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Randi Weingarten doesn’t share Jeb Bush embrace of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary

Though education was rarely discussed by Donald Trump on the campaign trail, at the top of his list of priorities was to spend $20 million on school choice, which would come from “reprioritizing federal dollars.” In picking Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to serve as his Education Secretary, he made it clear that intended to make school choice and voucher plans for low-income families a focal point of his education agenda.

And Jeb Bush has been effusive in praising the selection every step of the way.

In November, the former Florida Governor described DeVos as an “outstanding pick” for to lead the Department of Education. In December, he said he was “so excited” when talking about her at the National Summit on Education Reform, sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which he founded and chairs and on which DeVos serves as a board member.

Now, just before her confirmation hearing was set to take place (since postponed until next week), Bush is back again, penning a letter to the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where DeVos will appear next week. In the note, he praises her as a “champion of families, not institutions.”

“For her, local control of education decisions means local control,” he wrote. “She trusts parents to choose what is in their unique child’s best interests, and she believes in providing every parent with the resources to pursue those decisions.”

DeVos is a leader in the movement to privatize the U.S. public-education system but has quickly become a lightning rod in the education world since her nomination by the president-elect.

One of her biggest critics is Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the one-million-member-plus union that endorsed Hillary Clinton in November’s presidential election. She says that DeVos simply doesn’t believe in public education.

“These are the schools that 90 percent of children go to,” Weingarten told FloridaPolitics on Monday afternoon. “The job of an education secretary, not a lobbyist, but an education secretary, is to strengthen and improve public schools. Her entire ideology, her zealousness, her lobbying for the last two-to-three decades has been to undermine public education.”

Weingarten said that was most evident in the past year in Michigan, where she says DeVos “fought aggressively against the consensus” that the establishment in Detroit had envisioned recreating a public school system.

One of DeVos’ various groups, the Great Lakes Education Project, supported an A-F accountability system that the state created for Detroit. But POLITICO reports that the group fought back hard against a proposed Detroit commission focused on improving both charters and traditional schools, contending it would be beholden to the city’s mayor and school district officials.

“Her antipathy towards public schools is something that she has worn proudly on her sleeve,” says Weingarten.

Bush’s embracing of DeVos isn’t just turning off officials with the teacher’s unions. As quickly became apparent on the campaign trail in early 2015, the one-time presidential candidate’s support for federal Common Core standards was a big turnoff for some conservative groups.

Jane Robbins, a senior fellow with the American Principles Project in Washington, penned a column on the Townhall website calling DeVos selection “Jeb’s Revenge.”

“Jeb Bush and his ideological compatriots, including DeVos, advance what could be called a “government-foundation cartel” model of educational policy-making,” Robbins wrote. “Private foundations funded by wealthy individuals (who themselves may be dilettantes with no real experience in education) contribute ideas, and frequently personnel, to the government to achieve their policy goals.”

Robbins went on to say Bush “surely believes she’ll use the stratagems the cartel has employed for so long to impose its own vision of what American education should be. DeVos must instead assure the grassroots that she’ll use her new position to eliminate federal interference and truly return education policy to the states. Trump was elected to achieve that goal, not to install Jeb’s agenda. He should make sure DeVos understands that.”

Weingarten criticizes Bush’s education policies in Florida, saying he became obsessed with high stakes testing.

“Look at what Jeb Bush did, and all the work that was promised, by Jeb Bush, by George W. Bush, to have funding going into reading or any kind of investment to actually ensure that high standards were realized,” she says. “None of that materialized in Florida.”

Weingarten adds: “What happened instead was this competition amongst schools, this corporatization among schools, and this disruption which created huge anxieties amongst parents, teachers and children which cut the funding in so many different places and which created these restaurant-like reports cards from A to E or F that reduced everything to testing. Teachers were subjected to test based evaluation as opposed to other kinds of evaluation, and you see fewer people going into teaching and lack of joy in schools throughout Florida, and where superintendents rose up against it, parents rose up against it, and people have been fighting it, tooth and nail.”

