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Michael Van Sickler, Tampa Bay Times

Michael Van Sickler

Michael has been with the Tampa Bay Times since 2003. A Cleveland, Ohio, native, he graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and got his master's degree at the University of Florida. He has worked at the Ledger and the Palm Beach Post. For the Times, he has covered everything from mortgage fraud, growth and development in Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg City Hall and state government in Tallahassee. After a stint as assistant metro editor for the paper, he is now the government and politics editor.

Phone: (727) 580-9650.


Twitter: @MikeVanSickler

  1. Karp: "The election to replace Tant should embarrass every Democrat"


    In an op-ed for the Miami Herald, Joshua Karp, former communications director for the Florida Democratic Party, lambasted how his former employer is going about choosing the successor of the party's chair, Allison Tant.

    "The election to replace Tant should embarrass every Democrat," Karp writes. "The convoluted system governing Florida Democrats eliminates good candidates, encourages ridiculous loopholes and suppresses minority voices. The chair’s election isn’t even open to all Democrats. It is restricted to the people who are currently a leader of a Florida county Democratic Party."...

    Joshua Karp
  2. NSF: Dwight Bullard moves to Gadsden County in bid for Democratic chair


    By Lloyd Dunkelberger

    The News Service of Florida

    The race for the chairmanship of the Florida Democratic Party has evolved into a multi-candidate contest as Democrats continue to maneuver before the vote next month in Orlando.

    In the latest development, former state Sen. Dwight Bullard has moved from Miami-Dade County to rural Gadsden County to keep his bid alive.

    Bullard appeared to be out of the race to replace Allison Tant, the outgoing chair, when he lost an election for a Miami-Dade state committeeman post to Stephen Bittel, another candidate for the party's chairmanship, earlier this month.

    But Bullard has re-emerged in Gadsden, a rural enclave near Tallahassee, and was unanimously elected as the county's state committeeman on Tuesday, replacing Sam Palmer who agreed to step aside, said Willie Neal, the Gadsden County Democratic chairman. Neal said Gadsden Democrats were happy to give Bullard "an opportunity to run" for the party chair.

    In an interview with The News Service of Florida last month, Bullard said his candidacy for the state chair would emphasize "a recommitment to our grassroots political ideology, putting everyday working families before special interests."

    "People want to know there is a party out there working for them and that it represents their voices," Bullard said.

    As Bullard revived his candidacy, Bittel, who is a Coconut Grove developer and major party fundraiser, formally announced his bid, saying the party "needs a new direction, a change in strategy and a clear message."

    Bittel promised to work with all 67 counties, looking to build "a permanent progressive infrastructure" to help Democrats in future elections, including 2018, when the governor's office, three Cabinet seats and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's re-election are at stake.

    "We need to expand beyond Tallahassee and get on the road to engage working Floridians from Pensacola to Key West," Bittel said.

    Bullard's move to Gadsden mimics an earlier maneuver by Alan Clendenin, another party chairman candidate, who lost a bid for a state committeeman post in Hillsborough County but won election to a similar party position in Bradford County to keep his candidacy alive.

    Rachel Pienta, a former Wakulla County committeewoman and longtime party activist, said she is supporting Clendenin as a candidate who can unite the party after another disappointing election year.

    She said Clendenin exhibited his ability to be a unifier after he lost a close election for the party chairmanship to Tant in 2013.

    Pienta said Clendenin also has the ability to build the party base "beyond the blue bubbles in the state where we have really concentrated so much of our resources to the neglect of the outlying rural counties."

    "I see Alan looking at the big picture," she said.

    Pienta said there are at least two other Democratic leaders positioning themselves for a possible party chair bid, including Leah Carius of Osceola County and Lisa King of Duval County.

    Asked about how the aggressive maneuvering may be impacting the party, Pienta said it's a positive that so many people are interested in the race, while acknowledging they "have to jump through crazy loops and follow old rules."

    She said the chair fight could prompt a move to not limit the candidates to county committee posts in future races.

    "I think opening the field does make sense. It would take away some of the backroom politics," Pienta said.

    "That said, the rules currently prescribe that's the way to get it done," she said. "And if people play within those rules, I don't have a problem with it."

    Party activists will gather Jan. 14 in Orlando to elect the new chair. More than 1,000 votes are expected to be at stake, with the larger Democratic counties, such as Broward and Miami-Dade, having more influence in the weighted vote....

