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Florida U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings dies at 84

Democrat’s death narrows party’s House majority, sets off scramble for his South Florida seat

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

FloridaFORT LAUDERDALE (CFP) — Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida, who launched a barrier-breaking, three-decade career in Congress after being impeached and removed from his post as a federal judge in 1989, died April 6 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

He was 84.

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U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Florida

In a statement announcing his death, Hastings’s family said he “lived a full life with an indelible fighting spirit dedicated to equal justice. He believed that progress and change can only be achieved through recognizing and respecting the humanity of all mankind.”

Hastings was re-elected in November to his 15th term from the 20th U.S. House District, which includes parts of Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and areas inland toward Lake Okeechobee. He was the longest-serving member of the Sunshine State’s House delegation.

With Hastings’s death, Democrats have just a two-seat majority in the House. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will now call a special election to fill the seat, which could leave it vacant for several months and set off a scramble among local Democrats for a rare open seat.

The heavily Democratic, majority black district will almost certainly stay in Democratic hands.

As a civil rights lawyer in the 1960s, Hastings fought against segregation in South Florida and made headlines in 1970 with an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate at the age of 29, the first black Floridian to seek a Senate seat.

He became a judge in Broward County in 1977 and two years later was named a U.S. District Court judge by President Jimmy Carter.

In 1981, Hastings was accused of soliciting a bribe to show leniency toward two convicted mobsters but was acquitted of all charges in 1983 after his alleged co-conspirator refused to testify.

But although he was acquitted, the House later voted to impeach Hastings in 1988, and the Senate convicted him and removed him from office in 1989, only the sixth federal judge ever tossed from the bench.

In 1992, he made a comeback by winning a House seat in Broward County in a runoff against one of his current colleagues, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, becoming part of a group of the first three black congressmen elected from Florida since Reconstruction. He won re-election 14 times, often by 3-to-1 margins.

In January 2019, he announced he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, but he continued to serve in Congress and ran for re-election in 2020.

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Amtrak promising more Southern train service as part of Biden infrastructure bill

12 cities in 8 Southern states could gain train service as part of $2.5 trillion infrastructure package

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — As the Biden administration tries to cobble together political support for its massive $2.5 trillion infrastructure program, Amtrak has announced that it plans to use its share of the money to expand its national rail network, including significant additions across the South.

In a plan unveiled April 1, Amtrak said it would add service to 12 Southern cities, as well as enhancing existing service in Texas, Florida and the corridor between Birmingham, Atlanta and Charlotte.

New Amtrak routes shown in light blue

Kentucky — the only state east of the Mississippi River currently without any Amtrak service — will finally be connected to the national network with a rail link between Louisville and Indianapolis.

The Bluegrass State is the home of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has said no one in his caucus is likely to vote for the infrastructure package the contains the additional Amtrak funding.

Plans also call for a new line to run from Nashville to Savannah, which will extend service to Chattanooga and Macon, Georgia.

Service would also be restored between Mobile and New Orleans, which has been suspended since 2005 because of damage to rail lines from Hurricane Katrina. A new route would connect Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

Currently, Amtrak’s service coming north out of Texas stops at Oklahoma City. That line would be extended to Wichita, Kansas, providing more direct rail links from the Gulf Coast to the Midwest.

Dallas and Houston would also be connected by a direct route, which would bring service to College Station.

In Alabama, Auburn and Montgomery would be connected to Atlanta, while in North Carolina, both Asheville and Wilmington would pick up service. Rail would also be extended further west from Roanoke to Christiansburg, Virginia.

In all, Amtrak would be expanding service in all but three Southern states — Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia — which could become an administration talking point as it tries to sell the infrastructure plan to reluctant Southern Republicans.

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WaterGaetz? Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz under federal investigation

Gaetz, a staunch defender of former President Donald Trump, denies sexual relationship with 17-year-old girl, alleges blackmail scheme

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

FloridaWASHINGTON (CFP) — In what is quickly becoming one of the year’s most bizarre political stories, Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz is denying allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl but acknowledges he is under federal investigation for possible sex trafficking charges, as first reported by The New York Times.

