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Looking Back at an Eventful Week in Florida Politics

A week that began with commotion in Republican circles about whether or not a primary in the U.S. Senate race would help or hurt the party ended with the likelihood of a contested GOP nomination in the governor's race greatly diminished.

And if that happens, the expected general election campaign between Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink will begin now in earnest , yielding a full 18 months of Cabinet tit-for-tats.

At the beginning of the week, the Republican Party of Florida appeared to be ready to coronate Gov. Charlie Crist as the next Florida senator, and some suggested they might do the same for McCollum in his race for governor after he announced his campaign Monday. But that did not sit well with some county party chairs who said that the state party needs to avoid choosing sides so early in races that might have more than one viable candidate.

Several county Republican parties began following the lead of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, which held an emergency meeting late last week to adopt a resolution urging the party to stay out of the primaries. By week's end, state GOP chair Jim Greer relented.

Greer acknowledged the elephant in the room and said the party would be "neutral" in the primary. In a letter to state GOP members, Greer sought to squelch rumors that the party was considering invoking a rule that allows members to block a given candidate in a primary election if they deem the candidate unfit, canceling the primary race and allowing GOP insiders to decide the election.

However, Greer continued to make the case for the Republican Party to unite behind McCollum in the race to replace Crist as governor, saying Democrats would do the same for Sink and that "all rivers were flowing toward" the perennial GOP candidate.

That certainly was not music to the ears of another prominent potential gubernatorial candidate, Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, who complained about efforts to convince him to sit out the governor's race. But saying there might not be enough political money to go around in a down economy when his party will be seeking to win races for the U.S. Senate and governor, Bronson acknowledged the chorus and said late in the week that he would not run to replace Crist.

However, the central Florida rancher and former state senator said that he hasn't yet made an endorsement for the GOP primary and remained outspoken against efforts to avoid intra-party squabbles next year. But with Bronson now on the sidelines, it looks like there won't be any Republican scrimmages.

The campaigns of McCollum and Sink reacted accordingly this week, making their first few staff hires, choosing party veterans with experience in previous Florida races on both sides. McCollum hired Matt Williams to manage his campaign, who comes with a long resume that includes serving as campaign manager for U.S. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia when Cantor defeated Ben Jones - "Cooter" on the Dukes of Hazard.

McCollum also hired Greg Ungru as political director. Ungru was most recently working for the state party, where he was absentee ballot and early vote director, and deputy political director. Sink's staff so far includes Justin Day, who will be the campaign's political director, and spokeswoman Tara Klimek, who previously worked for Sink in the chief financial officer's office.

RING AROUND THE CAPITOL ROSEY

The political summer at the Capitol continued with more fallout this week from the reshuffled deck for the 2010 statewide races. With the majority of the Cabinet vacating their seats to run for higher office, more than a few senators started eyeing empty Cabinet chairs and a few House members began looking longingly at the Senate seats, it was another week of Capitol musical chairs.

In addition to Senate President Jeff Atwater announcing a CFO run, candidates began floating their names - or having them floated for them - to replace McCollum as AG. But while the governor's race drew candidates with lightning speed, it began to look this week like it could take a while for the attorney general's field to settle out.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has already hosted a pair of conference calls with three leading Democrats eyeing the race, opening a dialogue about each man's strengths and weaknesses, one of them, Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said this week. Republicans also are trying to assess the race, even after one of the party's potential candidates, George LeMieux, announced Wednesday that he wouldn't run.

LeMieux, a former chief-of-staff and campaign manager for Gov. Crist, leaves Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, as the most prominent Republicans considering a campaign. Also on the Republican side, House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon of Winter Park is being mentioned by many activists as a strong candidate for the seat being vacated by McCollum, though the man who's next in line to lead the House appears unlikely to give up the gavel that's safely in his hands for a risky race for the Cabinet.

With senators eyeing the Cabinet, House members quickly started jockeying for promotions to the upper chamber Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff said she would run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Atwater, and Rep. Carl Domino said he would too. Elsewhere, former state Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, joined the race to replace term-limited Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson, who is running for Congress in 2010.

Richardson, who represented Leon County in the House from 2000-2008, is the second former Democratic Leon County House member running to replace the 28-year Capital veteran Lawson. He will be joined in the race by former Rep. Loranne Ausley, whose tenure in the lower chamber matched Richardson's.

The musical chairs all added up to a week that was definitely not politics as usual, even for a city where politics is usually quite usual.

