Politics & Government

Florida Dems defy party, will hold early primary

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. — Florida's state Democratic Party announced Sunday that it would defy the national party by holding its presidential primary as scheduled on Jan. 29, even though it will probably mean that none of Florida's delegates will be seated at next summer's Democratic convention.

"We will be voting on Jan. 29 with our candidates on the ballot,'' Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman told a news conference. "At the end of the day, we came down on the side of having a fair and open election.''

The decision, less than a month after the Democratic National Committee stripped Florida of its 210 delegates unless it changed the primary date, is likely to embolden other big states that have threatened to rebel against Democratic Party rules that allow only a handful of state primaries and caucuses before Feb. 5.

Michigan also has challenged the party's schedule, setting Jan. 15 for its primary.

It also will change the calculus of the Democratic contenders as they vie for the party's nomination.

The party's major candidates already have agreed they will not campaign here, though they are still free to raise money. That means millions of dollars that would have been spent in Florida on television ads and organizing will now be free to be spent in other states.

Some Democrats worry that the decision by the national party will allow Republicans to organize earlier than Democrats in a state that was critical in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

The major Democratic candidates have pledged that they will not organize get-out-the-vote operations or run television commercials in Florida until after the primary and that they will forego the state party's convention in Orlando, a showcase for the party's most motivated grassroots activists.

One Republican contender, Mitt Romney, is already airing commercials here, however, and all the major Republican contenders will receive national television exposure during an

Oct. 21 debate staged during the state GOP's convention.

Florida's party leaders said they were united in not bending to the will of the national party, which had set up a primary schedule that allowed only New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada to select delegates prior to Feb. 5.

Florida officials contended that that schedule allows less populous states to have a disproportionate influence on the nominee's selection. Twenty-five other states go to the polls in February.

More than a dozen party leaders stood behind Thurman as she made her announcement. Thurman said a majority of the more than 200 party leaders from across the state supported the decision, which came after nearly a month of negotiation between the state, the DNC and the four early-selection states.

But there were dissenters.

"It's a Thelma and Louise strategy of backing up the car while we're driving over a cliff,'' said DNC member Allan Katz, a Tallahassee attorney involved in the negotiations.

The DNC had proposed that the Florida party schedule its official delegate selection, either through a caucus or statewide convention, at a later date and had offered $800,000 to help defray the expense.

But Democratic officials feared such a move would hurt turnout Jan. 29, when Florida voters will also consider a constitutional amendment changing the way state property taxes are assessed that the Democratic Party opposes.

The GOP-dominated Legislature voted earlier this year to move the state's primary elections from March to Jan. 29, and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, signed the bill into law.

In June, the state Democratic Party voted to go along with the date, saying it was the best chance to get as many people involved in the process as possible. It reaffirmed the vote in August.