Courts

Write-in candidates spur controversy in Miami-Dade State Attorney race

 

The two write-ins closed the Democratic primary between Katherine Fernández Rundle and Rod Vereen.

dovalle@miamiherald.com

Michele Samaroo and T. Omar Malone, write-in candidates for Miami-Dade State Attorney, won’t appear on any ballots, don’t have campaign websites and refuse to take phone calls from the press.

But their presence is nonetheless amping up the campaign rhetoric and political intrigue between incumbent Katherine Fernández Rundle and her challenger, fellow Democrat Rod Vereen.

On one side, Fernández Rundle accuses Vereen’s campaign of running the write-in candidates — their last-minute entry closed the primary election, creating an Aug. 14 defacto winner-take-all race to be decided by up to just 525,890 registered Democrats. She calls it a “sneak attack designed to exclude more than 700,000 voters.”

On the other side, Vereen denies he is behind the write-ins and blasts Fernández Rundle because her campaign website urges Republican and independent voters to switch to the Democratic party to vote for her.

He recently filed a complaint with Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party saying Fernández Rundle violated her “loyalty oath” to the party.

“In essence, she’s being a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the Democratic party should not stand by and allow one of its own to do that,” Vereen said. “That’s the purpose of taking the loyalty oath.”

The Democrats closed its internal investigation into the complaint last week after an internal committee found no “actionable violation of the loyalty oath,” according to party chairman Richard Lydecker.

The political kerfuffle nevertheless underscores the controversial rule that govern state write-in candidates, who have beguiled both Republicans and Democrats in the past decade.

In 1998, Florida voters overwhelmingly voted to change the state’s constitution, opening primary races to all voters if a candidate did not draw a challenger from the opposing party or independents in the general election. The idea was to make sure all voters could participate in choosing their elected officials.

But in 2000, the state’s elections division issued an advisory opinion that decided that one single write-in candidate — they don’t pay filing fees or appear on the actual ballot — could close a primary.

Since then, write-in candidates for both parties have sparked controversy in scores of partisan races.

While some are serious about campaigning, political observers insist most of the candidates have other motives.

In some cases, a closed primary allows candidates to keep campaigning and fund-raising, even though their opponent is essentially a phantom. In other cases, observers say, the write-ins serve to limit the number of people who can vote.

Former State Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, who unsuccessfully sponsored numerous bills trying to close the law’s loophole, said politicians are loathe to change the rule because both sides use it.

“Along with gerrymandering, it is the most commonly used form of political manipulation,” said Aronberg, who is running against a balloted Republican and an independent for Palm Beach State Attorney. “The voters’ will is undermined when a write-in candidate disenfranchises voters.”

Aronberg’s county boasts a noteworthy recent case: a Port of Palm Beach Commissioner had her daughter and mother filed as write-in candidates — in case only another Democrat entered the race. Ultimately, the commissioner was reelected without opposition.

Locally, squabbles over write-in candidates are common.

In 2006, two 20-something women with no apparent political aspirations filed as write-ins in two separate races against incumbent Republican House representatives, Marcelo Llorente and J.C. Planas.

Because no Democrats were in the race, Llorente and Planas could have enjoyed support from independents and Democrats against their respective Republican rivals — until the write-ins filed.

At the time, Llorente and Planas blamed a rival Republican, David Rivera, now a U.S. Congressman. He denied the accusations. Rivera was investigated and ultimately not charged by Fernández Rundle’s office for his questionable financial dealings.

(A Miami Herald reporter saw Rivera handing out fliers announcing Vereen’s kick-off campaign press conference in May).

Planas, who is no longer in the House, said he believes the loophole should be closed.

“It’s a crime that Republicans and independents are not going to be able to vote in this race. I’m ticked off that I can’t vote in the State Attorney’s race,” said Planas, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s race does not lack in drama.

Fernández Rundle has held the post of Miami-Dade’s top prosecutor since 1993, and did not draw opposition in 2008. In 2004, she won two hard-fought contests against Republican challenger Al Milián, who along with Miami-Dade’s police union is now supporting Vereen.

No Republicans or independents entered the race this year.

But for the first time, she has drawn a Democratic challenger. Vereen, a criminal defense lawyer who is African American, is banking on carrying most of the black Democratic vote, which in Miami-Dade totals 195,650, a sizeable chunk of 525,890 registered party members.

Traditionally, Fernández Rundle has drawn strong support from black voters, winning over 90 percent of the vote in 2000.

But she may face a backlash among black voters after her office’s failed prosecutions of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who represents the predominately black neighborhoods of Overtown, Liberty City and Little Haiti. Spence-Jones is actively supporting Vereen.

Had no write-ins filed, Fernández-Rundle and Vereen would have squared off in an open primary and she could have drawn support from Miami-Dade’s largely Hispanic Republicans and independents, from which she enjoys general support. Overall, Miami-Dade has 1.2 million voters.

Enter Samaroo, a Democrat, and Malone, a Republican, both African American lawyers.

Both have consistently refused to return e-mails or phone calls. Visits by a Miami Herald reporter to their respective condos proved unsuccessful.

Malone, 48, runs his own law firm. His website bio does not list any experience as a prosecutor, but notes nearly a decade as a Miami assistant federal public defender.

Samaroo, a Florida lawyer since 2001, says in her bio that she has worked extensively doing civil litigation, including cases involving people injured in auto accidents. She is also the past president of the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. Bar Association, formerly the Black Lawyers Association, of which Malone is a member.

Samaroo worked with the Broward State Attorney’s Office between 2002 and 2005 and did not leave on a good terms.

According to a personnel memo, Samaroo advised superiors that she was going to resign in two weeks, then told a co-worker she planned to derail some cases before leaving. The office asked her to leave immediately after she dropped one case without consulting her superior, then offered a lenient plea to a suspect with a lengthy criminal history.

For his part, Vereen said he and his campaign did not push Samaroo and Malone to run.

“They filed on their own and I expect they are going to stay in the race and face them in the general election,” Vereen said. “I’ve seen both of them since the campaign started, in passing, and neither one of the stopped to discuss the campaign with me, neither one of them said anything about bowing out of this race if I’m the victor in the primary.”

In his complaint to the Democratic party, Vereen took issue with Fernández Rundle’s website that also noted that that changing political parties “would not obligate you to vote for any other Democratic candidate in future general elections,” a suggestion that Republicans could switch back before the November general election.

“I believe we should sanction, suspend or revoke her membership within” the party, he wrote. “This is an important election year and we need to send a message to our rank and file that the [party] is serious about electing real Democrats.”

Fernández Rundle stood by her website, saying she included the information on party change because angry constituents kept asking how they could vote for her.

“I’m more than comfortable with this,” she said. “Anyone that wants to vote for State Attorney should have that option and I feel strongly about that”

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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