Progressives are getting aggressive in Florida

And some more good news!

Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!

Syracuse is in the midst of an improbable run, with a big win over West Virginia tonight sending them to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. As a Cuse alum, I’m very excited… but also depressed that freshmen on the team were likely just entering elementary school when I graduated.

In other news, there’s a whole lot of politics and progressive activism to discuss, so let’s get to it!

Getting An Early Start In a Crucial Florida Race

As the ongoing battles over killing the filibuster and passing progressive policies have made painfully clear, having the thinnest of majorities in the United States Senate isn’t exactly conducive for getting big things done. The need to expand the Democratic Party’s majority is obvious, and while the president’s party is said to often lose midterm elections, there are some pretty winnable pickup opportunities for Democrats in 2022.

Off the bat, the obvious targets are Ron Johnson and the retiring Pat Toomey’s seats in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, respectively, as well as an open seat in North Carolina, where another retirement gives Democrats a better chance of winning. Republicans will also be defending Marco Rubio’s seat in Florida, and despite the state’s Republican sweep in 2020, his re-election is already shaping up to be an all-out war.

“Florida is trending red, but you also have to consider that in 2018, we nominated a young black ‘socialist’ under FBI investigation for governor and went into a recount because it was so close,” says Ben Pollara, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist, referring to Andrew Gillum, who was frequently accused of being a socialist by Republicans. “So it’s trending Republican, but it's not Missouri, which is a battleground in name only. To win Florida requires candidates to talk about issues, because there is a broad agreement on issues that, until the legislature gutted the process, passed in ballot initiatives.”

Pollara worked on many of those successful progressive ballot initiatives in Florida, including medical marijuana in 2016, voting rights restoration in 2018, and a $15 an hour minimum wage last year. Each initiative passed with more than 60% of the vote while Democrats — who largely distanced themselves from those policies — suffered heavy losses. The connection is more than casual — the one Democratic candidate to win a statewide election since 2016, Nikki Fried, championed progressive (and very mainstream) policies on her way to becoming the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“She was a Democrat running on a fairly progressive and issue-oriented agenda: weed, water, weapons,” Pollara says. “It was medical marijuana and hemp, keeping an eye on the sugar guys that nobody likes, and running the concealed weapons permitting process better. And we're actually doing it.”

Though Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has been receiving bizarrely and entirely misplaced glowing profiles from the national press of late, his manifold scandals — lying about the number of people that have died from COVID-19 in the state, racist distribution of vaccines, and a new bombshell on the unemployment system — give Democrats a few other major issues on which to harp come next year’s election, as well.

Not having Trump on the ballot will also help, largely neutralizing the former president’s local popularity and ability to turn out voters in unexpected places.

Still, the combined power of the Republican Party in a state with few campaign finance laws, cultural trends, and a Democratic Party trying to recover from a shambolic demise over the last half-decade, the path to victory has plenty of hurdles already. As we’ve covered here before, the Florida Democratic Party is in deep rebuilding mode, and its new leadership is not all that progressive, anyway. 

So just as state Rep. Anna Eskamani has started an ambitious grassroots voter registration effort, Pollara is leading a new organization called Retire Rubio, a Super PAC devoted to laying the groundwork for the senior senator’s defeat in 2022, then assisting the eventual Democratic nominee down the stretch.

Donate to Retire Rubio!

“We're trying to serve as a rapid response organization, not only on social media but also in the news, which we've managed to do a decent job of already,” Pollara says. “We also want to do the work that the Democratic Party has not done, which is early canvassing and meeting voters where they are. We're not going to win Florida if we don't start communicating with the Hispanic community.”

The Hispanic vote swung significantly toward Trump in Florida, especially in the Cuban-heavy areas of Miami, which not only helped him win the state but also proved crucial in knocking off Democratic Congresswomen Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powel. Pollara points to the vast infrastructure of Spanish-language right-wing radio stations in the Miami media market as a prime source of political disinformation, which spread like wildfire through the region last fall.

With that in mind, Retire Rubio’s next hire will be someone who can focus on Spanish-language media and outreach, a significant investment this early on necessitated by the Democratic Party’s inadequate effort to connect with Latino communities in 2020. To root out disinformation, earn the trust of voters, and win their favor, Retire Rubio is starting right away.

