Updated at 4:30 pm with additional bill details and Senate status.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been getting much good news lately but surely he must have smiled when he saw that Southwest Florida’s own Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) had voted against aid for Ukraine.
The vote came last Tuesday, May 10, at 10:05 pm when the United States House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to grant Ukraine $40 billion to keep up its fight for democracy and independence, a fight that has inspired the world.
The Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2022 (House Bill 7691) passed by a vote of 368 to 57. Even 149 Republicans voted for the bill, among them Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and eight other Florida Republicans.
“Among other things, the bill provides appropriations for defense equipment, migration and refugee assistance, regulatory and technical support regarding nuclear power issues, emergency food assistance, economic assistance, and seizures of property related to the invasion,” according to its official summary.
“It’s about democracy versus a dictatorship,” argued House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) in favor of the bill. “Democracy must prevail. The Ukrainian people are fighting the fight for their democracy and, in doing so, for ours as well.”
“Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom and their future against Russia’s unprovoked and illegal war,” Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.) stated. “This vote makes clear that the US remains as committed as ever to supporting Ukraine in its fight for freedom and democracy. Slava Ukraine!”
By contrast, Donalds said in a statement: “While I’m a firm supporter of the Ukrainian defense, the American taxpayer shouldn’t bear the perpetual cost of this war.” He argued that “the $40 billion aid package I voted against is an unfunded commitment that shovels money blindly without proper accountability and opens the door for even more irresponsible funding. I supported the original multi-billion-dollar aid package, but we cannot continue down this reckless spending pattern bankrupting our nation,”
(It should be noted that there’s nothing “perpetual” about the aid package. It’s a one-time infusion to help Ukraine defend itself and assist Ukrainians victimized by the conflict.)
Oddly, Donalds failed to mention the vote in his newsletter recapping the week’s events.
To Donalds’ north in Southwest Florida, Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), another far-right conservative who also opposed the package, complained that while he had voted for previous Ukraine funding: “Congress has not received a single report on how much of this funding was spent, if any, nor assurances that the funding even reached Ukraine. Today less than 6 hours before a vote, the Democrats dropped a massive, last-minute bill to send $40 billion more without any safeguards, assurances of use, or proof of a strategic plan for the US role in Ukraine.”
Somehow, the pictures of charred Russian tanks and equipment abandoned in retreat from Ukrainian territory might indicate that current aid is being put to very good use.
Following passage in the House the bill was sent to the Senate. Yesterday, May 16, senators voted 81 to 11 to proceed with the legislation and a final vote is expected this week, possibly as soon as tomorrow. Both of Florida’s Republican senators voted to proceed with the bill.
Donalds will remain outside the district he represents if Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) favored congressional district map is invalidated by the courts, where it is now being considered.
A congressperson doesn’t have to live in the district he or she represents, only in the state. Donalds’ address of record is in the 25th Congressional District represented by Diaz-Balart. [Editor’s note:The precise address is not being posted here out of courtesy to Rep. Donalds.]
Traditionally, of course, it is best for the member of Congress to reside in the district. The representative can stay close to the people, personally share their concerns and keep an eye on the community’s needs and issues. It also gives the member credibility at election time.
Donalds, elected in 2020, has never resided in the 19th but he was handed a favor when DeSantis’ team redrew the Florida congressional map, rammed it through the legislature and DeSantis signed it into law on April 22. Instead of moving into the 19th, DeSantis moved the district’s borders to include Donalds.
This not only closed a campaign vulnerability for Donalds, it avoided a potentially damaging primary fight between Donalds and Diaz-Balart if Donalds had chosen to run in the 25th (re-numbered the 26th in the DeSantis map).
It was a neat solution for all concerned. However, with the DeSantis map thrown out in court and now up in the air as the judge’s ruling is appealed, it remains to be seen in which congressional district Donalds hangs his hat—which has never seemed to matter much to him anyway.
Donalds might have received a blow when the court threw out DeSantis’ map but a different court handed him a victory in his battle with former Republican congressional candidate, businessman Casey Askar.
The case was initially scheduled to be tried before a jury on May 18. However, Judge Elizabeth Krier of the 20th Judicial Circuit handed down a ruling on April 14.
To recap: On primary election day, Aug. 18, 2020, a text message was sent to Republicans, allegedly from Donalds, saying that he had dropped out of the race. Donalds vehemently denied its authenticity and accused Askar of sending the false message.
However, Donalds provided no evidence and Askar denied the charge. On Nov. 16, 2020, Askar sued Donalds for defamation and libel, demanding $30,000 in damages.
After nearly a year and a half of legal wrangling and maneuvering—and legal expenses—Krier granted Donalds’ request for a summary judgment and dismissed Askar’s complaint.
“…Viewing the facts in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the mandatory element of actual malice, and therefore Defendant Donalds is entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” Krier wrote.
Essentially, Askar had to prove that Donalds acted with malice against him, knowing his charges were untrue. What was more, Askar had to provide evidence to that effect. The bar for doing this is especially high when it comes to public political figures like political candidates.
Askar failed these tests, in Krier’s view. Donalds’ accusations against Askar were merely “opinions” she wrote. Donalds had made the accusations based on the belief that one of Askar’s consultants, Jeff Roe, had allegedly pulled this kind of trick in 2016 against Dr. Ben Carson in his presidential primary race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Given that Askar failed to make his defamation case with “clear and convincing evidence,” Krier ruled against him.
Krier may soon rule that Askar has to pay all the attorney’s fees and court costs to Donalds for the litigation, which likely comes to quite a tidy sum. One hopes for Askar’s sake that the pizza business is booming.
UPDATED Sept. 22, 2021 with new information about campaign contribution offer.
Southwest Florida’s lawyers have been busy on the political front this month.
In the case of Casey Askar versus Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), there having been no resolution of the case, a jury trial is scheduled for 9:00 am, next May 18.
To recap: This is a case of defamation and libel. Casey Askar was a Republican primary candidate for Congress last year, running against Donalds, who ultimately won the race.
On primary election day, Aug. 18, a text message was sent to Republicans, allegedly from Donalds, saying that he had dropped out of the race. Donalds vehemently denied its authenticity and accused Askar of sending the false message.
However, Donalds provided no evidence and Askar denied the charge. On Nov. 16, 2020, Askar sued Donalds for defamation and libel, demanding $30,000 in damages.
Since then, the two parties’ lawyers have been wrangling, fighting over the legitimacy of the case, the timing, whether to sit for in-person depositions and the like. Askar is represented by Michael Lawhon of Naples, Donalds by Alan Perlman of Fort Lauderdale.
The next action is scheduled for this Thursday, Sept. 23, when Judge Elizabeth Krier of the 20th Judicial Circuit is scheduled to hear motions to compel Donalds to answer questions and for Askar to file an additional complaint.
While many lawsuits are settled well before they come to trial—sometimes right on the courthouse steps—this one may be different. Whoever sent the original text message committed a federal crime. Askar’s lawsuit is at least partially defensive, since if he wins before a jury he would conclusively prove his innocence.
Unless the case is resolved before its assigned date, Southwest Florida will be treated to a Collier County jury trial in the Spring, just as Donalds’ 2022 re-election campaign ramps up.
It should provide quite the Springtime spectacle.
Oakes, Boatman and DeSantis
Ever since the 2020 presidential election and Donald Trump’s Big Lie that he won in a landslide and it was stolen from him, Trumpers of varying credibility have been insisting that they have the evidence confirming Trump’s delusions.
The most prominent of these folks outside the immediate Trump orbit has been MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell. He has famously insisted he has compelling proof of the fraud that robbed Trump of another term.
To date, despite much hoopla, Lindell has made no case, sliding down the credibility scale into the laughable range and becoming a late-night punch line.
But in Southwest Florida Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III has stubbornly promoted Trump’s alleged victory since the very day Trump lost. Of course, in January he sponsored two buses of demonstrators to the “Stop the Steal” rally and participated himself.
Now comes Oakes in the form of a Sept. 16 letter by him and James Boatman, managing shareholder of the Naples law firm Boatman Ricci, to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
“I am writing today to strongly encourage you to meet with Alfie Oakes and the forensic data experts he wants to bring with him to discuss the verifiable evidence of election fraud that occurred in Florida during the 2020 Election,” Boatman states in the letter, which was released on Sept. 16. “The data doesn’t lie.”
Remember that this was an election of which DeSantis himself said: “The way Florida did it, I think inspires confidence, I think that’s how elections should be run. We’re one of the few states in the country where you can follow the number of people that are voting in real-time. The rest of these states, it’s kind of like a black hole.”
Clearly, Oakes and Boatman don’t agree. “If we do not draw a line on the battlefield on this issue, the Republic will be unrecoverable, as it is nearly lost already,” warns the letter.
Oakes and Boatman want two hours of face time with the governor. In its later paragraphs, the letter starts pleading: “Just show up with an open-mind. What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Possibly, they write, DeSantis would hear nothing compelling. At best, he’d learn something new “which allows you to take action that could change the course of history for this Country and, in fact, for the World.”