DeVos confirmation is now scheduled to take place January 17.

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Donald Trump denounces ‘disgrace’ of reports of Russian ties to him

A defiant President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday adamantly denied reports that Russia had obtained compromising personal and financial information about him, calling it a “tremendous blot” on the record of the intelligence community if such material had been released.

The incoming president, in his first news conference since late July, firmly chided news organizations for publishing the material late Tuesday night. After weeks of scoffing at reports that Russians had interfered in the election, he conceded publicly for the first time that Russia was likely responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” he said and quickly added that the United States is hacked by other countries as well, including China.

Trump’s extraordinary defense against the unsubstantiated intelligence report, just nine days before his inauguration, dominated a highly anticipated press conference in which he also announced a new Cabinet member, detailed his plans to disentangle himself from his sprawling global business empire, gave his outlook on the future of the “Obamacare” health care law and said he would soon nominate someone to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.

“I think it’s a disgrace that information would be let out. I saw the information, I read the information outside of that meeting,” he said, a reference to a classified briefing he received from intelligence leaders. “It’s all fake news, it’s phony stuff, it didn’t happen,” Trump said in a news conference that saw him repeatedly joust with reporters. “It was gotten by opponents of ours.”

Asked about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump boasted that it is an improvement over what he called America’s current “horrible relationship with Russia” and did not criticize the Russian leader for any interference in the election.

“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks, that’s called an asset not a liability. I don’t know if I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin — I hope I do — but there’s a good chance I won’t.”

Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer also denounced the report about Russia’s influence on Trump, and the incoming president said it never should have been released. He thanked some news organizations for showing restraint.

A U.S. official told The Associated Press on Tuesday night that intelligence officials had informed Trump last week about an unsubstantiated report that Russia had obtained compromising personal and financial information about him. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not allowed to publicly discuss the matter.

Trump and President Barack Obama were briefed on the intelligence community’s findings last week, the official said.

Media outlets reported on the document late Tuesday and Trump denounced it on Twitter before his news conference as “fake news,” suggesting he was being persecuted for defeating other GOP presidential hopefuls and Democrat Hillary Clinton in the election.

The dossier contains unproven information about close coordination between Trump’s inner circle and Russians about hacking into Democratic accounts as well as unproven claims about unusual sexual activities by Trump among other suggestions attributed to anonymous sources. The Associated Press has not authenticated any of the claims.

Only days from his inauguration as the nation’s 45th president, Trump announced that he would nominate David Shulkin to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, elevating him from his current role as VA undersecretary.

He promised that a replacement for the health care overhaul would be offered “essentially simultaneously” with the repeal of Obama’s signature health law — something that would be virtually impossible to quickly pass given the complexity of the policy changes. Republicans agree on repealing the law but nearly seven years after its passage have failed to reach agreement on its replacement.

Trump has repeatedly said that repealing and replacing “Obamacare” was a top priority, but has never fully explained how he plans to do it. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said that the House would seek to take both steps “concurrently.”

Turning to his plans to build a border wall along the southern border, Trump said he would immediately begin negotiations with Mexico on funding his promised wall after he takes office. He again vowed that “Mexico will pay for the wall but it will be reimbursed.” Trump recommitted to his plans to impose a border tax on manufacturers who shut plants and move production abroad. While the tax policy could retain jobs, it would also carry the risk of increasing prices for consumers.

Trump also said he would probably name his choice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in about two weeks after the inauguration.

And he announced his plans for the future of the Trump Organization, bringing to the podium attorney Sheri Dillon of Morgan Lewis, who worked with the Trump Organization on the arrangement.

Dillon said the Trump Organization would continue to pursue deals in the U.S., though Trump will relinquish control of the company to his sons and an executive, put his business assets in a trust and take other steps to isolate himself from his business. She said Trump “should not be expected to destroy the company he built.”

The move appears to contradict a previous pledge by the president-elect. In a tweet last month, Trump vowed to do “no new deals” while in office.

The lawyer said Trump would donate all profits from foreign government payments to his hotels to the U.S. treasury.

