As the Broward Republican Party wrapped up its most recent gathering, Tim Myette of Pompano Beach formed his fingers in the shape of a gun and "shot" it into his foot.
"It accomplished nothing," Myette said of the two hours in a warm hotel ballroom devoted largely to internal infighting. "We're way too close to an election to start dividing again. This is the time we need to work together."
With critical elections six months away, the dissension is diverting energy from training volunteer activists, poring over precinct lists to identify likely voters, and opening field offices throughout the county.
Compounding the problems, the party is scraping by financially. A month ago, Treasurer Mark McCarthy reported the operating account had a balance of $2,431. Last week, he told party members the balance was up to $4,703, plus a couple of checks McCarthy said he'd just received.
The shortfall means there's no money to rent field offices at strategic locations throughout the county and no money to hire staffers to run the party's day-to-day operations, coordinate phone banking and precinct walks, and coordinate voter registration and outreach.
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in Broward by more than 2:1, the county is the home to the third largest number of registered Republicans in Florida. And those Republican votes are critical to Gov. Rick Scott's hope of winning re-election in November, as well as to Chip LaMarca, the only Republican on the Broward County Commission, and state Rep. George Moraitis, the only Republican member of the state Legislature who lives in Broward.
"Everybody's fighting. Nobody's getting along," said Republican committeewoman Celeste Ellich, who lives in Wilton Manors. "We need to focus on getting candidates elected, and we need to leave the drama alone."
At last week's party meeting:
• Committeeman Ed Bender stood up at one point demanding to know, "Is this a business meeting or a stage show?"
• Committeeman Constantin Rauta brought a small bullhorn with him, prompting a warning from party chairman Tom Truex: If he used the bullhorn, he'd be removed.
• There was uncertainty about the name of the annual fundraising dinner. It's been called the Lincoln Day dinner, but Abraham Lincoln's Feb. 12 birthday was so long ago, there's some sentiment for renaming the event. (There's no speaker or date set; Truex said he's hoping to announce plans soon.)
Truex pleaded with people to stop the bickering. "We do not have time for a lot of silliness. We do need to unite," he said. "We don't have the luxury of fighting."
While it's not pretty, the infighting doesn't guarantee a disaster in November. Midterm elections between presidential contests are much better for Republicans because Democratic turnout plunges. Scott's campaign, which may raise $100 million, will have money for its own field offices. (It just opened one in northeast Fort Lauderdale.)
And Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale, the No. 2 official at the national Republican Party, said as the elections draw closer they're likely to take up some of the energy that's now consumed by the fighting.
Truex was elected chairman just over a year ago. He was elected to replace Rico Petrocelli, who cited "irreconcilable differences" among party leaders when he quit less than 12 weeks after winning the chairmanship.
Truex took 60 percent of the vote, defeating party vice chairwoman Christine Butler for the job.
One of Truex's fiercest critics, committeeman Chad Lincoln, is a close ally of Butler's. At party meetings, he questions Truex's running of the party and recently wrote an "open letter" critical of the chairman's stewardship. He said his letter was aimed at supporting another anti-Truex open letter penned by Gene Robinson, president of the Tamarac/Margate/Coconut Creek Republican Club.
Lincoln said the party's problems are Truex's fault. "We kind of don't have a real focus on what needs to be done," he said. "We get promises, and we don't get delivery."
He said the party would be better off with someone else at the helm. "If he would resign, I think it would be a healthy thing for the organization," he said.
Truex said he's open to any and all ideas, and invited party members to call him at any time. He added that open letters, as opposed to sincere attempts to work things out, aren't helpful. He said such open letters "generally come from two categories of people: either your enemies or crackpots. Not always. But that's my general observation. So I am aware that there are some people going around the county that are stirring up dissent….
"I'm not calling anyone in this group a name. But I remember when I first got elected to public office, a very nice lady told me that when you get in the mud and fight with pigs two things happen: No. 1 you get dirty and No. 2 the pigs like it," he said.
Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party since 1996, has survived several rounds of internal party fighting. "When you are the chairman, whether you like it or not, you are put in the middle of any fight," Ceasar said. "I can tell you it's not a fun place to be, but it is part of the job to bring everyone together and make the political trains run on time."
In 2012, he was challenged for chairman by Cynthia Busch, who was elected vice chairwoman after losing the top job. Ceasar said they've buried the hatchet and talk all the time; at last month's opening of governor candidate Charlie Crist's campaign office in Plantation, the pair huddled for a long time.
He hopes the Republicans stay divided for as long as possible. "As much as I dislike people fighting with each other, I certainly have no problem with the Republicans performing that act," Ceasar said.
Gov. Rick Scott won't discuss Broward Republicans' infighting at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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