Don't Silence Party Leaders

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY AUG 27, 2016

A small uproar arose this month when a Democratic volunteer handed out a sample ballot suggesting a vote for Frank Alcock in a local state Senate race. Pretty soon, video of upset opponent Frank Cirillo could be viewed online. “The party is not supposed to take sides,” he says. “The party is not supposed to play favorites.”

As it happened, the party hadn’t. Sarasota Democratic Party chair Christine Jennings says the volunteer acted out of turn, and the chair sent an email to individuals working polls reminding the organization had not selected one Democrat over another. So things have seemingly smoothed over, and the party in the general election will back whoever wins this primary, whether it's Alcock, a college professor long-engaged in Florida politics or Cirillo, a recent college grad. Thank goodness, wouldn’t want to push anybody in a certain direction there.

But really, who cares if the party had supported Alcock? To be clear, the organization should support whomever voters select as a nominee this Tuesday, but given that obligation, it’s not crazy for leadership in a political organization to suggest one Frank has greater viability in November. And some individuals in the organization have made preferences known. Keith Fitzgerald, who teaches with Alcock at New College of Florida, took a leave of absence as Sarasota County’s Democratic state committeeman so he could help his colleague’s campaign.

Incidentally, that video of a concerned Cirillo was posted by Christian Ziegler, Republican state committeeman for Sarasota. “It's a shame to see that the Sarasota County Democratic Party is aggressively pushing one of their local Democratic candidates,” Ziegler writes. Yet Ziegler that the same week posted a lengthy endorsement of Teresa Mast, who is running against Caroline Zucker on the Sarasota County School Board. Considering Ziegler’s wife Bridget also serves on the board, that move caused consternation as well.

But it shouldn’t. Ziegler knows the issues of the School Board and has an opinion to share. Likewise Fitzgerald, who served four years in the Florida House. Joe Gruters, the Republican Party of Sarasota chairman who for years stayed neutral in primaries, has his own state House primary this year where he must take sides, and he backed Donald Trump in the presidential primary. Jennings, who won’t pick faves in the Senate primary, hosted fundraisers for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

These individuals stress, of course, that they endorse only as individuals, not on behalf of their parties. It should be remembered, though, that parties in Florida don’t administer elections. It’s hip these days to run against the establishment, but the establishment is really a bunch of individuals who follow politics more attentively than most. They aren’t the only informed voices worth hearing, nor is their opinion absolute. But when politically active people turn their knowledge into influence, it should be welcomed, not condemned. Often, people suggest organizations be punished for backing the wrong horse—or the right one. Liberals in Florida remain angry President Obama has backed Patrick Murphy over Alan Grayson in the US Senate Democratic primary. But then Murphy threw a hissy fit and tried to decertify the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida for attracting Grayson into the race.

That caucus, as it happens, also backed Cirillo this year. And he should be proud of that, as any endorsement is worth having. But while primaries can reset the future of a party, that doesn’t mean opinions of leaders today should be discredited. Party organizations should back who its leaders choose. And when voters hold different opinions, they can take comfort their own voice will be counted the same at the ballot box as party regulars.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor of SRQ Media Group.

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