PORT RICHEY — A write-in candidacy in west Pasco's state House district has the Pasco Democratic Party chairman crying foul.
Joseph Verola — who lives next door to fellow candidate Jim Mathieu of Port Richey — filed as a write-in candidate last week. The move restricts the Aug. 14 primary election for the seat to the roughly 35,000 registered Republicans in the district.
But the primary winner could face only token opposition in November, when all voters can cast ballots. If no one else joins the race, the 39,000 Democrats and 26,000 independents will choose between the Republican nominee and a blank line.
"I wonder if Mr. Verola realizes he just stopped over (26,000) non-party people from really having a voice in the selection of someone to represent them," Democratic chairman Lynn Lindeman said.
Pasco GOP vice chairman Mathieu faces Sen. Mike Fasano, the 18-year lawmaker seeking a return to the House. Hudson Republican Michael Kennedy is also in the District 36 race.
"We elect representatives by political party, but they represent all the people of the district, whether you're a Republican, Democrat or independent," Lindeman said.
GOP state committeeman Bill Bunting said both parties have used write-ins to close primaries in the past and that the tactic has been upheld by election officials. He had a solution for Lindeman: Recruit a strong Democrat to offer voters a choice in November.
"He should poll his Democrats and see if they can find a Democrat to support," Bunting said. "He's going to have to field candidates."
Lindeman took over as Democratic chairman in January, and said he's focused on rebuilding a party that has been out of power for years.
"The amount of time left to be able to field a candidate and support them properly just didn't exist," he said.
Primaries are often the key election that determines who takes public office. Consider the races for superintendent of schools and state Senate District 18. In both cases, the winner of the Republican primary would face only nominal opposition, at best, in November.
Florida's primaries are "closed," meaning only registered members of a party can vote in that party's primary. The state Constitution includes one exception: If all the candidates for an office are in the same party and face no opposition in the general election, all registered voters can cast ballots in the primary.
The state Division of Elections issued an opinion in 2000 saying the opposition doesn't have to be "viable or have a realistic chance of success." In 2007, a judge in Lake County upheld the law.
Lindeman said he suspects the write-in move was pushed by the local Republican Party, which has had strained relations with Fasano over his support of former Gov. Charlie Crist's run for U.S. Senate.
"Fasano has been one of the few representatives to put the needs of his constituents ahead of the desires of his party," Lindeman said. "This is another attempt to punish him."
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.