As 2018 comes to an end, FLA News asked 50 journalists, elected officials and political/government relations insiders for their feedback on four categories: political story of the year, new emerging political faces, forecast for 2019 and the oddest political story of the year. Based on their feedback, FLA News made the following selections.
Political story of the year – 2018 Elections
It wouldn’t be an imporant election, if Florida once again wasn’t in the spotlight. It started in the primary for governor. Conventional wisdom said Republican Adam Putnam and Democrat Gwen Graham would face off in the November general election. What happened in both primaries would defy the Republican and Democratic establishment. Then-Congressman Ron DeSantis used an endorsement from President Donald Trump to erase a double-digit deficit and put a political beat down on Putnam, a two-term Agriculture Commissioner. There was nothing Putnam, who had been unofficially running for governor the past eight years, could do to stop Trump’s influence over the Republican base that would parlay DeSantis to the nomination.
It was a decisive victory that was only exceeded in its shock value by the Democratic nomination for governor.
Until the weekend before the primary election, nearly every poll showed former Congresswoman Gwen Graham leading in the Democratic nomination. She had everything going for her – the daughter of the legendary Bob Graham, the only woman in the race, a moderate among a handful of liberals. And then – election night. Progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum came from the middle of the pack for a stunning victory. The then-Tallahassee Mayor skated through the Democratic primary with no scrutiny on his record and the ongoing FBI investigation that was a dark cloud over his city. Why? No one thought he would win.
That gave Florida a general election matchup featuring two candidates on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. With a “blue wave” enveloping most of the country, Gillum looked well on his way to claiming victory. Polling showed he lead DeSantis throughout the campaign. Gillum was suddenly a political rock star. Celebrities flocked to Florida to campaign on his behalf. But it was Republican attacks suggesting Gillum may be a focus on the FBI’s investigation of Tallahassee city government that likely cost him the election. In December, the FBI arrested City Commissioner Scott Maddox on corruption charges, with no allegation that Gillum was involved. DeSantis won by 30,000 votes.
While the Governor’s race was close, it was a cakewalk compared to the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and outgoing Republican Governor Rick Scott. Like in his past two elections for governor, Scott overwhelmed his opponent by dipping into his personal wealth. Scott spent nearly $64 million of his own money to defeat the three term Senator, bringing to an end Nelson’s charmed political life. Nelson ran a sluggish campaign and failed to respond to the Scott campaign attacks that he had accomplished very little during his 18 years in Washington.
Despite the sizable advantage, Scott won by just over 10,000 votes out of 8.2 million cast.
2018 seemed like a replay of the 2000 election. Once again, Florida has some work to do to update the voting process and restore lost trust in the system.
When the dust settled, Republicans maintained control of the Governor’s office, a majority of the state Cabinet, and both the state House and Senate. The promised “blue wave” crashed at the state line.
Runner-up – Parkland School Shooting
The senseless Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 students and staff dead and once again left the country stunned and searching for solutions. What makes this a political story is what happened after the shooting. It brought the 2018 legislative session to a halt. A massive demonstration in Tallahassee received national and international media attention. Governor Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders demanded changes in state law, bucking the powerful National Rifle Association. The legislature passed a reform package that banned bump stocks, increased the age to own a rifle from 18 to 21, instituted a three-day waiting period for all gun sales and provided $400 million for school security and mental health. A group of the surviving students created the March for Our Lives movement. The tragedy also exposed serious flaws in Broward County school procedures and law enforcement’s failed initial response to the shooting.
New Emerging Faces – Nikki Fried
Nikki Fried is the last Democrat standing. When she is sworn in as Agriculture Commissioner January 8, Fried will be the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida. She is the now the face of the Democratic Party. Republicans have controlled every aspect of state government for two decades but Democrats haven’t held a seat on the State Cabinet since Bill Nelson left in 2000 to run for the U.S. Senate. Despite being outnumbered 3-1 on the Cabinet, Democrats now have a seat at the table to help influence policy ranging from the environment to insurance regulation. Serving on the Cabinet gives Fried a bully pulpit and a chance to raise her political profile – making her a person to watch in 2019 and beyond.
Forecast for 2019 – Legislative Harmony
As the Florida Legislature prepares for the 2019 session, our panel of experts predict better harmony between the House and Senate. That’s likely because of the two new presiding officers – Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva. There’s always a natural tension that exists between the two legislative bodies and the conflict is often influenced by the personalities leading the process. Galvano and Oliva take a business-like approach to governing. Look for less hyperbole and more cooperation between the House and Senate in 2019. Will there be conflict? Certainly. Will there be the gamesmanship seen with past legislative leaders? That’s less likely.
Oddest Political Story of the Year – Phony Diplomagate
FLA News broke the story of State House candidate Melissa Howard’s claim to have a degree from Miami University of Ohio. When we first reported that a national clearinghouse disputed Howard’s claim of a college degree, Howard and her campaign pushed back. It was the extent of the cover-up that turned this story from an outright lie to one of the oddest things we’ve ever seen. Howard purchased a phony diploma, flew to her native Ohio and took a picture of her and her mother holding the diploma. It even fooled us, at least for a couple of hours. That’s until Miami University confirmed the diploma contained irregularities – a degree that didn’t exist and the wrong signature of the college dean. As the story drew international media coverage, the bottom dropped out of Howard’s political support. She apologized but remained a candidate for the Sarasota-based seat. A day later, Howard dropped her campaign. Howard then faced criminal charges for making the false claims. In a plea deal with prosecutors, Howard entered a first-time offenders program avoiding a criminal record.
In a self-serving note, the story put FLA News on the map. As the Tampa Bay Times put it, the “previously obscure news site, Fla News Online, rocketed into the national spotlight by breaking one of the bizarro stories of the election cycle.”