Weeks from now, the past year and a half of this fever dream we've called an election cycle will look like a blur. Before that happens, Floridians will have to decide which way we want this presidential contest to swing. Indeed, Florida may well be decisive; without it, Donald Trump has almost no chance of reaching 270 electoral votes.
But there will be many equally important races below the marquee: the contest for U.S. Senate between Patrick Murphy and Marco Rubio, the Orange County Commission battle between Ted Edwards and Emily Bonilla, and referendums on medical marijuana and the future of solar power, to name a few. Even if this long national nightmare has left you disillusioned, now more than ever, it's important to make your voice heard.
Orlando Weekly has put together a voting guide to help you keep your candidates and amendments straight. We've made recommendations, too – and as a progressive publication, those recommendations tend to lean Democratic. But we're nonetheless encouraging everyone, including Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and those who have no political party affiliation, to vote. On Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, you can vote from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at your precinct location, which you can find at ocfelections.com or on your voter registration card. Bring photo identification with a signature, such as a driver's license, or you will have to vote a provisional ballot.
Next Tuesday, make sure your voice – and the voices of your family, your neighbors and your community – is heard loud and clear.
Headed to the polls? For a more condensed list of our endorsements, click here to view our portable voting guide.
This is a no-brainer. But if you need a reason, here it is: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has extensively prepared herself in domestic and foreign policy to become president, and her accomplishments as a lawyer, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, U.S. senator and the nation's top diplomat prove it. There's no question she has faults – a tendency to be secretive, hawkish leanings, a cozy relationship with the corporate world and many scandals, including the recent email controversy – but it's also true that Clinton is a dedicated public servant willing to listen to people and address their everyday problems. Few would argue the same about Republican nominee Donald Trump. Throughout his campaign, not only has he failed to articulate a plan for the country's most pressing issues, but he's spent his time lying about basic facts; insulting his opponents, members of his own party and anything else with a heartbeat; and polarizing the nation. He's threatened to jail Clinton, perpetuated the racist lie that President Obama was not born in the U.S., proposed a ban on Muslims coming into the country, proclaimed that Mexican immigrants were criminals and rapists, mocked a disabled reporter, made numerous sexist comments about women, claimed the election is rigged, refused to say whether he will concede, and most recently, is being accused by at least 12 women of sexual assault. Worse, he has taken advantage of the economic frustrations and racial fears of white people and has struck a chord of fear in people of color. If we listed all the things that could go wrong with a Trump presidency, there would be nothing else in this issue. The two most prominent third-party candidates, Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, have failed to articulate realistic plans for the country; besides, they won't win, and a vote for either of them is essentially a vote for Trump. A vote for Clinton, meanwhile, is a vote for an America that will work better for everyone.
It's time for Floridians to be represented in the U.S. Senate full-time, and there's no candidate better for the job than U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy. Republican incumbent Marco Rubio, who has the worst vote attendance record of any U.S. senator from Florida in years, has refused to explicitly and unconditionally say he won't run for president again. And even if he did, his word is clearly not to be taken at face value. After stating he would definitely not run for re-election after his losing presidential bid, Rubio reneged, citing the Pulse massacre – which is a strange contortion, given his anti-LGBTQ record. Rubio continues to support Trump despite the Republican nominee's comment about grabbing women by the pussy and the allegations of sexual assault. Murphy certainly isn't perfect: The Jupiter Democrat has padded his academic and professional résumé. But Murphy is eager to work for Florida and would address the state's most pressing issues, including gun control and climate change. Rubio would just be biding his time until 2020.
