Campaign Cleaners

It should be the best of times for a committee of idealistic Pinellas County residents called the Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices.

The volunteer-run, non-governmental committee has negotiated a truce of sorts with the county Republican Party for the first election cycle since its 1994 founding.

If committee members rule on a dispute about unfair campaigning this year, Paul J. Bedinghaus has promised to resist his usual impulse to second-guess. "They've changed their ways," the local GOP chairman said of the fair campaign committee. Shrill protests in the heat of past elections had Bedinghaus deriding the committee as 'a kangaroo court."

The committee, one of a kind in Florida, may be best known for getting Pinellas candidates for state, county and municipal office to sign a pre-election code of conduct. Up to 85 percent of office-seekers typically pledge to conduct themselves in an "honest, decent and fair manner."

"We're hopeful all legislators are honest. That doesn't seem too much to ask," said committee member Fay Law. "We ask the candidates to keep their emotions under control and stick to the facts."

Code violators face the committee's public rebuke, even if they refused to sign the pledge.

The committee has no other means to deter sleazy campaigning. The St. Petersburg Times, where the idea for the committee emanated, and other news media do shame some offenders by publicizing critical findings.

Unlike the state elections and ethics commissions, the Pinellas committee members have no official power. But former state Rep. Margo Fischer said 'they can influence public opinion" through the media coverage.

Recent moves within the nonprofit and nonpartisan committee cloud its future more than external factors.

The committee, under the chairmanship of University of South Florida professor and television pundit Darryl Paulson, has decided to stop accepting complaints from anybody except candidates.

Under the old system, most any voter could lodge one. "I think it allowed candidates sometimes to evade taking personal responsibility by letting somebody else do the dirty work," said Paulson, who hopes the change will limit frivolous allegations.

The committee already was pretty selective about which varieties of mudslinging to condemn. Complainants had to put their accusations in writing and sign their name to it.

"Clearly, just looking at some of the campaigns, one could easily argue that there's a lot more shenanigans going on that would be subject to the committee that we don't deal with because it hasn't been brought to our attention," said Paulson.

Now hearing complaints only from candidates, the committee may be taking the first step toward irrelevance.

An astute electoral observer, Paulson realizes candidates could agree privately in a hard-fought race to lock the committee out while they do battle in an ethical free-fire zone.

In that scenario, Paulson acknowledged, the committee would be helpless to sanction combatants. "They will slash and burn and do whatever necessary to win the election," he said. "Knowing full well that they're not going to file a complaint against their opponent and the opponent is not going to file a complaint against them because both of them are guilty as charged."

Before the committee could become irrelevant, however, it must get through a potentially divisive process of finding a new leader.

Paulson, chairman for most of the past four years, has made it known that 2002 will be his last year in the job. Recent history indicates the succession could be anything but routine.

Like a banana republic, the committee saw Paulson go into self-imposed exile for four months last year after a founder of the group tried and failed to oust him prematurely in a bizarre coup.

"These local organizations are really very tough to run effectively over a long period of time," said Paulson.

But the Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices committee is gaining popularity. The concept is even under study for export. Public officials from South Florida have inquired with Paulson about starting their own versions. Such a committee would surely be kept busy in Hillsborough County.

Not only does the public benefit. So do candidates. In polls, more than 70 percent of voters say they would more likely support candidates who signed and abided by an electioneering code of conduct.

With another state election season upon us, Weekly Planet decided to mark the committee's July 21 birthday by rummaging through eight years of the panel's files.

The committee has not always operated flawlessly, as its very first case showed.

J. Latvala vs. Wilson (1994):
A Taste of His Own Medicine

The fair campaign committee's inaugural hearing was full of delicious irony.

The complainant was future state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, a mercurial cheap-shot artist in his other job as a political consultant. However, Latvala disliked tasting his own medicine as a candidate.

The committee's ruling proved more outrageous, however, opening the panel to charges that its own members weren't clean.

Shortly before the September 1994 primary, Latvala told the committee that one of his GOP senatorial opponents, Jamie Wilson, had run a TV commercial falsely accusing him of favoring higher sales taxes and elimination of the homestead exemption on real estate taxes.

"Only eight days remain until the primary," Latvala frantically noted in a letter to the committee, "so time is of the essence!"

Times Associate Editor Martin Dyckman noted wryly in a column that, four years earlier, it was Latvala who pulled a similar stunt in order to help a client unseat an incumbent state senator. "Of course, it is the repentant sinners who sing the loudest in church," wrote Dyckman, whose columns on campaign ethics inspired creation of the committee.

