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Weekly Roundup: The Winds of War

October 16, 2014 - 6:00pm

An ill wind blew across Florida politics this week. And much of it was generated by an electric fan.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist's quest to keep cool at the second debate between himself and Gov. Rick Scott kicked up as much dust as a fan turned to its highest speed. Scott's team argued that Crist had blown past the rules of the debate, while Crist's campaign said the incumbent was simply trying to distract attention from his own huffing and puffing.

It was the kind of fantastically weird Florida story that spins out of control. From the evening newscasts to the "Daily Show" and beyond, national figures ventilated their opinions about the latest weird political event in the Sunshine State. Some of those presentations breezed by the nuance to focus on the easy storyline: A fan had stopped a debate in Florida, if only for a few moments.

It would be wrong to blow off the other stories that took place this week. Both the University of Florida and Florida State University are closer to finishing the process of selecting their next presidents. And the Florida Supreme Court ruled on a case that had the potential to turn iPhones into trackers for law enforcement.

But the reports about Fangate whirred along.


It's still not entirely clear what happened in the run-up to Crist and then (after a few minutes) Scott taking the stage in Davie for their clash over the issues.

The outlines are clear enough: At some point, Crist's people put a fan on the stage, which ran afoul of at least one version of the debate rules. Crist, a Democrat, was on stage shortly after the debate was scheduled to begin, and Scott, the Republican incumbent, wasn't. Then the governor appeared.

Almost all agreement breaks down after that.

According to the Crist campaign, former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a close Crist adviser, had discussed the use of a fan with the debate organizers. The Crist camp said it was alarmed by reports that the stage at the remodeled venue had been uncomfortably warm for an event last week with CNN's Candy Crowley.

But about an hour before the debate, the temperature on the stage checked in at a less-than-balmy 67 degrees, according to a statement issued after the debate by the two groups that organized the event, the Florida Press Association and Leadership Florida.

"[FPA President Dean] Ridings then informed the Crist campaign that there was no temperature issue, and no fan would be needed, or permitted," the groups said Thursday.

The Crist campaign put a fan on the stage anyway, only to be told that it wouldn't be allowed. In the ensuing back-and-forth, debate organizers now say Scott never refused to take the stage, as was originally reported; instead he was waiting for the fan situation to be cleared up.

"Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association did not anticipate or plan for the possibility that a candidate would not honor the debate rules," the statement said. "In retrospect, the debate partners should have been better prepared for this possibility. In addition, we regret that one candidate was allowed to take the stage and allowed to talk before the fan issue was resolved."

"So, let's get one thing clear: Rick Scott never refused to take the stage and debate," Scott campaign manager Melissa Sellers said in a lengthy email late Wednesday, shortly after the debate. "In fact, our campaign was not notified Charlie had even taken the stage because the last we heard, Crist was in an 'emergency meeting' with debate organizers pleading for his precious fan."

But some pointed to the fact that Leadership Florida is tied to the Florida Chamber of Commerce -- which supports Scott's re-election. And the Crist campaign highlighted what it said was the most relevant fact: Their guy was on the stage, and Scott wasn't.

"Who are you going to believe? Rick Scott, or your lying eyes?" Crist Communications Director Brendan Gilfillan wrote in an email to reporters. He added later: "Charlie was on stage. Everyone saw it ... because it was on TV."

And anyone who didn't see it live almost certainly heard about it in the furor that followed.

In any case, both had less to complain about than Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, who was left off the stage for good when a federal judge ruled against Wyllie's request that he be included in the debate despite not polling high enough to qualify.

"For too long, the Republican-Democrat 'duopoly' has controlled the conversation, and they have used their power to silence the competition,'' Wyllie said in a statement following the decision. "Their attempts to exclude me from the debates is just another example. The people of Florida are demanding a third choice, and this decision is an injustice to those millions of Florida voters crying out for fairness and for their voice to be heard."

If Scott was looking for something to take people's minds off the fan flap, he received some fodder on Friday: The state announced that the final jobless numbers before the Nov. 4 general election could be the lowest for Florida since June 2008, when Crist was governor.

The Department of Economic Opportunity posted an unemployment mark for September at 6.1 percent, down from 6.3 percent in August.


University of Florida fans had to take a little glee in the hammering that their in-state rival, Florida State University, took for selecting state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, as its next president. But while UF didn't go with a powerful politician, it still used a lightning-fast process once things really got started.

Cornell University Provost Kent Fuchs was selected quickly, and with little comment, on Wednesday to lead the Gainesville school's efforts to improve its national academic reputation.

The university's board of trustees unanimously picked Fuchs, 59, to become the school's 12th president, after a discussion that lasted less than five minutes. The trustees' selection followed morning interviews with Fuchs and New York University Provost David W. McLaughlin.

Fuchs, pronounced "Fox," is expected to start at UF just after the beginning of the new year, replacing President Bernie Machen who is retiring in December after 10 years.

Fuchs, who graduated from Miami Killian Senior High School, said he felt privileged to join "Gator Nation," where he hopes to build on the academic legacy already in place and also intends to become "one of the most enthusiastic of all the sports fans."

"If I had the opportunity to be any place, this is the place I'd be," Fuchs said during a news conference. "What is particularly exciting is that you have a single campus here that encapsulates all of higher ed in some sense. ... To me, I can't think of a better dream job."

As for Thrasher, negotiations between himself and FSU over the contractual details of taking the job appear to be on track.

A draft of a proposed $430,000-a-year, five-year contract released this week has Thrasher taking over as the university's new president Nov. 10.

Asked about the proposed contract, Thrasher responded in a text, "I'm good" -- as most people would likely be with a six-figure compensation deal.

Thrasher is expected to be confirmed by the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees all universities, the first week of November.


Looking to buy a new smart phone for a loved one this Christmas? You no longer have to worry about whether you'll unwillingly be helping the cops track down that family member or friend.

Pointing to privacy rights, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday said police need to get warrants before using cellphone information to conduct "real-time" tracking of criminal suspects.

Justices, in a 5-2 decision, sided with a man who was arrested in 2007 in Broward County after a search of his vehicle uncovered a kilogram brick of cocaine hidden in a spare-tire well. Police tracked the man, Shawn Alvin Tracey, through location information given off when cellphone calls are made.

"We cannot overlook the inexorable and significant fact that, because cellphones are indispensable to so many people and are normally carried on one's person, cellphone tracking can easily invade the right to privacy in one's home or other private areas, a matter that the government cannot always anticipate and one which, when it occurs, is clearly a Fourth Amendment violation,'' wrote Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, who was joined in the majority by Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry.

But Justice Charles Canady, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that given the "known realities of how cellphones operate cellphone users have neither a subjective expectation of privacy nor an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the cell site information generated by their cellphones."

"Individuals may very reasonably desire that information they provide to third parties -- such as a cell service provider, a bank, or a credit card company -- be kept private," wrote Canady, who was joined in dissent by Justice Ricky Polston. "But a strong desire for privacy is not equivalent to a legitimate expectation of privacy."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The second of three campaign debates between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist gets snared in "Fangate," a dispute over whether Crist should have been allowed to have an electric fan cool him during the debate.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Is there anything wrong with being comfortable?" -- Former Gov. Charlie Crist, when asked why he insisted on having a fan during a debate.

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