And pushing back against some ethics experts, Dillon said the so-called emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to foreign payments to Trump’s company. While some ethics officials have said that foreign leaders who pay for rooms and services at his various hotels would run afoul of the constitutional ban on foreign gifts or payments to the president, Dillon referred to it as a “fair-value exchange.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Jan. 20, 2017: A day that will live in infamy

When a family member or another loved one dies of natural causes, we understand that death is the price we pay for life. We must accept it and count on memories to console us.

But how do you grieve for your nation? How do you move beyond the death of everything you held sacred about the land of your birth? Whose uniform you wore proudly? Whose virtues you have tried to teach to your children and to anyone else who would listen? When you know that the tragedy owes not to an act of God but to the malice of a man and so many of his supporters? How can you accept this? How can you rationalize it?

For me, Jan. 20 will be the saddest day ever. I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.

Donald Trump is the most undeserving, unqualified, and untrustworthy person ever to seek the presidency, let alone obtain it. He is a clear and present danger to our principles, our economy, our self-respect and our national security.

No one has put that better than J. M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a trusted adviser to two Florida Republican governors, expressed it in a Facebook post earlier this month.

“Ignorant, unprincipled and amoral,” he wrote. That was in reply to a friend who had wearied of “my constant carping” against Trump and had challenged him to state his three “foremost objections” to Trump’s presidency.

There’s no need to try to summarize here the vast evidence of Trump’s unprincipled amorality. Everyone is aware of it, although only some care. In a world bristling with economic rivalries and nuclear-armed powers, Trump’s ignorance is the greater danger than what he might steal.

“I am concerned,” Stipanovich explained, “about what Donald Trump does not know, the fact that he does not know what he does not know and will not listen to those who do know.”

Some Republicans, perhaps most, may relish what Trump will let the Congress do to the Affordable Care Act and to Medicare and Social Security despite his transparently worthless promises to protect them. Some will rejoice in the destruction of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency, and in the neutering of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But my hope is that there are still members of both parties who understand that character — defined as integrity, trustworthiness, fidelity to principle and fundamental decency — is what America has assumed in its presidents since the Constitution was written with George Washington in mind. It was to prevent the ascension of someone like Trump that the founders opted against direct election. Ever since, Americans and the world have looked to the presidency of the United States as an avatar of America itself. But what do we see now? What does the world see? A braggart, a bully, a libertine, a cocky ignoramus, an infantile personality in the body of a 70-year-old man who has never cared, even once, about anyone or anything other than himself, who breathes contempt for the four freedoms of the First Amendment, who craved the presidency for self-aggrandizement and whose election was sought and applauded by the most vicious people among us as a license to make America hate again. For the first time, Nazis and Ku Kluxers have helped elect an American president. Think about that.

And if that weren’t enough, he is an apologist and sycophant for a murderous foreign tyrant who means to eliminate the United States as an obstacle to reviving the Soviet empire and dominating Europe. John LeCarré, whose novels envisioned a mole secretly subverting British intelligence, never imagined a scenario as wild as that of the cousins, as he called us, being taken over so openly at the very top. The most unenviable job in the United States today becomes that of an intelligence officer who remains faithful to duty and principles.

I don’t know which is more discouraging — that such a person is actually president or that so many people voted for him knowing what he is. That he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes is some consolation but the awful truth is that he is in the White House and the radical Republicans in Congress no longer have anyone there to check their worst ambitions.

The awful truth is that even with Russia’s assistance Trump would not have won but for the racists who haven’t forgiven the rest of us for twice electing a black man, the misogynists who couldn’t abide the thought of a woman president, the cynical opportunists who saw in Trump a reactionary Supreme Court, and the idiots who swallowed Trump’s absurd lies along with the false equivalency the media assigned to Clinton’s mostly decent record and Trump’s utterly deplorable one. These people are not going away, although more of a few may come to regret their votes when their Medicare is sacrificed to the insurance industry, Social Security is sold out to Wall Street, and they’re forced to wait until they’re 70 to begin collecting what’s left.

