Former Tampa city councilman and candidate for Hillsborough County Commission John Dingfelder makes no excuses for his failure to resign in a timely manner from his post on the council to run for another office. Dingfelder failed to officially resign his seat prior to the qualifying period under the Florida “resign-to-run” law, setting off a court battle that has imperiled his candidacy and could set election precedent, since it is expected to go before an appeals court.
“I have no excuse for it,” Dingfelder says of the oversight. “It was embarrassing to me as a lawyer.”
When Dingfelder learned he had missed the deadline to leave his Tampa post, he immediately resigned from the council after more than seven years, and pulled out of race for the Hillsborough County Commission District 1 seat.
Dingfelder’s departure from the race left Democrats without a candidate in the race for the commission seat, but Florida law allowed them an opportunity to put forward another candidate. The Democratic Executive Committee nominated Dingfelder, pulling him back into the race.
Committee members did not return a phone call for comment, but Dingfelder says he had no role in the nomination.
“I was confident they would nominate me because I am a good fit for the seat,” says Dingfelder. “But I didn’t call anybody and I didn’t lobby for them to do it.”
Elections officials signed off on the nomination and Dingfelder found himself back in the race, and soon in court. A Republican voter, Brian Lothrop, filed a lawsuit seeking to have Dingfelder thrown off the ballot.
Dingfelder had been disqualified as a candidate by not correctly following the law in resigning his Tampa seat, so his nomination should also be disallowed, argues Lothrop’s attorney, Ryan Christopher Rodems.
But Dingfelder’s move in pulling out of the race prior to the nomination made the issue moot, according to a ruling throwing out the lawsuit by Hillsborough Circuit Judge William P. Levens.
Levens wrote Dingfelder “cured any procedural or substantive defect by the June 29, 2010 withdrawal of his initial candidacy for County Commission.”
The judge added, “Had he not withdrawn his candidacy for the County Commission race, allowing the local party to fill the vacancy with Mr. Dingfelder (even though it was he who created it), the analysis and outcome would likely be different.”
Levens then went on to characterize Dingfelder’s resignation from the race after missing the deadline as “strategy.”
“The fact that Dingfelder presumptively qualified and then withdrew for strategic reasons does not eradicate him from the potential list of those whom the local party may want to nominate – even thought the vacancy created by Dingfelder’s withdrawal was filled by Dingfelder.”
Rodems argues Dingfelder should still be excluded from the race because he missed a deadline other candidates for office this election cycle correctly met. Rodems plans to appeal Levens’ decision to the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal.
There is a lot riding on the 2nd District’s opinion: Dingfelder is the Democrats’ only qualified candidate in the District 1 race, and the primary is rapidly approaching.
“We don’t believe he is eligible,” Rodems says. “It’s our position that the Democratic Party does not have a candidate.”
Dingfelder disputes that claim and says he is moving forward with his campaign. Dingfelder says the judge’s ruling stood up for the people in District 1, allowing them to vote for the candidate they want to represent them.
“I’m ecstatic. It’s been a cloud over us for the last few weeks,” he says. “I was fairly confident the judge would rule on the side of the people, and that is what he did.”
One thing that Rodems and Dingfelder do agree on, however, is the hope that the 2nd District will rule on the matter before upcoming elections.
“I think that will happen. The 2nd District makes it a policy of dealing with elections issues in a timely fashion,” Dingfelder says.
Rodems echoes that sentiment, saying he hopes a decision will be made before the Aug. 24 primary. But even if the 2nd District does not rule by the Nov. 2 general elections, it would still have the authority to remove Dingfelder from his commission seat should he win, Rodems says: “So he should not feel too secure in his position should that happen.”