The week that was in Florida politics: Hardball politics and a dash of Wawa

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Florida lawmakers are fond of passing resolutions that mean relatively little. So here’s an idea for a new resolution: Declare mid-July as “Dog Days in Tallahassee.”

But while the capital saunters through humidity and swarms of mosquitoes, campaign action is picking up in legislative races across the state. Redistricting and the exodus of longtime lawmakers have helped create a collection of marquee election battles.

The campaigns took a nasty turn this week when a mail piece attacked the personal life of former Senate President Tom Lee, who is running against Rep. Rachel Burgin for a Hillsborough County Senate seat. The mail piece also highlighted the prevalence this year of shadowy political committees that are collecting large amounts of money to try to influence legislative races — often by tearing down candidates.

Gov. Rick Scott isn’t on the ballot this year, but even he isn’t seen much in Tallahassee these days. Scott spent part of the week touting more jobs coming to Florida, though two new reports showed that the employment picture remains murky.

A round-up via Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

READY TO RUMBLE

Politics, as the old cliché goes, ain’t beanbag. But the mail piece this week attacking Lee even drew a public rebuke from state Republican Chairman Lenny Curry.

The mailer, in big letters, said “Character Matters” and lumped Lee with Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner, who has been embroiled in controversy recently about sending pornographic emails. The intent of the mailer clearly was to cast doubt about Lee among Republican voters in the largely conservative District 24, as the Aug. 14 primary against Burgin approaches.

A group called The American People Committee, Inc., was behind the mailer, which asserted past marital infidelity by Lee. The committee is chaired by lobbyist Keyna Cory, whose lobbyist husband, Jack, backs Burgin.

Lee, who is seeking to return to the Legislature after six years on the sidelines, blasted the mailer.

“This is a full-contact sport — I get that,” he told The Tampa Tribune. “But it shouldn’t touch your family.”

Republican Senate leaders, meanwhile, continued rallying around Lee’s campaign, with Sens. John Thrasher of St. Augustine and Joe Negron of Stuart publicly backing him. Burgin said she wasn’t surprised and contended that Republican leaders have targeted her because they don’t agree with her conservative agenda.

“It is unprecedented,” the Riverview Republican said. “But I’m not overly surprised to see that the Tallahassee insiders are trying to circle the wagons.”

The Lee-Burgin contest is on a short list of the most closely watched legislative races. New campaign-finance reports offer a good guide to those fights, which in the Senate also include a Jacksonville-area race between Rep. Mike Weinstein and former Rep. Aaron Bean; a Daytona Beach-area race between Rep. Dorothy Hukill and Volusia County Chairman Frank Bruno; a St. Petersburg-area race between Reps. Jeff Brandes and Jim Frishe; and a South Florida race between Sens. Ellyn Bogdanoff and Maria Sachs.

But as in the Lee-Burgin race, the candidates’ campaign-contribution reports likely only tell a piece of the story. Obscure political committees — often with upbeat names such as Teachers United for Better Schools and Florida Freedom Council — have been busy collecting and parceling out money to try to influence races.

SCOTT GOES WAWA FOR JOBS

Scott continued his quest to attract jobs, including making an appearance Wednesday at the opening of Florida’s first Wawa convenience store in Orlando. Wawa, which operates in five other states, plans to open 100 Florida stores and employ 35 people in each.

“Today’s grand opening is evidence that more companies want to grow and expand here in Florida because of all we are doing to make our state the best place for business,” Scott said in a news release.

Scott also announced Digital Risk, a company that provides mortgage-related services, will expand in Florida, The expansion is expected to total 1,000 jobs, with 150 added in Boca Raton by early September.

But a state report came out Friday that showed only modest jobs improvement in June. That report showed the state’s jobless rate unchanged from 8.6 percent in May — though it was 2.1 percentage points lower than in June 2011.

Earlier in the week, state economists released another report crediting much of the recent drop in the state’s unemployment rate to a shrinking labor pool and not to more people finding work. Nevertheless, Scott remained positive after Friday’s report.

“As companies are choosing to grow and expand in our state, we are continuing to see Florida experience a positive economic recovery,” the governor said in a statement. “Floridians have more and more opportunities to get back to work, and last month, 9,000 Floridians were able to get a job and provide for their families.”

PRIVATIZATION PLAN GETS NEW LIFE

Barring a successful legal challenge, two firms — Corizon and Wexford Health Sources — likely will be looking to add employees in Florida during the coming months.

The only catch: The Department of Corrections will be shedding many of those same employees.

DOC this week decided to move forward with a controversial plan to privatize prison health services across the state, with Corizon and Wexford getting the contracts. The decision came after Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll declined to rule in a challenge filed by the Florida Nurses Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The groups’ lawsuit centered on the fact that lawmakers last year used budget fine print, known as proviso language, to call for prison health privatization. The lawsuit contended that making the change in proviso language was unconstitutional, but Carroll did not rule on the question because the language expired with the June 30 end of the fiscal year.

State lawyers have long contended DOC has the legal authority to do such a privatization, regardless of the proviso language. In announcing Tuesday that the agency would move forward, Secretary Ken Tucker said the move would save money and was “best for the taxpayers.”

But the announcement could spur further legal wrangling.

“It doesn’t shock me,” said Don Slesnick, an attorney for the nurses association. “It disappoints me that the state is that devious and the DOC is being that anti-employee.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Department of Corrections decided to move forward with privatizing prison health services.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “My worst nightmare is we get close to a presidential election, and someone challenges maybe 100,000 possible non-citizens at the polls on Election Day. If that happens, we won’t get our results for weeks.” — Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall, expressing caution about trying to purge ineligible voters, even after the state received approval to use a U.S. Department of Homeland Security database.

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.