In addition to his opportunity to change history, Oakes sweetened the pot for DeSantis by pledging a $100,000 donation to the governor’s re-election campaign if he would meet, according to Jacob Ogles, reporting in Florida Politics. He made the offer during an appearance on Alex Jones’ notoriously extreme Internet program, InfoWars.
The letter concludes: “We are on the edge of an abyss, if not neck deep in one already”—a badly crafted metaphor given that when you’re neck-deep in an abyss you’re no longer on the edge.
Two hours of face time with a governor is a very long time for a very busy man and the discussion may not stay on topic. DeSantis already did a great boon to Oakes last September when he canceled all COVID mandate-violation fines throughout the state. Now Oakes is facing federal pressure to protect his workforce from a virus whose reality he doesn’t admit in order to keep his considerable federal income; perhaps the discussion would also veer into that.
Also unmentioned in the letter is whether this discussion would have to take place in public under Florida’s Sunshine Law.
There are no publicly available indications at this point that DeSantis or his office has received the letter, acknowledged it or responded.
Nobody likes to be lied about. Whether you’re in kindergarten or elder care, it’s hurtful.
People who run for public office know that they’re going to be maligned; it’s part of the process. You put yourself out there and anyone can throw a rotten tomato; it comes with the territory in an electoral contest. In politics, if you can’t take the hit, don’t run for it.
But there are political lies, shadings of the truth and spins of the facts, and then there are lies, malicious falsehoods of whole cloth, entirely made up, untruths so stinging and painful they can even get under the skin of a thick-skinned politician. They’re more than lies, they’re smears.
In Southwest Florida the smears are getting smearier and penetrating Republican candidates’ skins, like chigger bites. The candidates are getting irritated and especially for the novices and amateurs, that burning itch just has to be scratched, as can be seen in their television ads. Everyone is accusing everyone else of lying. The Republican field has steadily descended into a mud pit so deep not even a swamp buggy could escape.
As one example, take the battle between businessman Casey Askar and state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee).
Donalds was so exercised by Askar’s advertising charging that Donalds once supported Barack Obama that Donalds was moved to retain a lawyer (Todd Allen of Naples) to send a cease and desist letter to Askar.
“There is nothing you could have discerned from Mr. Donalds’ social media activity or his political activities that indicates that he actually did vote for or support President Barack Obama. Despite having that knowledge, you proceeded with the allegation out of pure malice toward Mr. Donalds,” charges the Aug. 7 letter.
The letter goes on to point out that Askar has some thin skin of his own: He’s suing Andrew Duskin, a conservative activist in Naples, for $30,000 for alleging that Askar didn’t really earn the Harvard Business School degree he claims.
Stop leveling this terrible charge, says the letter to Askar. “If you choose to continue with these false statements, Mr. Donalds will follow your lead and protect himself from misguided and unfounded attempts to assassinate his character”—and we all know how terrible a crime it was to vote for Barack Obama, an offense committed by over 65 million Americans in 2012. But this is Southwest Florida and the two men are running in a Republican primary.
Chris Gober, Asker’s Austin, Texas-based attorney shot back on Aug. 10 with a 4-page letter of his own. In it he detailed all of Donalds’ Democratic transgressions, noting that he was a registered Democrat in 2003 and “did not register as a Republican until March 11, 2010, 484 days after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.”
“In summary, your letter does more to confirm the reality that Mr. Donalds supported President Barack than to rebut it”—a charge so grave that Mr. Gober was apparently unable to bring himself to type out the name “Obama.”
“In conclusion, I would be remiss if I did not explicitly state the obvious: The truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim,” Gober wrote. “Thus, because your letter does more to confirm the reality that Mr. Donalds supported President Barack Obama than to rebut it, your client has no legal basis to demand that our campaign cease airing its advertisements.”
To the best of this author’s knowledge, this is the only time a cease and desist letter has been sent between political campaigns over so serious a charge.
And clearly, neither party is ceasing or desisting. The cost of those lawyers and letters might as well be banknotes burned in an ash tray.
Similar charges are being made against state Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral). He’s an endangered species, states a TV ad that puts him in a gunsight’s crosshairs, because he’s a “surprisingly liberal Republican” who supported former Republican presidential candidate and Utah senator, Mitt Romney—the only Republican senator to vote for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
This charge came out of an independent super political action committee (PAC) called Conservative Outsiders PAC, based in Athens, Ga., according to Federal Election Commission filings.
One interesting bit of hypocrisy comes courtesy of the campaign of Dr. William Figlesthaler, who has tried to transition from enraged, belt-wielding gonna give you a whuppin’ dad to genial barbequing paterfamilias in his latest TV ad, “Choices.”
“I’ve been focused on one thing: fighting for you and the conservative values we hold dear. Because tearing each other down is no way to build our country up,” he says as he benignly serves up lumps of charred flesh. That’s a laugh and a half considering that Figlesthaler has been a serial violator of President Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican”—in the 19th Congressional District race to date.
But no primary race has generated more heat and anger over lying than the one for state Senate District 27, which covers Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Sanibel, Pine Island and Fort Myers Beach. There, state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers) has characterized state Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Estero) as “Sugar Ray,” a lackey of the sugar industry, which is blamed for polluting Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River.
She in turn is being portrayed in TV ads as an abortion-loving, open borders-abetting liberal by Rodrigues and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Fitzenhagen is so mad about what she says are lies told about her that she’s grabbed a gun in a TV ad called “If you see Ray.” The ad is produced by something called In Florida we Trust, formed in June and located in Bonita Springs. It is aimed—literally—at Rodrigues.
“If you see Ray Rodrigues, tell him to stop lying about me and my record. I’m pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump,” she snaps, blasting away with a rifle—presumably what she’d do to Ray Rodrigues if she ever saw him on the street.
Commentary: The father of all lies
Why all this lying? And why does it seem worse than usual?
Every single Republican candidate in Southwest Florida has pledged his or her eternal loyalty to the Great God Trump and there is no liar in this or any other universe like Donald J.
Trump built his 2016 campaign on lies: he lies as president; he lied in his inaugural address; he lied about Ukraine; he lied about coronavirus; he lies about people close to him; he lies about his opponents; he lied about his marriage vows; he lied about his oath of office; he lies about Russia; he lies about America; he lies on Twitter; he lies incessantly, compulsively, daily, hourly—he even lies when truth might help him and he probably lies in his dreams.
This is the man all these Southwest Florida candidates “stand with,” praise, exalt and swear undying fealty to—and base their own behavior upon.
The Republican candidates of Southwest Florida can see that lying got Donald Trump elected. Since he’s elevated as the model of perfection and he lies constantly, his acolytes clearly feel no compulsion to tell the truth about themselves or anything else. Since lying is acceptable at the very pinnacle of the nation and there are no consequences for doing it, why not lie about their opponents to get elected?
What they did not take into account is the impact of being lied about.
It hurts. It’s painful to have your life and career and motivations and intentions and actions twisted and distorted and even completely fictionalized. In Trump, they all identify with the liar but have no empathy for the victims. So while it’s easy to fire outgoing lies at opponents and perceived enemies, it’s something else entirely to take incoming lies blasting you. Put another way, they can dish it out but they can’t take it.
While politics have always had an element of falsehood, Trump has lowered the bar to a whole new level. He’s dragged down all his adherents with him, even in places as remote and obscure as Southwest Florida. Most of these candidates have never run for office before and never experienced the slings and arrows of normal political brawling. When a lie punches you in the face, it’s painful and that’s a new and surprising sensation to them.
So lies and insults are the order of the day among the Trumplettes of Southwest Florida.
Voters and television viewers can take comfort that the primary ordeal is almost over: this coming Tuesday, Aug. 18, the ballots will be counted and winners will emerge. Then will begin a simpler battle for the general election, when a decision will theoretically be rendered on Nov. 3.
If you haven’t voted already, in person or by mail, make sure you do, whatever your affiliation.
Keep in mind as well that this year nearly every race will have a Democratic candidate who will provide an alternative to this madness.
And instead of imitating Trump, you can take as your model someone else and follow his advice—to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The White Walkers from Game of Thrones. (Image: HBO)
July 30, 2020 by David Silverberg
Anyone who remembers HBO’s Game of Thrones remembers the White Walkers—the undead, unthinking zombies who marched mindlessly against the living, animated by the will of a single leader, the Night King.
No spoiler here—when the Night King was destroyed, so were all the White Walkers since none of them had minds of their own.
Now the White Walkers are in Southwest Florida—and nine of them are running for the Republican congressional nomination in the 19th Congressional District.
Something else that applies from Game of Thrones: the warning refrain “winter is coming.” Well, winter is coming to tropical Southwest Florida too.
