Many vie for coveted spots as delegates to the GOP national convention

Joe Gruters (left) chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party and state chairman for Donald Trump's campaign, is shown here during the Presidency 5 convention and straw poll in Orlando in 2011.
Joe Gruters (left) chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party and state chairman for Donald Trump's campaign, is shown here during the Presidency 5 convention and straw poll in Orlando in 2011. [CHRIS ZUPPA | Times]
Published April 9, 2016

Alan Hays, a Republican state senator from Umatilla, has never been interested in national political conventions, dismissing them as "just a formality." He didn't even bother to drive to Tampa for his party's 2012 convention.

But this year is different. Hays, state co-chairman for Ted Cruz, is eyeing an application for one of Florida's 99 delegate slots for the July convention in Cleveland. "If it does go beyond the third ballot, I want to be there to vote for Cruz," Hays said.

Turmoil in the primary and the increasing chance of a contested convention are sparking unusual interest in what is typically a little-noticed exercise in rewarding party faithful: choosing the state's convention delegates. Instead of just being props in a ceremonial coronation of a party's preordained presidential nominee, delegates this year may actually make a history-changing decision.

Here's the bad news, however, for those itching to participate: If you're not a longtime, committed party activist, you can probably forget it. Even Hays' fellow Cruz co-chairman, state Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City, applied and got turned down.

Despite the efforts of the Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns in particular, the vast majority of delegates will probably be the same party regulars and insiders as usual. That's because they're chosen by party insiders who, in many cases, will end up picking themselves.

That may be bad news for Trump.

"Trump doesn't necessarily have a lot of support among those people who tend to be delegates," said Dan Smith, who teaches political campaigns at the University of Florida.

In a series of contested convention votes, those delegates may be more likely to peel away from Trump.

State party rules say they must stay with Trump, the state primary winner, for the first three ballots, but party regulars are seeking slots so they can make a free choice if it goes beyond three, and some pro-Trump forces are pushing for delegates who will stick with him.

Party officials did not provide figures to compare the number of applicants to past years, but anecdotal evidence suggests burgeoning interest.

In Apopka Tuesday night, a restaurant manager called the police when some three dozen Trump supporters, responding to an email blast, overfilled a room rented for a delegate selection meeting and voices were raised, according to Orange County party official Patty Redlich. A police spokesman said no law enforcement action was needed.

In Congressional District 10, 30 people applied for three slots, said Combee, many of them not the party regulars usually involved. Statewide, 500 had applied as of midweek with applications still coming in.

Three delegates from each of the state's 27 congressional districts are being chosen in district meetings, with the head of each selection committee given discretion whether to open them to the public.

Miami-Dade chairman Nelson Diaz, a Rubio backer, said he expects most of the meetings will be closed.

"Party business isn't usually done in public," he said.

Each selection committee includes the top three county-level party officials from each county that has territory within that district.

But many of those county officials are themselves seeking delegate slots and will trade votes with each other to get them. Otherwise, they'll use the slots to reward longtime volunteers.

"I put volunteers in the seat," said Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale, a Republican National Committee member who will be on several delegate selection committees. "I think they earned the right to be there."

She said she won't even ask people whom they're for. "It's not my business."

After those meetings choose 81 delegates, state party chairman Blaise Ingoglia will nominate 15 additional delegates to be approved by the state party at a May 14 meeting in Tampa. Ingoglia and the state's two Republican National Committee members round out the group to get to 99.

Party officials from Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties will meet April 16 at the Pinellas GOP headquarters to pick delegates from the districts of Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor; Kathy Castor, D-Tampa; and David Jolly, R-Indian Shores.

"A lot of folks who never wanted to be a delegate before do want to this year," said Matt Lettelleir, a Pinellas party official who's also applying to be a delegate. "A lot don't know that on the first three ballots, you're still a sheep."

Veteran party activist and political consultant April Schiff of Tampa said she has been a delegate or alternate at four conventions, and swore she'd never do it again — until this year.

She's not a Trump fan. If she gets to casts a free vote, she said, "My big concern will be electability. I haven't seen anything to make me think Donald Trump can beat Hillary Clinton."

But applicant Terry Castro of Tampa, who voted for Trump, wants to prevent party leaders from denying the nomination to any clear leader including Trump. "I don't want to see party leaders try to jury-rig this thing," she said.

Some Republicans have discussed repealing the three-ballot rule at the state party governing board's Tampa meeting next month, but party leaders say that could spark a firestorm, and possibly violate national party rules.

One person who likes the three-ballot rule is Joe Gruters, Sarasota County chairman and Trump's state chairman.

"I'm encouraging other Trump supporters around the state to make sure we only select delegates who are willing to follow the will of the voters," meaning voting for Trump, Gruters said. But he acknowledged that he may have to sacrifice that principle himself as he horse-trades to ensure his own slot as a delegate.

Palm Beach County chairman Michael Barnett, also a Trump supporter, said he intends to ask applicants how they'll vote on the fourth ballot, but won't disqualify non-Trump supporters.

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report. Contact William March at