Is American democracy dead? Can it be resurrected? The answers depend on those of us who do not celebrate Inauguration Day. What we must do, for love of country and self-respect, is to make ourselves heard every day in Congress, and especially in the Senate, where there are still some grown-ups on the majority side, and which can’t be gerrymandered like the House.

We must never, never give up. The United States of America is too precious to waste.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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If Republicans have a better idea to replace Obamacare, let’s hear it

I have a friend who has owned a small restaurant in Tampa for decades. He voted for Donald Trump for two important reasons: Trump isn’t Hillary Clinton, and he hates Obamacare.

Let me rephrase that: He doesn’t like Hillary, but he loathes Obamacare with unyielding venom. Keeping up with its requirements, he said, has been an expensive nightmare. He wants it gone.

Today.

This is a kind and decent man who is all-in on goodness. He is charitable, law-abiding and is happy to lend a hand. So, over several plates of bacon and eggs at his joint, I have deduced that his position can best be summed up like this: He wants his employees and anyone in need to have access to health care, but he despises the bureaucracy and costs imposed by Obamacare.

It looks like he is going to get his way as the Republican-controlled Congress is tripping over itself to defund, defeat and dethrone the signature accomplishment of President Barack Obama’s administration. But then what?

Well, to borrow the infamous quote from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from 2010 when the Affordable Care Act was coming to life, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”

That quote was taken out of context and fed to Pelosi for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with Obama’s vow that people could keep the doctors they liked. That became the rallying cry for opponents, but Trump now basically is saying the same thing – promising Americans that law will be replaced with something great.

While we wait for greatness, consider these Florida statistics from a recent federal Health and Human Services report.

— An estimated 132,000 young Floridians have been able to keep insurance by the provision allowing them to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

— It claims premiums grew 1.3 percent annually from 2010-2015, far less than the 8.2 percent of the previous decade.

Hold on just a minute there.

The HHS apparently forgot to include the estimated 25 percent premium hike for Floridians this year. There are many factors for that, especially the fact that far fewer people enrolled in Obamacare than the government projected and fewer insurers are offering coverage now that federal backstops against financial losses have been phased out.

All this sets up as a trap for Republicans in their zeal to end the program, though.

With lower enrollments than expected and the end to the safety net for insurance companies, any plan Republicans pass to replace the ACA probably will come up short of what Obamacare offered.

I can see the attack ads now when congressional seats are up for grabs in two years.

Incoming HHS head Tom Price of Georgia, a ferocious critic of Obamacare, has proposed a plan that would include a series of tax credits, health savings accounts, state grants and so on. Analysists have said Price’s proposal, if adopted, could mean reduced coverage and much higher premiums, especially for older Americans.

Republicans have the votes, for now, to move ahead with something. What that is, though, is anyone’s guess – especially Republicans. After barking their hatred for Obamacare for six years, they have, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, become “the dog that caught the car.”

Now what?

I know my friend would say to get rid of Obamacare and we’ll out the consequences later.

My take is a little different. I know this makes some people cringe, but I think health care is a right in a civilized society. It’s not something only those who can afford it should have. If Republicans have a better idea, let’s hear it.

After all, as Schumer said, they caught the car. They need to do more than just pee on the tires.

 

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In Tampa, Pam Bondi deflects questions about an impending move to work for Donald Trump

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi attempted to deflect questions about the possibility she may soon leave her job to join the administration of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday in Tampa.

Speaking at a news conference highlighting a new human trafficking awareness with Tampa International Airport, the Tampa native said, “I’m very happy being Attorney General of the state of Florida right now. I get to work with these great people behind me every day.”

“And,” she added, “I’m also committed to the President of the United States — elect — to make our country a better country, and get back on track.”

