Illinois Gov. Pritzker unloads on DeSantis in blistering speech in Tampa

Illinois’ Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivered a blistering speech in Tampa Saturday equating Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis with former president Donald Trump and condemning him for doing more to “protect” Floridians from LGBTQ children and immigrants than from white nationalism and gun violence.

As keynote speaker at the Florida Democratic Party’s annual leadership conference, Pritzker urged Democrats to call out white nationalism and gun violence as domestic terrorism and to campaign against Republican candidates — including DeSantis — who do not.

“This pattern is a clear domestic terrorism threat,” Pritzker said. “He is happy to pick on LGBTQ kids and immigrants, but God forbid he calls out what the FBI refers to as our most pressing security threat: the rise of white extremism.

“Ditch cautious rhetoric and even more cautious electoral strategy, and start speaking honestly … about the dangers democracy is facing from the MAGA Republican party,” Pritzker said, prompting a standing ovation from the audience, estimated at 2,000 at the sold-out event.

Pritzker, governor of the state where a gunman murdered seven people and wounded scores more on July 4 at a parade in Highland Park, on the North Shore of Chicago, said it is true that preventing violence crime requires investments in intervention programs, mental health, and law enforcement, but he said those are not enough.

“Make no mistake, dealing with crime also involves getting guns off the streets. Ultimately, we need a federal assault weapons ban,” the governor said, also calling for national attention to “an epidemic of young men enamored with white nationalism” killing people en masse with assault weapons.”

Pritzker said the national Republican Party is “obsessed” with MAGA politics and weakening support for Democrats by ginning up fury and fear over problems that pale in comparison with gun violence and loss of abortion rights.

“Here is where the Republican game plan is the most audacious: They want to distract you into believing that gay marriage, black history, Disney World and library books are more of a threat to our children than AR-15s,” Pritzker said, and the audience rose to its feet in applause. “Don’t tell us that a 10-year-old is too young to learn about the history of slavery but not too young to run active-shooter drills when she learns how to play dead.”

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down abortion rights in place for nearly 50 years under Roe v. Wade, Pritzker called the Republican Party hypocritical for seeking that outcome in the name of “pro-life.”

“No part of the Republican agenda is about life. Give me one example of the Republican Party showing up for life in this country,” Pritzker said, arguing that it is the Democratic Party that supports life by expanding health care, supporting reproductive freedom, supporting humane immigration policies, and promoting diversity in American society.

“Get ready, because the next thing on their to-do list is a nationwide abortion ban,” Pritzker said.

To stop the “GOP insanity” of the MAGA agenda, he said, Democrats such as he, Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and President Joe Biden should stand firm for Democratic principles and elect more Democrats, especially to the U.S. Senate and the presidency.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings spoke Saturday at the FL Democratic Party’s annual Leadership Blue weekend. Demings is challenging U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for the Senate seat in 2022. Credit: FL Democratic Party.

“Floridians, you can stop national Republicans in their tracks if you elect Val Demings to the U.S. Senate,” Pritzker said, and the room burst into cheers, sign-waving and noise-making.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Demings, an Orlando Democrat challenging Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, also delivered a rousing speech, citing Trump’s “big lie” about election fraud to attack voting rights, the Supreme Court’s anti-abortion ruling after Trump appointed three conservatives to the bench, and Rubio’s record of opposing abortion rights and gun-violence prevention.

“Ours is the only party fighting for the Constitution, rule of law, and our democracy,” Demings said, brandishing a fist.

Demings, former police chief in Orlando, was on the House Democratic team that impeached President Trump in 2019 for using his role as U.S. president to pressure the president of Ukraine for political favors. (The Republican-led Senate did not concur in the impeachment). She said those are “tough jobs” that she chose to do and of which she is proud.

Demings said she and other Democrats face formidable odds and that the stakes are high.

“We’re not going back. We’re not shutting up. We’re going to fight,” she said.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Betsy DeVos calls for abolition of federal Education Department — that she once led

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, appointed by former president Donald Trump, told conservative activists in Tampa Saturday that the federal Education Department should be abolished, leaving education decisions to state and local boards.

“I personally think the Department of Education should not exist,” said DeVos, author of a recent book called “Hostages No More” and a keynote speaker at the “Moms For Liberty” summit. Members of the audience leapt to their feet, cheering and applauding.

DeVos is one of the prominent Republicans featured at the three-day summit in Tampa, which provided training to members from 30 states on how to create conservative majorities on their local school boards, in what they call a parental-rights movement. Moms For Liberty was founded in Florida, sparked in part by parents’ objections to their children being required to wear face masks at school during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a series of breakout sessions not open to the press, guest speakers instructed participants on how to recruit, vet, endorse and promote conservatives as school board candidates. Other sessions focused on legal defense of parental rights over school-board authority, strategic research, and ways to fight “gender ideology, in our schools,” “social and emotional learning” and “restorative justice.”

Moms For Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, who interviewed DeVos, said, “We love teachers here at Moms For Liberty” but she called teacher unions a “K-12 cartel.” She said Moms For Liberty seeks to separate teachers from unions, which she claimed are imposing liberal politics in classrooms.

