Hello and welcome to Friday the 13th.
Path not taken — Well, so much for Laurel Lee becoming a Florida Supreme Court justice.
Into the fray — The secretary of state abruptly resigned from her post this week in a move that is coming ahead of an anticipated run for Congress for a newly-created congressional seat centered mainly in northeast Hillsborough County (and which will likely be the subject of a heated and crowded Republican primary). Lee’s entry in the race is expected to happen next week once her resignation takes effect.
Walking the line — Lee, a former judge and prosecutor married to former Senate President Tom Lee who had once been touted as a possible candidate for the high court, has spent the last three-plus years performing a balancing act as the state’s chief election official. She tried to ease tensions with local elected officials while at the same time adhering to the agenda set out by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. She stepped into the job following a period under then-Gov. Rick Scott where supervisors did not expect much help out of Tallahassee.
Bumps — Sometimes it wasn’t easy: Last summer, Lee and department staff were peppered with questions by county election supervisors frustrated with SB 90, the election law that made changes to mail-in balloting even though the 2020 election went smoothly. The implementation of the felon-voting law passed by legislators in response to Amendment 4 was rocky at times as well — with reverberations still going on as evidenced by a voter fraud investigation underway in several counties.
Stood by results — Lee also found herself a target from some Republicans as well. Both Lee and the governor rebuffed demands from supporters of former President Donald Trump who wanted a full-blown audit of the last election in Florida even though Trump won the state fairly easily. Lee was a target of threats because of her stance. Oh, and let’s not forget that it was Lee who had to deal with the revelations that Russians successfully hacked into the voting registration systems of at least two counties in Florida.
Timing is everything — But Lee’s departure comes at a critical juncture. It’s a month before candidate qualifying and Florida’s congressional map is caught up in a bitter legal battle. There’s still a lawsuit over SB 90, and every election season usually brings more. Additionally, Lee’s agency is supposed to stand up and staff a new “Office of Election Crimes and Security” that DeSantis pushed to create in the most recent legislative session. This office is supposed to target voter fraud, but it is being viewed with skepticism and suspicion from Democrats who fear this new election police will be used for partisan purposes.
What’s next — The question is whether DeSantis will put in an efficient caretaker to carry out his agenda — or if he decides it’s time to place someone with political, and not management, credentials in the position. The governor’s office kept close tabs on the Department of State during Lee’s time, so it would be expected that that level of control would be maintained (especially in a run-up to the 2024 elections).
— WHERE’S RON? — Nothing official scheduled for Gov. DeSantis.
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FALLOUT — “Alexander resigns amid sexual harassment allegations,” by POLITICO’s Matt Dixon: Incoming Florida House Minority Leader Ramon Alexander (D-Tallahassee) said Thursday he will not seek re-election amid allegations he sexually harassed and intimidated a former official at Florida A&M. Alexander, 37, faced allegations in separate complaints filed with the Florida Commission on Human Relations that he intimidated and sexually harassed Michael Johnson Jr., the school’s former associate athletic director, including sending videos showing of him performing a solo sex act on FaceTime. The allegations were first reported by the Tallahassee Democrat.
DEPARTURE — “Florida’s top election official steps down state is mired in legal disputes,” by POLITICO’s Gary Fineout: Florida’s chief election officer is abruptly resigning less than six months before the 2022 election, creating a major vacancy in the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Secretary of State Laurel Lee, in a letter dated Wednesday, told the administration that she is stepping down. The news comes amid speculation that she will run for a newly-created, Republican-leaning congressional seat in the Tampa Bay area. This district has already attracted several candidates, including state Rep. Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa) and former Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.).
CANCELLED? — “Florida teachers, school staff caught by ‘gotcha police’ as DeSantis culture wars heat up,” by USA Today Network-Florida’s James Call: “A Tallahassee middle school principal became ensnarled in Florida’s election-year culture war when she landed in a social-media feedback loop created by a state representative who wants her fired for Facebook comments about the challenges of working in public schools. Educators, academics, Democratic lawmakers, and labor union leaders say the politically motivated threat to Sarah Hembree’s 15-year career is the latest incident in an ongoing conservative-led attack on public education powered by a social media patrol. They say it poses a threat to the free speech rights of all public sector employees.”
HMM — “Florida rejected dozens of math textbooks. But only 3 reviewers found CRT violations,” by Miami Herald’s Ana Ceballos and Sommer Brugal: “When the Florida Department of Education announced it was rejecting 54 math textbooks, it pointed to a “thorough review” process that found more than half of those books included ‘prohibited topics,’ including critical race theory and social-emotional learning. A Miami Herald review of nearly 6,000 pages of textbook examinations, however, shows just three state reviewers — including a sophomore studying politics at a conservative college in Michigan — said four math books violated a state rule that prohibits the teaching of critical race theory.”
