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16 posts from November 20, 2013

November 20, 2013

U.S. Rep. Trey Radel's GOP primary nightmare: FL Sen. Republican leader Lizbeth Benacquisto


Connie Mack might do it and win. Paige Kreegel would put up a tough fight. Gary Aubuchon could run, too. Or Chauncey Goss.

But few potential Republican challengers to embattled U.S. Rep. Trey Radel are as threatening as Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers.

The Florida Senate's Republican leader, Benacquisto is telegenic, a prodigious fundraiser, a good public speaker, is well-liked by colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the state Capitol, and she represents and lives in much of Radel's district.

Perhaps most importantly, Benacuisto is something none of the other guys is.... not a guy.

In a political party struggling to have female faces and voices, Benacquisto is the face of the GOP's rebranding effort. The Republican State Leadership Committee in May announced her appointment as an advisory board member of their Right Women, Right Now program to recruit, support and elect new women candidates to state level offices across the country.

Will Benacquisto run for congress in 2014?

With Radel's hometown newspapers and constituents calling on him to resign after his cocaine bust, some Republicans in the state capitol and Benacquisto's district are urging her to do it. She couldn't be reached.

Radel won't quit right now. He said he's going into "intensive" therapy, that he's going on leave for an indeterminate period of time and that he'll donate his salary to charity in that time.

Benacquisto is cautious. She might have to consider facing Mack.

Word from some connected to Washington say that allies of former Congressman Connie Mack, who vacated the seat in an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate, are trying to line up House leadership support for his return to CD-19. Mack can raise money.

But so can Benacquisto.

Though state contribution rules are more-permissive than federal limits (Florida allows soft-money contributions from corporations), Benacquisto has nevertheless amassed just under $400,000 in $500 increments. The federal contribution limit is $2,600; so Benacquisto could go back to many donors and hit them up for far more. Also, as a sitting state legislator whom national Republicans appear to want to support, Benacquisto can leverage her office more. And state leaders in Tallahassee would be sure to pitch in with an outside soft-money group to support her or at least attack Radel.

Lastly, she can simply spend her money and ostensibly campaign as a state senator while she really runs for Congressional District 19.

Mack isn't a current office holder. And Radel, meanwhile, is heading to rehab and a possible leave of absence, where fundraising isn't so easy.

Mack is letting us know he's out there, sending out the following statement after Radel's 10:30 p.m. press conference tonight: "I certainly hope Trey gets the help he needs. Time and his own actions will determine whether the people are willing to give him a second chance."

If it's just the guys, Mack holds the edge by far. But Benacquisto changes the calculus.

As for popularity and representation, Benacquisto's Senate District 30 encompasses much of Congressional District 19. SD-30 represents much of urban Lee County, except for the more-rural Southeast portion. CD-19 covers much of Lee as well, except for the rural northeast. CD-19 also extends southward into Naples, which Benacquisto doesn't represent.

But the Naples-Fort-Myers media market is one. And she likely has reasonable or residual positive name ID following her 2012 race, when she captured 62.3 percent of the vote. Radel won 62 percent of the vote in his general election race (he got slightly more votes, 66,039, than she did because the district is bigger and has more voters).

Collier County accounted for only 26 percent of the vote in 2012, so most of the district is already in Benacquisto's Senate seat. In its sensibilities, the southern half of CD-19 in Collier County is filled with wealthy retirees who likely would be receptive to voting in an accomplished woman and voting out a congressman with a coke problem.

As a former TV reporter, Radel was recognizable. But now he's infamous: the first congressman convicted of cocaine possession. Though an incumbent, he's a political newcomer without a deep political network.

This is a red Republican district that President Obama lost by more than 21 percentage points in a state the Democrat won by a point overall. A GOP congressional primary here would heavily focus on values and personal issues.

But old election numbers, maps and fundraising figures aren't direct predictors of a politician's actions or a political campaign.

Radel is still imploding. He might quit. He might not. If he doesn't, she and others like Mack don't want to appear to be like scavengers.

"There are a lot of vultures that come out," said former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon, who ran against Radel in the GOP primary last year. Aubuchon said he'd consider running again at a later date.

Aside from appearance, Benacquisto might not want to give up a guaranteed Senate seat where she can make a difference in Tallahassee in order to be a DC back-bencher in one of the most-despised institutions in the United States: Congress.

