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What is The Paradise Progressive?

The Paradise Progressive is an effort to cover, analyze and comment on news affecting the Paradise Coast of Southwest Florida that is overlooked, ignored or avoided by local traditional  media. It does this to fulfill the role of a free and independent press in a democratic republic.

As the Washington Post states: “Democracy dies in darkness.” But we say: “Liberty lives in light.” Our goal is to shine a light as best we can to dispel the darkness.

The Paradise Progressive is not affiliated with any political party or organization.

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Endorsement: Good over evil

Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Sept. 27, 2020

Most of us lead our lives in shades of gray.

Daily, we make innumerable decisions of small importance. Our moral choices are usually of light significance and we select among options of greater or lesser compromise.

But every so often, perhaps only once in a lifetime, we face a choice of great consequence that is stark, uncompromising and absolute, one that has no shades of gray, only black or white.

This is such a time.

As Americans we still have a vote and if the mechanisms of our 244 years of self-rule and independence hold, that vote will count toward how we’re governed and determine our future and that of the nation.

This year the choice is between absolute good and absolute evil. Donald Trump and what he represents is evil. Joe Biden and what he represents is good.

Without hesitation or reservation we endorse good.

A dark reign

As has been stated in the past, it has always been the position of The Paradise Progressive that a media outlet covering politics has a duty to endorse. Following candidates and political developments on a regular basis gives journalists insights and knowledge that need to be shared with voters. Whether the outlet is national or local television, online or print or even a simple blog, it is the obligation of independent media in a free society to help voters make an informed choice. Any endorsement offends some people but that comes with taking a stand on anything.

This year the choice is stark but it is also easy.

The crimes, the corruption, the incompetence, the treason, the delusions, the divisiveness, the debaucheries and the failures of Donald John Trump have been amply documented throughout the past three-plus years.

To list them yet again is beyond the scope of this essay. Reiterating Donald Trump’s failings and evildoing is cathartic but unproductive, like being caught in an emotional whirlpool in a sea of hate.

Beyond the ugliness of this vile and vicious person we have also seen the depressing spectacle of what he has done to Americans’ sense of themselves as decent, moral, independent individuals. He has imposed a toxic and twisted personality and mindset on a nation that was once free, proud and brave and needs to be again.

America was founded amidst an age of absolute monarchs who said they ruled by divine right. The colonists who declared independence in 1776 could see that it was untenable to be governed by the whims and frailties of a single, fallible human being, no matter how much he glorified or exalted himself. When they won their freedom Americans put their faith in reason, in equality, in a spirit of sensible compromise and most of all, in institutions embodied in their Constitution. Those institutions included equal justice under the rule of law, checks and balances on power, and democratic participation.

Their faith worked and was rewarded. Those beliefs built the greatest, freest, most prosperous nation of any time or place in history. It was a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, an inspiration to all humanity, the scourge of tyrants, the refuge of huddled masses yearning to breathe free and the last, best hope of earth.

Donald Trump threatens all of that at the most fundamental level. That’s why it’s appropriate to put this contest in elemental terms of “good” and “evil.” It’s why it’s proper to speak of the “soul” of both the nation and its people. Joe Biden has called this a fight for the nation’s soul and he’s right.

And lest anyone think that these broad themes don’t apply at the local level, one need only look at this summer’s political contest here in Southwest Florida.

In this region’s Republican primaries we saw the spectacle of otherwise accomplished and sensible people abandoning reasoned decency and discourse in an effort to imitate Donald Trump. They spewed insults, fear, prejudice, subservience and flattery to win his favor and that of his most fanatical followers. They didn’t campaign for office; they worshipped a false god.

This is what Trump will reduce us all to if he’s given another term in office. He has attacked every institutional pillar of American governance; in a second term he would demolish them.

It also needs to be said that the Party of Trump is not the Republican Party, which once valued individualism, free thought and personal autonomy. The Trump Party is a mindless cult and, sadly, every Republican candidate has sworn fealty to it.

Returning to good

There is a saying that “America is great because it is good. When it ceases to be good it will cease to be great.” The line is attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French 19th century observer of America. While there’s some dispute whether he actually wrote that, even if he didn’t he should have, because it’s true.

It is one of the cruelest ironies of history that Donald Trump should have as his slogan “make America great again” because by leading America so far from goodness he has taken it so far from greatness.

In fact, it really is time to make America great again by making America good again and, as Joe Biden says, “build back better.”

We can all still do that with our votes. The time is now, while our votes still count and we’re still free. We need to preserve that freedom.

Therefore, here in Southwest Florida, we endorse the entire Democratic ticket and urge voters to vote Democratic straight down the line starting with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for president and vice president, Cindy Banyai for Congress and the entire slate of Democrats for all state and local offices.

You can see complete lists of Democratic candidates on the Lee County Democratic Party website and the Collier County Democratic website.

This year, like no other in America’s history, each of us needs to ensure that evil is defeated. Each and every one of us needs to make America good again.

Vote.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Maureen Porras: Persisting for the neglected and forgotten

Maureen Porras (Photos: Maureen Porras campaign)

Sept. 25, 2020 by David Silverberg

It was July, 2018 when Maureen Porras, an immigration attorney, went with a client to the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Miramar, Florida.

The client was a Nicaraguan immigrant father of two young children, married to an American citizen with medical conditions. As required, he periodically checked in with ICE. He had been informed that he was subject to deportation but wanted to request a humanitarian stay because of his wife’s condition, which was why Porras was with him that day.

Porras and the client met with the ICE agents, who were surprised to see an attorney there.

“I started to speak on his behalf,” she recalled to The Paradise Progressive. “They asked to take him to another room for questioning without counsel. I knew that if he went through that door alone, I would never see him again and he was going to be deported.”

Porras objected; she was going to be with him no matter what happened. Five uniformed ICE officers surrounded her. A supervisor was summoned. The atmosphere was grim and the officers demanding. At that time ICE was reputed to have physically abused attorneys.

But Porras persisted. “I refused to leave,” she recalled. “I caused a real scene. I felt the fear and the intimidation that immigrants are now facing. I knew that I had to stand up for my client. If I, as an attorney, couldn’t stand up for them, then who would? That experience, where you’re vulnerable, really made it clear that we need a change.”

Ultimately, they both left the ICE office together. Porras won a motion to reopen his case and it’s currently active before the immigration court—with a final hearing scheduled for 2022.

Porras called the incident “one of the most defining moments of my life.” It inspired her to run for the Florida House in the 105th District—to make the changes she says are needed.

The 105th District

Florida House District 105

The 105th stretches almost completely across the southern part of Florida. If it was mapped demographically, it would look like a barbell: population centers in the west (Naples Manor, Golden Gate and Lely Resort) then a long stretch of Everglades and population centers in the east (Miramar, Doral, Sweetwater and The Hammocks). It includes pieces of Collier, Miami Dade and just a bit of Broward counties and is mostly bounded on the north by the Alligator Alley portion of Interstate 75.

Based on the 2010 Census, the population of 157,369 was mostly Hispanic (69 percent) with a median age of 35 years and split evenly between men and women.

For the last two years, the 105th has been represented in Tallahassee by Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Republican who is now running for state Senate in the 35th Senate District.

Running against Porras is David Borrero, who describes himself as a “conservative Republican,” and serves as a commissioner of the city of Sweetwater.

