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Judge weighing Hillsborough County Commission candidate's fate

TAMPA — He's a lawyer. He's a politician. People call John Dingfelder plenty of names.

But a goat? Not so often.

An attorney made the comparison repeatedly in an otherwise dry and precedent-heavy court hearing Tuesday afternoon.

At issue was whether Dingfelder can run as a Democrat for the Hillsborough County Commission in a district that extends from south Hillsborough through Town 'N Country. Despite all his experience, Dingfelder missed a deadline to resign from the Tampa City Council before running for the County Commission.

Lawyers representing a Republican voter say Dingfelder violated a state "resign-to-run" law that is meant to prevent candidates from enjoying the competitive advantage of holding a government title.

When the error was caught in late June, Dingfelder resigned from the City Council and withdrew his candidacy. Lacking any Democrat on the ticket, the county's Democratic Executive Committee then nominated Dingfelder.

The Democrats say they were asserting their right under a concept known as "vacancy in nomination." That's what parties do if a candidate dies, resigns, or is removed before a primary.

But Republican attorney Ryan Christopher Rodems argued that because Dingfelder did not follow the rules, he was never qualified to run, and someone who isn't qualified cannot be considered a candidate.

"If that were the case, a goat could be nominated," Rodems said. "There would be felons, or goats, or incompetents in office. We can't have it!"

Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge William P. Levens called the goat comparison ludicrous, although he smiled as Rodems walked him through the hypothetical:

A goat submits his papers. The goat is removed from the ballot for, well, being a goat. Is there now a vacancy that the party can fill? Or should the election proceed as if there never had been a candidate at all?

Dingfelder's attorney, Mark Herron of Tallahassee, said the matter was not a resign-to-run case because Dingfelder is technically a replacement candidate on the ticket.

Nor is the advantage of incumbency a real issue, he said, as the law allows resignation letters that are effective months into the future.

Levens said he will issue a ruling this morning, clarifying matters in a field that also includes Republicans Sandy Murman and Trey Rustmann.

While the Democrats would like a stake in the race, Rodems said they could have put up more than one candidate.

"They don't get a do-over," he said. "They don't get a 'We're sorry.' "

It was another moment of showmanship for a lawyer who is not a real-life movie character.

Herron is. Part of the team that backed presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000 Florida, Herron was depicted in the HBO film Recount.

Staff writer Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 624-2739.

Judge weighing Hillsborough County Commission candidate's fate 08/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 11:34pm]
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