Kneeling before Zod
Rick Wilson is a veteran Republican operative who claims to be “one of the handful of people your candidate or SuperPAC calls when it’s time to drop the big, nasty negative ads.” He’s managed numerous campaigns at a variety of levels. He makes no bones that he’ll do whatever it takes to win elections and he’s had plenty of victories. He’s smart, dangerous and wickedly witty.
He also loathes Donald Trump.
Wilson sees Trump’s cult as something different from the traditional Republicanism that he served and promoted.
Why? Because, he writes, “Trump’s Troll Party puts wild-eyed nationalist, anti-establishment ranting before the tenets of our constitutional Republic.” He continues: “All you have to do to stay in the good graces of this new political force is to swear Trump is always right. All you have to do is loathe with the fire of a million suns anyone who levies the slightest criticism of Trump. You must compromise everything you believe to praise and placate him. He is President for Life. Kneel before Zod.”
As it happens, Wilson lives in Tampa. If he wanted proof of his thesis, he need go no further down the coast than the 19th Congressional District, where the entire thrust of the Republican primary race from Cape Coral to Marco Island has been for each candidate to outdo the other in his or her protestations of loyalty, fealty and obedience to Donald Trump.
In addition to their personal subservience to Donald Trump, all the candidates adhere to the Trumpist gospel of closed borders, gun ownership, denial of a woman’s right to choose, paranoid detestation of Democrats and immigrants and hatred of RINOs (Republicans In Name Only—i.e., any non-Trump Republican).
To go through the policy positions and propaganda of the nine Republican candidates for Congress in Southwest Florida is to tour an intellectual landscape so barren and arid that no idea can survive there.
They’re all ready to fight for Trump and the Trump agenda once they get to Congress in 2021.
But what happens if there’s no President Trump in 2021?
Will these White Walkers just collapse in a heap like their fictional counterparts when the Night King was destroyed? And worse, if one of them is elected and has no leader, will he or she have any notion what to do in the US Congress?
As noted in a previous post, the issues the next Congress confronts are likely to be much different from what candidates are running on now—far grimmer, more unforgiving and much more real.
So where do these Republicans stand on issues that the next Congress is really likely to face that affect Southwest Florida? We took a tour of the candidates’ websites where they post their most formal and detailed policy positions. This article is based on what we found there.
Southwest Florida is facing plenty of challenges. But let’s concentrate on three of the most compelling and urgent: plague, poverty and water.
This is the winter that is coming.
By the beginning of January 2021 when the new members of Congress take their oaths of office (assuming of course, that the United States remains a constitutional republic and not a Trumpist dictatorship) coronavirus is likely to remain virulent and active. A vaccine may have even been developed but as Dr. Anthony Fauci put it, “there is no guarantee — and anyone who has been involved in vaccinations will tell you — we’ll have a safe and effective vaccine.”
Given that Dr. William Figlesthaler is the only medical doctor in the Republican field, voters might have expected him to weigh in strongly and authoritatively on the greatest healthcare crisis of our time.
Initially, he did. On March 19 Figlesthaler announced he was suspending his campaign and opening a coronavirus hotline to concentrate on helping people cope with the then-mounting pandemic.
However, as a political novice, Figlesthaler didn’t realize that in political parlance, “suspending” a campaign means abandoning it. As a result, he had to unsuspend his campaign on March 27. (Candidates always “suspend” their campaigns when they are actually ending them in order to leave open the possibility of re-starting them again should circumstances permit.)
Since that time, Figlesthaler has not weighed in on the pandemic. He has been silent on mask mandates and health closures. He has only continued to reaffirm his loyalty to Trump, who kept dismissing or wishing away the crisis.
Also avoiding mention of COVID are Dane Eagle and Randy Henderson.
Of the other candidates, Casey Askar on his website states: “Our nation is at war, this is a public health crisis and a national defense issue. It’s important that we save lives, and that everyone does their part.” That said, NBC2’s Dave Elias reported Askar opposing a mask mandate in a July 9 interview.
Byron Donalds weighed in against Cape Coral imposing a mask mandate when the city debated the issue on July 6.
In contrast to those candidates avoiding the issue, the youngest candidate in the field, Ave Maria Law School graduate Christy McLaughlin, is vehemently and actively anti-closure and anti-mask, holding online anti-closure rallies and repeatedly denouncing mask mandates.
In a particular irony, McLaughlin made a point of appearing at Cape Coral’s mask mandate debate on July 6 where she told Fox4 News that she opposed the mandate: “We do have the personal responsibility and ability to make our own choices with the autonomy of our own bodies,” she said—a choice she would deny to women when it comes to abortion, given her rigidly anti-choice stance.
If a new coronavirus vaccine becomes available next year, the next scramble in Congress will be to fund its production and distribution. From a parochial perspective, all Florida representatives will have to do what they can to ensure that the state gets its share. Until now Trump has favored Florida and his pliant, handpicked governor by giving the state preferred access to the National Stockpile. But if there’s no Trump in office next year, the representative of the 19th District will have to be vigilant and active in monitoring and pursuing the vaccine for constituents and encouraging its production through votes in Congress.
To date, the candidates’ positions do not inspire confidence to that end.
Southwest Florida will likely remain in an economic depression next year, along with the rest of the country. Tourism, hospitality, travel and seasonal retail are unlikely to recover quickly and if the pandemic is still raging, those sectors will remain depressed.
When it comes to the economy, the House of Representatives has passed repeated economic stimulus packages to help people with unemployment benefits and businesses with pandemic-related losses. Another such package is imminent. These have all been Democratic initiatives passed with Democratic majorities, with Southwest Florida representatives varying in their approval or, in the case of Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), being absent.
Where do the Republican candidates stand on economic support, both for the nation and Southwest Florida?
Askar and Figlesthaler both boast of their past business successes and say they will fight for the economy in the future, although they don’t give specifics. Askar praises Trump’s tax cuts and vows: “I will always pursue tax policies that create greater opportunities. Washington’s problem is not that it taxes too little, but that it spends too much”—cold comfort in a time of mass unemployment and economic cratering when government spending is the only relief for many people. In a detailed paper, however, (more below) he does acknowledge: “In fact, we may never be able to fully quantify the economic devastation resulting from COVID-19.”
Randy Henderson touts his economic successes as mayor of Fort Myers. Prior to the pandemic, the city had a 3.4 percent unemployment rate, 9 points lower than when he took office. Of the all the candidates, he is the only one who has been in an elected executive position where he could directly affect employment in his jurisdiction.
But that still doesn’t address future unemployment and what steps he could take as a member of Congress to reduce it. In fact, he states: “The federal government should never be in the business of creating jobs. Instead, we need to continue passing President Trump’s America First agenda to rebuild our economy by empowering the private sector and job creators.”
One might point out that it was President Trump’s policies in the face of the pandemic that got America into its current economic state in the first place. But that would be unkind.
In Southwest Florida water issues and environmental challenges long preceded this election and will long follow it. It’s the one constant issue and one where physical realities and the iron laws of science can’t be wished away. Managing water is what makes human life possible in this tropical realm and so the candidates have had a lot of time to ponder it and offer detailed responses.
All the Republican candidates are all for water purity and pledge to fight for funding to achieve it, in varying degrees of detail. But it must be said, one candidate stands out above all the others: Casey Askar.
From a fairly dismissive and shallow position on water issues (as pointed out in the May 15 article, “The Curious Case of Casey Askar”), Askar has since posted the most detailed and researched position on water issues of all the Republican candidates. Someone in his campaign has done his or her homework.
In a paper titled “I will not allow Southwest Florida to go out of Business,” Askar ties water to the economic crisis, arguing that “lobbyists and career politicians in Washington, DC are seizing on the chaos from this unprecedented global pandemic to try to undo huge advancements for water quality in Southwest Florida. Put simply – I will not allow them to put Southwest Florida out of business.”
Askar’s proposals are very much in the general consensus on water issues. He calls for sending water south to the Everglades and protecting the integrity of the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (which is misspelled “Manuel” in the paper) to prioritize the region’s health, economy and environment. He pledges to fight for completion of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and the storage reservoir south of the Everglades Agricultural Area. He also says he’ll fight for “commonsense operational change,” like sending more water south during the dry season.
Even if written by one of Askar’s campaign consultants, as is usually the case, the paper shows some thought, research and originality applied to a real local issue.
One hopes that the candidate has read it.
On January 19, 2017, the United States was a healthy nation with a strong, if not spectacularly but steadily growing economy, relatively low unemployment, longstanding international alliances, robust trading relationships, declining crime, and smartly enforced borders. It had a diverse but harmonious population with a sense of unity, confidence in its institutions and trust in its government.
In his inauguration speech the next day, Donald Trump called this “American carnage.” In his view, America was exactly the opposite, a place where “the establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country,” an establishment whose victories were its own and not those of the people. America, he said, was a place of poverty, lost jobs, undefended borders, an education system that didn’t educate, crumbling infrastructure, foreign exploitation and a hollowed out economy.
