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Decision opens up another potential Democratic target in the Sunshine State
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com
LAKELAND, Florida (CFP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross has announced he will not seek a fifth term in November, opening up a congressional seat in Tampa’s eastern suburbs.
Ross’s announcement came shortly after House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he too was retiring from Congress, amid projections of a Democratic wave that could flip control of the House this year.
“I never viewed this amazing opportunity as a job or a career,” Ross said in a statement announcing his retirement. “My home has been and will continue to be in Lakeland, Florida.”
Ross said he would resume his law practice and pursue “opportunities to increase civic education for our youth, and young adults, and with that encourage more engagement and participation of future generations in government.”
Before the announcement, Ross, 58, first elected in the Republican wave of 2010, had been considered a prohibitive favorite to retain the 15th District seat, which includes the eastern suburbs of Tampa and northwestern Polk County, including Lakeland. The district tilts Republican, and Ross won 57 percent in 2016.
With filing for primary elections set to begin on May 4, the question for Democrats will be finding a candidate with enough statute to make the 15h District race competitive. Six Democrats are currently running, but none has any political experience.
While 54 incumbent House members are not running in 2018 — a retirement rate of 12 percent– Ross is just the second House member from Florida to forgo re-election in 2018. The other is Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents a Miami-area district that is considered a likely Democratic pickup.
Race between Scott and incumbent U.S. Senator Bill Nelson could be nation’s most expensive
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com
Scott’s decision, announced April 9 in Orlando, sets up what is likely to be a hard-fought and hugely expensive battle for Florida’s seat, with control of the Senate hanging in the balance.
Calling Washington “dysfunctional” and slamming “career politicians,” Scott called on Floridians to “stop sending talkers to Washington. Let’s send doers to Washington.”
“We shouldn’t be sending the same type of people to Washington. We should say we’re going to make change,” Scott said. “We can change Washington. We must change Washington. We will change Washington.”
The emphasis on changing the culture of Washington was a direct slap at Nelson, who has served in the Senate for 18 years after serving 12 years in the U.S. House.
Scott, who kicked off his campaign at a construction company that has expanded during his eight years in Tallahassee, also touted his record as a “jobs” governor, taking credit for creating 1.5 million new jobs and cutting taxes by $10 billion.
“People are flocking to Florida because this is where you can live the dream of this country,” he said. “Now, we’ve got to take that same mission to D.C.”
Scott, 65, a multimillionaire former for-profit hospital executive, was a political newcomer when he was first elected governor in 2010 after pouring more than $70 million of his own money into the race. He was re-elected by a narrow margin in 2014.
Nelson, 75, was first elected to the Senate in 2000 and won re-election easily in 2006 and 2012. He is one of just five Democrats representing Southern states, along with U.S. Senators Doug Jones of Alabama, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Nelson and Machin, who both represent states President Donald Trump carried in 2016, are among the top Republican targets in the 2018 election cycle. Trump had been publicly urging Scott to run against Nelson.
In response to Scott’s announcement, Nelson issued a statement saying he has “always run every race like there’s no tomorrow — regardless of my opponent” and adding that Scott “will say or do anything to get elected.”
“I’ve always believed that if you just do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself,” he said.
The race in Florida, a state that is closely divided politically and has 10 television markets, is expected to approach or break spending records, particularly because of the personal fortune Scott can bring to bear.
The most expensive Senate race in history was in Pennsylvania in 2016, where more than $160 million was spent by candidates and outside groups.
Democrats will no doubt try to tie Scott to Trump, which could have unpredictable results in what’s shaping up to be a Democratic year. Another wildcard will be the effect of Scott’s support for new restrictions on gun purchases that passed the Florida legislature after 17 people died in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland.
The new restrictions have drawn the ire of the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, although supporters of stronger controls on guns faulted the measure passed by Florida lawmakers for not going far enough.
Republicans current have a narrow 51-to-49 seat advantage in the Senate, which means all of the seats up in 2018 could be pivotal in deciding which party is in control.
Among Southern seats, Democrats’ best targets are in Texas, Tennessee and a special election for a vacant seat in Mississippi. For Republicans, Nelson and Manchin are at the top of the target list, with an outside shot at Kaine.
No other Southern states have Senate races this year.
