News Column

Hispanic Group Sues GOP

Feb. 1, 2012

Elaine Silvestrini

GOP elephant

As Republicans went to the polls in Florida to pick their presidential preference, the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition asked a federal court to rule that the party's primary system discriminates against Hispanics.

The coalition has filed a lawsuit against the Republican National Committee and its chairman.

The coalition is asking a judge to decide whether the party's decision to cut the Florida delegation in half is unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Michael Steinberg, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said Hispanics make up only about 3 percent of eligible voters in the early primary states, but about 9 percent of registered voters nationwide.

The suit asks that the state's full delegation be seated at the national convention and that future elections be scheduled so that Hispanics are represented more proportionately.

The RNC did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The party is slashing the size of the state's delegation -- from 99 to 50 -- to the Republican National Convention as a sanction for moving up the date of the presidential primary election.

The punishment is provided for under rules agreed to by both national parties forbidding any state except the traditional four early ones -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- from holding a primary or caucus before March 1.

Seeking more influence on the nomination process, Gov. Rick Scott, state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and state House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, appointed a committee that chose to set Florida's primary for Jan. 31. That caused other states, including the four early states, to move up their primary dates as well.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Tampa, alleges the scheduling of the primaries discriminates against Hispanics, who are under-represented in the early primary states.

"The racial demographics of the early voting states often overlook issues that strongly affect Hispanic Americans," the lawsuit states. "As a result of the agenda-setting function of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, presidential candidates often stake out positions that are contrary to the positions supported by Hispanic American voters.

"For example, in the 2012 election cycle, the Republican presidential primary candidates staked out hard-line positions regarding undocumented persons in the United States, which may have been popular in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, but not necessarily popular or even unpopular in Florida."

In addition to the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, the lawsuit is being brought by Ralph A. Emmanuelli, described as a "citizen and a registered Republican voter" from Pinellas County. He founded UNO Federation Community Services, which is "committed to integrating Hispanics as well as other disadvantaged citizens into the American mainstream by providing leadership training and needed services."

RNC rules also allow the delegation from a state that commits a violation of its scheduling rules to be penalized in the selection of its hotel accommodations, the prominence of its floor-seating location, and the guest and VIP passes distributed to delegates by the party.

Victor Dimaio, co-chairman of the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, sued the Democratic National Committee in 2008 over that party's decision to ban the state's delegation from its convention in response to early scheduling of the primary that year.

That lawsuit charged reverse discrimination, alleging that the party allowed South Carolina and Nevada to hold primaries in January, along with Iowa and New Hampshire, because of their large numbers of black and Latino voters. The Democrats had announced plans to sanction Florida for moving up its primary.

That lawsuit was dismissed, but the DNC seated the state's entire delegation at the convention.

The 2008 lawsuit argued that the political parties should not take race or ethnicity into account when scheduling their primaries. The new complaint makes the opposite argument.

Steinberg, who filed both lawsuits, said on Tuesday that he was wrong when he made the previous argument.

He said he made a "judgmental error" and had not done his research because of time constraints.

Steinberg was not sure whether this lawsuit will be successful, or if it is, whether it could affect the current election cycle.

But he said even if it doesn't, it should affect future primary elections.

"We're here to put a stop to the madness," Dimaio said.



Source: (c) 2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)