DeVos promoted school choice, school vouchers and other “education freedom” in the Trump administration.

School shootings

Also Saturday, Moms For Liberty hosted a panel on school safety, in the wake of shooting massacres at Uvalde, Texas, in May and in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. The group’s co-founders, Bridget Ziegler, Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, all current or former school board members in Florida, were joined by U.S. senator and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was slain in the Parkland attack and who now serves on Florida’s State Board of Education.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida voted no on bipartisan gun-safety legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden. Credit: Laura Cassels

The conservative panel generally promoted the arming of school personnel and opposed any gun control measures beyond the red-flag warnings and other reforms adopted in Florida in 2018 after the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 students and staff were gunned down.

Petty called for better relationships between school districts and local law enforcement and better communication between law-enforcement agencies, as recommended by the statewide commission that investigated the Parkland massacre.

Scott voted no on bipartisan federal gun-safety legislation that was signed into law this month in June by President Joe Biden. The Moms For Liberty audience applauded his vote.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

FL Planned Parenthood braces for surge in out-of-state patients following Roe v. Wade ruling

Abortion providers in Florida that have seen an influx of out-of-state patients for months are bracing for even more, mostly from Georgia, but also from neighboring Southern states.

“Planned Parenthood centers are busy already. We’ll be even busier, from neighboring states,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “We’ve seen hundreds in the past year from many states, most of them from Georgia. We expect to see more.”

Goodhue said Planned Parenthood clinics also have seen significant increases in patients from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky as those states’ Republican-led legislatures have restricted reproductive rights.

“We have a health center in Tallahassee and in Jacksonville, those are our northernmost sites. We’ve already seen an increase, because of restrictions they’ve passed in the past year or so, in out-of-state patients from as far away as Texas.”

Goodhue said Planned Parenthood is working to expand its capacity in hopes of turning away no patient who qualifies for a legal abortion in Florida.

“We’re going to help as many people as we can,” Goodhue said. “My heart bleeds for people in other states right now who have to be turned away because Roe v Wade was overturned. I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine being in a health center and saying no, you have to be forced to carry this pregnancy to term, or find another provider, which is going to be real.

“Health providers across this country are already overwhelmed. It’s people with money to travel, time off from work or school, that will be able to access care, but the teenagers, young people, or people that are systemically left out of the health-care system because of their race, because they’re overrepresented in uninsured populations, that are going to have a really hard time getting appointments, and that terrifies me.”

In Georgia, a 2019 law banning abortion after six weeks, has been on hold in federal court, awaiting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, it is expected to take effect following the Roe v. Wade decision, as reported in the Georgia Recorder, affiliated with the Florida Phoenix.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood and private providers has challenged Florida’s new 15-week abortion ban, which will become law July 1 if it is not blocked by a court injunction. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday morning.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll be successful there. But it is a dangerous time. We have to wake up and pay attention,” Goodhue said.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration lists 55 licensed private and non-profit abortion provider sites. Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization, operates 20 of those.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Trump attorney links Florida to efforts to use alternate electors to undermine Biden victory

Amid the partisan turbulence of the 2020 presidential campaign, attorney John Eastman and other strategists for then-President Donald Trump were making plans to help Trump remain in office in case he did not actually win, according to evidence being gathered in Congress.

On Tuesday, Florida burst into that picture with Eastman saying in a video that Florida played a role.

“You [the video’s audience] could also do what the Florida Legislature was prepared to do, which is to adopt a slate of electors yourselves,” Eastman said in the video, played Tuesday during the fourth public hearing of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the nation’s Capitol.

The video, dated Dec. 3, 2020, shows Eastman encouraging unidentified Georgia Republicans to ignore Joe Biden’s win in Georgia and cast their state’s electoral ballots for Trump, as Florida legislators were “prepared to do.” The bipartisan investigative committee is publicly presenting its evidence that Trump and his team were orchestrating a coup to keep Trump in the White House regardless of the outcome of the 2020 general election.

In Florida, the Phoenix asked press officers in the state Senate and the House of Representatives whether leaders in their chambers were aware of “discussion by or about any Florida legislators who were prepared to adopt an alternate slate of electors if Biden had won in Florida.”

“Not that I know of,” wrote Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta, in the office of Senate President Wilton Simpson. House spokeswoman Jenna Sarkissian, in Speaker Chris Sprowls’ office, replied, “Echoing Katie’s response on our behalf, too.”

Trump prevailed in Florida, unlike in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Arizona where Biden was confirmed the winner after weeks of recounts and court challenges demanded by Trump supporters. Trump lost all of those challenges by failing to produce evidence of significant errors or fraud.

Two days after Election Day, while ballots were still being counted, Gov. Ron DeSantis said on a nationally broadcast Fox talk show that legislators in those contested states were authorized by the U.S. Constitution to cast their electoral ballots for Trump regardless of what state election officials were saying about the votes.

“Under Article 2 of the Constitution, presidential electors are done by legislatures and the schemes they create, and the framework,” DeSantis said when asked by the host for his advice to fellow Republicans.

