Two would-be Florida delegates try again

A role at the Democratic National Convention might not be included this year, but two Tampa lawyers want to be delegates again, just the same.

By John Barry, Times staff writer
Published January 28, 2008

Down at the bottom of the great technological machine that runs presidential conventions is a wind-up spring, like the one that makes a watch tick. Turning the spring sets off the official party coronations of presidential nominees.

The spring is the humble local party caucus at which Democrats and Republicans choose delegates to the national conventions.

Most people don't know how delegates get picked to go to national conventions - and don't want to - because the rules are arcane and complicated.

Trying to figure it out is like taking the spring out of the watch and then putting it back in.

But Tampa lawyers Herb Berkowitz and Michael Steinberg figured it out four years ago.

They got elected as delegates to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. They shook hands with every famous living Democrat and helped make John Kerry the party nominee.

Herb loved untangling the caucus and besting it. He called it "democracy at its most basic level."

They plan to go to the Democratic Convention in Denver this year, to dance under the confetti, to revel in what Herb calls "a huge party without the liquor," and to proclaim the nominee.

Only so far, their beloved party is telling all would-be Florida delegates they should sit home, watch the convention on TV, kindly stay the heck out of Denver.

This year, it seems, the spring has sprung.

- - -

The first time Herb and Mike set out to become delegates, they found out they would have to run for election in massive Congressional District 9, which snakes across Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. The district was entitled to six delegates - three men, three women.

District 9 Democrats were to choose their delegates at a caucus in Trinity in Pasco. Herb and Mike didn't want to just show up and hope to find votes in the parking lot. They planned a campaign. They got on the phones and horse-traded with other Democrats in Pinellas and Pasco. They assembled an alliance of three men, themselves included, and three women, all of whom would share supporters, the way it works on Survivor.

Then they loaded 50 Tampa friends into a rented bus, fed them doughnuts and coffee, and trucked them 35 miles to the caucus in Trinity. They were the only aspiring delegates to bus in voters.

Herb stood right behind the guy counting the ballots. "Berkowitz, Berkowitz, Berkowitz," the guy counted. "Who's this Berkowitz guy?"

Herb tapped his shoulder. He put some bass in his voice.

"That would be me."

Herb and Mike won by a landslide.

- - -

They want to be delegates again. But each is taking a different route.

Mike has just been named chairman of the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee, which makes him eligible to become an "at-large delegate" or a "pledged party leader." There are 64 of those, to be selected in May by the state party Executive Committee.

It means he doesn't have to get elected at a caucus.

Instead, he's riding the bus to caucus for Herb and Herb's wife, Gloria. He'll be on their bus on March 1, when they travel to a caucus election for four delegate slots in District 9.

Mike's wife, Miriam, can't participate. She is a Republican, though she told her husband she voted last time for Kerry which may or may not be true.

But both couples hope to fly in August to the Democratic Convention in Denver.

- - -

Well, that's how it's supposed to go.

But Democrats aren't inviting any of Florida's 210 party delegates to Denver.

And Republicans are inviting only half of Florida's 114 GOP delegates to their national convention in St. Paul, Minn., in September.

Both parties punished Florida for moving its presidential primary to Tuesday. The Democrats haven't even saved hotel space in Denver for Floridians.

Florida's Democrats and Republicans are choosing delegates anyway, hoping and praying their parties relent.

Florida Democrats also will argue their case in April before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Herb is hedging his bet by booking his Denver flight on Southwest, which gives refunds. Mike jokes about getting a sleeping bag.

But why bother, given the long odds against Florida?

Both Mike and Herb simply can't believe that their party will write off a voter-rich state like Florida, one with a history of tipping the balance in presidential elections. They're gambling on a change of heart.

They also both grew up watching history made on television. Herb still vividly remembers the moment from his boyhood when Wisconsin put John F. Kennedy over the top in 1960.

"All of us have watched forever. This is a chance to be part of it, to see it firsthand."

Besides, politics is politics, and a win is a win. His delegate race is only costing Herb a one-day bus rental and doughnuts.

Herb spent a lot more time and money running for circuit judge 10 years ago. After that draining campaign, the voters spoke: "They elected me lawyer."

But mere doughnuts could be the key to victory on caucus day.

"I didn't know," Herb says, "my friends could be bought so cheaply."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.


How to become a delegate


Prospective delegates to the national convention Sept. 4-8 in St. Paul, Minn., must fill out applications posted on the Florida Republican Party Web site, www.rpof.org/rnc.php. There are 114 delegate and 111 alternate slots. Those are divided between district-level and at-large delegates. There's no charge to apply.

Selections for each congressional district will be made between Feb. 6 and April 30 at district caucuses.

Executive committee officials do the selecting - picking delegates from the pile of applications.

In Pinellas County's District 10, for example, Republican Executive Committee chairman Tony DiMatteo will pick three delegates and three alternates in mid February. Committeeman Paul Bedinghaus and committeewoman Nancy Riley will assist with the selections.

Other at-large delegates will be chosen by the state party's Executive Board before June 1.

All 114 delegates will be committed to whichever candidate wins the primary.

At this time, the Republican Party says it will admit only half those delegates at its convention, but Florida is still hoping for a reprieve.


Prospective district-level delegates to the national convention, Aug. 25-28 in Denver, must apply to the Democratic executive committees in their county by Tuesday at noon, the same day as the primary, and declare which presidential candidate they want to be delegates for. For Democrats, the primary is not winner-take-all. Delegates will be apportioned based on how well each candidate does on Tuesday.

On March 1, these aspiring district-level delegates will go to caucuses in their congressional districts and try to get the most votes, as Herb Berkowitz and Mike Steinberg did in 2004. Statewide, Democrats will choose 121 district-level delegates and 25 alternates. The rest of the 210-member delegation will be selected by state party officials.