On Thursday, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs reported that Bondi would take a job with the Trump White House, though no particular position was mentioned in the story. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if that were the case, as Bondi was seen visiting the President-elect in Trump Tower last month. She endorsed him at the Tampa Convention Center on the day before Florida’s presidential Republican primary election, an election that Trump won decisively, taking 66 of the state’s 67 counties. With Bondi frequently at his side at campaign events, Trump ultimately won Florida in November over Hillary Clinton by just 1.2 percentage points.

The issue of working under President-elect Trump first surfaced at the news conference at the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority’s board room at Tampa International Airport when Bondi was asked if she would be able to continue her efforts in the White House.

“That’s a good trick question. I can tell you that I talked to the President-elect for half-an-hour. We talk frequently, as well as members of his family and his transition team on many issues that don’t involve me. But he is committed to fighting human trafficking in our country. He is committed to backing up the great men and women standing behind me, and we talk about that very frequently. So whether I’m there or here as Attorney General, where I’m very happy being, by the way, I plan on staying involved in that.”

When asked if she had been invited directly by Trump to join his team, Bondi said: “I’m not going to say anything confidential, nor should anyone, including in the Obama administration.”

When a reporter asked if she had a replacement in mind if she were to leave Tallahassee for Washington, Bondi joked, ” You already have me replaced?”

“I try to be grounded,” she added. “We’re doing a lot of great things.”

If and when Bondi is selected for a position in the White House, both she and Trump will undoubtedly be asked again about the $25,000 campaign contribution that her political committee received in 2013 from Trump’s charitable foundation. Shortly afterward, Bondi’s office opted not to pursue an investigation into charges by some Florida citizens that they had been defrauded by Trump University.

After an ethics group had filed a complaint with the IRS regarding the contribution, Trump’s foundation paid a $2,500 fine to the IRS.

Bondi’s office has been vehement that they never were pursuing a case in Florida against Trump U. Although her office said she had only received one complaint, the AP reported that complaints against Trump University actually numbered in the dozens and that Bondi had personally solicited the donation from Trump weeks before she learned of the charges.

Her office decided not to pursue a case after the donation was received.

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A traditional end to an unconventional presidential election

The end of the 2016 presidential election is at hand.

A joint session of Congress is set to count the Electoral College votes on Friday, a traditional ending to a most unconventional presidential election.

Friday’s vote count marks the last chance for Democrats and other anti-Trump forces to disrupt Donald Trump‘s election. But even if they are successful, the most Democrats could do is slow the process because they don’t have the votes to overturn the outcome.

Barring something bizarre happening, Trump will be declared the winner and will be sworn in at his inauguration on Jan. 20. Vice President Joe Biden will preside over the vote count in his role as president of the Senate.

All 538 electors met in their respective state capitals in December to cast their votes. Trump finished with 304 votes and Democrat Hillary Clinton with 227, according to a tally by The Associated Press. It takes 270 Electoral College votes to win the presidency.

Trump won even though Clinton received nearly 2.9 million more votes. His election has generated much angst among Democrats and others who oppose the billionaire businessman. But they have been powerless to change the outcome.

Despite rumblings of a revolt, only two Republican electors — both from Texas — cast protest votes for someone other than Trump. Clinton lost four Democratic electors in Washington state and one in Hawaii.

The secretary of state’s office in Washington said the four “faithless” electors would be fined $1,000 apiece.

During Friday’s session, Democrats will have an opportunity to file objections, questioning the validity of the vote count.

Under federal law, if at least one senator and one House member object to the vote from any state, the House and Senate would meet separately to debate the merits of the objection.

Several House Democrats have talked about filing an objection, but no senator has publicly backed the idea. Regardless, with Republicans controlling both chambers, any objection would have little chance of affecting the outcome.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., considered objecting but said, “This is not about trying to stop Donald Trump from becoming president.”

Perlmutter said he wants to register his objection to Russia after U.S. intelligence community findings that Moscow engaged in computer hacking to sway the election in favor of Trump. America’s top intelligence official told Congress on Thursday that Russia undoubtedly interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

“We cannot allow a foreign nation to ever influence our elections because it harms our liberty, freedom and independence,” Perlmutter said in a statement. “This is bigger than just one election, and for the sake of our democracy, we must remain vigilant.”

