TALLAHASSEE | With piles of debris rotting in the Florida sun and rain after Hurricane Irma tattooed much of the state, officials are turning their attention to an even more dire disaster in Puerto Rico.
More than a week after Hurricane Maria ravaged the territory, a developing “humanitarian crisis” spurred a bipartisan demand from Florida’s U.S. senators to demand that “the cavalry” — in the form of the military — hightail it to the island to get the situation under control.
And Gov. Rick Scott took time out from crisscrossing the state before and after Irma to make a brief visit Thursday to Puerto Rico, where he met with the island’s governor. On Friday, Scott hopscotched to Washington, reporting in to his pal, President Donald Trump.
Closer to home, what really had insiders on both sides of the aisle abuzz this week was Tuesday’s win by Democrat Annette Taddeo, who bested Republican Jose Felix Diaz in a highly competitive matchup for an open state Senate seat in Miami-Dade County.
The election, considered a referendum on Trump and a test of Democrats’ ability to compete in next year’s mid-terms, will undeniably inject some much-needed enthusiasm — and cash — into the Dems’ attempts to weaken the GOP’s stronghold in the state.
But it’s also prompted Republicans to huddle about how to distance GOP candidates from the president, a tough task considering the Twitter-happy Trump shows no signs of abandoning his stream-of-consciousness posts.
Perhaps the rapidly worsening catastrophe in Puerto Rico and what many viewed as Trump’s lackluster response when compared to hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, contributed to Taddeo’s success.
Maybe, as one of Diaz’s consultants posed, Trump’s harsh criticism of National Football League players who kneeled during the national anthem drove more black voters than expected to the Miami polls.
Or could it be that, in the words of GOP strategist Rick Wilson — one of the founders of the “Never Trump” movement — “Everything Trump touches dies?”
That seems unlikely. But what is certain is that it all adds up to what without a doubt will be a very exciting year in the Sunshine State, if only for political junkies.
FLIPPING FLORIDA BLUE?
Despite being outspent by Diaz and his supporters, Taddeo coasted to victory in the race to replace disgraced former Sen. Frank Artiles, who resigned this spring after a racially tinged and profanity-laced outburst at a private club near the Capitol.
While Taddeo trailed Diaz in mail-in ballots, she made up the difference on Election Day and in early voting, winning by a decisive 3.75 percentage-point margin, according to results posted on the Miami-Dade County elections office website.
“I told you it was a people-powered (campaign). I meant it. It really was,” Taddeo, a 50-year-old businesswoman who was born in Colombia, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Tuesday night.
Democrats in Florida and across the nation crowed about Taddeo’s defeat of Diaz.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel called Taddeo’s triumph “a win for all of Florida.”
“Annette will head to Tallahassee ready to fight for higher paying jobs, affordable health care and fully funded public schools. Democrats across the state are energized and mobilizing to flip Florida blue. After nearly 20 years of harmful GOP policies, voters are ready for a better deal,” he said in a statement.
Taddeo ran unsuccessfully twice for Congress, most recently last year, and was U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s running mate in his failed 2014 attempt to recapture his old job as governor.
She was outgunned financially by Diaz, who had the backing of GOP Senate leaders. The abbreviated contest carried a whopping price tag of more than $2 million, including spending by the candidates, political committees affiliated with the Senate hopefuls and outside groups.
Around noon Tuesday, Diaz, a Cuban-American who resigned from his state House seat to run for Senate, was buoyed by news that mail-in ballots received over the weekend increased a Republican turnout edge by several thousand votes. But Taddeo — who nailed down the endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden late last week — more than compensated by topping Diaz in early voting and in ballots cast on Election Day.
The abbreviated and heated contest was characteristic of Miami-Dade’s brand of rough-and-tumble politics.
Supporters of Diaz painted Taddeo as a communist sympathizer, linking her with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, an unfounded accusation she characterized as “painful.” The FARC kidnapped Taddeo’s father, who fought in World War II for the U.S., prompting her family to flee Columbia when she was a child.
Taddeo and her backers, meanwhile, portrayed Diaz as a lobbyist “insider” and repeatedly tied the Republican to Trump. Diaz once appeared on Trump’s television show, “The Apprentice,” and endorsed the president.
The swing district is almost evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and independents, with Democratic having a slight voter-registration edge, and has a large Hispanic population.
While many of the district’s older Cuban-American voters continue to support Trump, the president remains unpopular with younger Cuban-Americans and other Latinos, such as those from Taddeo’s country of origin, Colombia.
Many Hispanic voters are especially unhappy about Trump’s decision to undo an Obama-era policy that would protect from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, known as “Dreamers.”
And the controversy over whether National Football League players should kneel during the national anthem got in Diaz’s way, according to J.C. Planas, a former Republican state representative who teaches election law at St. Thomas University.
Trump’s tweet storm over the weekend, excoriating players for kneeling, bumped up turnout on Sunday, the last day of early voting, and on Election Day, Planas said.
“It really boosted Democratic, particularly African-American Democratic turnout. Big time,” the Diaz backer said.
TURNING UP THE HEAT ON AIR CONDITIONING
While Maria may have dominated this week’s news, fallout from Irma continued to ferment.
An industry group filed a legal challenge to new requirements by Scott’s administration that nursing homes and assisted-living facilities quickly install generators to power air-conditioning systems.
LeadingAge Florida, which represents more than 100 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, filed the challenge late Tuesday in the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
LeadingAge Florida and another industry group, the Florida Health Care Association, contend that it is unrealistic to expect facilities throughout the state to install generators within 60 days, as required in the emergency rules issued last week by the state Agency for Health Care Administration and the state Department of Elder Affairs.
State health officials issued the emergency rules after eight residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died Sept. 13. Four more died later. The Broward County facility’s air-conditioning system was knocked out Sept. 10 by Hurricane Irma, but residents remained in the sweltering 152-bed home until the deaths and a resulting evacuation.
In the legal challenge, LeadingAge Florida said penalties for failing to comply with the generator requirements could include revoking the licenses of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
“There is no emergency that requires the imposition of an impossible deadline and the imminent revocation and imposition of fines on assisted living facility and nursing home licenses throughout the state,” the 17-page challenge said. “The emergency rules would create an emergency rather than solve one.”
Meanwhile, nursing-home administrators and long-term care lobbyists remain in the dark about what, if anything, the state will do to help offset what could be a $240 million price tag for the generators.
Members of a nursing-home payment workgroup learned Tuesday they may have to wait until November before state Medicaid officials discuss generators and whether the facilities can be reimbursed under an existing cost-based reimbursement system that has been in effect for more than 20 years or through a prospective payment system that starts in October 2018. Under a prospective payment system, facilities receive prepaid fixed amounts.