If an arsonist was standing in your front yard, casually flame-throwing your house, would you focus all of your intensity and resources on which firefighter has a better hose nozzle?
Of course not. Yet, that's precisely what the Lakeland First PAC -- and really all of political Lakeland and Polk County is doing. And it shows the deep misunderstanding of political power in Florida -- and its real world consequences. That misunderstanding causes inattention and inertia. Those forces have plagued our city and county and state for a long time. Changing that understanding is incredibly important for a better future in our city, county, and state.
Kelli Stargel is the arsonist in the metaphor above. The Florida Legislature is the flamethrower. Her bosses in Tallahassee (they are not in Polk County, I assure you) have ordered her -- with her eager cooperation -- to douse us in perdition. She's been doing it in plain sight for YEARS. And every year, people thank her for it. It's like Stockholm Syndrome.
Stargel's malicious and terrible record
This is just a partial record of Stargel's general policy and institutional destruction within Polk County:
Polk's per pupil education funding has dropped from the mid-50s to 64th of 67 Florida Counties on Stargel's watch. She and your legislators have only now allowed that funding to return to its to pre-2008 recession levels. But the needs are 2017 needs, not 2008.
She's a key enabler of the teacher-hating state policies that have caused chronic teacher stress and shortages in Polk and Florida as a whole. She cast the deciding vote on HB 7069.
Her absurd VAM teacher evaluation equation and forced transfers caused epic, destructive chaos to Polk schools two years in a row.
She's the number one reason the state is now threatening to close Kathleen High, Kathleen Middle, Mulberry High and as many as a dozen other schools in next two years after actively sabotaging them -- with no plan at all for serving those kids in the aftermath. (More on this in part 2.)
She's done whatever she can to help Senate President Joe Negron hurt Polk State College and the people it serves. You can take a deep dive on that here. She's fought to limit the affordable four-year degrees that Polk State can offer to her working class constituents. Why? Because Negron prefers expensive universities and for-profit higher education scams to high value local institutions. And she cares about what Negron and the rest of Tallahassee does for her -- not what she does for Lakeland or Polk County or the human beings she serves.
At more granular level, I wrote this about Stargel two years ago. It stands today.
I cannot think of a single legislator who more consistently embarrasses her constituents with nothing to show for it than Kelli Stargel. Say what you want about JD Alexander -- and I said a lot -- but at least he put tangible things on the scoreboard. All his strong-arming on the CSX deal and Florida Poly at least built something.
Everything Stargel touches curdles into malignant silliness. Really. Name an accomplishment.
Here are just a few fiascoes.
-- The Harold Maready McKeel campaign donation scandal.
I'm sure there are others; these are just from memory and 10 minutes of Google. But you get the point.
Opponents of Lakeland's "People's Mayor" charter change (I support it) often spin nightmare scenarios of the horrors a bad executive mayor could theoretically cause. But even a boogeyman strong mayor cannot compare to Stargel's actual multi-year record of destruction. No Lakeland mayor will have the power to torture and erode the vital state institutions, which affect Lakeland lives profoundly every day, the way Stargel has.
Why have the people of power and resources in this community allowed her to do all that with long-standing impunity?
Because she has "Republican" by her name on the ballot.
That's not any kind of ideological commentary. It's just a fact. Everybody knows it. That label around here has meant you're untouchable. It earned Kelli Stargel a long-standing license to destroy. Ask your Republican local government officials if you doubt me.
Unless the public revokes that license, I will fail in what I'm trying to accomplish. And so will any other local candidate acting in good faith, whatever the party. That's because Kelli Stargel, by virtue of her position and label (not her non-existent talent), is more powerful than any local official. It's her world, amazingly enough. We give it to her with no expectations; and then we drown in it with a gurgling ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
I'm down on the rest of our legislative delegation, too. But I see hints of encouraging signs, particularly from Neil Combee, who is actually starting to pursue helpful legislation. (More on that in part 2, as well.)
