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Politics and sleaze envelop Orlando

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Lest anyone accuse Jimmy Carter of overreacting to electoral shenanigans in Florida, this just in from The Independent...


Politics and sleaze envelop Orlando


As the presidential campaign approaches its showdown, the Republicans in the state run by George Bush's brother are up to their tricks again. Andrew Gumbel reports from the heart of Florida


27 September 2004


In Orlando, the Florida home of Disneyworld and a vital political battleground, the campaign for the November presidential election is getting sly, nasty and very, very personal. Normally, at this stage of the proceedings, Ezzie Thomas, a well-known character on the predominantly African-American west side of town, would be out chatting to the people, registering them to vote before the 4 October deadline and helping them with absentee ballots if they do not think they will have time to make it to the polls on election day. But the 73-year-old Mr Thomas, an affable ladies' man, is staying out of public view for fear of exacerbating what is already a highly controversial - and highly political - criminal investigation of his election-related activities.


A similarly low profile is being taken by Steve Clelland, the head of the local firefighters' union. Last week, he did not even dare attend a local appearance by John Kerry, the candidate he is supporting for President, in case it added to the legal troubles facing his own organisation. The firefighters are also subject to a criminal investigation, the chief allegation - for which no evidence has been produced - being that they colluded with City Hall to set up an illegal slush fund for political campaigning.


What makes the troubles facing the two men particularly sinister is that they are declared Kerry supporters, with the power to bring in hundreds if not thousands of votes for the Democratic Party. The investigations are being conducted by the state police, known as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), which reports directly to Governor Jeb Bush, brother of President George Bush.


The Republicans, naturally, deny the investigations are politically motivated. But even they acknowledge that a chill has spread through Orlando's overwhelmingly Democratic black voting community after a flurry of unannounced visits by armed state police to at least 52 homes whose mostly elderly residents had signed up for an absentee ballot with Mr Thomas's help.


The Republicans have been hard put to explain what exactly the two men have done wrong. The media has aired official allegations ranging from vote fraud to campaign finance irregularities to racketeering, but no charges have been brought, despite exhaustive investigations. A grand jury examining allegations concerning the firefighters' union concluded that no laws had been broken, which has not deterred the FDLE from pursuing the case.


It is impossible to understand what is going on without considering the broader political picture. Orlando is slap-bang in the middle of the so-called "I-4 corridor", the line of Florida cities running along Interstate Highway 4 from Daytona Beach on the Atlantic coast to Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. The I-4 corridor is regarded as the hinge on which the outcome of the presidential election in Florida will swing, and Orlando - with surrounding Orange County - is considered the corridor's bellwether city.


So this is the key swing city in the key swing region of the key swing state that will determine whether or not George Bush wins another four years in the White House. Little wonder passions are getting heated. Given the unholy electoral mess Florida produced in 2000, and given the state's sordid history of vote fraud and systematic disenfranchisement, especially of black voters, both parties find themselves voicing the suspicion that the other side will try to steal Florida if only they can figure out how. "It's a blood sport," said Joe Egan, a prominent Orlando lawyer who represents both Mr Thomas and the firefighters.


One added wrinkle is that Orlando's mayor, Buddy Dyer, is one of only two prominent Democratic public officials along the I-4 corridor. Clearly, if he is discredited, the Democrats will be deprived of a vital figurehead in the run-up to 2 November. As it turns out, he is directly implicated in both of the FDLE's investigations. The intrigue began with Mr Dyer's election last March. It was a two-round election, but Mr Dyer finished with just over the 50 per cent threshold needed to avoid a run-off. His closest opponent, a Republican called Ken Mulvaney, cried foul, saying the 234-vote margin putting Mr Dyer over the threshold was fraudulent.


Since Mr Mulvaney's campaign manager was a prominent local talk-radio host called Doug Guetzloe, his allegations had a wide airing. But most of them, if not all, were demonstrably untrue. Mr Guetzloe claimed illegal absentee votes had been faxed into the elections supervisor's office, but the office accepts only originals. He also said people had been paid for their votes, but offered no evidence of this...


Etc., etc., etc. Whole story at http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/story.jsp?story=566037

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