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County GOP aims to mend fences

But despite the conciliatory tone, some squabbles erupt over leadership and future elections.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 12, 2000


LAND O'LAKES -- Jeff Lucas looked relieved.

The first meeting of the Pasco County Republican Party since the excommunication of three top officers had started out well.

New officers, with Lucas as chairman, were elected. Short speeches that promised unity and cooperation were made. Elected officials in attendance were recognized.

"Not everyone has gotten along in the past, but that's okay as long as we don't work against each other," Lucas said.

He spoke too soon.

First came a motion -- which failed -- to oust state committeewoman Joan Kelley, who had sided with former chairman Zoltan Mayer in his struggle against former vice chairman Bill Bunting and former secretary Ann Bunting. All three former officers were banished by the state party last month for two years.

Next came some sparring about whether the executive committee should endorse candidates before the September primary. The vote was no.

But the exchange that stirred up the most shouting was between two of the Republican candidates for sheriff: Jim Gillum and Gil Thivener, with Thivener accusing Gillum of extortion.

Gillum quietly had stood at the rear of the cafeteria at Land O'Lakes High School, passing out a multipage packet that described a series of St. Petersburg Times articles written in the 1980s about former Sheriff John Short.

Thivener served as a major under Short and later became one of his most vocal critics, even running against him in 1984 as a Democrat. Short was indicted on criminal charges and removed from office, but later was cleared.

The packet raised questions about Thivener's role in the events that led to Short's indictment. It included a cover letter from Gillum explaining how his campaign adviser Bob Desmond tried to talk Thivener into dropping out of the sheriff's race to avoid Gillum going public with his account of the published articles.

"I knew how hard that could be on his family," Desmond later said.

Aware that Gillum was passing out the packets, Lucas agreed to give Thivener time to address the audience. Thivener urged everyone to pick up a copy of the packet so they could see how benign the accusations were.

"That (the packet) is a complement to me in a way because Mr. Gillum thinks I'm a threat to him because I'm going to be the next sheriff," Thivener said.

"Ain't gonna happen," Gillum said from the rear.

From the podium, Thivener played a cassette tape of messages Desmond left on Thivener's answering machine about the packet.

"Here I've got a person calling me and threatening to bring this in the open if (I don't) resign," Thivener said afterward, adding that he carried a gun and still was being intimidated by Gillum.

"I think this is extortion," Thivener said.

Then Gillum began shouting: "Take it to (Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney) Bernie McCabe! Take it to Bernie McCabe! If you think that's extortion, then you don't understand the law."

Lucas quickly sought to have the meeting closed to non-voting members of the committee -- including the news media -- but failed to get enough votes to close the meeting.

Gillum approached the podium for his rebuttal and said that he had to release his packet, titled Gil Thivener, A Special Report before current Sheriff Lee Cannon, a Democrat, released his own version after the primary.

"If you think he's (Cannon) not going to publish something worse, you're sleeping," Gillum said. "My time's up. Thank you for your support."

Despite the several rough spots in Saturday's meeting, members said they hoped the turbulence of the past several months was behind them and encouraged one another to work together to get Republican candidates elected.

"I don't want to talk about old business. I want to move on," Lucas said.

Rod Neal, a candidate for District 1 County Commission, said, "I know that we're dysfunctional, but we're still a family."

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