Right now, the group is financing ads around Rubio’s Miami-area district and has already cut several very hard-hitting viral videos attacking the senator for his hypocrisy. The output will continue, too, as Rubio, who Pollara blasts for cynically using the Pulse nightclub shooting as a way to get back into the Senate race in 2016 after his presidential ambitions flamed out, continues to give them plenty of material.

“He was famously part of the Gang of Eight on immigration, then disappeared as soon as it looked like it had a shot of passage,” Pollara says with clear disdain in his voice. “Marco cozied up to Trump supposedly to press the anti-Castro, anti-Maduro, anti-left wing dictators in Latin American case with Trump. He did that for four years like a sycophant and failed, and then it took less than 100 days for Joe Biden to grant TPS protections to refugees.”

Expect to see that in an ad sometime soon.

Donate to Retire Rubio!

Important News You Need to Know

Good News

Last weekend’s progress report with good news from various states turned out to be a big hit, so I’m going to make the headline a permanent fixture of this newsletter. It’s important to celebrate victories!

New York: While politics are complicated here in New York, the legislature, when not arguing over what to do about Gov. Andrew Cuomo, continues to advance progressive policy. The latest bill to pass is a big one: The Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement Act (or, somehow, HALT) would ban the use of solitary confinement to no more than 15 days in a row and eliminate it outright for vulnerable populations. The bill passed both the state Senate and the Assembly, so now it’s up to Andrew Cuomo, a man known for his compassion, to sign it into law.

Delaware: Democratic lawmakers are moving ahead on marijuana legalization, even if the governor is a buzzkill.

They’re also making progress on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, even though both of the state’s Democratic US senators voted against doing so. The state Senate approved the bill and now it heads to a somewhat more uphill battle in the (Democratic-controlled) state House. It could raise the wages of up to 122,000 workers, which is over a quarter of Delaware’s entire workforce.

New Mexico: The legislative session is wrapping up with some nice last-minute wins for progressive policies. They include:

  • Mandatory paid sick leave for workers, based on their time with an employer

  • An increased minimum wage for high school students, bringing it up from $8.50 to the state’s standard $10.50 an hour.

  • A special session was authorized today in order to finish marijuana legalization.

Voting Rights

Georgia: After a solid month of holding shady early morning hearings and spreading absurd falsehoods about voter fraud, those rascally racist Republicans in Georgia just pulled their most breathtaking con yet. On Wednesday, state Senate Republicans swapped out a two-page voter suppression bill and dropped in its place a 93-page voter suppression bill with more than 50 new clauses… just an hour before a scheduled hearing.

But here’s the thing — after the legislature spent a few days arguing and hearing from outraged voting rights advocates and a growing number of Georgia-based corporations being pressured into taking a stand, some of the worst elements of the initial bills that passed either chamber of the legislature have been eliminated.

Those include:

  • Eliminating Sunday voting (counties can now opt to provide polling places for both weekends of early voting)

  • Ending no-excuse absentee voting

On the downside, there is likely to be an absentee ballot voter ID requirement that does nothing but makes it harder for people of color and working people to vote as well as more state control of local elections, which could lead to some pretty terrible and underreported voter suppression.

Health Care

Colorado: While Medicare for All vs. a public option was a huge debate during the Democratic primary, it’s been somewhat back-burnered while the House has been passing a long list of progressive priorities and the Senate has sat around negotiating just how much institutional racism it should preserve. As a result, states have continued to take the lead on trying to patch up and modestly reform the health care system.

Late last week, Colorado legislators introduced a new bill that would institute a public health insurance option in the state… eventually. Possibly.

The law would have two phases. First, it would ask/encourage insurers to offer standardized plans and reduce costs by at least 20% by 2024. If they don’t comply (and c’mon, they won’t), the state will step in:

Phase two creates a quasi-governmental nonprofit called the Colorado Option Authority. If the health care industry can’t meet the goals laid out in Phase 1 of the bill, the nonprofit will offer its own insurance plan called the Colorado Health Insurance Option. The option would be at least 20% cheaper in each county than the average premium rates offered by private insurers.

Sounds a bit expensive for what we think of as a public option, but states only have so much money and maneuverability on this. So again, it’s really going to take the federal government to make this happen in any paradigm-shifting way.

