Congressional District 13: Disastrous debacle sets Pinellas Democrats back

[FL-13 is] the most botched House race of 2014.

National Journal

Pinellas County is unlike any other metropolitan county in Florida. In stark contrast to neighboring Hillsborough, the three Central Florida urban counties and southeast Florida, Pinellas tends to be less transient and more insular in many ways.  Yet the local Democratic Party seems to have not learned this lesson, nor the lessons of recent elections. The mistakes Democrats made in 2002, 2004 and 2010 were repeated in both the March special election defeat of Alex Sink as well as in the absolute meltdown of the past few weeks.

Going back to my time in the Young Democrats during the mid 1990s, the Bill Young Congressional seat (then CD-10, now CD-13) was talked about as one that would flip for certain when he retired or passed away. Southern Pinellas has now been trending Democratic for 20 years. But the Republicans remain a formidable force locally, something reinforced in legislative elections where Democrats have consistently under-performed. Given the opportunity afforded by the October 2013 passing of Young — who had served with distinction for over 42 years in Congress — the Dems blew it not only in a big way but in a fashion the best novelists and political satirists could never have imagined. 

From the get-go Democrats decided the CD-13 special election represented a line in the sand. But since Democrats in Florida have for years not based the success and failures of party leaders, consultants and vendors on wins and losses, a free-for-all ensued with moving goalposts and fluid expectations. Still, throughout this period the state and national political press continued to view CD-13 as a national bellwether and Charlie Cook, who is an expert on Congressional districts, even rated CD-13 after the Sink defeat as one of the top ten targets for Democrats in November 2014.

The Democrats locally, under pressure from the state and national parties, had accepted Alex Sink from across the bay as our candidate. In this process they threw Jessica Ehrlich aside, a decision which many agreed with at the time but now looks in hindsight to have been a serious error. We have discussed at length the failings of the DCCC and FDP in the March special election in which Sink threw away a double-digit lead in a district won twice by President Obama and was defeated by David Jolly, an undistinguished Republican.

The strategy of the Democrats in that race was based on decades-old assumptions that we have dissected time and again on this website. No need exists to rehash all of the mistakes made in the Special as it is simple enough for readers to do a search on Alex Sink on TFS and find all the articles from February, March and April about that campaign.

But what happened following the Sink defeat takes us from the farcical to the sublime. Having just blown an eminently winnable nationally high-profile race, the local DEC, the DCCC and their enablers around the state and nation proceeded to make an even bigger mess. I have spoken to multiple leaders on the ground in Pinellas over the course of the last ten days since the close of candidate qualifying for Congress and have a clear picture of how things have played out. The below narrative will hopefully clear up some of the misconceptions of what has happened in the past twelve days.

Following Sink’s loss, the Democrats failed to recruit a big-name candidate to challenge Congressman Jolly despite a relatively deep local bench. Rev. Manuel Sykes, a local African-American pastor, stepped forward to run. Rev. Sykes is not only well-connected locally but knows virtually every NAACP and Civil Rights community leader in the state. It can be argued he would have been a candidate who could not defeat Jolly, but he was willing to run and was importantly, according to my sources, willing to stand down voluntarily if the party found a stronger candidate running on the Democratic line.

But the party could not find a stronger Democrat. Instead they turned to Republican-turned-Democrat Ed Jany who had a good paper profile. However, due to state law, Jany could not run as a Democrat because he had just recently changed his party registration. Instead, he would be forced to run as an NPA. Like Alex Sink, Jany is not from Pinellas County but instead from across the bay in Hillsborough. In the process of recruiting Jany, Rev. Sykes was asked to leave the race. Party leaders, I am told, were worried about Sykes playing a “Kendrick Meek-like spoiler role.” This theory works if a) you believe Meek’s candidacy cost Charlie Crist the 2010 Senate race (though I firmly believe Marco Rubio would have won regardless) and b) if you believe Democrats should not field candidates who reflect their values in order to back party-switchers running as NPAs.

The Tampa Bay Times has done extensive reporting on the call made to Sykes by local DEC Chairman Mark Hanisee which forced the Sykes from the race. Following the close of qualifying, divisions were apparent locally and the party was badly divided not only along racial lines but also with many white progressive leaders opposing the establishment wing of the local party, which they see as unprincipled and lacking any cogent ideology. Statewide African-American leaders were incensed about what transpired with regards to Skyes. The obvious takeaway was that turnout could be badly impacted in one of the most critical counties in the state come November.

