The Florida Democratic Party is scrambling to find a new leader in the wake of the 2016 elections. After some last-minute maneuvering, a group of contenders is emerging.
The fate of the Florida Democratic Party took a turn towards the mainstream this week in a crowded hall in Miami-Dade County, as local democrats voted in the next county committeeman. The otherwise obscure position took on national significance because it’s a launchpad for the next chair of the Florida Democratic Party. That launchpad now belongs to billionaire real estate developer and major party donor Stephen Bittel. The contest between Bittel and former State Senator Dwight Bullard evolved into a bitter proxy battle between the mainstream and progressive arms of the party, with accusations of backroom dealing and backstabbing. The Miami-Dade County meeting broke into chants of "Shame!" as Bittel took the stage.
“Please be respectful!” shouted the meeting chairman, as the crowd chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Despite his real estate mogul status, Bittel calls himself a bleeding heart liberal and longtime progressive activist. He did win the high profile endorsement of Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, who was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter and is a frontrunner to lead the Democratic National Committee. Now Bittel says the party needs unity and change.
“We need to stop doing what Democrats do after every losing cycle. We form a circular firing squad and kill each other. That has to end. This is not the Clintons’ party, and it’s not the Sanders’ party. It’s the Democratic Party,” Bittel said.
Party Vice Chair Alan Clendenin will compete against Bittel for state leadership, a contest he lost in 2013. Back then he advocated for a sixty-seven county strategy.
“We’ve got to focus on our ground game, and we’ve got to become a bottom-up organization to win elections. We must rebuild and work to revitalize and empower you, our activists. You’re the heart and the soul of this party. But now you have a decision to make. Whose party is this?” Clendenin asked.
And the Tampa Democrat’s pitch hasn’t changed much since then. One thing that has changed? He’s reportedly running his campaign from a rented trailer in rural Bradford County. He lost his re-election bid for the Hillsborough County party, making him ineligible to run for state chair. But with the help of some friends in North Central Florida, he is a new resident of Hampton, population four hundred and eighty-four, and Bradford County’s newest committeeman.
Meanwhile Duval County Committeewoman Lisa King has also thrown her hat in the ring. She’s a former Jacksonville City Commissioner, and helped run Hillary Clinton’s campaign in North Florida.
But regardless of who wins, the stakes of this race are clear: the political fates of outgoing Representative Gwen Graham and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson.
“I think that there is going to be a very exciting time in the future for Democrats,” said Graham.
She hasn’t officially announced yet, but Graham says it’s only a matter of time before she launches her campaign for governor. She thinks the state is ready for new leadership.
“The reality is for twenty years there has been a Republican dominance in state government. And I think that dominance has actually hurt the state of Florida,” Graham said.
In fact, Senator Bill Nelson is the only Democrat in the state who’s been able to hang on to a top elected office.
“It has been such a wipe-out in the past few years, to the point that I’m the only statewide elected official who happens to be democrat!" Nelson said.
Nelson says he doesn’t want to interfere with the election for state chair, though he has said Stephen Bittel would bring a lot to the party. Term-limited Governor Rick Scott is widely expected to challenge Nelson in 2018. And Nelson knows nothing is guaranteed.
“Well I only know one way to run. And that is, I run, I take nothing for granted. I run scared as a jackrabbit,” Nelson said.
For now that’s the best the Florida Democratic Party can do for its top elected official. Party members will vote in the next statewide leader in January.