By Zac Anderson
Some prominent Southwest Florida Republicans are calling on GOP state House candidate Melissa Howard to drop out of the District 73 race after a Miami University official said a diploma that Howard has displayed does not appear to be authentic, and that Howard does not have the degree she has been claiming.
Former Manatee County GOP Chair Donna Hayes, who helmed the party for a decade and has endorsed Howard's opponent, said Sunday that Howard should immediately withdraw from the race.
"That's a very deceptive falsification that she made," Hayes said, adding: "It makes the Republican Party look very loose and look like they have no principles."
Former Manatee County Commissioner Jonathan Bruce also urged Howard to quit the race.
"What a sad day for integrity in local politics," said Bruce, who also has endorsed Howard's opponent. "A really unreal turn of events. Melissa Howard should leave the race now."
But the Republican Party of Sarasota put out a statement that did not condemn Howard's actions and indicated she would have the party's support if she wins the primary.
"We're not prepared to comment on the House 73 primary at this point in time," the statement said. "We will let the primary process complete on August 28. We look forward to supporting the nominee after the primary."
Sarasota GOP Chair Joe Gruters is Howard's campaign treasurer. He said that has no bearing on the party's position.
"It's up to the voters to decide," Gruters said of the primary.
Manatee County GOP Chair Kathy King could not be reached for comment.
Peggy Simone, a former GOP state representative and a member of the Manatee County Republican Party Executive Committee's board of directors, said she plans to reach out to King about polling the board on whether to ask Howard to drop out.
"I would hope that if she's faking her diploma that gets out by her opponent and she's not elected," Simone said. "Whether she should drop out of the race -- I wouldn't make that decision alone. I'd have to get to the board."
Hayes said she plans to attend the Manatee GOP's next meeting and push for a resolution calling on Howard to drop out.
"I will definitely bring it up if nobody else does," Hayes said.
But Gruters said King agrees with him.
"Her and I talked yesterday morning when this first happened and agreed on that position together," Gruters said in a text message Sunday. "We agreed to let the voters decide."
Some GOP leaders went so far as to express support for Howard.
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said in a Facebook comment -- posted Saturday in response to a post linking to the Herald-Tribune's article about the controversy surrounding Howard -- that "I stand by Melissa."
Responding to Baugh's comment, Martin Hyde -- a Republican and former candidate for the Sarasota City Commission -- said "It is very poor judgment to state as a publicly elected official that you condone such frankly criminal behavior."
"This really is a bizarre case of almost psychotic arrogance," Hyde said in another Facebook post. "How anyone could continue to run for office after showing such lamentable and shameful behavior I do not know. I am ashamed for her and for anyone that condones dragging this charade on for another moment. Howard must take her name off the ballot immediately in the name of everything that we hold decent in this great country of ours."
No comment from candidate
Howard did not respond to a text message Sunday, and her voicemail was full. Her campaign consultant, Anthony Pedicini, did not respond to a text message and email.
Howard's campaign has been thrown into turmoil by the revelations that she never obtained a degree from Miami University -- despite repeatedly insisting that she did -- and that she may have gone to great lengths to deceive people about the degree, including displaying a diploma that does not appear to be authentic.
Miami University general counsel Robin Parker sent an email to the Herald-Tribune declaring unequivocally that Howard never graduated. And Parker also took aim at the diploma seen in pictures that Howard distributed.
The diploma says Howard obtained a degree in marketing, but Parker noted that Miami University doesn't offer a degree in marketing and brought up other reasons why the diploma "does not appear to be an accurate Miami University diploma."
The sensational story of a candidate potentially faking a diploma has received national and even international attention. The Washington Post ran a story about Howard, as did the Daily Mail newspaper in the United Kingdom.
The pressure on Howard to drop out of the race is likely to intensify within GOP circles. If she were to win the primary against Sarasota attorney Tommy Gregory she would be badly damaged, giving Democrat Liv Coleman a better chance of winning the strongly GOP-leaning seat.
Gregory called on Howard to apologize to him and his family "for disparaging my reputation in the community." Howard repeatedly called Gregory a liar and blamed him for spreading false information about her college record.
In a statement released Sunday, Gregory went on to question Howard's integrity but stopped short of calling on her to drop out of the race.
"From reading yesterday's news stories and what the general counsel from Miami University stated, the Melissa Howard diploma is not authentic, and the actions surrounding that diploma raise a lot of questions about integrity and character," Gregory said. "But I'll leave that to the Howard campaign."
(c)2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.