U.S. Attorney Makes Controversial Call

Being against the death penalty is a stand that normally won’t draw overwhelming criticism these days. The system is manifestly fallible, circumstances matter mightily and there’s even a terse commandment that forbids killing without any contextual loophole.

But when you’re a U.S. State Attorney and you make the pronouncement that you will not seek the death penalty in ANY first-degree murder case, you are courting critics across the board. That’s what has happened to Aramis Ayala, the recently-elected  Democratic Orange-Osceola state attorney.

Ayala, the first African-American state attorney elected in Florida history, said flat-out that she would not make an exception in the case of an accused cop-killer. Her blanket stand against the death penalty prompted Gov. Rick Scott to remove her from the case and assign it to another state attorney.

The elected legal establishment, led by Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association, initially piled on in rebuke. But a number of prominent lawyers, including former Florida Supreme Court justices, have challenged Scott’s move as a dangerous precedent. And Ayala herself is legally contesting it.

The rebukes would be grossly unfair if they merely criticized her discretion in this case. A cop-killing suspect guarantees maximum profile and emotion–and even political partisanship. But this is not solely about discretion and judgment in a given case. This is about misleading voters.

When Ayala ran for office last fall, she did not run on an anti-death penalty platform. This uproar is not just about her call in a specific case; this is about her unequivocal position on the issue. She should have made that clear to the voters, especially those who weren’t aware that she accepted $1 million in campaign donations from liberal activist and billionaire George Soros, who opposes the death penalty.

Ayala is not wrong for her position that pursuing death sentences is “not in the best interests of this community or in the best interest of justice.” In fact, I would have voted for her. She is wrong for not making this position public when she ran for office.

Trumpster Diving

* Those were some weird, recorded optics–video and AP photos–on display in Washington in that recent meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump. Insiders were not shocked.

As a candidate, Trump ridiculed his counterpart for “ruining” Germany with her immigrant-friendly policies. He even hammered Hillary Clinton for wanting to be “America’s Angela Merkel,” pantsuit and all. He also was less than engaging as a host–exemplified in awkward, handshake aversion.

Merkel looked the part of reluctant participant. And you know she misses Barack Obama, no matter what Edward Snowden said was done to her phone.

It was also beyond ironic as to which country’s 21st century leader represents scapegoating, xenophobic authoritarianism.

* No matter how–and how many times–it gets spun for security purposes, how do you reasonably–or sanely–go about proposing significant cuts in the COAST Guard while implementing plans to build an obscenely expensive, campaign-promised wall across the U.S.-Mexican border?

* Maybe it’s just another day at the Trumpian office, but when key presidential surrogates/policy meisters take their “America First” act overseas, foreign counterparts get a quick dose of how “Make America Great Again” is actually playing out early on. Witness how the getting-to-know-you mission of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin went in his sortie to the Group of 20 meeting in Germany.

It was hardly coincidental that the Group’s final communiqué unprecedentedly didn’t even mention “open trade” nor the usual repudiations of “protectionism.” Moreover, at US insistence, there was no formal “pledge” to observe the Paris accords on climate change.

Note to Trump administration: Be careful what you clamor for.

* Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley isn’t given to melodramatic, partisan sound bites. So when he assessed the early chaos and Russian subplots overwhelming the Trump Administration’s first two months, observers duly noted his language.

“There’s a smell of treason in the air,” opined Brinkley. “Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mind-boggling event.”

This won’t end well.

Trolley Tracking

Once again we seem fixated on the future of Tampa’s TECO Line Streetcar. It remains underused and oversubsidized. City Hall and the Florida DOT are now funding a study to find viability beyond convention-center marketing to visitors. Will it become a “new urbanism,” transit tool for the residents and workers in downtown and nearby neighborhoods?

I can’t help hearkening back 15 years when the updated version of the original trolley was launched. The wink-and-nod word from insiders was that, while this looked like a nostalgic tourist amenity, it was really a “starter set” for light rail. It might yet be.

Historical Perspective

* If you’re looking for some compelling context for today’s geopolitical world and this American presidency, check out Showtime’s (2012) production of Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” that is streaming on Netflix. It’s a 12-part primer on how the stage was set for the U.S. to become a global power–from William McKinley to Barack Obama. Of course Stone can get preachy, but he reins most of it in. He’s still not Michael Moore.

Among the reflective postscripts: Suppose Henry Wallace had stayed on the Roosevelt ticket–and there were no Truman presidency. Intriguing. And haunting.