Trump has not fully embraced the findings of the intelligence community. In fact, he has repeatedly mocked America’s intelligence officials.

This week, Trump went on Twitter to question why an intelligence briefing he is to receive was delayed. However, intelligence officials said there had been no delay. Still, Trump wrote: “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”

Republish with permission of The Associated Press.

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Bill and Hillary Clinton to attend Donald Trump inauguration

Falling in line with tradition, Bill and Hillary Clinton plan to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration. It’s a decision that will put Hillary Clinton on the inaugural platform as her bitter rival from the 2016 campaign assumes the office she long sought.

The Clintons announced their decision to attend the Jan. 20 inauguration shortly after former President George W. Bush’s office said Tuesday he would attend along with former first lady Laura Bush.

The Bushes are “pleased to be able to witness the peaceful transfer of power — a hallmark of American democracy — and swearing-in of President Trump and Vice President Pence,” Bush’s office said in a statement.

It is traditional for former presidents and their spouses to attend the inauguration.

But the decision to attend was fraught for the Clintons, given Hillary Clinton’s bitter campaign against Trump. The 2016 Democratic presidential nominee has largely avoided public appearances since Trump defeated her in November.

Bush, too, has had a difficult relationship with Trump. His brother Jeb ran against Trump in the GOP primaries. George and Laura Bush let it be known they voted for “none of the above” for president rather than cast a ballot for Trump, but the ex-president did call to congratulate Trump after his victory.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, earlier said they plan to attend Trump’s inaugural.

Former President George H.W. Bush, 92, and his wife, Barbara, do not plan to attend the inauguration due to the former president’s age and health, his office said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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Americans say Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton most admired in 2016

President Barack Obama is the man most admired by Americans 2016.

In a new Gallup Poll, 22 percent of respondents mentioned Obama in response to the open-ended question. Coming in second was President-elect Donald Trump at 15 percent. This marks Obama’s ninth consecutive time at the top of the most-admired list, but with a margin of only seven percentage points, it was his narrowest victory yet.

Often, incumbent presidents are ranked highest — in the 70 times Gallup asked the question, the president has won 58 times. Twelve exceptions came mostly when the sitting president was unpopular, such as 2008, when President-elect Obama was named over sitting President George W. Bush. The only other president-elect was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, later finishing first 12 times, more than any other man in history. Gallup notes that Obama is now second all-time with nine first-place finishes.

Rounding out the year’s top 10 most admired man list: Pope Francis, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Rev. Billy Graham, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, The Dalai Lama, former President Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Americans also named Hillary Clinton as Most Admired Woman, her 15th consecutive year and 21st time overall. Her first one was in 1993 as the first lady, after which Clinton has topped the list every year but 1995 and 1996 (finishing behind Mother Teresa) and 2001 (Laura Bush). Eleanor Roosevelt holds the second-most No. 1’s among women, with 13.

First lady Michelle Obama finished second this year on the Most Admired Woman list. The remainder of the top 10 includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former and current talk-show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, Queen Elizabeth of England, human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

The poll — taken since 1946 — was conducted Dec. 7-11 with a random sample of 1,028 adults, aged 18 and older, from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The sample includes 60 percent cellphone users and 40 percent landline users. The margin of sampling error is +/- 4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

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Year’s top news filled with division — and no middle ground

Fed up with Europe’s union across borders? Reject it. Disgusted with the U.S. political establishment? Can it.

The news in 2016 was filled with battles over culture and territory that exposed divisions far deeper than many realized. But people confronting those divides repeatedly rejected the prospect of middle-ground solutions and the institutions put in place to deliver them.

While the headlines told many different stories, the thread connecting much of the news was a decisive torching of moderation, no matter how uncertain the consequences.

“You’re not laughing now, are you?” Nigel Farage, a leader of the Brexit campaign, told the European Parliament after voters in Great Britain spurned membership in the continental union. “What the little people did … was they rejected the multinationals, they rejected the merchant banks, they rejected big politics and they said, ‘Actually, we want our country back.'”

