The week that was in Florida politics: An outrageous Summer in Tallahassee

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Outrage has become the latest trend during the long, hot summer days in Tallahassee.

Democrats found themselves outraged over the past actions of now-former Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who was himself outraged at “politically motivated” reports about grading policies in Indiana. The Rev. Jesse Jackson stopped by to express his outrage during protests aimed at overhauling the state’s self-defense laws and other policies.

And Jackson’s comments — where he seemed to compare Florida to Selma and South Africa, and Gov. Rick Scott to George Wallace — drew well over a dozen statements of outrage from Republicans.

By the end of the week, it seemed that many people in the Capitol could use something to help them calm down. And John Morgan was more than happy to help.

UNTIL YESTERDAY

In less than eight months on the job, Bennett had already shown a flair for the ambitious. He continued work to put the national “common core” education standards in place. He began work on a reorganization of the Department of Education. And instead of waiting for poor school grades to be unveiled — a mistake that tripped up his predecessor, Gerard Robinson — Bennett acted to curb the damage when superintendents first raised warnings of a possible public-relations disaster.

But it was something from Bennett’s past that took less than a week to end his time as the top education official in Florida.

On Monday, an Associated Press report out of Indiana said that Bennett, while the elected superintendent of public instruction in that state, and his employees “frantically overhauled” the Hoosier State’s school-grading system in 2012 in a way that benefited one of Bennett’s political contributors.

The changes came after state officials realized that Christel House, a school founded by Christel DeHaan, might get a grade as low as a “C” in the first edition of state report cards to use the letter-grade system. As a superintendent fighting for strong accountability measures, Bennett had touted Christel House’s success.

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in one email obtained by the AP.

Bennett defended himself Tuesday, saying Christel House’s grade raised legitimate concerns about the grading system in Indiana. While the AP reported that the emails it obtained pointed to algebra results as part of the problem, Bennett said education officials figured out it was largely because Christel House’s high school and 12 others hadn’t yet added an 11th or 12th grade.

The rule governing grades in Indiana, though, required graduation rates to be included in high school grades.

“That calculation unfairly penalized those 13 schools,” Bennett said during the 40-minute conference call. “We found that and we fixed that in order to give a true, transparent grading model for Indiana schools.”

By that point, some Democrats already sensed blood in the water. A trio of lawmakers called Wednesday for Bennett to resign, including a pair of House members who held a conference call to pressure the commissioner.

“I think we deserve to know if he’s brought his pay-to-play tactics to Florida also,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, even as she conceded that there was no evidence that he had.

The next day, Bennett’s detractors got their wish. Saying he didn’t want to be a distraction, Bennett resigned Thursday even as he continued to defend his actions. He stepped aside despite reported pressure from Scott and State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand to stay.

“The decision to resign is mine and mine only because I believe that when this discussion turns to an adult we lose the discussion about making life better for children,” Bennett said.

Bennett became at least the 11th department head hired during Scott’s term to have resigned; the governor is also on his third chief of staff and is still looking for a replacement for Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. The next education commissioner, who will technically be selected by the State Board of Education, will be the fourth permanent head of the agency to serve under Scott.

The turmoil has fueled calls for the state to go back to electing its schools chief.

“For more than a decade the office has been relegated to a political appointment, and as we have just seen, is subject to the latest political whims,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford. “The appointed commissioner is not accountable to parents, not accountable to students, not accountable to educators and not accountable to taxpayers.”

On Friday, the board tapped Pam Stewart to serve as interim education commissioner, a job she held before Bennett was hired in December.

STILL STANDING THEIR GROUND

Meanwhile, a sit-in at Scott’s office aimed at sparking a special session to review the state’s self-defense laws neared the three-week mark with no signs of dissipating. Scott returned to the Capitol on Monday, but largely maintained a busy travel schedule that has kept him out of the office for most of the sit-in.

The governor did not meet with the protesters, but they did get a couple of visitors. One was unlikely; Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, stopped by despite disagreeing with the protesters on whether the state should call a special session to review the controversial “stand your ground” law.