“I would also tell them, if you’re in those states that have Republican legislatures, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, all these places, call your state representatives and your state senators. And if there’s a departure from that, if they’re not following law, if they’re ignoring law, then they [legislatures] can provide remedies as well, so I would exhaust every option to make sure we have a fair count.”

DeSantis added, “I would just urge everyone, donate to the president’s legal relief.”

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Central Florida Democrat serving on the Jan. 6 investigative committee, said in an interview with CNN that testimony Tuesday from elected officials and election workers from both political parties about being harassed and threatened by “Stop the Steal” zealots should change minds.

“It really was a heartbreaking hearing,” she said. “Whether or not anybody in Florida on the Republican side has that touch their conscience and change their mind and their path is for them to decide, between them and their God.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

‘First Wives’ urge DeSantis to veto reform that lets wealthy ex-husbands undo alimony pledges

They call themselves the “First Wives” club, but unlike their Hollywood counterparts, they say they are the ones in the crosshairs.

Camille Fiveash of Pensacola said she was pushed and shoved in the halls of the Florida Capitol, stalked, and tormented with death threats.

She and other women, whose ex-husbands want to relieve themselves of sometimes decades-old divorce settlements, say they have been harassed on social media, described as “alimony leeches” and publicly fat-shamed.

It’s a pattern of behavior by angry, alimony-paying ex-husbands that ex-wife Jan Killilea, an advocate for an informal group of “First Wives,” likens to a “hate group.”

This is the climate in which ex-spouses did battle this year over the state’s alimony law that eliminates permanent alimony, even retroactively, and makes child custody guidelines more favorable to fathers. Along with less controversial goals, it also could subject them to lower child-support obligations.

Adopted over strong objections in the House and the Senate, and not along party lines, SB 1796 is heading to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval. Twice before, in 2013 and 2016, former Gov. Rick Scott vetoed similar legislation.

Watching out for the First Wives

Evidence of the hostility between the warring parties was so credible that some of the First Wives said a state senator concerned for their wellbeing directed members of his staff to watch out for them during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, on Feb. 28, when they offered testimony against SB 1796.

“Right here in this Capitol, I had a man shove me, I had a man stalk me, and I have had death threats — death threats! — because of this bill,” Fiveash said in testimony at that hearing.

Fiveash and others attribute that protection to Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat who serves on that committee. He did not deny it.

Hearing Fiveash’s lament, Pizzo encouraged her to report such abuse to his staff and he pledged to investigate it.

Asked to confirm if he dispatched peacekeepers during the hearing, Pizzo replied, “I look out for everyone.”

Barbara DeVane, a veteran lobbyist for the National Organization for Women’s Florida chapter, or Florida NOW, says a tight group of ex-husbands and their second wives have for years been making the First Wives’ lives hellish as they push for legislation that relieves them of paying alimony and grants them broader custody rights to use as leverage.

“They know these mothers will give up everything to get custody,” DeVane said. She describes the men as wealthy and influential — and well able to contribute money and otherwise curry favor with lawmakers in support of their alimony-reform campaign.

Typically, mothers continue to be the primary caregivers for children, DeVane says. She noted that the vast majority of parents who stepped away from their careers to care for children during the COVID-19 pandemic have been women, who sacrificed wages and career advancement. She also noted that women continue to be paid less than men for equal work.

A substantially different version

Family-law attorneys with the Florida Bar Family Law Section and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers say they helped negotiate what they described as more reasonable reform legislation this year that would put an end to permanent alimony in future divorce cases.

But that is not the legislation that emerged from the Senate Appropriations hearing, where bill sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, proposed a substantially different version that creates a presumption of 50/50 time-sharing of children and allows permanent alimony agreements to be undone retroactively. Gruters, who also is chair of the Republican Party of Florida, did not disclose why he sponsored the amendment — a departure from the direction of his original legislation — nor where it came from.

“We got an amendment that walks all this good work back,” said Andrea Reid, with the Florida Bar’s Family Law Section, whose support for the bill evaporated when Gruters amended it on Feb. 28. Now, she said, SB 1796 will do harm to many while benefitting few.

“You shouldn’t be doing retroactive changes,” said Philip Wartenberg, a marital and family law attorney and a Tampa magistrate. “We’re trying to protect those people.”

“Tens of thousands of cases will be reopened,” Wartenberg added. “The rules of the road are being changed in a drastic way.”

The ex-husbands pushing the reforms say it’s time to end permanent alimony — including retroactively — and they want to start by phasing out payments when they reach retirement age. SB 1796 also eliminates adultery as a factor in determining alimony.

In smaller numbers, there also are ex-wives paying alimony who feel the same way. One is Natalie Willis, who testified in support of the bill and seconded this statement by Gruters: that ending permanent alimony “allows recipients to become self-sufficient and move on with their lives.”

“Their life is still centered around a marriage that ended many, many years ago,” Willis said, with a sweeping gesture toward the First Wives in the hearing room.

The real benefactors?

