TALLAHASSEE — Deborah Cox-Roush has been on the defensive for weeks in her bid to become head of the state Republican Party, and now finds herself explaining an old driving-under-the-influence charge.
Cox-Roush, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, was charged in 2004 with driving under the influence. According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office web site, Cox-Roush had a blood alcohol level of 0.163 when she was stopped by Tampa police. Under Florida law, a driver with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or more is assumed to be impaired.
The case made the rounds of e-mails Sunday, then surfaced on blogs.
Cox-Roush said she was going home from the St. Pete Times Forum after watching the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team win the Stanley Cup when she was pulled over at a DUI checkpoint.
She called the incident a highly embarrassing mistake. She said she took the required driving classes and had her driver's license reinstated. State records list the case as a second-degree misdemeanor.
"If anybody in their life hasn't made a mistake, let them throw stones at me," she said. "It's a shame we're not talking about the victories we had in November and the issues we have as we go into 2012."
Anticipating that the DUI charge was about to become public, Cox-Roush sent a letter Sunday to Republican Party of Florida members explaining it. In it she also defended catering work her company has done for the local party, some of it while she has been chairwoman.
That catering work prompted anonymous mail to Florida Republicans attacking Cox-Roush for using the party to promote her business, and likening her to former state chairman Jim Greer, who is now facing trial on charges that he secretly directed party money to a consulting company he created.
In the letter to the GOP executive committee Cox-Roush said that if she's elected, her family business would not contract with the state party, the national Republican Party, or organizers of the 2012 Republican National Convention slated for Tampa.
"There is someone in this race who is assuming I'm the front-runner and they can't talk about the issues so they want to talk about me," Cox-Roush said. "It's a shame that someone has made this race so personal."
Republican Party leaders will choose a new chairman next month. Cox-Roush, who is currently vice chairwoman of the state party, has four opponents: Pinellas County's Tony DiMatteo, Palm Beach County's Sid Dinerstein, Dave Bitner from Jefferson County, and Joe Gruters from Sarasota County.
DiMatteo declined to comment on Cox-Roush's DUI charges.
"I believe in Reagan's 11th commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," he said. "In the end, the whole package of any candidate running for this office will be evaluated, and they'll make a decision based on the criteria they think is important and what's not."
Dinerstein defended Cox-Roush. "I don't think that is in and of itself a disqualifier to be chairman of the RPOF," he said. "I'm on her side. People do dumb things in their lives, and sometimes they get caught, and the rest of us who do dumb things in our lives sometimes don't get caught."
Like Cox-Roush, he lamented the focus on personal attacks instead of substantive matters.
Dinerstein has centered his campaign on restoring "ethical health" to the party and giving precinct captains voter data they need to push Republican candidates. DiMatteo is emphasizing his fundraising record as chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party and his experience as a state committeeman.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.