On Monday, to great celebration and a shiny fancy press conference, the Miami-Dade DEC announced they had candidates to run against all of seven Miami-Dade Republican state legislators. There was even an adorable little catchphrase to chant: “No More Free Rides!” pointing out that this was the first time in history that Democrats have ever had candidates in every single seat. Everybody cheered.
And this should be celebrated. This is a step in the right direction. Finding people to run is an important part of the battle and this is a valiant effort. This is exactly what the party needs to be doing – getting on the ballot was the first step into winning an election. A shimmering glimmer of hope has sprung forth.
We should all applaud the efforts.
*insert round of applause here*
However, there are a few things that we need to talk about. I do not wish to bash this individual effort because it is very true that Democrats are never going to win if they don’t run. I stand by my statement that this should be cheered. Please understand I wish these fellows all the best, as running for office is a hard job and they have stepped up, which is something that many in their community (and around the state!) are unwilling to do. They are not to blame for the problems that I am going to talk about because I am going to discuss long-standing issues in Florida Democratic politics.
Let’s talk about what this really shows. For starters, none of these candidates – absolutely none of them – have ever held public office. Moreover, none of these have ever been in an election before or been a candidate. What this really tells the world is that in all of Miami, the Democratic Party couldn’t find anyone with any political experience to run.
Folks, this is a problem. A big one.
Political power depends on a leadership pipeline. What does an effective pipeline do? It means that you have a small army of people running for the lowest offices in order to gain experience in order to move up later. School boards, city commissions, and water boards are excellent starting points. Experience is gained, relationships are developed, and fundraising networks are established. You create skilled candidates for your next level of government. This is ideally where the FDP should be looking to fill these seats – among qualified elected officials who already have a good set of assets to bring to the table.
Unfortunately, there are mostly empty seats on the Democratic bench. As elected officials move through the pipeline, others must be groomed to take their place and this just has not been happening. For Florida Democrats, this hasn’t been happening on any level and there is a lack of people to run that have experience.
Rod Smith had a good vision when he had the goal of setting up a DEC in every county to support these smaller races. But he failed to change this decades-old tradition of the local parties supporting local candidates and the state party concentrating on state races and while this seems completely logical, it has failed miserably because it does not pay attention to leadership development. The state party has to start throwing money into local races in order to build up a bench. There simply isn’t enough power in the local DECs to develop the pipeline and many of the winnable districts do not even have functional DECs to work with. The whole system breaks down when you do not have enough people entering the pipeline. And that is exactly what has happened to Florida Democrats. Not having this leadership system also helps explain why fundraising has been difficult.
Yesterday Kartik put up a great chart of district-by-district D vs. R numbers here . What needs to happen is that the FDP need to look at the districts with healthy Democratic growth and start investing in the school board and city commission races as well as any other elected office so that Democrats can start building a bench with people who have experience. The FDP has to look at the whole system and put money into local races so that in two, four, six, eight years down the line there is a healthy group of qualified candidates.
These are not my ideas, so please give me no credit. This is what the Republican party started doing on the state level in the early 1990s after years of Democratic leadership in the state of Florida. Needless to say, it has worked out remarkably well for them, especially considering figures like Senator Marco Rubio who came out of this system of leadership. When you have an effective pipeline, you not only have plenty of people to qualified to take office, they also need less help because they have well established fund-raising networks and campaign skills. For Republican officials moving through this pipeline, it also means that they are finding those magical cushy jobs that appear whenever someone leaves government jobs in Tallahassee when they exit. These have served as a financial backbone of the people coming up. It is a perfect circle of dominance.
Not having this leadership pipeline has had devastating effects – not only for the low numbers in Tallahassee, but also in the race for governor. The current Florida Democratic Party is not to blame for Charlie Crist. It is true that Democrats merely had no pipeline leading up to the governor’s seat and simply did not have enough candidates to choose from with statewide qualifications. This is a direct result of an inability to get people elected to state constitutional offices in the last decade. This is a real problem. By not attacking constitutional seats, the FDP handed the governor’s mansion over to the Republicans in 2014 and quite possibly in 2018 because there will be no one available who has had statewide exposure and experience. That is exactly why the FDP got stuck with Crist as the only viable candidate.
And it does not look to get any better in the future. To date, there is no Democrat running for State Attorney or Public Defender; even though these are low profile seats, they are still state-wide offices. Adam Putnam is the grand anointed one in Republican politics, so there is little chance that Thad Hamilton is going to knock him off. Nobody has heard anything from William Rankin, who is supposedly the Democrat running for CFO. As much as a hit as Pam Bondi has taken in the last week over her attack on gay marriage, she is still a major powerhouse with National Republican support and funds, yet that is the only seat where we have some real Democratic candidates with a prayer of taking a constitutional office. What is needed is for Democrats to at least take one or two constitutional offices so that there is someone with statewide experience in order to run against Adam Putnam in 2018.
Progressive rhetoric is not the key to winning. So many inexperienced candidates come out with fantastic progressive talking points cribbed from Elizabeth Warren and run for state house or Congress without any experience in politics or policy. They believe that if they say the right things people will support them, but rhetoric does not bring capital or support. These candidates file, run, and then are inevitably surprised when they lose when they are out-funded and out-resourced. Finding warm bodies to get on the ballot is not the key to winning. Building a system of leadership that is sustainable is the only way to change the game.
So applaud these seven who stand up in Miami. And then go find a progressive school board candidate and write them a check for a hundred dollars if you want to really change the game.