Porras and her husband Caleb Johnston, a Florida state’s attorney, live in Doral on the east side of the district. While it’s a long trip from one end of the 105th to the other, Porras travels it at least twice a week to meet with voters and political groups.

“We’ve put in a lot of work in Collier County,” she says.

An American journey

Maureen Porras (center, in blue jacket) addresses a group on naturalization along with law enforcement officers.

Porras, who will be 32 years old on Oct. 23, was born in Managua, Nicaragua. Her mother left for the United States when Porras was 7 months old. Maureen followed when she was 7 years old. She received her US citizenship in 2008.

She attended public schools, which she says gave her a great appreciation for public education and made her a strong supporter of the institution. Indeed, she lists support for public education as a top issue.

“We have to support funding for public education and stop diverting money into charter schools,” she says. “My opponent proposes expanding charter schools.”

She graduated from Florida International University in Miami with a Bachelor degree in political science in 2010, graduating cum laude. She then earned her Juris Doctor degree from the Florida Coastal School of Law in 2014 and passed the Florida Bar the same year. While in law school, she worked in the Human and Immigrant Rights Clinic. There, she represented clients before the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency and the Immigration Court. She was also president of the Immigration Law Society.

It was her immigration work that inspired her run for office. “I’m running to bring a voice to issues and people who are often neglected and forgotten,” she says.

Her platform could be characterized as mainstream progressive. On her website she lists support for public education, criminal justice reform, environmental protection, reproductive rights and immigrant protection as her top issues in that order.

In Tallahassee she says she’ll work to fix the broken unemployment benefits system.

When it comes to dealing with coronavirus, Porras says she would have supported calling a special session, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) opposed. She favors help to small businesses hurt by the pandemic and “making sure that loans and funds are spread equally across the state – not just in the governor’s backyard.” She characterizes DeSantis’ performance as “poor” given his lack of transparency in reporting COVID-19 infection rates, his failure to enforce public safety measures like mask wearing and social distancing and his early dismissal of the dangers of the virus.

As Porras campaigns around the district, she says she’s finding that her Nicaraguan origins are a considerable advantage. Sweetwater has the highest population of Nicaraguan-Americans in the country. “I’m making inroads with the Nicaraguan community,” she says. “I believe I would be the first Democratic Nicaraguan-American official elected to office.”

But she’s reaching out across the board, well beyond her ethnic community. “Most of the registered voters are independents. I’m not just reaching out to registered Republicans and Democrats; I’m reaching out to independents. You really do have to persuade them and I’m making progress.”

And she adds: “We have a good chance to win here.”

To learn more about Maureen Porras visit her website, Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Banyai goes into critical stretch with full debate schedule, new endorsements

Cindy Banyai

Sept. 24, 2020 by David Silverberg

With 40 days until the election, a crucial debate coming up and voting about to begin, Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai appears to be in the strongest position of any Democratic candidate since creation of Florida’s 19th Congressional District in 2010.

“I’ve proudly changed the game by being authentic, putting my principles first and putting my status as a mom up front,” she told The Paradise Progressive. “I think this kind of truthfulness in an era of deceit will ultimately be the compelling factor that elects a Democrat in this district.”

The 19th Congressional District of Florida covers the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island in Lee and Collier counties.

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, Banyai (pronounced Ban-YAY, with a hard “a”) released an active schedule of debates with her opponent, Republican Byron Donalds. (See end of article for full schedule.)

“I want everyone in Southwest Florida to learn about my experience and readiness to fight for the people,” she said. “I know that once people in our region see that a mom like me wants to be their voice in Congress they’ll be excited to get out and vote.”

The fullest and most widely broadcast debate is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 28 at 8 pm. It is being broadcast by WGCU, the public television station on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University. Banyai and Donalds will debate for one hour, questioned by Amy Bennett Williams, reporter for the Fort Myers News-Press, and John Davis of WGCU. Julie Glenn, news director of WGCU, will moderate. In addition to being broadcast it will appear on all of WGCU’s media platforms including radio, live streams and social media.

Since winning her primary on Aug. 18, Banyai has picked up numerous new endorsements: Andrew Ellison, Democratic candidate for Congress in the 17th Congressional District, just north of the 19th; Jacquelyn McMiller, Democratic candidate for mayor of Fort Myers; Sara McFadden, Democratic candidate for Florida House District 106; and Fort Myers Councilman Johnny Streets. Banyai has endorsed the candidates in turn. These join the numerous institutional endorsements she has received.

“On paper this district looks Republican, but it’s not necessarily Trumpian,” Banyai pointed out. “We’re reaching moderates and Bush Republicans through our message of family, service, and good governance. Our path to victory is clear and we have polling data that shows once people know there’s an option in me, we win.”

The day after the Banyai-Donalds debate, Tuesday, Sept. 29, Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden will debate Republican President Donald Trump at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. It will be nationally broadcast.

Upcoming debates and candidate forums:

  • Sept. 24, 5:00pm – Florida Citizens Alliance Debate – First 150 people can join in person at 7100 Airport-Pulling Rd N, Naples, FL 34109 or view on the FCA website and Facebook page
  • Sept. 26, 7:00pm – Kappa Alpha Psi Candidate Forum – View on Youtube
  • Sept. 28, 8:00pm – News-Press/WGCU Debate – View on WGCU, News-Press website
  • Oct. 3, 6:00pm – Dunbar Community Candidate Forum – Join in person at Quality of Life Center, 3210 Dr Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Fort Myers, FL 33916, view on Fox 4
  • Oct. 7, 12:00pm – Tiger Bay Candidate Forum, $10 to join by Zoom, Register here
  • Oct. 7, 6:00pm – Estero Bay Republicans Debate – Elks’ Club – 3231 Coconut Rd, Bonita Springs, FL 34134
  • Oct. 26, 5:00pm – Collier Freedom Debate – Zoom, contact organization for details on joining

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

US House votes to keep government open; SWFL Reps. Rooney, Steube oppose, Diaz-Balart approves

The US House vote to keep govenrment open. (Image:C-SPAN)

Sept. 23, 2020, by David Silverberg

By an overwhelming majority, the US House of Representatives voted last night to keep the government operating until Dec. 11.

The bill, House Resolution 8337, known as a Continuing Resolution (CR) continues to fund the government at existing levels past the Oct. 1 start of the new 2021 federal fiscal year at roughly $1.4 trillion.

The vote in the House was 359 to 57, with one member, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14-NY), voting “present.”

Of Southwest Florida’s representatives, Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) voted against the bill. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) voted in favor.

The bill was the subject of long and contentious negotiations, with the White House insisting on including aid to farmers through the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). Democrats were concerned the farm aid would actually be used by the administration to assist the oil and energy industry and also feared that President Donald Trump would use the CCC funds as what some termed a “slush fund” to buy votes with aid to farmers hurt by his trade wars.

The final agreement reached between House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Republicans added safeguards against abuse of CCC funding and added $8 billion in nutrition assistance for needy families and schoolchildren.

“To help the millions of families struggling to keep food on the table during the pandemic, Democrats have renewed the vital, expiring lifeline of Pandemic EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer] for a full year and enabled our fellow Americans in the territories to receive this critical nutrition assistance,” Pelosi said in a statement.

In a brief statement, Rooney explained his opposition vote:

“This continuing resolution contains an excessive amount of spending which far exceeds what we need for Covid relief at a time when the government is already trillions in debt. Congress has not passed a budget for three years.  This abject lack of fiscal responsibility has pushed our country to the brink, with over $26 trillion in debt. Our children and grandchildren will suffer from our profligate spending. We have corrupted the ethic upon which our country was built; this wasteful spending must stop.

