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2019′s most read Florida political stories in the Tampa Bay Times

Hurricanes. Climate change deniers. The NRA. Russian hackers. White nationalists. Matt Gaetz. Welcome to the jungle, Florida.

If 2019 was the calm before the storm, a welcome respite before things get really crazy, then we’re all in for a Cat 5 next year.

The Buzz’s most popular stories in 2019, as measured by the digital analytics firm Chartbeat, reveal a state wallowing in conflict, suffering and impending doom.

Stories related to white nationalism, federal investigators circling the former Democratic nominee for governor, elections hacking, the lingering despair from Hurricane Michael and the NRA’s opposition to a proposed assault weapons ban all resonated with readers.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the most divisive members of Congress, nabbed two slots in the top 10, courtesy of his bad boy approach to politics. State Rep. Dennis Baxley’s penchant for sponsoring 1950s-style legislation made the list, as did what then appeared as a looming threat to President Donald Trump’s Florida home posed by Hurricane Dorian.

Of all the stories in the top 10, only a profile of Gov. Ron DeSantis could be described as remotely positive. It’s a revealing look at the state’s top politician finding a groove that has had him surging in the polls.

Behold the stories in 2019 that cast a spell on readers.

10. Florida bill would have students learn alternatives to climate change, evolution. (Published online Jan. 28)

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would allow school districts to teach Florida students alternatives to concepts deemed “controversial theories” — such as human-caused climate change and evolution — has been filed in the state Legislature.

The language of the bill sounds fairly unremarkable, requiring only that schools “shall” teach these “theories” in a “factual, objective, and balanced manner.” But the group that wrote the bill, the Florida Citizens Alliance, says the bill is needed because curriculum currently taught in Florida schools equates to “political and religious indoctrination,” according to their managing director, Keith Flaugh.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said that schools need to teach “different worldviews” on issues like evolution and climate change. He asserts that textbooks now skew toward “uniformity” of thought.

“Nothing is ever settled if it’s science, because people are always questioning science,” Baxley said. “If you look at the history of human learning, for a long time the official worldview was that the world was flat. Anything you now accept as fact comes from a perspective and you learn from examining different schools of thought.”

Both evolution and climate change are well-established fact in the scientific community.

Related: READ THE STORY

9. A Florida Congresswoman is wondering why she can’t talk openly about Russian election hacking (Sept. 8)

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando. [AP Photo | John Raoux] [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, the Democrat who represents parts of Seminole County and Orange County, has a bone to pick with the U.S. intelligence community.

In an op-ed column for the Washington Post published earlier this week, Murphy renewed her objection to the lack of public knowledge about Russian attempts to hack into Florida’s electoral system in 2016.

Security officials, Murphy argued, have been less than forthcoming about Russia’s interference efforts. It took Murphy ― and her Republican colleague, Michael Waltz, R-6 ― requesting a private briefing for officials to disclose that two counties had been penetrated by Russians, Murphy writes. And in fact, there may have been even more counties affected. Murphy herself is not sure, she wrote.

Related: READ THE STORY

8. Hurricane Michael recovery has a big problem: People aren’t donating (Jan. 27)

Mexico Beach, one year anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Michael. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

PANAMA CITY — More than three months after Hurricane Michael bludgeoned the beachside communities in the Panhandle, dozens of people crammed into the Messiah Lutheran Church on Thursday.

They were there to address enormous questions that hang over their largely lower-income part of the state.

“Affordable Housing,” “Reach Less Fortunate,” were written at the top of a long list of goals for a startup recovery group. Some suggested auctioning off quilts, or holding a car show.

But the reality is they’re going to need millions.

Major donors simply aren’t coming through for Florida’s Forgotten Coast. According to a Times/Herald analysis of contributions to three prominent national charities, donations to Hurricane Michael recovery fall far below donations for recent landmark hurricanes to hit the South such as Florence, Irma and Harvey.

The Salvation Army has received $2.8 million for its Hurricane Michael response. It received a combined $125 million after Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017.

