In 2016, Donald Trump was elected to the White House. The Cubs won the World Series. And Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In other words, it was the kind of year that seemed designed to make Florida news look normal.
But even if the relative weirdness of developments in the Sunshine State was down a notch, Florida residents still had plenty to keep them occupied, amused or in some cases terrified.
Two favorite sons who had been among the frontrunners for the presidency failed to get much traction — and one of them, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, reneged on a pledge not to run for a second term. The state’s death penalty sentencing structure was overturned, “fixed” and then overturned again. Two years after rejecting full-strength medical marijuana at the polls, Florida voters decided without much fanfare that pharmaceutical ganja might not be that bad.
There was also tragedy. The state was hammered by two hurricanes, faced an outbreak of the previously unfamiliar Zika virus and endured the worst mass shooting in American history. For many Floridians, 2016 probably couldn’t end soon enough.
Perhaps 2017 will allow Florida to reclaim its undisputed mantle as the weirdest state in the nation — but for the amusing mixture of fast food and strange crimes and not for the darker reasons that sometimes played out in 2016.
FLORIDA, FLORIDA, FLORIDA (I)
With apologies to Benjamin Franklin, there are a few certainties of life in Florida: summer heat, low attendance at Miami sporting events and a deluge of visits from presidential candidates every four years. The last of those put the state in the spotlight during one of the weirdest presidential campaigns in recorded American history — no hyperbole.
After amassing a nine-digit money hoard before the Republican presidential primary even began in earnest, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush started the campaign as the undisputed favorite. But he was already limping by the time 2016 began, with News Hurricane Donald coming ashore and rivals like Rubio trying to eat away at Bush’s establishment base.
One of the clearest signs that Bush and Rubio were both failing to gain serious momentum was that political figures inside their home state were hedging bets, or even leaning a bit toward Trump. Gov. Rick Scott did not make a formal endorsement ahead of the state’s March 15 primary, but he had basically already signaled his choice, penning a USA Today opinion piece headlined, “Donald Trump has America’s pulse.”
The multi-multi-millionaire governor credited the billionaire real-estate developer as someone “who speaks and tweets his mind freely.” Scott said Trump’s standing in the polls was more about Trump’s ability to capture “the frustration of many Americans after seven years of President Obama’s very intentional government takeover of the American economy.”
Whatever it was, it worked. Bush was out by late February, after a string of embarrassing results ended with a fourth-place showing in South Carolina. Rubio hung on until Florida, eventually getting into an insult war with Trump that included suggestions about the size of the businessman’s manhood. But then Trump had almost grown inevitable, even before Attorney General Pam Bondi endorsed the bombastic billionaire on primary eve. Trump crushed Rubio by nearly 20 percentage points.
With Florida voters having made their decision, Scott then lined up behind Trump. And to borrow one of Trump’s famous phrases, he kept winning and winning and winning, ending up as the Republican nominee.
Florida was soon back to center stage. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, emphasized the importance of Florida by visiting the state to give what amounted to a rebuttal of the Republican National Convention before heading to her party’s gathering the following week.
“I know there’s a lot of angst. I understand all that. And I respect those who have legitimate concerns and questions. But I’ve never known America to quit on ourselves. I’ve never known us to give up on the face of tough challenges … to retreat in the kind of isolation that was being advertised at their convention,” she said. “That is not who we are. Those are not the values that made us a great country.”
Trump also made frequent trips to Florida, including an October stop in Panama City Beach, where he suggested that the Army Corps of Engineers could prevent droughts by not releasing water from Lake Okeechobee, and blamed a global elite for the problems facing the nation.
“This election will determine whether we remain a free country in the truest sense of the word or we become a corrupt banana republic controlled by large donors and foreign governments,” Trump told the crowd. “The election of Hillary Clinton would lead to the destruction of our country.”
Democrats banked on the state’s increasing diversity to win Florida and its 29 electoral votes. Republicans counted on a surge of working-class white voters. By the end of election night, it was clear which plan had worked: Trump carried the state en route to winning the White House.
FLORIDA, FLORIDA, FLORIDA (II)
If there was a level of government in Florida that was reshaped most by the 2016 elections, it was the state’s congressional delegation. Between redistricting, retirements and even an indictment, there will be plenty of new faces in Florida’s contingent of U.S. House members when they formally take office in January.
Some of the faces will even be moving around. Republican Congressman Dan Webster moved to run for an open seat stretching from Lake County to the Gulf Coast after his Orlando-area district was redrawn as part of a legal battle over gerrymandering. What was left of Webster’s district was almost unwinnable for a Republican candidate.
