By John Kennedy
The News Service of Florida
Five contenders vying to become Florida’s next Republican Party chair squared-off Friday night in an hourlong candidate forum, vowing to continue working to shed the tarnished image left by indicted ex-GOP boss Jim Greer.
The exchanges between the candidates were largely soft-edged, belying what most party officials agree is emerging as a heated race between Republican Party of Florida vice-chair Deborah Cox-Roush of Hillsborough County and Jefferson County State Committeeman Dave Bitner, a former legislator.
The election is scheduled for Saturday morning, with the winner needing to capture a majority of what could be 257 Republican Executive Committee members casting ballots. Members must be present to vote at the event, held at a Walt Disney World hotel.
“It’s a good contest,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who is stepping down after completing the final year of Greer’s term as chairman. “I don’t think anybody really knows who’s going to win it.”
Gov. Rick Scott, who did not attend Friday night’s forum, has said he plans to stay out of the fight – but has appointed 10 members to the committee, as has House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. Cannon’s appointees are seen as likely backing Bitner – while Cox-Roush is expected to draw most of her strength from county-level activists with whom she has a long history.
Greer, who faces criminal charges for steering party funds to a company he controlled, was the elephant in the roomful of Republicans.
“I promise, I will never take sides in a primary,” said Sarasota County Chairman Joe Gruters, one of the five candidates, citing another offense seen as committed by Greer. “We also have to do a better job of telling our members how and where the money is being spent.”
Each of the five candidates, whose field is rounded out by Palm Beach County Chairman Sid Dinerstein and Pinellas County State Committeeman Tony DiMatteo, also said they would push legislative leaders to revamp a state law approved during Greer’s tenure – and backed by former Gov. Charlie Crist – giving the party boss power to remove elected REC members for various grievances.
“It’s unconscionable,” Bitner said of the current law.
Less clear, however, was the candidates’ view of so-called ‘leadership funds.” Haridopolos steered a measure through the Legislature last year which gave House and Senate leaders clear authority over campaign cash they raise for the party – diminishing the role of the state chair in spending decisions. It also increases prospects that party funds will be used to back one Republican over another in a primary.
Leadership funds, likely to return as a proposal in the Legislature this spring, “are divisive for the Republican Party of Florida,” Cox-Roush said. Bitner said “there may be a need for leadership funds, but we have to pull in one direction.”
DiMatteo conceded, “There needs to be some deference to the people who raise the money.”
Among the candidates, Dinerstein may have offered the boldest platform – promising to erase all existing consulting contracts the party has for get-out-the-vote, direct mail, and other party-building activities. He also promised to create new committees aimed at improving the party’s technology and communications with county activists, while also beefing-up GOP efforts in more rural counties where Democrats still command many local offices.
The new chair’s two-year term would include the 2102 Republican National Convention planned for Tampa – with the candidates promising to help Florida Republicans showcase the state and also raise money around the event.
DiMatteo promised to have three priorities as party leader: “Raise money, raise money, and raise money,” he said.
“The chairman’s job is to be the rainmaker,” DiMatteo said, adding almost as an afterthought: “And to provide leadership and direction.”
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