In four years, Trump has turned his delusions from that day into the American reality. As the Lincoln Project puts it: today America is poorer, sicker and weaker.
This is the present and future that the Republican congressional candidates are vehemently vowing to preserve and protect if they’re elected.
It’s the world ruled by the Night King and his unthinking White Walkers.
And if the living give it their votes, it will be the world for the next four years and beyond.
Winter will have come to stay. Even in Southwest Florida.
Blasts from the past and present: Levitra Man and William Figlesthaler. (Images: You Tube, Figlesthaler for Congress)
July 17, 2020 by David Silverberg
You’ve seen them—and seen them and seen them and seen them: the local political ads on television if you’re in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers-Naples media market.
We’re going into the home stretch before the primary on Aug. 18. Voting starts on Aug. 8 and people are already casting mail-in ballots.
As a result, the campaigning is getting harder, the attacks getting sharper and the ads are becoming more negative. With traditional face-to-face campaign tools like rallies, door-to-door canvassing and meet-and-greets unavailable due to the pandemic, this year’s election really rides on television advertising.
So while everyone can see the ads—in fact, they’re impossible to avoid in the 5 pm to 6:30 local news hours no matter how hard one tries—what are the dynamics behind them? Why are particular candidates using particular arguments and images? Why are they attacking particular opponents? Are the campaigns succeeding in their goals?
Well, you—the voter—be the judge.
And don’t forget: This article only covers the Republican rumble in the 19th Congressional District. There are good Democratic alternatives in every race.
PAC men: Casey Askar versus Byron Donalds
Who would have thought that state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) would emerge as a major player—or threaten the richest candidate, businessman Casey Askar?
The 2020 2nd quarter fundraising totals for the 19th Congressional District were released by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) yesterday, July 16. As of June 30, when the books were closed, Byron Donalds was third, having raised $778,962.94 and having $328,588.43 on hand. That put him well behind Casey Askar ($3,656,255.85 raised, $1,760,828.90 on hand) and William Figlesthaler ($1,986,420.40 raised, $709,435.00 on hand).
(The Paradise Progressive will be doing individual analyses of candidate’s financial reports in future articles.)
But Donalds’ campaign fundraising and totals don’t tell the whole story. He has a not-so-secret weapon: an endorsement and support from the Club for Growth Action, a Super Political Action Committee (PAC). Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of a cause or candidate as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign.
Pro: Club for Growth Action’s ad in praise of Byron Donalds. (Image: Club for Growth Action)
Club for Growth is not just any old conservative political organization. It touts itself as “the leading free-enterprise advocacy group in the nation, we win tough battles and we have an enormous influence on economic policy.”
In a 2016 Politico Magazine article, author Simon Van Zuylen-Wood characterized it as a “deep-pocketed interest group that is feared by Republicans who come into its cross hairs for supporting tax or spending hikes.” It claims membership of “250,000 pro-growth, limited government Americans who share in the belief that prosperity and opportunity come from economic freedom.”
No surprise, Democrats are not enchanted. “The Club For Growth has done an absolutely terrific job pushing reckless and extreme Republicans through primaries, thinning out an already out of touch and cash-strapped class of Republican recruits,” Robyn Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Hill.
Club for Growth Action is the Club’s spending arm and this year it chose to endorse and spend on behalf of Byron Donalds, the only Florida candidate and the only African American of the 49 candidates it is supporting.
Club for Growth Action’s intervention is what in military terms is called a “force multiplier.” It suddenly makes Donalds one of the best financed, if not the best financed candidate, in the race. Now, not only is he running his own ads touting his allegiance to Trump and his conservatism, he has outside ads backing him up, putting him on a par with the until-now richest candidate, Casey Askar.
Pretty clearly Askar—and/or his staff and consultants—are painfully aware of it too, because they’ve suddenly decided to go after Donalds with negative TV ads. To do this, they’ve focused on Donalds’ and the Club for Growth’s Achilles heel.
In a Republican primary race built on fanatical fealty to Donald Trump that allows no room for deviation or impurity, Club for Growth has a dark past: In 2016 it opposed Donald Trump. “There’s nothing conservative about Donald Trump,” one of its operatives stated at the time.
And what is Byron Donalds’ sin? His 1997 drug bust, which he himself acknowledges in his campaign video? An admitted acceptance of a bribe in 2000? Nah, that’s just water under the bridge. His real crime is political heresy, which the Askar opposition team uncovered: In the past, Byron Donalds didn’t support Trump! In fact, he thought Trump was something of a jerk and said so. Imagine! Impure thoughts!
In a television ad approved by Askar, he brings up Donalds’ past opposition to Trump and Donalds’ tweets disparaging Trump and expressing relief when Trump announced in 2011 that he wouldn’t be running.
In the video, Donalds says: “My opponent, Casey Askar has decided to attack me, not on my conservative record, which started here in Southwest Florida with the Tea Party movement and he’s not attacking me on my conservative record in the Florida legislature, where I have stood up even to my own party to protect your constitutional Second Amendment rights.” He then goes on to rebut the attacks, attributing them to youth or to his existence in the days prior to Trump’s time as a politician.
To a skeptical outsider, the charges and countercharges sound like a metaphysical argument among Inquisition judges over who should be burned at the stake. But in the real world, the heat is rising because the candidates are fighting over a shrinking share of undecided Republican voters who will determine the primary winner.
However, given the rising passion, politics and friction, both Askar and Donalds may spontaneously combust well before August 18.
Figlesthaler assumes human form
In his campaign ads Dr. William Figlesthaler has played different roles: He’s been the angry Dr. Zhivago populist in a white lab coat. He’s been the Knight Trumplar on his iron steed, doing battle with the goblins of the left. He’s been the Grim Reaper stalking down corridors like a crazed Jack Torrance in The Shining.
But viewers knew something had changed when he shaved off his signature five o’clock shadow and stopped snarling at the camera.
In his first post-shave video, “A Legacy of Success,” issued on July 7, Figlesthaler touted his past successes in a way strongly reminiscent of Askar’s ads. He even tried to smile. Still, it was strange seeing him shorn and in the end his face seemed flat and featureless, like a botoxed balloon. (Bad lighting on that last shot, guys!)
In his latest video, Figlesthaler tries to be…human. It’s called “Just a Regular Guy.” After all his larger-than-life personas in his previous ads, this time he’s just a salt of the earth papa.
In the video he throws around a football in a field with a young boy—presumably his grandson—and he tells viewers he’s just a regular guy like everyone else.
The ad seemed eerily familiar to this viewer. Where had this scenario appeared before?
Does anyone remember back to 2003 and an ad for a drug called Levitra?
In that TV spot a middle-aged man enters a garage and sees an old football. He picks it up, goes in the backyard and throws it, trying to send it through the center of a tire hanging from a tree. At first he misses.
The narrator intones: “Sometimes you need a little help staying in the game.” The name of Levitra, a male enhancement drug, pops up. The ad, until then in black and white, suddenly goes to color.
Now the man has energy. He’s running around the backyard, throwing the football through the tire—again and again and again.
His wife (presumably?) comes to the door and sees him active and energetic. She joins him in the backyard. They’re happy, snuggly and kissy-faced.
It’s a metaphor!!! Get it?
A newly energized Levitra Man makes a score. (Image: YouTube)
On the one hand the similarities between Figlesthaler’s ad and the Levitra ad (“Staying in the Game,” its proper title) might have been inadvertent. Perhaps his video production company is staffed by people too young to remember Levitra Man.
But “Just a Regular Guy” comes at a time when Figlesthaler’s campaign is being blasted as nothing more than a mid-life crisis on the website Freaky Fig, posted by…wait for it…Honesty America PAC, the same one attacking Byron Donalds to the advantage of Casey Askar.
Figlesthaler has pledged to keep fighting to the bitter end in the video “Everything I’ve Got.” He’s certainly staying in the game—financially.
Not to abandon objectivity or favor any particular campaign here, but maybe Figlesthaler would benefit from addressing genuine policy issues and the real legislative needs of Southwest Florida? He is, after all, running for the United States Congress. But understanding those would take work.
Meanwhile, as of today, there are 32 days until Primary Day.
And remember: There are Democrats to vote for in November.
Dr. William Figlesthaler and Matthew Hurley in happier times. (Image: NBC2)
July 2, 2020 by David Silverberg
If you’ve been preoccupied with the resurgence of coronavirus in Florida, the breakdown of the state unemployment system, protests and reactions and the general collapse of civilization, you could be forgiven for overlooking the schemes and scandals of Southwest Florida’s local politics, of which there has been a bumper crop.
So here, for those who might have missed them and would like to catch up, is a roundup of some of the seamier stories that have burst on the airwaves and Internets this summer.
Figlesthaler’s news—fake and otherwise
This one belongs to political reporter Dave Elias of NBC2, who has been peeling back layers of denial and obfuscation toward something that may be much bigger and badder than first reported.
