Watching the GOP delegate selection process in Tampa Bay
CLEARWATER -- The men and women who may pick the Republican presidential nominee streamed into a cramped office in a generic office park tucked near St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Saturday.
Eighty nine Republicans from Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas Counties applied to be among nine delegates for what increasingly looks like it will be the first contested Republican National Convention in decades.
“I felt I’d better step up. Florida went for Trump and I want to make sure that whether it’s the first ballot, second ballot, third ballot, fourth ballot or 14th ballot, that Florida is represented and Trump is the nominee,” said Dorine McKinnon, a longtime Republican activist in Pinellas County who hasn’t had much interest in attending previous conventions.
Normally, few people pay any attention to the identity of delegates to the national conventions because the nomination is decided well before the convention. This year, though, frontrunner Donald Trump could well fall short of winning the 1.237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. In that case, the delegates selected at grassroots meetings like the one Saturday ultimately may pick whoever they wish to be the Republican nomination.
Delegations in most states are bound to vote in line with their state’s primary or caucus results for one or two rounds of voting, and after that can vote however they like. Florida’s Republican Party rules obligate the state’s 99 delegates all to vote for the primary winner, Trump, for the first three ballots.
“After the third ballot we’ll see what happens,” said Pinellas state committeewoman Nancy Riley, who said she voted for Jeb Bush in Florida’s primary and now is undecided.
The vast majority of Florida’s delegates are chosen by county party officials - three delegates (and three alternates) for each of of Florida’s 27 congressional districts. If a district includes parts of multiple counties, than the top three party leaders in each of those counties picks the delegates.
Congressional District 12 represented by Gus Bilirakis, for instance, includes parts of north Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough counties, so the GOP chairman and state committeeman and state committeewoman from each county made the picks Saturday: Tina Harris, Pasco state committeewoman Sandy Graves, and state Rep. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor. (alternate delegates picked were Mary Gaulden, Steven Graves, Pam McAloon.)
In Congressional District 13, represented by by David Jolly, only Pinellas Chairman Nick DiCeglie, state committeeman Dan Tucker, and state committeewoman Nancy Riley made they pick. After quick, behind-closed doors presentations from applicants, DiCeglie, Tucker, and Riley, chose themselves to be delegates. (Alternates are Todd Jennings, Dorine McKinnon, Chely Hernandez-Miller.)
Delegates picked for Congressional District 14, currently represented by Kathy Castor, were Terry Castro, Spencer Rogers, and Marjorie Mittleman (alternates Mike Mikurak, Tony Desisto, James Buntyn).
“I know the fix is in, but I’m just here for the fun,” quipped Patrick Narog, one of the applicants for District 13.
Despite the potential stakes and the ongoing turmoil in the Republican presidential primary, activists at the gathered for the delegate selection chatted amiably with one another while waiting for their names to be called for quick presentations or waiting for the decisions. Trump’s Florida campaign had been working to ensure Trump supporters were represented among the delegates, and that appeared to be the case with those chosen Saturday.
The decision to conduct the interviews and vote behind closed doors, however, surprised some people.
“So it’s not going to be transparent and open to the public?” asked Jeanne Webb of Hillsborough, who had come to observe the process.
Riley responded that there was not enough room for and that they wanted applicants to be comfortable and not have to speak in front of a big crowd.
“That’s a decision by the party establishment, not one conservative Republicans would make,” Webb said before leaving.
Any Republican voter was eligible to apply to be a delegate in their congressional district, but party officials warned that air fare, hotels and food can bring the cost of attending the convention to more than $4,000.