September 23, 2023

Kris Fitzgerald, a former Lake Wales City commissioner who was suspended and reinstated but unable to reclaim her position, is now aiming for the U.S. House.

Fitzgerald has filed to run next year as a Democrat in District 15, seeking to challenge the incumbent, Rep. Laurel Lee, R-Tampa. Now living in the Tampa area, Fitzgerald is the first Democrat to enter the race.

And Fitzgerald makes it clear that she will lean heavily on her experience of losing her Lake Wales position following an arrest as a major element of her campaign. In a section of her campaign website titled “Her origin story,” she claims that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd colluded to have her removed from her elected position, calling it “the biggest DeSantis scandal never told.”

Fitzgerald, 43, filed her statement of candidacy with the Federal Elections Commission on Sept. 7. She had announced her plan to run in an interview with the Lake Wales News published in July.

District 15 encompasses northwest Polk County, including most of Lakeland west of U.S. 98 and South Florida Avenue, as well as parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Lee, Florida’s former secretary of state, is in her first term.

Fitzgerald gained election to the Lake Wales City Commission in April 2021, beating incumbent Al Goldstein by just 33 votes. A circuitous drama began two months later, when the Polk County Sheriff’s Office arrested Fitzgerald on charges of interference with child custody and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The following month, DeSantis issued an order suspending Fitzgerald from her position on the commission. He cited a Florida law that allows the governor to take such action against an elected official indicted in a crime.

The Lake Wales City Commission appointed Jack Hilligoss to replace Fitzgerald. Hilligoss successfully ran for mayor in 2022, and Daniel Krueger won an election for Seat 4, Fitzgerald’s former spot.

Acquitted in trial

In October, a Polk County jury acquitted Fitzgerald on two charges, interference with custody and aggravated assault. Seven months later, DeSantis issued an executive order reinstating her to the Lake Wales City Commission.

In the order, DeSantis wrote that Fitzgerald’s position had never been vacant in a legal or permanent sense and that Krueger had been serving temporarily even after his election in 2022. In revoking his 2021 order, DeSantis followed state rules that say an official charged with a crime may be temporarily suspended until acquitted.

But Fitzgerald never reclaimed her commission seat. Lake Wales City Attorney Chuck Galloway told commissioners in a May meeting that Fitzgerald was ineligible to return to her position because she had moved from her district while under suspension. Galloway cited a provision in the city charter stating that any commissioner who leaves their district vacates the position.

That ruling allowed Krueger to remain on the City Commission.

In a lengthy narrative on her campaign website, Fitzgerald places her suspension from office in the context of other actions by DeSantis: his removal of Andrew Warren, a Democrat elected as State Attorney in Tampa, his dismissal of four School Board members and his role in the dismantling of a government entity overseen by Walt Disney World.

Fitzgerald does not mention DeSantis’ more recent removal of another Democratic state attorney, Monique Worrell of the Orange-Osceola County circuit.

The campaign site alleges “deep Florida corruption” and says that Fitzgerald was “not only removed from office by Governor DeSantis, but arrested and slandered by his cronies as well” — a reference to Judd, a staunch ally of the governor.

The “origin story” offers details not yet publicly released on the circumstances behind Fitzgerald’s arrest. Weeks after the election, her daughter, then 13, told her she had been sexually assaulted. Fitzgerald made a complaint to the Lake Wales Police Department, the site says, but soon the Sheriff’s Office became involved.

“Rather than focus on the investigation of the sexual assault, the Sheriff’s men arrested Kris in front of her child,” the website says.

Judd implied that the assault did not happen and said Fitzgerald’s daughter had waited too long to report it, the campaign claims. Instead, the Sheriff’s Office charged Fitzgerald with threatening the boy she said had attacked her daughter, something she has consistently denied.

The website says Fitzgerald spent days in jail “without due process or any answers.” It implies that Judd contacted DeSantis and hatched a scheme to smear her through a news conference, paving the way for her removal from office. Fitzgerald notes that Judd endorsed Goldstein, her opponent in the 2021 election.

Fitzgerald claims on the site that DeSantis “backed down” within days of her demand to have the suspension lifted. Fitzgerald’s lawyer contacted the governor’s office, campaign representative Shawna Vercher said.

Scott Wilder, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, told The Ledger in an email:

“Her claims about the Sheriff are pure fiction, as are her claims about mistreatment in jail. She was legally arrested for threatening an 11 year old boy with a gun. If she does that again, she will be arrested again.”

The mother of the boy involved in the allegations of sexual assault against Fitzgerald’s daughter reacted angrily to the description on the campaign website. She has complained about previous news coverage of Fitzgerald’s case and about a self-published book in which Fitzgerald repeated the claims against her son, saying she identified him without actually naming him. (The Ledger is not identifying the woman to conceal her son’s identity.)

The boy was 11 at the time of the allegations, which he and his mother deny. The mother said that the Lake Wales Police Department and the Florida Department of Children and Families investigated and found insufficient evidence to support the allegation. The boy was not charged.

“He is a child that is trying to continue to strive and grow,” the boy’s mother said. “Every time she (Fitzgerald) makes a statement about a case that she knows was closed because of inconsistent stories and insufficient evidence, I am going to prosecute her to the fullest.”

Seeks to ‘amplify voices’

Fitzgerald is an Air Force veteran who earned bachelor’s degrees in criminology and psychology from the University of South Florida, according to her campaign biography. While raising her daughter, Fitzgerald added a master’s degree in mental health counseling and a master’s of business administration, she said.

Following the charges against her, Fitzgerald was barred from using her license as a counselor and prohibited from having contact with anyone younger than 18, she said. Those court actions prompted her to move from Lake Wales for financial reasons, she said during comments before the Lake Wales City Commission in May.

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Vercher said Fitzgerald signed an agreement for exclusive rights to a first campaign interview, but Fitzgerald answered emailed questions from The Ledger.

Why is she running for Congress, rather than a city, county or state office?

“In the blink of an eye I went from a sitting Commissioner to having false charges made against me, failing to get justice for my daughter, and having a sitting Governor remove me from an elected office,” Fitzgerald wrote. “I felt powerless and at my lowest point I felt like I wanted to give up. Then I realized that so many people feel powerless for different reasons.

“I have faith that my experience was a gift to help me become a better public servant. With a national platform of being a Congressional candidate, I can help to amplify the stories and needs of even more people who feel like their voices have been silenced.”

On her campaign website, Fitzgerald identifies veterans’ issues as her top priority while also emphasizing education and Social Security.

“As a Veteran, it is critical to me that we strengthen the services and the care we can provide for the men and women in our military and their families,” Fitzgerald said by email. “With my background as a therapist and counselor, I’m also passionate about increasing access to mental healthcare. And, of course, as a mom and former educator I view every issue from the perspective of how we keep our children safe while we continue to build opportunity for all Americans.”

No Democrat has won a U.S. House district containing any part of Lakeland for more than 20 years, and Republicans have handily won every election for District 15 since redistricting in 2012.

Lee defeated her Democratic opponent, Alan Cohn, last year by 17 points after the Florida Legislature revised the district’s boundaries.

“Like most of the seats in Florida, District 15 has been redrawn,” Fitzgerald wrote. “It is now a more even mix of Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters so I do know that I can win this race. In my prior election I defeated a well-respected incumbent because I focused on the issues voters care about instead of being negative or attacking others. To me, being an elected official should be similar to being in the military. I plan to serve the people in our community no matter which party someone chooses to affiliate with.”

A photo on her campaign website shows Fitzgerald with a bald head. The Lake Wales News reported in July that she opted to shave her head after a medical condition caused her to lose hair.

Gary White can be reached at or 863-802-7518. Follow on X @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Former Lake Wales Commissioner Kris Fitzgerald runs for U.S. House

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