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Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown found guilty on fraud charges

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.

Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown. D-Florida

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.

Florida U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen bowing out after three decades in Congress

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.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.

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.

Rubio, Murphy to face off in Florida U.S. Senate race

Wasserman Schultz beats back Bernie-allied rival; Corrine Brown out

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

florida mugGAINESVILLE, Florida (CFP) — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio handily won renomination in Florida’s Republican primary and will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy in a race that will help determine which party controls the Senate.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

Rubio took 72 percent in the August 30 vote, easily defeating businessman Carlos Beruff, who garnered just 18 percent. On the Democratic side, Murphy was the clear winner, taking 60 percent of the vote, compared to just 18 percent for his main challenger, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson.

The bad news for Grayson continued, as his wife’s attempt to keep his 9th District U.S. House seat in the family sputtered in the Democratic primary.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Meanwhile, in South Florida’s 23rd District, Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz  beat back a challenge from Tim Canova, turning aside an effort by angry Bernie Sanders supporters to force her from Congress over accusations that she, as chair of the Democratic National Committee, showed favoritism to Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

Wasserman Schultz took 57 percent to 43 percent for Canova, who spent more than $3 million trying to unseat the veteran congresswoman.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

However, another veteran Democrat was not as fortunate. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, who was indicted on corruption charges in July, was defeated in the 5th District primary by Al Lawson, a former state legislator from Tallahassee, in what was likely the last chapter in a 34-year-long political career.

Lawson won 48 percent to 40 percent for Brown.

A redraw of state’s congressional map, ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, substantially altered Brown’s district, forcing her to run in  a swath of new territory outside of her Jacksonville base. Federal prosecutors have also accused Brown of conspiring with her chief of staff to convert a scholarship fund into a private slush fund used to pay for her political promotion and personal expenses. She has denied the charges.

Rubio initially decided to give up his Senate seat to pursue the Republican presidential nomination. But after his White House aspirations fizzled, he reversed course, prompting the departure of three of the four major candidates then in the race, all but Beruff.

Speaking to supporters in Kissimmee, the senator dismissed Murphy as an “old-fashioned liberal” handpicked for the Senate by Democratic leaders and a dilettante whose wealth family has given him “everything he’s every wanted.”

“If Patrick Murphy wants to be a U.S. Senator, he’s going to have to earn it by beating the son of a bartender and a maid who came to this country in search of a better life,” he said, employing details from his own biography that were a staple of his run for president.

But speaking to his supporters in Palm Beach County, Murphy criticized Rubio for his poor attendance in the Senate while he was running for president.

“Marco Rubio is the worst of Washington because he puts himself first every time,” Murphy said. “He gave up on his job. He gave up on Florida.”

Murphy also pounced on Rubio’s statement on CNN a day before the primary that he would not commit to serving his full Senate term, saying “no one can make that commitment because you don’t know what the future’s going hold in your life personally or politically.”

Murphy retorted: “Guess what, senator. I’ve got two words for you. I can.”

In his battle against Grayson, Murphy — who was a registered Republican until 2012, when he switched parties to run for Congress — had the backing of virtually all of the Democratic establishment, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson

Party leaders were fearful that a victory by the outspoken Grayson — who regularly subjects reporters to profanity-laden tirades and once had to apologize after calling a female lobbyist “a K Street whore” — would spell disaster in November.

During the primary campaign, Grayson also faced domestic abuse allegations made by his ex-wife. He denied ever hitting her, but the story prompted two liberal groups — Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee — to reverse their endorsements.

In the end, Grayson not only lost to Murphy by more than 40 points but also barely edged out a lesser known candidate, political newcomer Pam Keith, for second place. Keith had snagged a surprise endorsement from one of Florida’s largest newspapers, The Miami Herald.

In addition to helping torpedo Brown in the 5th District, the new map made the 2nd District, which takes in the middle of the Florida Panhandle, more Republican, prompting Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham to retire.

