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From schools and Amendment 4 to Giuliani’s friends, Ron DeSantis dominated headlines in 2019

Here were the biggest Florida politics stories of the year. Many involved the state’s new governor.

It was the year Florida’s new governor made his mark and the state welcomed a new resident: the president.

State education changed, the felon voting rights measure Amendment 4 was muddled and the impeachment drama came to Florida.

Here are the biggest stories in Florida politics this year.

Ron DeSantis and the two Giuliani associates

On Oct. 9, federal authorities arrested Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two south Florida businessman involved in the Ukrainian activities of Rudy Giuliani, a personal lawyer of President Donald Trump. They became key figures in the impeachment drama and, the public quickly learned, they donated $50,000 to Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida Republicans.

DeSantis quickly disgorged himself of their contribution and that was supposed to be the end of it. He didn’t have a relationship with these people, his office said. “I doubt he even took a picture with these guys,” state GOP chairman Joe Gruters said.

Oh, there were pictures. Lots of them.

Igor Fruman, left, one of two South Florida businessmen who was arrested last week on campaign finance violations, moves to hug Florida Governor elect Ron DeSantis, right, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Orlando at the watch party for DeSantis. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

DeSantis appeared at fundraisers with Parnas and Fruman. They were spotted on the campaign trail in the closing days of the race. Parnas and Fruman were invited guests at DeSantis’ election-night victory party, where the three embraced. They were even VIPs at DeSantis’ inauguration.

Questions remain about their interest in Florida, where their money came from and who introduced them to DeSantis. Federal prosecutors allege there are more charges to come.

K-12 education in Florida won’t be the same

The 2018 Parkland shooting continued to reverberate in Florida’s consciousness this year, in no bigger way than the Legislature’s decision to allow classroom teachers to be armed. The change, approved by DeSantis, prompted national headlines and emotional debate in Florida’s Capitol, which was most painful when several black legislators expressed deep-seated fears that students of color could be targets of teachers wielding guns.

But backers of the so-called "Guardian program" pointed to the fact that teachers must volunteer to be armed, and then are screened and trained by law enforcement.

Florida’s education system was further changed by the passage of a law that accomplished a goal of Republicans since Jeb Bush was governor: a new voucher that allows low-income families to send their children to private schools, funded by the state pot of per-student money typically set aside for public schools.

In this Oct. 22 photo, people gather around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The fight for Amendment 4

Once the battle over Amendment 4 ended in November 2018 with its passage, a new fight began over how it would be implemented — a saga that continues.

Amendment 4 automatically restored the right to vote to felons who completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation." But this spring, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring felons to pay off all fines, fees and restitution, insisting that was the accurate definition of “all terms” of a sentence. The move potentially prevents hundreds of thousands of felons from voting. The proposal was bitterly opposed by critics, who called it a poll tax.

To make matters more complicated, it was then revealed that the state has no way to track which felons still have outstanding restitution payments, and sometimes the felons don’t even know how much they owe or who to pay.

Then the fight moved to the courts. Recently, a federal judge said the state can’t prevent people from voting if they’re too poor to pay off their debts, a problem he said the Legislature must address. The Florida Supreme Court also began reviewing the Amendment per a request by DeSantis, who is now arguing Amendment 4 should be reversed altogether. Stay tuned.

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, en route to Florida to attend a Republican fundraiser and speak at the Israeli American Council National Summit. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) [PATRICK SEMANSKY | AP]

Donald Trump, Florida Man

Florida was already going to be one of 2020′s most important battlegrounds. Trump signaled as much in June, when he officially kicked off his reelection campaign with a packed rally at an Orlando arena. To an adoring, raucous crowd, Trump declared: "We did it once, now we’re going to do it again. And this time we’re going to finish the job.”

Then came a Halloween surprise. The New York Times reported that Trump, a lifelong New Yorker, and first lady Melania Trump had officially changed his residence from his Manhattan penthouse to Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort. Many speculated the move was for tax purposes. Trump faulted New York politicians who had treated the Republican "very badly.”

Overnight, Florida officially had its first president. And when he votes for himself again in 2020, he will do so from a Florida zip code.

El excandidato a la gobernación de Florida, Andrew Gillum, fortaleció los esfuerzos de su partido con un generoso aporte de campaña. Foto: Octavio Jones / Tampa Bay Times

Andrew Gillum’s up and down year

In a much-hyped March event, the former gubernatorial candidate declared he would channel his energy and political capital into an effort to register and reengage 1 million Democrats by 2020. While the announcement affirmed Andrew Gillum as one of the most important faces of Florida Democrats, it invited a new criticism about $3 million his political committee didn’t spend in the 2018 election.

