Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. November 6, 2021.

Editorial: Public must have a say in redrawing political districts

In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. and American Founding Father Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that created a Boston legislative district in the shape of a salamander, to benefit his partisans. Gerry (a year later, James Madison’s vice president) thus founded the pernicious legacy of gerrymandering that contaminates our bodies politic to this day.

Political leaders in Tallahassee this fall are convening to redraw Florida state and congressional district maps. The political boundary adjustments are required by law every 10 years, to accommodate changes in the U.S. population.

It’s a perfectly appropriate process, particularly in Florida, where the population grows steadily and the size of many demographic groups rises and ebbs like the tides. Political and financial travails send us new citizens from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Central and South America. High income taxes in the Northeast and a love of Florida shores and sunshine send us New Yorkers and Canadian converts.

So adjustments are needed, to craft districts roughly equal in population, while ensuring every citizen equal representation to the extent possible, and presumably without tilting the tables to favor one party or another.

Sadly, 209 years later and 1,313 miles away, Gerry’s legacy lives on in Tallahassee.

As leaders of the Florida’s dominant GOP begin this year’s process, guardians of electoral fairness and decency — the League of Women Voters and FairDistricts Now, among them — report that those running the show give every indication of returning to the backroom tactics that got them in trouble the last time around.

Few if any hearings have been scheduled around the state to gather public input into redistricting, whether in-person or virtual. Requests to have the actual map-drawing broadcast or streamed for public viewing also have been ignored, according to Ellen Freidin, CEO and General Counsel of FairDistricts Now.

Freidin spoke Thursday at a Zoom session on Redistricting that was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and moderated by The Palm Beach Post’s editorial page editor, Tony Doris.

A decade ago, GOP pols promised the most transparent redistricting process ever and held more than 25 public hearings to prove it. But in the end, they conspired with partisan operatives to draw maps that the Florida Supreme Court found — and the GOP admitted — were unconstitutionally skewed to help Republican candidates. In that 2014 case, League of Women Voters of Florida v. Detzner, Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis said state lawmakers made a “mockery” of redistricting.

It took three-and-a-half years to clean up that mess and create new maps that met legal and ethical muster. The result, Freidin notes: a lot more races where locked-in incumbents faced strong challenges, and some cases in which incumbents changed positions on issues in response to the unskewing of their district lines, knowing that the political balance of their constituencies shifted. In short, we got fair districts.

But once again the party that controls the process shows little interest in the cleansing power of sunshine. Worse, this now is a state majority under the sway of a national party set on suppressing the rights of those it fears might vote against it, namely Democrats as a whole and blacks in particular.

It’s a party enacting laws pretending to fix imagined electoral flaws, and whose leaders denigrate even-handed supervisors of elections and party colleagues who won’t walk in lockstep, leaders who can’t own up to a presidential election result that more than 60 courts across the nation validated. And here came Gov. Ron DeSantis to Palm Beach County this week, to announce with faux-Trumpist bravado that he’s establishing a state enforcement team, to fight election fraud that doesn’t exist, to rally his base and suppress our vote.

Late-night television host Stephen Colbert’s mocking term “truthiness” of 2005 is no longer adequate to describe today’s far more insidious mendacity, when democracy itself hangs in the balance. There’s a bright line from rationalizing real electoral cheating, especially in a state as critical as Florida, to the end of the world as we know it. And they know it. And that’s why they’re doing it.

This year’s map-making controls our state’s political landscape for the next 10 years. But 209 years after the term gerrymandering was coined, it’s clear its potential impact could stretch far beyond this decade. We need to establish a legacy of honesty and openness, and to leave Elbridge Gerry in the dust, where he belongs.

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Orlando Sentinel. November 5, 2021.

Editorial: Purely by accident, Ron DeSantis may be best hope for defeating dark money abuse

Ron DeSantis might be on to something.

He wants the Legislature to set up an office devoted exclusively to investigating violations of election fraud.

If that should happen then, oh boy, do we have a doozy of a case to get started with.

It involves a mysterious no-party affiliation candidate for Florida’s Senate in Seminole County, a reclusive person who did no campaigning, refused interviews, was helped by dark money from equally mysterious political groups, and then high-tailed it to Sweden after the election.

Even more intriguing are the financial and political connections to another NPA Senate candidate in South Florida who allegedly was bribed by a former politician to run as a spoiler to help the Republican in the race and hurt the Democrat.

While a South Florida state attorney is pursuing that case, and has already made an arrest, the Central Florida irregularities were met with a collective shoulder shrug. The Seminole-Brevard state attorney said it wasn’t his job to investigate. He passed the buck to the state’s elections chief, appointed by DeSantis, who also said not my job.

Finally, after a firehose of jaw-dropping news articles, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement deigned to open a “preliminary investigation.”

