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Happytown: Priorities of the People Town Hall

Englewood Neighborhood Center hosts event to discuss issues that affect Florida's working class

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Despite the overtones of looming Republican nastiness in Tallahassee as the legislative session kicks off this week (see "Bills of goods"), on Feb. 28, a fairly broad coalition of activist groups convened with four locally elected Democratic legislators at the Englewood Neighborhood Center to hash out just what could be done to save some progressive face. The Priorities of the People Town Hall attracted nearly 100 residents, organizers and union interests anxious to hear just what the minority had up its sleeves on issues like earned sick time, foreclosure, voting rights and the proposed – and Gov. Scott-endorsed – Medicaid expansion.

As you might expect, it was a slightly hurried affair, seeing as lawmakers were limited to two minutes to outline their legislative priorities (lawmakers are not usually brief), and they faced a panel of selected participants who grilled them with questions after issuing heartfelt testimonials. State Representatives Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, and Victor Torres, D-Orlando, were joined by state Senators Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, and Darren Soto, D-Orlando, as each fired off their respective litanies with all due overlap. "These are really leading questions," Saunders quipped at one point, noting that this was a pretty one-sided affair. Everybody wants Medicaid, election reform, charter school regulation, a more sensitive foreclosure process and, somewhat off-card (but catering to a neighborhood with a large Hispanic population), a re-examination of the ESOL – or English for speakers of other languages – practices in schools.

The evening's most interesting discussion, at least to us, centered on the pending Republican legislation designed to pre-empt the local sick time ordinance and, effectively, strip home rule away from counties and municipalities on issues regarding employment practices. Sen. Thompson, who said that she happily signed the controversial earned sick time petition, came out swinging. "I'll be on the frontlines" against the pre-emption measures, she said. Sen. Soto, who was the beneficiary of significant campaign donations from sick-time foes Walt Disney World, declared that he, too, had signed the petition, and "I'll be right there with her." So, wait. A politician will stand up to a donor corporation? Is this Florida?

It should be noted that a day earlier, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer delivered his State of the City speech, in which he boasted about a recent Brookings Institution report that seemed to imply that home rule was the way of the future – something Dyer, at least in part, took credit for. The city does, after all, have a living wage requirement and other local employment amenities that could be threatened by the pre-emption measures. According to the cited report, "Mayors, university presidents, CEOs of major firms and heads of business associations, labor unions, civic organizations and [not-for-profits] are, in essence, leading the restructuring of the national economy." In other words, not big-pocketed legislators, but super-mayors who are not running for governor.

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