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New law grounds a rising star

Orlando's Buddy Dyer used common campaign tactics now challenged in state law.

Published March 20, 2005

ORLANDO - By the time Judge Theotis Bronson heard arguments last week about who should be the rightful mayor of Orlando, the election had been over for a year.

But every seat in his courtroom was filled.

People stood by the courtroom door to get a glimpse. During a break, a bailiff whispered to the judge that some people who wanted to be mayor were outside, hoping to address the court.

One of them, former mayoral candidate Sam Ings, wanted the judge to put Ings' name on the ballot again.

"I really feel the voters don't know what is happening," said Ings, who watched from the sidelines.

The confusion started March 11, when Mayor Buddy Dyer was indicted and suspended from office.

A grand jury accused Dyer, considered a rising star in Florida Democratic circles, of paying a campaign worker $10,000 to collect absentee ballots from black voters in his 2004 campaign.

It was the first time prosecutors had enforced the law since it was passed in 1998 after a vote scandal in Miami.

It shocked political operatives across the state, and could affect how campaigns are run.

Dyer and his campaign consultant, Ezzie Thomas, 74, never hid what they did. Thomas had openly worked on absentee ballot drives for lots of politicians - including the state's chief election officer, Glenda Hood, when she was elected mayor of Orlando.

Dyer's attorney, Robert Leventhal, said his client had no idea the work would be interpreted as illegal and does not think it is. In the fall, Dyer even took a polygraph test and plans to make it public, Leventhal said.

The charges have turned Orlando's political order upside down.

Born in Orlando, Dyer was a local success story. The MVP of his high school football team, he earned a scholarship to Brown University.

In 1992, he won his first campaign for the Florida Senate, where he served as Democratic leader. After losing to Republican Charlie Crist for attorney general in 2002, Dyer rebounded and was elected mayor in 2003.

He began shaking things up, pushing downtown development and big-ticket projects like a performing arts center and renovations to the Orlando Magic arena and Citrus Bowl. His aggressive style created enemies, who thought he cut people out of decision making.

Then March 11, all that was put in hold. He walked into the county jail and smiled for a mug shot.

* * *

Dyer wouldn't have been indicted if the Miami mayor's race hadn't been stolen in 1997. In that election, people paid voters $10 to cast absentee ballots.

The Legislature decided to crack down on who could handle absentee ballots. Legislators wanted to weed out so-called vote brokers, who were paid to take an absentee ballot from voters, according to a staff analysis of the legislation. The money was an incentive for brokers to tamper with the ballots.

Dyer, then a senator, voted for the bill. But he's not sure he actually read the entire bill, he testified recently in a deposition.

The bill was broad - broader than legislators intended, Dyer's attorney says. It made it illegal to take or give money not only for picking up absentee ballots, but also for helping someone request one, too.

Some say the law criminalized a common campaign tool. Most politicians spend money mailing voters absentee ballot requests. Many also hire people to collect absentee ballots.

"I cannot imagine being involved in a political campaign that did not have some type of absentee ballot drives going on," political consultant Joe Johnson said. "It's essential."

Political consultants say they didn't realize what Dyer did was illegal.

"In the races here in Miami-Dade County, I couldn't really tell if we had violated the law," said Sergio Bendixin, a Miami pollster and political consultant. "Where is really the line?"

Republican Party spokesman Joe Agostini said his party knows where the line is. Republicans made sure they used volunteers, not employees, to gather absentee ballots last year, he said.

One thing is certain. "After this, everyone is going to be tremendously careful about absentee ballots," Bendixin said.

Democrats weren't the only ones who hired Thomas. Aside from Hood, former Orange County chairman Mel Martinez, now a U.S. senator, paid Thomas $1,150 in 1998. He downplayed Thomas' work, saying Thomas' fee was a small bit of the $1.3-million campaign budget.

"The face looks familiar, but it's not someone who was vitally involved in the campaign," Martinez said.

Neither Martinez nor Hood, both Republicans, can be charged. The three-year limit to file charges has run out.

* * *

No one would have noticed Thomas' work had Dyer won last year's election handily. Instead, he barely avoided a runoff against Republican businessman Kenneth Mulvaney.

The next day, black activists told Mulvaney's camp to look for Thomas' signature on absentee ballots. Sure enough, his name appeared on about 265 absentee ballots as a witness. Other people who were paid $100 by Thomas witnessed another 100 ballots.

Most voters whom Thomas helped were elderly. One or two were blind. Thomas has said he showed them only how to properly fill out ballots. He would mail the ballots if asked, he said.

So far, about six voters have said Thomas did more.

"He'll tell you where to sign it," Rose Lee Jackson told the St. Petersburg Times last year. "I never sealed none of them."

"He'd be the one to write it all out," Martha Glenn told the Times. "He asked me who do I want to vote for. He had the people's names. He'd call them off and everything."

But no one said Thomas gave them money. No one saw Thomas change a vote.

Last summer, the investigation of the allegations made national news when law enforcement officials began knocking on doors. Democrats claimed Gov. Jeb Bush's agents were trying to suppress the black vote in a presidential election year. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it was just doing its job. But because of the uproar, agents stopped interviewing voters until the election passed.

Then, on March 11, a grand jury issued the indictments.

Democrats say Republican special prosecutor Brad King is singling out Dyer. At a time when Democrats are all but powerless in Florida, Dyer was one of the best-known political figures in Central Florida. As a strong mayor in a region with myriad municipalities, he could have become a viable statewide candidate, said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett.

Dyer has promised to fight the charges with "every ounce of strength that I have." He called the accusations trivial and politically motivated.

Outside City Hall last week, protesters rallied against the indictments. Lawyers on all sides are preparing to sue if a new election is held in two months, as some say the city charter requires.

Whoever wins would be required to step down if Dyer is acquitted.

Sitting in the mayor's office now is City Commissioner Ernest Page, the mayor pro tem who automatically became mayor when Dyer was suspended. In 1983, Page was removed from the City Council on grand theft charges. He denied the charge but served about eight months in jail.

But within two weeks, Page also could be ousted. Page's election to the City Council last year hung on the same absentee ballots Thomas collected. Page's challenger has sued to get the absentee ballots thrown out, forcing a new election. A judge will rule shortly.

If that happens, three different people will have been mayor of Orlando within three weeks.

Times staff writers Wes Allison, Anita Kumar and Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 20, 2005, 01:06:08]

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