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GOP exit won't kill campaign committee

Pinellas County's Republican Party has quietly backed away from a bipartisan committee that was designed to get politicians to campaign honestly.

Let me repeat that. A committee that was designed to get candidates to campaign honestly.

You might say: How could anyone oppose a group like that?

Well, consider that last year, two Republican candidates got slammed by this committee for making misleading statements in campaign literature. (And forget for a moment, that the committee also criticized a Democrat and a non-partisan judicial candidate.)

Consider that the committee, which is called the Pinellas County Fair Campaign Practices Committee, is bipartisan.

Which led to this bottom line: Democrats were helping to issue opinions on Republicans' campaigns.

That left a lot of Republicans with a bad taste in their mouths _ especially because the two Republicans who were criticized have vigorously defended their campaign literature, and blamed the committee for misrepresenting their stands.

So this year Pinellas Republican Chairman Paul Bedinghaus appointed a task force to study the matter, and in the meantime asked the Fair Campaign Practices committee to stop listing the local GOP as a sponsor.

Last month in a meeting of the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee, the main local party organization, the GOP simply decided not to take the issue up again. Essentially, the party withdrew its formal approval of the group.

In the meantime, the Pinellas Democratic Executive Committee has decided to make its stand on the issue. It voted to endorse the group.

Democratic Chairman Paul Hitchens said the decision wasn't easy for his party either. The Democrats had reservations about giving Republicans an opportunity to trash them.

And as Hitchens pointed out, the Fair Campaign Practices Committee is probably more controlled by Republicans than Democrats. Although the committee includes some prominent Democrats, chairman Richard T. Earle Jr. is a longtime Republican, and one of its most active members is Ray Aden, a former Pinellas Republican chairman.

So if the Democrats can support it, he asks, why can't the Republicans?

Pinellas Republican Vice Chairman Dale Gross strongly believes his party should endorse the committee, to prove its commitment to ethical campaigning. He has said he will attend state party meetings in an effort to win more approval for the committee, and others like it. He would like to see the local Republicans support it.

But Bedinghaus said that as far as he's concerned, the matter is settled. He's not looking for a debate.

What does all this mean for the state of fair and honest campaigning in Pinellas County?

Maybe not much.

The Pinellas Democratic and Republican parties have spoken on this issue, either by action or inaction.

But the Fair Campaign Practices Committee will speak too. The leaders of the committee say they will continue to meet during the next campaign, endorsement or no. They will urge candidates to sign a pledge to campaign honestly. People will file complaints against candidates who break that pledge. The committee will sharply criticize some, and let others off the hook.

The committee will be controversial. Each hearing over each alleged case of dishonest campaigning will produce a winner and a loser. Somebody's going to leave mad.

The committee will probably get things wrong. Think about it. It's made up of human beings.

After all, I can think of some Supreme Court decisions that I thought were wrong too.

But then, I never wanted to abolish the Supreme Court.

To pass along news tips about local and state politics, please call Curtis Krueger at 445-4174 or send e-mail to