‘THIS WASN’T A TYPICAL MEETING’— “Gay high schooler says he’s ‘being silenced’ by Florida’s LGBTQ law,” by NBC News Matt Lavietes: “Florida high school senior Zander Moricz was called into his principal’s office last week. As class president his whole high school career — and his school’s first openly LGBTQ student to hold the title — this was a fairly routine request. But once he entered the administrator’s office, he said, he immediately knew ‘this wasn’t a typical meeting.’ His principal — Stephen Covert of Pine View School in Osprey, Florida, roughly 70 miles south of Tampa — warned Moricz that if his graduation speech referenced his LGBTQ activism, school officials would cut off his microphone, end his speech and halt the ceremony, Moricz alleged.”
— “Pine View student appears to be on a collision course with administration over address,” by Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Samantha Golar and Steven Walker
BILL WAS VETOED LAST YEAR — “DeSantis signs juvenile record expungement bill,” by POLITICO’s Stephany Matat: Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a juvenile record expungement bill on Thursday to allow more youthful first-time offenders the opportunity to wipe their records clean. …Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville), the Senate bill’s sponsor, has advocated for the measure for four years. He said juvenile offenders who are sent to complete diversion programs have had difficulty finding a job or getting a scholarship with an offense on their record. The bill allows juveniles the one-time chance for a clean record after completing a diversion program. “The longer you’re in the system, the more likely you are to stay in the system,” Perry said. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep you out of the system.”
IT’S A STEP — “CFO Jimmy Patronis calls on lawmakers to pass anti-fraud initiatives during special session on insurance,” by Fox News’ Kellie Cowan: “Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis called on lawmakers to pass anti-fraud initiatives during their special session on insurance later this month. Patronis said private insurance carriers in Florida have been crushed by frivolous litigation and fake claims, which have driven up rates, pushed companies out of business or out of state and forced hundreds of thousands more people into the state’s last-resort Citizens Insurance plans.”
— “Gov. DeSantis signs bill fortifying rights for crime victims,” by Florida Politics’ Renzo Downey
— “National Association of Attorneys General ripped by parade of Republicans, but Florida’s Ashley Moody staying quiet for now,” by The Capitolist’s Brian Burgess
MAKING IT OFFICIAL — POLITICO’s Matt Dixon writes: Tallahassee Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith, who Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the bench, on Thursday night released a 21-page ruling outlining his rationale for finding congressional maps drawn by DeSantis unconstitutional. In a ruling from the bench after a Wednesday hearing, Smith said the map violated the state constitution’s Fair Districts provisions because it took 360,000 Black voters out of North Florida’s 5th Congressional District and scattered them among four separate districts, thereby diluting their political power and not allowing them to elect a candidate of their choosing.
DeSantis’ legal team has argued the 200-mile district that stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee is at odds with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and was essentially illegal “racial gerrymandering.” Smith acknowledged that the ruling was rushed, but said the issue was too important to wait: “This case is one of fundamental public importance, involving fundamental constitutional rights. If this Court had the luxury of time, it would take longer to render this order. Notwithstanding, because time is of the essence, the Court renders this order now,” he wrote.
JUMPING IN — POLITICO’s Arek Sarkissian writes: Florida Surgeon General Joe Ladapo on Thursday asked the Food and Drug Administration to explain why the agency has not helped a national baby formula shortage by wrapping up an investigation into a deadly recall from February. “As you know, the FDA has recently acknowledged the formula shortage, caused by its warning and recall,” Ladapo wrote in a letter he sent to U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf. “Time is of the essence to restart production at the Abbott facility, yet the FDA has failed to produce any preliminary findings necessary to begin the reopening process and update the nation on this issue.” Ladapo told Califf alternative products are much more expensive. The Sturgis, Mich., Abbott plant at the center of the recall produced the majority of the formula supply in the U.S.
SNIPPY — “Feud between Biden and Rick Scott turns personal,” by Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim: “It’s the story of a political battle turning personal. In recent weeks, [President Joe] Biden and a panoply of White House officials have systematically elevated the first-term senator from Florida as a central GOP boogeyman, seizing on his 11-point conservative policy platform that the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has explicitly rejected — in part because he feared Democrats would target it exactly as they are doing. But for now, each side sees a political advantage in going after the other, and because [Sen. Rick] Scott is widely believed to have presidential ambitions, their back-and-forth could provide a preview of 2024 campaign rhetoric.”
— “Biden to meet with Tampa’s mayor, police chief on Friday,” by Tampa Bay Times’ Charlie Frago
SHOWDOWN — “Marco Rubio vs. Val Demings is set to test whether Democrats should just give up on red-shifting Florida,” by Insider’s Kimberly Leonard and Warren Rojas: “Florida’s US Senate race will be crucial for Democrats’ hope — a dwindling one, some liberals concede — of retaining their bare-bones Senate majority. Floridians have dealt blows to Democrats over three election cycles, leading many to question whether the state Barack Obama won twice can even be called a battleground anymore.”
