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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
LARGO - Proving yet again that nobody does bizarre elections like Florida, thousands of loyal Democrats turned out for a rogue election Saturday where the votes may not count and the winners may not win.
It's all part of the through-the-looking-glass nature of Florida's Democratic presidential primary, where the national party says the record 1.75-million Democrats who voted in Florida's Jan. 29 primary have no voice in picking the nominee.
As punishment for scheduling a primary earlier than allowed, the Democratic National Committee stripped Florida of all its delegates to the nominating convention in Denver. But that didn't stop Democratic activists in Florida's 25 congressional districts from turning out in big numbers Saturday to elect delegates to send to Denver in late August.
"Twice as many showed up as we've had before," said Arnett Smith, a St. Petersburg Democratic activist who coordinated a caucus in Largo to elect Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama delegates from the 10th Congressional District. "I think it's people saying, 'We're going to turn out big and make it hard for you not to seat us.'"
Florida Democrats hope that once a nominee emerges, he or she will seat the Florida's delegates, but there's no guarantee that will happen. Front-runner Obama, for instance, has little incentive to seat a Florida delegation that heavily favors Clinton.
Of the 121 Florida delegates elected Saturday based on the Jan. 29 election results, 67 are pledged to Clinton, 41 to Obama, and 13 to John Edwards, who suspended his campaign after Florida's primary. The Obama campaign said Saturday it was not recognizing Saturday's delegate elections in Florida. "Because of DNC rules, approved by a top adviser to Senator Clinton, there are no delegates in Florida," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said Saturday, referring to Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, who was among the DNC members who voted to strip Florida of all its delegates. "We look forward to aggressively campaigning in Florida as the Democratic nominee."
Ironically, the controversy and confusion over Florida's delegates has brought more attention to and interest in the previously little-noticed ritual of electing delegates. They may not have a vote, they may not be allowed on the convention floor, they may not even have a hotel anywhere nearby, but Florida Democrats are more fired up about participating in the convention than they've ever been.
"We had 10 times as many people turn out as we did four years ago," said Brett Berlin, who was coordinating delegate elections in Miami-Dade Saturday. "More people now know about delegates, more people are learning about the process, and more people decided to get involved."
In Tampa, Stevie Wonder's Signed, Sealed and Delivered played as delegate hopefuls campaigned with beads, balloons, posters and pins at the county building. About twice as many people sought delegate slots as four years ago, said coordinator Monroe Mack, and 260 people turned out to vote.
Democratic consultant Victor DiMaio of Tampa, who is suing the national and state Democratic parties over the delegate matter, went to the caucus to support his friend Cathy Bartolotti, who won a slot as a Clinton delegate. He said he prays every day that he'll win the suit so the state's Democrats will have an outlet for their enthusiasm this election.
"It's so disheartening that we have all this pent-up energy," DiMaio said.
At the teachers union headquarters in Largo, candidates for delegates ushered in friends and family members to vote for them, and passed out cookies, brownies, pamphlets and anti-Bush stickers. Some voters were oblivious to the fact that the DNC considered Saturday's elections invalid, while others channeled Scarlett O'Hara when confronted with the possibility they might be elected as a delegate and still not get to participate in the convention. "I'll worry about that tomorrow," said Kathryn Larkin, a Seminole real estate agent running to be a delegate for Clinton.
The state Democratic Party will ask the nominee to seat the delegates as elected Saturday, but spokesman Mark Bubriski acknowledged a Plan B may ultimately be necessary.
"This is out of our hands right now," Bubriski said. "If the nomination isn't wrapped up, it would likely require an agreement between the candidates to hold another election here."