* Wouldn’t it be a lot less awkward to work with North Korea and Iran if the U.S. were not the only country in history to have actually used a nuclear weapon?

Sports Shorts

* Much was made of that NBA game, Knicks vs. Warriors at Madison Square Garden, that went a whole half without–literally–any non-basketball sounds and optics. No piped-in noise. No “We Will Rock You.” No videos. No kiss-cams. No dancers. No crowd exhortations. On balance, most observers–and players–missed the entertainment vibe.

No surprise. It’s a show, not merely a game. The players are also performers.

The reality is this. Whether it’s basketball, baseball, football or hockey, sports franchises today can’t be successful if they are only putting on a game for hard-core fans. There aren’t enough of them. Those days are long gone. As is the time when fans only headed to the concession stands when there was a play stoppage. What protocol?

These days belong to couples and families. It’s not just win or lose or how the game is played by the home team. It’s about being interactive and entertained. Your team wins: What a bonus.

Frankly, I’d rather analyze and second guess the game during a time out–not watch flying T-shirts or ponder a trivia quiz–but that’s just me. But, yeah, kiss-cams can be pretty funny.

* Congrats to USF’s baseball team, which has won 19 games in a row. Call it the Bulls’ version of March Madness.


* “Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.”–U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in reference to North Korea.

* “If there were ever a conflict, Pyongyang would have nowhere else to go but up the escalation ladder after artillery except to its nuclear weapons.”–Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

* “Populism is sweeping across the Western world. Populists of the right like Marine LePen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are different in some ways, but they have a few important things in common: They despise the European Union and see Muslim immigrants and refugees as an existential threat to national identities–or what some now grandly choose to call ‘Judeo-Christian civilization.'”–Ian Buruma, Bard College professor and author of “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.”

* “Much better to talk to one another than about one another.”–German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during her joint news conference with Donald Trump.

* “No one is above the law, not even the president–and I will hold him accountable to the Constitution. Cutting some illegal aspects of President Trump’s original travel ban does not cure his affront to our Constitution.”–Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

* “President Trump’s proposed budget is not only unrealistic, it’s reckless for America’s cities.”–Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

* “Ronald Reagan made deals with Tip O’Neill on Social Security.”–Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich.

* “Performance art can be so hard for normal people to understand.”–Republican strategist John Feehery.

* “Do we want a country where ‘vulgar and outrageous’ supplant solving problems?”–Jeb Bush.

* “Single best thing the president’s done.”–Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Trump’s selection  of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.

* “Five decades of reporting have taught me that whenever a president starts screeching about the media, it’s a sure sign he’s in hot water and fearing revelations about some policy disaster, damaging mendacity or political villainy.”–Hedrick Smith, former Washington bureau chief for the New York Times and the author of “Who Stole the American Dream?”

* “Few economists point to flawed trade agreements as the main source of the (economic-divide) problem, as the president often does. More important is what economists call skill-based technological change.”–Harvard economics Professor N. Gregory Mankiw.

* “We are on offense and united. They are on defense and divided, the opposite of what people would have predicted a month or two ago.”–Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

* “Less than three months into full control of the government and the chance to reshape the American system for a generation, Republicans are doing something no one thought possible: They are re-inventing the circular firing squad.”–Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal.

* “The folks who Hillary Clinton called the ‘deplorables’ are actually those who want better coverage, who we’d be hurting if we don’t change this bill.”–Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.

* “The essence of the Trump budget released a few days ago is to cut aid to the needy, whether at home or abroad, and use the savings to build up the military and construct a wall on the border with Mexico.”–Nicholas Kristof, New York Times.

* “A quarter of a billion dollars is a gosh lot of money.”–Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, on the amount of money ($237 million) the state has spent on legal fees since 2011.

* “Absolute cesspool.”–How Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran characterized Enterprise Florida.

* “The (Florida) DEP is just a shadow of its former self. It’s a mess.”–Former DEP attorney Jerry Phillips, the current head of the Florida office of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

* “Florida is growing, and the state’s infrastructure needs a growth spurt of its own to keep up.”–Excerpt from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ “Infrastructure Report Card.”

* “I don’t want to do anything to help Dana Young. I don’t think I would get into it again.”–Joe Redner, in indicating that he likely wouldn’t run in a 2018 Florida Senate rematch pitting Rep. Sen. Dana Young and Democratic challenger Bob Buesing.

* “We added Seattle and then San Francisco and now Salt Lake City. It’s very difficult to get that first route, but once you start adding routes, people start noticing. Our strategy is working.”–TIA CEO Joe Lopano.

