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Florida's congressional delegation in for major election overhaul

WASHINGTON — In a career exceeding two decades, U.S. Rep. John Mica has earned considerable clout and can readily list his role in major projects across his Orlando-area district and beyond. This week, Ivanka Trump praised his effort in leasing a vacant federal building near the White House that is now the plush Trump International Hotel.

But the 12-term Republican is in danger of being retired by a political newcomer who embodies the diversity reshaping Orlando and other areas of Florida.

"A lot of being a good political leader comes from having empathy and given my family's working-class experience as well as my experience as a working mom, I understand the challenges that come with trying to work hard to provide opportunities for your family," said Stephanie Murphy, a 38-year-old Democrat who has experience in national security and business and came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam.

"It's become very clear to me that people are hungering for a change," she said.

Even if Murphy does not prevail, significant change is coming to Florida's representation in Congress. Retirements, redistricting and competitive races will sweep away roughly a third of the 27-member delegation. The turnover — eight members are definitely gone in January — is considered the most in the country.

"Florida could lose a ton of experience," said David Wasserman, an expert on House elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which rates the Mica-Murphy race a toss-up.

"On the one hand people should be happy because they want change," said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. "But when you have a system predicated on seniority, often people don't realize the political implications. They may regret it. You can argue that Florida has not really had the clout it should, but even so, when you lose that many it's going to be a tremendous hit."

Other aren't as pessimistic, noting a ban on budget "earmarks" has diminished senior members' ability to bring home money. What's more, new blood could bring different perspectives and energy.

"It depends on the members themselves. What is the reason they are up there?" said former Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman, now a lobbyist. "Do they really want to make things work and get things done? Or are they up there to kind of throw bombs?"

Part of Mica's challenge is his district was redrawn in court-ordered redistricting, pulling in more Democrats from younger, more Hispanic Orlando. Redistricting shuffled other districts, too, forcing first-term Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, to abandon a re-election effort in the face of a more solid Republican constituency.

The reverse is playing out in Pinellas County where incumbent Republican Rep. David Jolly is in danger of losing to Democrat Charlie Crist.

Several lawmakers simply chose to retire.

Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Bonita Springs, is stepping down after one term. A staunch conservative, he impressed environmentalists with his championing of Everglades restoration.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, is leaving after eight terms. He's chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, a position with considerable sweep.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville, is giving up the seat he has held since 2001. He's a budget "cardinal" in his role as chairman of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee and has been a major advocate for military spending in his role on the defense appropriations committee.

"Is the Navy we know in Jacksonville today the Navy in Jacksonville tomorrow?" asked City Council member Aaron Bowman. "It's concerning."

Jacksonville is also losing Rep. Corrine Brown, a 12-term Democrat who lost her primary partly because of redistricting and in part over fraud allegations from a charity she was involved in. She has influence in transportation and veterans' issues.

"They were a powerful package to have working for you," Bowman said of Crenshaw and Brown. "Losing both at the same time is tough."

Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill, decided to retire after serving three terms, citing a desire to spend more time with family. His seat is likely to be won by Rep. Dan Webster, who served in the Orlando area but moved as his current district was redrawn to favor a Democrat.

Ambition caused Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter and Alan Grayson of Orlando to give up their seats. Murphy won the primary for U.S. Senate and is trying to defeat incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio. Murphy's seat could easily flip back to GOP control.

And then there are those vulnerable to a challenge.

Joining Mica and Jolly is Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a first-term Republican from Miami facing a tough race against Democrat Joe Garcia, whom Curbelo beat two years ago. A growing Democratic core is also giving Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen her toughest race in a while. She is likely to prevail but the demographic changes will continue.

Nationally, Democrats need to gain a net 30 House seats to take control from Republicans. Odds are against that but Donald Trump and other factors have given Democrats hope.

Mica's race has emerged as one of the most interesting in the country, partly because Murphy sprang from obscurity, filing to run a day before the deadline. The race has attracted a flood of national money, with Democratic groups spending $4 million on TV ads. Redistricting places Mica in a district Barack Obama narrowly won in 2008 and tied Mitt Romney in 2012.

Murphy has cast Mica as out of touch with the district on a range of issues, from marriage equality to equal pay for women and gun control. She cites the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, as impetus for running.

A couple of days after the shooting Mica accepted a contribution from the NRA and he has co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit the federal government from taking action against businesses that believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. The legislation came up in a committee hearing a month after the massacre and Mica remained silent, which Murphy branded an act of cowardice.

Murphy touts her role as a mother and businesswoman (she works at an investment firm and teaches at Rollins College), and national security credentials gained by a job at the Defense Department. She talks about coming to the United States with her parents as a girl from Vietnam. "I want to give back and I want to protect that American Dream by strengthening the middle class and ensuring every child has a fair shot."

Mica, 73, is stressing his seniority and leadership posts, which have included a stint as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He's overseen major projects including a new veterans hospital and an expansion of the Orlando airport.

As chairman of the Transportation and Public Assets Subcommittee, Mica was responsible for getting the federal government to lease the Old Post Office building to Trump for the hotel — a feat he says has saved taxpayers millions of dollars while bringing in revenue. Trump, who bid for the project against Marriott and other major hotel chains, pays $3 million a year over the 60-year deal.

Democrats in Florida have sought to tie Mica to Trump in campaign mailers and a recent TV ad from Murphy asserts that Mica and Trump "share the same harmful policies."

Mica says people in the district know his track record and said he was not overly concerned about the effect Trump might have. "If she didn't have the $4.4 million they've spent to date against me, people wouldn't know her from Adam's house cat," he said in an interview.

He's also warning about the turnover facing the delegation, including veterans Miller and Crenshaw.

The two other Orlando-area seats will likely be filled by Democratic rookies, Darren Soto, a former state legislator who would be Florida's first Puerto Rican in Congress, and Val Demings, the former African-American police chief of Orlando. Soto is running for the seat Grayson gave up. Demings is going for the district that Webster left due to redistricting.

"It will take a decade for some of the new members to gain any position of significance," Mica said. "I've had and continue to have positions of leadership and seniority that can not only benefit the community but the state and the nation."

Contact Alex Leary at @[email protected] Follow @learyreports.

Florida's congressional delegation in for major election overhaul 10/31/16 [Last modified: Sunday, October 30, 2016 9:59pm]
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