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Party plays role in primary race

The Democratic Party has intervened in the District 44 contest.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000

By April, state Democrats were beginning to worry about their chances to beat Republican state Rep. David Russell.

Neither of the party's candidates in the District 44 race -- Shirley Johnson and Gregory Williams -- had raised much money. Williams also was facing the challenge of running as a black candidate in an overwhelmingly white district.

So the party stepped in. It encouraged Diane TeStrake, an associate dean at the University of South Florida, to run, and gave her staff assistance that, according to her campaign finance report, was worth $1,935.

"Diane was given an opportunity to get some support to get her candidacy started because it was our position that neither Gregory Williams nor Shirley Johnson were running a viable campaign," said state Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, the incoming House minority leader, who has been recruiting candidates across the state.

"Logic tells you that if you think you are facing a competitive general election, you have to have a strong candidate."

Frankel said the party is not necessarily favoring one candidate over the other. Williams -- TeStrake's only opposition since Johnson failed to qualify last week -- has been promised an equal amount of assistance from the state party.

But TeStrake's sudden entrance into the race two months ago raised questions about the party's supporting one candidate over another in a primary election and, to a lesser degree, whether a candidate's race enters into these decisions.

The local Democratic Executive Committee still adheres to the traditional policy of staying out of primary elections. That's not true on the state level. Though campaign laws technically forbid it, Democrats and Republicans now openly pick favorites in their own parties.

"It's more overt now," Frankel said.

The law forbidding it works by cutting off parties from a portion of the qualifying fees that they normally receive. The measure is still on the books, said Bucky Mitchell, a lawyer with the state Division of Elections. But several judges have ruled that it violates constitutional rights of free speech and association. It has not been enforced since 1995, he said; in this year's session, it was to have been removed from the statutes along with other archaic laws, though the Legislature didn't get around to it.

The state Republican party also helps candidates in primary races, said former state GOP committeewoman Mary Ann Hogan. Frankel said the Democrats are actively backing one candidate over another in at least six races throughout the state this year -- though she insisted that the District 44 race is not one of them.

Frankel said the party helped TeStrake, mostly in circulating petition cards, because she was entering the race so late. Frankel said party officials had previously offered training to Williams, though he did not take them up on the offer. It agreed to give Williams'staff time equal to TeStrake's after he complained about it to party leaders in Tallahassee last week.

TeStrake said that the state party did not directly recruit her. She went to Frankel after discussing it with friends.

"That was the final reality check," TeStrake said.

And Frankel said money, not race, made the party decide to help TeStrake.

"By the March 31 reporting period, neither one of them had raised any money. None. None," she said of Williams and Johnson. "I think Greg had $875," not including a $10,000 loan of his own money.

"I had several conversations with Greg," Frankel said. "I told him what I tell all the candidates. This is not a personal thing. You may be good people, and you may be great members, but we have to win this seat."

Frankel and party spokesman Tony Welch said Williams' race, in a district that has less than 5 percent black voters, was not an issue.

"The fact is that anyone can be elected anywhere, and the party is not going to operate on that principle. Period," Welch said.

That does not mean it never came up.

Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Alexander Jenkins said he talked with Williams shortly after he declared his candidacy last year.

"I think we have approximately 2,000 voters in Hernando County. The numbers are just not there," said Jenkins, who also is black.

"You will get some people who will vote for the best candidate regardless of race, but it is not enough to swing an election. Both of them are basically good candidates, but let's face it, the credentials that Diane TeStrake has are a little better."

Williams, a classifications supervisor with the state Department of Corrections, said he wasn't fazed by such talk. He has since accelerated his fundraising efforts and as of the most recent contribution report, has more than $35,000, including $30,000 of his own money. And the voters, he said, not party officials, will make the ultimate choice.

"I believe the people who are so frustrated with what is happening in Tallahassee are going to elect the person who will be able to go up there and do the best job," Williams said.

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