Politics and sleaze envelop Orlando

As the presidential campaign approaches its showdown, the Republicans in the state run by George Bush's brother are up to their tricks again. Andrew Gumbel reports from the heart of Florida
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The Independent US

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.

It is impossible to understand what is going on without considering the broader political picture. Orlando is slap-bang in the middle of the so-called "I-4 corridor", the line of Florida cities running along Interstate Highway 4 from Daytona Beach on the Atlantic coast to Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. The I-4 corridor is regarded as the hinge on which the outcome of the presidential election in Florida will swing, and Orlando - with surrounding Orange County - is considered the corridor's bellwether city.

So this is the key swing city in the key swing region of the key swing state that will determine whether or not George Bush wins another four years in the White House. Little wonder passions are getting heated. Given the unholy electoral mess Florida produced in 2000, and given the state's sordid history of vote fraud and systematic disenfranchisement, especially of black voters, both parties find themselves voicing the suspicion that the other side will try to steal Florida if only they can figure out how. "It's a blood sport," said Joe Egan, a prominent Orlando lawyer who represents both Mr Thomas and the firefighters.

One added wrinkle is that Orlando's mayor, Buddy Dyer, is one of only two prominent Democratic public officials along the I-4 corridor. Clearly, if he is discredited, the Democrats will be deprived of a vital figurehead in the run-up to 2 November. As it turns out, he is directly implicated in both of the FDLE's investigations. The intrigue began with Mr Dyer's election last March. It was a two-round election, but Mr Dyer finished with just over the 50 per cent threshold needed to avoid a run-off. His closest opponent, a Republican called Ken Mulvaney, cried foul, saying the 234-vote margin putting Mr Dyer over the threshold was fraudulent.

Since Mr Mulvaney's campaign manager was a prominent local talk-radio host called Doug Guetzloe, his allegations had a wide airing. But most of them, if not all, were demonstrably untrue. Mr Guetzloe claimed illegal absentee votes had been faxed into the elections supervisor's office, but the office accepts only originals. He also said people had been paid for their votes, but offered no evidence of this.

The greatest suspicion fell on Ezzie Thomas, because he had personally witnessed applications for 270 absentee ballots, a figure big enough to force a run-off election if it could be shown the votes were fraudulent. The city attorney's office cross-checked the signatures on the absentee ballots with the original application forms and concluded they were valid. Intriguingly, the FDLE did the same thing and stated, in a letter written to the state attorney in Orlando in May, that there was "no basis to support the allegations" and that the case should be considered closed.

"They've been trying to explain away that letter ever since," said one senior city employee who did not wish to be identified. Something caused the FDLE to chDISange its mind, because in early June uniformed officers began knocking on doors and asking threatening questions of dozens of black voters who had been in contact with Mr Thomas. Several said the FDLE officers took off their jackets and exposed their firearms while questioning them. In at least one case, the officer crossed his legs and tapped a 9mm pistol sitting in an ankle holster while he asked detailed questions about the interviewee's reasons for voting absentee. (Absentee voting is a choice under Florida law, so one can wonder about the line of questioning.)

"I felt threatened, embarrassed and like I was being accused of being a criminal," one interviewee, Willie Thomas, wrote in a statement. Many others told Joe Egan later that they no longer wanted to vote absentee because they felt it was somehow illegal.

Although the FDLE's public statements have been less than transparent, it appears to have relied on a paragraph in the Florida statute books which says it is illegal to receive or offer "something of value" for absentee ballots. Mr Thomas and his organisation, the Orlando Voters' League, have not been accused of paying for votes, but they have acknowledged paying the 37-cent postage for some people's absentee ballots. Mr Thomas, who received $10,000 from the Dyer campaign for his get-out-the-vote efforts, has also acknowledged paying his volunteers between $100 and $150 for petrol and other expenses over the campaign season.

