Challenge cuts short Brown-Waite's celebration

John Russell, d espite a lopsided loss in the 5th Congressional District race in November, is fighting the results in court and in Congress .

Published January 6, 2007

The day after Nov. 7, Republican Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite had more than just her electoral triumph to celebrate.

"Today has been a wonderful day, not having to deal with him," she said of her Democratic challenger, John Russell. With forums morphing into heckle fests and conspiracy accusations flying, the 5th Congressional District race wasn't pretty.

But Brown-Waite's respite was short-lived.

Despite losing by a hefty margin, almost 60 percent to 40 percent, Russell is challenging the election results, which he called inexplicable. Many of his charges resemble those of Democrat Christine Jennings, who lost in the 13th Congressional District to Vern Buchanan by 369 votes.

Jennings' challenge is more legitimate, said Bill Bunting, chairman of the Pasco County Republican Party. "At least there were a significant amount of undervotes."

Russell's claim, which focuses on discrepancies he said he discovered at a polling place in Pasco, "isn't going to go anywhere," Bunting said.

The Democrat filed a contest with the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as a lawsuit in Florida's 2nd Judicial Circuit Court, calling for a new election.

Russell "demands judgment prohibiting the Defendant, Virginia 'Ginny' Brown-Waite from taking office or ousting her from such office," the suit reads, "and entitling the Plaintiff to such office or requiring a new election in which the intent of the voters can be determined."

Russell could not be reached for comment. A representative of Brown-Waite's declined to comment.

Other candidates, mostly Democrats, who lost congressional and state races to Republicans are also listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

In the contest filed with the U.S. House, Russell focuses on a Shady Hills polling place, where official results show Brown-Waite receiving 46 votes and Russell 35, with six undervotes. Pasco uses touch screen voting machines.

Russell claims he has obtained affidavits showing that 38 voters, not 35, picked him at that polling place. Thus, the challenge says, Brown-Waite could not have received more than 43 votes in the precinct.

Moreover, Russell said he has not been able to contact 10 voters who cast ballots at Shady Hills, so he could have actually received 48 votes in the precinct, beating Brown-Waite.

Official results for the 5th Congressional District "are in doubt due to misconduct, fraud or corruption on the part of an election official or officials sufficient to change the result of the election," the challenge reads.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning said Russell's claims have no merit.

"We verify all the results and data for the precincts before we certify. Everything is all right," said Browning, who was Pasco's elections supervisor until Monday. "The vote totals matched the number of voters."

Bunting said he suspected there were more powerful Democrats orchestrating the lawsuit.

"It could be Karen Thurman who's behind this," said Bunting, referring to the Florida Democratic Party chairwoman, who was ousted from the 5th Congressional District seat in 2002 by Brown-Waite.

"It's always been personal with her and Ginny," he said.

Mark Bubriski, press secretary for the state Democratic Party, called Bunting's speculation laughable.

"Who says something like that with no basis in truth?" he said. "It was a random accusation."

Thurman said while state Democrats have lent support to Jennings, they had no hand in crafting the other challenges. She added that she hadn't seen the lawsuit as of Friday evening.

But she said she didn't think the suit would detract from Jennings' case.

Other challenges "will raise interest in the issue of whether these machines can accurately count," she said.

Some officials, however, see the additional challenges less as a means of support and more as a method of exploitation.

"I think it is what it is," Browning said. Russell's "trying to use the whole furor that's going on in the 13th Congressional District, Sarasota, to fuel his cause."

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Elena Lesley can be reached at 564-3627 or elesley@sptimes.com.