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Politics

Weekly Roundup: The Inevitable Battle Begins

August 28, 2014 - 6:00pm

With the unofficial beginning of campaign season just around the corner, Florida voters headed to the polls this week to choose their nominees for governor and seats in the Legislature.

Or, at least, to finish the predetermined coronations in many of those races. There never seemed to be any real danger that either of the leading gubernatorial candidates would lose their primaries. And virtually every incumbent on the ballot Tuesday was still standing on Wednesday.

But the election wasn't the only battle that moved into a new phase. As candidates began to turn their attention to the broader electorate, opponents of the state's de facto school-voucher program were going from the court of public opinion to the actual courts. Almost four months after the Legislature followed through on a promise to expand eligibility for the voucher program, groups opposed to the move filed a lawsuit that could lead to the entire system being overturned.

NOW FOR THE MAIN EVENT:

For the most part, there were few surprises in the primaries Tuesday night. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, cruised through primaries against lesser-known candidates.

Crist easily defeated former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich and was officially welcomed by his new party as its nominee. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Broward County, praised Crist and running-mate Annette Taddeo as working-class champions.

"Charlie and Annette have embraced policies that will help Florida's middle-class families, a stark contrast to the current governor, Republican Rick Scott, who is beholden to special interests and radical tea party ideology," she said in a statement.

Scott handily defeated two obscure GOP opponents, Yinka Abosede Adeshina and Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder. But the Scott team's primary focus has long been on Crist.

"The next few months are about talk versus action," Scott said. "That means Florida will have a choice between a governor who sent our state into a tailspin and a governor who gets results."

In a marginally competitive statewide race, former Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon beat House Minority Leader Perry Thurston in the Democratic primary for attorney general.

"I believe the attorney general is the people's lawyer, not the governor's lawyer, and not the Legislature's lawyer," Sheldon told supporters during a victory party at the Wine Loft Wine Bar in Tallahassee. "Help me give Pam Bondi the job she really wants, as an anchor on FOX News."

Bondi wasted little time in both congratulating Sheldon and challenging him to a debate.

"The voters will have a clear choice between candidates in this election, and they deserve to hear directly from us on the distinct difference in visions and leadership that each candidate will offer to the attorney general's office," Bondi said in a prepared statement.

Races in the House provided the sole state-level incumbent to go down and the usual bit of Florida elections drama.

In Central Florida, Rep. Ricardo Rangel, D-Kissimmee, was defeated in his bid for a second term by John Cortes, vice chairman of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida. State Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant seemed just fine with Cortes beating the incumbent.

"From his time as a police officer to his extensive work as an activist in Osceola County, John has always put his fellow community members ahead of himself," Tant said in a statement. "I look forward to working with John to ensure that the residents of District 43 continue to have representation that puts the middle class first this fall."

Meanwhile, the costly and bitterly fought Republican primary in Duval County's House District 15 turned into a nail-biter between Jay Fant, a tea party-style candidate, and Paul Renner, who had much of the local establishment behind him. Fant, who loaned his campaign $375,000, ended up with a two-vote margin of victory after a manual recount and is now almost certain to replace Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville.

SCHOOLING THE ELECTORATE:

Scott didn't wait until he had officially dispatched his challengers to start rolling out what will clearly be one of the central themes of his campaign. He unveiled an education agenda Monday that included promises to review the number of tests being administered to Florida students and to take further steps to rein in the cost of college if he wins a second term in November.

"We want to make sure that our students have every opportunity to succeed in the classroom and in their careers, and we want to make sure our teachers have every tool they need to make that possible," Scott said.

The call for an investigation of standardized testing is noteworthy, given that Republicans interested in education reform have long looked at assessments as a way to judge how well schools are educating children. In 2011, Scott signed a bill that more closely tied teacher pay to student performance on standardized tests

A brochure outlining Scott's proposals seemed to place the blame for the amount of testing on local school districts.

But Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the advocacy group Fund Education Now, said blaming local school districts was disingenuous, because many of the tests they require are tied to state laws. Districts will have to create tests for some courses under the teacher-pay law that Scott signed, Oropeza said.

On higher education, Scott said he would push for a requirement that colleges outline the costs of textbooks and other materials before students register for classes.

In his official capacity, the governor joined Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on a jaunt across the state to welcome students back to school. Crist's campaign cried foul on that.

"Floridians should not be fooled by Rick Scott's shameful, taxpayer-funded campaign events this week," spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said in a statement. "Scott's back-to-school tour should be an apology tour for the $4.8 billion he wanted to cut and the $1.3 billion he did cut from education."

WE'RE NOT GONNA TAKE IT:

"That's all I can stands; I can't stands no more," the cartoon character Popeye used to say -- and a coalition of groups, including the state's largest teachers' union, essentially said the same thing this week in launching a legal assault on Florida's de facto school-voucher program.

The lawsuit comes after the Legislature approved a bill this spring that would expand eligibility for the program and increase the value of scholarships given to participating students. While one of the central claims of the lawsuit -- that the program gets in the way of the state's responsibility to provide a quality education to all children -- could have been made for years now, those filing the challenge said the expansion forced their hand.

Ron Meyer, an attorney for the groups, said while education advocates were willing to allow the program to go forward initially, "this has become an industry."

"It's a money-maker for scholarship-funding organizations," Meyer said. "And it's a program that we think is a dereliction of the constitutional requirement (to provide public education)."

The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which could raise as much as $357.8 million this year, provides tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that pay for children to go to private schools.

Without the scholarship program, critics say, those tax dollars could be used to help fund public education. But supporters say the program provides better opportunities for low- or middle-income children trapped in failing public schools.

Republicans, who led the charge to institute and then broaden the voucher program, saw things a bit differently. Those attacking the scholarships were actually the special interests.

"This lawsuit is just the latest attack on parental choice by an entrenched education establishment more concerned about protecting the status quo than providing families the opportunities afforded by a great education," said former Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed the legislation creating the program and is still an influential figure in the state's education debates.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Primary elections cleared the way for general elections, including the long-awaited battle between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist for control of the governor's mansion.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We're not the Rick Scott campaign. We can't go whenever and whatever we want on TV. We have to make choices. So why would we make the choice to go spend a bunch of money in a primary that we know we're going to win?" -- Steve Schale, a consultant for the Crist campaign, on why the former governor essentially ignored primary opponent Nan Rich.

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