Imagine where we might be if Florida had an enforcement arm that genuinely cared about election integrity. It could investigate everything from fraudulent voting, which doesn’t seem to be a real problem in Florida, to more credible allegations of candidate bribery and failure to follow campaign disclosure laws.

“They’re going to have the ability to investigate any crimes involving the election, and I think that’s going to be something that’s very, very important,” DeSantis said Wednesday at a news conference/political rally in West Palm Beach.

It’s doubtful when DeSantis floated this idea that he had dark money abuses in mind. He’s displayed zero interest in the state Senate campaign scandal in South Florida. More likely, the governor’s proposed reforms are in response to Florida man Roger Stone’s threat to run for governor as a Libertarian if DeSantis doesn’t order an audit of the 2020 state election results.

Motives aside, if DeSantis is true to his word about investigating all laws related to elections we have no complaints about stricter enforcement. The danger, of course, is that this new enforcement agency would be politically selective about what it chooses to enforce, much like the state Division of Elections does now.

The Elections Division took a pass on looking into possible state Senate shenanigans, saying it had no authority, but then hopped right to it when DeSantis wanted an investigation into vague allegations that Facebook violated election laws. We don’t need a new elections investigation office if it’s going to function as just another political weapon for the governor.

In a good faith world, however, we like the idea of finally having an agency that could ferret out the abuses of dark money, probably the most corrupting influence in Florida politics today.

Dark money is, basically, campaign spending where the sources of the money are hidden. In other words, you have no idea who’s writing the checks to fund political activity. Dark money spending is nontransparent, undemocratic, inherently corrupt and, unfortunately, largely legal.

However, a remarkable series of news articles, spearheaded by Orlando Sentinel reporters Jason Garcia and Annie Martin, has revealed plenty of evidence of possible illegality.

For instance, an article published Oct. 31 described how a political nonprofit contributed more than $10 million to an organization that was campaigning to make it harder to change Florida’s Constitution. But the contribution was described on the nonprofit’s tax return as paying for consulting services, a classification that allows nonprofits to better hide how they’re spending money.

Other news articles have described a web of shadowy organizations and people who move money around in an attempt to manipulate election outcomes without any of the transparency that allows voters to figure out who and what special interests are behind it all. The articles have reported forged signatures, undisclosed payments and a dupe who was paid so her name would appear as on political committee paperwork.

It’s very confusing, which is a big part of the problem with dark money. Florida could go a long way toward solving the problem by passing a simple law that prohibits the transfer of money between political committees and parties. That would essentially stop political committees from laundering campaign contributions in much the same way mobsters launder dirty money.

We had hoped that state Sen. Joe Gruters, once a victim of dark money attack ads, would continue introducing just such a bill as he has in years past. But Gruters, the state Republican Party chairman who once vowed he would never give up, didn’t reply to our query about his intentions this year. Our guess is he’s given up because dark money helps his party.

That leaves us with the DeSantis idea of a new agency to enforce existing laws. We haven’t yet seen any legislation, so we can’t know for sure the breadth of its mission.

We do know it may be the state’s best hope for combating dark money abuses, even if that’s not what the governor intends.

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Tampa Bay Times. November 9, 2021.

Editorial: How the new infrastructure bill will boost Florida

No thanks to the state’s Republicans, the Sunshine State will get much-needed money to fix its roads, bridges and much more.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is now headed to President Joe Biden’s desk, having passed the House late Friday night. “Infrastructure” isn’t a word that rolls easily off the tongue, but it’s not an abstraction. It’s real stuff: roads, bridges, airports, the electric power grid and, yes, internet service. And a lot of money is flowing to Florida.

For starters, the White House estimates that at least $13.1 billion is coming to the Sunshine State for roads over the next five years as well as $245 million to replace or repair bridges. And that’s a minimum. Not only do our roads need work, they need to be kept useable even as the seas rise and the climate changes. Florida is among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, so this news — and this spending — will be welcome. It also aims to make Florida safer for pedestrians and cyclists, which matters because the Sunshine State is already the most dangerous place to walk in the United States.

Although some wrongly claim otherwise, high-speed internet is “infrastructure,” too. And this bill will allocate at least $100 million to help provide broadband coverage across Florida. That will be good news to the more than 700,000 Floridians who don’t have it. For both educational and business purposes, broadband internet is a basic necessity. In 2021, making it available is akin to the great federal rural electrification programs of nearly a century ago. It levels the playing field and means that even those outside metro areas will have a chance to compete. In addition, according to the White House, nearly 6.5 million Floridians — roughly a third of the state — will be eligible for an Affordability Connectivity Benefit, which will help low-income families pay for internet access.

