TALLAHASSEE — The husband of a woman challenging state Rep. Jamie Grant in the Republican primary is asking a Tallahassee court to disqualify a third candidate on the grounds the man lives in the state capital, not Hillsborough County.
The candidate, write-in Daniel John Matthews, acknowledged in a court filing that he attended Florida State University in Tallahassee but insists he never gave up residency in Hillsborough. That’s where the 25-year-old Matthews lives with his parents and sister, he said.
As proof, he submitted a photo of a sign duct-taped to a bedroom door. It reads: “Danger - Daniel’s Room.”
Beyond the open door is a made bed, what appears to be boogie boards, a “diver down” flag on the wall, and a pet kennel on the floor.
Grant, the incumbent Republican, looked like he was cruising to automatic re-election in House District 64 before last-minute filings by Matthews and Miriam Steinberg, a Tampa engineer who qualified as a Republican.
The district encompasses an eastern swath of Pinellas County, including Oldsmar, and the northwestern corner of Hillsborough County.
Attorney Michael Steinberg, husband of Miriam Steinberg, is challenging Matthews’ candidacy in Leon County circuit court. He’s suing Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer and Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deb Clark.
Steinberg told Tribune/Scripps he believes Matthews’ candidacy is a set-up, that someone encouraged him to run specifically to close the GOP primary election to party-affiliated voters only.
With Matthews in the race, Michael Steinberg — a registered Democrat — won’t be able to vote for his wife in the primary. Nor will nearly 45,000 other voters in the district who aren’t registered as Republicans.
Here’s why: Florida primary contests are open to all voters if candidates from other parties don’t qualify. Otherwise, Florida is a “closed primary” state, meaning only voters registered with a particular party can vote for that party’s candidates in the primary.
Elections officials, however, have determined that any write-in candidate qualifying for the general election keeps the primaries closed. No write-in candidate has won elected office in Florida.
As a tactic, parties and candidates in Florida sometimes line up a political novice to run as a write-in to close a primary, which usually benefits an incumbent. Grant has said he wasn’t involved in Matthews’ entry in the race.
Steinberg’s complaint points out that Matthews’ candidate oath is signed by a Tallahassee notary and misspells the name of the street where he says he lives.
“This was handwritten,” the complaint said, adding that if Matthews lived there, “he would know how to spell the name of his own street.”
The Tallahassee address where Steinberg suggests Matthews actually resides is also the location of Cats on Deck, a North Florida business that makes and sells modular outdoor enclosures for cats. Its products have been featured on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Animal Planet’s “My Cat from Hell.”
Matthews’ sole source of income listed for 2013, according to his financial disclosure, was $18,000 from the company.
The company’s chief operating officer, Jim Montgomery, told Tribune/Scripps that Matthews worked for Cats on Deck “for a couple of years off and on” while Matthews was attending FSU, but said he never lived on the property.
“He wound up being a quasi-manager for us,” Montgomery said. “He’s a good guy.”
Matthews’ response to the lawsuit notes that he is registered to vote in Hillsborough County and has a driver’s license with a Hillsborough address. It also says Steinberg “fails to show how a Democrat is irreparably injured by not being able to vote in a Republican primary.”
Matthews is represented by veteran attorney Harry O. Thomas, a partner in Tallahassee’s Radey Law Firm. Thomas’ career highlights include representing then-Attorney General Bill McCollum in a suit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s Public Financing of Elections law.
Thomas declined comment on the Steinberg suit.
Unless the case is resolved through a summary judgment, Steinberg said, the matter is set for an evidentiary hearing July 31 where he expects a final decision.
“Some people look at politics as sporting events,” Steinberg said. Getting a write-in candidate to run to close a primary is “like fouling another player in basketball. It’s a strategic move. They don’t look at it as disenfranchising voters.”
Matthews did not return calls for comment. His phone number listed on campaign documents begins with “813,” the area code for the Tampa region.