Photo:State Rep. Jamie Grant says there is no question his term-limit clock has reset.
No term limits? A Hillsborough County legislator may serve 14 years
A set of legal and political maneuvers may enable a Hillsborough County legislator to evade term limits and serve a 14-year term in the Florida House.
On Thursday, June 19, 2014, Miriam and Michael Steinberg drove from Tampa to Tallahassee and checked into the downtown Doubletree hotel. The next morning, they walked to the Division of Elections. Then they waited.
Miriam Steinberg, an engineer with Honeywell, wanted to challenge state Rep. Jamie Grant (RTampa) in House District 64, a GOP-leaning seat in northwestern Hillsborough and northeastern Pinellas counties.
Steinberg, a Republican who held liberal views on social issues such as same-sex marriage, believed she could beat Grant if no Democratic or third-party candidates qualified for the race. That’s because, under Florida law, if all the candidates in a state election are from the same party, it becomes an “open primary” in which any voter can cast a ballot, regardless of party affiliation.
But at three minutes to noon, a courier walked into the lobby carrying a package. Inside were handwritten qualifying papers for a candidate who wanted to run in House District 64 as a write-in. There were several oddities about the new candidate, Daniel John Matthews. On one form, the home address he claimed in Tampa was spelled incorrectly. On another, he listed his only source of income as $18,000 a year from “CatsOnDeck,” a business in Tallahassee that sells enclosures for cats and dogs. His forms had been notarized by a legal assistant at the Tallahassee law firm that served as general counsel for the Republican Party of Florida.
However puzzling the candidacy, the move ensured that only Republican voters would vote in the primary between Grant and Steinberg.
Grant says he had no idea who Matthews was or that a write-in candidate would surface in his race, although he says it’s likely someone was trying to help him. “I don’t doubt for a second that somebody was doing me a favor in their minds by putting that write-in in,” he says.
Miriam Steinberg decided to qualify anyway, submitting the $1,781.82 fee. But three days later, her husband, an attorney in Tampasued to have Matthews removed from the ballot, arguing that state law required write-in candidates to live in the district in which they wished to run.
The trial court agreed. On July 31, a Tallahassee judge disqualified Matthews from the ballot and ordered an open primary to be held in November, on the same day as the general election.
Matthews, who had claimed a net worth of negative $12,500 on his financial disclosure form, had his attorneys appeal. He was represented by Radey Attorneys & Counselors at Law, a Tallahassee firm. Finance records show the Republican Party of Florida paid Radey just over $73,000 in two installments while the case was being litigated, although the records don’t specify exactly what the payments were for. (Neither Matthews nor his attorneys responded to repeated requests for comment.)
On Oct. 16, 2014, the 1st District Court of Appeal overruled the trial court and said it had been a mistake to disqualify Matthews and open the primary. But by that point it was too late to change anything before the general election. Voters — of all party affiliation — continued to cast ballots in House District 64, with Grant and Steinberg on the ballot and no writein line set aside for Matthews.
That’s when the chaos created opportunity for Jamie Grant.
In 1992, voters had amended the state constitution to limit state legislators to no more than eight consecutive years in office. Grant, first elected to the House in 2010, was on track to be term-limited out of the House at the end of 2018. But if he were temporarily forced out of office and then won a special election to return, he could argue that his term limits would reset and he could conceivably stay in the House until the end of 2024. And that would make him an instant front-runner to become Speaker of the House for the 2022-24 term — the final two-year term of the class of legislators that will be elected this year.
Shortly after the appellate court issued its ruling, Grant hired Tallahassee attorney Paul Hawkes, who asked the 1st DCA to order elections officials to stop counting ballots in the now-invalid race. Hawkes is a former 1st DCA judge and, like Grant himself, a friend of incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes).
The 1st DCA rejected Grant’s request, and the ballots were counted; Grant defeated Steinberg easily, winning 59.5% of the vote. But then the House of Representatives — where Corcoran was already the most powerful member in the chamber — stepped in.
Meeting in its post-election organization session, the House voted to reject the results of the House District 64 election and leave the seat vacant until a special election could be held. Corcoran himself made the motion on the House floor.
That was the decision Grant preferred. He notes that if the House had seated him after the November election, it would have left a cloud of legal uncertainty hanging over him — and it could have given the Florida Supreme Court, an institution many GOP lawmakers distrust, an opening to weigh in on the sensitive subject of residency requirements for Florida legislators.
Grant says he did not lobby his colleagues before that vote, although he says he did give his opinion to members who asked for it.
Soon after, Gov. Rick Scott ordered a special election. Grant won that race, too — his only opponent was Matthews, running as a writein Candidate. Grant returned to the House on April 21, 2015, after 4½ months on the sidelines.
A year later, Grant has been traveling the state and meeting with prospective Republican candidates ahead of the 2016 elections. Grant insists he is not actively campaigning to become Speaker of his class, but he is currently seen as one of three leading contenders, along with Rep. Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast), who also got a head start by winning an out-of-cycle special election, and Melbourne Beach businessman Randy Fine.
And yet, it’s not clear whether Grant is even eligible for the post. Neither the House of Representatives nor the Division of Elections can say whether Grant should still be termed out of office in 2018.
Grant and his attorney, Hawkes, say there is no question his termlimit clock has reset. The constitution prohibits lawmakers from running for re-election if they will have served eight consecutive years by the end of their current term; because he was out of office from Nov. 4, 2014, until April 21, 2015, Grant won’t reach that threshold until after the 2022 elections.
Some other election law attorneys say the issue is not that clear. The constitution does not say that legislators must serve every single day of eight consecutive years. Nobody else held Grant’s seat in the interim. And the constitution specifically prohibits elected officials from trying to get around term limits by temporarily resigning their office; a judge could interpret the House’s decision to reject the election as a similar attempt to evade. The exact issue has never been tested in Florida courts.
Investor Phil Handy, who was the chairman of the 1992 “Eight is Enough” ballot campaign that enshrined term limits into Florida’s constitution, doesn’t think any legislator should get what could amount to a nearly 14-year run in office.
“In the spirit of term limits, the clock should not reset because of a technicality,” Handy says. “That is just my view, and it should be determined by the courts.”