Published on Thursday, June 8 2006 by Los Angeles City Beat
The Dirty South
Down in Florida, where the next president will probably be selected, politics are as loose and corrupt as ever
by Andrew Gumbel
No matter how lousy politics can get, it’s consoling to remember that it’s almost always worse somewhere else. The Westly-Angelides gubernatorial primary was about as distasteful a race to the bottom as we’ve seen in this state, a textbook example of what happens when campaign fund-raising trumps any pretense at meaningful debate, and negative advertising tries to fill the void of public indifference. But at least neither candidate stooped so low as to try to have the other arrested.
Over in Florida, where the politics are almost invariably lousier, no such indignity has been spared a state assembly candidate by the name of Charlie Grapski. Grapski, an energetic proponent of ethics reform and a political scientist who teaches at the University of Florida in Gainesville, found himself under arrest last month for the heinous – heinous! – offense of tape-recording a conversation with a public official in the small nearby city of Alachua.
The tape recorder had been sitting openly on a table throughout the conversation, according to everyone present in the room, and did not appear to cause undue concern to the official, City Manager Clovis Watson, even after he acknowledged it. No matter: When Grapski returned to City Hall a few days later, he was slapped in handcuffs by three police officers summoned by Watson, told he would face third-degree felony charges for taping Watson without his express consent, and hauled off to the county jail.
That’s a curious turn of events for a candidate for public office – at least one who did not, in fine Floridian fashion, get drunk in public, or crash his car into an elementary school playground, or get frisky with a dancer in a strip club. More curious still is the fact that Grapski’s main opponent for the state assembly seat, Bonnie Burgess, sits on the City Commission which has hiring and firing power over Watson.
Grapski has been railing for years against what he denounces as a good-ol’-boy network running Alachua, and has based his assembly campaign largely on his desire to open up its inner workings to public scrutiny and clearer ethical standards. In other words, his arrest looks like the worst kind of dirty politics: a piece of pure nastiness by a network of political operatives determined to prevent him from disturbing their cozy existence. Burgess denies any personal involvement in the decision to arrest Grapski. On the other hand, it is no secret that the people who made the arrest are all supporters of hers.
This, remember, is the state where the next presidential election is more than likely to be decided, as it was in 2000, so we all have a stake in its political practices being as clear and transparent as possible. This case, though, is very far from a confidence-builder. A month before his arrest, Grapski became suspicious of a local election in which a 39-year veteran on the Alachua City Commission, James Lewis, fell behind his unexpectedly strong reformist challenger in the precinct count, only to pull ahead again when absentee ballots were added to the total. The election canvassing board that counted the absentee ballots included Watson, an outspoken Lewis supporter, and Alachua’s mayor, Jean Calderwood, whose husband Hugh was Lewis’s campaign manager.
Grapski talked to several lower-income African American voters who had pitched up at City Hall the day before the election to pay their utility bills, only to find themselves sweet-talked into filling out an absentee ballot there and then. Grapski alleges that the handling of their absentee ballots violated numerous rules concerning ballot secrecy and proper procedure. He also alleges that Watson and the deputy city clerk gave completely inappropriate – and illegal – advice to voters telling them to mark their ballots for James Lewis.
All that remains to be proven in court. (Watson and the deputy clerk, Alan Henderson, deny any wrongdoing.) The point, though, is that Grapski started spending more and more time at City Hall researching the absentee ballots. At first, he was given free rein to examine them as closely as he pleased. Then he was told he was no longer at liberty to make photocopies. Shortly afterwards, Henderson told him he would be allowed no more than an extra hour to go through the ballot pile, and if he wanted to scrutinize them further he would have to pay the city for the trouble of watching over him as he did so.
Grapski’s tape-recorded conversation with Watson took place on a Friday; he was arrested the following Monday. According to a local paper, the High Springs Herald, Watson spent much of the weekend in “constant contact” with Mayor Calderwood, suggesting she was in on the decision to make the arrest. Mayor Calderwood herself described Watson’s behavior as “exemplary” and insisted: “He did not go out on a limb by himself.”
Grapski spent several uncomfortable hours in the lock-up. A judge ordered his release at 6:30 in the evening, but he was not let out until shortly before midnight – supposedly, according to sheriff’s deputies, because of a mix-up over assigning him a prisoner number. The threatened illegal taping charges have not materialized, but at the same time the State Attorney’s office has refused to let the case drop.
This kind of vindictive, very personal politics is far from unprecedented in Florida. In Orlando, the Republican Party spent considerable energy gunning for the city’s popular Democratic mayor, Buddy Dyer, after his re-election in the political hot-potato year of 2004. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, run by a political appointee of Jeb Bush’s, raided his offices, intimidated his union supporters and eventually had him indicted on charges of absentee ballot fraud that were dropped for lack of merit after just six weeks.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Alachua County is one of only two Democratic Party voter strongholds in the state (the populous metropolitan counties of south Florida being the other), and that an informal coalition of Republicans, property developers, and entrenched city officials like James Lewis has been working for years to row against the political tide and shut out anyone foolhardy enough to propose smart-growth policies, or work to keep big-box retail giants like Wal-Mart out of the county.
Lewis’s opponent for the Alachua City Commission seat, Lewis Irby, was one such voice of restraint. (He was the first serious challenger Lewis had faced in years, if ever.) Grapski, meanwhile, has been something of a political bomb-thrower – suing the University of Florida president for alleged ethical lapses, suing an Alachua County Commissioner for yet more alleged ethical lapses and, now, suing several Alachua city officials for alleged election irregularities.
He also accuses Alachua of placing key land-use decisions on the so-called “consent agenda,” which means they get discussed and decided behind closed doors without public debate. “It’s a classic case of arrogance of power,” he says. “They act as judge and jury, they police themselves, and nobody holds them to account.”
As in so many election disputes around the country, the Alachua authorities have not released all the documents requested of them, raising suspicions that the records were either incomplete, shoddy, or don’t exist. The minutes of the vote count itself, for example, have been approved by the City Commission – sight unseen, according to one renegade commissioner – but remain unavailable to the public.
Instead, the mayor and other city officials, along with the local Republican Party, have invested considerable energy in smearing Grapski as a serial litigator (“Lawsuit Charlie,” they have dubbed him) and political extremist. Really, though, they are the extremists. Politicians who have their opponents arrested on bogus charges are not usually treated kindly by history. It may only be a small town in Florida, but the affront to democracy should affect us all.
Andrew Gumbel is the author of Steal This Vote (Nation Books).
© 2006 LA City Beat