Guest Column by Mario Piscatella
Before we look at the state of the Florida Democratic Party, we should start with an understanding of the Democratic Party as it stands at the close of 2016.
While much of the country, right and left, pundits, campaigners, donors, activists, and candidates point fingers in every direction and dissect every individual event of the 2016 cycle, a few of us are looking much deeper.
The errors of 2016 weren’t new mistakes. They weren’t unforeseeable failings. Rather than waste our time and devolve into a never-ending nightmare of emotionally fraught disagreements, we must all recognize what we saw were symptoms of a system more than four decades old. That system was built at a time when Democrats were riding high with immense majorities; majorities they thought they could never possibly lose. The system was designed to shed a seat here or a seat there, while avoiding any risks that might put their majority power in jeopardy.
The powerful players behind this system were not surprisingly, old wealthy white men. Their philosophies, and the systems they built, in conjunction with existing systems outside of the party, helped keep the power of the growing segment of the party comprised of women and people of color from growing proportionally.
Those systems, and the underlying philosophies, have dominated Democratic politics with only minor blips over the decades. The Presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama overcame many of the expected failings of these systems with enormous talent/charisma of the candidates, key talented staffers on their campaigns that defied the standard practice just enough, and circumstances of the day that put a strong wind at their backs throughout the campaign. But at their core, both President Clinton and President Obama are consistent with the standard Democratic nominee of the past several decades. Like the others, they were more likely to be tough on allies and pre-compromise with Republicans, slow to act (or on the wrong side of) the issues most pressing to the party’s core activists, and more focused on their own re-election than growing the party down ticket and long term.
Newt Gingrich’s ‘Contract on America’ gutted the Democratic majorities at all levels. This should have triggered radical change to the philosophies and systems dominating Democratic politics. Instead, the worst components were emphasized more aggressively, power was consolidated instead of distributed. We began competing for even fewer seats, being more aggressive at discouraging challengers, and values/messaging and recruitment were dragged further to the right at the behest of pleasing corporate donors.
Parallel to all of this happening, Republicans aggressively increased their investment in political infrastructure and simultaneously reduced staffing budgets for governing and legislative offices. Think tanks, industry groups, issue organizations, and conservative focused businesses of all sorts covered the work once done inside legislative offices, and took on the responsibility of providing steady paychecks to conservative professionals. Today this is reflected in much higher average levels of experience in comparable positions from Republican campaigns, organizations, and government offices to their Democratic counterparts. At the same time, this is also a major impediment to increasing diversity in campaign and government offices. The lack of living wage paychecks and stability makes it very hard for anyone but those that come from affluent families to take on these careers.
The philosophies and systems mentioned above include:
- Incumbent-protection focused targeting/recruiting models.
- Closed-access to training, information, materials, and wisdom.
- Minimal mentoring or long term guidance – primarily as a means of ensuring only those likely to perpetuate the system have access.
- Internship barrier – Many doors are closed except to those that can afford to work unpaid as an intern, often in areas with a high cost of living.
- Concentration of power in a few at the very top – incumbents, big donors, long-time staff/advisors of the same ‘blood line,’ these few hold disproportional sway in leadership races, primary races, and too often actively suppress fund raising for those that don’t pledge loyalty to them.
- Blind Loyalty is often rewarded over talent/contribution/work ethic/capacity. Failing up is common, weakening the system from within. As a bonus, this increases emphasis on personality driven politics, as well as irrational division during primaries.
- Management is given no value – in our party organizations or campaigns. Specific skills such as fund raising are often mistaken to be the only qualifications needed to take a director level or campaign management role.
- Disempowering local (county/town/legislative district) party affiliates, stepping over/around them rather than building them up.
- Hippie-Punching – turning those that fight for progressive values into subjects of ridicule and derision in an effort to isolate and diminish their power.
- Alternate Branding – Particularly egregious among incumbents; campaigning under branding other than “Proud Democrat” and actively avoiding or deriding the Democratic brand.
- Informal segregation/separation – women and people of color only given attention as such, or on issues within their “identity,” and often pressured out of running for the highest offices. This is also done with financial burdens – costs of travel/attending events are often prohibitive except to the most affluent members.
- Abuse of process – In addition to utilizing every process option available to preserve power, those that challenge them are often met with bullying or shaming for attempting to utilize a legitimate process/procedure.
- Old fashioned hypocrisy and corruption – what is acceptable for the powerful is not so much for everyone else, and the powerful project their own bad behavior on those that challenge them.
