The week that was in Florida politics: Elections heat up as Fall air hits the state

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Campaigns across the state started heating up even as the weather cooled off slightly, with candidates knowing they faced a seven-week sprint before voters head to the polls — and less time than that until early voting begins.

Whenever that is. At the same time that the verbal attacks began flying faster, and money kept pouring into campaign coffers, a federal judge in Jacksonville was asked to block the Legislature’s efforts to trim the number of pre-election days when voters could cast their ballots.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott pledged to continue his focus on jobs and education, apparently burnishing his own credentials for what could be a bruising fight for re-election in 2014. And he insisted that the economy was on an upswing — perhaps not what the campaign of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney wanted to hear with Florida expected to play a key role in the presidential fight.

A round-up via The News Service of Florida.

DEBATES AND MEDISCARE

Tiger Bay clubs became political war zones this week, with candidates slugging away at each other in debates and forums.

One of the sparring sessions was in the Senate race between Rep. Dorothy Hukill, a lieutenant to outgoing Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon, and Volusia County Council Chairman Frank Bruno, her Democratic opponent.

The two candidates are squaring off in a crucial district that includes most of Volusia County and parts of Marion and Lake counties. It is expected to be one of the swing seats that could determine the size of a likely GOP majority in the upper chamber later this year.

The debate was as contentious as the race. Defending his own record on job creation in Volusia County, Bruno all but charged Hukill with being an absentee lawmaker.

“I’ve never seen her come to a county council meeting or even discuss job creation with the county of Volusia,” said Bruno, who as chairman is akin to a county mayor.

That’s because, Hukill said, she was doing her job.

“Perhaps Mr. Bruno doesn’t know I serve in Tallahassee a good portion of the year,” she said, also adding that she had attended a recent county meeting.

Former Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson and GOP nominee Todd Long also clashed about whether to attack Iran over its nuclear program during a testy debate in their battle for a Central Florida U.S. House seat.

“Talk has failed and we’re running out of time,” said Long. “Nothing’s working. So if the president feels it’s time to get something done and actually take out their nuclear weapons, I’ll be all for it.”

Grayson said he would only vote to authorize war Iran becomes a “real, tangible threat,” to the United States and he doesn’t believe that’s the case yet.

“A war with Iran could still be avoided. … I would not vote for that right now,” he said. “I think it’s possible to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and I would try.”

Things were more polite between former Rep. Aaron Bean, a Republican, and Democrat Nancy Soderberg in a northeast Florida district. Bean and Soderberg, a university professor and national security official in the Clinton Administration, agreed on several issues and agreed to largely avoid specifics.

“I don’t want to have a debate about how you cut this, how you cut that,” Soderberg said. “What’s the vision?”

The two candidates in the race for the sprawling Second Congressional District didn’t directly debate, but they traded shots over Medicare and Social Security after former state Sen. Al Lawson, a Democrat, held a roundtable with a receptive group of seniors at the Florida Democratic Party headquarters.

Lawson lit into Congressman Steve Southerland, whose new district stretches from Panama City to Perry, for supporting efforts to change Medicare into a voucher-style system for workers more than 10 years away from retirement.

“But it’s still changing the game,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference whether they’re 55 or 65; the Ryan plan is about changing the game.”

Southerland spokesman Matt McCullough returned fire, slamming Lawson’s support for the 2010 federal health-care overhaul, part of which restrains the growth in Medicare in future years. Supporters insist that won’t affect benefits.

“Senator Lawson’s recipe of cuts to Medicare Advantage, hospitals and nursing homes will have a devastating impact on Florida seniors and his reliance on staged, strictly controlled events with a handful of campaign supporters will do nothing to change that,” McCullough said.

And as the week came to a close, a partisan tinge entered a purportedly non-partisan race, with the Republican Party of Florida announcing its executive board had voted to oppose the retention of three Supreme Court justices in the November elections. Supporters of the justices say politics has no place in the process.

VOTING BEGINS … WHEN, EXACTLY?

As candidates continued to whale away at each other, a judge in Jacksonville was weighing when voters would get to decide who won. Congresswoman Corrine Brown and other voters have challenged a 2011 law that scaled back the number of early-voting days from as many as 14 to eight.

Lawyers for Brown argued that the change will disproportionately affect minority voters, who use early voting more than white voters. Opponents have long cast the early-voting provisions and other parts of the law as an attempt to prevent the re-election of President Barack Obama.

“It was a whole list of things that they’ve done to disenfranchise or suppress the African-American vote,” Brown said outside the courthouse after the hearing.

But supporters of the bill said the change was allowed under the federal Voting Rights Act because all voters still had the same opportunity to cast ballots.

“This is a careful, county-by-county evaluation of how best to do this,” said attorney George Meros, representing Secretary of State Ken Detzner. “That’s what the Legislature wanted. In fact, that is what has occurred.”

Another judge in Tallahassee, meanwhile, was still trying to figure out whom voters elected in a primary a month earlier. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis turned aside a challenge to Rep. Jeff Clemens’ victory in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary for a Palm Beach County Senate seat, though Rep. Mack Bernard appealed the ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

But voting was not the only court action faced in a state where the litigious at times seems to be eclipsing the legislative. Attorneys for a disabled Tallahassee woman filed a suit claiming many nursing-home residents are required to turn over too much income when they enter Florida’s Medicaid program — the first step in what they said could become a class-action lawsuit.

IT’S THE ECONOMY. AND THE CLASSROOM

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott got what his administration saw as more encouraging news on the jobs front. While unemployment remained stuck at 8.8 percent, total non-agricultural employment ticked up in August.

“The month of August showed that 28,000 more Floridians found employment in the private sector and are able to provide for their families,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a prepared statement. “This increase in new jobs is proving that the decisions we’re making here in Florida are pointing our state in the right direction.”

Scott’s numbers didn’t mention the 5,200 jobs shed by governments at the same time. The announcement came a few days after the governor expressed confidence that Florida was on track to add 700,000 over the next seven years, in line with his campaign promise.

But Scott didn’t drop his newfound zeal for classroom funding, arguing that any new state dollars ought to first head toward education.

“The goal would be, if we can control the growth of Medicaid and the economy continues to grow, we’ll be put more money into K-12,” he told reporters.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Republican Party of Florida announced its executive board voted to oppose the retention of three Supreme Court justices, capping off a week where elections seemed to heat up across the state.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Rick Scott is putting on a dog and pony show for the media, posing with school kids in an effort to boost his dismal approval ratings,” Susannah Randolph, executive director of liberal group Florida Watch Action, in response to Scott’s recent focus on education.

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.