“This codifies the right to retire,” said Marc Johnson, chairman of Florida Family Fairness, which advocates for ending permanent alimony. “Florida is in the minority of states that have permanent alimony. Our research shows Florida is behind the times.”

Not so, says Elisha Roy, Florida state president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, whose members represent both men and women in divorces. Roy insists that few states let aging alimony payors renege on divorce settlements made years ago that often include permanent alimony conditioned on negotiated compromises regarding division of money, assets and time-sharing of children.

As for the 50/50 presumption on time-sharing of children, Johnson and other proponents of SB 1976 say it is just old-fashioned to approach it any other way. With the Speaker of the House also campaigning for greater engagement by fathers, the mood looks favorable for enacting the 50/50 provision this year. It still allows judges to depart from the presumption, based on 20 other conditions aimed at protecting the best interest of the child.

Roy said the presumption puts Florida out of step with other states.

“We will be the second state to do this,” Roy said. “I was one of the primary drafters and lead on the passing of legislation in 2008 getting rid of custody and visitation terms in Florida. … The legislation I drafted in 2008 put us ahead of the curve.”

Roy, Reid and Wartenberg predict the real benefactors would be ex-husbands who would feign interest in spending more time with their children but actually just want to reduce their child-support payments. Caught in the crossfire will be the children of these broken marriages.

“The unintended consequences will likely be significant to our most vulnerable — who didn’t ask to be in the situation to begin with,” Roy said.

“We are just hoping that we can convince [DeSantis] that this bill is not only bad policy, but it’s really bad for Florida’s families,” Reid said, insisting it will do harm to many while benefitting few.

“This is five to 10 monied, reform-minded gentlemen versus thousands of recipients who are, mostly, women,” said Wartenberg, who as a post-divorce magistrate hears petitions for divorce agreement modifications and enforcement actions.

Speaking from his experience as a magistrate, Wartenberg said “I’m concerned about the mother who will give up other things, financial relief, for instance, that might be much needed for her household, just in order to secure the right time-sharing.” He added: “There is that concern of people coming in asking for as much time-sharing as they can get, so that it could reduce what they pay in child support.”

“Sounds like every lady in here has a case.”

Despite repeated claims by proponents that SB 1976 is “not retroactive,” Reid and the other family-law attorneys insist that it is, allowing long-term alimony payors to eliminate permanent alimony agreements when they reach retirement age.

Pizzo offered an amendment in the Senate Appropriations hearing that would have cleared away any confusion by stating explicitly that key provisions only apply to divorce cases filed after July 1 of this year. Gruters urged the committee to reject it, and the amendment was defeated.

Johnson said DeSantis is well positioned to enact the legislation rejected twice by another governor. He said the proponents are hopeful the governor’s “parental rights” initiatives of 2022 — supporting anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-Critical Race Theory and anti-LGBTQ interests among parents — will help them prevail.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Chris Sprowls’ “fatherhood” initiative advanced mid-session around the same time Gruters amended his alimony bill. With this year looking like the year of the father, 2022 may be more favorable than prior ones for enacting the alimony reforms, 10 bumpy years in the making.

The First Wives argue that in no year should a new law be allowed to unravel alimony and custody agreements made decades ago, and they hope DeSantis will protect their rights by rejecting the changes, as Scott did. Also of concern, they say, SB 1796 would apply to pending divorce cases, including those in which a well-heeled spouse of retirement age might be relieved of paying any alimony after a long marriage.

After hearing testimony from a series of First Wives about alimony payments and child-support payments in arrears, even Sen. George Gainer, one of the Senate’s oldest members, from a conservative district in northwest Florida, said SB 1796 is confusing, that the reforms would bury the courts in new litigation, and that “retroactivity is intolerable.”

“There’s too many questions,” Gainer said. “Sounds like every lady in here has a case.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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Avoiding words ‘climate change,’ DeSantis says global-warming concerns involve ‘left-wing stuff’

At an event Tuesday in Pinellas County about defending cities from sea levels rising around Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis answered a reporter’s question about climate change by talking about “left-wing stuff” and people posing as environmental advocates in order to “smuggle in their ideology.”

DeSantis did not answer the reporter’s question about what his administration is doing, if anything, to fight the causes of climate change, which is making sea levels rise, among other things. Neither DeSantis nor two environmental advisers at his side at the event uttered the words “climate change.”

“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We’re not doing any left-wing stuff,” DeSantis said, prompting cheering among some at the event.

“Be very careful of people trying to smuggle in their ideology. They say they support our coastline, or they say they support, you know, some, you know, difference, our water, environment. And maybe they do, but they’re also trying to do a lot of other things,” DeSantis said, without elaborating on the alleged “other things.”

He then shifted to gasoline prices, saying Florida must focus on “affordable energy.”

An environmentalist who has worked full-time for years promoting clean energy as both affordable for consumers and a solution to climate change was disappointed in DeSantis’ remarks, noting they came on the same day that the Florida Public Service Commission approved millions in rate hikes for electricity and natural-gas customers as requested by the state’s investor-owned utility companies.