LOOKING TO THE DECIDERS

Many not running for office this week were busy arguing their case in front of panels that would decide their fate. Perhaps the biggest hearing came when the Florida Supreme Court waded into the question of whether Gov. Crist violated the constitution by not naming a judge to the Fifth District Court of Appeal in his quest to create a more diverse judiciary.

Last September, Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Robert Pleus informed Crist of his intention to retire in January, triggering the judicial nominating process, where a commission sends a list of names to the governor's office so he can appoint one to the bench. But the judicial nominating commission sent back a list that Crist didn't like. The governor said it was not diverse enough to reflect a growingly diverse state.

Twenty-six people had applied for the opening and the Fifth District Judicial Nominating Commission had forwarded six names to the governor. Four men, two women, all white. So Crist asked the JNC to try again, but the commission refused, saying it wasn't clear that it had the constitutional authority to change the list. So, the commission sent the same names back to Crist.

As the days went by - past the 60 days governors are typically allowed for appointing a judge - Pleus filed a lawsuit, asking the court to force the governor to make the appointment, leading to this week's court hearing. Only hearing oral arguments, the Court did not make a decision in the case, but justices seemed concerned about the precedent it could set if the governor could simply keep rejecting a list that he or she did not care for.

Across town, however, a decision was made in the case of whether second largest investor-owned power company in the state could temporarily charge its customers 41 cents more per month for each 1,000 kilowatts of electricity they use. Over the strong objection of consumer advocates and one member of the Public Service Commission, the regulators voted 4-1 on a series of measures that will allow Progress Energy Florida to temporarily increase its rates to pay for the expansion and maintenance of existing networks.

The votes came after hours of testimony from the company and the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers before the PSC and opposed a staff recommendation to increase rates on an interim basis while a permanent hike not favored by the staff is considered.

The temporary rate increase, which will take effect in July 2009, will bring in $13 million for Progress, which provides electricity in 35 counties in a 20,000 square mile coverage area. Per state law, the money will be credited back to consumers if the PSC decides not to make the interim rate increase permanent, though that may not make customers feel better when they open up their bills.

The PSC also approved a Progress Florida interim capital cost recovery request for switching four of its Bartow electricity generators from oil to natural gas. The recovery, which will be included in the company's pending permanent request, will increase customer's bills by $4.11 for each 1,000 kilowatts of electricity used per month.

The commission also ratified part of a $26 million a year increase requested by People's Gas in the Tampa Bay area that the company said it was seeking to counter increasing use of energy efficient appliances. The approved rate hike, which will take affect June 18, will increase gas bills by $2.82 for each 20 therms used per month and generate $7.3 million for the company.

A GLIMMER OF GOOD NEWS

The Capital weather was dreary much of this week, but on the economic front, there was a tiny bit of sunshine. The Agency for Workforce Innovation announced Friday that Florida’s unemployment rate for April dipped to 9.6 percent, falling 0.2 percentage points from March but still hovering way above last year.

The figure, which translated into 855,000 jobless out of a workforce of 9.8 million, is 4.0 percentage points higher than April 2008 and still exceeds the national average of 8.9 percent. The revised figure of 9.8 percent for March was the highest since 1976, when the state changed the methodology it uses to calculate unemployment.

But the slight tick upward from last month was enough for the state's optimist-in-chief to turn his economic frown upside down.

"I am pleased to see that the unemployment rate for the Sunshine State is changing direction – going down, instead of up,” Crist said after the numbers were released.

But even Gov. Sunshine knows the state is not completely out of the woods yet.

“While we don't know if this lower rate is a significant sign of a turnaround in our economy, it is certainly good news for the people of Florida, especially those who are struggling during this challenging time,” Crist said.

After a session that saw the Legislature faced with a $6 billion deficit, a 0.2 decrease in the state unemployment is definitely enough to pass for good news around the Capitol.

STORY OF THE WEEK: After a week of howling from the counties whose members compose the Republican Party of Florida, the party backed off a bit from its strong embrace of Gov. Charlie Crist in his U.S. Senate primary against former House Speaker Marco Rubio. But while the Senate primary is now apparently on, the governor's race appears headed to a foregone conclusion on both sides of the aisle.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Rule 11 letters are for the likes of David Duke, not for a former Speaker of the House," Hillsborough County GOP chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush explaining her party's decision to adopt a resolution urging state Republicans to stay out of the primaries.

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