But then, maybe she'll think she can make the place a little better by replacing Radel.

CNBC's Nightly Business Report tackles Miami's finances but doesn't tell whole story


CNBC's national Nightly Business Report, which aired locally WPBT2 on Wednesday, focused on Miami as part of its series called "Mission Critical: Fixing America's Cities."

The show claimed, despite the city finally getting its financial books in order, that local taxpayers remained on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars due to bad bond deals. The three-minute piece at the end of the show said local Miami taxpayers were saddled "with a massive amount of debt" and later referred to that debt as "more than a billion dollars."

That's misleading.

Specifically, the show cited the Miami Marlins' stadium deal, and interviewed stadium critic and local auto magnate Norman Braman, who lost a court battle to stop the ballpark construction.

While it's true the city and Miami-Dade County sold bonds for almost 80 percent of the $642 billion construction cost -- a number that will swell to over $2 billion by the time the bonds are paid off in 40 years -- it's not accurate to say local taxpayers will be saddled with debt for decades to pay off those bonds.

Sure, the tax money that will pay the bond debt could have been used for other purposes, like convention centers or certain types of parks, but the stadium bond debt will be covered by tourists using local area hotels. It won't affect a homeowner's property tax bill unless there isn't enough money in the hotel bed-tax booty to cover the yearly nut.

County financial managers promised at the time of the deal that there would be plenty of hotel bed-tax money to cover the bond debt.

The show also mentioned how the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission sued the city and former budget director Michael Boudreaux this past summer for misleading bond investors.

That too is true. But Boudreaux is accused of transferring money for capital projects to prop up the city's general fund to make its finances look more inviting to investors. And the accusations against him have nothing to do with the stadium.

What he is accused of doing, though egregious and a gross injustice to bond investors, isn't costing homeowners more on their property tax bill. Its worst effect is to stop planned construction projects that hadn't been built anyway. 

The reality is Miami's budget is healthier than it has been in five years, and its reserves -- which dipped from over $130 million to about $10 million as the city tried to cover extensive pension costs -- is now back up to about $70 million.

View the segment below, beginning at the 21:40 mark.



Cocaine congressman Trey Radel, R-8 Ball, looks like a political dead man walking.


U.S. Rep. Trey Radel scheduled a 10:30 p.m. press conference tonight.

If he doesn't quit, it's a testament to the strength of his denial or his belief in redemption. Maybe if the Republican sticks with it, following his arrest on cocaine-possession charges and his probation meted out today and his rehab to come, he can survive.


But chances are, this media-savvy former TV anchor knows what his former colleagues in the press smell. And it's not cocaine. It's blood in the water.

UPDATE: Radel didn't resign. He said he's going into "intensive" therapy, that he's going on leave for an indeterminate period of time and that he'll donate his salary to charity in that time.

His hometown newspaper, the Fort Myers News-Press wants him to quit. So do Republican elders. Former opponents like Paige Kreegel and maybe one-time allies like Connie Mack might run.

That all happened in just 24 hours after the breaking news of his Oct. 29 cocaine bust. It might have looked more survivable this morning, but now it looks dauntingly difficult.

Continue reading "Cocaine congressman Trey Radel, R-8 Ball, looks like a political dead man walking. " »

Scott's latest letter targets parents of school kids with info on new law

In today's installment of the "Rick Scott letters," parents of kids in school are now the target of a routine letter turned self-promotion for the governor.  

In an email today to every parent on its list serv, the Department of Education is asking them to read the letter from Scott about a SB 1108, a bill passed last session to help parents of students who qualify for exceptional student education.

"The letter will be distributed by the governor’s office and the Department in a variety of ways and we have requested school districts provide this letter to parents during IEP meetings,'' the email reads.

The bill was a priority of Sens. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who wanted to provide a Bill of Rights of sorts for parents of students with disabilities.

But rather than leave it to school districts to inform parents of the new law, the governor spells it out himself in a letter dated Nov. 5, and injects a little about himself in the process. "As a father and grandfather, I know the positive impact of parents taking part in thier children's education,'' the governor writes.  Download Letter to Parents SB 1108

The governor, whose popularity in the polls continues to remain lower than opponent and former Gov. Charlie Crist, has found new ways to turn the routine duties of his job into a self-promotion machine in an effort to win popular appeal. In addition to today's letter to parents, Scott has written congratulatory notes to lottery winners, Florida bar candidates, professional license applicants, recent college graduates and even agency staff. More here. 