After a nasty campaign with substantial spending by outside groups, Republicans chose Neal Dunn, a Panama City urologist, over Mary Thomas, a state government lawyer from Tallahassee. Dunn took 41 percent to 39 percent for Thomas, who was trying to become the first Indian-American woman ever elected to Congress.

After Grayson gave up his 9th District to run for the Senate, both his wife, Dena Grayson, and one of his top aides, Susannah Randolph, launched campaigns to succeed him. But State Senator Darren Soto beat them both in the Democratic primary, which is tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic Orlando-based district.

Grayson took 36 percent of the vote, compared to 18 percent each for Randolph and Dina Grayson.

In the 18th District, which Murphy gave up to run for the Senate, Democrats selected Randy Perkins, a multimillionaire businessman from Delray Beach, while Republicans went with Brian Mast, an Army veteran who lost both his legs while serving as a bomb disposal specialist in Afghanistan.

The 18th District, which takes in parts of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, is likely to be a genuine toss-up in November.

The 26th District, which takes in the Florida Keys and southwest Miami-Dade County, will feature a rematch between Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo and the man he beat in 2014, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.

While Curbelo was unopposed in the GOP primary, Garcia eaked out an 800-vote win over  Annette Taddeo in the Democratic primary.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly drops out of Senate race, will seek re-election against Charlie Crist

Jolly’s decision removes another obstacle from possible re-election run by Marco Rubio

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

florida mugCLEARWATER, Florida (CFP) — Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly is dropping his bid for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat and will instead run for re-election to his 13th District House seat, setting up a likely general election battle with former Florida Governor Charlie Crist.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly

U.S. Rep. David Jolly

“I’ve got unfinished business,” Jolly said at a June 17 news conference at the St.Petersburg-Clearwater airport where he announced the switch. “Today, I’m asking my community simply for the opportunity to keep doing my job.”

Jolly, 43, was elected in a special election in 2014 and easily won a full term that fall to the seat, anchored in Pinellas County in the Tampa Bay area.

However, earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ordered that the state’s congressional map be redrawn, and the new map put a part of St. Petersburg with a large minority population into the 13th, turning what had been a swing district into one that favored Democrats.

Faced with the new map, Jolly decided to jump into the Senate race instead. But he failed to gain much traction in a crowded GOP field, a situation made much worse when Republican leaders in Washington began pressuring U.S. Senator Marco Rubio to seek re-election, which made it difficult for the other candidates to raise money.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Pinellas County, who struggled to find a strong candidate to challenge Crist, had urged Jolly to switch races and seek re-election.

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist

Crist, 59, was elected governor as a Republican in 2006, and, in 2010, decided to run for the Senate rather than seek re-election. However, when it became clear he would lose to Rubio in the primary, he left the GOP and became an independent to continue his Senate quest.

After losing to Rubio in the general election, Crist became a Democrat in 2012 and ran for governor in 2014, losing to Republican Governor Rick Scott. After that defeat, Crist announced he was leaving politics but changed his mind and launched a bid for Congress after the map was redrawn.

Jolly’s decision to switch races clears another obstacle for a possible re-election run by Rubio. Another Republican candidate in the Senate race, Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera has indicated that he, too, will drop out if Rubio decides to run.

Debbie Wassermann Schultz’s primary challenger raises eye-popping pile of cash

Tim Canova’s campaign raises $1 million in four months

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com

florida mugHOLLYWOOD, Florida (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz may be in for the fight of her political career against a Democratic primary challenger who is raising a small mountain of cash to use against her.

Congressional candidate Tim Canova

Congressional candidate Tim Canova

Tim Canova, a law professor from Hollywood who criticizes Wasserman Schultz for being insufficiently liberal, has broken the $1 million mark in campaign fundraising, his campaign has announced.

He described his campaign as a “grassroots movement that will restore a voice in our democracy to everyday people and demand accountability from our leaders.”

If that sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders, it is by design. Canova has tied himself firmly to the Vermont senator’s coattails in his effort to oust Wasserman Schultz, who is also chair of the Democratic National Committee.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Sanders partisans have been critical of Wasserman Schultz and the DNC, complaining they are showing partiality to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential race. Now, that anger has spilled over into the primary in Florida’s 23rd District, which takes in southern Broward County and Miami Beach.