Beshears said that any review could wait until the Legislature comes back for its regularly scheduled session in 2014.

“I agree with ‘stand your ground,’ it?s a good law,” Beshears said. “I think it has great intention. I disagree with the application in some cases. But like any good law, there is always some bad applications, but they’re very minor.”

Scott has said repeatedly that he will not call a special session to appease the protesters, who also want the state to end zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools and approve initiatives to combat racial profiling.

The protesters began the part-vigil, part-siege protest after George Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder in the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The law was not used as part of Zimmerman’s defense, but has become associated with the incident.

On Tuesday, the Dream Defenders, a group leading the protest, got a visit from a higher-profile figure and a veteran of the civil-rights movement: the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Jackson invoked Selma in remarks to reporters, telling them that “massive non-violent resistance” was justified until Florida changed its behavior. And he seemed undaunted by Scott’s repeated insistence that the governor has no intention of calling the special session.

“We hope that the moral appeal and the urgency of the matter will change his mind,” Jackson said. “We’ve seen Southern governors before have to change their minds.”

Jackson listed infamous segregationist George Wallace, a former governor of Alabama, as one of those officials who had to change his mind. Combined with the Selma remark and an earlier reported comment calling Florida an “apartheid state,” Jackson set off a firestorm.

Scott didn?t address the Wallace slam, but demanded Jackson apologize for the Selma and South Africa comparisons. Jackson refused, drawing another statement from Scott.

“It?s disappointing that Jesse Jackson refused to apologize yesterday for his insulting and inflammatory comments about Floridians. Instead, he doubled down on his divisive and reckless remarks,” Scott said.

Other members of the GOP also kept up the pressure, with the Republican Party of Florida sending out daily emails with new lists of lawmakers making sure that the press was aware of their outrage. One of the first to speak out, though, was Pensacola Rep. Mike Hill, the only black Republican in the Legislature.

“When Jackson uses language that describes us as an apartheid state and compares our governor to one of history?s most notorious bigots, he is either hopelessly out of touch or purposefully dishonest,” Hill said.

By the end of the week, the ground seemed to be moving ever so slightly, but not in a way that indicated action. House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, issued a formal request for a special session, though it was exceedingly unlikely that Thurston’s effort would lead to lawmakers being called back to Tallahassee. And House leaders said they would hold a hearing on the law, though the panel’s chairman made it clear he didn’t favor a change.

The protesters weren’t satisfied.

“Ultimately you’re still ignoring the root of the issue, at least in terms of the Zimmerman verdict, and that is the criminalization of our youth, the way that young people are looked at in Florida, black, white and brown, and that’s due to the school-to-prison pipeline and racial profiling that’s perpetuated throughout law enforcement,” Dream Defenders Political Director Ciara Taylor said. 

HEMP VOTES

The week was not all about anger. Orlando attorney John Morgan — whose personal-injury firm employs former Gov. Charlie Crist — traveled to Tallahassee on Thursday to pitch his plan to legalize medical marijuana. He told the Capital Tiger Bay Club that he learned about the magic weed’s therapeutic power when his father was dying of esophageal cancer 20 years ago.

“I know it works because I have seen it,” Morgan said. “Are we going to do what’s right, or are we going to get hung up on the word ‘drug?’ “

The attorney denied his efforts had anything to do with the possible political future of Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat who could be on the ballot in 2014, when Morgan hopes voters will decide the future of cannabis.

Others weren’t so sure. Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said putting hot-button issues on the ballot as constitutional amendments can mobilize potential supporters.

“And that’s why, historically in Florida, both parties have often turned to some of these kinds of issues to get non-traditional voters — and we’re spelling out here, young voters — to the polls,” she said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigns after reports that he altered the school grading formula in Indiana in a way that benefited a school founded by a political contributor.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I don’t intend to move one damn comma on the ‘stand your ground’ law.”–Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, which will review the law.