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Leon County's new Democratic chair takes on a seasoned, successful Republican leader

Stick man figures holding red and blue paper ballots on opposite sides of a ballot box
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Red and blue figures are holding ballots on opposite sides of a ballot box -- literally and figuratively

In the state capital, Democrats have long dominated the political scene, but Republicans have begun surging there, under a seasoned leader. Meanwhile, the struggling Democrats are pinning their hopes on a new party chairman.

The Republican Party now owns all the state Cabinet positions, super-majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, both U.S. senators and a governor who was re-elected by 19 points. They’ve also made big gains in traditionally blue Leon County. That means the newly elected chair of the county’s Democratic Executive Committee has an extremely uphill climb. It’s Ryan Ray, the aide to Tallahassee City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow.

“You know, this community, two out of three voters are Democrats,” said Ray. “We’ve got a really great, civic-minded, well-educated community that’s animated by a neighborly spirit -- and I think we see that in spades with the membership of the DEC. I think that’s a recipe for success at the ballot box, and I intend to make sure of that.”

Evan Power has been in leadership roles in the Leon County Republican Party for 12 years, the last eight chairing its executive committee. He’s also been the state party’s Chairman of Chairs for the past four years, working with other county parties. He questions whether Ray, known as a progressive, can make a much of a difference with Leon County voters.

“I think that remains to be seen. I think they’ve chosen a chair that is in line with the progressive policies that they pushed out last cycle, where we were very successful, and we out-raised them two-to-one,” Power said. “So we’ll see how Ryan does, and whether he is able to fund-raise and whether he’s able to have a more broad view of the party. Because I don’t think the progressive wing of that party is going to be successful here in Leon County.”

Power is now running to lead the Florida Republican Party, hoping to succeed state Senator Joe Gruters of Sarasota. He acknowledges that the party is in a very strong position, but says, “You always have to play defense.”

“I want to implement some of the things we’ve done here in Leon County: work on turnout, work on voter registration, and try to continue to build on the successes that we’ve had as a Republican Party in general, and I think build on the successes that Governor DeSantis has had, to continue to build county parties up and to continue to find victories up and down the ballot,” said Power.

Ray cut his teeth as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 and as a regional field director for Gwen Graham’s 2014 campaign for Congress. He disputes that his party is the extreme one…

“...In the face of the assault on public sector, state workers, teachers unions and the environment that we’ve seen under 20-plus years of Republican rule at the state capital…” he said.    

Ray says he’s confident his plans will have a unifying effect on Democrats. Those include building out the Leon DEC’s training capacity and restoring the LeRoy Collins-C.K. Steele fund-raising dinner. Power, if elected statewide GOP leader, would push to help more conservatives win city and county commission races.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.