Hurricane Florence may have spared the Sunshine State, but political squalls continue to churn throughout Florida, and the worst is yet to come.
President Donald Trump whipped up a tempest after accusing Democrats of dramatically inflating the number of deaths in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria.
But it wasn’t just Trump who stirred the political pot this week.
Gov. Rick Scott, who’s vying to oust Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, kicked into motion the process to appoint replacements for three Florida Supreme Court justices who will retire in January. The replacements could create a significant shift in the court’s shaping of public policy for decades.
Meanwhile, the state’s gubernatorial candidates and their supporters took to the airwaves to kick off the barrage of television ads that will inundate Floridians over the next two months.
A spot launched by the Republican Governors Association accused Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum of being so “far out” he’s “on another planet.” The somewhat-odd piece --- which includes an image of Gillum superimposed over a moon --- is even more curious, since onetime astronaut Nelson’s been mocked by Scott and other Republicans about the senator’s actual space trip.
The Republican Party of Florida, meanwhile, unleashed a promo of GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis that opens with a homage to the former congressman’s Dunedin team making a trip to the 1991 Little League World Series.
“We were only 12 when we learned to dream big, work hard and swing away,” the grown-up DeSantis says in the spot.
Gillum, too, released an upbeat ad that focused on his childhood, echoing his campaign’s #BringItHome mantra in which the Tallahassee mayor invokes the lessons he learned from his grandmother.
“She’d say, go to school. Mind your teachers. Get your lesson. And one day bring that education home,” Gillum says in the voiceover.
Although it’s doubtful, the two candidates’ positive messages could set the stage for the general election battle.
As they load their political cannons, they might consider heeding the guidance of a certain granny: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
TRUMP’S MARIA TWEETSTORM
The president’s position on the death count in Puerto Rico drew rebukes from the two Republicans at the top of the Florida ticket: Scott and DeSantis.
Both parties in Florida are looking to draw support from Puerto Rican voters in the November elections, and Trump’s tweets Thursday brought bipartisan criticism --- and came as Hurricane Florence barreled down on the Carolinas.
“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Trump tweeted a little before 9 a.m. Thursday. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000...”
“.....This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” Trump followed in a tweet. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
In the November elections, Republican and Democratic politicians are courting Puerto Rican voters who are longtime residents of Florida, as well as those who relocated to the state after Maria caused devastating damage to the U.S. territory last September.
“I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. (Ricardo) Rosselló agreed,” Scott tweeted. “I've been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching. I'll continue to help PR.”
Nelson called Trump’s comments “shameful.”
“We deserve and expect more from someone who holds the highest office in our country,” Nelson said in statement.
DeSantis and Gillum, though with different tones, also separated themselves from Trump’s comments.
DeSantis, who resigned his congressional seat this week to focus on the governor’s race, is typically one of Trump’s most-ardent supporters, and Trump’s endorsement was a cornerstone of DeSantis’ primary election win last month.
DeSantis’ campaign issued a statement Thursday that said he is “committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community, especially after such a tragic loss of life” and that he “doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated."
Gillum was harsher, saying “no death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from @realDonaldTrump before, during and after the hurricane.”
GAVELING IN COURT CHANGES
Scott on Tuesday said he asked the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission to begin a process that includes accepting and reviewing applications, interviewing candidates and making nominations for appointment. The process will lead to replacements for longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who are required to leave the court in January because of reaching a mandatory retirement age.
Appointments of Supreme Court justices are always important, but Pariente, Lewis and Quince --- along with Justice Jorge Labarga --- are widely considered a left-leaning majority on the seven-member court. That has led to the possibility that their replacements could spur a rightward shift of the court.
As a sign of that, a legal debate emerged last year about whether Scott, who will also leave office in January, should have the authority to appoint the new justices or whether that power should go to his successor. Scott has appointed one justice, Alan Lawson, who is generally aligned with what is viewed as the conservative minority on the court.
Scott has argued that he has the authority to appoint the new justices, but the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause filed a case last year arguing that Scott’s successor should make the picks. The Supreme Court dismissed the case in December, saying the issue wasn’t “ripe” for consideration because Scott had not acted on the appointments.
But the dismissal of the case does not preclude another challenge to Scott’s position that he has the authority to make the appointments.
In the announcement Tuesday, Scott’s office said he would invite the governor-elect to interview the court nominees after the general election. The governor’s office pointed to an “expectation” that Scott and his successor would be able to agree on appointments.
But Gillum’s campaign issued a terse rejection of Scott’s position: "In our understanding of the Constitution, the next governor will appoint the next three Supreme Court justices."
STORY OF THE WEEK: President Donald Trump received bipartisan pushback from Florida pols after accusing Democrats of over-inflating the death toll caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Mr. President. SHUT UP. Any death, whether one or 3,000 is a tragedy.” --- Alan Levine, a member of the Florida university system Board of Governors, in a tweet in which Levine also said he voted for Trump.