The week that was in Florida politics – the ‘should I stay or should I go’ edition

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With qualifying set for next week, the election-year scramble by politicians to decide what office they’re actually going to seek kicked into high gear this week.

At the same time, a federal judge and the U.S. Department of Justice moved to try to make clear what was necessary for groups registering the voters who will choose between those candidates — and whether some already-registered voters could remain on the rolls.

Meanwhile, the seemingly never-ending drive to reform higher education got another fresh start when a blue-ribbon task force convened by Gov. Rick Scott started its work. And Scott and the Florida Board of Governors were considering applications to serve on the first board of trustees for the soon-to-be independent Florida Polytechnic University.

A round-up via Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

NO CALM AFTER STORMS

Sen. Ronda Storms’ decision last week to leave the Legislature and run for Hillsborough County property appraiser didn’t really cause a flood of potential replacements. But there were by week’s end a couple of high-profile names preparing to take a shot at replacing the Valrico Republican in the upper chamber.

So far, the biggest name to confirm an interest in running in Senate District 24 is former Senate President Tom Lee. Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, also indicated she will pursue the seat. Rep. Rich Glorioso, who toyed with running for the seat, decided in the end to stay out.

Leadership seemed to be lining up behind Lee, with incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, issuing a statement on Friday endorsing Lee.

“He will hit the ground running at full speed with the knowledge and skill to help build Florida’s future,” Gaetz said. “Tom Lee will be a leader in the Florida Senate the moment he walks on the floor.”

University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus described such a primary as the “old guard and the young guard” and also said Burgin would be more conservative than Lee on social issues.

“You’ve got generational, ideological and gender (differences),” MacManus said.

Advocates for the causes that Storms championed in the Senate, meanwhile, worried about what would come next. Storms was perhaps the most vocal Republican in the Legislature on issues affecting children, the elderly and Floridians with disabilities.

“This is a tragic blow for elderly citizens,” said former state long term care ombudsman Brian Lee, who worked with Storms on protections for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

There were other moves in the run-up to qualifying.

Rep. Scott Randolph, an Orlando Democrat who won national acclaim among liberals for saying “uterus” on the House floor, said he would leave the Legislature to focus on a race for chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. He endorsed former Orange County Commissioner Linda Stewart for his House seat.

And Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed paperwork Friday to run in Senate District 22, a Tampa Bay-area seat that will likely pit him against either Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, or Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

THE RIGHT TO VOTE (AND REGISTER)

The people who will decide those races, of course, are voters — at least those who are left if and when Secretary of State Ken Detzner and the supervisors of elections finish clear off what they say are ineligible voters. Word came Thursday that the attempt to rid the rolls of those who shouldn’t be casing ballots had drawn the interest of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The feds are interested in whether the purge runs afoul of federal laws, and sent a letter to the state saying as much.

“Our records do not reflect that these changes affecting voting have been submitted to the United State District Court for the District of Columbia for judicial review or to the attorney general for administrative review as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” the letter said. “Accordingly, it is necessary that they either be brought before that court or submitted to the attorney general for a determination that they neither have the purpose nor will have the effect of discriminating on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group under Section 5.”

The DOJ also expressed concern that the law generally says state’s can’t remove voters less than 90 days before an election, and the state’s primary is Aug. 14.

That prompted the organization that represents the state’s elected county elections supervisors to recommend holding off on removing anyone from the state’s voter rolls in light of DOJ’s concerns. Coincidentally — or perhaps not — the letter came after Detzner asked federal officials to help with untangling the legal status of some immigrants.

Detzner said he planned to get back to the agency.

“As to the specific concerns presented by the Department of Justice, we will be responding next week,” he said in statement late Friday.

There could also be more names on the rolls by the time the Justice Department gets its answers.

Also on Thursday, a federal judge blocked the state from enforcing new restrictions on nongovernmental groups that register voters, like the League of Women Voters. Among the rules swatted away by Judge Robert Hinkle was a requirement that forms be turned in within 48 hours of being filled out, instead of ten days.

HIGHER (AND LOWER) ED CHANGES

Education reform efforts also had their turns in the spotlight this week. A blue-ribbon panel that Scott asked to look at changes to the state’s university system held its first meeting — and already seemed to be turning its attention to funding issues.

“It’s very hard to do any strategic planning with absolutely no idea, is your budget going up or down?” said University of North Florida President John Delaney, a member of the task force.

And Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham held a four-hour hearing about whether the state Department of Education exceeded its legal power in a proposed rule that helps spell out how school districts will evaluate teachers under the state’s landmark merit-pay bill.

Tony Demma, an attorney for the Florida Education Association union and two teachers, said the proposed rule includes such thing as an “elaborate 13-page checklist” that school districts would have to use to get state approval of their evaluation systems.

But Jonathan Glogau, an attorney for the state, said the department is “well within” its authority.
“How do you approve something if you don’t tell the districts what the standards are they have to meet?” Glogau asked.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The U.S. Department of Justice raises concerns about the state’s attempt to get ineligible voters off the rolls, throwing into question the initiative’s future.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “If the goal is to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed. But if the goal is to further the state’s legitimate interests without unduly burdening the rights of voters and voter registration organizations, 48 hours is a bad choice.” — U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle, striking down a rule requiring third-party groups to return voter registration forms within 48 hours

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.