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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Digging out and Digging In

September 9, 2016 - 7:45pm
Governor answers press questions Wednesday afternoon
Governor answers press questions Wednesday afternoon

The first hurricane to hit Florida in more than 10 years was followed by the first post-hurricane cleanup the state has seen in more than 10 years. And while it wasn't as violent and noisy as Hurricane Hermine, the aftermath was not exactly smooth.

The pace of power restoration in Tallahassee and surrounding areas came under criticism --- fair or not --- from Gov. Rick Scott and more than a few utility customers. The fact that Scott, a Republican, was facing off with one of the Democratic Party's rising stars in Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum did not go unnoticed.

When he wasn't demanding that power be restored more quickly, Scott was out and about in Leon County, visiting crews who were clearing downed trees and other debris left behind by the storm --- and sometimes getting in on the cleanup himself. Political posturing for a 2018 bid for the U.S. Senate, or a less likely 2020 attempt at the presidency? Perhaps. But Scott would hardly be the first governor to polish his credentials by responding forcefully to a hurricane.

A less-veiled version of politics would not wait for the storm, though. The presidential and U.S. Senate races this year continued to shape up, as the unofficial Labor Day kickoff for the general election campaign passedMonday. A new poll showed Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump neck-and-neck in the race for Florida's 29 electoral votes, even as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio opened up a lead over his Democratic challenger, Congressman Patrick Murphy.

While it only took a week to clear away much of the debris from Hurricane Hermine, it will take a lot longer to cut through the last stage of the fall campaign. The true political storm, the one that hits Florida like clockwork every four years, has just begun.

POWER STRUGGLE

When he ran for governor in 2010, Scott's campaign slogan was, "Let's Get to Work." Scott essentially spent the early part of this week saying the same thing to local officials about getting the lights back on in Tallahassee.

Even if the state hadn't gone a decade between direct hits, Big Bend residents are perhaps not as hurricane-hardened as the denizens of the southern part of the state. And when the initial indication from Tallahassee officials was that it might take a week to get power fully restored, the reaction was not kind.

Scott decided to bore in. On Sunday, he called for Tallahassee and Leon County to bring in private contractors he had identified to help remove remaining downed trees and limbs. But he faced accusations that he might have taken things a step too far.

In a news release, Scott said Tallahassee and Leon County declined further state Department of Transportation "cut and toss" assistance to clear fallen trees and limbs.

But city and county officials were quick to say they had never declined assistance from the state. Instead, they had moved on to the next phase in the cleanup process --- debris removal --- which was being done with the collaboration of the state, they said.

"With respect to the city of Tallahassee declining 'cut-and-toss' assistance, that's absolutely not where we are," Mayor Andrew Gillum told Scott during a roundtable Sunday at the state Emergency Operations Center. "As far as we're concerned, the city of Tallahassee has no intentions, nor have we given any signal --- certainly not myself or the city manager --- that we wish to disrupt that process."

By Tuesday afternoon, power had been restored to more than 90 percent of residents who had lost it statewide. That included 94 percent of Leon County.

With more than 18,000 people still without power Tuesday, Scott dispatched 15 additional Florida Department of Transportation crews, totaling more than 250 people, to Leon County to remove debris and help power-restoration efforts.

The clashes between Scott and the city had eased by then, but the governor's rhetoric was still focused on reaching 100 percent with power as soon as possible.

"You have to be frustrated," Scott said, referring to local residents, while speaking to the media outside the state Emergency Operations Center on Tuesday. "Five days. Five days without power, and you actually don't know when you're going to get power."

Gillum essentially pleaded for patience, saying there had been a range of feedback from residents and workers with the city-run utility involved in recovery efforts.

"They want people to know they're out there working hard for them," Gillum said speaking for recovery workers. "They're not being lazy. They're not taking breaks. For many of them, they don't have power. So we just have to be really careful with the way in which we describe the pace and effort going on here."

During an emergency meeting Tuesday of the Tallahassee City Commission, Gillum told residents the response could have been better, but significant damage to large trees and major power lines meant the recovery process would take time.

"Without a doubt, we have not been perfect in this process, and now is not the time to talk about whatever imperfections, because our staff morale needs to remain at the highest level possible," Gillum said.

At the end of the week, power was being restored to the last few parts of the city still without lights. Perhaps the great electricity showdown of 2016 would end up being nothing more than a tempest in a teapot.

TIE GAME

At the same time that football began returning, the presidential campaign this week entered a kind of fourth quarter, with two months to go before voters choose between Clinton, a former secretary of state and the Democratic nominee, and Trump, the real-estate mogul who is her Republican opponent.

And as they begin the stretch run, according to a poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University, the two candidates are tied in Florida.

Clinton and Trump both got the support of 47 percent of likely Florida voters in a head-to-head matchup, according to the Quinnipiac poll. That was virtually unchanged from a month ago, when Clinton led Trump 46-45 --- which is considered a statistical dead heat.

The two remained tied when the most prominent third-party candidates were thrown into the race, with Trump and Clinton drawing 43 percent apiece, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, getting 8 percent and Green Party candidate Jill Stein chosen by 2 percent of the people surveyed.

The Connecticut-based Quinnipiac, which frequently conducts polls in Florida and other states, surveyed 761 likely Florida voters from Aug. 29 to Wednesday. The poll had a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.

The university's polling institute also released swing-state polls Thursday showing Clinton holding modest leads in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Trump had a one-point edge in Ohio that widened to four points when Johnson and Stein were added to the mix.

"The effect of the Republican and Democratic conventions on the presidential race has run its course," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the poll. "As the campaign enters its final stage, Florida and Ohio, two of the largest and most important swing states, are too close to call, while North Carolina and Pennsylvania give Hillary Clinton the narrowest of leads."

The numbers were slightly more definitive in Florida's U.S. Senate race, with Rubio taking a seven-point lead against Murphy. That poll included 601 likely voters surveyed between Aug. 31 and Wednesday. A poll released almost a month ago had Rubio leading by just three points, 48-45.

After failing to win the Republican presidential nomination this year, Rubio decided in June to seek a second term in the Senate.

"Democrats hoped they could use Sen. Marco Rubio's change of heart on running for re-election against him, but so far the former presidential candidate has been able to keep a narrow lead," Brown said in a prepared statement Friday. "Without Rubio's double-digit lead among independent voters, he would be in much more trouble."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The cleanup from Hurricane Hermine caused clashes between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Let's be real, nothing matches up to the NFL."---Shahid "Shad" Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, on his efforts to grow soccer in Florida.

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