“Every day, clean-energy advocates are working to try to make energy more affordable,” said Susan Glickman, director of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action. “Affordable energy? What’s affordable about a 20 percent rate increase? Whether you’re left wing or right wing, your electric bill is about to increase.”

“Florida’s big power companies all just got billions in rate increases approved by regulators appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis,” Glickman explained. “On top of that, they just charged billions more for the increasing costs for the damaging methane gas they burn. Just this morning, the Florida Public Service Commission voted to charge Florida Power & Light customers an additional $810 million on top of the $302 million they passed on in April for spiking gas methane gas prices. On the other hand, electric vehicles save money. Energy efficiency and solar saves money. Plus, we see health benefits from improved air and water quality.”

Another environmentalist who advocates for clean energy to help households save money and to reduce carbon emissions fouling Earth’s atmosphere said the impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise and inland flooding, will not affect people based on their party affiliations.

“Implementing clean energy, improving energy affordability and preventing worsening impacts of climate change are not left or right issues. They are issues of quality of life, survival, economy and community wellbeing,” said Emily Gorman, director of Sierra Club Florida. “Voters across the political spectrum agree that climate change is caused by humans and is a top priority for government action.

“If the governor is serious about responding to global warming, no solution should be off the table and no stakeholder should be excluded from the conversation,” Gorman said.

The event in Oldsmar was hosted to spotlight DeSantis’ announcement that, stated variously, $270 million for 76 projects (or $276 million for 70 projects) is pledged in state grants for local projects to protect cities and infrastructure from worsening sea-level rise and inland flooding. DeSantis said the funding, under the auspices of the Statewide Flooding and Sea Level Rise Resilience Plan, is proposed across three years in his yet-unpublished budget recommendations.

DeSantis’ newly nominated secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Shawn Hamilton, and his newly appointed chief resilience officer, Dr. Wes Brooks, also offered remarks, none of which included the phrase “climate change.”

Brooks, making his press debut at the event, said nothing about the causes of sea-level rise but regaled DeSantis for supporting state funding for projects to armor the state against its increasingly destructive consequences. Brooks worked into his statement two of DeSantis’ budget slogans: “bold vision” and “Florida leads.”

“Florida’s fortunate to have a governor who not only recognizes the importance of protecting our communities across the state from the impacts of sea-level rise and damaging storm and flooding events, but one who has taken tangible steps to address these impacts,” Brooks said. “Gov. DeSantis has already committed unprecedented investments to promote a more resilient Florida. Projects included in this Statewide Flooding and Sea-Level Rise Resilience Plan provide concrete opportunities to begin building a brighter future for all of our inland and coastal communities. I look forward to continuing to enhance our coordination across state, regional and local entities to further the governor’s bold vision to ensure that Florida leads on resilience.”

Brooks was appointed in November. His predecessor, Julia Nesheiwat, left nearly two years ago after serving in the post for six months.

Brooks was director of federal affairs in the state Department of Environmental Protection and was an aide to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Florida wetlands and waterways face development and potential harm as vacated Trump rules linger

Swaths of wetlands and waterways in Florida left unprotected when the Trump administration weakened federal standards in early 2020 are being developed in Florida — despite a federal ruling that struck down the Trump rules eight weeks ago.

At least 300,000 acres of wetlands and waterways in Florida alone are likely subject to regulation under the stronger, pre-Trump standards, say a trio of environmental lawyers and scientists, but state regulators have announced no change in course since the Aug. 31 federal ruling.

One of those wild, watery places is being cleared for construction right now in Orlando: a 63-acre site known as Princeton Oaks II in Orlando.

“The developer has started clearing that property," Earthjustice attorney Christina Reichert told the Phoenix.

“This was the last forest in Orlando," said ecologist Wanda Jones, who said she grew up alongside its trees and wetlands, which inspired her to study, teach and practice environmental conservation.

The Aug. 31 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Marquez in an Arizona-based case tossed out Trump's January 2020 federal “Navigable Waters Protection Rule" – which Reichert and Jones say stripped away protection by narrowly defining wetlands and waterways in order to exclude them from protections they once had under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.

Marquez warned in her ruling that “serious environmental harm" could result from Trump rule remaining in place.

Acting on that ruling, Reichert quickly wrote letters from Earthjustice to the developer, to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and to the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) to abandon the Trump standard, enforce the stricter standard, and halt projects such as the industrial park at Princeton Oaks II, given her conviction that it qualifies for protection under the stricter standard.

Otherwise, by all accounts, the project has all the permits it requires to proceed uninterrupted.

Nearly two months later, Reichert has received no response, nor has development of the site ceased.

Jones said it was hard for her to see an adjacent 60-acre site in her community leveled previously and harder still to watch the remaining site being scoured when she believes it is entitled to federal, state and local protection.

“This entire area was protected under the Clean Water Act," she said. “We always had healthy trees and green grass."

The site is being developed as phase II of an industrial park by Princeton Oaks Industrial Investors II, LLC, which is affiliated with Foundry Commercial. Personnel there did not immediately respond to messages seeking comments.

