Endorsing a Democratic candidate in her Primary Election for a state House seat has landed one of Palm Beach County’s few Republican lawmakers in hot water with the county’s Republican Executive Committee.
The organization voted to censure Republican Rep. Mike Caruso at its meeting Wednesday for endorsing Katherine Waldron in her bid to replace term-limited Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite, representing House District 86.
About 200 people were at the meeting and voted to censure via voice vote, according to party officials.
Waldron is one of three Democrats running for the House district, currently made up of Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, Loxahatchee Groves.
One Republican, Saulis Banionis, has also filed for the seat so far.
Caruso said he was perplexed by the censure because he explained to the Republican committee last month that he was only endorsing for the Primary. And it was based on his experience working with Waldron, who impressed him as a highly competent, moderate Democrat.
For him, the censure is a sign of the extreme polarization roiling the country — to its detriment.
“The whole idea that someone is bad or good depending on what letter comes next to their name isn’t where we need to be coming from,” Caruso said.
Caruso argued the county Republican Executive Committee doesn’t seem to understand Palm Beach County largely is a Democratic county. He and Rep. Rick Roth are currently the only Republicans representing legislative districts entirely contained in Palm Beach County.
Committee Chairman Mike Barnett said he himself would not have voted for censure, but he did not vote at the meeting which drew the majority of his 323 committee members on Wednesday. He said he also would not have recommended that Caruso endorse Waldron and have his name on the same list as U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel on Waldron’s website. But he also doesn’t want to see Republicans censuring other Republicans either.
“We don’t have a lot of incumbent Republicans in the Legislature and I don’t agree with doing anything that would bring any bad attention to any of them,” Barnett said.
But there were those in the crowd who felt that Waldron is a “far left-wing, progressive Democrat,” he said.
“They decided that his clarification didn’t suffice as a retraction of the endorsement, which is what they were asking for,” Barnett said.
That’s not how he feels personally, however. Caruso is a friend of his, Barnett said.
“I disagree with censuring any elected Republican member of the Legislature under any circumstances.”
Barnett said the censure will not have any bearing on county Republicans’ commitment to campaigning to keep Caruso in the House. Caruso would be facing a tough race if he stayed in his current location, as redistricting is shifting its boundaries to include an incumbent Democratic Representative. But Caruso is likely moving districts ahead of his re-election fight.
“He (Caruso) didn’t commit any violation of a loyalty oath” by endorsing Waldron, Barnett said.
Caruso said he aims to represent everyone in his county and lamented that extremes in both parties communicate with each other via “cannon fire.”
“Our form of communication is to reach across the aisle and shake hands,” he said, adding that he has seen how capable Waldron is in her work as a Commissioner on the Port of Palm Beach District Commission, as they worked together to get supplies to hurricane-ravaged Bahamas ports. “We can speak to each other, negotiate and work together to get legislation done.”
He said he has worked hard getting COVID-19 tests, vaccination appointments and unemployment benefits to those who needed them, in addition to getting nine bills passed.
“When a phone call comes into my office, from my constituents, asking for help, not once did I ask what letter came after their name,” he said. “Because I represent all people in (House) District 89. And I work for the people in District 89 no matter who they are, what their position and what their political party. That’s why they call us Representatives.”
“The extremists at the REC (Republican Executive Committee) don’t and that’s their problem,” he added.
Still, he’s not about to change his party.
“When all is said and done, I’m a Republican,” Caruso said.