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Central Florida has four congressional seats up for grabs; all four races have capable candidates who would do well in Congress. In the District 10 race between businesswoman Thuy Lowe and former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, we recommend Demings, a Democrat. Although violent crime dropped during her tenure at OPD, there were several high-profile complaints of excessive force during her tenure. Still, Demings has demonstrated impressive leadership, and as a candidate, she promises to protect the Affordable Care Act, Social Security and Medicare. In District 9, Democratic state Sen. Darren Soto is running against Republican businessman Wayne Liebnitzky. We recommend Soto. In Tallahassee, Soto has proven that he's capable of reaching across party lines and would work to preserve the environment and bring much-needed jobs and economic opportunities to District 9. He's had some past failings, such as when he sided with Republicans on guns and abortion, but he has since been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and pledged to reform certain gun laws. In District 7, Democratic challenger Stephanie Murphy is facing a powerful incumbent in U.S. Rep. John Mica. Mica is a well-liked Republican who's focused on bringing transportation projects to the district and improving conditions for veterans. But Mica is also a career politician heavily backed by the National Rifle Association. Murphy, a businesswoman and former national security specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, would bring new ideas to Washington and improvements on gun control, LGBTQ rights and women's issues. Finally, for the District 8 race between incumbent U.S. Rep. Bill Posey and Democratic challenger Corry Westbrook, we hesitantly recommend Westbrook. Westbrook has been plagued during her campaign by reminders of a plagiarism incident and a past investigation for voter fraud, though prosecutors declined to file charges. On the other hand, Posey has expressed concerns about a putative link between vaccines and autism, despite no medical research backing those assertions. He's also the sponsor of a bill that would require presidential candidates to provide a copy of their original birth certificate and argued that President Obama should have provided his when seeking re-election. Both candidates have committed to improving the health of the Indian River Lagoon, but Westbrook has fewer flaws.
For state Senate, we recommend sending Linda Stewart, Victor Torres Jr. and Randolph Bracy to Tallahassee. These three Democrats, competing in Districts 13, 15 and 11 respectively, would bring much-needed progressive ideas to the Legislature. For state House, we recommend Ryan Yadav in District 30, Beth Tuura in District 47, Amy Mercado in District 48, Benny Valentin in District 42 and Carlos Guillermo Smith in District 49. In District 50, with some reservations, we recommend Republican incumbent Rene "Coach P" Plasencia, who's currently up against another high-school teacher, Sean Ashby. We don't agree with Plasencia on everything, but he has tried to work across the aisle, while Ashby is an unknown.
FLORIDA JUSTICE SYSTEM
Three justices on the Florida Supreme Court are up for a retention vote, which occurs every six years. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Charles T. Canady and Ricky L. Polston are Republicans appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist. Labarga frequently sides with the liberal end of the court, while Canady and Polston take a more conservative approach. We recommend retaining all three justices, and so do the majority of Florida lawyers. The Florida Bar asked its members to rate the justices on several qualities, and 84 percent of lawyers supported retaining Canady and Polston, and 91 percent want to retain Labarga. We also recommend retaining four judges up for merit in the state Fifth District Court of Appeals. Judges Jay Cohen, James A. Edwards, Brian Lambert, and Vincent G. Torpy Jr. all received more than 80 percent of the vote in favor of retention from Florida Bar members. While we would like to see needed changes in the criminal justice system, especially in regards to increasing diversity among judges, taking out a current judge would allow Gov. Rick Scott to nominate a judge of his choice, which could shift courts rightward for at least a generation.
FLORIDA CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS
Floridians will be able to make decisions on four constitutional amendments this year.
Critics have accurately dubbed Amendment 1 a wolf in sheep's clothing. Bankrolled by Florida's utility companies, Amendment 1 preserves the already existing rights of residents to own solar devices but claims to ensure that customers who don't install solar equipment "are not required to subsidize" solar owners. Critics say utility companies are trying to protect their monopolies and put up barriers to potential solar options. The Miami Herald reported on an audio recording that caught a policy director for a Tallahassee-based think tank talking about ways the utility industry could mislead voters. We recommend voting no on Amendment 1, as it's a "deliberate attempt by utilities to erect barriers to competition and prevent third-party leasing of solar," as PolitiFact put it.
Amendment 2 is a revamp of a previous amendment that got the majority of votes from Floridians but didn't clear the 60 percent threshold to pass. It would allow patients with a number of medical conditions, including cancer, HIV, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and glaucoma, to purchase medical marijuana at state-controlled dispensaries after receiving prescriptions from licensed physicians. The amendment also limits the number of patients a caregiver can treat and requires minors to get parental consent and verification. Opponents have repeatedly conflated medical marijuana with recreational marijuana, but that's hard to believe. Florida's laws on marijuana are strict compared to other states. We recommend voting yes on Amendment 2. It's time to show compassion for millions of Floridians suffering from debilitating medical conditions by allowing them another possible tool to fight their pain.
