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The Great Florida Divide

Members Trying to Broker Solution Over Primary Date Fight

Tensions are rising between Florida Democrats on Capitol Hill and the Democratic National Committee after the DNC threatened sanctions over the Sunshine State’s recent move to push its 2008 presidential primary up to late January.

Congressional Democrats from Florida say they had no control over the date change and should not be penalized for it.

The GOP-controlled Florida Legislature voted to move the state’s presidential primary to Jan. 29. Gov. Charlie Crist (R) signed the legislation into law Monday, and both Democrats and Republicans in the state now risk losing most of their delegates to the presidential nominating conventions under national party rules and bylaws. Officials at both national committees do not want official primaries or caucuses being held in any states other than Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina before Feb. 5.

Democrats in the Florida delegation are hopeful a compromise will be worked out, but Members of Congress risk losing their superdelegate status if no deal is reached. The most likely scenario is that the party would choose its delegates at a convention or caucus after Feb. 5, effectively rendering the Jan. 29 primary a nonbinding beauty pageant.

The state’s Congressional delegation has had little involvement thus far in the negotiations between the DNC and Florida Democratic party leaders — including former Rep. Karen Thurman, the current state chairwoman — over how the state can avoid being sanctioned, but they are hoping to have their say.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said she ran into DNC Chairman Howard Dean several weeks ago and suggested the best way to deal with the matter would be to schedule a meeting between Dean and the delegation. Dean, she said, agreed it would be a good idea.

Conversations have taken place on the staff level since then, but so far no such meeting has materialized.

“It would be a good idea to sit down, and we haven’t had a chance to do that at all,” Wasserman Schultz said. “I certainly would be willing and hope to be a part of that process.”

The DNC’s first communication to the Florida Members was what Wasserman Schultz termed a “bizarre” letter from the co-chairmen of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, effectively urging the lawmakers to do everything they could to stop the early primary or else face the consequences.

Wasserman Schultz and other Florida Democrats with knowledge of the letter said they were offended by its tone and by the tack that the DNC has taken thus far.

The Democrats say they were powerless to stop the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature from changing the primary date and argue they should not be penalized as a result.

“I was pleased that the primary was moved, and I think it’s preposterous that we would have the possibility of us losing our size, clout and impact on the nominating process,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Florida Democrats in general support the primary date change, arguing that the presidential candidates raise millions of dollars for their campaigns in the state and therefore should be forced to campaign for votes there as well.

“They want our money, but they don’t want our vote,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), the dean of the state Democratic delegation who also said he was “highly offended” by the DNC threats.

“Enough already of Iowa and New Hampshire — you can put that in Dade County,” he said, referring to the South Florida population center that includes Miami.

Hastings said he couldn’t care less about the national convention or losing his delegate status.

A host of states, including California, New York and Illinois, have moved their presidential primaries to Feb. 5, a date that has effectively been dubbed ‘Super Duper Tuesday.’

Florida Republicans face similar delegate loss sanctions if the primary is held on Jan. 29, and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who is general chairman of the Republican National Committee, has said he will enforce the party’s rules.

However there has been far less outcry from Republicans, who argue that the final delegate count doesn’t matter and that getting to have an early say in the process is much more important. Unlike Democrats, Republican presidential candidates will not be penalized delegates if they campaign in rule-breaking states.

In 2006, the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee approved an additional sanction that calls for individual candidates to lose delegates if they campaign or raise money in a state that has violated the DNC rules.

A DNC spokeswoman stressed that this isn’t the first time that a state has broken with party rules and said that the committee is not trying to penalize Florida but is simply trying to enforce the party’s long-standing rules.

In 2000, Arizona, Delaware and Washington state moved their primaries to before the Feb. 5 sanctioned date.

As chairman, Dean supported Nevada moving to a Jan. 19 caucus and South Carolina holding a Jan. 29 primary in an effort to increase diversity in the candidate selection process. All states were invited to apply to be considered for a sanctioned earlier primary or caucus, and Florida did not submit such a request.

“We understand that the Florida Democratic Party isn’t responsible. However, we do have rules that must be enforced,” DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton said.

The DNC and the Florida Democratic Party have been trying to work out a compromise that would allow Florida to keep its delegates. As long as the DNC rules remain in place, the state party essentially has two options.

“Possibilities include accepting the Jan. 29th date and the penalties that go along with it or holding a party-run caucus at a later date,” Thurman wrote in a recent e-mail to Democrats.

Paxton said the DNC is hopeful that Members of Congress will work with the DNC and Florida party to help devise a solution. Selecting the party’s delegates at a subsequent caucus or convention would take a great deal of planning and fundraising within the party.

“We hope they are willing to work with the state party and the DNC to try to come up with an alternative plan,” Paxton said.

Wasserman Schultz said she hopes the matter can be resolved without Florida being penalized.

“It isn’t necessary, it wouldn’t be fair, and I certainly hope they hopefully have every intention of resolving this,” she said.

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