Personnel note: Eric Edwards moving to U.S. Sugar

Eric Edwards, the longtime Tallahassee-based legislative assistant to Republican state Sen. Don Gaetz, is joining U.S. Sugar Corporation’s in-house influence team, the company announced.

His title will be Assistant Vice President of Governmental Affairs.

“We have wanted to strengthen and expand our internal government relations operation for some time, and we have patiently searched for just the right combination of experience, personality, and potential,” said Robert Coker, Vice President of U.S. Sugar and its head lobbyist.

“We hit the trifecta with Eric Edwards,” he added. “All of us on the U.S. Sugar government relations team are very excited about having Eric on board.”

Gaetz, the term-limited Niceville Republican, said Edwards “has a better understanding of the legislative process and how things get done in Tallahassee than almost anyone I know. He has served the Senate with distinction.”

That’s not the only good news for Edwards: He also married Capital City Consulting lobbyist Jen Gaviria this past weekend.

She will be leaving the firm to relocate with him to the company’s headquarters in Clewiston, Hendry County.

“She’s a superstar, and we hate to lose her, but we wish her and Eric all the best,” firm co-founder Nick Iarossi said. He is actively recruiting to fill Gaviria’s position, he added. 

“This is an exciting new chapter in a new town, but will be equally challenging,” Gaviria wrote in an email sent to friends and clients Sunday night. “I thank the hardworking and incredibly talented members of Capital City Consulting for such an enriching experience. I am forever grateful for their friendship, and will always consider them family.”

Iarossi’s firm has built a reputation for being able to attract the very best of rising talent. It will be fascinating to see who CCC next draws to its roster.

The sugar company regularly employs dozens of lobbyists over the course of a year. As of Friday, lobbying registration records showed 23 on board, including Brian Ballard, Frank and Tracy Mayernick, and Mac Stipanovich, to name a few.  

U.S. Sugar, with over $1 billion in annual revenue, stokes envy among other agribusinesses and roils controversy among the state’s environmentalists.

It got its start in the early part of the 20th century, when businessman Charles Stewart Mott “invested millions of dollars of his own funds in a sugar cane farming operation and convinced others that the dream of growing in the rich muck soils around Lake Okeechobee was not only possible, but it could be profitable,” the company’s website says.

It now farms nearly 190,000 acres in Hendry, Glades and Palm Beach counties, creating jobs and contributing to America’s table. But it’s regularly been criticized, usually unfairly, for agricultural practices that cause runoff into the state’s “River of Grass.”

In 2013, the conglomerate got a measure passed by lawmakers and approved by Gov. Rick Scott that saved the industry millions of dollars on Everglades pollution cleanup.

U.S. Sugar’s political contributions average approximately $1.5 million per year. When you subtract dollars spent in years involving a constitutional amendment related to their industry, that average is significantly lower.

All of Florida’s major industries, including Disney, pay for the smartest and best lobbyists to help them navigate Florida’s crowded and confusing political process. Edwards, under Coker’s tutelage, will no doubt soon be on that list. 

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Will Weatherford the latest Republican to join the #NeverTrump camp?

The league of Republicans against Donald Trump may have found another member in Will Weatherford.

The former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, a Wesley Chapel Republican, suggested in a text message today that the real estate tycoon-turned-reality TV star won’t get his vote.

“Sadly, I find both candidates to be unworthy of the office of President,” he wrote, also referring to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

When asked to clarify his position on the GOP’s presidential pick, Weatherford responded: “Would I vote for someone who is unworthy and unfit for the office?”

Weatherford, who now runs the Weatherford Partners venture capital group with his two brothers, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call.

He left the House in 2014 after serving his last two years as Speaker.

In a September 2014 interview with the Tampa Tribune, Weatherford said he would “definitely never rule out” a return to elected office but added he was going to “enjoy family life and focus on the private sector more.”

But his counterpart, then-Senate President Don Gaetz, called the 36-year-old “the future of Florida,” saying he expected “to host a fundraiser for Will Weatherford for governor or U.S. senator sometime in the next five years.”

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Lizbeth Benacquisto raises more than $50K in SD 27 race

Lizbeth Benacquisto raised more than $50,000 in June, bring her total fundraising haul to more than $300,000.

State records show Benacquisto raised $52,600 between June 1 and June 24. The three-week haul brings the Fort Myers Republican’s fundraising haul to $306,571.