    Dwight Bullard, pictured here with former Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa
  3. Thrasher still no fan of guns on campus



    News Service of Florida

    In his annual "state of the university" address on Wednesday, Florida State University President John Thrasher reiterated his strong opposition to allowing guns on university and college campuses.

    As a member of the Florida Senate, Thrasher helped kill a bill in 2011 that would have allowed gun owners with concealed-weapons licenses to bring their firearms to Florida's university and state-college campuses.

    "I opposed it. I killed it. I have worked against it since then," Thrasher told the FSU faculty. "And you have my promise that I will work against it this year also."

    The so-called "campus carry" bill, which in the past has been approved by the House, has already re-emerged as an issue for the 2017 legislative session. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, filed a new version of the bill (HB 6005) on Wednesday.

    The issue also may have more support in 2017 in the Senate, where newly elected Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a major supporter, has been named chairman of the Judiciary Committee. That committee is where the proposal, strongly backed by Second Amendment groups, died during the 2016 session.

    Thrasher, a former House speaker and Senate Rules Committee chairman, said he continues to agree with other university and college leaders, campus law enforcement officials and faculty members "that having more guns on campus does not make our campus safer."

    A former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, Thrasher also said during the address Wednesday he would urge incoming President Donald Trump not to repeal President Barack Obama's 2012 executive directive that gives undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children the right to work and study in the United States.

    The so-called "Dreamers," or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, program has allowed some 740,000 immigrants to obtain work permits or remain in school without the fear of deportation, according to federal officials.

    "I think it's the right thing to do," Thrasher said. "And I will help these students and others find a better path to the future."

    His support for the "Dreamers" was part of a major portion of Thrasher's speech in which he emphasized that "diversity and inclusion" at FSU remain a priority for his administration.

    "These are not just buzzwords to me," Thrasher said. "They reflect the values of Florida State University, a place that offered me an education and opportunities I never would have had otherwise."

    In the more-traditional part of his speech, Thrasher outlined a host of achievements for the university, which has 42,000 students and is classified as one of two "pre-eminent" schools in the state.

    He noted FSU jumped five spots in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings to 38th on the list of top public universities, with the school positioned to achieve its goal of being a top-25 school.

    Fund-raising is robust, boosted by a $100 million gift from Jan Moran and the Jim Moran Foundation that is helping FSU create a new school, which Thrasher said will "change the face of entrepreneurial education in America."

    Thrasher pointed to a number of academic achievements by the FSU faculty, including research into the Zika virus and a major increase in research funding and grants. FSU has received a $10 million federal grant to create a center focused on improving nuclear waste cleanup.

    Heading toward the 2017 legislative session, Thrasher said FSU would seek a significant funding boost to further raise the quality of the school, including an emphasis on graduate programs.

    With lawmakers, like Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, talking about initiatives aimed at improving Florida's higher-education system, Thrasher said he is "optimistic" about university funding in the coming session....

    FSU President John Thrasher
  4. Bondi takes death sentence issue to U.S. Supreme Court



    News Service of Florida

    The state plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit a landmark case in which justices struck down as unconstitutional Florida’s death-penalty sentencing procedure because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

    Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawyers will appeal a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, according to a motion asking a judge to put on hold a resentencing hearing for Hurst. That resentencing hearing was ordered by the Florida Supreme Court in October....

    Pam Bondi
  5. Ben Carson to become Trump's HUD secretary


    From our friends at the Associated Press:

    President-elect Donald Trump, moving to complete formation of his Cabinet and decide other key administration posts, chose former campaign rival and Florida resident Ben Carson on Monday to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    As a Trump supporter, Carson was both loyal and critical. He conceded that Trump had "major defects" and said at one point that he would have preferred a scenario other than Trump winning the Republican primary....

  6. Largest U.S. solar panel installer enters Florida after Amendment 1 defeat


    SolarCity, the largest U.S. solar panel installer, is moving into Florida's residential market — emboldened by the state's voters rejection last month of a utility-backed ballot measure that critics said would make going solar more expensive.

    Lyndon Rive, the company's CEO, said the defeat of the pro-utility Amendment 1 by Florida voters strengthened the company's resolve to move into the state....

