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Politics

Dems sweat over two primary plans

The state party tries to figure out how to ensure Democrats' primary votes count.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published June 10, 2007


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HALLANDALE BEACH -- Sorry, Howard Dean.

As much as the Democratic National Committee chairman wants Florida Democrats to back off on holding the nation's first megastate presidential primary in January, it looks like he's out of luck.

Among the hundreds of hard-core party activists gathered in Broward County for a party fundraising weekend, it's tough to find more than a few who want to comply with the DNC and turn the nationally watched Jan. 29 election into an officially meaningless contest.

Today, state Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman is scheduled to update her executive board on the primary controversy as the party gathers for its Jefferson-Jackson weekend.

No decision has been made, but Thurman told the St. Petersburg Times Saturday that two main options have emerged:

  • Go ahead and make Jan. 29 the official date of the Democratic presidential primary, as Republicans are doing. That means accepting possible sanctions from the national party that could include losing delegates to the national convention. The state could be all but ignored by candidates who don't want to spend much money in a state that won't have any delegates.
  • Declare the state-run Jan. 29 election nonbinding for the Democratic presidential election. Instead, have the Democratic Party conduct and pay for its own election -- most likely a vote-by-mail election where the ballots would be counted no earlier than Feb. 5.

"Florida Democrats definitely do not want to be the people that decide, your vote doesn't count," said Arlin Briley, vice chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party, echoing Democrat after Democrat attending the event. "We're in a spot, and we have to let the chips fall where they will and honor the people's vote."

Those chips include serious DNC penalties for any state violating the official schedule by holding an election earlier than Feb. 5. The national organization is threatening to bar Democrats who campaign in Florida from receiving any of the state's more than 200 delegates toward the nomination.

That's why state and party leaders had been seriously looking at making Florida's Jan. 29 presidential primary nonbinding on the Democratic side, and instead holding some sort of internal election later for Florida Democrats.

But declaring that Democratic votes wouldn't officially count on the Jan. 29 election is fraught with political and practical peril.

It's all the harder to sell, Thurman said, because Floridians will likely vote on a statewide property tax reform proposal that day, along with a host of municipal elections.

Party leaders would have to explain to Florida Democrats why some of their votes on the Jan. 29 ballot will matter, but not their Democratic presidential pick.

"We have to make sure this process is simple and easy to understand and not to complicate this process for Democrats, and to make sure their votes are counted," said Janee Murphy, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Tampa.

What's more, if Jan. 29 were nonbinding, Democrats would be on the hook for the cost of sending ballots to nearly 5-million Florida Democrats or holding later caucuses across the state. By many estimates that would cost at least $5-million. While state and national Democrats have talked to unions about helping pay the cost, Thurman said Saturday that looks unlikely.

"It's all about money," Thurman said, when asked about the options she's examining.

Florida AFL-CIO president Cindy Hall said Saturday she would be hard-pressed to recommend spending millions of dollars on an unnecessary election at a time when countless members could be losing jobs due to mandated local government budget cuts.

"I have bigger fish to fry -- it's called keeping jobs for my members," Hall said when asked about footing the bill for a Democratic Party-run election.

Florida's top Democratic elected officials, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson oppose making the Jan. 29 election nonbinding, but it's unclear whether DNC chairman Dean has any leeway to bend his party rules and avoid punishing Florida Democrats for the early primary.

"He better," Nelson said Saturday. "I have talked to him and said, 'Don't forget the goal, and the goal is to do well in Florida in November. The last thing you want to do is have the perception that you're taking away people's right to vote and putting in a smoke-filled-room caucus.'"

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 10, 2007, 01:16:32]


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