Local ads rile state party

The state Democratic Party tells a Pinellas PAC to stop implying party endorsements in some contested primary races.

Published August 30, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG — The state Democratic Party has scolded the wife of Ed Helm, chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party, for using its name in an attack ad and endorsements in local races.

The state party’s attorney asked Adrien Helm and the Pinellas Democrats Political Action Committee to “cease and desist” from using the word “Democrats” in its name. Adrien Helm chairs the group.

The PAC sent out a mailer last week to Democratic Party members in House District 52 attacking Bill Heller, who is running against Liz McCallum in Tuesday’s primary.

It asserts that Heller is “not a real Democrat.”

Also, House District 53 voters received a letter from a local party official endorsing a slate of candidates, including Norm Roche for county commissioner and Charlie Gerdes for District 53 representative, over their opponents in the party primary. That letter also was paid for by Adrien Helms’ group.

Darryl Paulson, professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said such divisions could damage the Democrats’ chances of winning seats in November.

“This is a very strange thing to do at a time when the Pinellas Democratic Party finally seemed to be coming together,’’ Paulson said. “This is certainly going to tear it apart. This is certainly not going to help them into the general election campaign.”

The moves also have Heller and the other candidates who were not endorsed by the local party steamed.

“These distortions were mailed by a group that is right now being reprimanded by the Florida Democratic Party for violating Florida statutes,’’ said Heller, 70, former University of South Florida St. Petersburg dean, who received the mailer at his home.

“What you have is a group that doesn’t obey the law getting involved in negative campaigning.”

Mark Herron, general counsel for the Florida Democratic Party in Tallahassee, said Tuesday that if the local PAC does not change its name, the party will seek an injunction against it.

Neither Adrien Helm nor her husband, Ed Helm, chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party and a former candidate for St. Petersburg mayor, returned phone calls Monday and Tuesday.

But other Democrats expressed disappointment that officials involved in the Pinellas Democratic Party would send out anything opposing another Democrat.

“We’re distressed that someone would send out that kind of mailing using a Democratic name prior to the primary,’’ said Betty Morgenstein, whose husband, Harvey, is president of the Pinellas Democratic Club.

The party’s bylaws and charter prohibit it from endorsing a specific candidate before a primary.

The mailers do not mention Ed Helm, a former Department of Labor lawyer, or the Pinellas Democratic Party. But “a blind man knows who that’s from,’’ said County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who is seeking his third term.

“I think you’ve got a party chairman who has picked his candidate, and it’s not me or Rick Kriseman or Bill Heller, and they’ve done everything they can to get an advantage. You’ve got a guy who wants to be some sort of political boss and this is what he’s resorting to.”

One of the mailers was sent out under the bulk mail permit number of the Pinellas Democratic Party. It was not mean-spirited, but it encourages District 53 Democrats to vote for specific Democrats.

Jim Donelon, who identifies himself as the party’s District 53 leader in the letter, tells voters he has interviewed all the candidates and is encouraging them to pick Roche in the County Commission race and Charlie Gerdes in House District 53, among other races.

Donelon could not be reached for comment.

Kriseman, 44, who is running against Gerdes in the primary, said Donelon never interviewed him.

“It’s one thing to say you support this one Democrat, but to campaign against another Democrat in a party, you just don’t do that,’’ Kriseman said. “My own party is working against me and it’s working against Bill Heller and it’s working against Calvin Harris.”

Several Democrats say their party seems split between those who believe Democratic candidates should be purists and those who support moderate candidates. Ed Helm even asked Harris, 64, at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club forum Monday whether he was a real Democrat.

Harris, the County Commission’s first elected African-American,  retorted that he had been getting Democrats elected long before Helm, who is from New Jersey, got here.

The same issue emerged in the House District 52 mailer.

“What the expensive TV ads of Liz McCallum’s opponent don’t want you to know is he is not a real Democrat, but just became one about a month ago in this primary,’’ said the postcard, referring to Heller.

Heller joined the House District 52 race two months ago at the behest of several state Democratic Party officials, including Betty Castor.

Heller said he was a Democrat for decades until he came to St. Petersburg 15 years ago to run the USF St. Petersburg campus. He switched to Independent, switching back to Democrat several times so he could vote in Democratic elections.

McCallum, 37, could not be reached for comment.