- Self-reinforcing prophecies – challengers are discouraged from running for perceived less competitive districts, the districts as a result become even less friendly to Democrats, and then those districts become beacons of conservative messaging.
- Aversion to primaries – primaries are the best means we have of expanding the party and preparing candidates/campaigns for tough general elections. Progressive candidates are often shamed for contesting a race in the primary.
- Lack of engagement/investment in municipal elections.
- Continued reinforcement of focus on spending in the final weeks of an electoral campaign only, and exclusively on evaporating items rather than long-term infrastructure (TV and other broadcast/one way advertising).
Trust is the most acute challenge for the Democratic Party at all levels. As a result of the philosophies above and decades of failures many activists, candidates, staff, and donors have lost trust of the party and the recent leaders thereof. If unaddressed, this trust deficit could lead to a permanent rift in the party, and possibly to an exodus to one or more alternative parties (or political disengagement).
To overcome this trust deficit the Democratic Party needs a new generation of leaders that eschew the broken philosophies of the past and embrace a new commitment to empowerment and transparency. Our new leaders need to replace the rules that have protected the power of the few with policies that welcome greater democratic engagement. If this is to be the party of the people, it must have simplified rules that put the power in the hands of the people.
What about Florida?
In addition to the same problems that exist on the national level, Florida’s Democratic political environment is incredibly insular and incestuous. Most of the staff come from the same bloodlines, sharing all the same bad conventional wisdom and ineffective strategies. Innovation is hampered by the lack of talent exchange with other states and the injection of new philosophies.
The trust deficit in Florida is possibly worse than the national level following a series of less progressive and former Republican statewide candidates benefiting from heavy thumbs on the scale in their primaries (or perceived coronations). Those candidates were sold to the party faithful as “our best chance at winning” or even as “sure things.” Governor Scott and Senator Rubio are grateful for our gullibility.
Democrats failed to take advantage of the friendly rulings on Fair Districts in 2016, in large part due to the philosophies listed above. With radical change to approach and strategy, a Democratic Senate majority is within reach. The up ticket benefit of those challenger campaigns could also play a significant role in putting Democrats in the Governor’s office and other state executive offices, as well as holding the U.S. Senate seat.
One of the key shortcomings hampering Florida Democrats from success is the failure to invest outside the largest counties and in municipal races. While Republicans run up wide margins, providing candidates and staff with experience and training, local Democrats attempt to compete without the tools to get the job done. Cycle after cycle, this breeds an expanded universe of frustrated activists and candidates that spread discontent for the party apparatus. At the same time, it makes those territories harder for us to win in the future, and deepens the commitment to the platform the people in those communities are being presented.
Where do we go from here?
The next chair of the Florida Democratic Party must take on the challenge of trust immediately. They can start this by leading the fight for reform of the Party’s bylaws to better distribute power and make the party more inclusive. Systems and processes designed to preserve power for the few must be dismantled and replaced with transparency. It would be ideal if the person starts with a measure of trust and earned credibility – someone who has stood tall against the establishment for progressive issue fights such as Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Keystone XL, and/or NoDAPL.
The Chair and their leadership team (Exec Dir, Vice Chairs, Senior Staff) must make a better effort to attend DEC meetings and other events around the state and directly engage and empower county leaders and grassroots activists. The Party leadership needs to be more accessible and approachable.
The FDP’s next leadership team needs to promote unity across constituencies, promote teamwork, and put an end to the systems that pit counties against each other, pit the large counties against the small counties, and pit challenger candidates in different districts against each other for support. All of this requires trust, transparency, and inclusion.
There is a rising tide of activists calling for a more progressive chair. The focus is primarily directed at progressive positions on issues; the focus should be on finding a chair that will bring a progressive approach to party operations, organizational management, and strategy. They must first and foremost be willing to take on the politics of power preservation. Without fail, platform values and long term advancement of those values must be put ahead of egos and dollars. No candidate, no elected official, no donor, no activist should ever be given a pass on the core values of our party.
The FDP needs to fight to restore its integrity. It needs to become a bastion of empowerment; a center of learning and training. Transparency and diversity need to become non-negotiable and ordinary concepts, not afterthoughts or frustrations.
The same should be expected of the next Chairperson of the DNC.
Right now, we have a tremendous opportunity to change our leadership state by state and at the national level. We can radically shift the party in a relatively short period of time. This is the time. We are the ones. We have the power.
Mario Piscatella (@mpiscatella) is a longtime progressive Democratic strategist, campaign professional, and activist. He has worked in more than a dozen states on countless campaigns fighting for progressive values.