“I have continually fought against the irresponsible, excessive and injudicious appropriations from both parties. I have voted against legislation like this in the past and will continue to vote against it in the future. We simply cannot afford to be increasing government spending when we should be making cuts to reduce the deficit.”

Neither Diaz-Balart nor Steube issued statements explaining their votes.

The government shut down for 35 days in January 2019 following a similar budget standoff. At that time, Trump was insisting on funding for his border wall.

In Southwest Florida the government shutdown also meant a shutdown of national parks and preserves like Everglades National Park and a halt to US Coast Guard operations in local waters. It was also responsible for an estimated $11 billion in costs to the US economy, of which $3 billion was permanent.

This year, among its many other effects, a shutdown had the potential to disrupt federal monitoring of conditions leading to harmful algal blooms in Southwest Florida.

The bill has gone to the Senate, where it is considered likely to pass, given its overwhelming approval in the House and the desire of members to avoid a government shutdown on the eve of the election. Trump is expected to sign it.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

For the record: SWFL Democrats, Republicans, react to Ruth Bader Ginsburg passing

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Photo: SCOTUS)

Sept. 19, 2020 by David Silverberg

In a rare show of common sentiment, Southwest Florida Democrats and Republicans expressed respect and admiration for Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her passing on Friday, Sept. 18.

Immediate reactions to the news of Ginsburg’s death, which was released around 7:00 pm, went out on social media.

“Complete shock and sadness to learn of the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sending my condolences to her family. We are so fortunate to have had her leadership. Thank you RBG. Now it’s our turn to pick up the fight,” tweeted Cindy Banyai, Democratic congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District.

“Tonight, as we mourn the passing of one of the most effective Supreme Court Justices in history, we remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work as critically important in the way that many Americans are able to live their lives in freedom,” stated Annisa Karim, Collier County Democratic Party chair on Facebook. “Not only did she blaze a path for equality for women, she was a staunch defender of everyone’s civil liberties. She used her immense talent to do her work to the best of her ability. The freedoms we have won through her hard work and determination can just as easily be reversed with the appointment of Supreme Court Justices bent on returning the Country to a place of liberty and justice for the privileged few. Her legacy is in our hands now and we must work to protect it because when we succeed in that, we succeed in procuring liberty and justice for all.”

State Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee), Banyai’s Republican opponent in the 19th Congressional District tweeted: “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a pioneer and a tenacious fighter for what she believed in. May she rest in peace, and may God comfort her children and grandchildren at this time.”

Among Republican members of Congress, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) tweeted: “It is a sad day for our nation. Kathleen & I offer our deepest sympathies on the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The passing of Justice Ginsberg is a great loss for our highest court, and for America. She was a champion of women’s rights and had a love of our country that was unchallenged. Her passion and opinions will remain with us throughout history. May she rest in peace.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) tweeted: “Saddened to hear of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing. She was the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Her legacy and public service to our nation will not be forgotten. My condolences to her family and colleagues. May she Rest In Peace.”

The tweet of Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) took a Biblical turn: “May the Lord be with the family of Justice Ginsburg during this difficult time. Despite our different perspectives, she had an immense impact on generations of women lawyers across our country. Rev. 21:4.” The reference is to Revelations Chapter 21, verse 4 in the New Testament: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Florida’s two Republican senators, who will vote on confirming Ginsburg’s replacement, both praised her service on the court.

“Even those who disagreed with many of her decisions recognize Justice Ginsburg was a woman of extraordinary intellect & an American who had a historic impact on the court & the nation. May she Rest In Peace,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio.

“Ann and I send our thoughts and prayers to the family of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during this time,” tweeted Sen. Rick Scott. “She was a trailblazer with a distinguished record of service to her country.”

Scott has since called for a vote on Ginsburg’s replacement before Election Day, Nov. 3.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Byron Donalds and the war against America’s schools

Collier County public school teachers call for better pay and state support at a Naples demonstration on March 4, 2019, in solidarity with teachers throughout Florida. Maintaining funding for public schools in Florida and around the nation has been a key issue in the face of competition from charter and non-public schools. (Photo: author)

Sept. 16, 2020 by David Silverberg

If you’ve enjoyed Betsy DeVos, you’re going to love Byron and Erika Donalds.

Betsy DeVos, of course, is the US Secretary of Education. Byron is state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) and Republican candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District of Florida, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island. Erika, his wife and a public figure in her own right, is a former Collier County School Board member and served as the board’s vice chair, and is a relentless advocate for charter schools and non-public education.

Of DeVos, the National Education Association has stated, “As President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos has made it her mission to dismantle public education. She promotes the privatization of public schools through vouchers, continually calls for deep cuts to federal funding, rolls back protections for vulnerable children, and completely disregards their safety and the safety of educators during a global pandemic.”

Erika has praised DeVos in the past and like her has pushed for the privatization of education and promoted the charter school industry through lobbying, legislation and consulting as well as investing in specific charter schools. Byron during his time in the Florida legislature introduced a number of measures that would have reduced the authority of local school boards and harmed public education.

Whether labeled as such or not, both have pursued a DeVosian agenda.

Now, by running for Congress, Byron is seeking a national platform where he will have the influence to implement DeVos’ agenda whether DeVos is present or not. And Erika will have a similar national platform to lobby for the changes she has long sought in Florida—changes fiercely resisted by elected school boards and teachers, as expressed through their associations.

The education of America’s schoolchildren may not be high on the campaign agendas of Byron Donalds and his opponent Democrat Cindy Banyai, although Banyai has a well-thought out education agenda. Remarkably, though, Byron doesn’t even mention education as an issue on his campaign website.

However, given Byron and Erika’s pasts, education is the issue where they have been the most active, the most prominent and in many ways the most damaging to public schooling.

What are the education issues in this race and how did they evolve to this point? What are Byron and Erika’s backgrounds and records? Just how much influence on public education policy would Byron have if he were elected to Congress? And what is the potential impact of this local race on the future of America’s public education?

These are the questions this article will address.

(Terminology note: Advocates of non-public schools prefer to call their movement “school choice” in the sense that it gives parents a choice of schools. However, in this author’s view, the real dividing line between the types of institutions at issue is best described as “public” or “non-public” since they include charters, which can be quasi-public. Therefore, this article will refer to “non-public schools” to include all forms of schools outside the public school system.)

(Terminology note: Because we are dealing with two Donalds here, we will be using first names instead of the usual practice of using just the last name on second reference.)

A brief history of public and non-public schooling

From the very beginning of the United States, founders realized that an active citizenry engaged in running the country required universal literacy and an educated population.

Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, in advocating for a 1784 bill for universal education in Virginia, noted that “The general objects of this law are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness.” (Emphasis ours.)

While universal public education was not enacted in the United States immediately on its founding, the idea of equally accessible, publicly-funded education gained ground throughout US history as states implemented public school systems and universal education over time.

Private schools were initially religious schools, primarily Catholic, and predate the American Revolution. Their acceptance by mainstream America has waxed and waned. In addition to parochial schools, there were also elite institutions to educate the sons of the upper classes. However, all these private schools were self-funded and never impinged on public education. (For a full account, see: “What is private school? History of private schools in the United States.”)

