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Bill Rufty: A challenger for Kelli Stargel? Growing pains for Lakeland

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Democrats in Polk County have been working feverously to attract a local big name to one of the Florida Legislature seats they’d like to win next year.

With courteous phone calls and pleasantries, the party’s selection committee has been courting former Circuit Judge Robert Doyel to challenge state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, for her District 15 Senate seat next year. The district includes parts of Polk, Osceola and Orange counties.

Doyel has not given them an answer as yet, said Polk County Democratic Party Chairman Ellis Moose of Solivita, adding they remain hopeful.

“The committee has been working to have him on the ballot, but I don’t yet know if he is going to say yes to another election,” Moose said.

Doyel, 69, is scheduled to address the Democratic Women’s Club in Haines City today.

He spent 16 years as a judge, retiring in 2010. But Doyel has been outspoken on domestic violence, particularly in professional football.

He also was critical of what he said was mismanagement of rape kit testing by the city of Memphis, Tenn.

“Every month for the last six months the number has been 1,142. That’s just a logical impossibility,” Doyel said in a July blog, picked up by a Memphis television station. Doyel is noted for his expertise in domestic violence issues and hearing cases on violence against women.

He is the author of “The Baby Mama Syndrome,” dealing with the issues of young, unwed mothers.

Stargel, 49, is a powerful social conservative in the Senate supporting bills on school choice, tighter restrictions on abortion and small business legislation. Her election to the Senate in 2012 was overwhelming in both the Republican Primary and the general election.

She won a three-way GOP primary with 63 percent of the vote and defeated her Democratic Party opponent in a general election with 58 percent of the votes cast.

She currently has $200,000 in campaign funds.

Democrats have suffered in the past by being unable to land big names for their contests. Moose said the party hopes to change that. Doyel would be a name well known in the Polk County portion of the district, which makes up the largest number of voters.

Of the eight members of the Polk Legislative Delegation, only one is a Democrat and he is from Orlando.


Lakeland City Manager Doug Thomas resigned his post over the weekend after almost three years of turmoil over his handling of the police sex scandal, which brought out attempts to fire him and later brought a push for a strong mayor system. Sitting Mayor Howard Wiggs could never get the fourth vote he needed on the seven-member commission to fire Thomas.

Assistant CIty Manager Tony Delgado, who has done the heavy lifting for two different city managers, was appointed “interim” city manager. To some it was somewhat of a snub, but that apparently was because the decision over a strong mayor has not yet been made. Instead of petitioning to put the issue on the 2015 November city elections ballot, supporters said they will wait until 2016.

Beyond the controversy with Thomas is the mayor’s inability to get some commissioners to make quick and deliberate decisions on a number of issues. The move for a strong mayor by some and the opposition by several movers and shakers from past commissions, depict somewhat of a split personality of the city that has been apparent for years.

Lakeland cannot decide if it is a big city or a small town. The city’s population is estimated at over 100,000 by the most recent Census Bureau survey, making it a medium-sized city.

Many large cities, Tampa and Orlando for example, have a strong mayor system.

The city has several groups to protect its historical buildings, provide bike paths and “traffic calming devices.”

It also has a major grocery corporation, massive warehouses and what will soon become a major university.

Supporters of a strong mayor says it is because the commission is the most indecisive in years and also that the city is large enough for a strong mayor to make quick executive decisions in a growing economy.

Opponents say they don’t want a majority of the day-to-day decision-making in the hands of one person.

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

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