The week that was in Florida politics

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The national debate over guns, racial profiling and a controversial self defense law continued this week as murder charges were brought against a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed a 17-year-old black teenager.

National news networks all went live as Special Prosecutor Angela Corey ended weeks of speculation by announcing Wednesday that 31-year-old George Zimmerman would face second degree murder charges for the death of Trayvon Martin, whose shooting in a gated community in Sanford has sparked a national furor.

As Zimmerman turned himself in to Seminole County officials before making a first appearance in court with a new lawyer, Gov. Rick Scott urged people to let the judicial process work.

Scott also continued this week to review a $70 billion state budget while meeting with state university officials and a prominent senator over tuition hikes and a proposal to add a 12th university to the pantheon of Florida higher education institutions.

Scott has until April 21 to sign the budget, and he has line item veto power. Florida TaxWatch on Friday broke out the turkey call and urged the governor to veto nearly $150 million in questionable spending.

On the campaign front, contributions for the first quarter of 2012 showed that the Republican Party of Florida netted $3.1 million, more than double the $1.2 million raised by the Florida Democratic Party. But the Democrats were crowing over the fact that they registered more voters last month than the Republicans – though new no-party voters outnumbered those signing up with either.

Individually, newcomers took advantage of the early legislative session to gain funding ground on incumbents who must refrain from campaign fundraising during the 60-day session.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

ZIMMERMAN ARREST DOMINATES AGENDA:

Synchronizing the announcement with the top of the evening news and following requests by Scott and others for calm, Corey announced charges of second degree murder against Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who shot Martin Feb. 26th under disputed circumstances.

Police have said Martin was unarmed, and that he followed Martin through the neighborhood, but other than that, the facts haven’t fully emerged. Lawyers who represented Zimmerman in the case until the last couple of days have said he acted in self defense when attacked by Martin. Others say Zimmerman was the aggressor, stalking Martin who was walking back from the convenience store to the home where he was staying in gated community near Orlando.

Zimmerman’s trial might be a test case for the state’s stand your ground statute, a controversial measure passed in 2005 that allows those who feel threatened to use force, including deadly force, to protect themselves with no duty to try to first get out of harm’s way.

Corey, appointed as a special prosecutor by Scott, promised to not only get justice but to find the truth in the case that has rocked the state and captured the nation’s attention.

“We are not only ministers of justice, we are also seekers of the truth,” Corey said. “We will continue to seek the truth throughout this case.”

She and her co-workers will likely labor under a continued spotlight, but she said she wouldn’t bow to pressure, and would respect the rights of the accused, though she made it clear she thinks he is guilty.

“There is no doubt we have a desire for justice in this case,” Corey said. “But I want to stress we also took an oath to protect the due process rights of any person whom we charge with a crime. Our oath will be upheld for our victim, Trayvon Martin, and for the man responsible for his death, George Zimmerman.”
The charges were welcomed by Martin’s parents and others, who praised Scott for appointing Corey to head the investigation.

“There is no victory here, there is no winner here – they lost their son,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton following the charges. “This is about pursuing justice.”

BUDGET TALKS AND POLY TECH:

Gov. Rick Scott has until April 21 to sign the Legislature’s $70 billion spending plan and is getting all sorts of advice on how to do that.

On Thursday, the governor met with Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Alexander also spearheaded the effort to have Florida Polytechnic University in Polk County become the state’s 12th university.

It would be split from the University of South Florida, which now oversees activities at the satellite campus. The plan has a host of critics and Alexander isn’t taking any chances.

Meanwhile, Florida TaxWatch on Friday outlined a list of $150 million in budget turkeys it says were improperly included in the spending plan and should be vetoed.

Included in the group’s “Turkey Watch” list are $250,000 for Tune into Reading in Hernando County and $2 million for a digital learning center in Pinellas County, for example. Those projects were among $82.6 million worth of stuff placed in the budget during conference committee negotiations.

The group also listed about $21 million in economic development projects that warrant more scrutiny.

Not included in TawWatch’s turkey list? Florida Polytechnic.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE

The week brought with it the sound of cash registers as candidates for state and federal offices reported contributions for the quarter ending March 31. With lawmakers in session much of the quarter, newcomers took the opportunity to out raise many of their incumbent opponents

Led by Monticello businessman Halsey Beshears, who reeled in more than $108,000, newcomers posted some of the top fund-raising totals in legislative races during the first three months of 2012.
Beshears is running in a largely rural House District 7, which includes all or parts of 10 North Florida counties.

In the Senate, former House member Kevin Rader, a Democrat, led all candidates, raising just over $72,000 in his bid to win a Senate seat in Palm Beach County.

The campaign finance figures also brought a surprise: members of the Supreme Court who face merit retention votes are raising a ton of money as they expect an effort to get them removed.

Also, leading the effort to keep one of the justices, Barbara Pariente, on the bench is former Justice Raoul Cantero. That would go largely unnoticed, usually, but on March 30, Cantero filed a notice with the court that he would be representing the Senate during upcoming reapportionment arguments before the court, including Pariente. Cantero and his opposing counsel, former Rep. Dan Gelber, both said the situation is common and should not pose a problem.

“That happens in every courtroom,” said Gelber, counsel for Fair Districts Now. “Judges across Florida receive campaign contributions from litigants. … I don’t really see it as an issue that concerns me.”

SEEING RED

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Allen West sounded like he had gone back to the mid-1950s, and might be talking to J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. West said that about 80 members of the Congress – specifically the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – are communists, though the Communist Party later said, essentially, it could only dream of having so many fellow travelers. West, a Republican running for re-election in the 18th Congressional District against Democrat Patrick Murphy, was asked at a town hall meeting how many legislators were card carrying Marxists. His answer, which put him on national cable television this week almost as much as George Zimmerman, is the quote of the week, below.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Special Prosecutor Angela Corey announced Wednesday that the state would charge George Zimmerman with second degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

U.S. Rep. Allen West in response to the question “what percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists? …”:

“That’s a good question. I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party….. It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.