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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Mercury Drops, but Politics Heat Up

September 25, 2014 - 6:00pm

Summer officially ended Monday, and the temperature seemed to drop in Tallahassee. It wasn't cool, per se, but at least going outside wasn't walking into a skin-melting blast furnace.

But even as the weather cooled, two long-running dramas heated up. At Florida State University, a controversial and at times bumbling presidential search finally settled on the man many assumed would get the job all along: Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

And in the governor's race, supporters of incumbent Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic candidate Charlie Crist traded charges of dirty tricks in one of the nation's most closely-watched contests. Crist's campaign and its Democratic allies slammed the Republican Party of Florida for allegedly spying on a fundraiser, while Scott and the state GOP accused Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of crossing the line with comments that seemed to compare Republican policies to domestic abuse.

Neither story is likely to die down anytime soon. Thrasher is still technically running for re-election -- his appointment doesn't become official until it's approved by the state university system's Board of Governors -- and the election that will end the governor's race remains more than a month away.

PRESIDENT THRASHER (FINALLY):

In 2012, Thrasher, a former House speaker, took part in what amounted to a palace coup that would have moved up his potential presidency of the Senate. The effort failed, though, and Thrasher faced the prospect of serving out the last four years of his tenure with little to no chance of leading the chamber.

But the influential senator will still get the title of president, this time as the head of his alma mater. The Florida State University board of trustees voted 11-2 on Tuesday to give the job to Thrasher, who had long been seen as the front-runner for the position. In addition to the perks of the job -- like free admission to football games played by his beloved Seminoles -- Thrasher now faces the challenge of moving the institution forward while winning the support of large portions of the faculty and student body who opposed him.

"This is the scary choice, not the safe choice, Faculty Senate President Gary Tyson, who sits on the board, told his fellow trustees Tuesday.

Others also expressed concerns that Thrasher wouldn't live up to the expectations that he could increase the Legislature's support for the school or that his political fundraising skills wouldn't translate to the need to raise money for academia. One opponent called the search process "sketchy," one labeled Thrasher an "overlord," another said the trustees were announcing support for athletics over academics, and one even threatened, "We will make John Thrasher's life here at Florida State a living hell."

Thrasher stayed away from any premature celebrations, given that the Board of Governors has to approve his candidacy -- though that is largely expected to be a formality. He was also beginning to reach out to those who opposed him or ran against him for the presidency, from Tyson to FSU Provost Garnett Stokes, who has served as interim president.

EXIT FROM POLITICS:

Following the suggestion of trustees, Thrasher resigned Wednesday from his role as chairman of Scott's re-election effort. But he declined to give up his own bid for another term in the Senate, pointing to the fact that he wasn't officially the president of FSU yet.

The decision also avoids a process that would allow local Republican leaders to choose a replacement candidate for Thrasher, as would have been the case if Thrasher stepped down immediately. Instead, a special election will be held next year to fill the seat, assuming Thrasher wins in November.

"I think I probably ought to prevail in the (November) campaign, and then if I'm successful the day after with the Board of Governors, then I can submit my resignation and allow the governor to call a special election," Thrasher said. "That way the person, whoever it is, can be vetted by the voters. This is for a four-year term in the Florida Senate. It's a big deal in my opinion."

In the opinion of a few House members as well, who will be able to run in the special election but wouldn't have been eligible under state law to run for the Senate seat in November if Thrasher had left right away.

Some legislators are already saying they would be interested in running in a special election.

"If that happens, I would certainly be considering it strongly," said Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart, a three-term Republican from Ponte Vedra Beach.

Rep. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, said he would also take a look at running.

"I would like to get with my community and make sure it's the right thing," said Hutson, a House freshman unopposed in his bid for re-election.

And Derek Hankerson, who drew a little less than 30 percent of the vote against Thrasher in this year's Republican primary, said he would jump into the race as well. Hankerson filed paperwork this week to set up a campaign for the 2018 elections, which could be converted to an account for the special election once it's announced.

'NIXONIAN' VS. 'WILDLY INSULTING':

There have been times that it seemed unlikely that the race between Scott and Crist could get any nastier -- but both campaigns seem to view that kind of thinking as a challenge.

This week, things took another step down and into some bizarre territory. Democrats accused GOP staffers of filming people who arrived at a fundraiser for Crist held at Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant's home. The allegations, reported by the Associated Press, also included charges that Republicans had taken pictures of the license plates of those in attendance.

It's not entirely clear what Republicans were hoping to accomplish, given that a list of everyone who contributes to Crist's campaign is a regularly updated public record.

In a media availability Friday, Tant ripped into the GOP over the incident, calling it "Nixonian" and "Orwellian" and using other, only slightly less colorful adjectives.

"In America, we get to take a stand -- with our voices, with our presence and with our dollars -- for whom we choose to support without any kind of dictatorial backlash for doing that," Tant said.

Coincidentally or not (read: probably not), footage soon emerged on the political blog of the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald showing Wasserman Schultz saying that Scott "has given us the back of his hand." The remarks, made about a month ago, bore a striking resemblance to Wasserman Schultz's complaint about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, though in that case she said Walker "has given women the back of his hand."

Wasserman Schultz apologized for the earlier incident. Asked during her Friday availability about the remarks regarding Scott, Tant said she agreed with Wasserman Schultz's earlier comments during the Walker brouhaha that the national chairwoman wouldn't use those words again.

Tant addressed the comments a few minutes after her counterpart, Republican Party of Florida Chairwoman Leslie Dougher, called for Tant and Crist to condemn Wasserman Schultz's "wildly insulting" statement.

"Her comments are especially heartless because Rick Scotts mother was going through a divorce from an abusive husband when the governor was born. ... To suggest that Rick Scott gives women the 'back of his hand' not only grossly mischaracterizes the governor, it treats actual domestic violence victims as pawns in a political game," Dougher said in a statement issued Friday.


STORY OF THE WEEK: Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, was selected by the Florida State University board of trustees to become the school's next president, all but assuring that he will get the job.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Mr. Scott and Mr. Crist are both looked at ... by voters in a less than complimentary way." -- Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, on a survey showing low personal marks for both major-party candidates for governor.

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