The Phoenix repeatedly asked the state DEP by phone and email how many Florida projects and acres may be affected by the Aug. 31 ruling and whether DEP has halted any projects or changed course in any way. The response, given twice since Sept. 8:

“We are aware of the ruling and actively working together with our federal partners to determine how this ruling affects our state and any potential changes to existing regulations," wrote DEP Press Secretary Alexandra Kuchta. “The department is continuing to administer the state 404 program."

Reichert said those statements clarify nothing, but the phrase “any potential changes" suggests to her that DEP has not changed how it is regulating wetlands and waterways.

Like Reichert, the Phoenix sought but did not receive clarification from the EPA about whether state regulators governed by the Clean Water Act should in the interim follow the 2020 Trump standard that was vacated or revert to the previous, tougher standard.

“Our position is that following the law means telling Florida to apply the former … standard while EPA does its rulemaking," Reichert said. Florida would say that it is not required to do so.

Meanwhile, the federal EPA is taking public comments on establishing new rules that better comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

Diana Umpierre, organizing representatives for the Sierra Club's Everglades Restoration Campaign and Our Wild America program, said the Trump-era waterways standard was the weakest yet and that wetlands around the nation, including parts of the internationally renowned Florida Everglades, are at risk of permanent damage while regulators debate the issue.

Umpierre said the regulators should choose to be more protective of wetlands, not less so, to avoid the environmental harm foreseen by Judge Marquez.

“This is part of restoring the wetlands," Umpierre said. “Nature is complex. Water is complex. That is why we have scientists.

“Every time we degrade our environment, there is a cost," she said.

Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environment-focused groups have filed comments to the EPA seeking high standards for protecting wetlands and waterways.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Association of Home Builders are among the parties that have filed comments in opposition.

The EPA has received more than 32,000 comments on new protective regulations for wetlands and waterways.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Protesters march to Tallahassee state capitol: 'Don’t Texas my Florida!'

From marching and singing to beeping and waving signs, protesters were out in force Saturday to fight against a Texas-style abortion ban that's been filed in the Florida Legislature as well as attacks against transgender rights.

The marches and rallies were scheduled in cities and communities across Florida and states elsewhere on Saturday, part of a “Day of Action" nationwide as tensions rise over the threat to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

In Tallahassee, protesters marched to the historic Old Capitol on the capitol complex grounds, waving signs that said, “We Will Not Be Silenced," and “Ruth sent me," a reference to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Another sign, “Don't Texas my Florida," referred to the recent anti-abortion legislation filed for the January 2022 Florida legislative session that would be similar to the Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The Florida legislation would allow citizens to sue people who provide or enable abortions. The bill is HB 167.

At least two protesters showcased “red handmaid" garb — a reference to The Handmaid's Tale novel by author Margaret Atwood as well as the Hulu series. But organizers in some areas of the country had asked that the costume should not be worn because it represents control of reproductive rights and other concerns, according to news outlets.

On the Capitol grounds, protesters put down a wide banner that scrolled down the steps of the Old Capitol building. It said: “Bans Off My Body." Another smaller sign, close by said: “Governor DeSantis, Shame on You."

During the speeches at the Old Capitol, protesters chanted: “Hey hey, ho, ho, Ron DeSantis has got to go." DeSantis is running for reelection in 2022.

The protesters on Saturday are under the shadow of HB 1, DeSantis' Black Lives Matter-inspired crackdown on political protests. A federal judge has enjoined enforcement of the law for now, but organizers warned participants not to engage with counter protesters.

In Tallahassee on Saturday, there were more than 100 people and the rally was peaceful albeit somewhat loud, with cars on the roadway beeping and protesters chanting several times, such as “Our body, our choice," and “Stand up, fight back."

Delilah Pierre, field director for the Tallahassee Community Action Committee, told the crowd that abortion rights for women are entwined with transgender rights. Earlier this year, DeSantis signed legislation barring transgender girls from playing on girls' team in high school and college, and legislation recently proposed would criminalize doctors who help transgender children adjust to their gender identities.

“We can still fight, we can still win," Pierre said.

That said, the GOP controls both chambers of the Florida Legislature and there are more male lawmakers than women lawmakers.

Top GOP leaders, Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls have shown interest in pursuing the Texas-style bill, as does DeSantis, though encouraging citizens to snoop on each other when it comes to abortions and lawsuits may not pass muster in the Florida legislation.

Republican Kathleen Passidomo, chair of the Senate Rules Committee and next in line to become Senate President, said last month during a speech reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that she opposes having citizens sue each other to police abortions.

Meanwhile, Barbara DeVane, a longtime lobbyist for progressive causes in Tallahassee, spoke at the march Saturday, outlining how to move forward.

She recommended getting people riled up, educated, motivated and involved in elections and voting.

She also said, “It's time for women to go on the offensive."

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Guns at election sites: What could go wrong?

Guns don't belong in places where people vote, register to vote or count votes, the League of Women Voters of Florida says in joining a federal lawsuit that involves gun rights and voter intimidation.

