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.