DeSantis’s decision follows a favorable Twitter mention from Donald Trump
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Equipped with a favorable mention from President Donald Trump on Twitter, Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis has announced that he will run for Florida governor in 2018.
“I’m in a position to exercise the leadership that can build on the great work that Governor Rick Scott has done to advance economic opportunity, reform education and drain the swamp in Tallahassee, which needs to be drained just like Washington,” DeSantis said.
His decision to enter the race sets up a primary battle with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a former congressman who has the backing of much of Florida’s GOP establishment.
DeSantis, on the other hand, has the imprimatur of Trump, who offered an almost-endorsement of his candidacy December 22 on Twitter: “Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!”
Although Trump did not actually use the e-word, DeSantis is playing up the favorable mention, noting on his website that he has been “endorsed by President Trump.”
DeSantis, 39, a Harvard law graduate and former military prosecutor, was elected in 2012 from Florida’s 6th District, which stretches along the Atlantic coast from the Jacksonville suburbs to Daytona Beach. He is a member of the conservative, anti-establishment House Freedom Caucus.
In 2016, DeSantis ran for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate but abandoned his campaign when Marco Rubio decided to seek re-election after leaving the presidential campaign.
The major obstacle in DeSantis’s way to becoming governor is Putnam, 43, the one-time boy wonder of Florida politics who was the elected to the legislature at age 22 and to Congress when he was just 26.
Putnam served five terms in the U.S. House, rising to chair the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 position in the House GOP hierarchy. before being elected as agriculture commissioner in 2010.
He was re-elected in 2014 with 58 percent of the vote and has already raised more $15 million for the governor’s race.
Also considering the governor’s race on the Republican side is Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who represents a suburban Tampa district in the legislature and was elected speaker in 2016.
Graham, who served a single term in Congress before leaving after she was redrawn into a politically unfavorable district, is the daughter of former governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham. If elected, Gillum would be Florida’s first African American governor.
Scott, the incumbent Republican, is term-limited and considering a run for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson.
Sentence brings ignoble end to Brown’s 34-year political odyssey
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
JACKSONVILLE (CFP) — Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida was sentenced to five years in prison on tax and fraud charges related to a scheme to loot $800,000 from a bogus scholarship charity and spend it on personal expenses.
Brown, 71, a Democrat who represented metro Jacksonville in Congress for 24 years, was sentenced December 4 by U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan, who called her behavior “brazen” and “born out of entitlement and greed,” according to coverage of the court proceedings by the Florida Times-Union.
Brown, who was ordered to surrender in January to begin serving her sentence, left the courthouse in downtown Jacksonville without comment. Speaking to reporters afterward, her attorney, James Smith, said she would appeal.
“The congresswoman wants to let her supporters know that she’s still strong and resolute, and she appreciates their prayers and their support,” Smith said. “She asks that they not give up hope because she hasn’t given up hope.”
Brown’s former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, received a four-year sentence; the head of the charity, Carla Wiley, received 21 months.
Prosecutors alleged that Brown used her contacts and clout as a member of Congress to solicit funds for the charity, which claimed to provide scholarships for economically disadvantaged children. At trial, prosecutors produced evidence that the money was then diverted by Brown, Simmons and Wiley for their own personal use.
Brown took the stand to blame the scheme on Simmons and insist she did not know what he had been doing. But in May, she was convicted on 18 of the 22 counts against her, including including conspiracy, wire and mail fraud and filing false tax returns.
When she was elected on Congress in 1992 after a decade in the Florida legislature, Brown became the first African-American to represent Florida in Congress since Reconstruction. Emphasizing her dedication to constituent service with the phrase “Corrine Delivers,” she would win 11 more times and become a political institution in Jacksonville. She even helped secure the funds to build the Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse, the building where she was tried, convicted and sentenced.
However, in 2016, facing corruption charges and a new district radically redrawn by the Florida Supreme Court, she lost the Democratic primary to now U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee.
Jurors decide former Jacksonville congresswoman looted scholarship charity
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
JACKSONVILLE, Florida (CFP) — Corrine Brown, an icon in North Florida’s African-American community who served 24 years in Congress, is likely headed to prison after being convicted of looting a fraudulent scholarship charity to pay personal expenses.
Brown was found guilty May 11 on 18 of the 22 charges against her, including conspiracy, wire and mail fraud and filing false tax returns. No sentencing date has been set, but, given the number and magnitude of the charges, the 70-year-old former Democratic congresswoman could potentially spend much of the rest of her life behind bars.
