BROOKSVILLE — Tonight, local Republicans host a "Unity Rally" to trumpet the party's slate of candidates. But so far, the event is creating anything but harmony.
The reason is Blaise Ingoglia, a leading proponent of a movement to oust incumbent county commissioners (including Republicans), who is serving as the rally's master of ceremonies.
His presence prompted the county's most prominent African-American Republican to consider boycotting the rally. Paul Douglas is upset after Ingoglia told a racially insensitive joke about Barack Obama at an event on primary election night at the local GOP headquarters.
Ingoglia stood up in the middle of the room, Douglas said, and asked the approximately 25 people in the crowd which president appeared on the $1 bill, the $50 bill and the $100 bill. The crowd answered.
Then Ingoglia asked where Obama's face would appear if he was elected president. The punch line: "On food stamps."
Douglas, a staunch Republican who favors Obama in the presidential election, said the joke seemed to make the entire group uncomfortable.
"The perception, even in this poor county, is that most of our food stamps go to black people," he said. "To me, it was racially insensitive and uncalled for. I took offense to it."
Ingoglia rejected and "condemned" Douglas' assertion. "How can it be racially tinged? Race had nothing to do with that joke," he said. "I'm offended somebody would think it was a racial comment."
Ingoglia said he meant the joke as a criticism of Obama's tax policies. He explained that Obama would raise taxes on everyone — which is false, according to Politifact.com, a political fact-checking site affiliated with the St. Petersburg Times — and force more people into poverty, and thus, into the food stamp program.
He added that his home-building business employs a number of minorities, including "Afro-Americans."
Ingoglia offered to apologize to Douglas but didn't when the two talked Thursday morning. Douglas doesn't buy Ingoglia's explanation, saying tax policy was never mentioned as part of the joke. "It still would have been offensive," he said. "That's an excuse."
This is just the latest incident putting Ingoglia at the forefront of controversy.
Last year, he acted as the central figure inflaming the public outcry related to the Government Gone Wild seminars, which advocated the removal of incumbent county commissioners. This included Jeff Stabins, a Republican. Ingoglia gave money to two of Stabin's GOP primary opponents and publicly criticized the commissioner after his victory.
Stabins, one of two Republicans on the commission, said Ingoglia's role taints the whole GOP event.
"I don't think he has any business being involved in a unity rally because he's such a negative character," he said. "It's not good for the party."
Stabins will attend the rally, and after much cajoling, persuaded Douglas to come with him. But Stabins said he refuses to appear on stage with Ingoglia.
Ana Trinque, the chairwoman of the local Republican Executive Committee, stood by Ingoglia's role in the event. "There are some people outside the club and outside the REC … they haven't gotten to know Blaise well," she said.
A flier originally listed Ingoglia as a speaker, but Trinque said it was printed before she confirmed state party chairman Jim Greer would attend.
Trinque said she was present at the GOP primary night party but didn't hear Ingoglia's food stamps joke. "It's a bad joke," she said, after hearing it recounted. But "I don't believe he's being racial or racist in any way."
Douglas said Trinque was standing very near to Ingoglia when he told the joke. "He had the full attention of the whole crowd," he said.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.