With public schools being criticized for a spectrum of shortcomings in recent years, some parents have turned to a variety of non-public alternatives like home schooling. Private schools were also boosted when public school systems were racially integrated in the 1960s and some white parents in the South responded by starting their own private schools to maintain segregation.

Beginning in 1974 professor Ray Budde proposed “charter” schools that would be free of public school restrictions on curriculum, allowing teachers to innovate, while being open to all students but funded at a lower level than public schools. Initially considered small schools-within-schools and aimed to encourage innovation and attention to students with particular needs, the movement grew and spread. Charters went from a small experiment to for-profit academies independent of existing school systems.

Increasingly, the government at both the national and state levels—and both Republicans and Democrats—provided grants and other forms of support to charter schools and other forms of private schooling. But critics are now sounding the alarm that this support in fact takes money and other support away from public schools.

No one has put the divide between public and non-public schools into greater relief than the present Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. An heiress with virtually no training or knowledge of educational issues whose family built its fortune on the privatization movement, she is a forceful advocate for non-public schools and has taken actions harmful to public education to the point where critics feared she was trying to end public education altogether.

The Florida situation

Florida opened its first charter school in 1996. The movement caught hold and expanded rapidly, with support from the Republican-dominated legislature. As in the rest of the country, the charters went from schools-within-schools, to non-profit schools to for-profit schools.

“The original intent of sharing innovative methods to others in the public-school system was replaced by permitting private corporations to siphon off tax dollars appropriated for education,” wrote Paula Dockery, a former Republican state legislator, in a February, 2020 article: “Florida charter schools: from innovators to pariahs.”

According to Dockery, there are 658 charter schools in Florida, of which about half are for-profit.

Their expansion notwithstanding, Florida charter schools have an abysmal business record. Since 1998, 409 have closed, mostly for financial reasons, and Florida ranks second in the nation for charter school failures. In 2014 the Naples Daily News did a four-part series called “Shuttered: Florida’s Failed Charter Schools.”

In 2018, Integrity Florida, a non-profit, anti-corruption research institute, released a thorough and comprehensive study of the impact of charter schools on public education in Florida called The Hidden Costs of Charter School Choice: Privatizing Public Education in Florida. It found that charter schools failed to deliver the promised educational innovation, were badly mismanaged due to lax regulation and that local school boards had been unable to manage charter schools.  What is more, the movement led to a very well-funded lobbying industry and conflicts of interest as state lawmakers invested and ran charter schools while serving in the legislature.

Despite all these known problems, charters are receiving more state money than public schools for facilities: $150 million compared to $50 million for the public schools that educate 90 percent of Florida’s students, according to Dockery.

The record of charter schools in Southwest Florida accords with the state experience. Lee County has 18 charter schools in operation. However, the Lee County School District records 10 charter schools that have closed and eight proposed schools that failed to open. Collier County currently has three charter schools but doesn’t post past closures.

There is also an ideological aspect to the Florida privatization movement, as best demonstrated by the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, a grassroots organization working and advocating for non-public educational alternatives.

“We work to unleash the learning potential of every one of Florida’s 2.8 million students so they can become productive and fulfilled citizens in our constitutional republic,” states the organization’s website.

However, a more frank explanation of the organization’s views was given at a meeting at the Alamo gun range and store in Naples on May 30, 2018. Then, the Florida Citizens’ Alliance hosted Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) who sat on the House Education Committee.

A 2018 Florida Citizens’ Alliance brochure blaming education for the youth vote in the 2016 election.

“You look at what’s going on in our schools with the indoctrination indoctrinating our kids on socialism,” said Keith Flaugh, the organization’s managing director. “They are indoctrinating our kids against religious values. It’s kind of a mixed metaphor; it’s a kind of mixed messaging. They are very secularism-oriented in what they’re teaching but they’re also teaching Islam. So it’s kind of a dual-edged sword. They are denigrating our constitutional values.”

Referring to a brochure that showed the numerous states where 18 to 24 year olds voted Democratic in the 2016 election, Flaugh said: “When you look at this map, that’s your First Amendment, that’s your Second Amendment, that’s your Constitution; because these kids, the vast majority of them are being indoctrinated to think that government is their nanny. And if we don’t stop that, we won’t have a constitutional republic. So that’s what we spend our time on.”

At this juncture between the public and non-public worlds stand Byron and Erika Donalds.

Enter the Donalds

The Donalds family with Byron and Erika, center, and their sons Damon, Darin, and Mason. (Photo: Byron Donalds for Congress campaign.)

Born in 1978, Byron Donalds grew up in Brooklyn, New York, raised with his two sisters by a single mother who stressed the importance of education.

He attended parochial religious schools, an all-black elementary school, a private Quaker middle school called Brooklyn Friends, and Nazareth Regional High School, a predominately black Catholic school, according to a 2012 Florida Weekly profile.  He enrolled in a five-year Master of Business Administration program at Florida A&M University in 1996 and transferred to Florida State University (FSU) in his third year, graduating in 2002 with dual bachelor’s degrees in finance and marketing. He began working as a financial advisor at Wells Fargo Advisors.

In 1997 at the age of 19 he was arrested for drug possession, an arrest he has acknowledged in his campaign media. The case was put into pre-trial diversion and Leon County court records show he paid a $150 fee.

He and Erika met at FSU, where they both belonged to the Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity. She received her degree in accounting.

Byron ran for Congress in the 2012 Republican primary but was defeated by Trey Radel. Though he filed campaign finance reports to run for Congress in 2014 after Radel’s cocaine possession conviction, he never filed as a candidate.

In 2016 he ran for Florida House Representative in District 80, which encompasses eastern Collier County including the town of Immokalee and Hendry County.

During that race he was accused by his primary opponent, Joe Davidow, of lying about his criminal record in an application to serve on the board of trustees of Florida Southwestern State College (then Edison College). Byron’s application was initially held up by concerns among Florida senators but was ultimately approved.

“Davidow said Donalds falsified information on his confirmation questionnaire, responding ‘no’ to a question about whether he had ever been ‘arrested, charged, or indicted’ of federal, state, or local law. By not disclosing the incidents, Davidow said Donalds lied under oath about his record,” according to Florida Politics. Davidow even created a website called Lyin’ Byron (since deleted).

Byron said he’d been thoroughly examined by the governor and Senate and still approved for the board.

He won the seat.

Erika worked as a certified public accountant and starting in 2002 was chief compliance officer and partner at DGHM, an investment management firm.

The Donalds’ first child attended public school. However, when their second child had difficulties at school, Erika decided to put him in a private school. She subsequently discovered plans to open a charter school where he could attend tuition-free.

Realizing that there was a demand for non-public schooling, she helped found Parents ROCK (Parents Right of Choice for Kids), a non-profit advocacy group for non-public schooling in Collier County.

In 2014 she ran and won a seat on the Collier County School Board, where she continued her fight for charter schools.

“I ran to be a parent voice,” she told Florida Politics reporter Jacob Ogles, “and in hopes traditional public schools would become more responsive to parent feedback and students’ needs. My vision was (that) students would not need to leave public schools.”

However, when the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) resisted state vouchers and sought to limit the number of charter schools in the state, she began a battle to enlarge the scope and nature of charter schools. She fought the requirement that members of school boards join the FSBA and helped found a rival organization, the Florida Coalition of School Board Members and served as its first president.