    SolarCity , the largest U.S. solar panel installer, is moving into Florida's residential market - emboldened by the state's voters rejection last month of a utility-backed ballot measure that critics said would make going solar more expensive. In this 2010 photo, SolarCity workers install a rooftop solar system in Denver.
  7. Office assignments don't go well for Charlie Crist


    As an incoming Democrat coming into his first term in a U.S. Congress controlled by Republicans, Charlie Crist knew he was going to get the dregs of offices.

    As Roll Call points out, new representatives have no claim on the offices that are coveted for their locations, size or other features, so they get assigned the worst of the worst offices via a lottery....

  8. Did former CentCom chief change Trump's mind on torture?


    President-elect Donald Trump's hourlong interview with the New York Times on Tuesday was chock-full of surprises. Aside from his backing away from investigating Hillary Clinton, Trump offered softened views on climate change and torture that were a far cry from his heated campaign rhetoric....

    President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as he leaves Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. on Saturday
  9. Supreme Court rejects two death sentences


    ...from our friends at the News Service of Florida



    TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned death sentences and ordered life in prison for two inmates, ruling in one case that a convicted murderer who was not the triggerman should not have received a harsher sentence than his co-defendants.

    In the other case, the court's majority ruled that Terrance Tyrone Phillips should not have been sentenced to death for killing two men during a brawl because of Phillips' age --- 18 --- and below-average intelligence.

    The majorities in both of Thursday's decisions vacated the convicted killers' death sentences and ordered lower courts to impose life sentences for Phillips and Robert Pernell McCloud.

    In a scathing dissent, Justice Charles Canady warned that the order in McCloud's case could have a chilling effect on future prosecutions.

    McCloud and four other men were involved in a 2009 raid on the Poinciana home of an alleged drug dealer, with two people, Dustin Freeman and Tamiqua Taylor, getting killed.

    One of the five defendants was deemed ineligible for the death penalty because of his intellectual disability, while three others agreed to plead no contest to second-degree murder charges and to testify against McCloud. One co-defendant received a sentence of 10 years in prison, and two others were sentenced to 15 years.

    In a 4-3 decision, the majority of justices relied on a "relative culpability analysis" to determine that McCloud's sentence was too harsh because none of the others involved were sentenced to die, while McCloud was not the triggerman, nor was he the mastermind or a dominant player in the crimes.

    "On balance, the fact that McCloud's co-defendants were convicted of a lesser degree of murder is not dispositive of their relative culpabilities. Rather, the record taken as a whole sufficiently demonstrates that McCloud was, in fact, less culpable than those who escaped the death penalty," said the 41-page opinion by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Barbara Pariente and James E.C. Perry. Jstice Peggy Quince concurred in the result, but did fully sign on to the opinion.

    Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented without a written opinion, while Canady, in a dissent joined by Justice Ricky Polston, argued that the majority's analysis was faulty.

    Because he was the only co-defendant convicted of first-degree murder, McCloud did not receive disparate treatment, Canady wrote. Canady also chastised the majority for deciding that McCloud was not the shooter.

    "Neither the jury nor the trial court made such a finding, and this (Supreme) Court is not in a position to do so," he wrote. "It is not the prerogative of this court to go beyond the verdict form and speculate about additional factual findings the jury may or may not have made in reaching its verdict."

    The law allows prosecutors to enter plea agreements with co-defendants that result in lesser sentences for some, Canady pointed out.

    "Nonetheless, with this decision, the majority has stripped Florida's state attorneys of their discretion to waive the death penalty for certain defendants without also foregoing the death penalty for other co-defendants who might later be viewed by this court as either equally culpable or less culpable on the face of the appellate record," he warned.

    Canady and Polston also dissented in the 5-2 opinion overturning Phillips' death sentence.

    Phillips was convicted in the Jacksonville murders of Mateo Perez and Renaldo Antunez-Padilla, who were killed after an altercation involving several other people on Christmas Eve in 2009. Phillips was 18 years old at the time the murders occurred. By an 8-4 vote, a jury recommended that Phillips receive the death penalty for each killing.

    But on Thursday, the Supreme Court majority ruled that the death sentences were "disproportionate"” because of Phillips' age and intellectual ability.

    A mental health expert testified that Phillips has “significantly subaverage intelligence," on the borderline range of intellectual functioning that places him in the bottom 5 percent of the population, according to the court record.

    And Phillips in all likelihood did not plan to kill Perez and Antunez-Padilla, with the deaths happening during a melee inside an apartment, the majority concluded.