On June 22, Elias reported that Matthew Hurley, a campaign staffer with Dr. William Figlesthaler, a Republican congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District, had been arrested for contempt of court charges in a business contract dispute unrelated to the campaign.
Figlesthaler didn’t just deny that Hurley was with his campaign, he went all-Trump on Elias and the story. In a statement, he claimed to be “the overwhelming front runners (sic) in the race” (absolutely not true), accused NBC2 of being “fake news media [that] utilized lies and distortions to attack our campaign and promote their anti-Conservative, anti-Trump, anti-America message,” (that honor belongs only to The Paradise Progressive) and accused Elias of being “a long-time liberal activist, open borders proponent, and self-proclaimed Never Trumper” who attacks “real America First Conservatives” (totally untrue).
But the real essence of Figlesthaler’s attack and the person against whom he leveled real accusations was one of Elias’ on-air sources, a woman named JoAnn Debartolo.
“Elias’ only so-called ‘source’ in his hit piece was well known political extortionist JoAnn Debartolo,” Figlesthaler stated. “JoAnn has for years preyed on independently wealthy individuals to pay her personal bills and mortgage. In March of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, JoAnn attempted to extort my campaign for more than $50,000 in cash. When I refused to pay her, she quickly aligned with one of my deep-pocketed opponents in an attempt to spread lies about our campaign.”
Debartolo is a long-time Collier County Republican activist who was approached to join Figlesthaler’s campaign and turned him down—and provided Elias with the proposed contract to prove it.
(Debartolo is on this year’s Republican Party primary ballot for the position of state committeewoman. On June 20, Roger Stone—yes, that Roger Stone—endorsed Debartalo as a “conservative Trump supporter” over her opponent in a 41-second YouTube video.)
The story featured statements by competing Republican candidates Darren Aquino, Christy McLaughlin, Casey Askar and state Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral) attesting that they were all approached by Hurley on behalf of Figlesthaler’s campaign—either in Hurley’s capacity as a campaign worker or in an effort to get them to drop out (Aquino).
Elias’ report also revealed that: “Lawsuits show Hurley owes thousands of dollars in civil lawsuits and has not paid them. A judge has ordered them paid and an arrest document lists Figlesthaler’s campaign as a possible employer to garnish wages.”
As of this writing, there have been no further reports by Elias on the Figlesthaler-Hurley relationship. However, Elias had solid evidence for all his reporting and his work to date seems to hint at something deeper.
At the very least, Figlesthaler’s Trump-like reactions of blame, denial and accusation to the stories indicate the kind of congressman he would be if elected to represent Southwest Florida in the House of Representatives—and he’s running on a “drain the swamp” platform, no less.
Much more is likely to come on this story. Stay tuned!
The origins of Askar’s millions
In the 19th Congressional District race, businessman Casey Askar rocketed to the front of the Republican pack on the strength of a $3 million personal loan to his campaign.
But now it appears that $3 million may not have come out of his own pocket.
The complaint was filed by Stan Carter, a conservative activist in St. James City (on the southern tip of Pine Island, in the 19th Congressional District). Carter told the FEC that the loan “reeks of fraud to the highest degree.”
While ostensibly a business loan made to several individuals, Carter suggested that it was really a personal loan by the bank’s president to Askar.
Kristin Davison, a consultant with the Askar campaign, told Ogles that the loan came from a line of credit Askar had through Northern Trust for years. Money was drawn from the account before Askar filed for Congress and he then loaned it to the campaign.
“The bank didn’t loan money to the campaign,” she said. “Casey has a line of credit. Those are his personal funds.”
The fact that the original business loan was made to several individuals meant that the money was not Askar’s alone to lend to his campaign, thus violating campaign finance rules, according to Carter.
“Of course, banks are conscious of the stringent regulations surrounding campaign finance, and they would be all the more conscious of those regulations when lending a figure as large as $3,000,000,” Carter wrote. “However, Northern Bank & Trust Company blatantly ignored these regulations. Why? Because Kousay ‘Casey’ Askar conspired with the President & CEO of Northern Bank & Trust Company, James Mawn, to receive the fraudulent loan.”
As Ogles put it in his article: “The FEC complaint itself focuses on Askar’s loan, suggesting a bank with no personal ties to Askar would never grant such a low-risk deal to a first-time political candidate and saying the way the money was directed into the campaign account was unlawful.”
Northern Bank & Trust did not return Ogles’ calls before the article’s publication.
In response to a question from The Paradise Progressive, a FEC official confirmed that the complaint had been received at the federal agency but FEC rules prohibited her from providing further details of the proceeding.
Carter’s complaint did highlight something that is now being used against Askar by his Republican opponents: his Iraqi immigrant origins and the fact that his birth name was Qusay (قصي or Kousay, as his critics prefer to spell it). Askar seems to be hitting back with a new video ad that again focuses on his faith and immigrant roots—and allegiance to Trump—called “Time to fight back.” It takes aim at the usual liberal targets—but also, it seems, his Republican tormentors.
No sooner had state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers) abandoned her quest for the 19th Congressional District House seat and staked a claim on the state Senate seat representing the 27th District (basically, Lee County) than her opponents opened up with all guns blazing.
Her bid outraged fellow Republicans in the Florida Senate, who didn’t want her in a primary race against a fellow Republican, didn’t like her political moderation and thought she was too cozy with a powerful Democratic lawmaker.
The result was a 30-second TV ad whose female narrator intones: “Planned Parenthood’s favorite politician? Nancy Pelosi? Nope, Heather Fitzenhagen.” As this is said, Pelosi’s face morphs into Fitzenhagen’s. The ad attacks Fitzenhagen for a variety of conservative heresies like opposing Trump and being liberal but most particularly her stance on choice.
The metamorphosis of Heather Fitzenhagen, according to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. (Images: FRSCC)
Produced by Isaac Communications of Jacksonville, the ad is sponsored by the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which urges viewers to vote for Fitzenhagen’s primary opponent: State Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Sanibel, Pine Island, Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs). It’s also supported by state Sens. Debbie Mayfield (R-17) and Gayle Harrell, (R-83), all of whom approved it, as it says in the fine print at the end.
Whenever the ad runs on local television stations it’s paired with a 30-second pro-Rodrigues ad that touts his conservative credentials.
Of course there is a Democratic alternative to the 27th Senate District Republicans: Democrat Rachel Brown, a Naples native. And running for the seat Rodrigues is vacating is Democrat Anselm Weber. Both first-time candidates are campaigning as progressives trying to bring change to Southwest Florida.
Ogles reported on June 16 that state Sen. Gary Farmer (D-34) representing eastern Broward County, urged Brown not to run so that Democrats could vote in an open Republican primary and elect the more moderate Fitzenhagen. However, Brown refused.
“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?” Brown told Ogles. “And how can I take a backroom deal that represents the behavior I’m fighting to end?”
Democrats Rachel Brown and Anselm Weber. (Photo: The Daily Kos)
McCarthyism makes a comeback
In case you didn’t enjoy the first round of McCarthyism when Sen. Joe Mc
Carthy (R-Wis.) was active in the 1950s, or if you missed it entirely (like this author) you have a second chance to see it right here in Southwest Florida.
That’s because Darren Aquino, a retired actor formerly of New York and now a Republican congressional candidate, is raising the old “Communist” canard—and like McCarthy, is doing so without any basis in fact, evidence or truth.
Aquino’s far fringe campaign consists almost entirely of tweets leveling insults and spitting hate against everyone around him. He calls Casey Askar a “snake” because he’s an immigrant and not a “natural-born citizen” and Aquino wants to make immigrants ineligible to serve in Congress. He also thinks America is headed for civil war and it’s time to pick a side. He despises refugees, Democrats, and other fellow Republicans (he calls Dane Eagle a Republican in Name Only and Sen.Marco Rubio a Never-Trumper, etc.) He even wants Bubba Wallace thrown out of NASCAR. And, of course, WINK News is fake news in his eyes.
But Aquino’s “communist” attack was leveled against Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai, whom he first called a “socialist” but then decided to change into “communist” after she called for removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in downtown Fort Myers.
Aquino’s hysteria would be laughable on the face of it but on June 23 he went on to call for Florida Gulf Coast University to fire Banyai as an adjunct professor because of her views.
The attack is reminiscent of Joe McCarthy’s baseless personal smears and the professional price people paid when targeted by him and his assistant Roy Cohn. Aquino is the only SWFL candidate in any race who is attacking another candidate’s livelihood.
At the moment there’s no indication that anyone—including FGCU—is taking Aquino seriously.
Aquino’s bitter McCarthyist revival seems destined to end up in the dustbin of history. As Karl Marx once pointed out, history sometimes happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Dane Eagle takes aim in his latest campaign video. (Image: Dane Eagle for Congress)
June 24, 2020 by David Silverberg.
