Why anyone would actually want the job of Florida Democratic Party (FDP) Chair is beyond many who watch the process. The seemingly thankless task of organizing a party on a record losing streak (losers of 17 of the last 18 races for Governor and Cabinet) has solicited the interest of five properly-qualified (via the party rules) candidates.
Much of the discussion about this race has centered around what progressive hero, former State Senator Dwight Bullard would do. Bullard’s strange odyssey to becoming qualified to run for Chair took him from two Miami-Dade DEC defeats soon after the loss of his Senate seat in November to qualifying in Gadsden County earlier this week. Bullard becomes the fifth announced candidate for FDP Chair.
Interestingly, the arch-conservative Sunshine State News (SSN) seems to have better access to the liberal Bullard and his plans than any other online or print publication. This might be due to the relationship prominent Bullard-backer and perennial Democratic Party troublemaker Leslie Wimes has with that website. Wimes has strongly advocated for Bullard just weeks after she was appearing regularly in conservative media bashing Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The Sunshine State News has since 2014 advocated for the most left-wing Democrats, perhaps to create chaos in the Democratic Party, which any objective reader of the website would quickly learn is not well-liked or respected by the site.
In The Sunshine State News, the articles written about Bernie Sanders earlier this year read nearly verbatim to the same stories that were run during the 2014 Gubernatorial Primary between Nan Rich who despite the sympathy of progressives got less than a quarter of the vote statewide and former Republican Charlie Crist whom SSN seemed obsessive about. In that period of time the Sunshine State News mixed conservative policy commentary with cheerleading for Nan Rich. In the months of January and February of 2016, they mixed conservative commentary and support for the right-wing legislative agenda with pro-Sanders and anti-Clinton commentary. Much like Rich, Sanders was slaughtered statewide in a Democratic party primary. Now the SSN has hitched its wagon to Bullard – will the third time trying to disrupt the internals of the Democratic Party be the charm for the conservative publication?
Bullard’s determination to run for FDP Chair came after he was defeated in an attempt to qualify in his home county of Miami-Dade on December 20th by Stephen Bittel. A prolific fundraiser who played a critical role in the DNC money raising operation the last few years, Bittel has locked down much of the support of the establishments including those close to Senator Bill Nelson and many unions. It has been claimed by some that Bittel would strip the party’s outreach components, move away from the Tallahassee-based consultant operation and simply focus on fundraising. I am however told that isn’t per se the case and that Bittel who considers himself a progressive will work to re-energize the party at the grassroots level. As far as Tallahassee operatives, it is anyone’s guess – Bittel would be smart to move away from the consultant-driven party model.
Bittel may have appeared to have the inside track on winning and have cornered the establishment mantle, but in the last ten days Duval County’s Lisa King who has been active in party politics for over two decades has been per sources made significant inroads among establishment Democrats and party insiders. King’s political ideology is per several contacts more or less undefined which gives her advantages in running for chair. Pleasant and well-connected, King is no doubt a formidable contender. An ally in the past of current FDP Chair Allison Tant, King might well have elements of the Tallahassee establishment that is fearful of Bittel behind her. Tallahassee-based lobbyists and political operatives always have a horse they back and influence on internal Democratic Party matters.
The political establishment has made a habit of spinning poor election results and finding mechanisms to keep control of a party and while the insiders might currently be divided between King and Bittel, it’s possible whichever wins could build a bridge to the loser. Or perhaps the divisions are real, Tallahassee and FDP insiders versus southeast Florida money? It’s a distinct possibility the party will be divided not just along the classic progressive vs mainstream/third way or Sanders/Clinton lines after the January 14 election.
Osceola County’s Leah Carius is also running for chair. Well-liked and generally progressive Carius is a potentially interesting candidate but this might be a cycle too soon for her.
The one candidate we have not covered here is Alan Clendenin. Late of Hillsborough County, now representing Bradford, Clendenin was close to becoming chair four years ago. He then became Vice Chair of the FDP, a do-nothing job which he probably regrets taking because it associated him with the failures of the last four years without the ability to really shape what transpired. Clendenin’s candidacy in 2013 and again now in 2017 seems to be a magnet for those disaffected by the party, be it rank-in-file precinct workers, those who have had promises by party elders to them broken or the types of malcontents that feel they should be getting more business or recognition from the FDP.
Clendenin wrote an extensive action plan for the FDP in 2012 that hasn’t been updated – some may see that as negligence and laziness on the part of the candidate but perhaps it simply doesn’t need updating because the Democrats fundamental problems remain the same as 2012 and the party is simply now two more failed election cycles in the hole. While Clendenin’s chances aren’t being taken as seriously this go round as in 2013 by many insiders, the lay of the land indicates he retain some major pockets of support throughout the state. Residual backing won’t be enough for Clendenin to win outright on the first ballot but in a possible 5-way race it will be enough to get him to a second ballot. It is also possible that Clendenin will acquire new support from those who didn’t buy his critiques four years ago, but six statewide losses later (including the Presidential) have come to realize change is necessary to restore Florida to truly being a two-party state, rather than the one-party oligarchy it has essentially become.
It’s of course odd that a party whose Presidential nominees have gotten upwards of 5,000,000 statewide votes in the last few elections continue to select its leaders in peculiar fashion-resembling more a closed shop, elite country club than an actual organ of democracy. The Democratic Party’s own rules and insider manipulation of the process makes it difficult to take the constant whining of the party about a rigged electoral game seriously – because the party itself doesn’t operate in the light of day or in a democratic fashion. Perhaps this chair’s race with an election set for January 14 will change that perspective.
This story has been slightly modified since first published.