Her advocacy made her a leading voice for the non-public schooling movement in Florida and led to clashes with fellow members of the Collier County School Board where she came to serve as vice chair.

The big year

Byron Donalds addresses a Trump campaign rally at the Collier County Fairgrounds on Oct. 23, 2016. (Image: C-Span)

2016 was a big year for the nation, education and the Donalds—all of them.

Byron endorsed candidate Donald Trump and appeared with him at a rally on the Collier County Fairgrounds.

When Donald Trump won he appointed Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, an appointment so controversial given her lack of knowledge and credentials that it took the intervention of Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote in the Senate to confirm her.

In Collier County, Erika celebrated the appointment. “It’s an encouraging step in the right direction for our country,” she told the Naples Daily News. “I like seeing an outsider in the position who will evaluate educational programs on their merit alone.”

Nor was she concerned by DeVos’ lack of public school experience: “I don’t have experience in the classroom either, and I’m certainly capable of serving in a governance role when it comes to overseeing a large operation,” she said.

Both Byron and Erika got to work promoting non-public schools.

In the legislature, Donalds was named to the Education Committee, among his other committee assignments, where he rose to vice chair of the Pre-K Appropriations Subcommittee.

Among the bills he introduced were a number favoring non-public schools or weakening public education. One, House Bill 7061, would have dropped a state requirement that teacher applicants take a “general knowledge” examination determining their fundamental grasp of the world. Byron argued that dropping the requirement would save teachers from losing their jobs. However, a practicing teacher argued it would open the door to unqualified or ignorant teachers.

Another required that textbooks “provide a non-inflammatory, objective, and balanced viewpoint on issues,” be “free of pornography” and be age-appropriate—a bill drafted by Keith Flaugh of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance.

“Since some people find the teaching of evolution and climate change ‘inflammatory’ and ‘unbalanced’ it would allow anyone who pays tax on a cup of coffee while visiting Florida to advocate teaching creationism and that climate change isn’t caused by humans,” argued Brandon Haught, a high school teacher and founding member of Florida Citizens for Science.

(Throughout his House tenure Donalds also consistently received an “F” rating from the People First Report Card, a project of Progress Florida, a progressive non-profit advocacy organization, for voting against measures that would help Floridians.)  

With Byron in the legislature, Erika was very active on the non-public school front.

In November 2017 she founded the Optima Foundation, where she currently serves as chief executive officer. A non-profit 501c3 that takes tax deductible contributions, the foundation provides nuts and bolts business advice to start-up charter schools or, as the Foundation puts it, provides: “a model of efficiency, effectiveness, and results-driven processes” to charter schools.

The same year she was appointed to Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission and was named chair of its Local Government Committee. It was in that capacity that she proposed Amendment 8 to the Florida state Constitution.

Amendment 8 proposed three measures. It would have established eight-year term limits for local school board members. It would have also taken the authority to regulate charter schools from locally-elected school boards and given it to state authorities. Lastly, it would have promoted “civic literacy” in public education, requiring the legislature to pass laws to “ensure that students enrolled in public education understand and are prepared to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a constitutional republic”—a “constitutional republic” being the conservative movement’s phrase for its vision of the United States.

The amendment sparked immediate and vehement opposition.

“Suddenly, the Legislature could allow any person or group or corporation, public or private, to set up charter schools or the like. And those schools would be free of oversight by the school board. This is so misleading you have to wonder if the deception was deliberate,” editorialized the Palm Beach Post

“If Amendment 8 remains on the ballot, there is no way that voters will realize that a yes vote could allow unaccountable political appointees or even private organizations to control where and when charter schools can be established in their county,” argued Patricia Brigham, president of the Florida League of Women Voters.

The Polk County School Board was particularly outraged by the proposal, unanimously passing a resolution stating that the amendment “is not necessary, is not fair, is not desirable, and is not clearly understandable.”

So threatening was Amendment 8 that the League of Women Voters, working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued to stop it, saying it was misleading and violated a rule requiring that amendments deal only with single subjects.

On Aug. 20, 2018 Judge John Cooper of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County ruled that Amendment 8 “fails to inform voters of the chief purpose and effect of this proposal” and could not appear on the ballot in November. The state appealed the ruling but it was confirmed by the State Supreme Court on Sept. 7.

Amendment 8 never appeared on the 2018 ballot.

In addition to their legislative and advocacy activities, in 2019 Byron and Erika were involved in a bitter and convoluted fight over ownership and management of Mason Classical Academy, a charter school in Naples. One of the founders, Kelly Lichter, who had crossed swords with Erika before, alleged that Erika, the Optima Foundation and other parties were engaged in a hostile takeover of the school. Erika and other parties for their part alleged mismanagement and improprieties in the school’s management and proceeded to found the Naples Classical Academy, scheduled to open this month.

In January 2019 Erika founded yet another organization to promote and lobby for non-public schools, the School Choice Movement, which pursued the objectives of Amendment 8 in the Florida state legislature.

The Donalds’ involvement in the non-public school movement, including their commercial activities opening charter schools, has proven politically problematic for Byron.

In 2018 when Byron was running for re-election to the Florida House in District 80 he met with the Naples Daily News editorial board along with all the other candidates running that year.

Of all the many candidates running, the Naples Daily News endorsed only one Democrat that year; Byron’s opponent, microbiologist Jennifer Boddicker. In addition to praising her strengths and abilities, the board had interesting things to say about Byron:

“There’s a common denominator in much of the education policy Boddicker correctly cited as problematic. Her Nov. 6 Republican opponent, incumbent Byron Donalds, often had a hand in it.

“On multiple occasions, Donalds advocated for school choice legislation, raising questions because of his direct family connections to opening a Collier charter school and his wife now planning another on Florida’s east coast.

“Voters should elect state lawmakers to advance the interests of their constituents at large, not a specific subgroup or personal passions.

“Donalds was graded F-minus in open government policy by the First Amendment Foundation. He crafted a terrible bill that would have gutted the state’s signature Sunshine Law by allowing two officials of the same elected board to have private conversations about issues. Then, in his recent meeting with our editorial board, he again defended it by pointing to two examples — both involving his Collier School Board member wife.”

Naples Daily News

The battle for the future of America’s children

Teachers call for state support for education in Tallahassee in January 2020 at the start of the legislative session. (Photo: Florida Education Association via Twitter)

The issue of public and non-public education has not been a front-burner issue in this year’s political campaigns on any level; there’s so much more going on. But it is in the background.

In 2016, President Donald Trump campaigned in favor of non-public schools, saying he would fix failing inner city schools and calling the issue “the great civil rights issue of our time.” He proposed the idea of a $20 billion school voucher program—which faced Republican opposition and went nowhere in Congress once he was in office.

Nonetheless, Trump continued his verbal support for non-public education and appointed Betsy DeVos education secretary to pursue it.

When former Vice President Joe Biden declared his candidacy in May 2019, his first policy proposal affirmed his support for public schools.

“Educators deserve a partner in the White House,” said his initial statement. “With President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, they’ll get two. Dr. Biden has worked as an educator for more than 30 years. She and Joe understand that, for educators, their profession isn’t just what they do; it is who they are.”

The initial Biden plan called for tripling Title I funding, which goes toward school districts with a high proportion of children from low-income backgrounds. He promised to overhaul the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to help public school teachers pay off their student loan debt. He called for doubling the number of school psychologists, guidance counselors, nurses and other health professionals in schools; ensuring federal funding for children with disabilities; and supported universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. To keep schoolchildren safe, he called for a ban on military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

He also came out against public funding of non-public schools.