“The League of Women Voters of Florida is strongly advocating for proections against voter intimidation in our state," said League president Cecile Scoon in a statement announcing its filing of an amicus brief in a New York lawsuit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association and plaintiffs Robert Nash and Brandon Koch are suing New York authorities to challenge restrictions in that state on carrying concealed firearms in public places including election-related settings. The League of Women Voters of the United States and the Florida chapter are joining the case in support of gun restrictions that shield voters and election workers from intimidation.

“The League has long recognized that the right to vote is meaningless without the right to vote safely. The unchecked carrying of concealed firearms imperils the electoral process at multiple stages, from the threat of violence at registration to voter intimidation at the polls," the League says in its Sept. 21 filing.

The filing defends New York's requirement that a person licensed to carry a concealed firearm must demonstrate “proper cause" why he or she specifically needs to carry a gun in public. The lawsuit does not challenge broad rights to carry a gun under the Second Amendment.

“New Yorkers may own and bear a firearm in a variety of settings: at home, in connection with a job, out hunting, and, when 'proper cause' is shown, in public. New York thus ensures that – given local circumstances – the right to bear arms can coexist with public order and New Yorkers' right to vote without fear of encountering firearms obtained on 'speculative or specious' grounds," the filing says.

The League filing cites the Jan. 6 attack on the nation's Capitol during congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election results as a stark example of how weapons and violence can erode public confidence in participating in election activities. “Without the District of Columbia's strict limitations on concealed carry, the damage on all sides could have been far worse," the filing says.

The plaintiffs argued in a December 2020 petition that citizens should be able to carry guns anywhere for self-defense.

“A law that flatly prohibits ordinary law-abiding citizens from carrying a handgun for self-defense outside the home cannot be reconciled with the Court's affirmation of the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation," the Rifle & Pistol Association argues, complaining about similar laws in multiple jurisdictions.

Others that filed amicus briefs in July in support of the Rifle & Pistol Association include Gun Owners of America, the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise, the Cato Institute, and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and 24 other U.S. senators.

Organizations that filed amicus briefs in support of the gun restrictions include the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Medical Association, March For Our Lives Action Fund, and the City of Chicago and 11 other cities from Seattle to Baltimore.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP-linked 'Moms for Liberty' group dominates the fight against mask mandates as COVID spikes in Florida schools

In navy T-shirts emblazoned with “Moms for Liberty" in white lettering, a vocal group of mothers has dominated public comments at recent Florida school board meetings, condemning face masks as dangerous to children.

As heated discussions continue over mask mandates at schools, the question is, who are these mothers?

This article was originally published at Florida Phoenix

At the top, they are political strategists, risk managers and communications professionals — high-powered women with connections to top state and national Republicans, according to LinkedIn profiles and local media reports.

Their followers have been among unruly crowds, disrupting school board sessions on mask mandates and yelling at board members. School board chairs have recessed discussions and cleared the room of hecklers, according to live broadcasts of board hearings.

Thus far, the group of moms have been unable to fend off adoption of mask mandates by eight large school districts. Those are the school boards of Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade, Leon, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Sarasota and most recently Duval.

But Moms For Liberty has 15 chapters in Florida counties, the most of any one state. Its website says its mission is to “stoke the fires of Liberty" and “fight for the survival of America" by organizing parents into activist groups.

Nearly half the states in the nation have at least one chapter, according to the group's website.

In Florida, the organization's private Facebook groups claim to have 1,885 members in Brevard County, 579 in Volusia, and 481 in Sarasota County. Many other chapter have more than 100 members.

The conservative activist group was incorporated in December, with one sitting school board member and two former school board members from Florida, according to the Florida Division of Corporations. Its members have appeared at most, if not all, school board meetings last week and Monday to condemn mask mandates as illegal and a threat to freedom.

According to commentary on its site and news reports, members of the group have expressed opposition not only to mask mandates, but vaccine mandates, LGBTQ-friendly policies, teacher unions, government bureaucracy and the teaching of curriculum broadly referred to as critical race theory, including discussions related to historical slavery and segregation. (Florida has disallowed critical race theory in the state's public school curriculum.)

Here are some of the leaders of the Moms for Liberty group:

The Northeast Florida chapter co-chair is a Republican strategist who has been featured on Fox News. She is Quisha King, who worked for the Republican National Committee in 2020 as a regional engagement organizer for Black Voices For Trump, according to the Federalist Papers website.

One of the three original founders of Moms For Liberty is Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler, according to the Division of Corporations. Ziegler's name was removed from the roster of directors in February. She was interviewed on Fox News on June 10.

Ziegler, whose LinkedIn profile says she is a risk-management consultant, is a Republican precinct committeewoman in Sarasota County and a supporter of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who she praised on Fox as a “great governor" whose positions have made the state “Freedom Florida." She also is married to Christian Ziegler, vice-chair of the Republican Party of Florida.

Another founder of Moms For Liberty is Tina Descovich, a communications and marketing professional, and former member of the Brevard County School Board. She was defeated in 2020 by Democrat Jennifer Jenkins, a speech pathologist and educator who champions COVID restrictions in schools.

The third founder is Tiffany Justice, a former member of the Indian River County School Board who championed a failed lawsuit challenging mask mandates last school year.

