REGGIE FULLWOOD AND THE $325K CHECKMARK

tiny checkmark — or rather, the lack of it — has led to chaos in the District 13 state representative race, a district that covers much of Downtown Jacksonville. For the past four years, that seat has been held by two-term incumbent Democrat Reggie Fullwood, who was guaranteed to win again.

Except for that checkmark.

He had no competition in the Democratic primary in August, nor any Republican opponent in November. All he had to do was fill out his qualifying papers correctly. But he and his staff failed to do so — twice, in fact — and the chaos set in.

It’s still likely Fullwood will win, but now not without a fight, and not without costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and two special elections (the first of which will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 16) that should never have had to happen in the first place.

“We’ve estimated $325,000 for both elections,” says Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland. “Because of change in the law of early voting sites, we now have to have seven early voting sites for the primary.”

This mess has also left District 13 with a legislative staff that has no boss — Fullwood is technically no longer a state rep — but must continue working for the district’s constituents anyway. It also led to a court fight (which Fullwood lost), and now talk about new legislation to remedy such qualifying-paper oversights.

The sharks started circling immediately after Fullwood’s disqualification, and Jacksonville City Council member Johnny Gaffney was the first to dive in. Gaffney had expressed no interest in running for the seat before the clerical error left it open. Gaffney didn’t talk toFolio Weekly for this story, despite six phone calls to his office and cell phones. But he does have one key supporter — Juan Gray, chairman of the Jacksonville Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council — who says that the Florida Democratic Party’s decision to back Fullwood over Gaffney, and give Fullwood $10,000, in effect putting its foot on the scale even though he faces a primary opponent, could cause disunity among Democrats. Gray twice hung up when Folio Weekly pressed him about why the party backing an incumbent was an issue. (He sent a text message to the magazine’s editor complaining about a reporter’s “people skills.”)

Gray later emailed a memo from State Rep. Dwayne L. Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, written after the Democrats’ drubbing on Election Day. “Current leadership,” he wrote, “improperly continues to interject itself into Democratic primaries, pouring exorbitant funds into the races of their cherry-picked favorite Democratic candidates. During the climax of the election period, many members … were contacted and requested to donate substantial portions of their hard-earned campaign monies to fund [Fullwood’s] upcoming Democratic primary; a brazen request that was repeated via a November 10th email communication. The flaw in this strategy is that it shows favoritism toward certain Democrats and could very well lead to division in our Caucus if the non-favored Democrat wins.”

And then, assuming Fullwood survives next Tuesday’s primary, there’s another obstacle in his way: The Republicans are putting up a sacrificial lamb named Lawrence Jefferson, who has very little chance of winning the liberal district but will force Fullwood to campaign anyway.

Here’s how it all started: A notary public who was confirming documents for Fullwood’s campaign made a simple mistake — not checking a box that confirmed the notary knew him personally. Fullwood had already fixed an earlier mistake, but then was notified about the second one by the state elections office — 10 minutes before qualifying ended at noon, June 20. He was in Jacksonville; the paperwork was in Tallahassee, about two-and-a-half hours away.

At Holland’s urging, Fullwood challenged the ruling in court. Fullwood says the judge looked at the entire issue and seemed flummoxed.

“The judge said in his ruling the Legislature didn’t give him enough room to make a decision, that he had to stick to the letter of the law,” Fullwood says. “It didn’t give him the flexibility to make the right decision.”

So now Duval County has two new elections to pay for.

Holland and Fullwood say they want to push for new legislation that will allow some flexibility in state qualifying. Currently, candidates for any state office must file in Tallahassee, hundreds of miles from home for many of them.

“I do think there ought to be a legislative change on that kind of minor application error,” Holland says.

Fullwood agrees. “Jerry did suggest I should challenge this,” Fullwood says. “I am talking to the Democratic Party about challenging it. I took his advice into account. I think I’m kind of torn over it. I think small things like this should not be disqualified. But the rules are the rules.”

Meanwhile, the small staff of two trying to run the District 13 office have to deal with daily calls from their constituents. Hank Rogers, Fullwood’s political consultant, says the workers, including a legislative assistant, can still assist them when they have issues with state agencies like the Department of Children and Families, for instance.

“The office runs the same, as if there is a member,” Rogers says. “The only thing is they cannot put the representative’s name out there or on any of the correspondence.”

The crew will operate without a captain until the special general election, on Feb. 17.

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