CAMPAIGN ROUNDUP — Florida Victory, a joint operation between the Republican National Committee and Republican Party of Florida, on Friday will launch its second Operation Red Week of Training. Florida Victory says that the training, which runs until May 19, will focus on “election integrity” efforts including statewide poll watching and canvassing trainings.
SUMMER VISITOR? — “‘A silent surge’: While the newest omicron subvariant drives up COVID cases in Florida, effects are mild,” by Sun-Sentinel’s Cindy Krischer Goodman: “A subvariant of omicron is spreading rapidly in Florida, and health experts say it will likely become the dominant strain of the virus in the state before the summer. The subvariant, named B.A.2.12.1, is a new mutation of the omicron COVID-19 variant — and even more contagious. Some experts believe it may be the most contagious strain thus far.”
HOW DID IT COME TO THIS — “How two middle school ‘desperadoes ended up in a police shootout,” by The New York Times’ Frances Robles: “‘Lieutenant, I’m all for not killing kids and stuff,’ Sgt. Omar Bello told his fellow officers, according to a state review of officers’ body camera footage from the scene. ‘But, I mean, if they’re shooting at us, we have to put an end to this.’ For 10 seconds, eight sheriff’s deputies fired toward the children, unloading 66 rounds from their Glock service weapons and .223-caliber rifles. Nicole [Jackson] screamed in pain, and the boy came out of the house with his hands up. ‘You shot my friend!’ he shouted. ‘Don’t shoot me!’”
Trying to figure it out — “In a state still reeling from the mass murder of 17 people at a Parkland high school in 2018 — killed by a teenager with a history of mental health challenges — juvenile health advocates say Nicole’s case raises serious questions about how a child could have had so many repeated interactions with police officers, social service agencies and psychiatrists without ever getting the long-term therapy that might have broken the dangerous cycle. The answer, many of them said, is Florida’s chronic underfunding of mental health services as the state’s population has soared.”
‘STILL PROCESSING THAT LOSS’ — “Surfside families still want answers despite settlement,” by The Associated Press’ Adriana Gomez Licon and Terry Spencer: “Gathered at a ceremony Thursday to honor the 98 people who died in a Florida condominium collapse last summer, some of the victims’ family members said they are too deep in mourning to contemplate the nearly $1 billion settlement their attorneys negotiated on their behalf. Families and local officials gathered at the chain-link fence surrounding the vacant lot where Champlain Towers South once stood for the unveiling of temporary banners adorned with the victims’ names and ages under the heading ‘Fathers, Mothers, Sons, Daughters, Brothers, Sisters.’”
HOMEGROWN — “Trulieve sees strong year for revenue despite industry’s lackluster Canadian stock market showing,” by POLITICO’s Arek Sarkissian: Trulieve CEO and Founder Kim Rivers said on Thursday that Florida’s medical marijuana industry will continue to bring in hundreds of millions in profits for the company despite lackluster industry-wide performance on a Canadian stock market. Rivers told stockholders during a Thursday phone call centered on the company’s first-quarter performance that her company saw a higher-than-anticipated $318.3 million in revenue growth this year, with up to $1.4 billion in revenue expected for the year.
— “Miami drops years of opposition to medical marijuana dispensaries inside city limits,” by Miami Herald’s Joey Flechas
AWFUL — “At least 11 die as migrant boat capsizes near Puerto Rico, U.S. Says,” by The New York Times’ Vimal Patel and Miriam Jordan: “At least 11 people died and 31 others were rescued on Thursday after a boat carrying migrants capsized about 10 miles north of Desecheo Island, P.R., the U.S. Coast Guard said. The agency said that the crew of a Customs and Border Protection aircraft sighted a capsized vessel shortly before noon. The crew reported people in the water who did not appear to be wearing life jackets, the Coast Guard said. The Coast Guard said the vessel was ‘suspected of taking part in an illegal voyage.’
— “Same-sex spouse blocked from receiving settlement in tobacco death,” by News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders
— “Florida: Viral video shows popped balloons in bay, 1 arrest,” by The Associated Press: “A viral video of people popping party balloons on a yacht at a South Florida marina and dumping the rubbery scraps into the bay has led to one arrest and more that $25,000 in fines, officials said. A 29-year-old man was arrested Wednesday and charged with reckless disregard for the environment, according to a police news release. Detectives issued $2,500 civil citations for illegal dumping to the arrested man and nine other individuals and businesses.”
BIRTHDAYS: Kim Hill, vice president for university communications and marketing at University of South Florida … Adam Weinstein, writer and producer at MSNBC … Phil Musser, VP of government affairs at NextEra … (Saturday): Susie Wiles, Republican strategist and operative …. Craig Fugate, former FEMA director and former state emergency management director …. Todd Reid with Firehouse Strategies