Last week it became obvious Jany was never properly vetted by the party locally or nationally — reminiscent of the fiasco over CFO candidate Allie Braswell last year. In the Braswell situation, it was the Florida Democratic Party that dropped the ball, though a highly-placed source has informed me that some in the FDP were, in fact, not only aware of Braswell’s liabilities but also against his candidacy, and were overruled internally. In the case of Jany, it appears this debate didn’t even occur internally, as no vetting had taken place until after qualifying closed. Today Jany, citing professional responsibilities at this summer’s World Cup, dropped out of the race leaving Jolly with no opposition from a major party.

This sets the party back  in an emergent, large, Democratic-leaning county. The Pinellas DEC had previously made progress when Toni Molanari was the chairwoman not that long ago, but since has begun to backslide since her defeat in her own precinct in 2008. Since then fiefdoms have popped up throughout the county with elected officials wielding power, oftentimes thankfully in a positive fashion.

Once such occasion occurred yesterday with State Rep. Dwight Dudley, among others, leading an effort of multiple elected officials locally to Democrats in the county stating that Chairman Hanisee’s views regarding Reverend Sykes were not reflective of the spirit of the party. For that he is to be commended. Hopefully this signals a useful way forward.

Tomorrow we will discuss where the party goes from here to heal these divisions and the potentially positive role the state party can play in this matter.

33 comments

  1. Can the FDP really play a positive role here? Naah! Not while the blue dogs are still in control. They often relate more to and give greater support to the Republicans than to the progressive in the Democratic Party.

    Actually, since the blue dogs relate more to the Republicans than to the progressives, the left wing is a bigger threat to them. That’s why converting Republicans like Charlie to the Democratic Party is their winning strategy. Listen to these people. They still blame Kendrick Meek. It’s not like Rubio beat the crap out of Crist and chased him away from the Republican Party, right? A recycled Charlie will help us re-elect Rick Scott, the worst Governor in Florida’s history. And we will still be blaming Kendrick and pushing for Alex Sink again.

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    1. Good points! Dog hit it spot on!

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    2. Dog, you nailed it. Charlie should run for the House seat. Crist vs. Jolly……..that’s the ticket.

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  2. Susan Smith · · Reply

    Has qualifying ended? I thought qualifying was June 16-20.

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    1. That is qualifying for state elections. Congressional qualifying has ended. It ended May 2nd.

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      1. A Democrat in the Wilderness · ·

        The Hillsborough SOE site is wrong then. As Kartik Krishnaiyer says it ended May 2nd, hence the pressure on Sykes to get out that week.

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      2. Susan Smith · ·

        I contacted someone at the SOE’s office to let them know. Thanks

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  3. What is the #1 reason Democrats lose elections in Florida? Simply put, they’d rather spend their time and energy fighting within the party for local power and getting even for perceived slights/grudges of days gone bye. When the general election campaign begins the enthusiasm is gone and so is the energy. The result? Another defeat snatched out of the jaws of victory and this blog can start pointing fingers at those they hold responsible.

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  4. Terri · · Reply

    I note the blame in this article is being placed on the local party but it is important to note Rick Boylan of the Pinellas party is as close to FDP leadership as anyone in the state.

    Do not let the FDP off the hook!

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    1. Larry · · Reply

      Yeah! Boylan is a Tant lakhi!!!

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    2. A Democrat in the Wilderness · · Reply

      It is also really important to recall that the Tant team was all over the Sink debacle. Boylan is a party loyalist who while not speaking the words to Rev. Sykes was almost certainly in agreement with a strategy to push him from the race whatever it took.

      Kartik Krishnaiyer has absolutely nailed this piece better than Smith or any of the other bloggers taking a shot at this have. This is a masterpiece with the exception of the worrying conclusion which read “Tomorrow we will discuss where the party goes from here to heal these divisions and the potentially positive role the state party can play in this matter.”

      KK nothing the state party does ever helps and they are all over this debacle. I do not think they will ever be trusted to bring about some sort of compromise. Leave that to the elected officials like Dudley and Rouson who you named. Keep Tant and her minions away!

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  5. Go Charlie Go! · · Reply

    I wish it were different but this narrative is very accurate from where I sit here in downtown St Pete.

    I guess that despite the clear anti party slant this site has, good reporting still can come whenever you try.

    Good piece of journalism here. Now keep it up please!

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    1. The Charlie Fade is back.

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  6. Rebecca · · Reply

    I agree that it would be difficult to concoct a script as seemingly unrealistic as this one.

    Only democrats in Florida can turn delirious fantasy into reality!

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  7. Jessica · · Reply

    This is what happens when he political party so hungry and desperate for success any sort of success that they forsake their principles and common sense on two occasions in recent months just because they are so desperate.

    What happened in St. Petersburg over the course of the last few months is one of the most sordid and embarrassing tales of political ineptitude you will ever see in this state or anywhere else.

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  8. What a disaster

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  9. Cheryl · · Reply

    Spot on narrative!

