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Democrats' risky decision could pay off

Ed Helm, the local Democratic Party's new chairman, has "fire in the belly," but his combative style sometimes sends others running.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published August 15, 2006


Ed Helm finished last in a St. Petersburg City Council primary in 1993.

He was soundly defeated by Rick Baker 10 months ago in the city mayor's race.

But on July 25, Helm notched an election victory when Pinellas County's Democratic Party chose the progressive activist as its chairman.

Helm beat Tom Steck, a centrist Democrat, with 60 votes to 50, gaining control of a quarrelsome local party facing critical fall elections that could deliver significant gains or a repeat of past failures.

Helm, a former Labor Department lawyer, has drawn criticism for his combative style, and even some supporters are cautious about having him in charge as elections near.

"This is a huge risk," said Bill Stokes, a St. Petersburg party member and Helm backer. "Ed has made some serious blunders in the past."

Last month, Helm showed up at Pass-a-Grille for a beach party against offshore oil drilling. Organizers had called for a nonpartisan event, and attendees were asked not to wear campaign regalia.

An exuberant Helm arrived wearing a T-shirt touting Rod Smith, a Democrat running for governor.

Helm admits to imperfection and said he understands the value of cooperation. But healing divisions will not be his priority as chairman.

"My primary job is not to unify the party," said Helm, 61. "My primary job is to get candidates elected."

The opportunity is there.

State party leaders said Democrats are strong contenders this fall for three local legislative seats formerly in the GOP column, Senate District 16 and House Districts 51 and 52.

Democrats are running in a slew of additional legislative contests. Other key state and federal races will also be decided.

The bounty of contested races comes as voter registration in Pinellas has trended Democratic during the past decade. Translating those gains into victories is the party's challenge this election cycle.

"It's clearly the type of county we have to win in order to succeed," said Steve Schale, political director of the House Democratic Caucus.

While it's unlikely that a united local party will make or break the Democrats' chances in Pinellas this year - the strength of individual campaigns is more decisive - unity is certainly more helpful than division.

It's especially important given the disadvantages that Pinellas Democrats face. The local Republican Party enjoys a huge cash edge and has more ground troops, 258 precinct captains to the Democrats' 141.

Helm said he hopes to get 50 or more new party applicants by the end of the month - a move that could boost the number of precinct captains - and plans to extend the party's reach beyond St. Petersburg by opening at least one office in North Pinellas.

Those are just the kind of ambitious goals that supporters expect from Helm.

"He's got fire in the belly," said Frank Lupo, a retired New York City schoolteacher who joined the party in January. "He wants to have a functioning Democratic Party throughout Pinellas County."

During the last few weeks, however, Helm has caused strain. Citing a lack of security, he changed the locks on party headquarters, which insulted some party volunteers.

As is the chairman's right, he removed people from key posts and replaced them. Even some who supported the changes said the dismissals came too quickly.

Stokes said he had thought that the new chairman was too smart to cause tensions so soon after his election.

"But I have already been proved wrong on that," he said.

There are plenty of elected Democrats unlikely to embrace Helm.

Last year, he angered Calvin Harris and Ken Welch, both moderate Democrats on the County Commission, when he sought to have them expelled from the party for supporting Baker.

Helm can even rile fellow progressives. Darden Rice, an activist and the Sierra Club's regional representative, has given up trying to make peace with Helm after a series of unpleasant encounters.

One of those occurred at the Pass-a-Grille party last month, which Rice helped organize.

"It's been the biggest waste of time and energy," she said. "Ed has a personality style that will always alienate and anger people."

Even Helm skeptics like Rice, however, said they can appreciate his energy and zeal.

From now until November, Helm said, his focus is on victory, and he vowed to work with Democrats wherever they are on the ideological spectrum to ensure success.

As for his detractors, "they are either going to work to unify, or they are going to whine and be unhappy," Helm said.

Helm was elected to finish the two-year term of Carrie Wadlinger, who resigned.

The term ends in December, so party members will have an opportunity to vote up or down on Helm weeks after the elections are over.