Kelli Stargel is an unapologetic breed apart. Believe me when I tell you this: any vote cast for Stargel by anyone in Polk County is an act of self-mutilation. Removing her, in a closely balanced Florida Senate, would have a profound beneficial effect on legislation and on thousands and thousands of lives here and elsewhere.
Let's not waste this fantastic political energy and competition
Full disclosure: I strongly support Jim Malless and Sandy Toledo in their Lakeland City Commission races. But I'm thrilled to say this reflects positive support, not any kind of concern about their opponents. If they don't win, we will still be well-represented.
Jim, in addition to being a very good city commissioner, in my opinion, with an important grasp of complexity, was the first prominent elected/institutional official to openly support my campaign. He took a real risk in backing my campaign's open confrontation of the entire state and local education establishment. He stood for fundamental educational change before any other government official. And Sandy, an educator herself, brings the type of grassroots educational and neighborhood focus that I think we've often lacked on the City Commission. She's also just a deeply kind and good person.
But let's be clear: We've got multiple strong people providing outstanding political competition across the board in all of these City Commission races. In Jim's race, I love Ricky Shirah and Kathy Barsotti, both of whom were also great early supporters of my campaign's agenda for educational change. I almost choked when they both got in the race. And I like what I see of Stephanie Madden, who is a great public school supporter and has shown strong insights into teacher's lives. In Sandy's race, Scott Franklin is extremely impressive. When I saw him speak the first time, I thought: this guy could make a good strong mayor one day. I'd vote for him in a second in almost any other race and year.
And I have no problem with Lakeland First backing Franklin and Madden. I don't fear money in politics as much as some folks do, I think. I love this political energy and competition in my city. Good things will come of it. Moreover, Lakeland First isn't dark money. It's not shadowy about what it's doing. It's got a website right here.
I just wish it would act on its own priorities. Notice what I've circled. It's got education at the top.
Lakeland First would serve that educational mission much better by deploying all those resources at the adult power table -- not the kiddie table.
Fight the real enemy
State government, primarily through education and budget policy, affects our lives far more than any School Board member, city commissioner, or county commission. That's a structural reality most of our movers and shakers really haven't internalized. We need them to.
I would give almost anything -- including checks -- for Lakeland First to support Scott Franklin or Stephanie Madden against Kelli Stargel in a Republican primary. And I'm donating $500 today to Judge Bob Doyel, who is running against Stargel as a Democrat.
Rather than sending "flip flop" mailers that talk vaguely about what city commissioners with almost no power will do to strengthen education, Lakeland First should start going after Kelli Stargel's record with specificity and purpose. That could move the needle. Feel free to use the content I've provided.
Ending Kelli Stargell's political career would demonstrate real power. It would unify Lakeland First with the 13,000 or so public school employees in Polk County. It would unify Lakeland First with Polk State College, which I think is vital for the long-term success of this community. My political dream writ large is to pull together the many high-skill, low-and-medium wage educators with economic developers in a new education/political coalition.
Kelli Stargel is a thorough mediocrity; we can do much, much, much better
J.D. Alexander and Paula Dockery were personally formidable. They could convince, bully, cajole, and generally politic effectively on their own merits. That's why we were much better funded in education when they were around.
Kelli Stargel has demonstrated no political talent; and she has no political accomplishments. She is nothing more than an empty conduit for whatever malicious mischief whomever the Joe Negrons and Richard Corcorans happen to be at any given moment. She's just a tool of distant people bent on creating erosion and stress. That will continue until it hurts for her to do it. Trust me. Everybody reading this knows it.
Not only that, literally every serious candidate in Lakeland's commission races is working harder to win a tiny power than Kelli Stargel has ever worked for her enormous power. And every single serious commission or mayoral candidate would make a better senator than Stargel. That is nuts. And that is true. But that is how legislative politics works when we have one-party rule. You see the results.
Everybody knows this. Lakeland First knows it. The question is: what are we going to do about it together?