The committee found in favor of Latvala and against Wilson. Both men had signed the fair-campaigning pledge.

But the committee's moral authority was immediately questioned by Wilson, who pointed out that two of the members voting against him had donated to Latvala's election bid.

"Of course, the Wilson campaign was livid," said Paulson. "As they should have been."

The incident led to the committee's first self-reform. All members sitting in judgment of a complaint have since been required to sign an oath stating they have assisted none of the candidates before them.

"It was a major embarrassment for a startup organization," said Paulson. The poor vetting for the Latvala-Wilson hearing has haunted the committee to this day.

Some Republicans still cite the Latvala verdict as a reason for their skeptical view of the committee.

Chief among them is Wilson, who went on to be executive director of the state Republican party before joining the ranks of Tallahassee lobbyists. "I don't spend much time thinking about small, non-meaningful groups," Wilson recently told the Planet.

Farkas vs. Fischer (1996, 2000):
Mud, Mud Everywhere

If ever there was a Pinellas ballot contest screaming for ethical mediation, it was the best-two-of-out-of-three mud-wrestling match between state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, and Margo Fischer, a St. Petersburg Democrat.

"I know them both very well and they were my friends until they see this probably," said Paulson. But he added: "If they had to go back and look at some of the things they said and some of the things that were in their campaign literature ... they might be a little embarrassed."

Fischer won the first round in 1996, only to lose her House seat to Farkas in 1998 and fail to regain it in 2000. Asked which of the three elections was the dirty one, Paulson replied: "Take your pick."

Yet, for all the bleating and bluffing from both camps, neither Farkas nor Fischer filed a formal complaint that was aired at a public hearing of the panel.

In 1996, Farkas wrote the committee after the Florida Democratic Party mailed fliers on the Friday before the Tuesday election warning: "The St. Petersburg Times says ... voters should beware!" An unfavorable Times editorial on Farkas was enlarged on the flier.

Times honchos were as bent out of shape as Farkas, and published a news report in which the newspaper's editor and lawyer suggested Fischer and the Democrats had deceptively misused the paper's trademark.

The timing of the Democratic attack left Farkas with little recourse. Farkas didn't get around to writing the committee until Election Day, when he lost.

Since then, Farkas said he has declined to sign the committee's fair-campaigning pledge. "I think it's a noble thought," he said. "I'm just not sure they have the teeth."

Farkas prefers to take his beefs to state government authorities, which he has done. Two years ago, the state elections commission fined Fischer $300 for sending out campaign event invitations that suggested she was the incumbent. Farkas had unseated her in 1998.

Also in 2000, Farkas was on the receiving end of a post-election complaint to the Pinellas committee from Fischer. In it, the by then two-time loser claimed distortions in 11th-hour Farkas mailings.

One Farkas piece informed voters that Fischer would do "whatever it takes" to gain their support, "even if it means playing tricks to scare you or mislead you or even lie to you."

Farkas filed his own complaint against Fischer. The committee persuaded the 2000 victor and the vanquished to withdraw their grievances.

Perennial last-minute attacks in legislative races convinced the committee to create what Paulson called "rapid response teams," which can meet on short notice to help restore a victim's reputation before the polls open. The committee also added a clause to its clean-election pledge: Candidates promise to pre-approve all material distributed by their party on their behalf because they will be held personally responsible for any misstatements.

Lowman vs. Camp (1997):
The Old Switcheroo

The committee seems to like to defer to government whenever it can.

That's what happened in 1997 when Gulfport mayoral challenger David L. Lowman accused Gulfport City Councilwoman Colleen W. Camp of pulling up one of his yard signs and replacing it with one for Mayor Michael J. Yakes.

Lowman took on Yakes after griping for years that Gulfport police targeted a bar he owned for increased surveillance because it catered mostly to gays.

Gulfport police wouldn't investigate Lowman's complaint against Camp. One of his eyewitnesses got cold feet. Camp said she had permission from the property owner to switch the Lowman sign for the Yakes one.

"In my life, I have never seen dirtier, smearier, gossipier politics than Gulfport city elections," ex-Pinellas Democratic Chairman Paul Hornsleth told the Times around the time that Lowman reported Camp to the fair campaign committee and a host of government authorities.

Despite that tempting invitation, the committee declined to take up Lowman's cause.