Either because of redistricting or other reasons, many members just left. Republican Congressmen Curt Clawson, Ander Crenshaw, Jeff Miller and Rich Nugent all stepped aside. (And would have been joined by GOP Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly but for a change of heart by Rubio on his U.S. Senate seat.) Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham bowed out of a redrawn and strongly Republican seat, while Democratic Congressmen Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy battled for the party’s Senate nomination.
Others fought. Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, gearing up to seek a 13th term, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state’s new congressional districts violated the Voting Rights Act by illegally weakening the ability of African-American voters to elect candidates of their choice. Brown’s district was reoriented from a north-south district that ran from Jacksonville to Orlando to an east-west configuration that runs from Jacksonville to Gadsden County and included a good part of Tallahassee.
But federal judges rejected her lawsuit in April.
Things got worse for Brown in July, when she was indicted on charges that she and a top aide used a sham education charity to pay for personal expenses and luxurious events. Brown pleaded not guilty, but the allegations clearly took a toll on her Democratic primary race against former state Sen. Al Lawson and LaShonda “LJ” Holloway. Still, Brown remained her pugnacious self.
“Are you a pedophile? No,” she said to a reporter who asked a question about the indictment — her way of demonstrating that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Brown lost her bid for re-election to Lawson. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat who resigned from her post as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee amid controversy this summer, fought off a primary challenge from Nova Southeastern University law professor Tim Canova.
Two more incumbents went down in November: Jolly lost to former Gov. Charlie Crist, a onetime Republican running as a Democrat, while Republican Congressman John Mica was ousted by political novice Stephanie Murphy.
One person who surprisingly didn’t leave office: Rubio, who had initially vowed that he wouldn’t run for re-election to the Senate. But after his presidential bid fizzled and with a virtual parade of Republican leaders begging him to reconsider, Rubio re-entered the Senate race and handily beat Murphy, his Democratic opponent.
“I am glad that I’m an American in the 21st Century,” he said following his victory. “America is going to be OK. We will turn this country around. I have faith. I know God is not done with America yet.”
TINKERING WITH THE MACHINERY
Lawmakers were happily going through the motions of the first day of the 2016 legislative session when the U.S. Supreme Court threw a monkey wrench in the proceedings, striking down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system as unconstitutional.
In its 8-1 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s unique law giving judges the ultimate power to decide whether to impose the death penalty amounted to a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.
The immediate result was confusion. Once lawmakers began grappling with the issue, though, the House and the Senate split on how far-ranging the reforms to the death penalty should go. Senators pushed for requiring unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences could be imposed. The House proposed increasing the jury threshold for imposing capital punishment from a simple majority to a 9-3 vote.
“The Senate feels that if we go to 9-3 that we’ll be back in a few years, going through this again,” said then-Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker.
Lawmakers ultimately compromised on a 10-2 margin for jury recommendations on death sentences. And it didn’t even take a few years. The Florida Supreme Court struck down the new law in October, saying unanimity was needed in death sentences.
“Simply put, Florida’s extreme outlier status in not requiring unanimity in the jury’s final recommendation renders the current imposition of the death penalty in Florida cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in a concurring opinion to the court’s decision.
Then, in December, the court ruled that inmates sent to Death Row after a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision should be able to seek new sentencing proceedings. The ruling is expected to pave the way for about 55 percent of the state’s 386 Death Row inmates to seek new sentencing proceedings — though it didn’t help inmates sentenced before the 2002 decision.
Meanwhile, there was a chance that the Florida court’s ideological balance might change, ever so slightly. Justice James E.C. Perry will leave the court at the end of the year due to mandatory retirement. Scott chose C. Alan Lawson, chief judge of the Daytona Beach-based 5th District Court of Appeal, to replace Perry.
Lawson is expected to be more conservative than Perry.
“The Supreme Court, and the courts, do determine whether a law is constitutional or not,” Lawson said. “From the very beginning, that right of the branch also came with a promise that it would be exercised with judicial restraint.”
FLORIDA BUGS OUT
It might sound like a flavorful dish from a Mediterranean country, but Floridians found out this year that Zika is actually a serious virus.
At first, state officials tried to calm the situation by pointing out that many of the cases of the mosquito-borne virus stemmed from people traveling to countries where Zika was active. But then, evidence emerged that local mosquitoes were also carrying the disease in some areas, and suddenly the cases seemed to be coming like a drumbeat. Two new local cases on Aug. 15. Twelve travel-related cases the next day. Three local cases the day after that. And so on.
