At the next meeting of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee, set for April 21, chairman Lew Oliver will ask his fellow Republicans to purge Ax the Tax leader and political consultant Doug Guetzloe from their ranks. The official reason: Guetzloe violated his party loyalty oath by supporting Democrat Buddy Dyer instead of Republican Pete Barr Sr. in February's Orlando mayor's race. The unofficial reason: Guetzloe is an embarrassment to the party.
The former explanation raises First Amendment issues, and reeks of something like fascism. The latter depends on who you ask.
In any case, Oliver's not likely to succeed in ousting Guetzloe, at least initially. He needs two-thirds of all committee members to vote in favor of bouncing Guetzloe, and its rare for two-thirds of committee members to even show up at the monthly OCREC meetings. Plus Guetzloe has his own supporters in the GOP; in 2000, he challenged Oliver for the top job and lost by just 11 votes out of about 160 cast.
Oliver has attempted this before. In 2000, a few months before the last OCREC election, he tried (unsuccessfully) to boot Guetzloe for supporting Democrat Patty Sheehan in a city council race. If he loses this go-round, Oliver says he will ask the state party to intervene and remove Guetzloe.
For his part, Guetzloe says he'll win. And if he doesn't, he'll sue. (Privately, a GOP official tells Orlando Weekly that Oliver is on solid legal ground, and that the Brevard County executive committee recently ejected a member on similar grounds).
No matter the eventual outcome, expect Guetzloe to put up a fight. "Dozens of current OCREC members have 'supported' Democrats over Republicans," Guetzloe wrote in an e-mail to his supporters, obtained by the Weekly. "I'm looking forward to a very aggressive defense and also being able to reveal for the first time internal memos and statements that go much further than anyone has seen to date on how really bad Pete Barr is. I hate to publicly reveal all the reasons NO (emphasis his) Republican elected officials endorsed Pete Barr, but everyone needs to know the entire truth." (He is, of course, referring to allegations that Barr is racist, sexist and homophobic.)
Oliver doesn't deny that other Republicans have committed the same sins. Guetzloe's mistake, however, may have been that he was too vocal in supporting a Dem. He hosts a paid AM radio talk show, and boasts that Ax the Tax has 10,000 people on its mailing list. "We're not a police organization," Oliver says. "We don't run active checks [against our members]. Doug Guetzloe's activities were tough to ignore."
"Why am I being singled out?" Guetzloe asks. A few minutes later, he answers his own question. "[Oliver] hates me. He resents the fact that most Republicans look to me as the local Republican leader. He's always been jealous."
Bravado aside -- Guetzloe promises he'll take Oliver's job in the OCREC elections next year -- it's old news that Oliver and many other Republicans consider Guetzloe a disgrace.
Indeed, Guetzloe is something of an enigma in political circles. Few people like him, but most respect his ability to be a pain in the ass.
Democrats feel no fondness for him because on eight separate occasions since forming Ax the Tax in 1982, Guetzloe has helped defeat local tax increases for schools and roads. He viciously fought light rail, and has used his platform to boost far-right politicians like Tom Feeney, Ric Keller and John Byrd.
Though he got spanked at the polls last year when Orange County voters overwhelmingly backed a half-cent tax for schools, Guetzloe pledges to fight an upcoming half-cent tax for road construction.
Republicans -- particularly members of the GOP "establishment" -- aren't big fans either. When former mayor Glenda Hood tried to ram through light rail against the county's wishes, Guetzloe led a campaign to have her recalled. In last year's county chairman's race, Guetzloe went after incumbent Republican Rich Crotty (who beat him in 1990 in a state Senate race) by bringing up decade-old allegations of domestic abuse. Guetzloe has also supported Democrats Bill McBride (he hates the Bushes) and Bruce Gordy, along with Sheehan and Dyer.
But it's more than that. Some Republicans and former associates of Guetzloe say he's trying to fatten his wallet, not better the community.
"The main issue is credibility," says Kim LaFleur, a registered Democrat who worked with Guetzloe fighting last year's half-cent tax campaign. "I don't believe he believes in the things he fights for. He's out to the highest bidder. I'm not even sure he's opposed to this [proposed half-cent tax for road construction]. If someone would buy Guetzloe off this road thing, you wouldn't here from him any more."
Guetzloe's been accused of selling his support in the past. In the 2000 GOP congressional primary run-off, loser Bill Sublette alleged that Guetzloe offered him the endorsement of his candidate -- Bob Hering, who lost in the first round -- for $50,000. Sublette said he refused, so Hering endorsed Keller. Guetzloe denies the charges, and says the exact opposite happened; Sublette sought to buy Hering's backing.
Last September, Change 4 Kids leader Dick Batchelor accused Guetzloe of seeking $20,000 to stay out of the school-tax debate. Batchelor said developer Charlie Clayton told him he was paying Guetzloe $10,000 a month to stay quiet. Guetzloe said Batchelor was lying.
Speaking on background, a GOP official says Guetzloe made a similar offer to Pete Barr's campaign, and when Barr rejected it, Guetzloe backed Dyer, who paid him $1,750 for consulting work. Pete Barr Jr. declined to talk about the situation, saying, "I don't know the story exactly." Guetzloe says he supported Dyer from the outset because none of the Republican candidates were qualified. Dyer rewarded him with a spot on his transition team.
The only conversation Guetzloe had with Pete Barr, Guetzloe says, was when he called to inform them that Dyer was advertising on his radio show, and to (as the law requires) offer them the same opportunity.
Whatever Oliver's true motivations for targeting Guetzloe, his use of the loyalty oath raises questions, particularly in a race so tinged with racism. If the Republicans (or Democrats for that matter) run a racist, are party members obliged to support the candidate anyway?
"They're not required to support them," Oliver says. "All we ask is that you not work for the other side."
Democrats have a more restrictive oath than Republicans. It reads: "I will not support the election of the opponent of any Democratic nominee, I will not oppose the election of any Democratic nominee, nor will I support any non-Democrat against a Democrat in any election other than in judicial races [as mandated by Florida law]."
Oaths are set at the state level for both parties. Some states have more restrictive oaths, others don't have them at all. But the oaths don't apply to members who aren't in the executive committee, including elected officials.
(Guetzloe has a nine-page legal opinion stating that removing him for endorsing Dyer in a nonpartisan race is illegal, and says that if OCREC lost in court it would have to pay his legal bills; Oliver and state party officials disagree.)
Orange County Democratic chairman Doug Head says he looks the other way on the issue of oaths. "On the occasions when [committee members] have backed [Republican] friends and relatives, I've walked around the issue," he says. "We have no process for kicking people out other than shame. I go out of my way to explain to members, 'It's not a shame upon you when you decide to support your brother-in-law who is running as a Republican.' We will be tolerant."
Last year, the loyalty oath forced Head and the rest of the executive committee to back Diana Vazquez Cook against Crotty, even though a few months earlier Head publicly -- albeit tentatively -- gave the chairman his blessing.
"The party will stand with Democrats, whoever they are," Head says. If committee members object, they should abandon their posts and come back later, he adds. "That's the motivation to the party to seek reasonable candidates."
And while Republicans are seeking to do away with Guetzloe and the bad publicity he brings, Head is gloating: "I think he's at the heart and soul of the Republican Party in Central Florida. He's the heart of the populist wing of the Republican Party. Without the populist wing, the non-elite wing, this local Republican Party will [go] back to being the party of stuffed-shirt bankers."