Every eligible voter in State House District 13, which encompasses a healthy swath of central Jacksonville, just missed out on a golden opportunity: Without ever raising money or airing a campaign ad or giving a stump speech or outlining a single policy position, anyone who’d bothered to take a short drive to Tallahassee the week of June 16-20 and sign a few documents would have emerged as the city’s new state rep, no questions asked, no money needed.
Fortunately for two-term incumbent State Rep. Reggie Fullwood, no one did so. And Fullwood, a Democrat in a liberal district, says he’s relieved. “The Republicans could have gained a seat. A write-in candidate could have won. I’m glad nobody filed.”
This all happened because a notary public forgot to check a little box on Fullwood’s financial disclosure form indicating that the notary knew Fullwood personally (which is necessary if the notary did not verify his ID). Consequently, Fullwood was disqualified for his party’s primary, and the seat was there for the taking, because no one else in either party had qualified either.
“That’s exactly right,” says Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland. “If [anyone] had filed and qualified in Tallahassee as a write-in candidate, they would not have had to pay a dime and would be our next State House representative.”
And now the situation could get muddled. Because no one qualified, the city had to schedule a special election. (State law requires all positions to be filled.) Holland had hoped to get a new qualifying date as soon as possible and run a primary on Nov. 4, the same day as the general election, when the state will elect a governor and many other officials. But state law doesn’t allow a primary and a general election to be held on the same date, so that plan, which would have been cost-efficient for taxpayers, was scratched. Now, a special primary will be held Dec. 16 if Gov. Rick Scott agrees with a state Division of Elections recommendation. (There will be a one-day qualification period for this election; Holland doesn’t know when.) And if there’s a need for a runoff, or if Republicans decide to field a candidate, a general election would not be held until Feb. 17, 2015.
This would be costly.
“Our estimated cost for the special election, if we have a primary and a general election, is about $225,000,” Holland says.
There are signs that interest in the race is perking up. City Councilman Johnny Gaffney, also a Democrat, has made it clear he plans to challenge Fullwood. Earlier this week, Gaffney told the Financial News & Daily Record that he’d initially decided against running for the State House seat because he still has work to do on the City Council. But when Fullwood was disqualified, he changed his mind. (Gaffney did not return calls for this story.) Republicans also have the opportunity to field a candidate if they wish, though Fullwood won in 2012 with 67 percent of the vote, so it would be a tough slog.
Even so, Duval County Republican Party Chairman Rick Hartley says he caught hell from fellow party members about not fielding a candidate.
“I had some calls from people who said, 'I told you you should have put somebody in there,’” Hartley says. “But there was no one that came forward that was enthusiastic about running and taking a bullet for the party.”
Fullwood’s error almost certainly will lead to a Republican candidate qualifying for the race, however difficult the odds, he adds. Hartley says the main problem is money: State lawmakers’ pay is so low — $29,687 a year — and the work so time-consuming, both during the campaign and once in office, that many people who aren’t independently wealthy aren’t interested, especially if getting elected is an uphill battle. Nonetheless, Hartley says, Fullwood’s error might have changed some potential GOP candidates’ minds.
“A number of people have come forward and said I might want to run because of this,” Hartley says.
Reggie Fullwood has other ideas. He told Folio Weekly on Thursday that he plans to file a lawsuit Monday against the state Division of Elections asking a judge to reverse his disqualification over what amounts to a minor technicality in his qualifying papers.
That wasn’t Fullwood’s first notary-related problem that week. He says he initially filed his qualifying papers on Thursday, June 19. Elections officials called him at 4:30 p.m. that day to tell him the notary had put a stamp on his signature on the financial disclosure form, but failed to add her own signature, which made the document invalid.
So Fullwood had another friend who was a notary redo that page with the stamp and a signature. He sent the papers to Tallahassee via a Democratic Party member who was heading to the state capital. Fullwood asked that person to file the papers for him instead of making two-hour trip himself.
Qualifying ended at noon on Friday, June 20. “I got a call at 11:50 [a.m.] on Friday,” 10 minutes before the qualifying deadline, Fullwood says, notifying him of the error. By then, it was too late to correct it.
“I was in disbelief,” Fullwood says. “Let me wake up from this dream. This can’t be right. It didn’t really set in until maybe an hour later. We actually called the Division of Elections. They wouldn’t budge at all.”
In that moment, Jacksonville had no candidate for its District 13 seat. Holland says that while some wannabe candidates have made errors resulting in disqualification, this is the first time he knows of in Duval County that an error led to a race with no candidates.
Fullwood says he’s surprised Gaffney has decided to run against him this late in the game.
“A week after I failed to qualify because there were some errors, I heard that he may jump in, which was disturbing to me,” he says. “We certainly aren’t close friends, but we had a friendship. If he had intended to run, why didn’t he file a week earlier?”
Fullwood says he hasn’t gotten an answer. Gaffney “hasn’t returned my calls. It’s unfortunate.”