* “Law enforcement won’t win the battle by ourselves. It takes a community to get involved.”–TPD Chief Eric Ward.

* “Teachers do their jobs because it’s a calling; they do get joy out of reaching out to kids. And Tallahassee has done everything in its power to eliminate the joy of teaching–and the joy of learning.”–Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Common Sense Prevails Legally

* Call it a win for public safety, the sort of victory that is too infrequent when it comes to the law and guns in this state. When Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Susan Barthle made the decision that Curtis Reeve didn’t kill Chad Oulson in Stand Your Ground-rationalized self-defense, she also made a de facto statement that the process hasn’t been totally hijacked by Marion Hammer and the NRA puppeteers.

By allowing the case to proceed to trial, Judge Barthle made the point that credible physical evidence was lacking. By so doing, she also indicated that firing a weapon in response to tossed popcorn just might be as legally flawed as it is common-sensically absurd.

* In another win for the forces of fairness and common sense, Gov. Rick Scott has signed into law a requirement that all 12 members of a jury must agree for a death sentence to be imposed. The previous requirement–10 out of 12 jurors–was thrown out as unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court last October.

The bottom line, and it took a frustratingly long time to get to it, was this. Invoking the ultimate penalty, one that is reached in far-from-infallible context, should require nothing less than jury unanimity. Of course it should. 

Wheldon Recalled

When you’ve been in this business long enough, you accumulate your share of memorable interviews. The good, the weird and the weirdest. Michael Dukakis, Sarah Palin and Timothy Leary, respectively, to cite three.

But there’s one good one who has memorably–and poignantly– been recycling back every year at this time–to coincide with the running of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The late Dan Wheldon. The interview with the 29-year-old UK native and St. Pete resident was in the late winter of 2008. His final, fatal race was in the fall of 2011.

If Central Casting had been asked for an open-wheeled, racecar-driver type, this is who it would have sent. Prime time Tom Cruise sans Scientology. Clipped British accent. Winning smile. Outgoing personality when it still meant personable and friendly–not “look at me.” And he was, after all, an Indy 500 winner, a recent David Letterman guest and a nominee as ESPN’s “Hottest Male Athlete.” He was also a frequent visitor to children’s hospitals, here and elsewhere, although that hardly advanced the jaunty, sexy image of a hot-shot racer with an international following.

At the interview, he was accompanied by his fiancée, Susie Behm, a classy woman who is now his widow and the mother of their two young sons.

What struck me as the interview continued over lunch at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club was Wheldon’s observational humor and politeness–to Susie, to the interviewer he had just met and to the wait staff that he knew by name. Hardly the MO of most societal celebrities today.

A retrospective sense of foreshadowing abounds when I think back to that interview. Wheldon talked of his high-rev arena where speed has killed. “People see us zipping around at speeds that are otherwise illegal,” he noted. “That adds to the thrill, of course, but it’s definitely dangerous. … I’ve literally seen drivers pass away.”

How ironically nuanced I thought at the time. He couldn’t bring himself to use the “D” or “K” words. Drivers in horrific accidents “pass away.”

He also had an interesting take on what it’s like to be an IndyCar racer, one used to driving 200 mph for a living, when out cruising around his adopted city, often on a scooter.

“I’m relatively relaxed on public roads,” he said. “Also careful. Especially in St. Pete at night. People try to time the lights. I wait.”

But no, he didn’t “pass away” from an untimed light. He just left all of us much too soon.

Deeson Made A Difference

It was well-noted–and appropriately so–when Mike Deeson, the veteran investigative reporter for 10News WTSP, abruptly retired this month. He says he’ll finish a book about his years behind the microphone and stay involved.

For 35 years the Chicago-area native had embodied the prototype of the gumshoe reporter holding people, typically public officials, accountable on camera. It worked, and he has the Emmys and Green Eyeshade awards to show for it. Deeson, 68, also has a Society of Professional Journalists’ Florida Journalist of the Year (2015) award–and arguably the respect, even if begrudging, of those he held accountable.

He was still old school, even as media curricula evolved. He was still old school in a world increasingly dominated by internet technology, cherry-picked partisans, show-business optics, alternate facts, fake news, political-agenda diversions and professional spin meisters.

He was also a reminder that what you see–on camera–is not what you necessarily get off camera. While Deeson could hearken back to a Mike Wallace ambush in a parking lot, he was 180 degrees removed from that persona off camera. He’s been called “one of the good guys” for his accountability-driven work ethic. Well, I can tell you personally that Mike Deeson is also one of the nice guys.

I’m also glad he’s not done contributing.