Polk GOP Removes Website Promotion for a Candidate in a Nonpartisan Judicial Race

An image promoting a candidate for county judge was removed from the Republican Party of Polk County website today after questions were raised about whether the promotion violates a state law.

The image removed from the home page of the polk.gop website promoted the candidacy of John Flynn in the nonpartisan race for Polk County judge. The large image included a photo of a gavel and U.S. flag and the words “Vote for Polk County Judge Group 8. John B. Flynn for Polk County Judge Group 8,” as well as addresses for Flynn’s website and social media.

Under Florida Statute 501.09, “No political party or partisan political organization shall endorse, support, or assist any candidate in a campaign for election to judicial office.” Violation is a second-degree misdemeanor.

J. C. Martin, chair of the Polk GOP party’s Executive Committee, claims he never said his organization never endorsed Flynn, contrary to a report in The Ledger.

“There’s a difference between my board being OK with a candidate and the party going through an endorsement,” he said in an email to LkldNow. “By party rules, we would have to go through a number of steps to give a party endorsement. That has not happened, nor will it happen. The entire sentence was, our board likes him, but no party endorsement has taken place.”

He added: “We are not spending any money on any judicial race. We’re focused on the School Board.”

The Polk Republican Party this year took the unprecedented step of endorsing party members who are running in nonpartisan races for Polk County School Board. In response, the local Democratic Party did the same.

In addition to Flynn, the other candidates for the vacant Polk County judgeship are Ruth Moracen Knight, Carmalita Lall, Adam Patton and Tara Wheat.

Flynn told The Ledger he was not aware that his campaign image appeared on the party’s website and that he did not request the party’s endorsement.

Candidate Tara Wheat has raised questions about partisan involvement in the race. She says she has looked into initiating an investigation of judicial campaign activities and found there are few options.

The Florida Elections Commission told her it has no jurisdiction over nonpartisan elections. The Judicial Qualifications Commission of the Florida Supreme Court will take complaints only after the election has been completed, she said.

Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis, who is now a professor at Florida Southern College, confirmed that. On Wednesday, before the website promotion was removed, he told LkldNow it appeared to be a violation that can be reported to the Judicial Qualification Commission after the election if the candidate it promoted wins.

Candidate Wheat told LkldNow: “I believe the Florida Statutes and Code of Judicial Conduct are clear that partisanship is absolutely prohibited in a judicial race. Inappropriate and possibly illegal behavior on the part of a political party or partisan organization should not be allowed to interfere in this election.”

At some point Friday, a disclaimer was added under the Flynn promotion on the Polk GOP website. It read: “DISCLAIMER: This message provided to a service to our Republican candidates and voters. It is directly from the candidate’s campaign and no endorsement by the Polk County Republican Party should be assumed or implied. We love all Republicans equally.”

The promotion and the disclaimer were both removed later in the day.