United Way Worldwide received just under $750,000 for Hurricane Michael recovery. That’s more than $10 million less than it received for its combined fund for Hurricanes Irma and Maria. That’s about $100,000 less than it received for the 2017 Mexican earthquake.

“God, I give you praise and honor for bringing us together ... I pray that you will continue to give us the strategic ideas and the resources so that our county shall be a better county than it was before October the 10th,” Pastor Lynva Masslieno said at Thursday’s meeting.

Related: READ THE STORY

7. Federal subpoena demands records on Andrew Gillum and his campaign for governor (May 30)

Andrew Gillum.

Andrew Gillum is a focal point of a recently issued federal grand jury subpoena that demands information on the former Democratic candidate for governor, his campaign, his political committee, a wealthy donor, a charity he worked for and a former employer.

The subpoena, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times and previously unreported, could reflect a new level of federal inquiry into Gillum, the former mayor of Tallahassee who narrowly lost to Republican Ron DeSantis last year.

Throughout his campaign last year, Gillum insisted he was not a target of a sprawling FBI investigation of Tallahassee City Hall, which has taken at least three years and resulted in three arrests. Last year, he told the Tallahassee Democrat: “Twenty-plus subpoenas have been issued and not one of them has anything to do with me.”

But the recent one does. Previously, the investigation had centered on corruption inside Tallahassee government, including during Gillum’s time as mayor. The newer subpoena is more focused on Gillum’s 2018 campaign and people and organizations with clear ties to him, but with less obvious connections to Tallahassee City Hall.

Gillum, now a CNN contributor, declined to answer specific questions about the subpoena or say whether a subpoena was issued to him. In a statement to the Times, Gillum said: "We stand ready to assist any future review of our work, because I am confident we always did the right thing and complied fully with the law.”

Related: READ THE STORY

6. Where did this Ron DeSantis come from? Florida’s governor surprises everyone but himself. (Feb. 10)

Casey DeSantis and Governor Ron DeSantis (right) arrive before the game at Camping World Stadium on August 24, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]

TALLAHASSEE — It was a moment lost on Election Night.

As newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis faced a blockade of TV cameras in Orlando, he told reporters that he had been misunderstood, or “unfairly demagogued,” by political rivals and the media.

At the end of a bitter campaign in which he cast himself as an uncompromising conservative who reveled in his support from President Donald Trump, DeSantis said he was eager to move on and work with those who had tried to defeat him.

Three months later, his short time in office has already shattered assumptions that he would govern exclusively from the right. He has drawn unexpected praise from Republicans and Democrats.

He released a budget proposal that broke the record for spending and contained no major cuts, placing him at odds with staunch fiscal conservatives in the Florida House. As he’s relentlessly traveled the state in a fixer-upper plane, he’s appointed Democrats to key posts, vowed to save the Everglades and urged lawmakers to allow patients to smoke medical marijuana.

“He’s taken a very pragmatic course,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “I say this as a Democrat and as a mayor: I’ve been really pleased and pleasantly surprised by the course and the decisions he’s made.” He added that until DeSantis took office, he was “an unknown quantity.”

Related: READ THE STORY

5. Here’s what the NRA’s Marion Hammer had to say about Florida’s proposed assault weapons ban (Aug. 16)

Marion Hammer is the National Rifle Association’s longtime Florida lobbyist.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer warned state economists Friday that a proposed assault rifle ban would be devastating to gun manufacturers lured to the state over the last eight years.

“Gov. Rick Scott and Enterprise Florida solicited and offered significant financial incentives to gun manufacturers to come to Florida to bring more jobs,” she said.

Hammer, speaking for the first time since back-to-back gun-related massacres in El Paso and Dayton two weeks ago, denounced the controversial amendment meant to address gun violence in Florida.

The amendment would ban the future sale of assault rifles in the Sunshine State and force current owners to either register them with the state or give them up.

But Hammer said the proposed amendment doesn’t protect the more than 150 major gun manufacturers in the state, of which many produce weapons that would be outlawed by the ban. Those companies would be forced to move because they couldn’t possess any new assault weapons, she said.