While Canova has raised enough money to be competitive, he still trails Wasserman Schultz in the money chase. She has raised $1.77 million as of March 15, the last time candidates reported fundraising numbers to the Federal Election Commission.

In fact, Wasserman Schultz has already spent more money on her campaign–$1.3 million–than Canova has raised for the August 30 primary.

And in the presidential primary back in March, Clinton pummeled Sanders by more than 30 points in Broward County, which does not bode well for Canova’s chances in a similar proxy fight with Wassserman Schultz.

Still, the primary challenge is proving something of a headache for the DNC chair, with South Florida media noting an uptick in her campaigning for what had been considered an unassailable seat. This is the first time in her 12-year congressional career that she has faced primary competition.

Canova has also been criticizing Wasserman Schultz for not yet accepting his offer to debate.

However, in addition to her fundraising advantage, Wasserman Schultz also has another big gun in her arsenal–a highly touted endorsement from President Barack Obama.

Charlie Crist launches run for Florida congressional seat

Crist’s latest race comes after two statewide losses and two party switches

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

florida mugST. PERTERSBURG, Florida (CFP) — After losing two statewide elections in four years and changing parties twice, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist will try to resurrect his political career with a run for Congress in 2016.

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist

Crist announced October 20 that he will seek the Democratic nomination in Florida’s 13th U.S. House District.

“Public service is in my heart. I can’t help it. I guess that’s fairly obvious,” Crist said at his campaign kickoff. “But somebody has to step up, and somebody has to lead.”

His decision immediate drew fire from Republicans, who noted that Crist had said back in March that he would not run for office in 2016.

“What happens when the King of Flip-Flopping promises NOT to run for office in 2016… he runs for office in 2016,” said a statement on the Florida GOP’s website.

The 13th District seat opened up after the incumbent, Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly, decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Jolly’s decision came as the Florida Supreme Court is poised to redraw the state’s House districts, which is likely to make the 13th District, centered in the St. Petersburg area, more Democratic.

Crist, 59, was elected as governor in 2006 as a Republican. In 2010, instead of running for re-election, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate, bolting the GOP to run as an independent when it became clear he was going to lose the primary to the eventual winner, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

After losing that race, Crist became a Democrat and made an unsuccessful run for governor in 2014, losing to Republican Governor Rick Scott.

Crist will face at least one Democratic primary challenger, Eric Lynn, a former Pentagon official. After Crist’s announcement, he issued a statement pointedly noting that, unlike Crist, he was a “life-long Democrat.”

“I’m looking forward to a spirited primary and a spirited debate on important Democratic issues,” Lynn said.

Republicans are also expected to put up a fight to keep the seat, with former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker being mentioned as a possible GOP candidate.

Florida Supreme Court strikes down state’s congressional map

High court gives state legislature 100 days to draw new map to fix problems with eight districts

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

florida mugGAINESVILLE, Florida (CFP) — The Florida Supreme Court has struck down the state’s map of congressional districts, ruling that the Republican-controlled state legislature unconstitutionally gerrymandered the map to help the GOP’s electoral prospects.

In a 5-to-2 ruling issued July 9, the high court agreed with a lower court ruling last year that the 2011 redistricting process had been “tainted” by partisan gerrymandering, which was outlawed by Florida voters in a constitutional amendment passed in 2010.

The trial court had ordered changes in two districts, but the Supreme Court went further, ruling that eight of the state’s 27 districts were improperly drawn and giving legislators 100 days to come up with a new map that complies with the anti-gerrymandering amendment. The new map will be in place for the 2016 elections.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

While the high court did not order the entire map to be redrawn, reworking the eight districts in question is likely to have an impact on many of the surrounding districts, particularly in northeast Florida, where justices ordered an oddly shaped, black plurality district represented by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown to be completely reconfigured.