Amendments 3 and 5 are both legislative initiatives regarding property tax exemptions for certain groups. Amendment 3 would enable the Legislature to enact an exemption for first responders who are totally and permanently disabled from injuries sustained in the line of duty, while Amendment 5 looks at the property tax exemption currently in place for low-income seniors; it would allow the Legislature to give county/city governments the power to grant that exemption even if their property value rises over the $250,000 limit. Both these amendments will have an impact on the amount of property taxes coming in for schools, roads and other government functions. Opponents call them a slippery slope toward granting the Legislature powers reserved to the electorate, as well as adding still more complexity to an already inconsistent and complicated tax system. We say that horse is already out of the barn, and recommend voting yes on 3 and 5 on their individual merits, to encourage the Legislature to take action to help those in need.
Circuit judges in Florida are chosen in nonpartisan elections for six-year terms. They rule on criminal cases (sometimes involving the death penalty), civil disputes over $15,000 and arguments between state and local governments. For the Orange-Osceola Circuit, Group 4, we recommend Luis Calderón. A former corporate lawyer who became an assistant public defender in the Ninth Judicial Circuit, Calderón opened his own practice to specialize in criminal defense and has been extensively recognized by his peers.
County judges in Florida are also chosen in nonpartisan elections for six-year terms. They rule on small civil disputes and claims cases, criminal misdemeanors and traffic infractions. For Orange County judges, we recommend Eric DuBois in Group 1, Tom Young in Group 4 and Evellen Jewett in Group 5. All three have many years of experience in their field. DuBois was recommended by more than 200 of his peers, Young has been an advocate for children's legal rights in Florida, and Jewett has spent more than two decades as a public defender.
There are many seats in Orange County up for election this November, so we'll go through them briefly. We recommend: Aramis Ayala for Orange-Osceola state attorney; Tiffany Moore Russell for county clerk of courts; Jerry Demings for county sheriff; Rick Singh for county property appraiser; Scott Randolph for county tax collector; and Bill Cowles for county supervisor of elections. Aside from newcomer Ayala, these five public officials have done a good job and deserve another term.
Also up for election are three seats on the Orange County Soil and Water Conservation District, which is responsible for helping with conservation programs and protecting natural resources across the state. We recommend Maria Bolton-Joubert in Group 1, Nicole Victoria McLaren in Group 3 and Steven Laune Beumer in Group 5. All three candidates would be advocates for the environment on this board.
Orange County School Board District 7 representative Christine Moore is battling Matthew Fitzpatrick, a former teacher and assistant director at Orange Technical College. We recommend Fitzpatrick over the businesswoman because teachers should have a seat at the table where decisions are made, especially with the current teacher shortage.
Two seats on the Orange County Board of Commissioners are up for election. In West Orange's District 1, Winter Garden Commissioner Robert "Bobby O" Olszewski and business development consultant Betsy VanderLey are running to replace term-limited Commissioner Scott Boyd. There's not much of a difference between these two candidates, though VanderLey has been endorsed by several county commissioners and Mayor Teresa Jacobs. However, we recommend Olszewski for two reasons. First, he's been endorsed by Save Orange County, a local conservation group that seeks to minimize urban sprawl. Second, VanderLey has received an endorsement from the NRA, even though commissioners can't pass or enforce gun control laws. That's strange.
In District 5, Commissioner Ted Edwards, a lawyer for developers by trade, is fighting a challenge from environmental advocate Emily Bonilla. This personal spat-turned-political arose from conflicts over the rural character of east Orange County. Edwards spearheaded votes on two developments east of the Econlockhatchee River that would put about 4,000 homes in an ecologically sensitive area. Bonilla, founder of the environmental group East of the Econ, protested Edwards' decision along with hundreds of east Orange County residents. In this race, we recommend Bonilla. It's time someone stood up for the county's environment rather than catering to the interests of developers.
On the ballot this year are also three charter amendments. The first and most alarming would add additional requirements for citizens trying to put initiatives on the ballot. That sounds pretty innocent until you see the requirements, which include limiting petitions to a single subject; requiring a legal review, financial impact statement and public hearing; and increasing the number of required signatures. The amendment, supported by Jacobs and local corporations, would limit residents' ability to get issues on the ballot. The second and third charter amendments are two paragraphs of verbal diarrhea. One would make constitutional officers like the sheriff and tax collector into nonpartisan and term-limited charter officers, as well as other reclassifications that could affect the independence of those offices. Several constitutional officers have already sued, saying the charter has no authority over their offices, and the issue is currently in the appeals process. The other amendment states that if a court gives differing opinions on this charter issue, the last ruling stands, which could complicate what the court is currently reviewing. All three are related to behind-the-scenes drama that shouldn't have been put to voters in such confusing language. We recommend voting no on all three county charter amendments.