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John Dingfelder can stay in Hillsborough County Commission race, judge rules

TAMPA — John Dingfelder can continue his campaign for Hillsborough County commissioner even though he missed a deadline to quit his Tampa City Council seat under Florida's resign-to-run law, a judge ruled Wednesday.

"It's a big load off our shoulders," said Dingfelder, a lawyer who is running in a district that extends from south Hillsborough to Town 'N Country. "This has been a bit of a dark cloud looming over us."

The sky is indeed brighter, but it is not without clouds.

Not long after receiving Hillsborough County Circuit Judge William P. Levens' ruling, attorney Ryan Christopher Rodems said he will continue to oppose Dingfelder's candidacy.

"We expected there would be an appeal whether we won or not," said Rodems, who represents Republican voter Brian Lothrop in the matter.

A successful challenge could ultimately disqualify Dingfelder from holding office. Dingfelder said an appeal would be totally political.

"They are disregarding the law at this point. It's not about John Dingfelder's rights. It's about the voter's right to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice."

But he said he is not worried.

"I hope they will expedite the appeal so we can get that behind us, too," he said. "This is a very fine judge and he issued a strong opinion."

The lone Democrat in a race to replace Rose Ferlita, Dingfelder will face one of two Republicans — former state legislator Sandra Murman or Trey Rustmann, an Iraq war veteran.

A City Council member since 2003, Dingfelder filed his "resign to run" papers during the qualifying period, when the law stated he should have done so 10 days prior.

Colleague Linda Saul-Sena committed the same error and is also having her candidacy challenged because of it. She is running for an at-large County Commission seat against Republican Ken Hagan and independent Jim Hosler.

Both candidates acknowledged their mistakes, resigned from the City Council and withdrew from their respective county races. Lacking other candidates, the Democratic Executive Committee appointed them as replacements. Rodems represents both of the Republican voters who challenged them.

Arguments have not yet been scheduled for Saul-Sena, who was encouraged by Wednesday's ruling. "It's splendid news about John," she said. "I am confident, based on the strongly worded memo, that both John and I will be on the ballot in November."

Rodems had argued that because Dingfelder did not follow the rules, he was not qualified to run, and therefore there was no actual candidate for the Democrats to replace.

The judge disagreed.

Dingfelder "cured any procedural or substantive defect by the June 29, 2010, withdrawal of his initial candidacy for County Commission," Levens wrote.

Quoting from a 1956 Florida Supreme Court case, he continued: "The right to vote is among the most important rights we all share as Floridians and as Americans." Therefore, "the law requires judges to resolve doubts about qualification of a political candidate in favor of the candidate."

Rodems, although unable to predict how long an appeal might take, said the lawyers and judges are generally trying to avoid delays in both cases, in the interest of the candidates and the voters.

"We want finality and certainly as soon as possible," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 624-2739.

John Dingfelder can stay in Hillsborough County Commission race, judge rules 08/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 12:38am]
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