A dust up among Tampa Bay area Democrats is leaving one candidate less one big endorsement and two others frustrated their names and likeness were used in an attack ad politicizing rape victims.
The Florida Democratic Party paid for mailers and a television ad attacking Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri for, in its view, down playing rape accusations and not filing charges against rape victims.
While they attack Gualtieri, the ads support his Democratic challenger, Eliseo Santana.
The mailers list FDP recommended candidates Jessica Harrington in Florida House District 64 and Rep. Jennifer Webb in House District 69. The television ads show both women. Neither gave approval for their name or likeness to be used in the ads.
Webb, a rape survivor herself, not only condemned the ads, but rescinded her endorsement of Santana.
“I strongly denounce the use of my name in association with the attack ad against Sheriff Gualtieri and renounce my endorsement of Eliseo Santana,” Webb said in a statement. “As a victim of rape myself and knowing what it is like to be attacked with baseless political accusations, I am outraged at having my name used with such horrible attack ads without my knowledge or consent.”
Webb lauded Gualtieri as a “solid partner” in her efforts to “craft clearer legislation to reduce Baker Acts from our schools” and said for that, she is truly grateful.
“Our community is so much better than all of these attack ads. Enough!” Webb continued.
Harrington likewise condemned the ads and the use of her name in them.
“I would like to personally apologize to Sheriff Gualtieri for an attack ad that was sent out on behalf of his Democratic opponent,” Harrington said in a statement. “Without my knowledge or permission, my name was used in this ad. I never saw the mailer or ad beforehand, nor did I approve of this ad.”
The mailer in question shows an image of a teary eyed, terrified woman with a hand over her mouth.
“How many more rape victims will Bob Gualitieri call a waste of time,” the mailer reads.
It includes two excerpts from a Tampa Bay Times article from Jan. 5 claiming “the victim was basically told … why bother?” and “less than two hours after she reported the rape, her case was closed.”
The excerpts are from a story titled, “How the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office boosts its rape stats without solving cases.” It outlined personal testimony from rape victims and included analysis of 11 cleared rape cases by a retired criminal investigator who found “none of these cases I reviewed were properly or thoroughly investigated.”
Whether Gualtieri should face scrutiny over his office’s handling of rape cases is an important question, but both Webb and Harrington took issue with politicizing the victims themselves for political gain.
The bigger issue though, is using an incumbent State Representative in Webb and a House candidate in Harrington to seemingly support that message without obtaining permission from them to do so.
The Florida Democratic Party did not respond to an interview request. Nor did Santana’s campaign manager Tom Alte.
While the FDP paid for the ads, it’s typical for them to be done in consultation with the campaign they support.
And even if Alte points the finger at FDP, it’s ultimately his candidate who is promoted in the ads.
This isn’t the first time Alte has used negative campaigning to try to boost an underdog candidate, as Santana is running against a well-funded incumbent Sheriff.
Last year, when Alte was representing Orlando Acosta in his bid for St. Petersburg City Council against incumbent Ed Montanari, a Republican, the campaign sent mailers to voters tying Montanari to President Donald Trump.
One mailer showed a cartoon Montanari wearing a red Make America Great Again Hat tugging an elephant listing votes Montanari had taken that aligned with Trump policies. Another showed an ominous black and white photo of Montanari with a MAGA hat awkwardly photoshopped atop his head.
The ads caused a stir among Democrats who, though they might not always align politically, respected and supported Montanari as a City Council member. All but one of Montanari’s colleagues, all Democrats, endorsed him in that race.
Like Acosta’s race, Santana’s candidacy is considered a long shot. The Tampa Bay Times recommended Gualtieri’s reelection, and he has a significant cash advantage in the race.
Gualtieri has raised more than $128,000 and retains about $62,000 while Santana has brought in less than $44,000 and has less than $10,000 still on hand.
For his part, Gualtieri responded to the negative ads on Facebook this week.
“This issue is too important for me to wait to address — we cannot further victimize these women by making them political pawns. Our agency will continue to use the full force of our resources to fight back against the victimization of women,” Gualtieri wrote along with a video responding to the attacks.
“I was left speechless by his use of rape victims as political pawns. As the father of three daughters, I found the way my opponent minimized the experience of these women down to a 30 second political ad to be abhorrent and I was appalled by the use of sexual assault victims for political gain,” Gualtieri said in the video statement.
“There are a number of areas where my opponent and I will disagree, and that’s OK. But on this issue the exploitation of rape victims, I cannot stand idly by and chalk this up to a difference of opinion. Our agency dedicates the full force of our resources to fight back against the victimization of women and I stand by the members of our agency who work hard to protect our community. The revictimization of these women transcends politics and whether I earn your vote in November or not, I thought it was important to come forward and make this statement.”
In a subsequent post he thanked Webb for “coming out so strongly against my opponent’s use of her name in his appalling, baseless attack ads.”