Listed in corporate filings as a director since February is Marie Rogerson, a candidate for Republican State Committeewoman in 2020.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Florida official calls on DeSantis to declare state of emergency: 'Our hospitals and our health care workers are overwhelmed'

Citing new state and federal COVID-19 statistics, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried called on Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday to declare a state of emergency and draw down federal disaster assistance.

In her daily announcements of updated COVID data, Fried said Monday that conditions in Florida are becoming dire, yet DeSantis has shown no interest in issuing emergency orders other than to block local restrictions such as mask-wearing mandates, recommended by the CDC, and vaccine mandates.

“Our hospitals and our health care workers are overwhelmed. We're hearing reports that pediatric and rural hospitals across the state are filling up and some already at capacity," Fried said during a Zoom event later posted on her department's social media pages.

“Governor, it is time that we issue a state of emergency. Our hospitals need this, our medical providers, our resources to our locals. It is past time. There are federal resources that we can't access without a state of emergency being declared.

“There is no excuse to not ask for all the help that we can get," Fried concluded.

Nearly 26,000 new cases of COVID-19 and 27 fatalities in Florida were reported overnight Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic total death toll rose to 40,766, including 1,071 in the past week, according to the Florida Department of Health weekly report issued Friday.

Florida hospitals were treating 15,962 COVID patients — including 170 children — pushing hospitals to 84 percent of full capacity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HHS reported that 3,357 COVID patients were in intensive care units, which were at 92 percent of full capacity. More than half (51.46 percent) of the intensive-care patients were COVID patients.

One-fifth of the 198 Florida hospitals that reported data had reached critical staffing shortages, according to the HHS report Monday. That is based on 37 hospitals reporting shortages in real time, 161 reporting their shortages are not yet critical, and 59 not reporting.

Also Monday, the governor announced during a press conference in Orlando that free monoclonal antibody therapy is now available without a prescription at a “Regeneron Clinic" at World Camping Stadium in Orlando. He said the therapy for people infected with COVID-19 fends off severe illness if administered early.

The CDC was less enthusiastic, reporting on Aug. 10 that the therapy appears to be less effective against the Delta variant, which is now dominant, and against other variants than it was against the original coronavirus.

“Laboratory studies suggest specific monoclonal antibody treatments may be less effective for treating cases of COVID-19 caused by variants with certain substitutions or combinations of substitutions in the spike protein," the CDC reported.

DeSantis said as many as 320 people can be treated daily, seven days a week; that appointments can be made through; and that other such clinics are planned.

With Tropical Storm Fred moving into Florida Monday, Fried and DeSantis at their respective events urged Floridians to practice COVID-safe protocols if they must evacuate their homes and gather with others, and to monitor local advisories. The storm strengthened overnight as it approached Florida's northern Gulf Coast and was expected to generate isolated flooding from storm surge and heavy rainfall as it moves inland.

At Fried's event, the commissioner took another jab at DeSantis' ban on mask mandates in Florida schools by hosting comments by a student with a disability who supports mask mandates.

She introduced Lake Mary High School junior J.J. Holmes, whom she invited to the event.

Holmes said he is thrilled that classes have at last resumed in person but that he feels at risk if he attends because he has a disability that prevents him from wearing a face mask. Holmes has cerebral palsy and communicates via an iPad that he activates with his nose, which must be unmasked.

Holmes urged DeSantis to allow schools to impose mask mandates on behalf of students like him who need others to mask up to prevent transmission because he cannot. Otherwise, he cannot safely go to school in person, he said.

Fried highlighted that several lawsuits have been filed by parents against DeSantis on behalf of students with disabilities, accusing him of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by banning schools from requiring masks that could safeguard vulnerable students.

“What message do you have for people like Gov. DeSantis who say 'just deal with it' when it comes to the spread of the virus?" Fried asked Holmes.

After a long pause to enter commands on his iPad, Holmes answered via the device, “When COVID struck, and I had to do virtual school, I did deal with it. When I stayed home and isolated for the last 18 months because I cannot wear a mask, I did deal with it. When I couldn't get my power chair because of COVID, I did deal with it.

“When my grammy died and I couldn't go to her funeral because of COVID, I did deal with it. I have been dealing with it. … All I have left to give up is my education and my life."

Holmes said his favorite subject is civics and that he aspires to pursue a career in political science.

During previous briefings and events, Fried has invited speakers including Lila Hartley, a 12-year-old who wrote a letter to the Duval County School Board urging it to adopt a mask mandate to protect her unvaccinated 10-year-old brother; and Wakulla County School Board member Verna Brock, who called on the governor to stop dictating to local elected school officials about school safety during this resurgence of COVID.

Fried, Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, and a candidate for her party's nomination to take on DeSantis in next year's gubernatorial race, has been holding daily briefings to announce COVID data and to call on state officials to resume daily data releases, which they halted in early June.

During his event, DeSantis was asked by reporters why he has not directed the Department of Health to reinstate daily data releases and the detailed dashboard it operated last year. DeSantis did not directly answer and said the state releases the data to the CDC, where the public can find the information among national data if they so choose.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.