Farage was speaking only about the United Kingdom. But his observation that many people well beyond Britain shared that disdain for working within the system was borne out repeatedly in the year’s biggest headlines.

In a U.S. presidential campaign fueled by anger and insults, in Syria’s brutal war and Venezuela’s massive protests, in fights over gay rights and migration, opposing sides rejected not just compromise but also the politics of trying to forge it.

That was clear from the year’s first days, when armed activists took over a national wildlife refuge in Oregon’s high desert, opposing the federal government’s control of public lands.

“It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government,” LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher among the activists, told reporters. Weeks later, federal agents stopped vehicles outside the refuge, arresting eight of the activists and fatally shooting Finicum when he reached into a jacket that held a loaded gun.

Even in the rare cases when compromise prevailed, it was viewed with suspicion.

When a deal took effect in January limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief on sanctions, it marked the culmination of prolonged negotiation by President Barack Obama‘s administration. But the pact was repeatedly attacked by critics in both countries, including Donald Trump, saying it gave the other side too much.

“The wisest plan of crazy Trump is tearing up the nuclear deal,” a leading Iranian hard-liner, Hossein Shariatmadari, told his country’s news agency.

In mid-February, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in his sleep, leaving a vacuum on a court where he had long been the leading conservative voice. Barely an hour after Scalia’s death was confirmed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell staked out an uncompromising position on what lay ahead.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said, disregarding the fact that U.S. voters had twice elected Obama. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

North Carolina lawmakers prompted protests and counterprotests when they rushed through House Bill 2, voiding local gay-rights ordinances and limiting bathroom access for transgender people. Companies, the NBA and others followed through on threats to move jobs, games and performances out of the state, amplifying the division.

Tensions over U.S. policing bled into a third year. In July, a sniper killed five Dallas police officers during a protest over shootings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. A South Carolina jury failed to reach a verdict in the trial of a white officer caught on video fatally shooting a black man fleeing a traffic stop.

Division, though, was hardly limited to the U.S.

In Venezuela, triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and medicine fueled 6,000 protests throughout the year that brought millions into the streets. But the government of President Nicolas Maduro, blamed by many voters for the chaos, blocked a recall campaign.

“If you’re going to shoot me because I’m hungry, shoot me!” a young man shouted at a soldier during one protest in Caracas.

In Colombia, voters narrowly rejected a deal between the government and a guerrilla group to end a 52-year civil war. Even when lawmakers approved a renegotiated deal, the peace remained fragile.

In Brazil, senators impeached President Dilma Rousseff for manipulating budget figures, though many of the lawmakers were, themselves, tarred by accusations of corruption. South Korean President Park Geun-hye was stripped of power in December amid allegations she let a close friend use the government for financial gain.

Meanwhile, Syria’s war entered its sixth year. But despite pressure by the U.S. and its allies, Russia and the government of President Bashar Assad unleashed an assault on Aleppo to wipe out rebels, driving up the toll in a conflict that has already claimed as many as 500,000 lives.

“This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, accusing Syria and Russia of war crimes.

“As long as war crimes are at question,” a Russian government spokeswoman said, “the Americans should start with Iraq.”

In Yemen, cease-fires broke down, extending a nearly two-year civil war. But with Syria capturing most international attention, a famine resulting from the turmoil was mostly overlooked.

As the fighting continued, terrorist strikes spread fear well beyond the Middle East.

A bombing at a Brussels airport in March and another attack in June at Istanbul’s airport by gunmen with explosives killed a total of nearly 80 people. More than 70 died when a bomb went off in a park in Pakistan, with a faction of the Pakistani Taliban claiming responsibility. In July, a terrorist drove a truck into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, France, killing 86 and injuring more than 400 others. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

In June, security guard Omar Mateen opened fire inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in the deadliest mass shooting ever in the U.S. In a call to police during the attack, which killed 49, Mateen — a U.S. citizen born to parents who emigrated from Afghanistan three decades earlier — said he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State group.