Benacquisto received $1,000 donations from Working for Florida’s Families, the political committee backing Sen. Ron Bradley, and Citizens for Fiscal Leadership, which is associated with Sens. Denise Grimsley and David Simmons.

Her campaign also received $1,000 contributions from Kathleen Rooney, the wife of Francis Rooney, the former ambassador to the Holy See and a candidate in Florida’s 19th Congressional District; John Passidomo, the husband of Rep. Kathleen Passidomo and a well-known Naples attorney; former Senate President Don Gaetz; and Sanibel Island Mayor Kevin Ruane.

Benacquisto spent $84,919 between June 1 and June 24, state records show. That sum included $67,000 for media buys. She has more than $121,600 cash on hand.

Benacquisto is running for re-election in Senate District 27. She’ll face Jason Maughan, a Sanibel Island Republican, in the Aug. 30 primary.

Maughan raised $31,825 since jumping into the race on June 1. State records show he received $1,000 donations from Bay Medical Solutions; Lazy Flamingo, a Sanibel Island restaurant; and Med Vets Inc. Maughan and his wife gave $1,000 each to the campaign.

State records show Maughan spent $19,444 in June. That sum included the $1,781 filing fee and $13,340 for direct mail. Maughan has more than $12,300 cash on hand.

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Don Gaetz: We don’t need special session for gun control

State Sen. Don Gaetz is telling constituents not to take the special-session-on-gun-control bait.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who was Senate president in 2012-14, sent out an email Monday. It reprinted and linked to an op-ed he wrote for the Northwest Florida Daily News, Okaloosa County’s newspaper. It appeared Sunday.

He wrote on the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 people dead and 53 wounded. The shooter, later killed by police, called 911 to claim allegiance to the Islamic State terror group.

“Though law enforcement investigations are far from concluded, one thing seems clear — the demented and tortured wretch who committed these murders was either inspired by ISIS or wanted the world to believe he was,” Gaetz said.

But his Democratic colleagues in the Senate are pointing to the shooting as the need for a special legislative session to look at gun control in the Sunshine State.

Democratic Sen. Darren Soto of Orlando, who is running for Congress, will hold a press conference Tuesday in Orlando with other lawmakers to detail “their effort to convene a special session to address gun violence,” according to a news release.

“Some Florida state senators are using these killings to draw attention to themselves and their own campaigns for higher office — as if calling for a special legislative session would somehow cure madness, wipe away grief or defang ISIS,” Gaetz wrote. “It does get a politician in the blogs or on the front page for a news cycle or two. But how smarmy.”

Gaetz added that Senate President Andy Gardiner, a fellow Republican “who has lived in Orlando his entire life, isn’t taking the special session bait. He’s far too sensible.”

To the contrary, “huddling up a bunch of breathless legislators in Tallahassee to snap-pass laws banning guns won’t stop some terrorism-inspired human tool from building a bomb out of fertilizer or shopping the robust weapons black markets … ,” he said.

“… I surely hope we can resist allowing this tragedy to be exploited as just a slot into which politicians can jam their own agendas,’ added Gaetz, who is term-limited and leaving the Senate at the end of this year.

Soto could not be immediately reached for comment.

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George Gainer becomes instant winner in SD 2

George Gainer is on his way to the Florida Senate.

The Bay County Republican won the Senate District 2 seat Friday after no other candidate qualified for the race.

“I am humbled and honored to have been elected without drawing another candidate to run against me,” Gainer said in a statement. “From the first day I announced my candidacy, I have worked to visit with as many voters as possible throughout the district. They have my pledge that my door is always open to them and I will do my absolute best to serve them with honor in Tallahassee.”

The Senate District 2 race was expected to be one of the most expensive and hotly contested races this election cycle. Gainer was set to face Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican and the son of former Senate President Don Gaetz.

At the time, the race had high stakes — Gainer was backed by Sen. Jack Latvala, who was locked in a battle for the Senate presidency with Sen. Joe Negron, of whom the elder Gaetz is an ally.

But those stakes dropped significantly when the presidency was decided in Negron’s favor late last year.

And in March, when Rep. Jeff Miller announced he wasn’t running for re-election, the younger Gaetz dropped his state Senate bid to run for U.S. House.

Gainer is a Florida native, who has spent much of his life in Bay County. He opened his first car dealership in 1968. That same year, Gainer made his first run for public office. He was elected to the Bay County Commission at the age of 25, and served on the board until 1972.

He ran again and was elected to the Bay County Commission in 2002. Gainer is married with six children and 12 grandchildren.