    "We do not take lightly the tragic loss of two lives as a result of Phillips' actions," the majority wrote in a 20-page opinion. "However, while we affirm Phillips' convictions, because we conclude that the murders in this case are not among the most aggravated and least mitigated, the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment."

    Duval County Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey, who sentenced Phillips to death in 2012, is the subject of an ongoing investigation into allegations of racism.

    The Florida Supreme Court in September rejected a request by Phillips' lawyer, Martin McClain, to "get the facts" about highly publicized allegations against Hulsey. 

    McClain argued that the allegations of racism created questions about Hulsey's impartiality in handling the case of Phillips, who is black. 

    The Judicial Qualifications Commission in July filed a notice of formal charges against Hulsey for alleged racist and sexist comments, including an allegation that he once said blacks should "go back to Africa." Hulsey has denied the allegations, and the case remains pending.

    Thursday's rulings came as Florida's death penalty remains in a state of flux in the aftermath of a pair of opinions issued by state's high court on Oct. 14. Those decisions found that a statute passed in March in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida was unconstitutional "because it requires that only 10 jurors recommend death as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury."

    In the Hurst decision, issued in January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's death penalty system was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries....

    The Florida Supreme Court
  10. Adam Putnam no fan of $75 million Capitol upgrade


    From Jim Turner at The News Service of Florida:

    Emergency repairs to two underground parking decks at the Capitol and planned upgrades to a main entry plaza could reach $75 million.

    Department of Management Services Secretary Chad Poppell, whose agency oversees the complex, said officials should have a better grasp on some of the costs in about a month when updated figures are available on the already-closed Senate garage.

    "These projects are very complex, about half of the cost is just getting the building ready to work on," Poppell said.

    Poppell said the goal is a finished product that Floridians can be proud of visually and in terms of cost. The makeover of the complex is expected to be complete in four to six years.

    But Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, described the minimalistic renderings that Poppell's office is using to showcase the project as "not particularly attractive."

    More important, he would like Poppell's agency to consider less-expensive options as it repairs 1970s-era design flaws that led to the deterioration of the parking decks and as it makes the multi-deck western entrance plaza, called Waller Park, more accessible for people with disabilities.

    "Seventy-five million (dollars), and to only have to show for it two parking garages that are not collapsing on each other and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility, is extraordinary to me," Putnam said during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

    Putnam, who acknowledged he was upset to first read about the work in the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper, said he expects cost overruns and he would like to see options, such as new off-site, above-ground parking decks, that were rejected.

    Asked after the meeting what he would like to see for the complex, Putnam responded, "Hopefully something less ugly than what they've picked."

    Poppell said the renderings now being used were intended to remain true to the architectural style of the Capitol. Also, he said the Senate is looking at a new garage rather than just repairing the existing structure.

    "With the amount of money being estimated it's important we get a good return on investment for taxpayers in terms of the life-cycle of the building and how long it's expected to be in use," Poppell said.

    The Senate garage is already closed, with basic repair work underway after cracks were found in the multi-deck structure.

    The damages were primarily the result of the initial design of the complex, which includes trees and about 7,300 tons of soil atop the parking decks.

    The Legislature set aside $36 million over the past three years for the repairs to the parking decks and the plaza work.

    Part of the upgrade includes work with the Florida Historical Commission to have space for new memorials on the Capitol grounds. Also, to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, the state is looking at elevators for the entry plaza rather than the need for 400 feet of winding ramps.

    First projected to top $20 million, the Senate repair work is now estimated at $25 million, the same price tag now affixed for repairs to the House underground garage and changes to Waller Park, Poppell said.

    Employees who had used the 210-space Senate deck are now parking in nearby state facilities. Senators and some of their staff will have spaces moved to a third parking deck under the Capitol for the 2017 legislative session.

    The House parking structure will remain in use during that time, as it isn't considered in as dire shape as the Senate deck.

    Workers have already removed more than 100 holly and oak trees that were atop the decks, which sit on opposite wings of the Capitol property that opened in 1977.

    To comply with a Tallahassee tree ordinance, the live oaks will eventually be replaced with "mature" live oaks, but they will not be planted above the garages, Poppell said....

