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William March: Why Jose Vazquez had to campaign from a prison cell

Jose Vazquez, Democratic nominee in the Dec. 19 state House District 58 special election, doesn't seem like a criminal.

He's 43, divorced with six children, and has worked as a security guard and in auto recycling. He was a high-level political field manager in Puerto Rico before moving to the United States in 1999.

But at least in news stories, he'll forever be known as the candidate who ran for office while in prison.

Vazquez served a sentence from 2007 to 2009 on a felony charge of repeatedly driving with a suspended license. And he filed as a 2008 state House write-in candidate.

How did all that happen?

Showing documents from a thick folder of court records, Vazquez said in an interview it resulted from a string of problems created by his unfamiliarity with mainland U.S. laws and bureaucracy, plus Florida's Dickensian "punish-the-poor" driver license laws.

Florida suspends licenses for non-driving issues including failure to pay court fees, often preventing people from getting to work to earn the money they need to pay the fees. Efforts to reform the system have failed because court clerk's offices depend on the revenue from the expensive license reinstatement fees and lateness penalties.

Vazquez said changing that is one reason he's repeatedly run for office. He's run twice before for the state House and once for Tampa mayor.

In 1999, he intended to visit Tampa temporarily to help his sick father. When his father died, the complications of returning his remains to Puerto Rico and arranging his veteran's burial in Puerto Rico's national cemetery extended the visit.

His problems began, he said, because an identity mixup with a different Jose Vazquez, a 70-year-old with a bankruptcy, meant couldn't get car insurance, so he had to use borrowed cars. In 2000, he got a $60 ticket for a burned-out taillight.

In Puerto Rico, he said, such fines come due when the driver renews his license or tags. Assuming it was the same here, he ended up with a suspended license for failing to pay the fine. Because he had no fixed address, he didn't get a notification.

He was stopped again in 2001 for a license plate problem, and this time arrested for driving with a suspended license. A judge heard his story and withheld adjudication and told him he was in the clear — which was true with the court, but not with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

He was stopped three more times in 2002, 2005 and 2006 for license plate problems and cracked windshields on borrowed cars, and each time learned he had failed to pay fines or fees he owed, causing more license suspensions.

By then, the DMV had revoked his license as a habitual traffic offender for driving with a suspended license three times in five years, even though two incidents resulted in withheld adjudication.

Put on probation, he used a scooter to get to work and probation visits. Florida law at the time didn't classify them as motor vehicles. But then the law changed, and in 2007, stopped while driving his scooter, he went to prison.

"I spent two years sitting in jail because I couldn't pay a lawyer $15,000 to investigate my case," he said. "Florida needs to fix this system."

Vazquez was lucky in one way. Charlie Crist, then governor, had instituted automatic restoration of some civil rights for non-violent former felons, so Vazquez can vote and run for office. Gov. Rick Scott has since reversed that.

Who will run for Ross Spano's seat?

State Rep. Ross Spano's announcement that he'll run for attorney general next year opens up a House seat in his competitive District 59. Who'll be interested?

There is one sure candidate. Republican Joe Wicker of Riverview, who lost narrowly to Spano in the 2012 District 59 primary, said Thursday he was in the process of filing candidacy papers. Wicker owns a home health agency and is an Army veteran formerly deployed in Iraq.

A possible GOP contender, insiders say: Colton Curry, son of prominent East Hillsborough conservative activist Clif Curry. He couldn't be reached immediately for comment.

A disappointment for Democrats: Rena Frazier, who ran a vigorous race against Spano in 2016 and now works for State Attorney Andrew Warren, won't run. She said she's staying where she is.

Contact William March at [email protected]

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