MIAMI _ A group of South Florida Democrats, including more than two dozen local pastors, held a press conference Thursday calling for a 50-50 distribution of Florida's delegates to the Democratic Party's national convention in August.
The group also rejected the claim, made by Sen. Hillary Clinton and her supporters, that the Florida delegate fight is a civil rights matter.
The group, organized by Miami-Dade Democratic Party faith outreach chairman Gary Johnson, said its goal was not to take sides in the nominating process – though most were Obama supporters – but to “educate the community about the process.’’
The Democratic National Committee's Rules Committee meets on Saturday in Washington to decide the fate of Florida's delegation, which along with Michigan's, was barred from the August convention in Denver, Colorado because Florida moved its primary to Jan. 29, a date not authorized by the party.
Members of Thursday’s group, which gathered at the Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City, said they want Florida’s votes to count.
“We don't believe in taxation without representation,’’ Baptist Ministers Council of Greater Miami-Dade and Vicinity President Rev. Gaston Smith said.
“This is about voters – black voters in particular – standing up and demanding that our votes be counted,’’ said Christopher Norwood, a local Democratic activist.
But the group indicated that they believe Clinton should receive no more than half the delegates from Florida, whether the entire delegation is seated or not.
“Everyone knew, going into the primary, the consequences of moving up the primary. The voters shouldn't be penalized for that,’’ Johnson said. “But we're here today because we want to support a fair and equitable process.’’
State Sen. Frederica Wilson, the highest-ranking African-American in the state Senate and the body’s leader pro tempore, was invited by the group to speak to the media. She issued a stinging, if veiled critique of Clinton’s demand that all of Florida's 211 delegates be seated according to the percentages in the Jan. 29 vote.
“I’m an educator, and I believe in educating,’’ Wilson, a former Miami-Dade School Board member, told the gathering. “We have a situation where in the Legislature, we had a vote, and before we took the vote, we were warned that we would be stripped of all the delegates of the state of Florida. … And yet we voted to move the primary forward.’’
Wilson was one of just two Senate Democrats to vote against the Republican-sponsored bill to move Florida’s primary and establish a voting paper trail. Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill in May 2007.
Wilson read from the pledge signed by all eight Democratic primary contenders in September 2007, and called on the remaining candidates to abide by that pledge.
“I want my community to be clear. If no other community across this state is unclear [sic], I want Miami Dade County, District 33 to be clear,’’ Wilson said. “We do not want the rules committee to give favor to one candidate over the other. All of these candidates signed the pledge.’’
Wilson, who is an Obama supporter and delegate, stressed that the gathering was not a protest, that they did not speak for the Obama campaign, and that the group’s ultimate goal is party unity.
“We’re asking them on behalf of a large county in Florida, so we have the right to speak up for Florida,’’ Wilson said. “We have to say what Florida wants, what Florida deserves and what Florida desires.’’
She added that giving Clinton more delegates than Obama “would be an injustice to us as a people, to us as a party and we want the Democratic Party to be together at the end of this primary season regardless of who the nominee is.’’
The group dismissed the idea that the fight for Florida's delegation was a civil rights matter.
“This has nothing to do with the civil rights movement,’’ Wilson said. “This has to do with the election of 2008.’’
The group’s members said the issue is whether the candidates – and by inference Clinton — would abide by the rules they agreed to before the Florida vote.
“What message are we sending to our young people … what message are we sending across America, when you sign an agreement and you break it?’’ Johnson asked.
“When you make a pledge, when you sign a pledge … and you actually put your signature there, then I think you should stand up and hold to that pledge,’’ Wilson said. “When things are looking like they’re not going your way, you should not step out and say, ‘This is wrong, I didn't mean it, this is against the rules.’ As a school principal, as a school board member, as a member of the House of Representatives and as a member of the Senate, I have always taught the children I deal with, and you all know I deal with children on a daily basis, [that] your word is your bond. Don’t make promises that you can't keep.’’
Photo: State Sen. Frederica Wilson