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Tea party leaders upset about Florida's new law banning party switches

TALLAHASSEE — The head of a tea party coalition in northwest Florida and the head of the Tea Party of Florida don't often agree on much, but they both are miffed at Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida GOP.

When the Florida Legislature passed and Scott signed a law that bans candidates for public office from switching parties, they effectively iced out many tea party brethren and registered "independents" seeking to run next year in newly drawn districts, said Henry Kelley, the president of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party and a potential candidate for a Republican House seat representing Crestview.

"I don't like things that give the appearance of limiting people's access to the ballot,'' said Kelley, who is currently not registered with any party and therefore not subject to the ban.

But if he had been registered with the Independent Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Tea Party or any of the other alternative parties in Florida, he would be banned from running as a Republican or Democrat next year.

Under the law, any candidate who qualifies to run in 2012 in a partisan election by the June 8 deadline must have been registered with his or her party for the past 365 days. Because qualifying ends June 8, 2012, the law closed the door on any candidate seeking office next year who hadn't switched parties by the time the bill became law earlier this year.

"That violates my sense of equal protection under the law,'' said Kelley, who added that it "gives the appearance of gaming the system.''

Doug Guetzloe, the head of the Tea Party of Florida agrees. The onetime GOP political consultant from Orlando has become a thorn in the side of the Republican Party of Florida as he sought designation for a rival party, named the Tea Party of Florida. Kelley and other tea party activists also fought Guetzloe's attempts to create the separate party.

But Guetzloe recruited 21 candidates to run under the Tea Party of Florida banner. In November 2010, they collected a total of 310,000 votes, despite attempts to throw them off the ballot.

Now, Guetzloe calls the bill passed by legislators last session as a "GOP incumbency protection act" and "a deliberate attempt to restrict anyone trying to challenge their control.''

He said he is in the unlikely position of supporting a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and other civil rights groups.

Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, who heads the House Redistricting Committee and is slated to be House speaker in 2012, said the bill was intended to prevent candidates from building a base with one party and then switching in the midst of a difficult primary, as former Gov. Charlie Crist did in 2010.

"I don't think it's going to preclude anybody from running for office,'' he said Monday. "You should, in my opinion, give the citizens of Florida enough time to know what party you are — so people don't change their parties at the last minute and try to be something you're not.''

The 2012 election provides a unique opportunity for newcomers to enter politics, and tea party candidates across the state are considering running for the Legislature for the first time, several tea party supporters said.

In a redistricting year, when boundaries are uncertain often until just before the period for candidates to qualify opens, state law allows candidates to avoid paying the qualifying fees and get their names on the ballot by getting signatures from voters anywhere in the state instead of signatures from the district.

"It does offer some opportunities,'' said Karen Jaroc of the Tampa 912 Project, a tea party group. Her group is working with the Tampa Tea Party to interview and vet candidates who embrace the group's goals.

Kelley believes that many of those candidates are already registered as Republicans but some may be snagged by the party registration limit. Guetzloe believes that although the provision was intended to keep his party at bay, he predicts he will have at least 100 candidates on the ballot.

Nancy Argenziano, a former Republican who registered with the Florida Independent Party, is the only candidate who has said she has been snagged by the law. She had planned to run as a Democrat for the congressional district held by Panama City Republican Steve Southerland, but has since announced she will challenge him as a member of the Independent Party.

Guetzloe predicts Argenziano may get as many as 15 to 20 percent of the Republican votes in the district and "be an example of typical Republican Party overreach.''

Kelley, who openly disdains Guetzloe's group, said he agrees the GOP may regret changing the rules. "If you focus on the policies, we're winning in the marketplace of ideas; you don't need to game the system."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Tea party leaders upset about Florida's new law banning party switches 09/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2011 11:00pm]

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