State Politics

Democrat who switched parties too late withdraws from state Senate race

Steve Smith, Democratic state Senate candidate.
Steve Smith, Democratic state Senate candidate.

Steve Smith signed an oath when he qualified as a candidate for the state Senate last week saying he’s been a registered Democrat for a year.

Not quite.

Florida law requires anyone qualifying as a party candidate to state in writing that they have not been a member of another party for a full year before qualifying.

Smith, a long-time Republican and the CEO of a Miami tech consulting firm, registered as a Democrat on June 10, 2016, less than a year before he and six other candidates qualified on May 30 — 12 days short of a year — for the District 40 seat left vacant by former Sen. Frank Artiles.

Hours after a Miami Herald story went online Tuesday about the apparent violation, Smith he withdrew his candidacy, saying he did not want to jeopardize the Democratic Party’s chances to turn the seat blue and his own political aspirations down the road.

“It is what it is,” he said.

Had he remained in the race, Smith would have been vulnerable to a challenge, if one of his opponents had taken him to court. The state Division of Elections, through which candidates file their paperwork, does not police the accuracy of the information provided, simply that it has been completed in full, a spokeswoman said.

Mark Herron, a Tallahassee elections attorney who has worked with Democrats in the past, said if Smith were to win the Democratic primary on July 25 and a Republican opponent successfully sued him, Democratic candidates might not be able to fill that spot because of a provision in the vacancy and nominations statutes, which states that a primary victor who is found to have improperly qualified for a party’s nomination cannot be replaced by another candidate.

Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican front-runner in the special election, said Tuesday he would have challenged Smith’s candidacy if he had gone on and won the Democratic primary.

“I would have sued him,” Diaz de la Portilla said, calling the situation unfortunate because Smith appeared to have just missed the deadline to switch parties. “Poor guy.”

Smith told the Herald he wasn’t aware of the violation, saying he thought he was “within the window.”

He said he consulted with an attorney and with the general counsel of the Florida Board of Elections before reaching his decision to withdraw. Asked if he would support one of his opponents, he said he would be backing Annette Taddeo, a Democrat. Smith said his sights were now set on a possible run for the 26th Congressional District seat — now held by Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

“I want to continue to fight for the people of my district,” Smith said.