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Democrats Move in Fla. Vote Fight

Souring on the lagging pace of Florida courts, House Democrats vowed last week to begin plowing forward in their attempt to resolve the still-contested 13th district House race from 2006, a move that drew Republican criticism and likely edged the ongoing dispute towards a political showdown.

“Our concern is that the House really shouldn’t dive in to the issues of the contest until Florida proceedings are finalized, until [state courts] have had an opportunity to exhaust its own remedies,” said Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over disputed House elections. “They’ve had a sudden change of heart.”

Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), the newly named chairman of the House’s three-Member election task force, has scheduled a meeting for April 17 on the status of the ongoing court case involving Democrat Christine Jennings, who was declared the loser in the Florida race by just 369 votes and continues to insist that she was the victim of faulty electronic voting equipment. Gonzalez said late last week that only lawyers from both sides would be called to speak at the meeting.

The announcement was met with GOP grumbles. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (Mich.), the top Republican on the House Administration panel, which oversees the task force, said Republicans would not name a Member to the task force out of protest. Gonzalez’s office confirmed late Friday that the Congressman will not bow to GOP protests and will convene the meeting with or without Republicans present.

“I saw Vern Ehlers on the floor [Wednesday],” Gonzalez said. “He reiterated that nothing should be done.”

Jennings, a former banking executive, lost to now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) in the race to replace Rep. Katherine Harris, a two-term Republican who retired to unsuccessfully challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). The Jennings-Buchanan election, certified by state officials to have been decided by 369 votes, has been contentious nearly from the moment votes were first cast.

Jennings maintains that faulty voting equipment resulted in an “undervote” of 18,000 pollgoers, a matter that continues to filter through the Florida court system. Once considered resolvable perhaps within weeks or months, few expect the issue to come to a close anytime soon. Gonzalez, a former judge, said his primary reason for scheduling the meeting is to make sure everyone in Congress is dealing with the same set of facts.

“We thought we should put some form to this process,” Gonzalez said. Usually in court trials, he continued, “you have a status conference, you bring the parties in, bring their [lawyers] and say, ‘Hey, what is this about, what is it that you are seeking?’”

Gonzalez added: “We may believe that we understand it all, but we want some real specifics from them.”

But Republicans counter that Gonzalez and other Democrats are backing away from earlier commitments to let state courts settle the issues before the House steps in. In early January, House Administration Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) wrote to the Florida court handling Jennings’ case and stated that “my committee is closely following the course of the litigation underway down in Florida.”

Millender-McDonald also appeared to suggest her committee intended to stand on the sidelines until the matter was resolved in the courts.

“The House is well served in its own deliberations by having before it a complete record,” she wrote. “Consequently, Florida law will facilitate the evaluation of the election contest pending before the House to the extent that it provides access to relevant and critical evidence … resolution of these issues may obviate the need for the House to address them. ”

Gonzalez said he was unaware of previous promises made by his Democratic colleagues. But he balked at GOP accusations that pre-empting a court decision could put pressure on the judiciary and said the House has a legal responsibility to look into the matter.

“All I can promise is that this will be done in an orderly, fair and thorough manner,” he said. “I don’t believe anything the task force is going to do is going to influence the final decision … I don’t even think they’re going to feel any obligation to expedite their decision at the appellate level in Florida.”

With the issue turning political quickly, Jennings and other Democrats insist that dwelling on the past will not hinder her prospects in 2008. Stopping short of confirming she will run again next year, Jennings said Friday she is delaying an announcement to keep the focus on 2006. Still, the writing appears to be on the wall.

“I have not filed yet,” Jennings said. “I can’t imagine anyone that would not think I wouldn’t run again. But I hope people can see that I am a fighter and I will fight for them.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declined to discuss Jennings’ political future, but Jennings said the committee continues to pay her legal bills and she spends the vast majority of her time fundraising so she can keep the lights on in her campaign office.

“The DCCC is taking care of [my legal bills],” she said. “I just have raised enough money to keep my minimal staff and my office.”

Dave Beattie, a Democratic consultant and Jennings’ 2006 pollster, said because so many voters in the Sarasota-based district agree with Jennings that the voting equipment failed, she is doing no damage to her political future by soldiering on. In fact, quite the contrary.

“It’s keeping her name in the paper,” Beattie said. “More importantly … there’s not disagreement that something went wrong with the election.”

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