Brown made no comment as she left the federal courthouse in downtown Jacksonville, the funding for which, as she often noted, she was instrumental in pushing through Congress.
In a statement released later by her lawyer, Brown continued to maintain her innocence and vowed to fight on.
“This fight is not over, and as I’m sure you know, I will continue to fight to clear my name and restore my reputation,” she said.
In a statement, Kenneth Blanco, the acting assistant attorney general, said Brown had “violated the public trust, the honor of her position and the integrity of the American system of government.”
“She shamefully deprived needy children of hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have helped with their education and improved their opportunities for advancement, and she lied to the IRS and the American public about secret cash deposits into her personal bank accounts,” Blanco said.
Prosecutors said Brown and her associates operated a fraudulent private charity that purported to provide scholarships for needy students but instead diverted the money to their personal accounts to pay for luxuries and other expenses. Brown used her political connections to raise money for the charity, which took in more than $800,000 put paid out just $1,200 in scholarships, according to prosecutors.
Brown’s longtime former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and the president of the charity, Carla Wiley, have both pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme, and Simmons became the star witness against Brown.
Brown took the stand in her own defense, insisting that she did not know that Evans was diverting money from the charity.
The conviction marks a tragic fall for Brown, who in 1992 became part of the first group of African-Americans in Florida’s U.S. House delegation since Reconstruction.
With a political operation built on a flair for publicity and attention to constituent service — her campaign slogan was, “Corrine Delivers” — she was never seriously challenged, despite court-ordered changes in her district and efforts by Republicans to unseat her.
However, in 2015, the Florida Supreme Court dismembered her 5th District, ruling that it was gerrymandered based on racial considerations in violation of state law. Instead of taking in African-American communities in Jacksonville and snaking down the St. Johns River valley to Orlando, the new district heads straight west to Tallahassee, giving Brown a wide swath of unfamiliar territory to defend.
The new lines, coupled with her indictment on fraud charges, led to her primary loss to U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, ending her 34-year political career.
But 5 GOP lawmakers in other potential swing districts help pass new health care law
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — Five Republican members of the U.S. House defied party leaders and President Donald Trump to oppose a bill to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a new blueprint for U.S. health care, but five other GOP lawmakers holding potentially vulnerable seats took a different tack and voted to go along with the American Health Care Act.
Two of the Southern GOP no votes on May 4 came from Will Hurd of Texas and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who both represent districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. A third lawmaker from a district Clinton carried, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, also voted no but is retiring in 2018.
Hurd, whose district stretches across a wide swath of West Texas, issued a statement after the vote saying the plan pushed by GOP leaders “does not address the concerns of many of my constituents, including adequate protections for those with pre-existing conditions and the challenges faced by rural healthcare providers.”
Comstock, whose district is anchored in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, said in a statement that her “goals on healthcare reform are to provide patient-centered reforms that provide better access to high quality, affordable care and cover pre-existing conditions without lifetime limits. ”
“I did not support the AHCA today because (of) the many uncertainties in achieving those goals,” she said.
The other two Republicans who voted against the bill, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Walter Jones of North Carolina, did so not out of any fear of Democratic competition but because they believe the repeal measure doesn’t go far enough.
“As recently as a year ago, Republicans argued that mandates were unconstitutional, bailouts were immoral and subsidies would bankrupt our country,” Massie said in a statement after the vote. “Today, however, the House voted for a healthcare bill that makes these objectionable measures permanent.”
Jones had earlier said the attempt by House Republican leaders to push an Obamacare bill repeal through the House on a rushed schedule was “shameful,” and he called for scrapping the bill in its entirety and starting over.
Of the 138 Southern Republicans in the House, 133 voted in favor of the AHCA. Five of those members represent districts where Democrats could conceivably use their votes for the new health care law to try to unseat them. In fact, if any one of them had voted no, the bill — which passed by just a single vote — would have failed, which will allow Democrats to make the argument that each of them bears responsibility for its passage.
This group of members who supported the bill includes two of the region’s most vulnerable House Republicans, Carlos Curbelo and Brian Mast, both from Florida. Curbelo represents a district in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties that Clinton carried; Mast’s district, which includes St. Lucie, Martin and northern Palm Beach counties, has changed parties in three of the last four election cycles.