Antifa, rampaging Democrats and George Soros are banging at the gates, defiling churches and about to murder you in your bed—right here in Southwest Florida, this hotbed of anarchy and insurrection.
That, at least, is the impression three local Republican congressional candidates are creating with a blitz of videos released over the past two weeks by their campaigns.
The videos are now on the Internet, and while they haven’t yet been broadcast on local television, they may soon be.
All were clearly made during the initial days of outrage over the murder of George Floyd. All reflect President Donald Trump’s initial characterizations of the resulting protests.
Each is also in competition with the other, intended to differentiate its candidate from the nine candidates running for the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Francis Rooney in the 19th Congressional District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island.
Most of all, each video attempts to one-up the other, each displaying a mounting sense of extremism, hysteria and paranoia.
Casey Askar and “Home of the Brave”
Casey Askar in his June 12 video. (Image: Casey Askar for Congress)
Casey Askar started the stampede on June 12 with his 30-second video called, “Home of the Brave.”
It’s narrated by Askar, who intones over a variety of visuals: “Our president is under attack from the media, government bureaucrats and radical socialists and violent anarchists. They’re desperate to destroy him because in spite of all their lies and conspiracies, lockdowns and riots, President Trump is fighting to keep America the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Askar then appears and says he’s running for Congress “to stand with President Donald Trump” and pledges to “always have the president’s back.”
William Figlesthaler gives his all
Dr. William Figlesthaler calls the Democratic Party “a criminal enterprise.” (Image: Figlesthaler for Congress)
Apparently worried that he’d be left behind as a Trump defender, on June 14 Figlesthaler issued his latest 30-second spot. Titled “Everything I’ve got,” it tries to go at least one level better—or lower—than Askar’s ad.
After introducing himself, Figlesthaler says “America is “at its greatest crossroads yet,” over visuals of House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) ripping up Trump’s State of the Union speech.
Against a backdrop of rioting and burning buildings Figlesthaler continues: “The Democrat Party has transformed into a criminal enterprise that is destroying our country from within: trampling the Constitution, defunding our first responders and wreaking havoc on our churches and businesses.”
It’s not the time to send “weak leaders to Washington,” he says, and he’ll fight “the radical left” with “everything I’ve got—you can count on it.”
The video gives off a whiff of desperation; Figlesthaler seems not only committing to the political fight but committing to continue what appears to be a faltering political campaign right up to the end.
Dane Eagle on the firing line
Dane Eagle is ready to take his shot. (Image: Dane Eagle for Congress)
On June 18, state Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral) entered the fray with his own march to the margins, a 1-minute video called “Stop Antifa.”
“Antifa terrorists have declared war on our country,” he declares. “They’re killing our police, looting our businesses, assaulting the elderly and burning our churches. To make matters worse, the Democrats are doing nothing to stop them. In fact, they’re doing just the opposite: Biden and Hollywood elites are bailing the terrorists out of jail. AOC and the squad are organizing the riots, and Nancy Pelosi is cheering them on.”
Eagle then introduces himself and says that he’s running for Congress “because we cannot continue to let the radical left continue to destroy our country.” He wants law and order, arrests of all Antifa terrorists, investigations of those who are funding them (with a picture of George Soros) and their sympathizers voted out of office (with a picture of a laughing Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi).
“If we do not do that, everything we love about America is at risk: our freedoms, our jobs, our safety—all of that—is at stake. I’m Dane Eagle and I approved this message,” he says amidst swelling music. Wearing ear and eye coverings, he then turns down a shooting range and squeezes off three shots from a pistol. The visual ends before the viewer can see the target or his marksmanship.
Analysis: Firing their shots
On the one hand, any thinking person might laugh off this kind of exaggeration as the hyperbole of a campaign season. To the best of anyone’s ability to determine, there’s no Antifa in Southwest Florida (at least none that’s been publicly identified), there’s been none of the isolated destruction that plagued early protests elsewhere and the initial outrage over the death of George Floyd is calming as serious people get to work on serious reforms.
Of course, that’s not what prompted these videos. There’s a strong element of one-upsmanship as each candidate tries to appeal to a very small base of likely Republican primary voters.
But they’re doing it by stoking paranoia and “hatred, prejudice and rage,” to use Donald Trump’s own words.
It’s also interesting that only Askar mentions Trump in his video. The other two mainly lash out at perceived enemies.
Of the three, the Eagle video is the most problematic because it literally ends with gunfire.
There are several elements at work here. One is that Eagle has had a gun problem since he announced his run for Congress in October of last year. Since he served as the Florida state House Majority Leader, he is blamed by pro-gun advocates for the gun restriction reforms passed in Florida in the wake of the Parkland mass shooting in 2018. He takes continuous fire from the right for passage of these reforms. He has been accused of bowing to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push for gun violence reform and by implication taking his money.
As a result, he’s made a point of his support for gun ownership and always includes gunfire in his videos.
Opening up with an automatic weapon in Dane Eagle’s first announcement video. (Image: Dane Eagle for Congress)
But in his current video the hysteria builds to a crescendo and then Eagle blasts away. A clear inference can be made that he’s encouraging the shooting of the enemies he’s identified: protesters, Democrats and phantom terrorists. Nor is it a great leap of imagination to envision some impressionable souls following his example—except not on a gun range but at demonstrators or on a street.
Aside from this video’s potential incitement to gun violence, Eagle runs the risk of civil or criminal liability as an accessory before the fact if there’s a politically motivated shooting anywhere in Southwest Florida. It wouldn’t take much for a prosecutor or plaintiff to connect to Eagle if a perpetrator’s viewing of the video can be established.
This liability could also extend to local television stations should they run the video as a broadcast commercial. It might be a wise course for them to reject any such advertisement if offered.
Ultimately, all these videos and the entire tenor of the Republican primary campaign to date reflect the erosion of a common language for civilized political dialogue. This can entirely be laid at the feet of Donald Trump’s absolutist, brutalist, win-at-all-costs, demonizing, denigrating approach to politics. We see it at the national level and now we’re seeing it in Southwest Florida.
Of course, the ultimate outcome of this turkey shoot will arrive on Primary Election Day, Aug. 18.
Hopefully we can all get there without anyone being shot.
Breakdown of the findings of the first open poll of the Republican primary race in Southwest Florida.
June 2, 2020 by David Silverberg.
Updated at 3:45 pm with additional data
A poll by an independent polling firm, Political Prowess Polling, has Republican congressional candidate Casey Askar polling equally with former actor Darren Aquino in the 19th Congressional District Republican primary race.
However, the real prize that will determine the winner of the Aug. 18 Republican primary will be winning over the 27 percent of undecided voters it found.
Key findings, according to the poll’s executive summary:
Undecideds are leading the way.
Recent events have skyrocketed Aquino & Askar.
Some analysts are predicting [State Rep. Dane] Eagle [R-77-Cape Coral] to rise to the top of the polls.
Under 30% of voters chose any of the four sitting politicians in the race.
Indecisive voters could make the difference for Darren Aquino or Casey Askar.
The poll was first reported in part today by The Paradise Progressive in the article “SWFL State of Play Today.” Subsequent to the posting of that report, Aaron Montgomery, the firm’s strategic polling coordinator, contacted The Paradise Progressive with new details.
The poll was conducted by robocall on May 27 and 28 among 800 registered Republicans likely to vote in the primary. It has a margin of error of 3.2 percent.
It was not conducted on behalf of any candidate but rather was part of the firm’s 2020 Republican Primary Research Set, an independent series of studies on Republican primaries across the country, according to Montgomery.
Protesters at the Robert E. Lee statue–minus the bust–in Fort Myers yesterday, June 1. (Image: WINK News)
June 2, 2020 by David Silverberg.
Updated at 3:20 pm with new link to post with additional details on poll.
Even sleepy, sweltering Southwest Florida is feeling the impact of the death of George Floyd, with protests in Fort Myers and normally quiet Naples. Now candidates in the 19th Congressional District race are reacting as well.
Democrat Cindy Banyai is calling for removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Fort Myers, a point of contention since the protests in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
“Fort Myers was a Union fort and the county was named after General Robert E. Lee as a direct affront to the victory of the United States over the confederate rebellion in the Civil War,” she wrote in a statement issued yesterday, June 1. “Robert E. Lee has no other affiliation with the area other than the honorary designation and the commission of the statue by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1966, a time period that coincides with the desegregation movement in the area.”
Though protesters gathered yesterday at the statue they found only the pedestal—the bust had been removed by Sons of the Confederacy to protect it.
In her statement, Banyai decried past racism. “Local, state, and national leaders have failed to protect our black communities. Local leaders are more focused on helping themselves than helping the communities they serve, something I have seen repeatedly over the past decade as I have watched leaders disregard reports I have made on minority communities as nothing more than just a piece of paper that they use to cross off their checklists. Politicians want to demean protesters, yet they don’t offer any solutions to the problems at hand of systemic racism and police brutality.”
