After announcing his withdrawal, Democrat quietly stays in Central Florida House race

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PHOTO VIA PAUL CHANDLER CAMPAIGN
  • Photo via Paul Chandler campaign
Forty days from now, former Winter Garden commissioner Robert "Bobby O" Olszewski will probably be elected to the Florida House. How he got there will be less a story about how compelling a nickname like "Bobby O" is, and more about how local and state Democratic leaders knocked themselves of a game they likely could have won.

As of Monday, Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said he was mailing absentee ballots for the race in Florida House District 44, which extends from Winter Garden and Windermere all the way down to Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake. Those 898 absentee ballots and any future ballots printed will have Democrat Paul Chandler's name, despite Chandler announcing on Aug. 22 that he was withdrawing from the race following a lawsuit that challenged his residency qualifications.

For a week, Cowles was waiting to hear who was going to be on the Democratic ticket for the Oct. 10 special election after squabbles between Chandler and his party turned into a vicious public brawl.

Chandler claims he didn't withdraw from the HD 44 race because his campaign was being overshadowed by the residency lawsuit – it was because Orange County and Florida Democratic leaders threatened to subvert his chances if he stayed. (Disclosure: Orlando Weekly freelancer Joey Roulette worked with Chandler’s campaign in late July to August.)

Miles away from Disney World, Universal and the other theme parks that dominate his district, Chandler sipped tea at The Farmacy in Ivanhoe Village last week as his phone occasionally buzzed with text after text from party officials desperate for him to officially turn in his resignation papers with the state Division of Elections, which prevented Democrats from replacing him with another candidate during a narrowing time frame. After a week of uncertainty on whether he would drop out or not, Chandler reportedly told Cowles on Monday that he was staying in the race after all, and deleted the original announcement from his Facebook with no post to explain why he was staying.

"Our campaign never had the support of the Florida Democratic Party or the Orange County Democrats. They were not with us from the beginning," Chandler told OW last week. "I’m taking a couple days off and going to Disney and then going out of town on vacation. I will end my campaign when I end it."

The race for HD 44 started after Gov. Rick Scott appointed its incumbent Republican state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle as a judge on the Fifth District Court of Appeals in March. Eisnaugle, who has no judicial experience and once co-sponsored a bill to ban schools from disciplining children who chew Pop-Tarts or other breakfast pastries into gun shapes, is now one step away from the Florida Supreme Court.

Bewildering court appointments aside, in June, Chandler and four Republicans, including Olszewski, John Newstreet, Bruno Portigliatti and Usha Jain, qualified for the special elections. Chandler, a former teacher and founder of Ohana Healthcare, says he ran because he was tired of Republicans controlling the state Legislature and wanted to prioritize jobs and publics schools in his district. While HD 44 is a traditional Republican stronghold, during the 2016 election, it flipped over Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton.

Chandler planned to run in 2018 during the regular election but decided to step up to the plate for the special election in April after he says no other Democrat expressed interest. Briefly, Democrat Nuren Haider, vice chair of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee, filed to run before quickly pulling out. DEC Chair Wes Hodge says the local Democratic Party was looking at candidates for 2018 when the special elections snuck up on them, cutting their timeline in half. Some of the candidates were not comfortable raising the money needed in the short amount of time or had other commitments.

"They were going to wait until the next cycle, which was totally understandable," Hodge said last week. "Paul was nice enough to put his name into the ring and willing to jump up, and I respected and thanked him for that."

As the GOP candidates attacked each other and raised tens of thousands in campaign cash, Chandler’s candidacy remained off the radar in terms of interest and funding, only gaining about $3,500 in campaign donations before loaning himself $20,000. Chandler says he received little help from the state and local party, though Hodge contends he invested 15 to 20 hours of his personal time in the campaign as far as training.

Things began to sour when in early August, Republican attorney Charles Hart, who lives in Windermere, filed a lawsuit alleging Chandler has not lived in Florida the period of two years prior to an election needed to qualify. Chandler says he’s lived in Florida since April 2015, he had split residency between Missouri and Florida because of his long-distance relationship with his husband, who owns a home there. Chandler was registered to vote in Missouri and did vote there during the 2016 election, but has since changed it to his Florida residence. His campaign accused one of the Republicans with filing the lawsuit to throw out the primary, which Olszewski won on Aug. 15 with almost 40 percent of the vote. Chandler argues the pending lawsuit is "bogus" because he does fulfill the residency requirements and was confident his campaign would overcome the challenge.

Democratic leaders were less sure. After initially expressing a willingness to fight the lawsuit, Chandler says state and local party leaders quickly pulled out, telling him on Aug. 21 that he needed to resign by the end of the day to have his name removed from the ballot in time. Chandler adds that leaders from the Democrats’ Florida House Victory committee told him he needed to resign and shoot for a smaller county race next year or risk losing the party’s support and ensure Democratic voters and donors would not help his campaign. OW reached out to the Florida Democratic Party for a comment but did not hear back by press time. Hodge denied last week that Democratic leaders pulled their support from Chandler.

"That’s not accurate," Hodge says. "I met with him and discussed the pending legal challenges and how this was going to be over his head no matter what. I told him that it was in the best interest of the party for him to step down and let somebody else run. At no point in time did I make an ultimatum or threaten to pull support, but that legal cloud was not going away."

If Chandler had withdrawn from the race in time, state law allows Democrats to replace him with another candidate – but if a judge rules against Chandler, he would be kicked off the ballot and no Democrat could be substituted for him.

"Republicans are doing whatever they can to keep the seat in the party, and yet, the Democrats don’t have a backbone and don’t want to stand up and fight for it," Chandler says. "They’re just caving in to the Republicans."

The Orange County Supervisor of Elections office was brought to standstill on printing absentee ballots last week as Democratic leaders anxiously waited for Chandler's resignation to put another candidate on the ballot. Then last Friday in a statement on Facebook, Chandler said he was "reconsidering his options" after he says Hodge came to his apartment unannounced to pressure him to submit the paperwork. OW reached out to Hodge again for comment on this allegation but did not receive a response by press time.

"Paul said he resigned from the race but he hasn’t resigned from the race," Hodge said. "As the Democratic Party of Orange County, we’re here to make sure we put the best candidate forward and give them access to our resources. We made ourselves available at multiple meetings and at several events for his campaign. I’m confident we did our job. It’s disappointing to see how this has played out over last 48 hours. We needed to come together as a party to transition to a new candidate and it’s turned into a circus. We’re trying to come up with timeline for a replacement, but we can’t do that until he sends the letter of resignation."

Sitting at the Farmacy last week, Chandler said it would take a lot for him to consider getting back in the race.

"Even with the FDP and the Orange County Dems saying they would work with me next year, pardon my language, but that’s bullshit," he says. "I don’t believe them when they said that based on lies and misinformation we’ve had already. The fact is I got into this race not to become a career politician. I wanted to finish out the current term and maybe one or two more terms until I finished all the jobs I wanted to do. … My choice to resign is my choice to resign."

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