Elections Dominate: Florida Political Roundup

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 23, 2011 -

Elections dominated the news last week as Democrats scored big in a typically red region of the state while combatants in South Florida ready for another mayoral race that may be affected by an election reform bill signed into law that among other things limits access to the polls.

Meanwhile, the clock began to tick as lawmakers submitted to Gov. Rick Scott a $70 billion spending plan that has already led to reported layoffs at some school districts. Responding to questions, the first term governor said he would “find additional savings” in the proposed budget, a promise that included hints that educational construction projects could be vulnerable.

Scott’s budget review comes as Florida’s economy continues to show signs of rebirth as home sales and the state’s unemployment picture both showed improvement in what is expected to be a long slog back to ‘the golden years” before Florida’s housing market began crashing in 2007. State officials announced this week that Florida’s unemployment rate in April fell to 10.8 percent, down 0.3 percentage points from March and a 1.2 percentage points from April 2010. Florida’s existing home sales in April inched up 2 percentage points from the year before.

BROWN TAKES JACKSONVILLE MAYOR’S RACE:

In a stunning outcome in the race for mayor of Jacksonville, Democrat Alvin Brown defeated Republican opponent Mike Hogan in the second round of elections Tuesday. The race had been closely followed because of the potential that Brown could win in what is often a cornerstone area for GOP statewide campaigns.

“Hell froze over,” one long-time Republican voter in Atlantic Beach told News Service this week in response to the news that Brown had bested his GOP rival and set the pundits’ pens scribbling over what the coup means, if anything, for Republican aspirations in 2012.
In a political version of a Rorschach Test, observers took differing views on whether Brown’s victory in what has been a conservative bastion of the state portends trouble for Scott in 2012 or was simply a case of a weak Republican candidate who failed to rally the region’s business community.

“I don’t think we’re sort of heading for a new Democratic dominance of Duval County,” said Matthew Corrigan, a political-science professor at the University of North Florida.

Instead, Corrigan said Hogan’s earlier opposition to downtown Jacksonville development and some ill-timed gaffes may have alienated him from middle-of-the-road Republicans.

Others however, contend Brown’s victory was a possible harbinger for things to come and may portend problems for Scott, who needs the region to win. The win also brings hope to Democrats who say President Barack Obama may have a chance to do as well as he did in 2008.

“It became a Republican-Democrat stepping-off point for 2012,” said Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, said of the election. “It became a very different election in the last six weeks.”

While Jacksonville’s race may be decided, another heated contest continues to boil in Miami-Dade County, where election changes signed into law this week by Gov. Rick Scott may come into play. Next week’s election will be closely watched not only those interested in who becomes the county’s next mayor, but by campaign geeks looking to see how recent changes to Florida’s early voting, provisional balloting and petition gathering laws may shape the 2012 presidential race in a critical swing state.

On Thursday, Scott signed a controversial elections bill (HB 1355), which took effect immediately in all but five Florida counties that are subject to Department of Justice review based on their history of racial discrimination.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning tried to allay fears that the changes would significantly reduce particular voter turnout (read Democrat.) With no comment from Scott’s office, Browning found himself defending the newly penned law shortly after it was put into effect.

On a provision that requires voters who have moved from county to county to cast provisional ballots if they haven't changed their address before the election, Browning said he would use his increased authority under the bill to direct local elections officials that "unless there is evidence of fraud in provisional ballots, they shall count those provisional ballots.”

In addition to the address change, the measure reduces the number of early-voting days; increases regulations for third-party voter registration organizations; and creates a new panel, chaired by Browning, to set a date for the state's presidential preference primary.

Some rights group don’t like the new law.

"Governor Scott and the anti-civil liberties State Legislature have achieved an astonishing voter suppression trifecta,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “With just one bill, they made it harder to register to vote, harder to cast your vote, and harder to have your vote counted."

HAWKES HOUNDED BY TAJ MAHAL , VINEGAR.

Having already lost the chief justice post because of his involvement with the infamous First District Court of Appeal courthouse (aka the Taj Mahal), Judge Paul Hawkes this week got slapped with an 11-page complaint from the Judicial Qualifying Commission that skewered the appellate judge for a litany of transgressions that surprised even some of his sharpest critics.

In a scathing rebuke, the report says Hawkes ordered the destruction of documents surrounding the construction of the courthouse and demanded his clerk to help Hawkes' son prepare a brief appealing a ruling by the 1st DCA.

"Your conduct relative to the construction of the First DCA courthouse has brought the entire judiciary of the State of Florida into disrepute, has inflicted substantial harm upon the entire state court system and has therefore demeaned the entire court system of the State of Florida," the report reads.

Investigators recounted another incident in which Hawkes asked an employee to buy vinegar to clean out his personal coffee maker and demanded a written explanation when the employee refused. Hawkes, through his attorney, has disputed some facts and defended others.

"Judge Hawkes was at all times acting in what he firmly believed to be the best interests of the state, the judiciary and the court on which he serves," Tallahassee lawyer Kenneth Sukhia said in a lengthy statement issued in response to the JQC complaint.

FLORIDA “NOT-FOR-NOW” PROGRAM

Funding cuts continue to hamstring the state’s environmental land buying program. The Florida Cabinet on Tuesday approved a priority list eligible for preservation under the popular Florida Forever program. But because of budget cuts approved by the Legislature, the vast majority of the nearly 2 million acres ready for conservation will remain on the waiting list for another year.
Lawmakers didn't put any money into the popular land preservation program, but gave the state the authority to spend a little over $300 million on it if money becomes available through the sale of surplus state lands. Environmentalists say, the most that could likely be raised from such land sales would be $50 million or so.


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