“If I were the owner of one of these firearm manufacturing companies, I wouldn’t wait to see what voters do,” she said. “If this were allowed to go on the ballot, I’d say, ‘I’m outta here.’”

Related: READ THE STORY

4. Matt Gaetz’s 2008 DUI arrest resurfaces after jab at Hunter Biden’s substance abuse. Here’s what happened. (Dec. 12)

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, seen here when he was a state representative in 2014.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz took a jab at Hunter Biden’s past substance abuse during Thursday’s House impeachment hearings, leading a Democratic colleague to call the Pensacola Republican a hypocrite.

The dust-up started when the Pensacola Republican sought to insert Biden’s name into the articles of impeachment — the latest attempt to redirect the investigation in President Donald Trump to Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s employment with Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company.

That’s when things took a strange turn.

“I don’t want to make light of anybody’s substance abuse issue," Gaetz said. “But it’s a little hard to believe that Burisma hired Hunter Biden to resolve their international disputes when he could not resolve his own dispute with Hertz rental car leaving cocaine and a crack pipe in the car.”

Those watching the hearing online immediately drew parallels between Gaetz’s remark and his own run-in with law enforcement. Gaetz was arrested in 2008 for driving under the influence, though he was never convicted.

Related: READ THE STORY

3. Further investigation into Matt Gaetz is needed for tweet at Michael Cohen, Florida Bar determines (Aug. 14)

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. [ ANDREW HARNIK | AP ]

An investigation into U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz will proceed, the Florida Bar said Wednesday, meaning the Panhandle Republican could face discipline for allegedly intimidating President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.

A grand jury-like panel called the Grievance Committee will next decide whether there is probable cause that Gaetz’s tweet broke the state Supreme Court’s rules for lawyers. Gaetz, one of Trump’s top allies in Congress, is licensed to practice law in Florida.

If the Florida Bar had determined in its initial review that discipline was not warranted, then the case would have stopped. But it has not, meaning the Bar has decided that further investigation is needed.

Related: READ THE STORY

(SPOILER ALERT: It later cleared Matt Gaetz.)

2. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is in the projected path of Hurricane Dorian (Aug. 29)

President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort is shown, Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, in Palm Beach, Fla. The resort is potentially sitting directly in the path of Hurricane Dorian, which is forecast to become an extremely destructive storm. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

Hurricane Dorian is threatening to strike Florida near Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s prized South Florida resort.

The storm is projected to make landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on Monday, with Melbourne as the most likely landing spot. That’s about 115 miles north of Palm Beach, where Trump’s ocean-front hotel is situated. Mar-a-Lago remains in the “cone of uncertainty" — the range of potential paths the hurricane could take as it strengthens in the Caribbean.

Previous hurricane models suggested Dorian could pass right through the so-called Winter White House, a frequent destination for Trump’s working vacations. As of Thursday morning, though, the storm’s path has shifted slightly north as it slows its forward motion and intensifies.

Related: READ THE STORY

1. Memo reveals a House Republican strategy on shootings: downplay white nationalism, blame left (Aug. 16)

A Virgin Mary painting, flags and flowers adorn a makeshift memorial for the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. [Associcated Press]

Congressional Republicans recently circulated talking points on gun violence that falsely described the El Paso massacre and other mass shootings as “violence from the left.”

A document obtained by the Tampa Bay Times and sent by House Republicans provides a framework for how to respond to anticipated questions like, “Why won’t you pass legislation to close the ‘gun show loophole’ in federal law?” and “Why shouldn’t we ban high-capacity magazines?" The answers are boilerplate Republican arguments against tougher gun restrictions.

But it also included this question: “Do you believe white nationalism is driving more mass shootings recently?” The suggested response is to steer the conversation away from white nationalism to an argument that implies both sides are to blame.

“White nationalism and racism are pure evil and cannot be tolerated in any form," the document said. “We also can’t excuse violence from the left such as the El Paso shooter, the recent Colorado shooters, the Congressional baseball shooter, Congresswoman Giffords’ shooter and Antifa."

Related: READ THE STORY
Related: RELATED: Our most read political stories of 2018

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