In the May 2019 town hall with the American Federation of Teachers where he unveiled his education proposals, Biden said that while some charter schools succeed, federal money should not be spent on private, for-profit schools.

When it comes to vouchers and other such schemes, he said, “The bottom line is, it siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”

Biden has since expanded his education proposals, calling for increasing teacher pay; investing in schools; ensuring that all students have a path to success and are educated equally regardless of location, income, race or disability.

In Southwest Florida, Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai has detailed education proposals, starting with a vision that: “All children in the US have access to high-quality education, preschool through post-secondary, leading to a prepared, qualified, and advanced workforce filled with successful individuals.”

This is followed by eight very specific ideas for improving American education. When she’s elected she has a plan to introduce a “Workforce of Tomorrow” bill to implement them and find the funding mechanisms to make it happen.

“”I’m a big proponent of public schools because I understand their value. My kids go to public school,” Banyai told The Paradise Progressive. “I want the best for them and all our kids. We must invest more in public schools and not allow those public dollars to go into the hands of private corporations through private charter schools and vouchers. Teachers need good salaries that make it possible to live sustainably in our community. During the COVID-19 pandemic teachers have become front-line workers and deserve recognition and respect. Our public school teachers and students can count on my help in Congress.”

Astonishingly, for all the work he’s done on education issues and his involvement over the years, as of this writing, of eight policy positions he’s taken, Byron doesn’t mention education at all on his campaign website.


On Sept. 14, The Paradise Progressive e-mailed the Byron Donalds campaign the following questions:

1. In summary, what is your position on public education in the United States?

2. As a member of Congress, what specific actions do you intend to take regarding US education policy?

3. Do you approve of the policies and actions of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?

The same day, The Paradise Progressive separately e-mailed the following questions to Erika Donalds:

1. If Mr. Donalds is elected and goes to Washington, will you go with him or stay in Florida?

2. Do you anticipate lobbying Congress regarding school choice and do you anticipate registering as a lobbyist?

3. If Mr. Donalds is elected, do you intend to divest yourself of all assets, financial interests, and investments in school or education-related businesses, entities or clients whether for profit or non-profit?

4. Can you summarize your view of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ policies, agenda and actions regarding public education to date?

5. How would you characterize your view of the state of public education today?

As of this posting, no response has been received from either party.


The impact of one congressman

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a visit to Southwest Florida schools arranged by Rep. Francis Rooney in November, 2017. (Image: WINK News)

If anyone doesn’t believe that an individual member of Congress can have an impact on national education policy, one need only examine the first term of Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), a man whose entire education, from kindergarten to post-graduate school, was spent in the parochial, Catholic schools of the Georgetown Jesuit school system.

When he first arrived in Washington, Rooney sat on the House Education Committee.

Rooney revealed the real nature of his education policy activities when he addressed the Florida Citizens Alliance program at the Alamo in 2018.

“We’re in the fight of our lives,” he said, endorsing the Alliance’s critique of public education. “It’s the education system which is brainwashing these kids, it’s Hollywood, it’s videogames and no one wants to talk about the real drivers.”

In Congress he tried to eliminate what he called “40 stupid little programs that have crept into the Higher Education Act since 1965” through what was called the PROSPER Act (Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform) Act. A Republican bill, it never went anywhere.

The bill tried to cut $2 billion out of education, including programs that rewarded students who went into public service after college. As Rooney characterized it, the PROSPER Act “eliminated this freebee if you go into public service, which is driving the liberals nuts. You know, you get a special loan if you commit to go into public service after college. It’s like paying people to fight against us”—meaning that service to the United States made a person an enemy of conservatives.

Rooney also brought DeVos to Southwest Florida twice in 2017 to tour the area’s schools, once after Hurricane Irma and once to visit local high schools and colleges.

The thrust of Rooney’s activities was to reshape American education in the DeVos mold. And what was that mold? As he put it at the Alamo: “We don’t need to become a nation of philosophers, okay? We need to become a nation of doers”—meaning that there was virtually no need to support education that wasn’t technical or trade-oriented.   

Rooney and his fellow educational conservatives were unable to enact their program despite a completely Republican Congress with a president who agreed with their views. But their efforts to cut, shortchange and eliminate programs that benefit students regardless of their stations in life or income level were a warning of just how much damage a single congressman hostile to public education can do.

Analysis: The Donalds and the war on America’s schools

In their choice of who to send to Congress to represent them, Southwest Florida voters, parents and teachers should be aware of what they would get with Byron Donalds.

Donalds has not demonstrated any support for public education during his legislative career or in his political activities. On the contrary, he and his wife Erika have done all they possibly could to advance non-public education and personally profit from it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with non-public education. Parents and students who want religious schooling or alternative schooling are welcome to have it. But that educational alternative should not come at the expense of public schools or the teachers who serve them, the taxpayers who fund them, the employees who run them, the parents who rely on them, or the students who learn from them.

The charter school movement, of which they are advocates, is neither benign nor cost-free to public schools and taxpayers. From an experimental, innovative educational alternative, the charter school movement has metastasized into a for-profit gold rush, complete with shoddy products, questionable financing and unreliable outcomes.

In particular, Erika Donalds’ efforts have been directed at reducing or diluting the authority of local, elected school boards and weakening the public education infrastructure in the state of Florida and doing this sometimes in seemingly deceptive ways, as demonstrated by Amendment 8.

If Byron Donalds goes to Congress, those efforts will have a national platform and the potential authority of the United States Congress.

Indeed, if Donald Trump is re-elected, it may genuinely mean the end of the public school system in this country. The federal government may de-fund public education entirely and the Department of Education may be disestablished. If the department still exists, Betsy DeVos may have another four years in office. However, should she decide not to serve in a second Trump administration, it is conceivable that Erika could be a candidate to succeed her as Secretary of Education.

On the other hand, it is very possible that if Donald Trump is defeated and Betsy DeVos is no longer Education Secretary but Byron is elected, Erika Donalds will become a leading advocate on the national stage for the DeVos approach to public education, with Byron providing the legislative heft to advance the agenda.

Of course, if Cindy Banyai is elected along with Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic ticket, all these questions become moot.

It is worth remembering the importance of public education for the continuation of democracy. To make the American experiment work, it had to rely on an educated, literate, informed electorate. Public education provided the basic knowledge of citizenship and history to everyone; it was a widely accepted government service that taxpayers maintained and it provided the common language and frame of reference for civic engagement.

The fragmentation and destruction of public education risks breaking and dividing a literate, engaged citizenry. Instead of a common education that treats all students as equally as possible, it risks lapsing into the situation of past societies where an educated, literate class of masters ruled over an ignorant, uneducated class of servants.

There is another risk: that the alternative, non-public educational alternative will teach a form of government that is ideologically anti-democratic and inimical to the continuation of this government in its current, constitutional form.

This may seem like a great deal to hang on the outcome of a local congressional race in an obscure corner of Florida but, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane, of such small motions are great events made.

