TAMPA — Hillsborough County Republicans have fired the first volley in an effort to get Democrat John Dingfelder out of his County Commission race.
A lawsuit seeking to boot him from the November ballot was filed Thursday in county Circuit Court by Brian Lothrop, a Republican who lives in the district Dingfelder seeks to represent.
"We're asking that his name be removed," said Terri Gaffney, an attorney representing Lothrop. "His name cannot be on there, nor can a substitute be on there."
Plans also call for filing a suit challenging the candidacy of Linda Saul-Sena, a Democrat also running for the County Commission, said Deborah Cox-Roush, the county Republican Party chairwoman.
The suit against Dingfelder stems from a missed deadline for filing papers signaling his intention to resign from the Tampa City Council to run for the commission. Saul-Sena missed the same deadline.
The complaint names Dingfelder, along with Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard, interim Secretary of State Dawn Roberts, and the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee.
"This is exactly what people hate about partisan politics," Dingfelder said. "This lawsuit is just a smoke screen to divert people's attention from the issues that people really care about, like jobs, our local economy, transportation and quality of life."
Lennard qualified Dingfelder for the ballot despite the missed deadline. The lawsuit questions whether that was proper, and whether the secretary of state can certify Dingfelder as the Democratic nominee.
State law requires elected officials to resign to run if the terms of their current position and the one they are seeking overlap. The resignations, which can take effect on the date they would step into the new office — in this case mid November — can't be revoked even if the candidate loses the election. The deadline for filing the resign-to-run papers this year was June 4. Dingfelder didn't file his resignation letter until June 15.
After becoming aware of the missed deadline, both Dingfelder and Saul-Sena resigned from their council seats last month, effective immediately, hoping that would keep them on the ballot.
When he learned Republicans planned to challenge his candidacy, Dingfelder went a step further, withdrawing from the race altogether on June 29. That left the Democrats with no candidate in November.
State law allows a party left with a "vacancy in nomination" because a candidate is removed from the ballot to appoint a new one. Democrats appointed Dingfelder to the slot on June 30, and he paid a $5,500 qualifying fee the next day to get his name back on the ballot.
But the lawsuit questions whether Democrats had the right to name a replacement for Dingfelder, arguing that he never legally qualified in the first place.
"There is no vacancy that Dingfelder or any person can fill. That's what it comes down to," Gaffney said.
Lothrop and representatives of Lennard and Roberts declined to comment on the lawsuit. Pat Kemp, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party did not return calls for comment.
If Dingfelder survives the challenge, he will face the winner of the District 1 Republican primary that pits former state Rep. Sandy Murman against Trey Rustmann, a project manager for a personnel firm. District 1 covers Town 'N Country, South Tampa and the eastern shore of south Hillsborough County. Saul-Sena will face sitting Commissioner Ken Hagan, a Republican, and Jim Hosler, who is running with no party affiliation, in the race for the countywide District 5 seat.
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.