TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Amid a sharply partisan backdrop overshadowing nearly everything else on the ballot, Florida voters are being asked this year to settle a long-running dispute that could result in the elimination of dog racing in the state.
Among a long list of proposed constitutional amendments is a measure that, if passed, would end greyhound races at dog tracks by the end of 2020. Florida is one of a handful of places in the country with dog racing, and passage of the amendment would be a serious blow for an industry that has been in the state for decades.
The proposed ban, placed on the ballot by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, has drawn support from Democrats and Republicans.
“So many things these days are partisan,” said Kate MacFall, state director of The Humane Society of the United States and co-chair of the Yes on 13 campaign. “This is really refreshing because it’s bipartisan.”
But bipartisan support doesn’t mean universal support for what is known as Amendment 13.
The measure is opposed by the Florida Greyhound Association, which represents owners and breeders in the racing industry. It is also opposed by a coalition of farmers and sportsmen who contend the proposal is broader than banning dog racing because it includes language that declares, “The humane treatment of animals is a fundamental value of the people of the state of Florida.”
Groups opposed to the amendment sued to try to get the measure stricken from the Nov. 6 ballot. And while a lower court judge sided with them, the Florida Supreme Court ordered that Amendment 13 be placed back on the ballot. The measure would require approval from 60 percent of the voters to pass.
The battle over the amendment has drawn fierce debate from people on both sides, with advocates arguing that racing dogs are often injured or mistreated.
Sonia Stratemann, 46, a supporter of the amendment, started taking in injured greyhounds in 2003. She first worked with friends but eventually launched her own adoption agency called Elite Greyhound Adoption in Palm Beach County.
In the 15 years since initially getting involved, Stratemann estimates that she has saved about 2,300 dogs. She said she has seen health conditions that run the gamut and dogs covered with fleas and usually missing patches of fur.
Stratemann said she initially chose not to publicly share the condition of the dogs or how she contends they were treated. But she said she was “outed” by her daughter, Maya Stratemann, who on her 18th birthday turned to social media to help raise funds for a greyhound who needed surgery.
“The industry went crazy,” she recalled.
A prominent spokesman for the industry is Jack Cory, a lobbyist for the Florida Greyhound Association.
Cory maintains that Grey2K USA Worldwide --- one of the groups backing the amendment --- is using the ballot initiative as a fundraising tool. Grey2K works to eliminate greyhound racing and promote the rescue and adoption of greyhounds.
“They are the same groups that put the sad puppy commercials on TV, this false information for fundraising,’’ Cory said. “But they don’t take care any of any animals in Florida.”
Carey Theil, executive director of GREY2K USA, disputed Cory’s arguments.
"He is desperately trying to change the subject because he has lost the debate over greyhound confinement and racetrack deaths," Theil said in an email to The News Service of Florida
As an alternative to banning greyhound racing in Florida, Cory said the groups and others should direct their efforts to help all dogs.
“We could move the state of Florida to no kill,” said Cory, who spends many weekends in Tallahassee volunteering for Florida Pets Alive!, which works to get dogs and cats adopted.
Joining Cory in opposition to Amendment 13 is prominent National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, who is leading a coalition of Florida farmers, ranchers and sportsmen.
Hammer, a former national president of the NRA, issued a prepared statement calling Amendment 13 a “Trojan horse.” In part, Hammer contends that “extreme animal rights groups” could use the amendment to do such things as try to ban hunting and fishing.
“We cannot be fooled. This is an attack on our rights as Floridians and as Americans,” she said.
But Theil, in a recent memo to reporters, said the Florida Supreme Court “debunked” such arguments when it allowed the amendment to go on the November ballot.
“It's now clear that opponents of Amendment 13 are incapable of debating the merits of commercial dog racing,” Theil wrote in the Sept. 25 memo. “In recent days, they have started to circulate a series of falsehoods. You don't have to take our word that these claims are false. Every single one was debunked by the Florida Supreme Court in its ruling in favor of Amendment 13.”
The Constitution Revision Commission, which was mostly appointed by Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders, meets every 20 years and has the power to place proposed amendments before voters.
Commission members, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, pushed for the proposed racing ban even though dog racing could be addressed by legislators.
For several years, lawmakers have considered proposals that would allow dog tracks to drop greyhound racing but continue offering other types gambling such as poker. But the proposals have been blocked amid a larger debate on whether gambling should be expanded.
Greyhound tracks that run a full schedule of live racing are authorized to operate cardrooms, as well as take bets on races going on elsewhere. Facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that run full schedules of live racing can also offer access to slot machines.
There’s no guarantee, however, that voters will resolve the dog-racing issue with the ballot proposal. Amendment 13 will be at the end of a lengthy ballot. Susan MacManus, a retired political science professor at the University of South Florida, said that could result in many voters skipping the amendment altogether.
“The longer-than-usual ballot plus the large number of amendments is likely to result in a higher rolloff (drop off) rate than normal,” she said in an email to The News Service of Florida. “That said, the amendment would pass if 60 percent of those who chose to vote on it voted yes."
MacFall worries that voter fatigue could adversely impact Amendment 13 but remains optimistic that the measure will pass.
“We’re hoping it’s lucky 13 this November,” she said.