TAMPA — Former Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder quit his campaign for a Hillsborough County Commission seat Tuesday in an effort to clear the way for his return to the race without the threat of litigation.
Dingfelder said he's hoping to avoid a court fight over whether he properly qualified for the race. He's banking on the county Democratic Party appointing him to run anyway, essentially as a replacement for himself.
"I was concerned that this was going to drag on," Dingfelder said. "Any litigation that might arise would be a distraction from the issues that Hillsborough County voters want to hear about."
Meanwhile, former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena said she has no intention of abandoning her bid for a different County Commission seat, despite questions about whether she properly qualified. However, she acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that she made a mistake during the election qualifying process.
"I want to apologize to the voters," she said Tuesday. "My actions have taken the focus away from the substantive issues of the campaign. The good news is I'm still here. I'll be on the November ballot."
Dingfelder and Saul-Sena, both Democrats, missed a deadline to submit letters of resignation from the council, which is required to run for another office. Under state law, both were required to submit an irrevocable resignation letters, though they could have made it coincide with taking a new post.
Both resigned abruptly from the City Council last week, saying that their immediate departures would enable them to remain in their commission races.
Saul-Sena is running for a countywide commission seat. She faces Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan and Jim Hosler, a former planner who is running without party affiliation.
Dingfelder was seeking the District 1 seat representing West and South Tampa, and neighborhoods along the southern Hillsborough shoreline.
Local Republican leaders said Dingfelder's move changes nothing. The Hillsborough County GOP still plans to try to block his and Saul-Sena's candidacies, chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush said.
"I find it really outrageous that they can circumvent the elections laws like they are trying to do," she said.
Richard Coates, a Tallahassee elections and ethics lawyer with whom local party officials have been consulting, said Dingfelder is not out of the woods.
The argument against Saul-Sena is that she never properly qualified. And there is case law that suggests she could be removed from the ballot for failing to follow the rules.
The argument against Dingfelder goes further. According to state law, if a candidate is removed from the ballot and a party ends up with no nominee on the ticket, the local party can select someone to fill the vacancy.
But Coates said that if Dingfelder never properly qualified, the party should not have the right to replace him. It's as though no Democrats stepped forward to run in the first place in time for the June 18 qualifying deadline.
"The argument is: If the candidate was never duly qualified, how can you have a vacancy?" Coates said.
Court rulings have come down differently on that question.
Dingfelder said he's not following any particular legal strategy, but is following the advice of lawyers, relatives and supporters. He also said there's no guarantee the party will select him as his own replacement candidate, though he said he will accept if that happens.
Pat Kemp, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, said she would fully expect the party membership to unanimously pick Dingfelder. The party has until July 6 to name a replacement.
Dingfelder would face the winner of the Republican primary between Sandy Murman and Trey Rustmann.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.