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Gaetz discusses allegations on Fox News

As headlines began to trumpet news of the investigation, Gaetz struck back by accusing a Florida attorney of trying to use the allegations to extort $25 million from his family, which the attorney denies, and then tried to drag Fox News host Tucker Carlson into the narrative, which Carlson rebuffed.

“That was one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted,” Carlson said after inviting Gaetz to appear on his March 29 show to offer his side of the story. “I don’t think that clarified much, but it certainly showed that this is a deeply interesting story.”

Watch video of Carlson’s interview with Gaetz at end of the story.

To add another twist to the story, the investigation of Gaetz was reportedly triggered by a federal investigation into Joel Greenberg, the former Seminole County, Florida tax collector indicted on a slew of charges, including stalking, identity theft, and child sex trafficking.

While the nature of Greenberg’s relationship with Gaetz remains unclear, the two men were photographed together outside the White House in 2019.

Greenberg also posted a picture on social media of himself and Gaetz with longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted on felony charges in Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election but later pardoned by Trump.

Adding to the swirl around Gaetz is a report in Axios that he is considering leaving Congress to take a job with Newsmax, a conservative news outlet. Gaetz confirmed to the Daily Beast that he has had conversations “about life after Congress,” although he said he has not been pursuing any specific job offers.

The New York Times, citing “three people briefed on the matter,” reported that the Justice Department has been investigating Gaetz over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him, which could have violated federal sex trafficking laws.

Federal law makes it a crime to induce a minor to cross state lines to engage in sexual activity in exchange for money.

The investigation was opened in 2020 in the final months of the Trump administration, and top Justice Department officials, including then-Attorney General William Barr, were briefed on the investigation, according to the newspaper.

Gaetz denied he had a relationship with an underage girl and told the Times that “I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward.”

He told Carlson that “providing for flights and hotel rooms for people that you’re dating who are of legal age is not a crime. ” He then tried to remind Carlson that he and his wife had dined two years ago with Gaetz and a woman who is being pursued as a witness in the investigation, whom Gatez claimed is being threatened with prosecution unless she cooperates.

“I don’t remember the woman you are speaking of or the context at all, honestly,” a puzzled Carlson replied. (It was unclear if the woman referenced by Gaetz was the same person whose alleged relationship with Gaetz is the focus of the probe, although at another point he said the 17-year-old “did not exist.”)

Gaetz also alleged that David McGee, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Pensacola, Florida, is behind a scheme to use the sex trafficking allegations to extort $25 million from his family and that his father, Don Gaetz, a former Florida Senate president, wore a wire as part of an FBI investigation in the alleged blackmail attempt.

Gaetz has demanded that the FBI release the wiretap recordings to back up his claim. He also claimed that he had been told that McGee could arrange a pardon from President Joe Biden to protect him from the sex trafficking charges.

Speaking to the Washington Post, McGee denied the blackmail allegations, saying he had nothing to do with the investigation into Gaetz. McGee said he had talked to Don Gaetz, describing their exchange as “a pleasant conversation of a dad concerned about his son and the trouble his son was in.”

McGee also told the Post that he welcomed release of any FBI recordings of those conversations: “There is nothing on that tape that is untoward.”

Gaetz, 38, has represented the Florida Panhandle in Congress since 2017, after serving six years in the state legislature.

Last June, he disclosed that he had been providing a home for a teenage Cuban immigrant, the brother of a former girlfriend, whom he considered to be his son, although he had not legally adopted the boy.

In December, he announced his engagement to his girlfriend, Ginger Luckey.

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Southern Republican U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy, Richard Burr vote to convict Donald Trump

All 5 Southern Democrats join unsuccessful effort to convict and disqualify Trump from future office

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Richard Burr of North Carolina broke with most of their Republican colleagues to vote to convict former president Donald Trump Saturday on charges of inciting the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy and Richard Burr

Cassidy and Burr were the only Southern Republicans to vote for conviction in Trump’s impeachment trial; all five Southern Democrats voted to convict, including U.S. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state Trump carried by nearly 40 points in November.

