The week that was in Florida politics

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As former Hurricane Sandy and its remnants slammed the Northeast, politicos and observers in Florida were focused on the calm before the storm: Specifically, the final run-up to Election Day.

“Calm” might be too strong a word. With President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney battling for the state’s 29 electoral votes, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson looking for re-election against Republican Congressman Connie Mack and all 160 legislative seats and 27 congressional seats up for grabs in a redistricting year, there was no lack of action.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

STORM WAVES

Sandy never even really threatened Florida, continuing a season that has been relatively quiet for the state with less than a month to go. But the fallout was felt, with President Barack Obama nixing his appearance at a Florida event to fly back to the White House to deal with the storm.

About the same time, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan canceled a pair of appearances early in the week out of respect for the unfolding tragedy. What might have been a more welcome campaign-related respite for weary Florida voters — an end to the storm surge of ads that continued to push its way into their favorite programming — never came.

Despite the lack of direct hits, it was the second time the Sunshine State’s political season has been interrupted by decidedly cloudy weather. A near-miss by Hurricane Isaac forced the Republican National Convention to be shortened by a day in August.

Gov. Rick Scott said the state is ready to help with the recovery from Sandy if needed.

FLORIDA, FLORIDA, FLORIDA

Even with the two-day hiatus from campaigning that Sandy caused early in the week, it was hard to find a day when at least one figure from one of the national campaigns wasn’t in the state, often taking a bus trip or hop-scotching the state in some form that conveniently touched on several of Florida’s 10 media markets.

But party spin wasn’t limited to the campaign trail. The two camps also warred over who was winning the early vote, with the Obama campaign periodically sending emails to reporters highlighting how the numbers stacked up to last year’s — a dubious exercise given a change in the number of days when early voting was allowed — and the GOP and Romney arguing that their ground game was a step above U.S. Sen. John McCain’s losing effort in 2008.

No one wanted to wait a whole week to find out the winner.

“Democrats overtake GOP in ballots cast,” a post on the state Democratic Party website boasted early in the week.

“So the Democrats might crow about a very slight edge in total returns, but it is nowhere near the numbers that they need to run up to be in position for victory on Election Day,” the Republican Party of Florida responded.

Meanwhile, candidates for state office kept up their efforts. Attention was particularly focused on a few races, including former Republican lawmaker Nancy Argenziano’s independent bid to knock off Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, and the Senate’s sole incumbent-vs.-incumbent race, in a Broward and Palm Beach district where Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff is battling Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs.

And the fallout from an earlier campaign echoed in Congressional District 26, where alleged straw candidate Justin Lamar Sternad opted to plead the Fifth Amendment rather than file a report in the FEC. Sternad lost the Democratic primary in the seat before media reports bubbled up that the FBI and other law enforcement were looking into whether Republican Congressman David Rivera helped Sternad criticize the eventual Democratic nominee, Joe Garcia.

Rivera has denied those charges.

HOW MANY ELECTION DAYS?

Early voting lines spilled out in the streets and around corners, prompting Democrats to ask for the hours to be extended — much as then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist did in 2008, when Obama carried Florida with help from the early vote. It was, they said, all in the name of good government.

“In light of the record turnout this year, we call on Governor Scott to extend early voting hours in every county across Florida through Sunday, so that Florida citizens can exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right and freedom to participate in this election,” Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Scott and Republicans said no dice — assuring everyone that their decision was in keeping with the clear law.

“For one side to demand that we break the law because they feel like they are losing is wrong,” Republican Party of Florida executive director Mike Grissom said.

MORTGAGE PAYMENTS

In some areas, policy intruded, rudely interrupting a week devoted to candidates on the hustings. The week ended with Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislative leaders striking a deal over how to spend the $300 million windfall from a national foreclosure settlement.

The money comes from a total of $8 billion in relief Florida is supposed to get from the $25 billion settlement, announced in February. Lawmakers didn’t want Bondi spending the money without their say-so.

As part of the deal, Bondi said she would seek legislative approval in the coming weeks to spend $60 million of the proceeds for down payment assistance, foreclosure-related legal assistance and education programs and efforts to ease the backlog of cases now in the clogging civil courts across the states.

The remaining $240 million will be dispersed through the regular legislative appropriations process — including $40 million will of general revenue that lawmakers can use however they would like, adding to $34 million in civil penalties already placed there.

Over at the Agency for Health Care Administration, officials announced hospital rates would be reduced to stay in line with the limits lawmakers put in the budget.

And the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida announced Thursday that it was going to federal court to protect the rights of a DeFuniak Springs employee who was fired for refusing to take a random drug test required by the city. At the same time, a federal appeals court in Atlanta was hearing arguments over the state’s plan to drug-test Floridians applying for public benefits.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Even with Hurricane Sandy hammering the Northeast, campaigning continued apace across Florida. Every legislative and congressional seat is up for grabs, and President Obama and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson are both hoping to keep the state blue at the federal level.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “John’s running against Mount Rushmore. He’s running against a political legend in South Florida, Gwen Margolis.”–Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz discussing Republican Senate candidate John Couriel’s campaign.

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.