Unsurprisingly, one Republican candidate took a different tack. “President @realDonaldTrump is right. Rioters dishonor the memory of George Floyd,” tweeted State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral) on Sunday, May 31. “A president has a duty is to make sure Americans and their communities are safe. That’s why I know Mr. Trump will end the violence while protecting the 1st Amendment rights of protesters!”
That protection of protesters’ rights was not much in evidence yesterday during President Donald Trump’s walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church or in his call with governors.
Eagle’s fealty to Trump has been loud and extravagant but it hasn’t made much headway with Southwest Florida Republicans, according to a campaign poll obtained by The Paradise Progressive.
The poll found that the two leading primary candidates right now are businessman Casey Askar and former actor Darren Aquino, who each had 18 percent of the support of the sample. The next candidate was Dr. William Figlesthaler with 10 percent. Eagle came in fourth with 9 percent.
As a whole, incumbent elected officials in the running won only 30 percent of the total sample.
Aquino, who might ordinarily have been only a marginal candidate, has apparently seen his standing boosted by recent events. In a campaign that is primarily Internet-based, Aquino has increasingly used Trump-like insults. He accused Banyai of being a socialist and in a swipe at Askar called for only native-born Americans to be eligible for congressional seats.
The poll’s most important finding is that 27 percent of its sample fell in the “undecided” category. This is where the battle will be fought in the days ahead.
Askar and Figlesthaler seek closure–border closure
As far as the public is concerned the most obvious signs of political battle are in the dueling TV ads of Askar and Figlesthaler, the two wealthiest candidates.
On May 22 Askar unveiled his 30-second TV spot, “Once and for all,” calling for a suspension of immigration because of the COVID-19 pandemic, praising Trump for his immigration policies and re-stating Askar’s support for building a border wall.
“I’ll help President Trump finish the wall and control the border—once and for all,” says Askar at the end.
Not to be outdone in his opposition to immigration and loyalty to Trump, yesterday, June 1, Figlesthaler launched his own spot, “The Wall.” In it, he marches menacingly toward the camera and promises to end illegal immigration for all time.
“In Congress I will fight for something new,” he says. “A massive wall along our southern border, one that will keep criminals, rapists and drug lords out for good.”
“Once and for all” and “out for good”—one might say that when it comes to immigration, both are offering a “final solution.”
Republican congressional candidate Casey Askar. (Photo: Casey Askar for Congress campaign)
May 15, 2020 by David Silverberg.
Why would a man making a great deal of money with a successful business in a specialized field want to subject himself to the expense, uncertainty and scrutiny of running for the Congress of the United States?
Ask Casey Askar, because back on March 20, just as the coronavirus pandemic was breaking, he waded into the warm, swampy waters of Southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District as a candidate for the US House of Representatives.
Askar might have been counted as just one of 10 Republican contenders elbowing each other for a shot at Rep. Francis Rooney’s seat except that he decided to put serious skin in the game. In the first quarter of 2020 he gave his own campaign a $3 million loan on top of $506,230 in campaign contributions.
Askar might not have been considered a serious contender based on his personal profile, civic involvement or policy positions but that kind of money made him the best-financed candidate in the 19th District. It means he has to be taken seriously if only for the cash alone.
A television ad for Askar is now running on local TV stations, so voters are likely hearing his name for the first time.
So, who is Casey Askar, who is supporting him, what would he mean for Southwest Florida and what are his chances of winning?
Officially, Askar’s is an immigrant success story. He tells it in a campaign video and on his website.
At age 7 he and his family fled their home in Iraq because of persecution of Christians. Although he doesn’t give a year for this exodus, Askar does reference Saddam Hussein.
Saddam Hussein is gone, hanged after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it’s worth remembering his dictatorship to put Askar in context. Saddam was a brutal, absolute tyrant. An Arab nationalist, he promoted his interests first and on his own initiative mired his country in wars with Iran, Kuwait and the world’s countries, led by the United States. He divided Iraqis, oppressing Iraqi Shiites and at one point gassing Iraqi Kurds. So crushing was his tyranny that in 1989 an Iraqi dissident authored a book that summed up his reign in its title: Republic of Fear.
After getting to the United States, the Askar family opened a store, where Askar worked. At 18 he joined the US Marine Corps and when his father fell ill, as the oldest of four children, he became head of the household (although he doesn’t say at what age this occurred). He worked in the family store and saved up enough to buy a small gym. He was able to expand the gym and open up half a dozen locations around the country.
While his campaign biography does not mention his geographic roots in America, Askar’s base is Detroit, Michigan, which is home to a lively and active Middle Eastern immigrant population.
Oddly, he also doesn’t mention in his campaign biography that along the way he obtained a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School (perhaps as a veteran’s benefit?). He also never mentions his current age.
Early on, perhaps when he expanded the gym, Askar learned the magic of franchising. His fortune has been built on franchising and its associated specialty, branding. And its foundation was…pizza.
“I had a vast array of business and franchise experience from early on in my career. In 2006, I was given the opportunity to buy Detroit-based Papa Romano’s and I was instantly hooked on pizza concepts,” he told the website Franchise Chatter in 2015. “Pizza is consumed in the US on such a large sale, and we know it’s not going away any time soon – there’s tremendous staying power. Being involved in the pizza industry as a franchisor is a great opportunity because there are simple operational processes that allow you to master the system.”
After Papa Romano’s, his company, Askar Brands, purchased one new pizza “concept” every year until 2010 and expanded the ones it already had. By 2015 it had 200 pizza “units.”
It also shared its expertise with other small, regional pizza chains, helping them expand.
“Our biggest success story comes with Denver-based Blackjack Pizza, which we acquired in 2012. This was an attractive company to us because it was a successful, homegrown, regional brand,” Askar recalled in the interview. “We retained many of Blackjack’s original employees and have been able to apply our operational resources and expertise to turn Blackjack Pizza into one of the most popular pizza concepts in the western US states.”
Today Askar Brands, where Askar is president and Board chairman while his brother Sam is chief executive officer, lists seven restaurant chains in its portfolio: Papa Romano’s, Papa’s Pizza, Breadeaux Pizza, Blackjack Pizza, Mr. Pita, Stucchi’s and CJs Brewing Company. Most, though not all, are based in the upper Midwest, and Detroit, Michigan area.
In addition to brands, Askar built companies to support restaurant chains and franchisees and owned and managed commercial real estate.
In February of this year, using proceeds from fossil fuel investments he sold, Askar formed Southeast Enterprises Holdings to purchase 47 Dunkin’ Donuts (since re-named just Dunkin’) stores in the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach markets in Florida. He also laid plans to expand the franchise throughout South Florida.
“As we did our research, our data really showed where Dunkin’ has been going and their trajectory continues to go up,” Askar told Laura Layden of the Naples Daily News.
Askar didn’t reveal when—or if—he moved full-time to Southwest Florida, although he has been characterized as a resident of Naples. He and his six children attend St. Ann’s Church and he is involved in a variety of schools and civic organizations, including Ave Maria University.
For all of his business success and philanthropic activities, Askar has no record of political involvement, legislative experience or even political donations of any kind.
So naturally, it made sense to run for Congress.
To fill in some of the gaps in Askar’s biography, on April 23, The Paradise Progressive submitted questions to Askar in an e-mail to his campaign.
What is your age? (Does not appear on your website or Facebook page)
Have you ever held an elected or appointed governmental position?
Do you have any legislative experience?
Are you a full-time Floridian and do you live in the 19th Congressional District? (If you want to be more specific about your place of residence that will be welcome—I’m refraining from asking your street address).
No response has been received—and none is expected.
When Askar filed his 2020 campaign report with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for the first quarter of the year, it was impressive and not just for the $3 million personal loan he’d made to his campaign.
Clearly, he’d been busy. He had 270 donations that netted him $506,230. Some of these donors contributed to both his primary and general election races, so there were fewer donors than donations (i.e., the same person contributed twice). Also, members of the extensive Askar clan kicked in as well. Notwithstanding these factors, it was an impressive range of donations and even more impressive than the amount was the nature of the contributors.
Unlike some of his rivals, the majority—102, or 62 percent—came from Florida, which indicated some grassroots support that could translate into votes at the polls. Unsurprisingly, given his origin and business interests, the next largest portion—28 percent—came from Michigan. Of his Florida contributions, the vast majority, 65 percent, came from Naples in Collier County. There was little representation of Lee County, where only three donors were based in Fort Myers, seven in Bonita Springs and two in Estero.
Despite his newcomer status on the political scene, Askar had been laying the groundwork for some time among his business friends, franchisees and acquaintances.
There were some local A-list business types supporting Askar’s bid. Chief among these was Rocky Patel, the restauranteur, cigar entrepreneur and owner of the high-end cigar bar “Burn,” which has an outlet in Naples’ Mercato mall (currently closed during the pandemic). Not only did Rocky himself contribute to Askar, so did the top managers of his entire organization. Another standout name was Todd Gates, owner of Gates Construction, which has done extensive work in Southwest Florida.