Ellis vs. G. Bilirakis (1998):
The Imposter Complex

By far, the strangest complaint in committee annals was filed four years ago by Democratic state House candidate Diane Ellis.

The self-employed legal aide asserted that her opponent, identified on the election ballot as future state Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis, (R-Palm Harbor), was actually an imposter. The real Bilirakis died in 1995, Ellis insisted.

Rounding out her story, Ellis said U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, had hired a New Yorker named Danny Divito to pose as his son Gus for the 1998 election.

If true, the allegation would certainly have violated the committee's fair-campaign code. All Ellis lacked was a shred of evidence to support her claim.

Nevertheless, the Ellis complaint won national publicity for the committee, including a Sunday blurb in The New York Times headlined: "Dead Man Running."

"Clearly, in terms of media coverage, that's the biggest thing," Paulson said of the journalistic attention accorded the committee over the years. 'Not because it was the most important but because it was the weirdest, which probably says something about media coverage."

Harris vs. McKeon (1998):
Sticks and Stones

Democrats at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club forum in October 1998 swore they heard Republican Thomas McKeon call Calvin Harris a liar and a thief.

Harris was one of them. The Pinellas commissioner, who eventually turned back McKeon's challenge at the polls that year, called on the fair campaign committee to punish his GOP opponent for "unfair, reckless, unsubstantiated and slanderous remarks."

The committee did just that, by an 8-to-1 vote. The dissenter was Paulson, who happens to be a registered Republican.

The committee does much good, said Paulson, but it can also chill legitimate free speech in a spirited election fight. He said he believes that's what occurred with the Harris decision.

"It was a stupid thing for the candidate to do," said Paulson, who credits the rhetorical jabs by McKeon, a retired Philadelphia cop, with ensuring victory for Harris, the first black elected to countywide office in Pinellas. "But I thought the candidate had every right to say what he said, however foolish it may have been."

Paulson also had doubts about whether McKeon's more elliptical comments — such as "I don't believe that liars have any business in government" — could be considered to have been aimed at Harris.

Candidates who don't sign the fair-campaign pledge often defend their decision in terms of wanting to protect their right to engage in a robust election debate, according to Paulson.

Paulson, who teaches a USF-St. Petersburg class on campaigning, says technique keeps a skilled candidate on the committee's good side.

"You can tell your audiences that your opponent's plan just makes no sense. It's an abomination," said Paulson. "Just don't, you don't need to call your opponent a stupid idiot. If your opponent is a stupid idiot, the voters don't need to be told that. They can draw their own conclusions."

Failed Coup Attempt (2001)
Paulson more or less followed his own advice while discussing committee co-founder Ray Aden's efforts to get rid of him.

While vacationing in Minnesota last summer, Paulson took a telephone call from the St. Petersburg Times. A reporter wanted to know about a letter from Aden announcing Paulson's departure as chairman of the Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices committee.

Paulson got back to Florida and found that Aden's letter had gotten around to committee members. "They believed, in fact, that I had communicated with Ray or Ray led them to believe that I had communicated that I wanted him to take over this responsibility," said Paulson. "I quickly indicated to them that I never had given Ray that authority."

To Paulson, it appeared Aden, a former county GOP chairman who used to run the fair campaign committee, hoped to handpick Paulson's replacement.

"A fairly steamy meeting" ensued last July, during which Paulson urged committee members to defend the integrity of their organization. "If we're an organization that touts fair campaign practices, this to me seems to be an example of an unfair tactic," said Paulson.

Paulson stepped aside for four months while Fay Law assumed his duties. Law led the committee to draft its first set of bylaws, which Paulson says went a long way toward easing the concerns of GOP leaders about the committee.

"It was very good for the organization in many respects," Paulson said of the committee's accomplishments during his exile. "I always try to find the diamond in the pile of shit."

With Aden neutralized, Paulson returned in January to serve out his chairmanship. Aden couldn't be contacted for comment.

Despite the Aden coup attempt, committee Treasurer Wallace Witham predicted the Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices will live to see another election after this year's.

Paulson said the new bylaws should discourage takeover plots by committee members.

The bylaws and the exit of Aden are two of the reasons Bedinghaus says he came around. "I'm giving them the benefit," he said.

Witham helped organize the committee back in 1994. "I think the committee is a permanent fixture in Pinellas County," Witham said recently. "There were times early on when it wasn't so obvious that was going to be the case."

Contact News Editor Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].

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