(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
There might not have been much cursing or broken clubs, but there was one way in which Florida politics this week resembled a golf game: Everyone seemed to want a mulligan.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio asked for a do-over on his pledge not to run for re-election, three months after Republican voters rejected his presidential bid that prompted the guarantee in the first place. It was a decision that rippled through a campaign season that was beginning in earnest, and candidates at several levels were left scrambling to manage the fallout before Friday’s qualifying deadline.
Meanwhile, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took a pass on reprising its controversial decision last year to authorize a bear hunt — meaning the state’s ursine community is safe for at least another year. But there was already talk of letting hunters have at the animals again in 2017.
One thing that didn’t seem likely to change: the politics of gun control following the deadliest shooting spree in American history. Democrats at the state and federal level continued to press for new restrictions on the purchase of firearms after the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, but Republicans resisted those calls and accused gun control advocates of pulling political stunts.
TO RUN OR NOT TO RUN
He never delivered a monologue while clutching a skull, but Rubio spent much of the last two weeks doing a convincing Hamlet impersonation, weighing whether to run for re-election despite promising that his first term in the U.S. Senate would be his last. Republican leaders — worried that none of the GOP candidates angling to succeed Rubio would be able to hold onto the seat — were more than willing to fuel his deliberations.
On Wednesday, Rubio made it official. He threw his hat in the ring, a move that elbowed out Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a longtime friend, and two other candidates by the time the week was up. And that was only after a fourth contender, Republican Congressman David Jolly, had decided last week to bow out of the race and run for his own seat again.
The state’s junior senator, who had spent much of his year running for the White House and disparaging his place of work, now saw the Senate as a vital “check and balance on the excesses of a president” — even if real-estate mogul Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, is elected over his Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The prospect of a Trump presidency is also worrisome to me. … If he is elected, we will need senators willing to encourage him in the right direction, and if necessary, stand up to him. I’ve proven a willingness to do both,” said Rubio, who told reporters last month he would be willing to speak at next month’s GOP convention, where Trump will clinch the nomination.
Democrats said the move smacked of political opportunism. And they were quick to bring up some of the same issues that dogged Rubio’s presidential bid, including his sporadic-at-best attendance at Senate votes that conflicted with his White House ambitions.
“Rubio lost 66 of 67 counties in March because he abandoned the people of Florida and showed himself to be nothing but an opportunistic career politician,” said Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant. “Today’s news only confirms that further.”
Still, polls indicated Rubio had a far better chance of beating Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy, the establishment choice, or Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, a liberal firebrand, in the November general election. And Rubio all but cleared the field, with Lopez-Cantera, Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis and businessman Todd Wilcox dropping their candidacies by the end of the week.
Developer Carlos Beruff trudged on, slamming Rubio as a career politician and making it clear he intended to remain in the race.
“The power brokers in Washington think they can control this race,” Beruff said in a fiery statement following Rubio’s announcement. “They think they can tell the voters of Florida who their candidates are. But the voters of Florida will not obey them.”
The dominoes fell quickly, particularly in DeSantis’s district, where many of the other candidates abandoned ship after the incumbent said he would run for the U.S. House again. But at least one state lawmaker — Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach — decided to stick it out.
“Let me be clear. Congressman DeSantis and I both have outstanding conservative records,” Costello said in the statement. “This election will be based upon who the voters believe will best serve our community. Nobody is better prepared or will work harder to benefit the residents of Congressional District 6 than I. My record of Congressional District 6 community service is unmatched.”
Dozens of other candidates from across the state also qualified ahead of the Friday deadline, with every member of Congress drawing at least token opposition as other races took shape or changed slightly.
Democrat Andrew Korge dropped out of a high-profile battle against incumbent Republican Sen. Anitere Flores and instead waded into a Democratic primary for a nearby Miami-Dade County Senate seat. That put him in a three-way primary contest with incumbent Sen. Dwight Bullard and Ana Rivas Logan, who once served in the state House as a Republican.