The allegations seem particularly absurd because such practices are absolutely par for the course for both parties. "A 37-cent postage stamp is a very interesting definition of racketeering," Mr Egan said. "Now, it's well known that most absentee ballots come out of the white community ... I seriously doubt the police would behave in the same way in a white community."

As it happens, Mr Thomas had been been hired before by Republican candidates to perform exactly the same services he provided for Mr Dyer, without falling foul of the law. Among his past clients are two names with particular resonance in the 2004 presidential race. One is Mel Martinez, the Bush administration's outgoing Housing Secretary who is now running for the Florida Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Democrat, Bob Graham. (Mr Thomas helped Mr Martinez run for chair of the Orange County commission a few years ago.) And the other is Glenda Hood, who was mayor of Orlando for 12 years before being appointed Jeb Bush's Secretary of State, the office responsible for running Florida's elections.

And Mayor Hood, not Mayor Dyer, allowed the firefighters' union to spend up to $40,000 a year in city funds on political activities. In those days, the firefighters were considered allies of the Republican establishment in Orange County and had endorsed George Bush for President in 2000. But Mr Clelland and his members were deeply disappointed by the White House's failure to follow through on promises to put an extra 100,000 firefighters on American streets and update their equipment. So, in early June, they joined a statewide union vote endorsing Mr Kerry for President in 2004.

Days later, the FDLE, with television cameras in tow, raided City Hall, seized several computers and announced that the union and its so-called "leave bank" were being investigated. The beefy Mr Clelland said he was scared to death in his interview with the FDLE supervisor in Orlando and was told he might be slung into jail if he insisted on having his lawyer present. He duly asked Mr Egan to leave the room.

Like the black absentee voters, Mr Clelland also noticed the officer tapping the 9mm pistol in his ankle holster as he let loose his barrage of questions. "You would think these investigators were going after John Gotti [the late Mafia don]," he said bitterly. "Their actions have gutted this organisation locally." After the grand jury ruled that the union leave bank was legal, Mayor Dyer asked Florida's attorney general for a ruling to get the FDLE off their backs. But Mayor Dyer's bad luck was that he had run for the office of attorney general in 2002, and his successful Republican opponent, Charlie Crist, was not about to cut him any slack. Mr Crist has refused to offer an opinion either way.

Such is the incestuous nature of politics in Orlando, and in Florida generally, all of it poisoned further by the governor being the President's brother. Mayor Hood was regarded as a consensus-building moderate for much of her time in Orlando, but became more ideological on such issues as gay rights and abortion as she cast around for a new job. Most Democrats believe that, as Secretary of State and as a direct appointee of the governor, her mandate is not to guarantee a free and fair electoral process so much as to do everything in her power to clinch a Bush victory, much as her notorious predecessor, Katherine Harris, did in 2000.

Orlando is also in a state of major flux. For years, the big citrus farmers, as well as the land developers who came in Disneyworld's wake, made it a reliable Republican stronghold. Then an influx of low-wage service workers, including a growing tide of immigrants from Puerto Rico, changed its complexion.

The Republicans were shocked when Al Gore beat George Bush in Orange County in the presidential race in 2000, and vowed not to be taken by surprise again. The party identified the Puerto Ricans - many from middle-class backgrounds back home - as the key constituency and set to work to win over as many as possible.

The Democrats try to attract the Puerto Ricans with bread-and-butter social justice issues (an increase in the minimum wage, better health care, and so on), but the Republicans have appealed to their aspirations to material self-betterment as well as their generally conservative views on social issues such as homosexuality and abortion.

Although the demographics still favour the Democrats in November, the Republicans, by common consent, have done an excellent organising job, keeping particularly close tabs on Orlando's Spanish-language churches. The ballot in Orange County will have Hispanic Republicans running in every state and local race from US Senate (Mr Martinez) to county commissioner, and more than a few of them are likely to win. That could have a positive knock-on effect for President Bush.

With workers from both parties rushing to register as many voters as possible while there is still time, the race remains nerve-rackingly close, close enough that the votes controlled by Ezzie Thomas and the firefighters might just make the crucial difference.