According to LobbyTools, SD 2 is heavily Republican, with 55.5 percent of active voters in 2012 identifying with the GOP; 30.7 percent identified as Democrats. Another 13.9 percent of voters were either NPA or another party.

In 2012, The district overwhelmingly voted for Mitt Romney 74-26 percent over President Barack Obama in 2012; two years earlier, Gov. Rick Scott 70-30 percent over Democrat Alex Sink.

The voting age demographics of SD 2 is 62 percent white, 29 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic; the district has a median age of 40 years old.

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Mike Hansen to be next Senate budget staff head

Incoming Senate President Joe Negron tapped Mike Hansen to head the staff for the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, a spokeswoman said Monday.

Hansen
Hansen

Hansen will take over when Negron officially becomes president in November.

Hansen, 63, had left state government to become president and CEO of The Florida Council for Community Mental Health in Tallahassee.

He served as Negron’s staff director when the Stuart Republican was Appropriations chair under former Senate President Don Gaetz.

The nearly four-decade veteran of state government is considered a budgeting guru. He was Gov. Jeb Bush‘s budget director and has been staff director of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee.

Hansen also was Secretary of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

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Radio ad blasts Jeff Brandes on ethics

An activist group is now running a radio ad in the Tampa Bay area against St. Petersburg-based state Senator Jeff Brandes that questions his ethics.

The ad from Florida Strong is called “Let’s Make a (corrupt) Deal.” It attacks the Pinellas Republican for receiving campaign contributions from companies like Duke Energy and insurance lobbyists, and then claims that he voted on issues on behalf of those companies at taxpayers expense.

It’s part of the advocacy group’s campaign for stronger ethics reform legislation, called “Got Ethics?” and calls on him to back stronger ethics reform legislation.

“Now, we’ll get even more corruption, and Brandes will get more money flowing into his campaign, thanks to Tallahassee lobbyists and special interest groups,” the narrator concludes in the sixty-second ad, before giving out the legislator’s district phone number, advocating that listeners contact him to support ethics reform.

Brandes dismisses the ad, criticizing Florida Strong.

“There is a special irony that a shadowy special interest group is attacking me on the issue of transparency,” he told Florida Politics on Wednesday. “This is just another faceless group using wildly inaccurate claims for their election agenda.”

The Florida Legislature had several proposals that addressed public corruption this session, and a bill (HB 7071) sponsored by Melbourne Republicans Ritch Workman in the House and Destin’s Don Gaetz in the Senate did pass both houses of the Legislature. That bill expands the definition of public servant to include those who contract with the government to perform a public function. It also removes the requirement that state prosecutors prove that those accused of fraud, bid rigging, bid tampering or bribery acted “corruptly” or with “corrupt intent.” Instead, prosecutors only have to prove they acted “knowingly and intentionally,” a lessor burden of proof.

Another bill filed by Gaetz that would have required city officials in Florida to file the full financial disclosure form as constitutional officers are required to do, applied lobby registration requirements to special districts and prohibited members of the Enterprise Florida Board from lobbying the agency for two years after they leave the Board failed to become law.

The ad will run this week in the Tampa Bay area market on WFLA 970  and WRBQ will run this week, “with potential to extend,” according to Charly Strong, Florida Strong’s executive director.

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Campaign finance laws can help or hinder candidates switching races

Because of differences between federal and state campaign finance laws, MikeHaridopolos can use money left over from his failed U.S. Senate bid to run for state Senate, but Matt Gaetz, who switched from a state Senate seat to a congressional effort, is out of luck.

Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican and former Senate President, is mulling a run for Senate District 17, currently held by Thad Altman, a term-limited Rockledge Republican.

Haridopolos also ran to unseat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in the 2012 election, but backed out of that race in mid-2011.

According to Federal Election Commission records, he still has $944,745 in his campaign committee, “Friends of Mike H.”

Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican now in the state House, was running to replace his term-limited father Don Gaetz in the state Senate.

After U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller announced his retirement, Gaetz instead decided to run for that seat. Gaetz leaves a state campaign war chest of more than $520,000.

Here’s the rub: Gaetz can’t just move his money to a congressional campaign because Florida law says he has to “dispose” of those funds after withdrawing from the race.

He has 90 days to so do once he officially takes his name out of contention. He was still listed on the Division of Elections’ candidate website as of Wednesday evening.

Among other options, Gaetz will have to “return pro rata to each contributor (any) funds that have not been spent or obligated.”

