Florida GOP of­fi­cials slam state chair Gruters, Repub­li­can lead­er­ship

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Steven Le­mon­gello

The Repub­li­can Party of Florida is tak­ing heat from cur­rent and for­mer county GOP lead­ers for what they claim is a pat­tern of ig­nor­ing and stonewalli­ng lo­cal par­ties.

A for­mer state com­mit­tee­man from Lafayette County claims the party re­peat­edly held up re­quests for in­for­ma­tion on the party’s an­nual au­dit.

An Es­cam­bia County GOP vice chair re­signed out of frus­tra­tion be­cause he said he was pre­vented from join­ing the Trump cam­paign.

And a Bre­vard state com­mit­tee­woman claims dozens of party members were dis­qual­i­fied from vot­ing the day be­fore a membership elec­tion.

Their main com­plaint is that the state party ig­nores lo­cal party com­mit­tees, dic­tates which can­di­dates can run in lo­cal races and has

a stran­gle­hold on fundrais­ing.

“County par­ties are al­lowed to use out-of-date by­laws,” wrote Alan Levy, the for­mer GOP state com­mit­tee­man for Lafayette County, in a let­ter to fel­low members of a group he founded, the Florida Free­dom Cau­cus. “Although lack­ing the min­i­mum re­quired membership, county par­ties are still per­mit­ted to op­er­ate. … Our fi­nances are hid­den. Our membership is hid­den. Our web­site car­ries lit­tle in­for­ma­tion.”

“Up is down, and down is up,” Levy wrote.

Their pub­lic crit­i­cism comes amid re­ports of in­fight­ing and trou­bles be­hind the scenes be­tween Gov. Ron DeSan­tis and state GOP chair Joe Gruters, in­clud­ing the gover­nor’s push for a pay cut for Gruters and his ef­forts to have his own peo­ple in high-rank­ing po­si­tions within the party.

In re­sponse to the crit­i­cisms, the Repub­li­can Party of Florida is­sued a state­ment sayin, “It is against [our] pol­icy to com­ment on in­ter­nal party mat­ters.”

Bill Fetke, the for­mer Es­cam­bia GOP vice chair, said the di­rec­tion of the state party is “mind-bog­gling,” and he crit­i­cized Gruters di­rectly.

“Gruters told all lo­cal [county GOP com­mit­tees] to stay away from this or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Fetke said of the Trump re-elec­tion cam­paign, for which he now serves as Es­cam­bia chair. “In our last two cam­paigns, the state [GOP] provided lit­tle to no help. Dur­ing the cam­paign in 2016, we didn’t get signs say­ing ‘Trump’ un­til two weeks be­fore the elec­tion. Some weren’t de­liv­ered un­til 10 o’clock the night be­fore the elec­tion.”

Each county Repub­li­can Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee, or REC, in­cludes a state com­mit­tee­man and com­mit­tee­woman elected coun­ty­wide, as op­posed to chairs, vice-chairs and other party lead­er­ship voted on by members.

Kay Dur­den, who re­signed last month as Lafayette

County state com­mit­tee­woman af­ter hav­ing been in­volved with the party “since the Gold­wa­ter days” in the early 1960s, said their roles have been re­duced to “win­dow dress­ing” by the party lead­er­ship.

“We had power back then,” Dur­den said. “We made de­ci­sions. Peo­ple run­ning for of­fice came to the REC, in­tro­duced them­selves, and we would vet them on whether they were good Repub­li­cans and good peo­ple. Now it’s a sit­u­a­tion where it’s out of con­trol.”

Dur­den said the state party con­trols all fundrais­ing, which she said is a ma­jor prob­lem when Gruters and for­mer chair Blaise In­goglia are leg­is­la­tors and barred from rais­ing money dur­ing the ses­sion. Many can­di­dates in lo­cal races are also “hand-picked” by state lead­er­ship, she said.

“We were like the ic­ing on the cake,” she said. “Why bother go­ing to all the meet­ings? … Some­times they say, ‘This is the guy run­ning for this and this of­fice. Now get on board.’”

Af­ter decades of serv­ing as a state com­mit­tee­woman, in­clud­ing a stint in Du­val County, Dur­den re­signed in De­cem­ber ahead of a move north to live with her chil­dren.

“I gave it up, it was too much,” she said. “It gave me an easy out, but I hate not be­ing here to keep the fight go­ing.”

Cheryl Lankes, a cur­rent state com­mit­tee­woman for Bre­vard County, said she ran for her po­si­tion “be­cause I felt like the party had ex­cluded reg­u­lar vot­ers, and I wanted to find a way to get them back in the loop. … But they tend to iso­late grass­roots peo­ple like my­self.”

In a let­ter to Levy, Lankes wrote the state GOP “has failed to lay out a plan for the up­com­ing elec­tion. There’s no time­line of events lead­ing to Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­elec­tion. The too few in­di­vid­u­als in place to or­ga­nize our coun­ties are sub­stan­dard, and our REC’s are so small and aged they can­not ef­fec­tively com­pete with Democrats.”

Lankes claims that 50 Bre­vard GOP members had

their membership re­voked the day be­fore the lead­er­ship elec­tion in which Rick Lacey was re-elected as chair. A griev­ance was filed with the state party, and “Chair­man Gruters promised to fol­low up. … We never heard another word about it.”

Lacey did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Lankes’ claim was part of a Florida Bar griev­ance that Levy filed on Dec. 31, which con­tended state GOP coun­sel Ben Gib­son had “eth­i­cal fail­ures in judg­ment and be­hav­ior in vi­o­la­tion of the rules of con­duct.” Levy wrote that griev­ances “that fa­vor in­ter-party al­lies are given at­ten­tion while those against al­lies are ig­nored.”

Florida Bar coun­sel Wil­liam Wil­helm dis­missed the griev­ance on Tues­day, stat­ing the mat­ters were not in the Bar’s purview.

Levy, who had launched an un­suc­cess­ful bid for state chair against Gruters in 2017, has also been crit­i­cal of the $1 mil­lion in charges on the state party Amer­i­can Ex­press card in the first three months of 2019. He claims Gib­son has stonewalle­d his at­tempts to look into the spend­ing and Gib­son asked him to sign a re­stric­tive non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment, or NDA.

Levy said the NDA was far too broad, with “un­spec­i­fied fi­nan­cial penal­ties,” and cov­ered “far more party in­for­ma­tion than re­quired for a very limited re­view of ex­pen­di­tures (most of which was al­ready pub­lic).”

In re­sponse, Gib­son said, “Mr. Levy’s com­plaint against me was swiftly dis­missed by The Bar.”

In an in­ter­view Tues­day, Levy said, “This is about them try­ing to find a hand­ful of peo­ple that the leg­is­la­tors can con­trol, and screw every­body else. They don’t need the party members. They don’t need the pub­lic.”

“I’m not try­ing to hurt the pres­i­dent,” Levy said. “I’m not try­ing to hurt the gover­nor. He’s not a bad guy. He turned out to be pretty good. But he’s sur­rounded by skunks.”

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

The pro­posed River Cross devel­op­ment would be built at the old High Oaks Ranch, ac­cord­ing to plans.

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