OCALA, Fla. – Robert “Foxy” Fox’s campaign signs explain how to vote for him in the Florida House District 24 race.
He said that’s important since most people don’t know how to vote for a write-in candidate.
The private investigator and owner of Foxy Bail Bonds in Ocala hadn’t planned on actively campaigning for the seat he signed up for in January.
That’s when Fox told News 6 he decided to run because no non-Republican candidates had qualified for the race, and he felt the Republican primary (which was in March), should only be for Republican voters, not open to all voters as Florida law would have allowed.
“This is new to me. And I didn’t think it would get this far. I thought we would get an actual good candidate,” Fox said.
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Fox said he didn’t realize fully what he was doing at the time, and he was led astray by a campaign consultant for the candidate who ended up winning that primary — Ryan Chamberlin.
Gov. Ron DeSantis called a special election for Florida House District 24, which represents a large part of Marion County, including part of Ocala, after State Rep. Joe Harding was indicted on federal COVID-19 loan fraud charges and resigned from office.
Five Republican candidates qualified to campaign for the seat, triggering a March 7 party primary. No candidates outside the Republican Party were set to run for the office.
Florida is a closed primary state, one of nine states in the U.S. with fully-closed primaries, where you must be a member of the political party to vote in that party’s primary.
But Florida is unique among those nine states. In 1998, voters approved a constitutional amendment that opens party primaries to all voters if no candidates from outside the party qualify to run. This is called a universal primary. According to John Opdycke with Open Primaries.org, a nonpartisan group dedicated to opening up political party primary elections to all voters, Florida is the only state with a closed primary that has this provision.
However, all it takes is someone to enter the race as a “write-in” candidate to close that primary to only Republicans. It costs almost nothing to register as a write-in candidate but your name does not appear on the ballot.
“What started out as a noble idea to make sure all voters have a chance to vote in elections has turned into a kind of political prick,” said News 6 political analyst and University of Central Florida history professor Dr. Jim Clark.
Clark said there have been several recent instances of primary races purposely closed by getting someone to run as a write-in candidate.
Former prosecutor William Vose, a Republican, entered the race as a write-in candidate in the hopes of closing the Democratic primary and getting State Attorney Jeff Ashton voted out of office.
Clark said that Ashton was seen as more conservative than his liberal opponent, Aramis Ayala, so it was more likely an independent or Republican voter would vote for Ashton if the election was open to all voters.
By Vose getting into the race as a write-in candidate, only Democrats were allowed to choose between Ashton and Ayala. Ayala won the primary and the election.
“The people who lose out are the voters who don’t get a say in the election,” Clark said.
‘I’m not a puppet’
Fox said he was approached to get into the Florida House 24 race by an associate of his. A meeting was set up between Fox and Brett Doster, a professional Republican political operative and president of The Frontline Agency, a political consulting firm.
Fox, who is a Republican, said Doster asked him to be a write-in candidate as a favor to the Republican Party.
Security logs from the Florida Division of Elections provided to News 6 show Doster signed into the building with Fox and Fox’s campaign treasurer, Barry Mackaben, on Jan. 9. That was the first day of the two-day qualifying period.
By later in the month though, Fox said he realized he’d been duped.
Doster worked for Ryan Chamberlin, not the party itself. Doster is a strategist and media consultant, according to Chamberlin.
Fox said Doster never told him he was working with Chamberlin. Fox said the move left Fox feeling used.
“Our county deserves something better than just a puppet, and I’m not a puppet,” Fox said. “I have no problem calling out when something is corrupt, and our county deserves someone better, maybe not a politician, but someone who has been business.”
News 6 has reached out to Doster for comment and has not heard back.
Chamberlin, in an email, said that Fox “seems like a nice guy” but he was more focused on his campaign.
Fox said he tried to drop out, but attorneys told him there was a concern that he could be considered a “ghost candidate.” He said he tried to get answers regarding his ability to withdraw and whether it would cost the taxpayers from the Florida Division of Elections.
Documents obtained by News 6 show the bureau chief did send an email to Fox on Jan. 26, telling them he needed to direct his questions to Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox. But Fox said Wilcox was barred from giving what was seen as political advice. And Fox said it wouldn’t have made a difference in terms of cost to taxpayers if he left the race or stayed in it.
An uphill battle
Chamberlin, an author and founder of a conservative social media and news site, won the March 7 Republican primary with 35.96% of the vote. Jose Juarez came in second with 26.27% and Charlie Stone, a former state representative, came in third with 22.42%.
Juarez said he doesn’t know if opening the primary up to all voters would have made a difference in the outcome of the election. In a county where almost half the voters are Republican, voter turnout for the race was only 18%, according to the Marion County Supervisor of Elections office.
“Who knows, you know what I mean? More people would vote, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they would vote for me or one of the other four candidates,” Juarez said.
Juarez also has his own fight with Doster. The Ocala businessman is suing Doster for conspiracy in a defamation lawsuit over campaign ads run during the primary.
For Fox’s part, he said he wants to move on from Doster. He wants to go to the Florida House of Representatives to change state law regarding write-in candidates to stop this sort of thing from happening again.
Clark said Fox has an uphill battle in both getting elected and getting the law changed.
“Politicians kind of like this because it can work for the benefit of both parties, depending,” Clark said.
It’s not the only thing Fox wants to focus on if he is elected.
Fox wants to see body-worn cameras mandated for the Florida Highway Patrol, one aspect of reforming transparency and accuracy in government.
But at the end of the day, what he said matters more than the political machinations is what the people of Marion County want. Still, he felt he had to try, to make a statement of fighting what he called the political elite.
“I have a six-year-old daughter. If I rolled over and did nothing, then what would my daughter think of me?” Fox said.
Early voting runs from May 6 to May 13.
Election day is May 16.
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