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Self-styled idealist takes on immigration issue

People who enter the country illegally shouldn't benefit from welfare, schools or other services paid for by hard-working, law-abiding U.S. citizens.

It's a sentiment that congealed in California under the name Proposition 187. Voters there approved it last November, and several other states are considering similar measures to discourage illegal immigration.

Douglas Guetzloe, a political consultant in Orlando, wants to be midwife to just such a referendum in Florida. He founded Save Our State, a political action committee that is collecting the 430,000 signatures needed to put a Proposition 187-like measure before Florida voters next year.

"It's a matter of law and order," says Guetzloe, 41. "Are we a nation of laws? We shouldn't be rewarding people who are breaking the law."

But Guetzloe (pronounced GETS-low) has had problems of his own. He has been the target of lawsuits, a grand theft charge, a state elections investigation and controversy over his role in two other high-emotion referendum campaigns.

Florida Locally Approved Gaming, which failed to get a casino measure on the ballot last year, claims in a lawsuit that Guetzloe charged it more than $850,000 for collecting 360,000 signatures, many of which turned out to be invalid. Guetzloe contends he was contracted to collect only 275,000 signatures.

And backers of Save Our Sealife, a proposal to ban certain types of commercial fishing nets, accused Guetzloe and other opponents of using deceptive tactics to fight the measure last year. Guetzloe's Save Our Seafood campaign came up with a near-identical logo, but Guetzloe laughs off criticism.

"Creating confusion was part of the effort because (those on the other side) were lying to the people," said Guetzloe, who says the net ban, which takes effect Saturday, will put 18,000 fishermen out of work.

Guetzloe's friends say he is an idealist who is misunderstood because he stands firmly behind issues and doesn't compromise.

"When Doug takes up an issue, it's a no-holds-barred thing," said Ray Link, vice mayor of Maitland, an Orlando suburb.

But others, including former friends and associates, say Guetzloe's career demonstrates that he is a demagogue and an opportunist who should not be involved in an issue as sensitive as immigration.

"This issue is like nitroglycerin in the body politic," said Allison DeFoor, a Tavernier lawyer and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 1990.

"It's got a lot of potential to cause hate and division. Someone who's got this consistent a record of being self-serving and divisive should not be handling an issue like this. Doug Guetzloe's intentions are not for a reasoned debate on this issue. I believe he's doing it for power and fame."

The Orange County Republican Party, which has many members who bitterly remember Guetzloe's role in organizing a brief takeover of the party committee by Christian right-wingers in the 1980s, is not supporting his Save Our State effort.

"He's a master at innuendo and what I consider less than fair campaigns," said party chairman Gerald Braley. "I don't think a constitutional amendment would be necessary. I think we have laws on the books already that should be enforced."

A few days after a reporter questioned Guetzloe about his background, he announced he no longer would serve as petition coordinator of Save Our State. He said he expected to be too busy with his consulting business' clients, including a presidential candidate in Zaire, to be actively involved in the campaign. But he promised to continue supporting SOS with advice and money.

Meanwhile, his 24-year-old assistant, David Abrami, was promoted from SOS' spokesman to executive director. Cheri Hendricks, who answers telephones and keeps books for Guetzloe's consulting business, remains SOS' treasurer.

Abrami and Hendricks are on the payroll of Guetzloe's business, Advantage Consultants, and all share the same office.

Support from Reagan?

Guetzloe, who was born in Tampa and grew up in Clearwater, describes his childhood as normal and uneventful. His father was a teacher; his mother, a teen suicide expert. But even as a young man, Guetzloe was involved in campaigns that presaged the controversy that surrounds him today.

DeFoor, the onetime candidate for lieutenant governor, recalls that Guetzloe was his running mate when DeFoor ran for president of Teen Age Republicans while both were in high school.

Right before the election, DeFoor says, his campaign was scuttled because Guetzloe cut a better deal with the other side.

Guetzloe went on to Florida State University, where he was vice president of the student body, and briefly, president. His tenure was marred by a recall campaign after he slashed funds to student organizations he considered too liberal. The recall never went through because Guetzloe's term expired and another president was elected.

"It was a tempest in a teapot," Guetzloe now says, though he concedes he may have been a bit "obnoxious."

After college Guetzloe worked as a spokesman and lobbyist for several different organizations, including the Florida Medical Association. He created Ax the Tax, a now-defunct political committee that fought against local taxes. He ran twice for the state Senate and lost. Eventually he founded his own political consulting and direct-mail business in Orlando.

And the controversies continued.

In 1988, Guetzloe advised a state legislative candidate whose campaign distributed copies of what appeared to be a presidential letter of endorsement, written on White House stationery and signed by Ronald Reagan. Although the White House had sent the candidate a memo saying Reagan considered him the better candidate, the campaign letter and signature were fabrications.

Guetzloe's defense: The letter was a stylistic device that did nothing wrong in capturing the spirit of Reagan's endorsement. "The president doesn't himself sign those types of letters anyway," Guetzloe said. If people were naive enough to believe the letter actually originated from the White House, it was their fault, he said.

