A little less than two years ago Alan Clendenin was leading a fight inside the FDP – not a fight to reform the party but to prevent rules changes from occurring that took power and vote weights away from the larger counties and reassigned state committee voting in a more equitable (and accountable) fashion. But when Clendenin was blocked from running for FDP Chair by his home county DEC (Hillsborough) three weeks ago, his surrogates and political allies started preaching the need for rules reform (the very idea they had fought tooth-and-nail against in February and March of 2015) and began shopping for a county to make himself eligible for FDP Chair.
The quest ended this week as Clendenin now “resides” in Bradford County whose previous contribution to Florida Democratic politics was giving us Charley Johns , perhaps the single most reactionary high elected official the state has seen since Sidney J. Catts. Clendenin has moved to Hampton, a town where UF students racing to Jacksonville or points north are always fearful of cops on US 301 was its one claim to fame. For years the town was one of the three biggest speed traps in the country per AAA.
Under normal circumstances sympathy for Clendenin would be high – after all on the surface this is someone who is so committed to serving the party that he’d go to great lengths to do so. You don’t see many city dwellers, particularly the elite transactional types from southeast Florida who continue to dominate the party , willing to visit rural Florida, let alone get their hands dirty going to a DEC meeting in a county as small, rural, conservative and insignificant as Bradford. But Clendenin’s move smacks as desperate and comical given his own crusade against empowering the types of places he now finds himself representing.
Clendenin’s odd maneuver livens up an FDP Chairs Race where he faces among other candidates Stephen Bittel – a real estate mogul from southeast Florida who claims to be a progressive and an ace fundraiser. Per my colleague Brook Hines, Bittel’s floor speech at yesterday’s Miami-Dade Democrats meeting was defensive and if I am interpreting correctly smacked of a rich entitled white guy whining about the treatment he’s gotten on social media from progressives. Bittel’s profile is interesting and if he can get past the biases that often cloud the judgement of those from southeast Florida in the party he might be a decent Chair – but the early returns based on his handling of the Miami-Dade situation aren’t promising. If you put yourself up for a public position in a public manner you have to expect some blowback. Bittel needs to grow thicker skin if he is to be an effective Chair of the Democrats.
As for Clendenin, will he now emerge as a lonely fighting voice standing up for small counties and rural Florida against the long-standing axis of Tallahassee consultants and southeast Florida donors and elites? Or is he simply using Bradford County to become eligible for the party chairs race? The proof will be in the pudding as they say in the next few weeks.
This episode furthers my sense that the Florida Democratic Party isn’t really worth fighting for. While we can talk about rules reform, the process is so convoluted that only those willing to play political games and horse trade can ever hope to lead the party forward. Most rank-in-file Democrats are such of these machinations especially when we consider this party has lost 17 of the last 18 races for Governor & Cabinet. Perhaps progressives and issue-oriented voters are best served by organizing outside the party structure, supporting groups that advocate causes and form around ideology – not elections or campaigns.
Make no mistake about it – the idea of a shadow party which has been bandied about since the late 1990’s will not work. However, a coalition of progressive groups seeking environmental change, social justice, economic reforms among other things CAN be effective. It just takes some discipline, organizing and a realization the Democratic Party can compliment your efforts but not lead them.