Florida is also slated to receive approximately $1.2 billion for airport improvements over five years, which could possibly include a new air traffic control tower at Tampa International Airport, one of the oldest in the country.

While this is a bipartisan bill, it was strictly partisan business as usual in Florida, sadly. When the Senate approved the bill back in August, Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott both voted “no.” Scott complained that “the Democrats want to spend all the money, but they don’t want to take responsibility for the debt.” That vote was 69-30 with even Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, joining 18 Republicans to say yes. But not our Florida senators.

As for the House late Friday night, 13 Republicans — none from Florida — joined with Democrats to pass the bill 228-206. Eight of those Republicans are members of the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrists who try to find common ground and get things done.

Tampa Bay’s Republican naysayers — Daniel Webster, Clermont; Gus Bilirakis, Palm Harbor; Scott Franklin, Dover; and Vern Buchanan, Sarasota — were in the odd position of joining with the six Democrats who voted against the bill, the left-wing progressives who make up The Squad, whose most famous member is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. The Squad balked because they wanted to use the infrastructure bill as leverage to pass an even bigger social safety net and climate change bill, which is still pending. What is the Republicans’ excuse?

While the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the infrastructure bill would add $256 billion to the debt over the next decade, the bill will provide the means to repair and build the roads, bridges, ports, airports and broadband internet that will help to expand commerce and make American businesses competitive. Sometimes, it takes money to make money, and the bill will finance actual things that will have tangible effects on Floridians, which is why Tampa Bay Democrats Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg and Kathy Castor of Tampa voted yes.

So when those things actually get built in Florida, those who voted “no” should not go anywhere near a ribbon-cutting. They may argue that the investments are too expensive. The reality? It’s too costly to Florida’s future not to make them.

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 9, 2021.

Editorial: After apologies and pardons, give a final exoneration to the Groveland Four

From the outset in 1949, the saga of the Groveland Four was a lynching disguised as a criminal case. One defendant was murdered by a sheriff’s posse, another by the sheriff himself. A third went to death row and a fourth, only 16 at the time, was sentenced to life. They were all innocent.

Florida executed Black men for raping white women in those days, and nowhere was it more dangerous to be so accused as in Lake County, ruled by the notoriously racist sheriff Willis McCall. History has vindicated the four men, the last of whom died nine years ago. The Legislature formally apologized. The governor and Cabinet pardoned them. This ugliest chapter in Florida legal history can finally be closed when a judge grants a new prosecutor’s pending motion to set aside their ancient indictments and convictions, restoring their presumption of innocence.

State Attorney William Gladson’s motion is more than a formality. It teaches lessons, if we can learn from them. In this case, they show how easily justice can be perverted, especially when race is involved; why it is wrong for some politicians to try to erase such history from the American record; and the importance of electing governors who will commute death sentences when guilt is in doubt and Cabinet members who will support them. But for Gov. LeRoy Collins, Groveland defendant Walter Irvin would have died in the electric chair in 1955 rather than survive to be paroled.

And yet, clemency has vanished from Florida. There hasn’t been another death row commutation since 1985. Florida has put 99 people to death since then.

“Even a casual review of the record reveals that these four men were deprived of the fundamental due process rights that are afforded to all Americans,” wrote Gladson, the new state attorney in the Fifth Circuit, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

Gladson’s motion, following a review that former Attorney General Pam Bondi had assigned to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, describes a stunning history of racial prejudice driving a corrupt prosecution in which the men were beaten for confessions, the state suppressed medical evidence that the young white woman complainant might not have been raped at all, and footprint casts supposedly implicating Irvin were made by a deputy who had fabricated similar “evidence” in another case.

Collins was under intense pressure from Sheriff McCall to sign Irvin’s death warrant. For some other Southern governor contemplating reelection, that would have been the easy and safe way out, considering the tensions then building over the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision.

“In all respects, my conscience told me that this was a bad case, badly handled, badly tried and now on this bad performance I was asked to take a man’s life. My conscience would not let me do this,” Collins said.

Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died an apparently natural death soon after.

Charles Greenlee, sentenced to life when he was 16, was the only one of the Groveland Four to live to old age. Paroled in 1962, he died in 2012. The FDLE file reflects that he was probably in jail on a vagrancy charge at the time when the woman said she was attacked.

The other two defendants were shot dead: Ernest Thomas, by McCall’s posse, Samuel Shepherd by McCall as he was transporting him and Irvin in connection with a new trial that the U.S. Supreme Court had granted. He shot Irvin also, but he survived to be convicted and condemned again.

McCall claimed they had tried to escape. Irvin said he had pulled them handcuffed from his car and shot them in cold blood.

Harry T. Moore, Florida’s earliest civil rights activist, campaigned for McCall to be indicted. Six weeks later, Moore and his wife Harriet were fatally injured by a bomb planted under their home in Mims, just north of Titusville. The crime remains unsolved.

