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Thursday, May 06, 2021
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Just nine days after Progressive Party registered to run in a UF Student Government executive and Senate race, the party formed on progressive political values in SG crumbled. 

On Jan. 21, Progressive officially registered with Student Government as the first official political third party on campus since Spring 2018. But by Thursday night, two of their executive ticket candidates and many party members hoping to run for Senate resigned.

And the party’s founder Alfredo Ortiz — who introduced himself on Facebook as a candidate for Student Body president with Progressive —  might not even be eligible to run under his own party now, according to UF Student Government election codes. There are no candidates running for Senate with Progressive, said Branden Reis, a former Progressive candidate and the de facto president of the party’s dissolution board.

In order for a political party to stay in the running, the party must have at least six people running for Senate or candidates on a ticket together vying for Student Body president, vice-president and treasurer. SG election codes state that any party that doesn’t meet these qualifications will be disqualified from the election. 

But how did Progressive Party  — the first legitimate third party since Challenge Party in Spring 2018 — get to this point?   

The Alligator has compiled a timeline of key events over the last two weeks that led to these resignations. Here’s how the newly formed party dismantled.

Friday, Jan. 24

The party’s platform, a set of goals if its candidates win office, was posted on its Facebook page. Some of the 10 campaign points included establishing training  for university health care professionals on LGBTQ+ issues and adding more unisex bathrooms on campus. 

Tuesday, Jan. 28 

An anonymous email attached a 38-minute audio recording of a conversation between Ortiz and Nikolas Bindi, Progressive’s vice presidential candidate at that time. 

Near the end of the recording, Ortiz and Bindi discussed the idea of transgender identity. 

“Transgender is the white way of saying gender dysphoria,” Ortiz said. “And you can argue gender dysphoria is a psychological illness, and therefore it is bad.” Bindi questioned Ortiz’s statements. 

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The recording was leaked to The Alligator, nine of UF’s largest student organizations including the Pride Student Union, the Women’s Student Association and other multicultural organizations such as the Asian American Student Union. Political organizations such as Gators for Bernie were also copied in the email. 

Two Facebook posts from then-Progressive Party treasurer Mark Merwitzer about President Donald Trump’s border wall and Mexico were also attached in the email.

In an hour-long phone interview with The Alligator that afternoon, Ortiz said the recording was taken out of context and part of a game of “devil’s advocate,” and the comments in the audio did not represent his beliefs. He said the comments in the audio were part of a hypothetical conversation. 

Ortiz told The Alligator gender dysphoria carries a negative connotation and societal implication, so he uses the term transgender in his day-to-day life. But he said the terms are synonyms by definition, citing comparisons between being black and Puerto Rican with racial slurs to imply they had “a very, very negative connotation, and therefore should not be used.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, being a transgender person and having gender dysphoria are not the same thing. Transgender individuals may experience gender dysphoria, but the terms are distinct.

Ortiz stopped the phone interview to finish his lunch and requested the interview be continued in person. When the reporter met him, Ortiz aggressively stopped interviews for Senate candidates and led the reporter into a private room in the Reitz Union with Bindi, Merwitzer and then-Progressive member William Zelin.

In this interview, Bindi and Ortiz said they did not remember the details of the conversation in the recording, but did say it was a philosophical conversation, and that it was recorded illegally. 

Merwitzer left to seek legal counsel from UF Student Legal Services and said writing about the audio recording was illegal. He said the group was planning to go to the police after the interview.

While Bindi, Ortiz and Zelin met with the reporter, other members of Progressive met in the Reitz Union food court and decided to unionize, Reis said. 

Wednesday, Jan. 29

Progressive announced their executive ticket at 5:56 p.m. on Facebook with Ortiz as candidate for Student Body president, Bindi as candidate for Student Body vice president and UF Brazillian Student Association treasurer Chiara Spina as candidate for Student Body treasurer.

Thursday, Jan. 30

Young Democratic Socialists of America at UF posted the leaked audio at 11:55 a.m. on its Facebook page. They started the post with, “Trigger Warning: Transphobic remarks made beginning at time stamp 35:46.”

About two hours after the post, Zelin, Bindi, Spina, Merwitzer and other candidates announced via Facebook posts and text messages to an Alligator reporter that they would no longer be affiliated with Progressive or running with the party. By 8 p.m., most of the Senate candidates for  the party dropped out of the race, Reis said.

Spina said she didn’t know about the recordings and barely knew Ortiz before Jan. 22, when she said he asked her to run on Progressive’s executive ticket.

“The fact that this conversation exists made me feel like I was mislead, made me feel like I wasn’t told the whole truth,” Spina said

Merwitzer said his posts did not factor into his decision to withdraw.”If you want a comment on my Facebook posts, it was a joke I made three years ago. I have always supported immigration rights regardless of my brash humor,” he wrote in a text to The Alligator Thursday night.

In an interview with The Alligator that evening, Bindi’s account of the audio and his relationship with Ortiz wavered from barely knowing Ortiz before December to having had multiple long, philosophical conversations with him. 

“I made a mistake. I should have remembered it,” Bindi said. “I was glamoured by the allure of running with a new political party in which we could try and change the conversation and do some good things. And I made a mistake. And when I realized that mistake earlier today, I dropped out of the race. And that’s the truth. That is the most truthful statement that I’ve said on this call.”

Bindi also apologized for “being a little too aggressive” in the interview with an Alligator reporter Tuesday.

Thursday evening, an Alligator reporter spoke with Reis. He said members asked Ortiz to step down earlier that day. Sixteen members attended an election at about 6:30 p.m. and formed a new board to dissolve the party with Reis as the de facto president of the party’s dissolution board. 

Later that night, Ortiz said to The Alligator that he had agreed to a “peaceful transition of power” after an election, but he had not known about or attended the election earlier that evening. In an email sent to The Alligator’s editor Friday evening, Ortiz said he is still the party’s president.  

“I recognize that even though I was only assuming the role of devil’s advocate, I could have been a lot more sensitive with the way that I approached the situation,” Ortiz said.

Saturday, Feb. 1

In a post on the Progressive Facebook page, Ortiz apologized.

“Even then, I apologize to every person that could have felt offended upon hearing the result of the manipulation of the audio,” Ortiz wrote.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Branden Reis. The Alligator originally reported differently. 

Contact Chasity Maynard at cmaynard@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter chasitymaynard0. 

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