Responding to testimony in the trial court that showed Republican legislators and consultants had met behind closed doors to draw the congressional maps, the Supreme Court majority also encouraged the legislature “to conduct all meetings in which it makes decisions on the new map in public and to record any non-public meetings for preservation.”

There was no immediate word from legislative leaders as to when a special legislative session might be convened to redraw the congressional map.

The ruling was a victory for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which filed suit to overturn the maps. Pamela Goodman, the president of the league, called the decision a victory “against devious political scheming.”

“The Florida Supreme Court took the Florida Legislature to the woodshed,” she said in a statement. “Their egregious behavior using partisan political operatives in the redistricting process was appropriately reprimanded.”

The Republican-controlled legislature decided not to appeal the trial court’s ruling in 2014, which led to a special session of the legislature to make minor changes in the map. But the League of Women Voters appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that those changes didn’t go far enough.

The eight districts found to be unconstitutional are equally split between Democrats and Republicans. But the changes ordered by the court are giving Democrats hopes of making inroads in Florida’s congressional delegation. Despite the state’s even political split, Republicans hold a 17-to-10 advantage among House members.

The two biggest changes ordered by the high court are in the 5th District, represented by Brown, D-Jacksonville, and the 13th District, held by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-St. Petersburg.

The Supreme Court ruled that Brown’s north-south district — which snakes through northeast and central Florida from Jacksonville to Orlando to pick up black voters and is at one point the width of a highway — should be redrawn in an east-west configuration from Jacksonville towards the Panhandle. The current black voting age population in the district is 48 percent.

While moving the district could create an opening for a minority candidate in the Orlando area, it might also present problems for U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, whose 2nd District includes areas along the Georgia border that would be shifted into the 5th District.

Brown, one of just three African-Americans in Florida’s congressional delegation, had joined with Republicans in the legislature in defending the map. She blasted the high court’s decision in a statement, saying it was “seriously flawed and entirely fails to take into consideration the rights of minority voters.”

While Brown did not indicate if she might file a federal lawsuit to stop the court-mandated redistricting, she did say that “as a people, African-Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly are not taking any steps backwards.”

U.S. Rep. David Jolly

U.S. Rep. David Jolly

In the 13th District, which takes in most of Pinellas County, the Supreme Court held that the legislature’s decision to shift African-American voters in St. Petersburg into the neighboring 14th District, across the bay in Tampa, to make the 13th more Republican-friendly violated a requirement that districts be geographically compact wherever possible.

Shifting those voters back into the 13th District could make life more difficult for Jolly, who won the seat in a special election last year. But Jolly’s office issued a statement after the ruling saying he was not concerned about the prospect that his district might be redrawn.

“The courts and the legislature will determine next steps, and Congressman Jolly will remain focused solely on doing his job and serving all of Pinellas County,” the statement said. “If he continues to do the job he was elected to do, the politics will take care of itself.”

Here are the other districts that are affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling:

21st District and 22nd District – These two districts, in Palm Beach and Broward counties in South Florida, run parallel to each other, one along the Atlantic Coast and the other inland. The Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs that these two districts would be more geographically compact if they were made wider and stacked on top of each other, although the high court stopped short of ordering the legislature to adopt that configuration. The 21st District is represented by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton; the 22nd District by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

25th District – The court’s objection to this district was that legislators split Hendry County, a rural county with a majority minority population, between the 25th District and the adjacent 20th District, instead of putting the county entirely in the 25th. The legislature argued that it split the county to comply with the Voting Rights Act, but the high court said legislators had not proven that putting the county in a single district would compromise the electoral prospects of minority voters. The district, which would become more Democratic if all of Hendry County is included, is represented by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

26h District and 27th District – The court objected to the legislature’s decision to split the city of Homestead, south of Miami, between these two districts, which had the effect of creating two Republican-leaning districts, rather than one safe district for each party. The high court ordered the legislature to put all of Homestead in one district. District 26 is represented by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami; District 27 by veteran U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. Whichever of them gets Homestead will have to deal with more Democratic voters, although Ros-Lehtinen said she had “no worries” about the prospect that her district lines might shift.

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