Monday, September 27, 2004
Politics and sleaze envelop Orlando
Andrew Gumbel reports from Florida's Gulf coast
27 September 2004
As the presidential campaign approaches its showdown, the Republicans in the state run by George Bush's brother are up to their tricks again.
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.