It’s clear that Askar is the business candidate in the District 19 race. He’s also a Republican “Young Gun,” part of a candidate recruitment program run by House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.). It may have been this organization that recruited and urged Askar to run for Congress.
When he filed his FEC report Askar hadn’t spent much yet. He paid the state’s $10,440 filing fee to get on the ballot and he paid $12,916.21 to Winred, a national, online conservative fundraising organization also being used by other District 19 Republican candidates. There was no mention of staff salaries or consultant fees.
To clarify Askar’s candidacy, these questions were submitted to the Casey Askar campaign on April 23:
I’ve reviewed your website and personal story. What, however, do you feel specifically qualifies you to represent Southwest Florida?
Why are you a better a candidate to serve SWFL in Congress than any of the other candidates running?
No answer has been received.
When he first announced his candidacy, Askar was a simple, two-dimensional Trumper. His main plank was that he stood with President Donald Trump. He made no mention or had any apparent interest in local issues.
Since then (and following questions from The Paradise Progressive, below), Askar and his campaign consultants have filled out some of his policy positions. He’s pro-Trump but otherwise his policy positions are standard, conventional, conservativism.
He’s also bought television air time and his ad campaign not only expresses support for Trump, he also makes a point of blaming China for the COVID-19 outbreak. In the ad, while a blot of red spreads out from China across the globe, Askar intones, “China unleashed the Wuhan pandemic on the world, costing trillions, costing jobs, costing American lives.” Then he appears on the screen and says “This crisis proves that President Trump is right” and expresses support for all of Trump’s positions. The ad is called “China must pay, America must rebuild.”
On other issues he decries government spending. “Washington’s problem is not that it taxes too little, but that it spends too much,” his website states. He’s anti-choice; pro-gun; pro-border wall; pro-lower prescription drug prices; pro-veterans; anti-China; pro-Israel; and pro-religious freedom.
His only mention of a local issue is water quality where he calls for full funding of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and completion of its projects. Weirdly, he calls for “completion” of the Everglades Agricultural Area, which is not a project but a special area south of Lake Okeechobee established by Florida in 1948. (This reference may be the result of ignorance, carelessness, bad staff work or all of the above.)
To clarify Askar’s political positions, in its April 23 message to the Askar campaign The Paradise Progressive posed the following questions:
What do you regard as the primary interests of Southwest Florida vis-à-vis the federal government?
Do you believe that climate change is induced by human activity?
What committee assignments would you pursue in Congress?
If you were in Congress right now, what specific actions would you take to serve SWFL regarding the Coronavirus pandemic?
When the 117th Congress takes office in January 2021, the United States is likely to be in the midst of a deep economic downturn, even a depression. As the member of Congress from the 19th Congressional District, what would you specifically do at the federal level to support, sustain and improve the economy of Southwest Florida?
What specific actions would you take in Congress to advance CERP and ensure that Florida and SWFL receives its full, contracted appropriation?
What specific actions would you take in Congress to prevent oil exploitation off the Southwest Florida coast?
What specific actions would you take in Congress to advance work done to date to prevent harmful algal blooms?
If the election is held as scheduled, there is a high probability that you would serve in a Democratic House of Representatives. What specific actions would you take to work with a Democratic majority?
To date no answers have been received—and none are expected.
So what are Askar’s chances and what would his election to Congress mean for Southwest Florida?
The crumbling crust
The only thing that makes Askar a credible candidate in the 19th Congressional District is his cash; otherwise he would not be a factor in this election.
The fact that the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown has stopped all forms of in-person campaigning means that campaigns are now almost completely reliant on digital or broadcast media, with the latter being more powerful. However, it is also very expensive.
In the past Askar’s lack of a public profile, endorsements, political networks, field organization, volunteers and infrastructure might have crippled his campaign. Now he has to be considered the front runner if only because he has the potential means to blanket the airwaves. That, plus the cost of consultants and paid campaign workers, is going to make this a very expensive project for him.
But as COVID-19 has given to Askar with one hand, it may have also taken away with the other. One has to wonder about the state of a business empire built on casual, seated dining, which is the kind of enterprise most impacted by the pandemic lockdowns. And this is especially true for pizza, where Askar’s dining-in restaurant chains are up against dedicated take-out “concepts” like Domino’s. What is more, the lockdowns are especially stringent in Michigan, where the majority of Askar’s businesses are based. The pandemic has also completely disrupted the restaurant supply chain and delivered a blow against the kind of commercial real estate and rental holdings in his empire. Keeping what he’s built is going to take care and attention. Of course, only his accountant knows for sure.
These factors are also going to affect his donors, some of whom are restauranteurs, reducing their future donations.
Right now his investment in South Florida Dunkin’ franchises looks like prescient move—but he may also regret making that $3 million campaign loan, which could have been used to save jobs and keep units functioning.
The bottom line is that Askar may not be as rich a candidate as he was when he closed his FEC campaign books on March 31. And he has to ask himself whether pursuing a $174,000 annual salary as a member of Congress is worth turning away from a business empire it took him a lifetime to build and which needs his management now. Then again, he’s got plenty of relatives to look after it.
Joining the sad parade
The likelihood is that Askar was recruited by Rep. McCarthy’s Republican Young Guns. One can almost hear the pitch: “You’re an attractive candidate with a biography of business success and military service. You’ll have an easy run in a safely Republican district, backed by the Republican National Congressional Committee and its donor network. You’re from the Midwest and so are most of the voters who will vote in the primary. All you have to do is win the primary, which is decided by a few old people who automatically vote Republican. You’ll be able to buy them with some TV spots. It’ll be a cakewalk: no muss, fuss or mess.”
Of course, the nine other Republican candidates running might beg to disagree.
But unconsidered in this are the interests of Southwest Florida. With Askar the region and its people would get yet another rich but untutored congressional representative, an alleged “outsider” with no knowledge of Congress, legislation, politics or government. (To read the full history of the 19th Congressional District’s representation in Congress, see the article “A tale of two swamps: Why Southwest Florida can’t keep its congressmen.”)
Askar would join a sad parade of wealthy Southwest Florida businessmen who ran as outsiders, ignorant of government and proud of their ignorance, who foundered once they arrived in the nation’s capital.
Thinking that they’d be treated like imperial CEOs, these men discovered they were really just foot soldiers and cannon fodder. When the heady buzz of election victory and the novelty of putting “Rep.” in front of their names wore off, they faced tough choices and the real pressures of governing. Their reactions were to withdraw from their congressional duties into absenteeism and retirement and not promote the region’s vital interests.
In the end, the real losers were the people of Southwest Florida.
The tragedy of Casey Askar
Despite these considerations, Askar has a relatively good chance of winning his primary—certainly as good, if not better, than his Republican competitors. But to at least get past the primary he’s got to win over the hardcore Trumpers in the District who are certain to vote in that primary regardless of plagues, hurricanes or infirmities. That means Askar has to continue to prove his total and undying loyalty to President Donald J. Trump.
And therein lays the tragedy of Casey Askar.
Casey Askar is an immigrant who thrived and succeeded in America and served her in uniform. He’s proud of his success and hard work and entrepreneurship as well he should be. Now he has a shot at reaching a new pinnacle in life by being elected a member of the United States House of Representatives.
But to do that he has to pledge his loyalty and vow to implement the program of a man dedicated to making sure that no one like Casey Askar will ever rise again. Trump is a man who despises immigrants like Casey Askar, whether they come to the United States legally or illegally, seeking a better life or just asylum.
If Donald Trump had been president when Casey Askar and his family left Iraq, they would have been shut out of America. They were coming from a largely Muslim country; they were poor; and they were fleeing a strong man, an autocrat, whom Trump would have likely admired. They would have been forced to wait for acceptance in some other country and the children might have been separated from the parents. They might have even been put in cages.
There’s no indication from any of his public sources that Askar is thinking deeply about the implications of what he’s doing and saying. There’s no sense that he’s pondering beyond just the next step in his campaign. What he does—what all candidates do—in the quest for public office has a profound effect on the future of America, whether they’re running for dog catcher or president.
Casey Askar, an Iraqi immigrant, is running to bolster the rule of a man who is profoundly anti-immigrant, instinctively anti-democratic, and deeply racist; a man who plays Americans off against each other and is driven by, to use his own words, “hatred, prejudice and rage.”
It is this man’s program that Askar is pledging to implement. If Askar wins on his current platform he will have a historic role in turning the open, tolerant America that welcomed and nurtured him into a closed, isolated society dominated by a single tyrant. He will be an accomplice in turning history’s greatest republic of reason into a third-rate republic of fear. Askar fled such a place before—it was called Iraq. Now, while celebrating his own success as an immigrant, he is running on a platform that will encourage, embolden and enable an American Saddam Hussein.
Is this what America really needs? And is this what Casey Askar really wants?