Scott began criticizing President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress for failing to come to an agreement on funding to combat the disease. He traveled to Washington to personally lobby for the funding. The governor also tried to tamp down fears about the virus, noting that local transmission was only happening in relatively small areas of Miami-Dade County.
“We have a safe state, and we’re going to keep it that way,” Scott said in August.
Finally, in September — seven months after Scott had first sounded the alarm — Congress passed a Zika bill. By December, Scott was able to announce that the last remaining area in Miami-Dade where Zika was being transmitted by mosquitoes had been cleared. But with warm weather and the accompanying bugs bound to return, there were questions about how long the reprieve would last.
TERRORISM STRIKES FLORIDA
A more sudden and brutal tragedy came in June, when shots rang out early one morning at the Pulse gay nightclub in downtown Orlando. By the time it was over, St. Lucie County resident Omar Mateen, 29, had killed 49 people before being shot dead by police.
Despite their varying views on gun control and LGBT rights, leaders from across the political spectrum condemned the violence and mourned the victims.
“We know that there’s hate in the world,” Rubio said. “We know that some of it is inspired by warped ideology. … I hope they see today they won’t terrorize America. They won’t terrorize Floridians. We stand with all Americans … irrespective of their sexual orientation.”
But divisions didn’t take long to emerge, particularly on the issue of gun control. Democrats tried to pressure Republicans to call a special session to deal with firearms legislation. GOP leaders responded by painting the requests as crass politics.
Republicans also stirred the pot. Barely a week after the massacre, Evers — who was running for Congress — drew criticism for plans to give away a semiautomatic rifle similar to the one used in the Pulse attack.
“With terrorism incidents on the rise, both at home and abroad, protecting our constitutional rights has never been more important,” Evers said in a prepared statement.
LGBT activists, in particular, were outraged.
“I think it is tasteless, disrespectful, disgusting, political pandering at its worst,” said Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida, an LGBT advocacy group. “The idea that he wants to put the same style assault rifle that was just used for mass murder into the hands of a random stranger is grotesque.”
As they had before on gun-related issues, Democrats used a provision of the state Constitution to force a poll of legislators on whether to hold a special session. As such drives had before, this one failed.
Not long before the Pulse shootings, a far different kind of tragedy was on the minds of people gathered in Orlando, as the Governor’s Hurricane Conference drew warnings about complacency and “hurricane amnesia.”
If there was any forgetfulness, or a complete lack of memories in the case of new residents, it was wiped out in 2016, when Florida was lashed by not one but two of the tropical storm systems.
Hurricane Hermine crashed into the state’s Gulf Coast in September, making landfall near St. Marks as a Category 1 hurricane. The storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of residents. The pace of restoring that power caused clashes between Scott and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party.
Hurricane Matthew was a worse storm, but Florida avoided a direct hit. That didn’t keep the hurricane from doing damage as it barreled up the East Coast. The storm plunged more than 1 million homes and businesses into the dark. Still, Scott said Florida was “blessed.”
“If it had a direct impact hit, it would have been a lot worse for our families,” he said.
In all, damages from the storms reached almost $1.6 billion by December. Those numbers didn’t include agricultural losses and some damages that local governments are handling without state assistance.
QUOTES OF THE YEAR:
“Sometimes I go to happy hour and I have one drink. Sometimes I end up closing the bar and wind up at the Waffle House at 3 a.m.”— Orlando lawyer John Morgan, in May, saying he had “no clue” how much he would spend to support the medical marijuana initiative on this year’s ballot.
“We probably should just schedule the same conversation about every seven days, it appears.”—state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, in August, asked to respond to the latest comments from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump that caused widespread outrage.
“I don’t mean this literally, but he’s going to blow the place up. And I mean that in a good way.”—Former lawmaker Mike Fasano, Pasco County tax collector, in November, on incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.
“Politically, the challenge in this really kind of crude environment is to go beyond being against what’s not working and being for things that will work, that will lift people up. And I tried that and totally failed, miserably. I mean, like, belly flop — bam.”—Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in December, on his presidential bid.
“Lastly, I appreciate Pitbull and his devotion to our great state.”—Gov. Rick Scott, in a letter detailing proposed reforms to Visit Florida, prompted in part by outrage over a contract the Miami rapper got to promote tourism in Florida.