TAMPA — A judge ruled Friday that Democrat Linda Saul-Sena should appear as a County Commission candidate on the Nov. 2 ballot, despite Republicans' objections.
"The voters of Hillsborough County are entitled to decide which candidate for the District 5 seat will best serve them," Circuit Judge Herbert Baumann Jr. wrote.
It was the second legal victory for local Democrats this month. Earlier, Circuit Judge William Levens ruled that John Dingfelder could continue his campaign for the District 1 commission seat.
"I am pleased for the voters of Hillsborough County having a choice," Saul-Sena said. "But the real victory will be in November when they have better leadership."
Both Saul-Sena and Dingfelder missed the June 4 deadline to resign from their Tampa City Council posts to run for the County Commission. They submitted their "resign to run" papers during the qualifying period, when the law stated they should have done so 10 days prior.
Their resignations weren't supposed to take effect until November. But after realizing their mistakes, they immediately resigned from the City Council and withdrew from their respective county races.
Invoking its right to fill the vacancies, the Democratic Executive Committee chose Saul-Sena and Dingfelder as replacement candidates.
Two Republican voters filed challenges. Their attorneys argued the candidates were ineligible to qualify for the election because they did not comply with the state's resign-to-run rules.
And because the candidates were never eligible, the Democratic Party had no real vacancies to fill.
GOP attorney Ryan Christopher Rodems has appealed the ruling in the Dingfelder case.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal will consider the case on an expedited basis.
Timing is critical. Here's why: If the appellate court overturns the circuit court's ruling and takes Dingfelder out of the District 1 race, only two Republican candidates would remain on the ballot for the Aug. 24 primary.
Primaries are typically closed in Florida. But under state law, when the primary decides who takes office, then the election must be open to all voters.
The Republican candidates are former state legislator Sandra Murman and Iraq war veteran Trey Rustmann.
Appeals judges "are fully aware of the impact that this could have on the primary election," Rodems said.
The District 5 race is not as time sensitive. With Republican Ken Hagan and independent Jim Hosler running, there will be a general election no matter what.
Rodems said the outcome of the Dingfelder case will determine how he proceeds in Saul-Sena's case.
"From the beginning," he said, "we always expected that the appellate court will make the final call."
Saul-Sena said she isn't worrying about a potential appeal.
"We had very strong, positive verdicts from our local circuit court judges," she said. "There are real issues affecting voters. That's what I want to spend my time talking about."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.