By Dr. Rachel Pienta
Like many Democrats across the nation, I’ve been engaged in some political introspection since November. For this Florida Democrat, the national victories of the Obama presidency served as a soothing blue balm to counteract the red tide that has dominated state politics since the mid-1990s.
In the final weeks of 2016, the slate of chair contenders grew to a field of five. Party activists across the state have been stepping away from holiday revelry to meet the candidates and whip the vote for their preferred contender. In Leon County, the Big Bend Democratic Progressive Caucus announced two nights of candidate meet and greet events. As of this writing, it appeared that three of the five candidates might make an appearance.
Looming large over this year is a heated debate about what type of chair Florida Democrats want. The crux of this argument hinges on armchair quarterbacking about how Democrats lost the White House and so many other races across the nation. Do Florida Democrats need a successful donation bundler with deep pockets? Or does the state party need a charismatic grassroots leader to excite the base? Some might say the party primarily needs a workhorse committed to building party infrastructure across 67 counties. Other voices call for a Bernie Sanders-type revolution and a repudiation of what some Sanders’ followers characterize as elitist, out of touch, corporatist, and Clinton-style business-as-usual politics.
2016 political ideologies aside, what is clear is that Florida Democrats have been lost at sea for many years with little stability at the party’s helm and few successes at the polls. In 1996, both chambers of the Florida Legislature turned red though Florida helped return President Bill Clinton for a second term in that same year. Two years later, the gubernatorial election of 1998 would usher Jeb Bush into the Adams Street governor’s mansion.
In looking ahead to the possibilities of future leaders, I think it helps us to consider where we’ve been. In this piece, I am going to look back to the early 1980s. Democrat Bob Graham was elected governor in 1979 and would serve in that role until 1987. Panama City Democrat Charlie Whitehead led the state party from 1980 to 1989. Whitehead returned briefly to the chairmanship in 1999, more on that brief interim later.
Democrat Lawton Chiles was elected governor in 1990. Chiles, who died in office, was briefly succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Buddy McKay. During this time, the party was led by Miami Democrat Simon Ferro and Jacksonville Democrat Terrie Brady. Ferro served as chair in the early 1990s. Brady led the party from 1993 to 1998. Chiles would be Florida’s last elected Democratic governor for twenty years.
From 1980 to 1998, there were three Florida Democratic Party chairs. The loss of the governor’s mansion in 1998 would mark the beginning of a revolving door for the state party leadership. Broward County Democrat Mitch Caesar became party chair in 1998.
Charlie Whitehead returned to the leadership role in late 1999 and led the party until the election of Orlando Democrat Bob Poe in March 2000.
For the next ten years, the party would be led by former elected officials. Former Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox assumed the chairmanship in 2003. He led the party through the early spring months of 2005, leading up to his entry into the gubernatorial primary.
Former Congresswoman Karen Thurman became state party chair in May 2005. Thurman would serve in the role until 2010, the longest tenure of any chair since Terrie Brady’s tenure in the 1990s.
Former state senator Rod Smith, a former state attorney with his own thwarted gubernatorial aspirations, assumed the party leadership role in 2011. With a 2010 loss as the running mate for gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink still fresh in Democratic minds and a family health crisis looming, Smith announced in March 2012 that he would step down after the November election cycle concluded.
Smith’s early announcement started a leadership race across the state that began in May with a candidate forum at the Small County Coalition Conference in Wakulla County. The forum drew a field of three potential contenders: Palm Beach County Democrat Mark Alan Siegel, Orange County Democrat Scott Randolph, and Hillsborough County Democrat Alan Clendenin. By December, only Alan Clendenin would remain in the race. Miami-Dade Democrat Annette Taddeo-Goldstein jumped into the race briefly, swiftly withdrawing to align with another contender – Leon County Democrat Allison Tant.
The January 2013 contest for Florida Democratic Party chair was a tense production with an outcome that relied heavily on closely working the weighted vote totals. Ultimately, Allison Tant would be declared the winner and Alan Clendenin was elected to serve as First Vice Chair.
At the close of 2016, Florida Democrats find themselves once again choosing a state party leader. For grassroots Democrats across the state, the vote offers another hope to choose a leader who will organize in and build infrastructure across all 67 counties. The longtime “holy grail” for party activists continues to be the “unicorn” chair who can build a leadership bench in small and large counties while also supporting a viable candidate for governor along with a competitive slate of potential cabinet seat winners. Is a chair who can accomplish these feats out there? This party chair “unicorn” will not only face what may be an unbridgeable divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters but will also need to assuage the fears of the party’s big donors while harnessing the energies and exciting the imaginations of the party grassroots.
With the chair’s election set for January 14th, the field includes Miami-Dade Democrat Stephen Bittel, Gadsden Democrat Dwight Bullard, Bradford Democrat Alan Clendenin, Osceola Democrat Leah Carius, and Duval Democrat Lisa King.
Dr Rachel Pienta was recently elected Wakulla Soil and Water Supervisor and is the former Wakulla County Democratic Party Chair and State Committeewoman