    You did really well with this one!

    Best job of rung events together on any blog, newspaper or otherwise out there.

    Thanks for the effort and I look forward to your proposed solutions.

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  10. the old guy sitting on the green bench · · Reply

    I suppose by now most everyone has seen the piece in today’s Tampa Bay Times titled “Pinellas Democrats try to smooth over bitterness from congressional race debacle. “ If you haven’t I think you should take a moment and read the article. This unfortunate situation revolves around the actions of one man – Mark Hanisee, who is the chair of the Pinellas County Democratic Party. Mr Hanisee for whatever reasons took it on himself to contact a announced Democratic candidate for office. The individual, Dr Manual Sykes, had publicly expressed a desire to run for Congress. When Dr Sykes announced his candidacy there where no other announced candidates. There where numerous rumors that one or another person might run. However no one had publicly stated their intention to run. This inaction left the field solely to Dr. Sykes. I suggest that Mr Hanisee was aware of Dr Sykes’ intentions and proposed actions ahead of time. There existed an indirect line of communication between the two gentlemen. Further I do not believe that Mr Hanisee took Dr Sykes into his confidence regarding potential other candidates that Mr Hanisee had been made aware of.

    It is against this background the now infamous voice mail comes. Say whatever you will about the voice mail. One salient fact remains, the message left was highly insulting. In point of fact many individuals have taken the message to be racially tinged. One of the key players in the black community in south St. Pete, Dr Goliath Davis, wrote an article in the community’s newspaper, The Weekly Challenger, titled “The Shrinking Tent.” During the course of this article Dr Davis says, “who is Mark Hanisee to threaten and direct him (Dr Sykes) in a manner analogous to “Massa” speaking with one of his slaves.” I am sure Mr Hanisee did not intentionally seek to impugn Dr Sykes, these two gentlemen have known and worked with each other for many years. Accidental or deliberate the fact remains that the remarks where seen to be insulting. As Democratic Party chair perhaps Mr Hanisee has developed a dismissive manner of speaking to others. In re-listening to the voice mail, that certainly could be the case there.

    The realistic question that must answered is, “What’s next?” In the aftermath of a traffic accident the cop on the beat will tell you, “Move on, their ain’t nuthing to be seen here.” We have all heard the old saying about the making of sausage and laws. Neither one is a sweet picture. Perhaps we should accept the status quo and move on. And certainly that is the easy way out. However doing so we implicitly accept racial biases of our society. Are we willing to do so knowingly and freely?

    From what I have seen of the two publicly published written pieces from either Mr Hanisee and/or the PCDEC, and I am making a huge guess here – but they look like the handiwork of an attorney. I am certainly not making a derogatory comparison here, but if your child gets caught with their hand in cookie jar. You would reasonably expect the child to first acknowledge that they had their hand in the cookie jar. Second the child would reasonably be expected to apologize for their action. And yes there would a price to be paid, a swat on the rump, a time out or whatever. I am of the opinion that Mr Hanisee personally and publicly must apologize to Dr Sykes, the Democratic activist community as well as the black community locally and statewide. I would go so far as to suggest that Mr Hanisee’s actions have echoed and re-echoed through out the black community locally and statewide. In the coming election we must have each and every qualified voter actively involved. Should the black community stay home in November, do you care to speculate what the results will be?

    Well … let me go back to watching the passing parade of pink pachyderms. Y’all have you a nice day … ya hear?

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  11. Spot on! But you must go further back, to get to the root of the problem. It is the party leadership. They weigh in on everything, making sure we are always short on candidates, or lose when someone runs.

    We put people in the FDP like Tant, who just took 20K from the Tom Feeney PAC. Look closely, and you’ll see democrats elect more republicans than dems! All the party switchers.
    I remember in 2006 in district 5 john Russell (love him or hate him) won the democratic primary, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz endorsed Brown Waite, a republican, by continuing to parrot Brown Waite. She is a traitor. This is the problem. What happened in 13 has been going on for a long time. Just not in 13 with Bill Young still ticking.

    When we get an FDP leader we like, Bill Nelson comes down and twists a few old arms. When we want one removed, such as the case of Thurman taking 100K and caught lobbying for Jeb Bush’s friends for more money, we had the votes to remove her. But Bill Nelson came back again and twisted a few of the same old arms. When we have candidates we like such as Jessica, or Jan Schneider, or John Russell, it doesn’t matter. The leaders of the FDP and the DCCC, will make sure it’s the status quo, for their corporate masters.
    Jan Schneider came in 5th in 2004 out of all the US house races! For that, they snubbed her the next time around, and we not have the most corrupt congressional official in Vern Buchanan. It goes on and on.