As is abundantly clear, on the outcome of the 2020 election hangs the question of whether America will remain a democracy or fall into dictatorship. And on the future of its education system hangs the question of whether a weedlike cult of personality will implant its roots into the future or whether democracy will bloom in all the seasons to come.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg

Rooney slams Trump tax scheme–again

President Donald Trump signs an executive order deferring payroll tax withholdings for federal employees on Aug. 8. (Photo: AFP)

Sept. 15, 2020 by David Silverberg

Rep. Francis Rooney

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) has again criticized President Donald Trump’s plan to defer payroll tax withholdings for federal employees until next year.

In a formal statement issued yesterday, Sept. 14, Rooney stated:

“I appreciate the administration’s attempt to bring financial relief to hardworking Americans during this difficult time, but this payroll tax deferral is not a good solution. It presents a short-term remedy that will engender long-term problems beyond the pandemic and could end up disrupting the historical employee-employer cost sharing for payroll taxes.

“It is impractical to expect that these deferred amounts could be paid by employees next April. The highest likelihood is that the government reimburses them, or worse, that employers are required to pay the employees’ part as well as their own.

“This order is not an appropriate means of repairing our damaged economy because however these deferred payments might be resolved, there will be serious damage to the employee – employer relationship at the very time when we need to strengthen it to provide economic opportunity for more Americans.”

Rooney initially tweeted his opposition to the President’s executive order deferring the withholdings on Sept. 3. The new statement formalizes and emphasizes Rooney’s objections.

On Aug. 8, Trump issued a memorandum to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin deferring the taxes for 1.3 million federal employees, which he has the authority to do. However, while the withholding is deferred for 2020, the taxes will have to be paid by the employees next year and would result in smaller paychecks.

To date there has been no public White House response or response from any other Republicans to Rooney’s criticism.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

BREAKING NEWS: Banyai, Donalds to meet in WGCU debate

The WGCU studio building on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University. (Photo: WGCU)

Sept. 11, 2020 by David Silverberg

Public television station WGCU will be hosting a debate between 19th Congressional District candidates Democrat Cindy Banyai and Republican Byron Donalds.

The debate will be held on Monday, Sept. 28 from 8 to 9 pm. It will be televised from the WGCU studios on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University.

The debate is also being sponsored by the News-Press and Naples Daily News of Gannet’s USA Today Network.

In addition to the television and radio broadcasts on WGCU-TV and WGCU 90.1 FM, the debate will be streamed on WGCU.com, News-press.com and Naplesnews.com.

The debate will be moderated by Julie Glenn, the news director of WGCU Public Media. Questioners will be Amy Bennett Williams of Gannett and John Davis of WGCU.

The debate marks a stark contrast from the congressional race in 2018 when Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) told the League of Women Voters that he had “no availability” for a debate with opposing candidate Democrat David Holden and would have “no future availability” because “everyone knows my positions.”

Despite protests from Holden and his campaign, local media accepted the refusal and no debate or discussion of his record or positions was ever held.

Banyai and Donalds have already held one debate, on Aug. 21 at the Cantina 109 bar and grill in Gulf Coast Town Center.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Rachel Brown: Powering to the polls

Rachel Brown (Photo: Rachel Brown Campaign)

Sept. 10, 2020 by David Silverberg

Like many people, Rachel Brown’s politics and understanding of the world has evolved—but she’s had a lot further to go and started at an earlier age than most.

Born in 1994 and raised in Naples, Fla., Brown’s father made money selling guns at gun shows. She was raised in a house without air conditioning with Fox News blaring in the background. Until the third grade she was home schooled but then her mother, a teacher by profession, worked three jobs to afford the tuition to send her to private school at the Evangelical Christian School in Fort Myers.

It was an upbringing that might have produced a woman with narrow expectations, a limited perspective on the world and conservative political views.

Instead, today Brown is the progressive candidate for the Florida state Senate in District 27, determined to protect the district’s natural environment, ensure a decent life for its people and tackle the challenges that face them.

“I’m a liberal who comes from conservative roots,” she says. “I’m tired of my legislators ignoring issues like harmful algal blooms, the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, and the massive homeless crisis on the rise.”

Center of gravity

State Senate District 27 includes Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva. It is the center of population in Lee County. The Caloosahatchee River runs through it to its shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida Senate District 27

The District is currently represented by Republican Sen. Elizabeth Benaquisto, who is term-limited and stepping down.

Benaquisto’s retirement set off a ferocious primary battle to succeed her between state House Reps. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Fort Myers Beach) and Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers), a battle so bitter they appeared in dueling TV ads firing guns, with the barely disguised implication they would gladly turn those guns on each other.

By then, Brown was already a declared candidate for the seat. She was approached by state Sen. Gary Farmer (D-34) the designated Senate minority leader, who urged Brown not to run so that Democrats could vote in an open Republican primary and elect the more moderate Fitzenhagen.

However, Brown refused, saying “How can I tell people I’ve marched with that I changed my mind, I’m not going to run, and they should go vote for a mediocre Republican instead who’s just going to take their taxes and use it for corporate handouts? And how can I take a backroom deal that represents the behavior I’m fighting to end?”

On Aug. 18 Rodrigues decisively defeated Fitzenhagen.

Given the past Republican nature of the District, the conventional wisdom is that it will remain the same.

Brown is determined to prove that assumption wrong. As her campaign slogan puts it: “Defy the norm!”

“Incredibly urgent”

After three years in private school, Brown attended Palmetto Ridge High School in Naples for a year and then began going part time to Florida Gulf Coast University, where she is still studying.

“I wasn’t planning to run for office before I got my degree,” she says. “But it’s incredibly urgent that I do it now.”

Brown is training as an environmental engineer and it was her sensitivity and understanding of the environment—and particularly the relationship of the District with its natural setting—that powered her run for office.

“Water quality is the big issue for everyone,” she observes. “Anyone in Southwest Florida has seen the degradation of our water and the algae blooms. My whole life I’ve heard folks that have been around longer than I have say that the water used to be a bright, beautiful crystal blue, not like the brown and black plumes we see today.”

“I believe every person should have a legal right to clean air and clean water; a right that citizens of District 27 do not currently have,” she says, adding that she’s ready to fight for that right in Tallahassee.

She’s also angry that important environmental legislation has repeatedly been put off or deferred by the state legislature.

“Every time they see an environmental group trying to do something good they try to stop it,” she says.

She’s particularly incensed by what she calls the deceptively named Clean Waterways Act, which has been signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

While the law puts in place a variety of water purity regulations and procedures, it also takes away the power of local governments to extend legal rights to plants, animals or bodies of water, so that their purity or health can be protected in court. Brown believes there needs to be an environmental bill of rights and says she will work to repeal the Act in order to pass a better alternative.

It’s mainly on these environmental issues that she most disagrees with her opponent. During the primary, Rodrigues was painted as a tool of the sugar industry around Lake Okeechobee, earning him the nickname “Sugar Ray.” Water from the lake is blamed for much of the pollution that flows down the Caloosahatchee River and dumps into the waters of the 27th District, clogging the canals of Cape Coral with algal mats and causing blue-green algae blooms along the river’s shores.

“He’s everything I am not,” says Brown. “He doesn’t seem to put the people of Lee County first.”

Stress tests

While the natural environment is critical to sustaining life and the 27th District’s economy, that life is under stress from the pandemic and the economy has been badly battered.

Nonetheless, Brown is optimistic: “I truly believe that a combination of individual and community efforts can make everyone’s lives better,” she says. “There are so many positive changes to be made when we work together.”