The governor defends the practice, especially those that contain kudos. "“I want to congratulate everybody that is doing a great job,'' he told reporters Tuesday. "And I’m going to continue to do that.” 

Here's the DOE email:

Continue reading "Scott's latest letter targets parents of school kids with info on new law" »

Former state Rep. Paige Kreegel: I might re-challenge US Rep. Trey Radel if he lacks "decency" to resign


Former Punta Gorda state Rep. Paige Kreegel, a Republican doctor who ran in a crowded 2012 primary won by Trey Radel, said he might challenge the congressman again after the political newcomer was busted in Washington for cocaine possession.

"He either has to have the decency to leave office or he'll have to wait until the voters throw him out," Kreegel said.

Does that mean you'd run?

"I'm not opposed to it," Kreegel said. "But it's early."

But there are already calls for Radel to step down. And he has scheduled a deadline-busting 10:30 p.m. press conference.

If Radel stays in, he's sure to have a GOP opponent. Though redemption is a favorite narrative in American politics, cocaine possession might not play so well in the conservative Southwest Florida district. Republican Mitt Romney beat President Obama in District 19 by 21.8 percentage points, and Radel beat his Democratic opponent, Jim Roach, by 26.2 points.

This seat is decided in GOP primaries, where values voters and conservatives might not appreciate a congressman who parties in DC with 3.5 grams of cocaine (which he bought off a federal undercover agent).

Radel won the 2012 primary with 30 percent of the vote. Chauncey Goss, son of former U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, got 21.5 percent, came in second. Kreegel was third (17.7percent) followed by former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon (15.5) and Joe Davidow (1.4 percent).

Asked about that race, Kreegel said of Radel: "First he was cyber-squatting on domain names of his opponents. He denied it. Then he admitted it and blamed someone else. Then it was reported he had pornographic websites, which he denied, and then admitted while blaming some underling at his business. What's the next shoe to drop? We shall see."

"It would have been for the voters to know before they elected him that he has a long-term alcohol and cocaine problem."

State job incentives web site is incomplete and lacks transparency, legislators say

Two Democratic legislators from South Florida have scheduled a press conference tomorrow to demand that the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity comply with a new law that requires the agency's web site to tell taxpayers how their money is being spent in the high-stakes jobs recruitment business.

Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, are asking that the state comply with the requirements of the new law by Jan. 1, 2014.

“Every year our state provides funds to companies in return for promises that they’ll create jobs,” Rodríguez said. “If job creation is the goal, then the portal is supposed to help keep score to see which projects are making good on promises to taxpayers. We passed reforms this year but DEO’s portal still doesn’t comply with either the spirit or the letter of the law.”

The law requires the state to not only list the tax incentives provided to companies but also list the average annual wage of persons holding jobs generated as well as the jobs retained. 

“Transparency is lacking and the portal is not complete,'' Sobel said.

Here's their letter:

Continue reading "State job incentives web site is incomplete and lacks transparency, legislators say" »

Coral Gables city manager inspires return of University of Miami's onion rings


For the most part, University of Miami and Coral Gables officials had nothing but praise for each other at their annual meeting together Tuesday morning.

The exception: Gables City Manager and UM alumnus Pat Salerno found something missing from the Rathskeller at UM’s new $46.5 million Student Activities Center.

“Those delicious onion rings that sustained me through my college days are no longer on the menu,” Salerno lamented.

UM President Donna Shalala chuckled, suggesting she’d look into the oversight.

On Wednesday, the school announced that onion rings would return as a special menu item when students hit classes in January. Salerno has a standing invitation to come taste test.

“I will add this item to the city’s list of accomplishments for this year,” he said, with a laugh. “I can’t wait to eat them.”

UM says the new snack will get a new name, too: SalernOrings.


Alan Levine (of Bush-Jindal-Scott world): My Rep., Trey Radel, should resign after coke bust


There are growing calls in Southwest Florida for his U.S. Rep., fellow Republican Trey Radel, to resign after he was busted for cocaine possession in Washington. Few of the calls carry the weight and independence, though, of Alan Levine of Naples.

Levine, a hospital executive, held top positions under FL Gov. Jeb Bush and LA Gov. Bobby Jindal and had previously worked in the private sector for now-Gov. Rick Scott's former hospital company. He has no intention of running for office and he wants to stay in the private sector.

