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Hillsborough Dems query District 56 candidate's party status

TAMPA — It should have been good news for the Democrats when Rep. Trey Traviesa, a darling of the Republican right and a strong favorite to win re-election to his Hillsborough County state House seat, unexpectedly announced he was dropping out.

This golden opportunity for Democrats got even better last week when Republicans replaced Traviesa with Rachel Burgin, a 26-year-old former White House intern now living with her parents.

But she already has an opponent, who qualified as a Democratic candidate last June. Lewis Laricchia, a political novice.

So the Democratic Party may be unable to capitalize on GOP situation. With the clock ticking toward Election Day and several other races requiring time and resources, party leaders say it's unlikely they'll seek to replace Laricchia on the ballot.

"I'm not going to be personally involved in asking him to withdraw," said Michael Steinberg, chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee. "As far as I'm concerned, if he's the party nominee, I'll support him."

They may be able to replace the 59-year-old Valrico nominee if they decide to challenge his status as a Democrat. Laricchia qualified to run for the party on June 18, but he didn't register as a Democrat until three weeks later.

"I'm not sure he is a candidate," said Franklin Sands, the incoming state House Democratic leader. "Common sense dictates that you should be a Democrat if you run as a Democrat."

Now that Traviesa is no longer running for District 56, where Republicans hold a slim lead in the number of registered voters, some Democrats want Laricchia out of the race.

"In my opinion, Traviesa was unbeatable," said Ana Cruz, a Democratic strategist. "It's only when you put a no-name in there like Burgin that you make this district competitive. We can't sleep on races like this."

No other Democrat qualified to run, so Laricchia, a former union organizer whose main campaign issue appears to be homeowner associations, has already won the Democratic primary by default.

State law is unclear on whether Laricchia can be disqualified, said Jennifer Davis, spokeswoman with the Florida Department of State. As long as he is registered Democrat by Election Day, Davis said, it doesn't matter what he was when he qualified.

Yet when he did qualify, Laricchia took an oath swearing he was a member of the Democratic Party. A 1992 Florida Division of Elections advisory opinion stated that a person must belong to the political party when they qualify to run for that party.

It would require someone in the district, which stretches east from Davis Islands, to sue Laricchia in Hillsborough Circuit Court to resolve it. The judge could even expedite the case to allow Democrats time to find a replacement.

But Pat Kemp, vice chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, said it doesn't appear likely that Democrats will end up fighting this battle with Laricchia, who couldn't be reached for comment.

"At this point, it's not happening," Kemp said. "It would be an extreme taxing of the resources that we have here locally."

She didn't rule it out completely, however. Mariella Smith, an environmental activist, James Randolph, who runs a computer firm, and Cathy James, a Riverview accountant, have been some of the names floated as replacements.

But when Kemp spoke with Laricchia by phone on Saturday, he made his intentions clear.

"He was emphatic that he wasn't dropping out," she said. "If he left, it would make things easier, but I don't see that happening."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

Hillsborough Dems query District 56 candidate's party status 08/20/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 1:19pm]
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