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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Running (or not) in Place

September 19, 2013 - 6:00pm

If there was a theme to the final full week of summer in Florida politics, it was staying put.

Former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whose potential match-up against former Gov. Charlie Crist in a Democratic gubernatorial primary was the source of endless speculation, decided to stay put as a private citizen. Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart got the go-ahead from the state Board of Education to stay in the position on a more-permanent basis.

And the week even included a cameo by the Dream Defenders, who know nothing if not how to stay put. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in fact, unveiled a policy aimed at making sure no one would stay put quite so well in the future.

But the week also included a hint of transition, as the Capitol awaited the return of lawmakers for the first committee meetings in preparation for the 2014 legislative session.

SINKING OUT OF THE RACE:

Aside from the even more far-fetched speculation that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson might jump into the Democratic primary, or a belief that former state Sen. Nan Rich's campaign could catch fire, Sink seemed like the only formidable obstacle to Crist sewing up the party's nomination to take on Gov. Rick Scott.

Sink's decision not to run was the latest step in what has become the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat's now seemingly inevitable march to the nomination. Crist is now the odds-on favorite to wrap up the party's 2014 nod should he jump into the race, something almost everyone expects to happen as soon as next month.

In deciding against a bid, Sink -- who lost to Scott in 2010 in one of the narrowest gubernatorial elections in Florida history -- said she plans to focus on the nonprofit foundation she created to help young entrepreneurs.

"After careful consideration, I have decided that the best way for me to make a positive and lasting impact on our state is to continue the work we've started together," she said in an email. "I plan to continue my involvement with the Florida Next Foundation, working to build a state of innovation and inspiring the next generation of young Florida leaders. And of course I am going to be supporting candidates who I believe share my vision that Florida can be a state of opportunity for all of its citizens."

Crist issued a statement with the grace of a front-runner being careful not to annoy a liberal base that still views him with suspicion.

"I loved working with Alex on the Florida Cabinet and I'm sure it won't be the last time we work together," he said in an email. "Florida needs Alex Sink and I'm excited about what's happening at her Florida Next Foundation."

And Rich, whose quixotic campaign has drawn little attention to its effort to provide a more orthodox Democratic alternative to Crist, quickly made a play to try to draw some of Sink's support. Rich said the narrowing field sharpens the differences between her and both Scott and Crist.

"It will give Florida voters a clear choice between someone who has lifelong core Democratic values and a commitment to working families and the middle class versus either one of them," Rich said.

THE SOMEWHAT PERMANENT EDUCATION COMMISSIONER:

No campaign was necessary for Pam Stewart to drop the "interim" from her title as education commissioner. After taking over the job as a placeholder for the second time in about a year, Stewart was tapped by the state Board of Education to make the position her own.

"Sometimes, timing is everything, and the time seems to be right now for Pam," board member Barbara Feingold said at the meeting where Stewart was appointed.

She takes the job amid jockeying over the future of education in Florida and signs that Scott will soon issue an executive order aimed at quieting conservative fears over the state's participation in the Common Core standards, education benchmarks developed by a group of governors and education officials.

"I appreciate the support of the board and I can assure you I am cognizant of the times we are in and the critical nature of the work," Stewart said in a statement released after the vote. "I've spent 32 years in public education and I remain fully committed to the students of Florida. This is the time to look forward and get this critical work right for our students."

How "permanent" the new job is for Stewart remains to be seen. She is the fourth noninterim commissioner to serve under Scott since he took office in 2011.

Scott pushed out Commissioner Eric Smith, who was on the job when the governor assumed office, and backed the appointment of Gerard Robinson, only to see Robinson undermined by the botched roll-out of school grades.

Tony Bennett -- Robinson's successor -- avoided problems with the release of Florida school grades. But he was tripped up by reports indicating he pushed through changes to the grading system in Indiana that benefited a contributor's school when Bennett was the elected superintendent of public instruction in that state.

Tensions about Common Core between supporters of former Gov. Jeb Bush and those supporting Scott appear to be growing. State Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan ripped into Scott on Tuesday morning for skipping an education summit he called recently and for failing to consult board members on the executive order.

"He should have sent a recommendation to the state board for action," Shanahan said. She added that Scott's actions were "embarrassing for him."

MS. SOBEL GOES TO WASHINGTON (AS DOES MR. HUDSON):

Florida made its presence felt in the debate over the federal health-care law this week, with two lawmakers traveling to D.C. to debate the measure before Congress, and the Obama administration making moves addressing some of the concerns that Scott and the state Cabinet have raised about the law, commonly known as Obamacare.

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and state Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, appeared before a joint meeting of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements and the U.S. House Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Job Creation, and Regulatory Affairs to offer different assessments of the law.

Sobel, who serves as vice chairwoman of the Senate committee tasked with managing Florida's reaction to the law, highlighted the Legislature's decision to forgo Medicaid expansion despite the 25.3 percent of Florida residents who are uninsured. And she noted Scott's decision to ban outreach counselors known as "navigators" from the grounds of county health departments.

"This is a desperate attempt to prevent access for those who need health insurance the most," Sobel said.

Hudson, Sobel's House counterpart, saw things differently.

"Medicaid expansion is wrong for patients and taxpayers," he said. "Medicaid is already a problem across the nation. Access is limited, and outcomes are poor. The only randomized control trial of Medicaid ever conducted found no improvements in health when compared to the uninsured."

Meanwhile, administration officials announced the strengthening of security measures for data submitted to the "navigators" by people seeking insurance under the law. Attorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Edith Ramirez met with senior White House officials and several state officials Wednesday before unveiling the new plans.

"Today, we are sending a clear message that we will not tolerate anyone seeking to defraud consumers in the Health Insurance Marketplace," Sebelius said in a statement Wednesday.

Scott quickly took credit for the Obama administration's attention to the security issues, which Scott raised in a letter to congressional leaders on Monday.

"Whenever the federal government forces a brand new program this big to move this fast, mistakes are made -- just as we saw last week in Minnesota," Scott said in statement Wednesday. An employee of the state health exchange in Minnesota mistakenly sent an email containing about 2,400 insurance agents' personal data to a man applying to become a navigator.

But White House officials insisted the security measures were part of the plan all along.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink announced she will not run for governor in 2014, possibly paving the way for former Gov. Charlie Crist to win the Democratic nomination.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Although Mr. Brooks' wish to obtain treatment for the ailing feline is understandable, the elements of the defense and the plain language of the jury instruction compel us to the conclusion that a claim of necessity is not available as a defense to a DUI charge in Florida when the asserted emergency involves the threat of harm to an animal instead of a person." -- Appeals Court Judge Douglas Wallace, in an opinion on the case of Christopher Brooks. Brooks had raised a necessity defense to the DUI charge, arguing that his friend's cat was fatally ill and he was attempting to get it to a veterinary clinic.

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