Until last year, Guetzloe also was a spokesman and lobbyist for the American Senior Citizens Alliance, a company that sent mailers to seniors in envelopes that looked as though they came from the federal government. The literature was followed by a call from high-pressure sales people who sold seniors costly living wills they often did not need.

The state Attorney General's Office investigated the company for practicing law without a license and obtained a court order. Guetzloe himself was not investigated, but as the company's spokesman he publicly defended its operations.

Guetzloe "reached a new low" last year with tactics he and other members of Save Our Seafood used against the campaign to ban certain types of fishing nets, political consultant John Sowinski said.

Save Our Seafood, which wanted to retain commercial nets, mailed out fund-raising letters to anti-net Save Our Sealife supporters. Like that of the net ban campaign, Save Our Seafood's logo showed a net and leaping fish. Confused by the mailings, hundreds of people who supported the net ban campaign sent money to the pro-net forces.

Sowinski's staff, working for Save Our Sealife, suspected something was wrong when a printer called their office and asked to speak to Guetzloe, saying the stationery he had ordered was ready. Some supporters who received the mailings complained. Postal authorities investigated and obtained a temporary restraining order against the pro-net campaign.

Sowinski said Guetzloe's tactics not only failed _ the net ban was approved _ but backfired as well. Many undecided voters lost sympathy for the commercial fishermen Guetzloe represented, and Guetzloe himself "basically lost credibility," Sowinski said.

Today, Guetzloe laughs when reminded of the incident. "We tried to use the tactics and strategies we could to level the playing field," he said, noting that the other side was getting a lot of contributions. The mailings might have created confusion, he said, but they were "ethical" and even a public service.

After years of speaking out against the evils of gambling, Guetzloe also surprised some people last year when he agreed to collect signatures for Florida Locally Approved Gaming, a political committee set up by the Bally casino company to push its pro-casino proposal. Bally's petition did not collect the minimum number of signatures needed and never made it to the ballot.

Guetzloe said he saw the job purely as a business opportunity. On election day, he said, he voted against another pro-casino amendment.

While embroiled in the controversy of both the casino and net campaigns last year, Guetzloe found himself facing trial on a grand theft charge stemming from his work on a 1992 property appraiser's campaign in Orlando. He was charged with illegally taking $2,500 from a client's campaign account. Guetzloe argued that it was a billing error, and a jury acquitted him.

Guetzloe also is being investigated by state elections officials, who found probable cause that he willfully violated state law by falsely reporting the finances of a Young Republicans club he founded. The investigation began after Guetzloe wrote the Orange County supervisor of elections a $25 check that bounced.

Guetzloe claims the supervisor has a "personal vendetta" against him and cashed the check after he closed the account.

In early December, Guetzloe recalls, he and some friends were having lunch when the conversation turned to the sweeping success of Proposition 187 in California.

His friends suggested he conduct a similar drive in Florida. Soon, Guetzloe was on the phone with Robert Kiley, a California consultant involved with that state's Proposition 187 committee.

In January, Kiley flew to Orlando. At an Italian restaurant, he and Guetzloe announced to a small crowd of friends and reporters the formation of Save Our State to put a Proposition 187-like petition on the 1996 ballot.

Guetzloe would be the petition coordinator. His company, Advantage Consultants, would conduct the signature-gathering campaign. Two of his employees would serve as treasurer and spokesman of Save Our State.

In May, Guetzloe rushed to Tallahassee to formally announce the Save Our State campaign one day before a rival, the FLA-187 Committee, held a press conference to launch itself and four proposed amendments.

Whether any Florida version of Proposition 187 would have much practical effect is open for debate.

Federal law already bans illegal aliens from collecting welfare. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that children of illegal immigrants cannot be barred from public schools. Meanwhile, the Republican-majority Congress is moving to crack down on illegal immigrants and even restrict benefits for legal ones.

Moreover, most of the illegal immigrants who come to Florida claim political asylum. That means they are automatically protected from any cut in services voters might want them to suffer.

Still, Guetzloe says, a state referendum on immigration "allows people to get directly involved in the issue."

He denies any ulterior political motives. "For the people who think I'm demagoging this issue and planning to run for governor, I wouldn't have such a moderate campaign if I was a demagogue," Guetzloe said.

Amendments proposed by the competing FLA-187 Committee would go far beyond denying aid to illegal immigrants. They also would require state and local governments to use only English in all their communications, and would allow employers to reject job applicants who do not speak "comprehensible English."

Supporters of FLA-187 say a difference in philosophy is not the only reason they are not working with Guetzloe and Save Our State.

"There's a general sense of mistrust among grass-roots immigration workers in Mr. Guetzloe's ability to get an initiative passed," said David Ray of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national organization that is supporting the FLA-187 Committee in Florida. "The guy is a political spinmeister."

So far, according to Save Our State's disclosures to the Division of Elections, the committee has received $1,715 in donations _ much of it from Guetzloe's friends and staff _ and $15,150 of in-kind donations of consulting services from Guetzloe, Kiley and a friend.

Guetzloe says he can't understand why so many people see him as a malignant force in Florida politics.

But "I rub people the wrong way," he acknowledges. "Especially if they're headed in the wrong direction."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.