But, Levine said on his Facebook page, Radel should consider doing the same thing:

"Trey Radel is my Congressman. I'm so sorry he is having to face the disease of addiction and I truly wish him and his family well on this road to recovery. This having been said, I believe he should resign immediately from the United States Congress. Whether by choice or addiction, he has engaged in behavior that put himself at risk, and legitimately raises questions about his judgment. He is not fit to serve. I'm sure he is an otherwise good man with a wonderful family. He should focus on them and his recovery and not hang on to the office as though it is his entitlement. He would not have been elected had it been known he was using cocaine and was an active alcoholic, and there is no way he can claim entitlement to a seat in the peoples' house when his behavior could compromise his ability to think clearly about what he is doing as a voting member. If he cares about his nation, he will resign now."

Asked about the post, Levine elaborated to The Miami Herald:

"I say it with a heavy heart.  Everything I've heard about him is so positive.  But the most important thing you are supposed to have in Congress is your judgment.  Addiction recovery is a difficult thing that requires pretty intense focus.  If he is serious about that, and he should be for his and his family's sake, he really can't serve.  Believe me, as someone who supported him, and would again if he did the right thing here, he would be doing himself and his constituents a great service that would indicate his capacity for putting his country first."

"In my opinion, when you are in elected office, you can't put yourself in a compromising position - particularly when you serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee.    My views are pretty consistent on this.  I may be in the minority, but that's how I feel anyway."

Prior to this, state Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, tweeted out a comparison between Radel and crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford: "Don't let the problem in Toronto's government repeat itself in Fl. Congressional delegation. It's time step aside & move on. #sayfie"

Then came the Fort Myers News Press: "Radel Must Resign."

Board makes it official: Criser is new university system chancellor


The Board of Governors made it official today by unanimously approving Marshall Criser III as the next state university system chancellor.

His first day will be Jan. 6.

After the vote, 55-year-old Criser addressed the board and outlined his vision for the 12 public universities he will now oversee. He said Chancellor Frank Brogan, who stepped down in September to take a similar job in Pennsylvania, worked with the board to create a foundation Criser plans to build upon.

"It is incredible to me the team that is a part of this Board of Governors and the professionals that are there, the competence that is there, and the day-in-and-day-out committment that they make to our state that make this something that is incredibly attractive to me," Criser said of the chancellor job.

He said he will build on that foundation by establishing additional accountability measures to help demostrate the value of investing in Florida's higher education system and to share that story with Florida families and taxpayers.

Although his salary will be negotiated, the board authorized a match to what Brogan earned: $357,000 a year.

Criser, his wife Kimberly and their children will be moving to Tallahassee from Miami. He will resign from his position as president of AT&T Florida, a company he has worked for his entire professional career.

Scott won't take sides in Republican primary for Young's seat

Gov. Rick Scott shared a stage in Clearwater Wednesday and introduced state Rep. Kathleen Peters, the first-term lawmaker who's seeking the Pinellas seat in Congress vacated by the death of C.W. Bill Young.

"Governor, I love it when you come to Pinellas County because it's always about jobs," Peters said.

It might have been an ideal moment for Scott to endorse Peters, but  the governor definitely does not plan to take sides in a contested GOP primary.

"Look, there's a primary, and I'm sure it will be an interesting primary, like mine was," Scott said in an interview. "We'll see what happens down the road."

Three years ago, Scott ran in a party primary and defeated then-Attorney General Bill McCollum, who had the support of the Republican Party establishment. Scott knows what it's like to run in a Republican primary and not be the anointed one.  

Peters was one of three Pinellas lawmakers who joined Scott at a groundbreaking ceremony for PODS Enterprises, a moving and srorage business that announced it will add 40 full-time jobs over the next three years in a new corporate headquarters on Feather Sound Drive. Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Ed Hooper also attended.

The company, founded by two local firefighters in 1999 and now headed by CEO John Koch, has grown rapidly and now has corporate offices or franchises in 48 states.

As Scott left the event, he gave Peters a hug and said, "Good luck." "Thanks," Peters replied. "I'll need it."

Peters faces David Jolly, Young's long-time former counsel, and Mark Bircher, a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps Reserve. The winner of the Republican primary on Jan. 14 will face Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the March 11, 2014 general election.   

-- Steve Bousquet