While a majority of 57 senators voted to convict Trump, the number was not enough to clear the two-thirds majority required for conviction under the Constitution.

“Our Constitution and our country is more important than any one person,” Cassidy said in a statement. “I voted to convict President Trump because he is guilty.”

In his own statement, Burr said, “I do not make this decision lightly, but I believe it is necessary.”

“By what he did and by what he did not do, President Trump violated his oath of office to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Burr said.

Cassidy was elected in November to a six-year term and won’t face voters again until 2026. Burr has announced he isn’t seeking re-election in 2022 and will retire from the Senate at the end of his current term.

Machin, in a statement, said he voted to convict Trump “to hold him accountable for his seditious actions and words that threatened our democracy.”

“It is time to move forward as one nation to focus on helping Americans suffering from the pandemic,” Manchin said. “Now more than ever, it is on each of us to seek unity over division and put partisanship aside for the good of our country.”

Twenty-one Southern Republicans voted to acquit Trump, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who had denounced Trump’s claim of election fraud on the Senate floor less than an hour before a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on January 6.

However, in remarks after the vote, McConnell delivered an extensive and passionate rebuke of Trump in which he excoriated his behavior as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty,” said he bears direct responsibility for the assault on the Capitol, and suggested that he could face criminal prosecution.

But McConnell said the Constitution prevented the Senate from convicting Trump of impeachment now that he’s left office.

“We have no power to convict and disqualify a former officeholder who is now a private citizen,” McConnell said. “Impeachment was never meant to be the final forum for American justice. Impeachment, conviction and removal are a specific intra-governmental safety valve.”

Also voting to acquit was U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, whose phone call from Trump during the siege of the Capitol became a focus of the impeachment case brought by House managers.

Tuberville told reporters that he had informed Trump that Vice President Mike Pence had been evacuated from the Capitol, contradicting statements from Trump’s defense attorneys that he did not know of the peril in which Pence had been placed by the pro-Trump mob.

The Southern senators who joined Cassidy, Burr and Machin in voting to convict included Georgia’s two new Democratic members, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and two Democrats from Virginia, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

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Alabama U.S. Senator Richard Shelby announces retirement

Shelby’s departure will likely spark Republican primary battle to be his successor

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — Saying that “for everything there is a season,” Alabama Republican U.S. Senator Richard Shelby announced Monday that he will not seek re-election in 2022, bringing to a close a political career that has made him that longest-serving senator in his state’s history and triggering what is likely to be a pitched battle among Republicans to replace him.

“Serving in the U.S. Senate has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” Shelby said in a statement. “Although I plan to retire, I am not leaving today.  I have two good years remaining to continue my work in Washington.  I have the vision and the energy to give it my all. “

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, R-Alabama

Shelby, 86, was elected to the U.S. House in 1978 and to the Senate in 1986, serving at various times as the chair of the appropriations, banking, intelligence and rules committees.

He was a Democrat until switching parties in 1994, as Alabama was transitioning from being solidly Democrat to solidly Republican and the GOP won control of Congress.

He routinely won re-election by large margins, mostly recently a 28-point win in 2016.

While his decision to retire is unlikely to open up a pickup opportunity for Democrats in solidly red Alabama, it is expected to trigger a free-for-all among Republicans vying to succeed him.

U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks from Huntsville and Secretary of State John Merrill have both indicated they are considering the race. Brooks ran unsuccessfully for the state’s other Senate seat in a special election in 2017; Merrill dropped out of the race for the same seat in 2020.

Other candidates being mentioned include U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer from Hoover; Katie Boyd Britt, a former Shelby aide who now runs the Business Council of Alabama; former U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, who served a stormy tenure as attorney general in the Trump administration; and Bradley Byrne from Mobile, who gave up his U.S. House seat in 2020 to make an unsuccessful Senate run.

On key to the eventual make-up of the Senate field will be Governor Kay Ivey’s decision whether to seek another term as governor in 2022; if she doesn’t, some possible Senate candidates may opt for the governor’s race instead.

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