In Congressional District 2, a largely rural and conservative seat in Northwest Florida, Fort White businessman Jeff Moran stepped aside and endorsed his former rival, Tallahassee attorney Ken Sukhia, in the GOP primary.
BEAR WITH US
There’s a fresh reason bears in Florida might target your pick-a-nick basket. Namely, no one will be allowed to shoot them for a while.
On a 4-3 vote Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shot down a staff recommendation that would have allowed a hunt in October, albeit one with fewer permits and smaller hunting grounds than the 2015 event that saw 304 bears killed over two days. But that doesn’t mean that bears are out of the woods for good.
“I don’t think it means hunting goes away,” Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski said at the end of a daylong meeting in the rural Franklin County community of Eastpoint.
Yablonski added that the delay will allow non-lethal efforts to take hold. Those efforts include expanding the availability of bear-proof trash containers in communities with high incidents of bear-human interactions.
The state agency has about $825,000 this year — due in part to money raised from the 2015 hunt — to match with money from local governments for the non-lethal options.
Opponents, including some who challenged the 2015 hunt in court and some wearing shirts that said “Bear lives matter,” told commissioners they intended to work against any killing of bears for sport, which they contend will hurt tourism in Florida.
“We’ve had two shootings recently that have given Florida a huge black eye,” said Katrina Shadix of Oviedo before the commission vote. “Do we want to add another controversial bear hunt to our image?”
But Newton Cook, a member of The Future of Hunting in Florida, said those who question the state agency’s scientists “are wrong” and simply seeking an excuse to call for a delay or postponement of the hunt.
“Thirty states have bear hunting,” Cook said. “This is not rocket science.”
‘THE FINAL STRAW’?
The chances that any shooting incident is going to change the fraught politics of guns in America are always slim, and the killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando have proven no different. After the incident that claimed 49 lives — in addition to shooter Omar Mateen — on June 12, both sides of the firearm debate were quickly back to their rhetorical battle stations.
State Sen. Greg Evers, a Baker Republican running for Congress, riled LGBT activists by running a contest for which the prize was an AR-15 — a gun similar to the one Mateen used at Pulse. Evers announced Monday morning on Facebook that he was giving away an AR-15 to a district resident who “likes” the social media post and shares it with others.
By the end of the day, Facebook had removed Evers’ gun giveaway promotion, saying it violated the social media site’s “community standards” policy that bans posts “promoting graphic violence.”
But the media maelstrom surrounding the gun contest continued.
Evers, who has received an “A” or “A-plus” rating from the National Rifle Association during his 15 years in the state Legislature, said he felt compelled to move forward with the gun giveaway after listening to President Barack Obama, who traveled to Orlando last week and has used the mass killing to push for stricter gun-control measures.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to move forward,” Evers said. “But when Barack Obama went down there and he blamed a terrorist attack on the weapon, that was the final straw.”
LGBT activists saw things differently.
“I think it is tasteless, disrespectful, disgusting, political pandering at its worst,” Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida, an LGBT advocacy group that has raised more than $6 million for victims of the massacre. “The idea that he wants to put the same style assault rifle that was just used for mass murder into the hands of a random stranger is grotesque.”
Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats — including several from Florida — staged a daylong sit-in on the House floor in an unsuccessful effort to get Republican leaders to hold a vote on legislation barring people on government watch lists from purchasing guns.
STORY OF THE WEEK: After months of maintaining he would not run for a second term, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio entered the race for his seat in hopes of preserving the Republican majority in the Senate.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “When they ask about guns, and then they lecture you to get rid of guns, that’s politics. It’s not medicine. We take our children to the doctor because they are sick. We don’t take them there for political lectures on guns.”—Marion Hammer, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, on the legal fight over a Florida law that seeks to restrict doctors from asking questions and recording information about patients’ gun ownership.