Two months later, the Tampa Bay Times reported a federal grand jury subpoena demanded records on Gillum, his campaign, political committee and several associates. A FBI probed into Tallahassee corruption dogged Gillum all through his campaign. Now, this new investigation looms over his post-election political life.

Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and U.S. Rep. Val Demings have prominent roles in the impeachment of President Donald Trump. [AP Photos]

The Floridization of the impeachment trial

In the hours outside impeachment hearings, Democrats and Republicans took their warfare to cable news. Two Florida lawmakers were on the front lines: U.S. Reps. Val Demings and Matt Gaetz.

Gaetz, a Pensacola Republican, was already a Fox News favorite. But he became the face of the Republican counter narrative, helping the Trump administration undermine impeachment proceedings and advancing alternative conspiracies about the Bidens. Demings elevated her profile from her seat in two impeachment committees — Intelligence and Judicial. The former Orlando police chief became a MSNBC staple all through December, often repeating a favorite line: “No one is above the law, not even the president.”

Meanwhile, another Floridian, former attorney general Pam Bondi, left her lobbying job to help lead Trump’s impeachment response team.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in Miami for Wednesday's Democratic Presidential Debate, visits the Homestead detention center for migrant children. [MIAMI HERALD ]

Migrants detained in South Florida

Homestead became ground zero for the Trump administration’s policy to separate migrant families at the southern border. Thousands of children were kept at the privately run South Florida facility. Conditions there were described as “prison-like.”

Politicians weren’t allowed inside but were able to peak over the fence from a stepladder set up by protests. In the June days leading up to the first Democratic presidential debates in Miami, nearly every candidate took a turn climbing the ladder to see the other side.

Homeland Security shuttered the shelter on Nov. 30.

FILE - In this June 21, 2017 file photo, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, arrives on Capitol Hill for a closed door meeting before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington. U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller has yet to release his report about alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election but Moscow has already rehearsed its response, dismissing Mueller’s investigation as part of the U.S. political infighting. (Associated Press)

Robert Mueller confirms cyberattack on Florida election offices

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia election interference and the Trump campaign included a bombshell about Florida: Russian hackers gained access to at least one county’s election computer network during the 2016 campaign.

That was news to Florida leaders, including Sen. Rick Scott, who was governor at the time. Scott and DeSantis demanded answers. The FBI agreed to provide some, on one condition: They had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Scott, DeSantis and the rest of Florida’s congressional delegation agreed. The public still doesn’t know which counties were compromised and are left following a trail of bread crumbs.

Michele Arceneaux, former president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a press conference against three proposed toll roads in the Florida Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. [LAWRENCE MOWER | Lawrence Mower]

Florida’s toll road future

After a new company, Conduent, took over SunPass’ toll system in 2018, its software was “completely overwhelmed,” creating a backlog of millions of transactions and some motorists to get over-billed for their tolls. Those problems lasted well into 2019, and the Florida Department of Transportation didn’t resume its regular payments to Conduent until June — after fines, questions from lawmakers and the start of an investigation by the state’s chief inspector general.

But how did this all happen? Turns out Conduent had won the state contract to take over SunPass only after the state paid $3.6 million to get another competitor to drop its bid. Additionally, other bidders had both scored higher with state evaluators and made cheaper bids.

In July, the Florida Department of Transportation said they would not renew its contract with Conduent, days after the Times/Herald published a story about how the SunPass processing debacle had also left airports in a lurch.

But that wasn’t the only big transportation story of the year. State lawmakers passed a law this spring to create 300 new miles of toll roads that criss-cross the state. But so far, members on the panel evaluating the process say they’re not sure the roads are even needed. And some major environmental questions linger, including one federal environmentalist saying that they could jeopardize the Florida panther.

Trouble with Florida Republicans?

Florida Republicans should have been riding high in 2019 after staving off a blue wave in 2018. Instead, there’s rancor within the state GOP heading into a presidential election.

DeSantis brought in a new executive director for the Republican Party, Peter O’Rourke, who left Washington under a cloud of controversy and an investigation into his leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Then he raised eyebrows by criticizing the party’s registration efforts, which caught state party chairman Joe Gruters off guard. DeSantis also pushed out Susie Wiles, his former campaign manager and a long-time GOP operative responsible for many recent statewide victories.

The party seemed to come together in December for its annual fundraiser, thanks to an 11th hour effort to get Trump to headline the event. Will the cracks hold in 2020?

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