BROOKSVILLE — The letter opens with "Dear Fellow Republican." It thanks the recipient for voting by absentee ballot and lambastes Democrats for "big government" and "wasteful spending."
Then the letter from the Hernando County Republican Executive Committee and signed by party chairman Blaise Ingoglia contains a list of GOP candidates on the ballot this year, from Rick Scott for governor to Wayne Dukes for County Commission.
School Board candidate Sandra Nicholson's name is not on the list. But in the letter is this sentence: "Enclosed, please find all information on all of our Republican candidates who will be on the ballot this year."
Folded into the envelope is Nicholson's campaign flier along with those of Dukes and state Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill.
School Board races are nonpartisan. By state law, candidates are barred from campaigning based on any affiliation to a political party. It's been that way since 1998, when Florida voters changed the Constitution to keep partisan politics out of the school races.
But that doesn't stop political parties from getting involved and candidates from dancing in the gray area.
Statutes do not prohibit parties from endorsing nonpartisan candidates. Nicholson, who faces retired educator Cynthia Moore in the Nov. 4 election, said she didn't see any problems with taking Ingoglia up on his offer to include in the mailing her flier, which lists her as an "NP" or no-party candidate.
"Technically, I'm not a Republican candidate, but I'll take all the help I can get," she said. "As long as they didn't list me as a Republican, there's nothing illegal.
"If the Democrats want to send something out and support me, that would be good, too," she added.
Nicholson is a registered Republican, Ingoglia said. People may infer her party affiliation from the letter, and that's not a bad thing, he said. "I don't see a harm in letting people know what (a candidate's) registration is to give people an idea where their core values lie," Ingoglia said.
A nonpartisan School Board or municipal candidate may accept contributions from a political party and must pay for all or a portion of any advertisement "sponsored by a person, group, or organization wherein the candidate may be endorsed for office by the person, group, or organization," according to a 2002 informal opinion issued to elections supervisors by the Florida Department of State.
The Florida Elections Commission determines if there is a violation if a complaint is made, said Jennifer Krell Davis, spokeswoman for the department. Elections commission officials could not provide data on how often such complaints are filed. Civil penalties can be fines of up to $1,000 per count.
Asked if she planned to list the mailing as in-kind donation from the REC, Nicholson said yes.
Arthur Kelland, 88, received the letter at his Timber Pines home and was none too pleased.
The registered Republican acknowledged that he knows Moore well and is supporting her in the race. But he said that doesn't change what he sees as a fact about the flier's inclusion in the mailing.
"It's not in the spirit of non-partisanship," Kelland said. "It was in the envelope, and that was 100 percent Republican."
Kelland said he would have considered filing a complaint if there was more time before the election.
Moore, a registered Democrat, said she's focused on her own campaign. "I'm going to do my best to win and that's all I'm going to do," she said.
Hernando County has a history of partisanship creeping into School Board races since the 1998 law passed.
In 2008, School Board candidate Gene Magrini's name turned up on a list of clients of Laurie Pizzo, a Republican political consultant and Realtor who served as county co-chairwoman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Pizzo's social networking website listed other Republicans including County Commission candidate John Druzbick and supervisor of elections candidate Shirley Anderson. Magrini called Pizzo a friend, not a political consultant.
The same year, many county voters received an automated phone call reminding them about early voting. Then they heard this: "By the way, did you know James Yant is the only registered Democrat in the race for School Board?"
Then-Democratic Executive Committee chairman Jay Rowden acknowledged at the time that the party was behind the message but said it didn't amount to partisan campaigning because it did not explicitly tell voters to choose Yant and Yant had not asked for the mention.
This year, there is no such activity in calls and letters from the party, said DEC chairman James Singer. "We're certainly not including the School Board in those things," Singer said. "Absolutely not."
Nicholson calls herself a fiscal conservative who has support from members of both parties but doesn't consider party lines when behind the board dais.
"I'm there for the kids," she said. "I represent everybody."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]