ORLANDO – During its relatively brief existence, the Tea Party of Florida has championed constitutional principles like a balanced budget, limits on federal powers over the states, and low taxation.
Now the party’s new chairman is ready to add another cause to the list: freedom of speech, particularly when it comes to the campaign trail.
“I’m here to tell you that every day my First Amendment rights were challenged,” said Peg Dunmire. “We’re going to include this (issue) and go after First Amendment barriers.”
Dunmire was the Florida Tea Party’s candidate in the state’s 8th Congressional District, where she challenged incumbent Democrat Alan Grayson. Both candidates lost to the Republican nominee, former state Sen. Dan Webster.
Dunmire, who recently took over as party chairman from Fred O’Neal, said her campaign turned into an endless series of frustrations, since she often times found it next to impossible to actually meet and greet the voters, or even do something as simple as put up a sign promoting her candidacy – including on her own front lawn.
“We set a standard for Peg,” said political consultant Doug Guetzloe, who serves as an advisor to the Tea Party, “where if she didn’t get threatened with arrest, she wasn’t doing her job.”
Dunmire said the frustrations started at her own home, when she put up a political sign – and was promptly told by her homeowner’s association that it had to go. Dunmire lives in the sprawling Hunter’s Creek development, where signs on front lawns are almost entirely prohibited — with one obvious exception.
“I was working with a homeowners association that prevents you from having a sign on your own lawn,” Dunmire said. “At Hunter’s Creek, only one sign is allowed, a For Sale sign. Sometimes you can also put up a little security sign. That’s ridiculous.”
The next headache she encountered on the campaign trail, Dunmire said, was keeping up with the rules on where the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office would allow candidates to greet voters. Dunmire said she’d go to places she assumed were public property, only to find the property wasn’t so public after all – and her campaign activity wasn’t at all welcome or encouraged.
One good example: an Orange County public library that served as an early voting location.
“I go over there on the first day to greet voters, and I am threatened with arrest by the police,” Dunmire said. The reason: the library was located in a shopping plaza.
“The public library is considered private property because it was in a shopping plaza,” she said. “If somebody objects, they call up security and they say ‘We’re sorry, but this is private property.’ And they kicked me out.”
Dunmire visited a community college in Marion County that was hosting a Jazz concert. She went there to shake hands with voters.
“I would say, ‘Excuse me, may I introduce myself,’ “ she said. “After half an hour of doing this, security people came up to me.”
She got a similar reaction while visiting the Fashion Square Mall, where she purchased every ticket available for a movie playing that night, and handed them out to voters in the mall. Once again, security intervened.
“They tell you that you’re somehow soliciting,” she said. “Free speech supercedes that.”
The 8th Congressional District includes parts of Orange, Osceola, Lake and Marion counties. No matter which county she went into, Dunmire said, campaigning was a hassle.
“I’m a property owner in Celebration, even though I live in Hunter’s Creek,” she said. “I went to one of their events, Oktoberfest. They threw me out.”
The biggest surprise, Guetzloe said, was when they got kicked out of a church.
“We got threatened with arrest by the pastor of a church which was a polling place,” he said, while Dunmire added, “I said to him, ‘Sir, you do get paid for having this be a polling place,’ and he reamed me out, saying it doesn’t even cover the cost of his electricity.”
“We ran into this everywhere,” Guetzloe said. “And I mean everywhere.”
Dunmire said she wants the Tea Party to go after restrictions that make it difficult, if not impossible, for candidates to shake the hands of voters.
“This is a big deal that I think all of our parties need to address,” she said. “Political candidates can’t be successful if they can’t get their message out.”
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