Hillsborough GOP vows legal action to block Democratic County Commission candidates

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Republicans said Friday they will ask a judge to remove two Democratic County Commission candidates from the November ballot after they missed a deadline for filing paperwork with the supervisor of elections.

But even if they succeed in having John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena booted, it's likely they will end up back on the ballot.

According to state law, if the removal of a candidate leaves a party with no nominee on the ticket, the local party can select someone to fill the vacancy.

"If it comes to that, with the party appointing, we would be looking at the great candidates we have, John and Linda," said Pat Kemp, who chairs the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. "They are absolutely well supported and very strong candidates and have broad support. People are very excited about each of them."

Both are the only Democratic candidates in their races.

Saul-Sena is running against Republican Ken Hagan and Jim Hosler, who is running with no party affiliation, for the at-large District 5 commission seat. Dingfelder, who is seeking the District 1 seat that stretches from Town 'N Country through South Tampa to southern Hillsborough County, will face the winner of the Republican primary in August.

After missing the June 4 deadline to file letters signifying their intent to resign from their Tampa City Council seats to run for the commission, Dingfelder and Saul-Sena left their posts immediately, assuming that would preserve their candidacies. Had they filed their letters on time, they could have stayed in office until after the Nov. 2 general election.

Deborah Cox-Roush, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, said party attorneys are researching a court challenge to their nominations. At least one previous court case indicates the party's challenge stands a good chance.

Cox-Roush called it "outrageous" for the Democrats to put Dingfelder and Saul-Sena back in the races.

"They blew the rules the first time. To me what they're doing is circumventing the system a second time," she said. "It amazes me."

But Kemp said the missed deadline doesn't mean Dingfelder and Saul-Sena aren't good candidates.

"It really is a technicality," she said.

Their resignations, she said, comply with the spirit of the law.

It calls for candidates to resign 10 days before the start of the election qualifying period. The law, she said, is intended to give someone who wants to run for the position being vacated time to qualify for election in November.

In the case of the City Council jobs Dingfelder and Saul-Sena were leaving, this year's June 4 deadline to resign is significantly earlier than necessary because the qualifying period for the March council elections isn't until January.

Saul-Sena said she's confident her name will appear on the ballot in November.

"I'm working very hard to win this election," she said. "Our campaign is moving full speed ahead. We are receiving campaign contributions, we have a number of activities scheduled for this weekend, including a fundraiser, and our spirits are high."

During her 20 years on the council, Saul-Sena was a strong advocate for mass transit, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets, environmental protection and historic preservation. More recently, she pressed for strengthening ties between Tampa and Cuba.

Remaining City Council members will choose replacements for Dingfelder and Saul-Sena.

Interim council members, who will serve until the city elections in March, must be selected within 30 days of the resignations. Applications for the posts will be available at City Hall at noon Monday and are due by 5 p.m. July 12. The council will interview applicants at a special meeting July 19 and swearing-in is set for July 22.

Council hopefuls are already lining up, including several candidates who have filed to appear on the ballot in the spring.

They include Seth Nelson, a family law attorney running for Saul-Sena's citywide District 3 seat, who has served for two years on the council's citizens budget advisory council; Dean Hale, a real estate agent challenging Joseph Caetano's re-election to the District 7 seat that represents North Tampa; and Kevin Merchant, who works in a hospital call center and has also filed to run against Caetano.

Curtis Stokes, former president of the Hillsborough County chapter of the NAACP, said he plans to apply. Gov. Charlie Crist recently appointed him to serve on the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority. Stokes, who ran for City Council unsuccessfully in 2003, said he does not plan to run for a permanent seat on the council.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Hillsborough GOP vows legal action to block Democratic County Commission candidates 06/26/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 26, 2010 1:06am]

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