She points out that in Lee County the average cost of rent has increased by 19 percent since 2001 while the average income has gone up by only 4 percent, meaning that working people cannot keep up. She favors increasing the minimum wage to a livable level of $15 over six years. “If people aren’t making enough to live they’re going to need help,” she says.

She has seen homelessness in Lee County in person while working food service jobs. With the pandemic and economic crash she fears that homelessness is likely to increase and the county has to be ready for it.

People also need their healthcare, which she vows to protect, and she wants to expand Medicaid in the state.

Will she be branded a “socialist” for all this? Ironically, she points out, Rodrigues himself praised socialized healthcare. It came during a League of Women Voters forum when he commended Sweden’s approach to the COVID crisis by trying to develop herd immunity—covered by its socialized healthcare.

Brown also supports mask mandates to protect people from coronavirus.

Given her father’s past gun dealing, Brown says she’s comfortable with gun ownership as long as owners behave legally and responsibly. However, she feels they should be held liable for the use of their weapons. She really takes issue with Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

“Stand your ground as it is doesn’t do the job it was intended to do,” she argues. “It shouldn’t be allowed to be used in an offensive way.”

One issue that is close to her heart is that of infrastructure—good public transportation and safe streets—and for a very personal reason.

In 2004 her 12-year-old brother Eric was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was riding his bicycle in Golden Gate Estates. Brown believes the culprit—who was never caught—was drunk or on drugs.

The incident made her determined to work for greater road safety. “We have a lack of city planning,” she notes. “A lot of the county is considered a rural environment but that’s just a way to excuse the lack of planning. We need better planning because then we’ll have safer roadways and fewer emissions.”

Her stance on infrastructure has won her an endorsement from Thomas Kanell, creator of ABetterLeeTran.com, a website advocating improved public transportation in Lee County. He called her “a courageous activist whose focus on the needs of everyday people and on preserving the environment is a fresh alternative from the money-driven politics that have characterized elections in our state.”

Her brother’s death also convinced Brown that alcohol and drugs need to be gotten off the streets. “Drug possession in and of itself is not the issue,” she maintains. “Driving under the influence of drugs and reckless driving in general is. Rather than busting people in their homes for drug consumption, we need to keep it off the roads.”

A public servant

Brown is fully aware that running as a Democrat in what has to date been a Republican district is a long, difficult battle against heavy odds. Her opponent is deep-rooted, backed by the Republican establishment and well-funded.

“At the start of my campaign, I innocently imagined a full paid staff; leaders of volunteer crews, managers, and social media people,” she recounts. “Now I realize that’s not going to happen.”

Instead, small donations have enabled her to order and distribute a hundred face masks and face shields. In addition to using social media she’s purchased yard signs and been able to produce a 30-second television advertisement. She’s planning to send out mailers.

In what she calls a game-changing development, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee organization called Red to Blue is helping her with software and text message campaigning.

She’s been endorsed by other candidates like congressional candidate Cindy Banyai and Anselm Weber, running for the Florida House in District 76.

Interestingly enough, she’s also getting Republican help from supporters of Heather Fitzenhagen who were disgusted by Rodrigues’ primary campaign.

 “Many women are angered by Ray’s vicious campaign against Heather which ultimately lost her the primary,” she observes. “In order to win, I need support from all women and I’m delighted by those who have joined me.”

She acknowledges that “It’s hard being a grassroots candidate,” but adds, “I’m powering to the polls.”

Among the many promises and pledges that are made on the campaign trail, there’s one Brown is absolutely determined to keep: “My biggest celebration when I win will be to finally pay for air conditioning for my mother,” she says.

To learn more about Rachel Brown, visit her website, Facebook page or follow her on Twitter.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg

Roundup: Signs of unity; Dems team up; Rep. Rooney denounces Trump tax order

Video of a racist sign vandal fleeing the Seed to Table parking lot. (Image: WINK News)

Sept. 4, 2020 by David Silverberg

It is a rare moment nowadays when Democrats and Republicans can agree on anything–but it has actually happened in Collier County.

Yesterday, Sept. 3, the chairs of the Collier County Democratic Party and Collier County Republicans issued a joint statement “condemning the vandalism and theft of political signs. Not only is it unlawful, it is disrespectful and anti-democratic.”

The statement is signed by Annisa Karim, the county Democratic chairwoman and Russell Tuff, the Republican chairman.

“As the election gets closer, many of us become more passionate about the candidates we support,” says the statement. “That’s true for us, and it’s true for our neighbors. The beauty of the First Amendment to our Constitution is that it protects everyone’s right to free speech—theirs and ours!”

Reports of lawn sign theft, removal and vandalism appeared throughout the month of August.

The signs of Jim Molenaar, county candidate for clerk of the court, were defaced and when he personally confronted the vandal in a parking lot, the vandal fled.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee), Republican congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District, had his signs in the parking lot of the Seed to Table market defaced with racial slurs; Donalds is African American. In his case an arrest was made of Jeffrey Rouse, 40, after Rouse went on a racist rant against an African American woman in a video that went viral. Arrested following a 100 mile-per-hour chase by police, Rouse was suspected of defacing of Donalds’ signs.

Drew-Montez Clark, also African-American and a Republican candidate for Donalds’ Florida House seat, also had his signs vandalized with racial slurs.

Individuals have also reported sign thefts and disappearances in letters to the editors of local newspapers.

The sign vandalism and thefts mostly occurred during the primary races but passions are expected to rise as the general election approaches.

The joint Democratic and Republican Collier County party statement concludes: “Let’s decide the election at the ballot box!”

Mutual endorsements in the 19th and 17th

Two Democratic congressional candidates have endorsed each other and are planning mutually supportive activities.

Cindy Banyai, the Democratic congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District and Allen Ellison in the 17th District issued their mutual endorsements yesterday, Sept. 3.

Banyai is facing Byron Donalds. Ellison is taking on incumbent Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), a vocal and strident supporter of President Donald Trump.

While the endorsement announcement did not list any actions the candidates would be taking together, they are discussing mutual events and activities, according to Banyai.

Rooney dissents from Trump payroll tax order

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), yesterday, Sept. 3, issued a two-tweet thread opposing Trump’s executive order deferring payroll taxes for federal employees. Trump’s opposition to the payroll tax threatens the Social Security program.

“The employee portion payroll tax deferral is a reckless idea that will put many employees in jeopardy for the deferred liability when it becomes due, since they will have already spent the deferred amounts,” Rooney stated in his first tweet. “This is truly an unworkable idea and can only result in more disastrous policy. Deferred amounts will either be forgiven or reimbursed by the federal government or worse, employers will be required to pay them,” he added in the second.

Trump has called for a national payroll tax cut or deferment of 6.2 percent. The action would severely impact the Social Security program, which is funded through the tax.

Congress, including many Republican members, is unwilling to pass the cut and many businesses are reluctant to implement it. With negotiations on a larger stimulus package deadlocked, Trump chose to act on his own.

On Aug. 8, Trump issued a memorandum to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin deferring the taxes for 1.3 million federal employees, which he has the authority to do. However, while the withholding is deferred for 2020, the taxes will have to be paid by the employees next year and would result in smaller paychecks.

 Everett Kelley, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, has called the Trump action “a scam that leaves workers with a substantial tax bill right after the holiday season. Workers will have to pay double their regular payroll tax rate during the first four months of 2021, and if they cannot do so, they will have to pay interest and penalties on amounts still owed if they’re not paid back by May 1, 2021,” 

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg