Ever since former Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel married Texas’ U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions in 2012, questions swirled about whether Winter Park was unofficially gaining a member of Congress or losing a fixture in Central Florida politics, most recently with renewed questions about whether the congressman was living in Texas or Florida; but both Sessions insist it’s Winter Park’s loss, not gain.
Karen Sessions and Congressman Sessions’ press secretary both said late last week that it’s Karen Sessions who is commuting regularly from Texas to Florida, not him. Their Dallas home has officially become her home, even though she’s staying in Florida as much as she can until her last son graduates from high school.
The issue emerged again last week, from Democrats, when Republican state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park set fundraisers in Winter Park and Washington for his congressional campaign in Florida’s 7th Congressional District. Karen and Pete Session, both Republicans, were listed as hosts, though neither actually attended either fundraiser.
Democrats, following a suspicion first raised by Congressman Sessions’ Republican critics three years ago, are charging that he’s not in Dallas, at least not much. The Democrats are targeting Sessions in the 2018 election, partly because his district went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, suggesting a partisan evolution.
“It makes sense that Congressman Pete Sessions is hosting a fundraiser in Florida, where his family has called home since 2012; what’s weird is the fact that Pete Sessions is still running for office in Texas. He’ll have some explaining to do to people back in Dallas, but first he’ll have to introduce himself – from what I hear they haven’t seen him in a while,” said Cole Leiter, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Pete Sessions has served in Congress since 1997 and now is the powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee. With two sons of his own from a previous marriage, he’s kept a Dallas home and maintained a Texas homestead exemption on that house. Karen Sessions is now listed on that homestead exemption as well.
Karen Sessions, who ran for Congress herself in 2010, has kept her home in downtown Winter Park, raising her three sons there since her first husband was killed in a tragic accident. She maintained her Florida homestead exemption, making the Winter Park home her official residence, until recently. She said she has withdrawn her exemption now. She also changed her voter registration to Texas last year.
It is a complicated family situation, but the congressman has not left his district, she said.
“I do commute from Winter Park to Dallas. I commute from Dallas to Winter Park, so we can get all my sons out of high school and into college,” said Karen Sessions, a telecommunications consultant. “Pete doesn’t come to Winter Park. He’s based in the district, doing his work, and in Washington, doing his work. It’s always been like that, and it hasn’t ever changed.”
“He’s in Dallas right now. He has a home in Uptown,” Pete Sessions’ communications director Caroline Boothe said on Friday, the day after the Miller Winter Park fundraiser. Uptown is an upscale neighborhood north of downtown. “Their home is in Dallas.”
Suspicions to the contrary first were publicly raised in 2014 by Republicans. Pete Sessions’ Republican primary challenger, Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson [who went on to be a spokeswoman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign], charged that Sessions was no longer living in Dallas at that time.
Democrats raised it again last week after the Sessionses were listed on Miller’s fundraisers.
Karen Sessions’ Winter Park homestead exemption still is listed online by the Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office. The office of Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh said the office has not yet received her request to withdraw it.