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Democratic Party's donation to Clearwater council candidate raises eyebrows

CLEARWATER — The Democratic Party's sizable donation to a candidate in the nonpartisan Clearwater City Council race is raising eyebrows, but officials say it is legal.

The Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee recently contributed $6,000 to political newcomer Jon-Paul Rosa's campaign. That's a strikingly large amount for a local municipal campaign, and it got noticed in Clearwater campaign circles.

The cap for donations from an individual or a company is $1,000 in a Florida municipal race.

City Clerk Rosemarie Call said Friday that a number of callers to her office have inquired about the donation's legality. The clerk has a role in running the March 11 city election.

She consulted state election law and found the answer in Florida Statute 106.08. It says that a political party can contribute up to $50,000 to the campaign of any candidate for local office.

Florida election officials verified this on Friday.

"It is a large amount. At this level, we have never seen such a contribution," Call said of the $6,000 political donation. "I think that's what has raised the eyebrows."

Rosa is running against former council member Hoyt Hamilton for Seat 5, an at-large citywide seat that's being vacated by term-limited council member Paul Gibson. Because the election is nonpartisan, candidates don't officially represent political parties.

Mark Hanisee, chairman of the Democrats' local executive committee, was surprised that the party's contribution was being questioned. He noted that the party has financially supported candidates in elections in St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Belleair Bluffs.

"I don't understand what all the hoopla is about. I'm just baffled," Hanisee said. "We gave money to Rick Kriseman and Darden Rice in St. Petersburg. We've been giving to candidates at all levels — state, county, municipal, school board."

Pinellas County Democrats have become more active in municipal elections as part of a strategy to "deepen the bench," Hanisee said. He added that the Democrats' Feb. 3 donation to Rosa is likely the largest given to any city council candidate in the county.

Rosa, a 30-year-old Army combat veteran who is Puerto Rican, is a promising candidate, Hanisee said. "He's a college student, he's a veteran and he's a Latino."

Rosa said he didn't think voters would be swayed one way or another by news of Democratic support of his campaign.

Rosa was a registered Republican until August, when he switched his registration to Democrat, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections. The GOP's stance on immigration — or lack of one — was the reason he switched, he said.

Hamilton, Rosa's opponent, said he can't remember party money being contributed to past Clearwater City Council elections. He said the $6,000 contribution sets a troubling precedent, but he doesn't plan to ask for any Republican help.

Hamilton is a registered Republican.

"In my years on council I never for one millisecond thought, 'Is this going to help Republicans or Democrats?' but (instead), 'Is this going to help Clearwater?' " Hamilton said.

Rosa said he used the money to buy yard signs and pay for mailers.

"I see it as helpful," Rosa said. "The biggest issue in my campaign is outreach."

The latest campaign finance filings show Hamilton still outpacing Rosa, with $22,595 in campaign cash to Rosa's $15,393.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Democratic Party's donation to Clearwater council candidate raises eyebrows 02/21/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 21, 2014 6:32pm]
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