He can also donate campaign money to charity, deposit it in the state’s Election Campaign Financing Trust Fund or General Revenue Fund, or he can give up to $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. 

On the other hand, should Haridopolos jump into the state Senate race, he can — generally speaking — apply his federal campaign dollars toward that bid, according to Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog.

“In this instance, the only restriction on a federal candidate’s use of campaign funds is that the candidate cannot convert the funds to personal use,” as in using the money on nonpolitical expenses like a mortgage payment, he said.

“In order for a federal candidate to use their campaign funds to support a state office campaign, state campaign finance law would require the funds to be contributed to, and then spent out of, the candidate’s state campaign committee,” Ryan added. “So, in the eyes of federal law, this is deemed a contribution from a federal committee to a state committee.”
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Don Gaetz says he won’t pursue U.S. House seat

Former Senate President Don Gaetz on Tuesday declared he will not seek the Congressional District 1 seat left open by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller‘s recent decision to retire in 2016.

Gaetz put an end to rumors he may try to make the leap to federal office in a memo to supporters Tuesday afternoon.

“Gratified as I am by the many offers of support, I will not be a candidate for Congress,” said Gaetz.

“It’s awfully nice to know that folks from every community in our region think I could be of some value to our state and our country as a Member of Congress,” said Gaetz, but added, “It has never been my goal to be in Washington, DC.”

“It has been my honor to be Northwest Florida’s senator in Tallahassee. And we’ve had a pretty good run,” said Gaetz. “I’m confident a real, true conservative will become a candidate and will represent our families and communities with success and with honor.”

The move by Miller to decline a 2016 re-election bid — combined with the 2015 redistricting decision partially upending the Florida Senate — has caused something of a musical chairs game in Florida’s Panhandle.

Before coming to the Florida Senate, Gaetz was a school board member and Okaloosa County superintendent of schools.

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Rick Outzen: Political domino games begin with Jeff Miller’s announcement

Congressman Jeff Miller has set off a series of dominoes with his announcement yesterday that he will not seek a ninth term in Congress.

Congressional openings are rare. Over the past 45 years, Northwest Florida has only had four U.S. Representatives — Bob Sikes, Earl Hutto, Joe Scarborough and Miller.

The last two, Scarborough and Miller, were relatively unknown when they announced their candidacies. Scarborough trailed in the 1994 GOP primary but beat Lois Benson in the runoff. Miller staved off potential candidates, such as Collier Merrill and Don Gaetz, by being the first to announce and raising a hefty war chest.

Who will run to replace Miller?

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, State Sen. Greg Evers, Escambia Supervisor of Elections David Stafford and Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward were the names being bounced around yesterday.

Gaetz has raised nearly $1 million for his state Senate bid, so he has a good head start. I’ve heard Evers has polled well in the district, and name recognition could be critical in a crowded field.

Stafford has a great record as SOE. He is the former Chief of Staff for Scarborough and the son of a retired judge. However, he will have to give up his office to run — which creates another domino with possibilities of Dave Murzin, Charles Bare, Diane Mack and others seeking that post.

Hayward can run without stepping down as mayor. Someone might challenge that decision, but it looks like he has legal grounds to do it. Hayward has been a prodigious fundraiser. His former chief operating officer Tamara Fountain helped two Okaloosa County judges get elected in 2012 so she may assist in the eastern part of the district.

Escambia Commission chair Grover Robinson texted me that he is not interested. I’ve been told that State Rep. Mike Hill may seek Evers’ seat, as may State Rep. Doug Broxson and Clay Ingram.

Long shots are Sheriffs David Morgan and Wendall Hall — both ever popular with good name recognition. Another one is former Escambia County Commissioner Gene Valentino, who often said he wanted to run for Congress. With the recent merger of his company with JetPay, he may have the wealth to self-fund his campaign.

Speaking of self-funding, another name has been mentioned for Ever’s state Senate seat, Quint Studer. Since he announced his retirement from Studer Group, Studer’s name has been mentioned for several political offices, including Superintendent of Schools. If he runs for Florida Senate, he will likely face Hill, Ingram and Broxson — which opens up their House seats.

Here are how the House races could fall:

Broxson: Santa Rosa County Commissioner Jayer Williamson has already filed to run in 2018. He would have to move up his timetable.

Hill: Frank White, son-in-law of Sandy Sansing; Pensacola City Councilmen Charles Bare and Larry Johnson are possibilities.

Ingram’s seat is the one that is the mystery. I’m sure we will hear names over the weekend.

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