And speaking of federal governments and states…

Help Is On The Way*

Florida: The state unemployment system in Florida has been a mess for years, having been purposely sabotaged by former Gov. Rick Scott, a true skullcrawler who believes that government spending should only benefit white-collar fraudsters. Last year, as millions of Floridians their jobs amid the pandemic, it became almost impossible for them to access the skimpy benefits that the state theoretically offered.

The misery experienced by so many out-of-work people was chalked up to the woefully outdated technology upon which the unemployment system was built, and while that certainly was a part of it, it turns out that Gov. Ron DeSantis and his GOP cronies were also purposely screwing people entirely out of the benefits that were supposed to be enhanced by the federal government.

Just as DeSantis has prioritized wealthy white communities with Florida’s vaccine rollout, he made sure that anyone that actually needed unemployment benefits was more likely to be excluded from receiving them. According to a major new story in the Tampa Bay Times, unemployment agency staff were required to flag applicants “who did not have a working vehicle, were students, pregnant, sick or home taking care of their children.”

Unemployed Floridians have waited weeks and in many cases months to receive their benefits, and some people never received them at all due to purposely and impossibly exacting “anti-fraud” measures ordered by the governor.

Caitlin Polidoro, 29, who worked at a call center from March until September, said that if a claimant gave identifying information that was in any way inconsistent with their application, she was required to hang up on them without saying why. That’s even if the person had spent as many as eight hours on hold, which was common during the worst parts of the unemployment crisis.

“If it was a Darryl Johnson Jr. and he put Darryl Johnson II on his application, we weren’t allowed to help them,” Polidoro said. “They only had one chance.”

It’s pretty sick and sociopathic, but it’s not exactly unique amongst Republican states.

Wisconsin: Despite the remarkably beneficial standing offer by the federal government to pay 90% of expenses that a state incurs from expanding Medicaid, there remain a dozen holdout states that have, out of its Republicans’ sheer performative obstinacy and cruelty, decided to keep millions of poor residents from accessing health care.

The American Rescue Plan sweetened the Medicaid pot, increasing the federal government’s contribution to a whopping 95% for at least two years if states would expand coverage. In fact, once the math is all worked out, states would actually make money on the whole thing. Wisconsin, for example, would net $1.6 billion between that stimulus bonus and the general expansion incentive. And yet, Republicans that control the uber-gerrymandered state legislature still refuse to expand the program, choosing instead to leave money on the table and nearly 100,000 people without access to health care in the midst of a still-serious pandemic. All in order to make a stupid political point rooted in old racist tropes.

"I think the State of Wisconsin has enough resources to be able to utilize, to make sure we have all of our priorities funded and we're not going to do it by expanding welfare," Assembly Speaker and sociopath Robin Vos said yesterday. "Trapping people in the life of poverty is not something that there's ever the right amount of money to do."

Like most other right-wing idealogues, Vos isn’t just a geyser of thinly-veiled racist Reaganite garbage, he’s also a total hypocrite. Vos, a multi-millionaire who owns a vast real estate portfolio and a popcorn empire, spent all eight years of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s term giving himself tax cuts and living on the dole of lobbyists. He’s also a happy beneficiary of direct government hand-outs, having taken a PPP loan for about $300k and is now pushing through state tax cuts on that money.

Health care isn’t the only Rescue Plan benefit that Vos and Republicans are keeping away from working Wisconsinites. The federal stimulus plan adds an additional $300 per week to unemployment benefits through mid-September, but it requires states to waive the one-week waiting period between losing a job and applying for UI in order for their citizens to receive the topper. Once again, it’s not going to cost the state a dime, but Vos and his GOP co-conspirators are refusing to take action anyway.


“In some circumstances,” Vos claimed, “people are being paid more to not work than they are to actually go and find a job.” 

Again, he’s playing into a gross old talking point that’s long been used to gut the American welfare state. Republicans in the state refuse to raise the minimum wage, which still sits at the embarrassing national floor of $7.25 an hour, so what Vos is really saying is that he wants to force tens of thousands of people in his state to work often dangerous jobs for poverty wages. To put the squeeze on them, Republicans are denying people meager benefits provided to them by the federal government.

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