    Adam Putnam finds the cost of repairs to be extraordinary
  11. Pence and Bondi to lunch at Ricky P's


    Before he goes to Sarasota for a rally on Wednesday, Donald Trump's vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, will be lunching in St. Petersburg.

    One of his lunch companions will be Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, according to an invite by the Trump campaign.

    It lists Republican activists Michael Pinson, Cheryl Sanchez, Vicki and John Majors, Denise Nestor, Brian Artze and Paul Harris as the host committee.  ...

    Who wants Cajun cuisine?
  12. Scott returns to Miami for hastily announced Zika news conference


    Early Friday morning, Gov. Rick Scott cancelled an appearance in Tampa at Aero Simulation, where he was to tout the latest Florida jobs numbers (26,000 new jobs in July, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity).

    At the same time the cancellation was announced, Scott's office disclosed that he would hold a news conference at the Miami-Dade County Health Department regarding the Zika virus....

  13. U.S. Senate | Democratic primary, Alan Grayson v. Pam Keith v. Patrick Murphy


    U.S. Senate | Democratic primary

    With control of the U.S. Senate on the line, Democrats are looking to Florida, where they hope to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio. The caustic primary campaign has pitted two congressmen — establishment favorite Patrick Murphy and bombastic Alan Grayson — against each other and a first-time candidate, labor attorney Pam Keith.

    About the job: Statewide representative to the U.S. Senate. Salary: $174,000. Term: six years....

       source: Pam Keith
  14. Father of Orlando mass shooter attends Clinton rally (and has a good seat)


    WPTV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, attended Monday's Hillary Clinton rally in Kissimmee when one of its reporters noticed the man in the red hat sitting behind the stage in full view of the cameras.

    Turns out it was Seddique Mateen, the father of Omar Mateen. As Clinton was talking about the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, just 30 minutes from Kissimmee, the father of the gunman sat in the crowd. Pretty surreal stuff....

  15. News Service of Florida: After Pulse, Rick Scott expressed support for gay rights


    From our friends at The News Service of Florida:

    In the days after 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Gov. Rick Scott privately expressed some support for gay rights to the state's only openly gay state lawmaker, a Miami Beach House member told a gathering in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

    "We didn't talk about specific laws, but what he said to me privately and in the presence of his staff is that he's a grandfather and if any of his grandchildren happened to be gay he would want them to be treated with dignity and respect and have their rights," state Rep. David Richardson told the News Service after a panel discussion. "And he also told me that for anyone that might be critical of him and having these meetings, that he got elected to represent all 20 million Floridians."

    Richardson, a Democrat, said the Republican governor's office called him after the Pulse nightclub killings, seeking help reaching out to the gay community. Richardson said he responded, "I'm willing to help you but only if you can do this on my terms, and my terms are no press and no photo opportunities."

    "I didn't want to be used to facilitate him after he has not been responsive to our community," Richardson told audience members at Wednesday's event hosted by the Equality Forum at the National Museum of Jewish American History in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention.

    Richardson, who had recently returned from attending a vigil in Orlando, hopped in his car and made the trek northward, holding meetings with faith leaders and representatives of the LGBT community.

    "He respected all my wishes," Richardson said.

    Richardson said the meetings with Scott offered some leverage that he would use depending on what bills reach the governor's desk.

    "I will happily call him up and remind him what he told me in Orlando," said Richardson, who told the audience he was sharing the story as an example of "relationship-building."

    Richardson told the News Service he had no compunction about publicly sharing the meetings because the secrecy was on his terms.

    "I'm not violating any trust by telling a story," said Richardson, who said he doesn't talk about the meetings a lot because he's not a "cheerleader" for Scott.

    The meetings came after Richardson texted Scott's chief of staff, Kim McDougal, complaining about the lack of mention the gay community received in Scott's remarks right after the shooting, which occurred in the early hours of June 12.

    "He didn't say anything about the gay community, the LGBT community. I text her and I said, 'Would you tell him that he has to say the word gay?' " Richardson told the News Service. "He has to say the word gay because the gay community is taking note that he's not acknowledging the community."

    Wednesday's panel, which also included New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, was moderated by Aisha Moodie-Mills, CEO of the Victory Fund, which aims to help elect members of the LGBT community in "low-equality states," including Florida.

    "Florida is absolutely one of those states," Moodie-Mills told the News Service....

    Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, said that Rick Scott privately expressed to him support for gay rights after the Pulse nightclub killings.