Pensacola, Florida
Sunday July 22nd 2018

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Florida Capital: ‘Off the Rails’

By Rick Outzen

“Everything fell off the rails this year,” said Ryan Wiggins, owner of Full Contact Strategies. “I think 2017 is the year of politics falling off the rails—statewide, federally, locally, everywhere.”

Wiggins is a student of Florida politics. She has over a decade of experience in communications and public relations in government, including key positions with the Florida Department of Health, Florida Department of Children and Families, Office of the Attorney General of Florida, Florida Department of Transportation, Executive Office of the Governor of Florida and Congressman Jeff Miller’s Office in Washington, D.C.

As chief spokesperson for Attorney General Bill McCollum, she managed state, national and international media and messaging for both the legal challenge to Affordable Care Act Obamacare and the legal implications of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for Florida.

Her political media consulting firm, Full Contact Strategies, specializes in political messaging, crisis communications and media relations. Wiggins spearheaded the media and strategic political efforts behind The Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act (SB 1030). The legislation, which is commonly referred to as “Charlotte’s Web,” legalized non-euphoric strains of cannabis for medical use.

The 2017 legislative session pitted Governor Rick Scott versus Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and other key lawmakers seeking higher office in 2018.

“You started to see the plays being made for looking into this election cycle, and the governor and the speaker not getting along, and some of the governor’s priorities getting stomped out in the House, and so the governor retaliated in stomping out some of the House priorities when he had veto power,” said Wiggins, “so it was an interesting year, last year, for sure.”

Wiggins and other political analysts believe that Corcoran used the 2017 session as a way for the Land O’ Lakes Republican to test the waters to run for governor using economic development as his catalyst—or rather the elimination of business incentives to attract corporations to Florida.

“Speaker Corcoran was trying to establish some leadership and power and flex his muscle to maybe make himself look like more of a contender for that seat,” she said.

The battle between the speaker and governor pointed yet again to the problems Scott has had with the Florida Legislature getting his priorities passed. In 2016, the state legislature rejected the governor’s call for $250 million for a new job-creating incentive fund. Enterprise Florida, principal economic development organization for the state, has been on life support ever since.

“I think that Corcoran has never really gotten along with the governor,” said Wiggins. “I think that problems during the last session had more to do with relationships and Corcoran jockeying for the governor’s job.”

Eating Up Bandwidth
The Senate and House committees have been meeting over the past three months in preparation for the 2018 session that opens on Jan. 9. Wiggins hasn’t seen much happening during the meetings.

“All of the sexual harassment stuff is really eating up all the bandwidth over in Tallahassee right now,” she told Inweekly. “The Senate president said this is causing a distraction and I think the governor also had said that all this sexual harassment stuff over there is causing a huge distraction in them getting the day-to-day work done.”

The focus on sexual misconduct began in late October with the resignation of State Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth), who left the Legislature after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist reported by Politico Florida. Clemens was slated to take over as leader of the Senate Democrats following the 2018 elections.

Ritch Workman, a former state representative picked by Scott for a spot on the Public Service Commission, withdrew from the job after Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers) said he manhandled her at a charity event last year.

Workman’s appointment to the Public Service Commission was slated to take effect in January and would have been subject to later Senate confirmation. Benacquisto said she wouldn’t put his appointment on her committee’s agenda because of his “abhorrent” behavior more than a year ago.

Benacquisto said in a statement that Workman had “approached me from behind, pushed his body up against me and made vulgar and inappropriate gestures.” Benacquisto said in a statement, describing the incident.

Benacquisto, who has said publicly that she was raped as a teenager, said she immediately asked Workman to stop, but he continued to make the comments and gestures until others intervened.

An emotional Workman told The News Service of Florida he did not recall the incident, but that “the right thing to do is to get out of the way.”

By far the most powerful lawmaker forced out of the state legislature was Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and candidate of governor in 2018.

Latvala announced his resignation Dec. 20, less than a day after Special Master Ronald Swanson, a former judge, recommended a criminal probe into allegations that the lawmaker had promised legislative favors for sex. Swanson also found probable cause to support allegations that the senator had repeatedly groped Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers and engaged in a pattern of making unwelcome remarks about women’s bodies.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is handling a preliminary inquiry into allegations of possible public corruption. In his resignation letter to Senate President Joe Negron, Latvala condemned the process that resulted in Swanson’s damning report. The resignation is effective Jan. 5.

Fallout for 2018
Wiggins is concerned the incidents may make it harder for women to participate in state government.

“It’s actually hurting women more than it’s helping them over there,” she said. “Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald did a great article talking about how this is impacting the ability for lobbyists to do their jobs, for anyone to do their jobs. There are legislators who understandably are covering their backs and are refusing to meet with female lobbyists and refusing to meet with women in general.”

She added, “A lot of work in Tallahassee gets done after hours, and that’s not happening either, so really everything’s just kind of run amok for right now.”

The news stories have put lawmakers on edge, according to Wiggins. The routine business that usually happens during the committee weeks didn’t get done this fall.

She said, “No one wanted to be in Tallahassee. It was just a really nasty feel over there. I’ve been over there since I was 18 years old, and this was the first time that I’ve really been icked out by what’s been going on over there, and the way people are acting toward each other. I mean, there’s just a lot of suspicion in a town where there’s a lot of suspicion anyway.”

Latvala was considered to be one of the most influential state lawmakers. The News Service of Florida pointed out that he often flexed his muscle as a power broker, often putting the brakes on right-wing priorities of his fellow Republicans and championing legislation that benefited teachers, firefighters, cops and prison guards.

Wiggins believes the Florida Senate may operate smoother without Latvala blocking legislation. Some lawmakers might even breathe a sigh of relief for not having to deal with some of the threats that would come out of him in the Senate.

“Jack Latvala was known for being a bully,” she said. “He was notorious for the last week of session stopping lots of moving trains and killing lots of important legislation, and he was not well liked by his colleagues for that.”

Latvala has several political action committees. Wiggins and others are wondering how he will use them in 2018.

“The political action committees do not go away just because he’s no longer a senator,” she said. “What is scaring everyone over in Tallahassee is what is Jack going to do. Like I said, he has a reputation of being pretty tough, and he was pretty tough in the sexual harassment case. He was tough against the victim, the person who came out and spoke out against him.”

Wiggins continued, “The question is will he use that PAC money as retaliation? That is what a lot of people over there think, and if that is the case, then this is going to be a very interesting session indeed. That’s the problem with having someone who’s been over there since the ’70s, is that they know where all of the bodies are buried.”