The Groveland affair has been exhaustively reported over the years, so there were few surprises in the FDLE report and Gladson’s summary.

But there was a big one: Gilbert King, the author whose book, “Devil in the Grove,” reawakened interest in the case, reported receiving an e-mail from Broward Hunter, a grandson of the original prosecutor, Jesse Hunter, in which he said his grandfather and the judge knew by the time of the second trial that there was no rape. (The complaining witness insisted otherwise in opposing the posthumous pardons for the Groveland Four.)

In the second trial, the jury was led to believe that there were semen stains on trousers that had been seized from Irvin’s home, but they were never sent off for scientific testing. A doctor who examined the woman had found no evidence of rape. Last month, the FDLE sent the trousers, still preserved as evidence, to its Orlando crime lab, which reported that “no semen was identified.”

“Given these facts today,” Gladson told the court, “no fair-minded prosecutor would even consider filing these charges and no reasonable jury would convict. The evidence strongly suggests that the sheriff, the judge and the prosecutor all but ensured guilty verdicts in this case. These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community …

“I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I ever expect I will again,” Gladson said.

May he be right about that.

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Miai Herald. November 9, 2021.

Editorial: What if we could stay in Daylight Saving Time forever? It’s possible. Here’s how

It’s time to end our habit of “springing forward” and “falling back” twice a year, which has been blamed for everything from seasonal depression to robberies. But let’s be honest, the real reason to put a stop to it is that most of us hate the back and forth — resetting our clocks, losing sleep and dealing with shorter afternoons in the winter.

The U.S. needs to put an end this archaic practice that since 1966 has been confusing Americans and messing with our internal clocks. Let’s institute year-long Daylight Saving Time. That means we could perpetually live in “spring forward” mode with later sunsets and more time to exercise or enjoy time outside in the late afternoon.

No need to go back to Standard Time in the fall, as we did Sunday. No more losing an hour of sleep in the spring.

NEEDS CONGRESSIONAL APPROVAL

This is an issue that Republicans and Democrats agree on, but, as with most things involving Congress, a bill to make that happen isn’t going anywhere.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature passed a bill to make Daylight Saving Time permanent here, and 15 other states, including Georgia and Alabama, have passed similar measures. But states cannot go at it alone; they need congressional approval. Sen. Marco Rubio filed the Sunshine Protection Act in March that would make Daylight Saving Time permanent across the country. States and U.S. territories that don’t currently observe DST, such as Hawaii and parts of Arizona, could stay in Standard Time.

Rubio’s bill has 14 co-sponsors from both parties, including Florida’s other senator, Rick Scott. The U.S. House version has 29 co-sponsors, including U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar of Miami.

If that across-the-aisle support isn’t enough to get a bill through Congress, then what is?

Maybe it’s good ol’ D.C. dysfunction getting in the way or that we’re just too set in our ways. The practice of “spring forward, fall back” dates to World War I and was reinstated during World War II to conserve coal. States and local governments then started individually determining whether and how to observe Daylight Saving Time, so Congress passed the Uniform Time Act of 1966.

Since then, we have learned that energy savings from “springing forward” are actually minimal. That would be an argument to remain in Standard Time (that’s the time we’re currently in). But we already spend two-thirds of the year in Daylight Saving Time. Not to mention, life is just more pleasant when it’s not pitch dark at 6 p.m.

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

Rubio’s office says his legislation would align daylight hours to drivers’ standard work hours, therefore increasing visibility and reducing crashes. The additional hours of sunlight reduce robberies by 27%, according to a Brookings Institute study.

There may be economic benefits as well. A 2016 JP Morgan study found that when DST ended in November, credit card spending in Los Angeles fell 3.5% in the next 30 days. Meanwhile, there was an increase of 0.9% in the 30 days following the start of DST.

There’s also scientific evidence that forwarding our clocks in the spring impacts heart health and disrupts sleep. Anyone who’s woken up in a panic the Monday after the time change can attest to that.

Of course, some groups wouldn’t benefit from a permanent DSL. Some parents worry their children would have to walk to school in the pre-dawn because sunrise would happen an hour later. Farmers don’t like the idea, either, because they would have to do much of their work in the dark. But we still believe the pros outweigh the cons.

The U.S. has gone through periods in which DST was year round. The 1974 Emergency Daylight Saving Time Act, signed by President Nixon, instituted “spring forward” for 16 months to address the country’s energy crisis. It’s doable.

The problem isn’t that Rubio’s proposal is a bad idea. Otherwise, why would so many states back it? The problem is Congress standing in the way. Capitol Hill owes Florida and other states at least a good debate on Rubio’s proposal.

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