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Politics

Florida TEA Party Fight Boiling Over

June 20, 2010 - 6:00pm

The TEA Party of Florida squares off against 33 local tea parties and individual Floridians in federal district court in West Palm Beach Wednesday.

The TEA Party, which was sued by rival tea organizations for co-opting the name, seeks dismissal of the lawsuit.

"We're optimistic that the judge has figured out it's a bogus lawsuit," said TEA Party Chairman Frederic O'Neal, an Orlando attorney.

On the other side, TEA opponents say the party is nothing more than a personal political scheme hatched by former Republican operative Doug Guetzloe to sabotage the real tea movement and wreak havoc on the GOP.

"Florida's (other) tea party leaders knew since December this was Guetzloe's gambit and we warned Florida GOP leaders months ago," said Mike Caputo, a South Florida-based Republican consultant.

"Doug Guetzloe has been kicked out of the Republican Party ... Who doesn't believe the allegation that he's being paid by the Democrats to call this trick play?"

Amid the legal wrangling, more than a dozen TEA candidates have filed to run in various state races. The party's ranks include former Republicans, independents and, in the case of chairman O'Neal, an ex-Democrat.

Declining to say who he voted for in the 2008 presidential election, O'Neal stated, "I did not vote for John McCain."

As for the federal lawsuit, O'Neal said it was filed "for theatrical purposes."

"If they were serious, why not sue the state of Florida, which officially recognized us as a party?"

Conventional wisdom holds that the tea movement -- which espouses an anti-tax, pro-business, fiscally conservative agenda -- is aligned with the Republican Party. But O'Neal's brand of TEA shatters that stereotype by openly feuding with the state's GOP establishment.

With tensions running high, extracurricular campaign activity has broken out between Republicans and the TEA Party.

Jose Alvarez, a TEA candidate in House District 79, said he was visited at his office by incumbent Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, two days before Alvarez filed for office.

"(Horner) told me things could get ugly" if I didn't quit the race, Alvarez related. Alvarez, a Realtor, said he received calls from fellow brokers urging him to step aside.

Horner told Sunshine State News that he simply wanted Alvarez to be aware of the TEA Party's "real agenda."

"I wanted to make sure he understood the nature of the Florida TEA Party, and that it is not reflective of the tea party movement. It appears to be engaging in an effort to prevent Republicans from being re-elected and to help Democrats gain seats in the state Legislature," Horner said.

Republican Party Chairman John Thrasher questioned the legitimacy of some TEA candidates, declaring that "some don't even live in their districts." He said the party was "looking into" the matter.

Coincidentally or not, Guetzloe's radio program on Orlando's WEUS-AM was canceled this week and a station employee, Raul Pantoja, who is running as a TEA candidate in House District 73, was terminated.

Citing "intimidation and a smear campaign by persons associated with the Republican Party," TEA spokesman Nick Egoroff said his party was gathering affidavits to support a criminal complaint with the U.S. attorney's office.

Rick Riker, a tea supporter (and TEA Party opponent), responded in the Orlando Political Press, "There would be no TEA Party except for Guetzloe and his bunch seeing an opportunity to financially enrich themselves and at the same time get even with the Republican Party, which suspended Guetzloe and his pal Nick Egoroff from the executive committee."

Katie Gordon Betta, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida, added:

"Doug Guetzloe and Fred ONeal are spearheading a malicious attempt to confuse voters who may be supportive of the tea party movement, effectively stealing votes from true conservative candidates and injuring the grass-roots tea party movement as a whole.

"If they want to talk about improprieties, they should start by revealing by what means they convinced young, recently registered Democrats to run for state office in districts hundreds of miles away from their residences."

Though O'Neal and Guetzloe say they did not systematically "recruit" TEA candidates, they did reach out to a few. One of them, Peg Dunmire, had already filed as a Republican to challenge Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson in Congressional District 8.

After TEA officials called her in March, Dunmire decided to run as a TEA candidate. The lifelong Republican subsequently withdrew from the GOP contest, changed her party registration to TEA and filed on the party's ballot line.

At the close of filing last Friday, seven Republicans, including former state Sen. Dan Webster, were seeking the GOP nomination for the Orlando area seat.

Another of the GOP hopefuls, Bruce O'Donoghue, on Monday alleged nefarious connections between Grayson and the TEA Party.

"I will not stand idly by as Alan Grayson uses the Florida TEA Party to further his own political career," O'Donoghue said, while appearing with rival tea activists Diana Evans, Lisa Ferloi, Ron McCoy and Linda O'Keefe.

"Now they're all claiming to be friends of the tea party," Dunmire said of the Republicans.

Clearly, however, they favor a different flavor of "tea."

--

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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