Among the hundreds of characters who make up the perpetually dysfunctional Florida Democratic Party, no one in the past 30 years has so consistently and effectively been at the forefront of coups against party leaders than Jon Ausman.
Volatile, profane and some say brilliant, Ausman, 54, has a tendency to show up for business meetings either looking like an unmade bed or drenched in sweat in his skin-tight cycling outfit.
Today, though, Florida's top Democratic rabble-rouser becomes the vessel for resolving the bitter dispute over whether Florida has any official say in the presidential nomination. The race for leader of the free world will halt as the national party considers Ausman's legal appeal to reinstate at least some of the state's 211 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
"I want 100 to 110 delegates. Anything I get in that range I'm going to declare victory," said Ausman, a state grants administrator and part-time political consultant in Tallahassee, who is uncommitted in the race.
Even those in Florida who view Ausman as a divisive troublemaker — and plenty do — say his position at the center of the delegate dispute is a natural fit. No Florida Democrat better understands the arcane rules of the state and national parties, and nobody thrives more on controversy.
"He goes back and forth between an arsonist and a firefighter," said former state party chairman Bob Poe, whom Ausman helped oust in 2003. "He has a handful of followers, but it's the classic case of the squeaky wheel gets the oil, when it should be the quacking duck gets shot first."
Party leaders who underestimate Ausman's political skills and butt heads with him more often than not wind up as former party leaders.
Among those Ausman has actively worked to oust, or at least damage politically, over the years, are former chairmen Poe, Simon Ferro and Scott Maddox, and former executive director Scott Falmen. He unsuccessfully tried to thwart Sen. Bill Nelson's efforts to make Karen Thurman party chairwoman, though today Ausman grades Thurman's performance with a solid "B."
Given Ausman's encyclopedic knowledge of rules and immunity to criticism, it makes perfect sense that this baseball fanatic once trained to become an umpire.
"It's true that I play the game hard. It's true that I don't mind throwing the high heat into the chin if I have to push people back off the plate. But the bottom line is, this is a tough game. It's a zero-sum game," said Ausman, insisting that his motivation has always been about helping Democrats succeed and promoting grass roots participation in party operations. To that end, Ausman once beat up a couple of college kids for erecting Republican campaign signs that he said were improperly placed.
Leon County's Democratic chairman from 1980 to 2000 and a DNC member since 1992, Ausman argues in his challenge to the DNC's rules and bylaws committee that it overstepped its authority last August in stripping away all Florida delegates.
For one thing, he contends that the national party charter mandates that all members of Congress and DNC members must be delegates and that the charter trumps any rules committee vote. For another, Ausman contends that the rules committee did not have the authority to strip away more than half of Florida's 185 pledged delegates.
The Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign is calling for Florida to get all its delegates seated based on the Jan. 29 primary, which would net her a gain of 38 pledged delegates on rival Barack Obama. But most observers expect Florida's delegation will either be cut in half or given half-votes.
Ausman, so often depicted as a master of infighting in Florida politics, has become the potential reconciler of a massive controversy in one of the most volatile presidential primaries in modern history. Hundreds of journalists and spectators will be watching him make his case.
"It's ironic that he's going to be the party savior in this case, but we're grateful that he's handled it in a very smart and judicious matter," said former state Democratic executive director Ana Cruz of Tampa. "It's a shame, but some folks feel intimidated by him. Jon is brilliant. He knows the rules of the party better than anybody else, and in addition nobody knows better how to use those rules and bylaws to his advantage."
State campaign finance records show that since 1996, Ausman has been paid nearly $56,000 in consulting fees and expense reimbursements, mostly from the Florida Democratic Party. Ausman currently has no consulting deal with the party, but several times over the years has run unsuccessfully for party chairman or been talked about for executive director.
"The brilliance of Jon Ausman is that he is a very, very good tactician. He's a very good strategist and he's just tenacious. Once he set his mind to something you can't move him," said Lynda Russell, a party executive director in the early 1990s. "There's probably never been an executive director as knowledgeable or skilled as him, including me, but he's always been too rough around the edges for the power structure."
The power structure has struggled to find a way out of the delegate mess for nearly a year. Ausman, the rebel, is the one who finally mapped the path.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.
Adam C. Smith can be reached
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