    Thurman’s communication director in the FDP, Mark Bubrisky took a job with Florida Power and Light, as their new spokesperson. Did you see the new sweetheart deal they just got with Rick Scott?

    It’s not about electing dems. Our work has changed. The truth hurts. This is why I don’t like senator bill nelson or debby wasserman Schultz. Or Thurman. Or Tant. Or Rouson. Or Janet Long in Pinellas County. She was a republican before she ran for a house seat as a dem. She monkey’s around in candidate placement in the county too! I could go on and on.
    There are other problems in the Pinellas County leadership that have been addressed, but nothing changed. When dems do stand up, the party trashes them ala Jessica or Kathleen Ford.
    It’s two parties, and one money bucket folks!

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    1. Lauren, is so right! this happens all over the state. At this time it’s not just about electing Dems for state and local office, it’s about taking the party back from power hungry, soul less “leaders” who only think about their own power and allegiance to corporate money.

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  12. Dems in 14 · · Reply

    The FDP staff went to help Sink, many leaving Tallahassee for months leading into the special election. This is true.

    But ultimately those FDP people worked under DCCC selected people including Ashley Walker who it has been noted time and again that Kartik refuses to criticize ever.

    Those of you in Broward might know why he never criticizes her.

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  13. Florida Voter · · Reply

    Even by the inept standards of the Florida Democratic Party this debacle as you call it, or fiasco as I call it is historic. Never has a political party pushed out of the way one of their own in a top 10 targeted seat to back an Independent and never before has that Independent never passed muster and then dropped out within 10 days. This is historic stuff and I applaud the squeeze for continuing to tell the truth about the Democratic hacks that have made such a mess of this state.

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  14. Price Nelson · · Reply

    Three things: 1. This is a well-written article. 2. What’s the chance Jany is still a Republican at heart, who just cleared the field for fellow Republican Jolly? 3. The FDP doesn’t get involved in Congressional elections, for the most part. DNC does presidential; DSCC does the U.S. Senate; DCCC does U.S. House; and FDP does Florida offices. (Again, for the most part.)

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  15. Susan Smith · · Reply

    Party-switchers should have to pay their dues before they are allowed to represent the party.

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    1. I agree with that Susan. Curious as to your input how said dues could be paid?

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      1. Susan and Justin,
        Don’t you believe that the party switchers already paid a steep price for having switched? How much more blood do we need them to bleed before we accept them? And I am still not voting for Crist even while I appear to be supporting him.

        By when the decision time comes, Nan will be out of the race, most Dems will be slapping themselves on their backs in support of Charlie and Rick Scott will get re-elected even as he is recognized as the worst Governor in Florida history. But then again, we are the very same people who dance for joy when we re-elect Bill Nelson.

        Hell! I am a gay, black, Jew member of the John Birch Society’s Fidel Castro wing and an environmentalist for more oil! Wasn’t fracking the term used to describe our shooting of young Lieutenants in Vietnam when they ordered us into combat?

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      2. Susan Smith · ·

        Steep price? Bleeding for switching parties? Give me a break. Crist left the Republican Party because he couldn’t win the primary against Marco Rubio. Hardly a profile in courage. As for the others, please tell me how they have bled for switching.

        Justin, they could pay dues by knocking on doors, phone-banking, working for Democratic candidates, and raising money for the party for at least a few days before they become standard bearers and spokespeople on national television.

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  16. Concerned Democrat · · Reply

    This article tells the story and yes props for it.

    But the fact it has to be written says all that needs to be said about our party.

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  17. Campaign Consulting 101 · · Reply

    This article is spot on.

    It is a perfect reflection of the desperation of the Democrats, forcing local candidates out of races in the hope of some false appeal to moderates and dated theories as to what motivates voters.

    While the FDP itself may not be responsible for this fiasco, the culture of the FDP which lacks accountability and is based on what consultant can make the most money and chasing phony moderates ruled the roost again in this seat. Both in the special and in this latest fiasco.

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  18. Becky · · Reply

    This is such an important read.

    Hope everyone sees it!

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  19. The system has become a one party with two names…..as the money and influence rules…..it’s bad enough that Washington is so corrupt…some of us believe the only way to change anything now is at the local and state level….however, .Lauren’s comments were troubling, since they represent actions of unethical leadership….. Yes, the game is rigged,
    unfortunately, how many are willing to stand up and change the rules?

    Why would voters subscribe to the Buchanan and Thurman play book, unless they aren’t
    paying attention or they represent their views on the issues……in either case, they wouldn’t have voted for their best interest.

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  20. Patti Lynn · · Reply

    Kartik, An excellent, excellent article!!! Unfortunately, it appears that neither REALITY or HISTORY are considered when the party is strategizing. The covert racism is still another factor. Great food for thought article. Thank you.

    Like

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