for each of the transit agencies due to reduced overhead costs,” continues Justice’s letter. “[It] will also save time on the road, as the bus will not have to sit idle while riders purchase passes onboard. Most importantly, it will dramatically improve rider experience and convenience.”

Under the plan, riders would be able to buy a card in one county and use it on public transit in any of the other six participating counties.

“This is incremental progress,” concluded Commissioner Ken Welch before the Board unanimously voted in favor of the measure.

In its eighth funding cycle, the federal TIGER grant program is highly competitive. Last year $10.1 billion in requests were received by the U.S. DOT, over 20 times the program’s available $500 million budget.

Charlie Justice re-election nabs endorsement from Pinellas Realtors

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice’s re-election campaign received a significant boost Wednesday with the backing of one of Tampa Bay’s largest trade organizations.

The Pinellas Realtor Organization (PRO) is endorsing the St. Petersburg Democrat, citing his “commitment to the community, understanding of economic issues, and your advocacy for property owners.”

PRO represents more than 6,000 real estate professionals in Pinellas County.

Thanking the PRO for its support, Justice – a former state senator and representative who serves as chair of the County Commission – said Realtors are “on the front lines” of one the area’s key industries.

“Residential and commercial real estate transactions are incredibly impactful on people’s everyday lives as well a critical indicator of our economic health,” he said. “I appreciate the individual realtors that I know who are deeply involved in civic and charitable endeavors in addition to their real estate careers standing up to support continuing our important work for the people of Pinellas.”

Before serving on the Commission, Justice spent a decade in the Legislature; in the House from 2000 to 2006 and in the Senate from 2006 to 2010. He faces Mike Mikurak, a 61-year-old Republican who serves as a member of Pinellas’ Juvenile Welfare Board. Qualifying period for the race is June 20-24.

Charlie Justice begins to close fundraising gap in race against Mike Mikurak

February fundraising in the only competitive Pinellas County Commission race was fairly lackluster. Incumbent, Charlie Justice, took a first step in closing the gap between him and his challenger, Mike Mikurak. With $4,225 coming in during the month, Justice outraised Mikurak by nearly double this report. Mikurak raised $2,695.

But the difference didn’t put much of a dent into Mikurak’s fundraising head start. The Republican has raised nearly $74,000 compared to Justice who has raised less than $30,000.

Justice pulled in 26 contributions from a variety of donors. His highest contributions came from C1 Bank CEO Trevor Burgess, Pepper Contracting Services, and the Hurricane Lounge in Pass-a-grille. Each of those individuals and businesses donated $500.

Dentist Johnny Johnson donated the second highest amount with $300. The donation is the only this round to be interesting. Justice is a Democrat. Johnson ran for County Commission in 2014 as a Republican for the seat ultimately won by Pat Gerard. Her win meant it was the first time in 50 years Democrats comprised a majority of the board. The donation also represents a potential talking point for Justice to tout bi-partisanship.

Johnson is also a prominent north county dentist who Justice may be able to tap for help bringing in even more fundraising from the dental community.

PlanningWorks founder Larry Biddle wrote a check to Justice’s campaign for $250. Biddle is also hosting a fundraiser for Justice later this month. Also donating $250 were the WCFFL Political Committee, a labor group, and Resort Inns of America.

Justice appears popular among hoteliers. Czyszczon Robert and Gregg Nicklaus both donated $200 and the Alden Suites on St. Pete Beach provided $316 worth of in-kind services for a campaign event.

Meanwhile, Mikurak brought in just six donations in February. He pulled in two $1000 contributions from Audrey Dohrman, founder of Ultra Advertising. Her company also contributed $1,000. Tiffany Restaurant, a previous donor, kicked in $500.

Neither candidate spent a terrible amount of money this report. Mikurak spent a little less than $900. Most of that went for signs. He spent $200 on WebElect software that helps candidates manage voter data and other streamlining campaign features.

Justice spent just $137 on a campaign event with the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee.

Neither candidate is facing a challenger in the Primary. They’ll face off in the November General Election.

Charlie Justice schedules two fundraisers for March

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice is holding two fundraisers later this month in his re-election bid. The scheduled events come as Justice lags far behind his opposition in fundraising totals.

Justice has brought in just $24,000 compared to his Republican candidate, Mike Mikurak, who has raised more than $73,000.

Justice will attempt to bridge that gap on Saturday, March 19th from 9:30 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. at Larry Biddle’s Planning Works location in St. Pete.

Another Sunset Reception fundraising event is scheduled March 22nd at the home of Dr. Lars Hafner, former Florida lawmaker, in St. Petersburg at 5:30. That event is also being backed by Justice’s extensive Host Committee, which includes several prominent Democrats including St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and St. Pete City Council members Amy Foster, Darden Rice and Charlie Gerdes. Several community activists like St. Pete Clinic CEO Beth Houghton and St. Pete Preservation’s Monica Kile also comprise Justice’s host committee.

This is Justice’s first re-election bid. He was elected to the Commission in 2012. Justice faces a potentially difficult race against Mikurak who has strong party backing from the local GOP.

The local party has made regaining control of the board a top 2016 priority. They lost control of the Commission in 2014 when Democrat Pat Gerard replaced Republican Norm Roche.

The race will be decided in November coinciding with the presidential election.