In a statement, Mast said the GOP health care plan “returns control of health care from Washington back to you and restores access to quality, affordable options that are tailored to your individual needs.” He also pushed back against Democratic criticism that a provision in the new law allowing states to waive mandates for coverage of pre-existing conditions would imperil coverage for the sickest Americans.
“This bill mandates that people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions and allocates almost $140 billion in additional funding that will subsidize coverage for people with pre-existing conditions to ensure they costs are low,” Mast said. “Those claiming otherwise are the same people who said ‘if you like your doctor, you can keep you doctor,” and they’re putting partisan politics ahead of the people in our community.”
Also voting yes were John Culberson of Texas, whose metro Houston House district was carried by Clinton; Mario Diaz-Balart, whose majority Latino district in metro Miami and southwest Florida went for Trump by less than 2 points; and Ted Budd of North Carolina, whose Greensboro-area district went for Trump by 9 points.
In a statement, Diaz-Balart conceded the AHCA was “far from perfect.” But he said the House needed to act because Obamacare “is collapsing,” leaving just one insurance provider in two of the three counties he represents.
“Knowing the people I represent could very well lose their coverage … is disturbing,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for Congress not to act in order to prevent this from happening.”
Budd also conceded in a statement that “the legislative process is a human process with all the flaws that entails. The results of that process are never perfect, and this bill isn’t either.”
“What I believe it will do is significantly reduce insurance premiums in our state, and help put the individual insurance marketplace on a more sound financial footing,” he said.
Also voting yes was Pete Sessions of Texas, whose metro Dallas district was also won by Clinton. However, Sessions, who has been in the House since 1997 and won re-election by more than 50 points in 2016, is not considered vulnerable to a Democratic challenge.
All 40 of the Democrats representing districts in the South voted against the AHCA.
Her departure opens up a prime opportunity for Democrats to pick up a GOP-held seat
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
MIAMI (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the dean of Florida’s House delegation, will not seek re-election in 2018 to her 27th District seat in Miami-Dade County, drawing down the curtain on three decades of service that have made her an icon in the state’s politically powerful Cuban-American community.
The decision means Republicans will now have to defend a seat from a district which Donald Trump lost by 20 points in 2016 but which had continued to return Ros-Lehtinen to office term after term.
“It’s a great job. But there comes a time when you say, you know, even though this is a wonderful life, and even though I’m doing what I love to do, there’s so many other wonderful things,” she said at a May 1 news conference announcing her retirement.
Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Republican who has found herself at odds with Trump and other members of her own party, also insisted her departure is unrelated to the current political climate in Washington.
“I know it would be a great narrative to say people aren’t civil with each other and that there’s just a lot of infighting,” she said. “But I’ve been there so many years, I don’t recall a time when there hasn’t been infighting.”
“I’m not frustrated by that.”
Ros-Lehtinen, 64, who was born in Cuba and moved to Miami with her parents at the age of 7, won a House seat in a 1989 special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of Claude Pepper, who himself was a political icon in Miami. She became the first Cuban-American ever elected to Congress and the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Florida.
She has faced little opposition since that first election. However, as the Cuban-American community in Miami has become less monolithically Republican in the last 20 years and district lines have been been altered, the GOP has held on to the district largely because of Ros-Lehtinen’s popularity.
Still, in 2016, she won by just 10 points, as Hillary Clinton was pasting Trump in her district. Democrats were expected to try to contest the seat in 2018, although Ros-Lehtinen expressed confidence that she would have won if she had she run again.
Ros-Lehtinen has left signficant daylight between herself and Trump, refusing to endorse him and opposing both his plans to repeal and replace Obamacare and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. As the mother of a transgender son, she has also been a champion for LGBT equality in Congress.
The 27th is one of just six Southern House seats held by Republicans that Clinton carried, and her margin there was the largest win in any GOP-held district in the country. Ros-Lehtinen’s departure means Democrats will have an opportunity to pick up the seat.
The race to replace Ros-Lehtinen will be a wide open affair, likely drawing a number of Cuban-American politicians from both parties into the mix. Among the Republicans being mentioned is Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera, who has run statewide and is closely allied with the state’s two top Republicans, Governor Rick Scott, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
Several state legislators are also eyeing the race, which may mean that the field won’t begin to fill out until the legislature adjourns later in May.