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Frontrunner in Florida’s 20th CD Race Blasts Non-Endorsement

January 8, 2022 by Dan McCue
Frontrunner in Florida’s 20th CD Race Blasts Non-Endorsement
Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick waits for the results of a machine recount following the Democratic primary in Florida's 20th Congressional District at the Voting Equipment Center in Lauderhill, Florida, on Friday, November 5, 2021. (Associated Press)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The race to replace the late Rep. Alcee Hastings in Florida’s 20th Congressional District — a contest considered all but signed, sealed and delivered to three-time candidate Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick in the heavily Democratic district — has grown interesting in recent days as one important daily newspaper after another has declined to endorse her.

The first was The Palm Beach Post, which said Cherfilus-McCormick “holds promise,” but failed to file her federal financial disclosures in a timely fashion.

Days later, the Sun-Sentinel weighed in, accusing the candidate of hiding her personal finances after she lent $3.7 million to her campaign during the Democratic primary.

When she finally did file her financial disclosure statement in late December, it showed Cherfilus-McCormick had an income of more than $6.4 million in 2021, substantially more than the $86,000 she reported earning a year earlier.

Cherfilus-McCormick is CEO of Trinity Health Care Services, a home health care company headquartered in Miramar, Florida, and it is her main source of income.

In a letter to the newspaper, which it published on Jan. 3, the Democrat said she was “deeply disappointed” by the paper’s “lack of journalistic integrity” and its attempt “to paint me as dishonest and arrogant due to the delay in disclosing my financial records.”

Cherfilus-McCormick went on to explain that these and other “ongoing attacks” and “scrutinization of [her] character” were the reasons she refused to take part in a pre-endorsement interview with the Sun-Sentinel editorial board.

“The editorial board has made it clear that not all political candidates disclose their finances, but because of my substantial personal contribution, they wanted to know where the money came from,” she wrote. 

“Why is it such a shock that my hard work, and that of my husband, have been a major factor in my ability to use my personal assets to fund most of my campaign instead of placing the burden on those facing economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and poor wages?” Cherfilus-McCormick continued. 

“Sadly, as a Black woman, I am all too familiar with having to prove myself, double, despite my successes, even to those who claim to be without bias,” she said, adding in conclusion that she’s run “a fair, honest, and people-centered campaign.”

Originally from New York, Cherfilus-McCormick is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who later relocated the family to Florida.

She is a graduate of both Howard University and the St. Thomas University Law School.

She ran for Congress for the first time in 2018, and was soundly beaten by Hastings, 73.6% to 26.4%. She ran again in 2020 and did slightly better, losing to the three-decade incumbent 69.3% to 30.7%.

This past fall, Cherfilus-McCormick narrowly defeated a crowded field, topping the second-place finisher Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness by just five votes.

But that finish was enough to make her nearly a shoe-in on Jan. 11 when she faces Republican Jason Mariner. In 2020, President Joe Biden won 77% of the vote in the solidly blue district, which spans parts of Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Florida.

Though the Sun-Sentinel published Cherfilus-McCormick’s letter without comment, The Palm Beach Post editorial board did explain its rationale for not endorsing the candidate, saying it had criticized former President Donald Trump for his refusal to release his tax statements, and therefore couldn’t “accept a lackadaisical response from Cherfilus-McCormick to a legal requirement to inform the public about where she got the millions of dollars she poured into the race.” 

The board conceded Cherfilus-McCormick told it she was in the process of completing her financial disclosures, and that it would be submitted before Christmas, as, in fact, it was.

While it said it was “encouraged” by her completing the paperwork, “it’s too late — the primaries are over already,” the board said. 

“That’s not fair play, it’s not good politics and it’s not promising about her future performance,” the newspaper said. “Transparency matters, not just to newspaper editorial boards but to the constituents she hopes to serve. They need to know if the personal financial interests of the candidate will conflict with the public interests of the job.”

Cherfilus-McCormick wasn’t the only candidate to bypass The Palm Beach Post’s editorial process. Neither Jason Mariner nor an Independent in the race, Jim Flynn, responded to the board’s invitations to meet.

Another Independent, Leonard Serratore, flat out refused to talk to the paper. The only candidate in the race, Libertarian Mike ter Maat, a former police officer, did meet with the newspapers, and while the candidate and board “didn’t see eye to eye on every issue,” it said the meeting was “fruitful and the discussion provided us with a better understanding of the candidate and his views.” 

As for Jason Mariner, who won the Republican primary in the district with 58% of the vote, a recent profile in The Daily Beast described him as a “Confederate Flag-Tattoo’d Felon” who is running as an ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump.

Jason Mariner

According to the story, the 36-year-old Jupiter, Fla., resident and advertising executive has been convicted of felony theft, cocaine possession and obstructing justice, and he continues to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

His felony conviction briefly became an issue during his Republican primary campaign when questions were raised about his eligibility to run for office  because the Florida Constitution bans felons from holding office.

A Mariner campaign memo written by Jacksonville attorney David Mitchel Graham, an advisor to the candidate, vouched for his eligibility by pointing to a number of court cases that found the U.S. Constitution spells out the qualifications for being a Member of the House and “non felon” isn’t one of them.

In addition, the memo said, courts have consistently held states cannot add their own qualifications for candidates.

Despite the controversy, the Sun Sentinel newspaper endorsed Mariner ahead of the primary, acknowledging the candidate had served two stretches in state prison over two years for drug and theft violations. 

“He said an injury led to an addiction to prescription drugs and his life spiraled downhill from there,” the editorial board said. “He got clean, regained the right to vote through Amendment 4 and is now a Republican candidate for Congress in the 20th District in Broward and Palm Beach counties.”

The editorial board goes on to quote the candidate as telling them,  “I’ve been through hell and back.” 

“Determined to rebuild his life, the father of two sons co-founded a drug and alcohol detox center and vehicle advertising business and wants to be the next member of Congress from Florida, as his website explains,” the board said.

It goes on to say Mariner’s views are “as far as possible from those of most district voters,” in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 5-1 margin. 

The board noted Mariner strongly defended Donald Trump during their meeting, denied that the ex-president undermines democracy, and dodged our questions about whether Joe Biden won fairly. 

Mariner also opposes abortion rights and stricter gun laws and vows to fix the “broken” cirmiinal justice system.

Noting that Mariner’s opponent failed to respond to pre-endorsement interview requests, the newspaper “recommended” the candidate that did.

In a written statement released after Mariner prevailed in the primary, his campaign said “the facts of this matter are publicly available to anyone with access to the Internet or a library. 

“It is troublesome to think that any professor or journalist would fail to do the homework before commenting on such an important matter,” the statement continued. “The people of FL20 have chosen Jason Mariner to be their Republican Nominee and he will continue to advocate, never back down or yield, for Jason says it, ‘it is the American People who must ring the bell of Liberty.’ Jason Mariner’s commitment to representing the average and forgotten American will remain forever unwavering.”

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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