A day later, Trump pointed to the attack in a renewed call to ban Muslim immigrants to the U.S. while suggesting that American Muslims were turning a blind eye to terrorists in their midst.

“We cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country, many of whom have the same thought process as this savage killer,” Trump said.

Still, there were moments when the obstinacy that characterized so much of the news was set aside.

When boxing great Muhammad Ali died in June, a figure whose outspokenness on race, religion and other issues once made him deeply polarizing was eulogized as an inspiration.

In March, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since 1928, affirming a contentious move to resume ties after more than a half-century of hostility. But the death of Cuba’s Fidel Castro in November renewed criticism of the U.S. opening, with Trump threatening to “terminate the deal.”

The hard line typified the outspokenness that attracted many voters. Critics lambasted the U.S. presidential campaign for feeding prejudice against minorities and denigrating women, warning that Trump could not win.

But each time Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton appeared to open a gap between herself and the billionaire developer, a scandal over her use of a personal email server while serving as secretary of state returned to the headlines.

When FBI Director James Comey reignited the issue in late October by announcing his agency had found new emails, Clinton’s popularity fell even as early voting began. Trump clinched victory by winning states representing an Electoral College majority, though Clinton captured more than 2.8 million more votes nationwide.

“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division,” Trump told supporters in his first speech as president-elect.

The election’s shocking outcome was arguably the year’s biggest news story. But Trump’s speech made headlines in no small part for sounding a note of moderation that was jarringly out of place in a year of discord.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Can we just get 2016 over with, please?

When the news came on Christmas Day that singer George Michael had died, well … can we get this year completed, please?

Just this month alone, we have lost actor Alan Thicke, astronaut/hero John Glenn, actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, former Florida Lieutenant Gov. Jim Williams, broadcaster Craig Sager and musician Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame. This was after Keith Emerson of the same band died in March.

We had to say goodbye this year to former first lady Nancy Reagan, a classy dame if there ever was one. We lost Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Prince, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Garry Shandling, Patty Duke, Abe Vigoda, Leon Russell, Pete Fountain, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey … so many others.

Make it stop!

I mention all this because it’s customary at this point on the calendar to look back upon the nearly finished year, hoping to gain some perspective about what we went through and what might be about to come.

If it’s OK with you, though, I think 2016 has been filled with so many things we would like to forget (and I’m not even talking about Donald Trump … yet) that we should cut this year short. It has been an unwelcome guest for 51 weeks, and it needs to go away.

That has been particularly true in Florida.

We learned that terrorism can happen close to home when 49 people were murdered at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

We had the Zika virus. There was green ooze from the Lake Okeechobee algae bloom, fouling nostrils along the East Coast. We had a massive sinkhole in Polk County that polluted the aquifer.

We had two reminders from Mother Nature that she is still in charge. Hurricane Hermine helped flood St. Petersburg’s streets with untreated sewage, followed by Hurricane Matthew that scraped its way up the East Coast.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, trying for a 13th term in Congress, got a double whammy – a federal indictment alleging she had misused money earmarked for charity, and then she was beaten in the November election in her redrawn district.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was humiliated when he lost the Florida Primary by a wide margin to Trump. But Rubio, who had vowed not to seek re-election because he was frustrated in the Senate, ran anyway and won.

We couldn’t even turn to sports for escape.

After winning a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio, U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte embarrassed himself as his country by making up a story about being robbed. The former University of Florida star lost millions in endorsement contracts after his fib was exposed.

The Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins were terrible, and the season ended in tragedy when Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were teasingly good until they figured out what they were doing right and corrected it.

The federal government basically ground to a halt, and the election was the nastiest anyone can remember as Trump and Hillary Clinton drove Americans to drink. When it was done, the nation had elected a man who has never held public office and believes in government by tweet, wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and has hinted that we should expand our nuclear arsenal.

What possibly could go wrong?

With that in mind, you know that thing I said about needing 2016 to hurry and finish? Maybe we can coax this year into sticking around a little longer. As they say, things could always be worse.

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