1. Florida Politics

Eyebrows raised over Hillsborough commission write-in candidate

Published Jul. 6, 2014

LITHIA — From afar, Christopher Weaver's campaign strategy seems unorthodox.

The 50-year-old medical technology sales consultant and political unknown is running as a write-in candidate for Hillsborough County Commission in District 4.

His campaign war chest holds $0. He has no campaign website, not even a Facebook page. And if you drive around this conservative district in eastern Hillsborough, you'll see campaign signs for three Republican candidates, but you'll have trouble finding a "Weaver for County Commission" sign, even in the front yard of Weaver's Lithia home, which a reporter visited last week trying to interview the elusive candidate.

The effort proved unsuccessful: He did not return multiple phone calls, voice messages, emails or a note left on his front door.

Weaver could be adopting a strong and silent type style or his candidacy could have an ulterior motive: to keep Democrats and independents from voting in the Aug. 26 Republican primary.

Weaver's commission run could be a ploy that, in effect, will prevent nearly 120,000 of the roughly 194,000 registered voters in District 4 from having a voice in choosing their next commissioner, thanks to a quirk in Florida election rules. And while possibly phony candidacies are now common, they're no less frustrating to those who feel they taint the democratic process.

"It's a sad situation," said Donna Lee Fore, a Democrat who had been running in District 4 until she dropped out to run for state House instead. "It's wrong, and I'd like to see that law changed."

Florida is a closed primary state, but a 1998 constitutional amendment was supposed to open primaries to all voters in races in which all the candidates come from the same party. In those races, the primary election effectively becomes the general election.

State election rules leave a loophole, though: write-in candidates. If you're a conservative Republican who doesn't want Democrats and independents to give a moderate opponent a boost, for instance, all you have to do to keep the primary closed is persuade someone to file as a write-in candidate.

It's easy to file to run — just fill out a few forms, there's no fee — and even though a write-in candidate's name does not appear on the November ballot, state election rules treat write-ins like opposition from another party.

"It's fairly common," said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. "It certainly does disenfranchise a lot of voters."

So if Weaver is running to help another candidate, who is it?

Two of the Republican candidates — retired Tampa police Detective Rick Cochran and environmental consultant Janet Dougherty — say they don't know Weaver, and would have had no problem with an open primary.

Dougherty thinks someone asked Weaver to run. She declined to say who.

"I don't have my Ouija board out, or my crystal ball … but it's pretty obvious, I think, that one candidate would fare better with a closed primary," Dougherty said.

The other candidate is current Hillsborough County School Board member Stacy White, who denied arranging the candidacy.

White knows Weaver, he said, but he's not sure how. (Weaver gave White a $20 campaign contribution in 2010, records show.)

Unlike his opponents, White adamantly prefers a closed primary. White said he's "concerned" one of his Republican opponents thinks a closed primary favors one opponent.

"That might indicate that one or both of my opponents is really a Democrat running on the Republican ticket," he said.

White is the only candidate running to replace Commissioner Al Higginbotham to have held public office before. He has name recognition and the endorsement of Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, a powerful political figure.

White has been outpaced in fundraising, though, with nearly $70,000 raised to Dougherty's $145,000 and Cochran's $125,000.

While local candidates like Dougherty are bothered by the write-in loophole, their counterparts in the Legislature are not. Several legislative attempts to change the rule in recent years have ended unsuccessfully.

Unless a change is made, situations like this year's District 4 race will be commonplace. The district's 75,000 registered Republicans will pick their candidate Aug. 26. In November, the district's 65,000 Democrats and 54,000 other voters will get to choose between the Republican winner, or writing in Weaver's name.

"That's quite a lot of voters," said Latimer, the elections supervisor, "who don't really have a choice."

Contact Will Hobson at (813) 226-3400 or Follow @TheWillHobson.