Marc Caputo: Republican insider fight becomes headache for GOP

12/09/2012 4:35 PM

12/09/2012 7:57 PM

MiamiHerald.com/columnists

A Republican is suing the Republican Party of Florida, saying it disenfranchised him and some Republican voters.

On its face, the lawsuit filed last week by former Miami-Dade School Board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla looks like a simple paperwork fight over an obscure party position.

But the underpinnings of the case are much more complicated, involving the byzantine politics of Miami-Dade and the behind-the-scenes battle in Tallahassee for who leads the Florida House in six years.

The lawsuit is also another public-relations headache for the Republican Party of Florida, which would prefer to focus its energies on bigger matters, like promoting Gov. Rick Scott.

But RPOF has no choice. It has to deal with Diaz de la Portilla.

He was elected Aug. 14 as Republican State Executive Committeeman from Miami-Dade. The party, though, refused to seat him. It said he forgot to submit a loyalty oath to the party in Tallahassee.

Diaz de la Portilla said that’s false.

“The law is on my side,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “I won the election. And I filed my loyalty oath. I don’t see what the problem is, why they want to disenfranchise Republican voters.”

Party spokesman Brian Burgess said RPOF isn’t cancelling Republican votes; it’s ensuring the rules are properly followed.

Burgess said he couldn’t comment on Diaz de la Portilla’s suit, filed last Tuesday. A Friday hearing on the case was delayed until another date.

Under party rules, candidates for executive committeeman were supposed to file loyalty oaths to the party between June 4 and June 8.

Diaz de la Portilla signed the oath June 5, got it notarized and promptly submitted it to the county and state elections offices as well as the local Republican Party, according to documents he filed in his lawsuit.

In a sworn affidavit, Miami-Dade Republican Party Executive Director Yulexis Argota said he faxed the loyalty oath to party headquarters in Tallahassee on June 6 and then personally spoke with a party official who confirmed receipt.

Burgess, though, said that this evidence presented by Diaz de la Portilla wasn’t “definitive proof” that he filed his oath properly. That means RPOF isn’t budging.

And Diaz de la Portilla won’t back down over the executive committeeman position, which has limited say and influence over the direction of the party. But the potential stakes are far bigger than this largely ceremonial party post.

After all, the committeeman battle is bound up in the fight over who becomes Florida House Speaker, from 2018 to 2020.

That post appears at the moment to have been won by Hialeah state Rep. Jose Oliva.

Diaz de la Portilla’s brother, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, wanted the job. But he lost his central Miami state House race in a general-election upset to Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez.

Months before, Renier Diaz de la Portilla also lost his bid for a state House seat that he sought at the same time he ran for committeeman.

Assuming he and his brother won, Alex Diaz de la Portilla would have had a strong shot at the speakership (their oldest brother, Miguel, serves in the state Senate) because Republican House members choose the chamber’s leader in the GOP-controlled Legislature. Democrats essentially have no say.

Alex Diaz de la Portilla knows something about legislative leadership races; he helped engineer a coup that cost former Miami state Sen. Alex Villalobos his shot at becoming state Senate president in the 2009-10 sessions.

This year, as Renier and Alex Diaz de la Portilla ran for their house seats, Renier hedged his bets by simultaneously running for the committeeman slot. He won that post, salvaging a win against the man who beat him for the House seat, newly elected Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. – an ally of Oliva’s.

Then, in mid-October, the state party informed Diaz de la Portilla that he didn’t properly file his paperwork. It said that Diaz, the runner up in the committeeman race, would be seated instead.

Diaz de la Portilla tried to sound reasonable at the time and said all the votes cast for him should count.

"I hope to work with party officials to make sure that 30,000 Miami-Dade Republicans are not disenfranchised by this misunderstanding,” he told The Herald in October.

But the more the case develops, the less it looks like it’s a fight about the preference of rank-and-file voters for a position that few understand.

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