An ongoing spat between supporters of Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Ron Paul flared again Thursday, when pro-Paul dissidents were kicked out of a Pasco County GOP Executive Committee meeting.
Sofie Lefebvre, a Paul supporter, said a sheriff's deputy escorted her and her husband out of the Land O'Lakes Senior Center, where the meeting was held.
They are Republicans who don't support presumptive nominee McCain. Though McCain's nomination is all but assured by delegate count, Paul is still in the race.
"It's this little nasty game going on," Lefebvre said. "This isn't America where you don't let your own people into meetings. This is absolute fascism."
Bill Bunting, the committee's chairman, said it was a "special" meeting open only to precinct committee members, and he did not want any disruption of a busy organizational session.
"We had a limited number of seats," he said. "Sheriff's deputies will be hired from time to time. We're not going to have interference from people who are not members yet."
Lefebvre thought she saw two deputies, and guessed that about 10 people got the boot. Doug Tobin, the sheriff's spokesman, said only one off-duty deputy, hired by Bunting, was present. Tobin said two people were asked to leave. A third showed up and left on his own accord when told it was an executive committee meeting, he said.
Bunting couldn't recall the last time the committee hired deputies for such purposes, and acknowledged such meetings used to be open to all registered Republicans, even those who aren't precinct members. He said Thursday's meeting saw a "record crowd" of about 115.
"If you're trying to focus on work, and four or five people come in and throw your routine off, I don't think you'd accept that," Bunting said.
Lefebvre has no issue with the Sheriff's Office. She said the deputy told her he was hired to "keep certain people away."
"The deputy was so sweet," she said. "He said this isn't right."
The feud isn't new. In late March, during an executive committee meeting, Bunting publicly questioned the party loyalty of three Paul supporters and wouldn't give them precinct appointments they had applied for.
He later told the Pasco Times that he wanted unity behind McCain.
The state GOP signaled Friday it was behind Bunting.
"I've heard the chairman say that the time has come for unity in the party, and we're all now united behind McCain," said spokeswoman Katie Gordon. "If you're cooperative and want unity, then you're more than welcome."
Lefebvre said GOP elders Mike Bilirakis and John Renke II told her they felt she had been mistreated at Thursday's meeting. Neither man replied to calls from the Times on Friday.
Toward the end of his interview with the Times, Bunting took a parting shot.
He said Lefebvre still owes his committee $2,100 for 70 tickets to the Republican straw poll in St. Petersburg in December.
Lefebvre said it was $1,400, not $2,100. She said the way votes were counted at that straw poll didn't turn out the way it was advertised, so she doesn't feel she owes Bunting any money, though she's tried returning the balance of the tickets.
"What I bought was not what was communicated when I bought them," she said. "I don't owe them anything."
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at [email protected] or (813)909-4613.