The Phlip Side (FDP Chair Edition Part 3 of 3): We get the leadership we deserve

As some people who read my article yesterday (Click Here to see) may have noticed, I previewed this column with a different title than I actually used.  I am still going to highlight the remaining conversations and candidates, but recent developments in the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) Chair race cannot be ignored.  Anthony Man, a Sun-Sentinel reporter, wrote a piece (which can be read online here) detailing an apparent deal that four of the candidates for FDP Chair have struck to try and keep the front-runner Stephen Bittel from winning.  As I told Mr. Man before the forum last night when speaking about Trump: For better for worse we get the leaders we deserve.  I started voicing my opinion on this process by saying that Stephen Bittel was the best choice to lead our party, and after speaking with the four leading candidates it is more apparent than ever that there is only one real choice to be the next FDP Chair.

What I find most interesting about four candidates appearing to team up to defeat Mr. Bittel is that these are the exact people who have been decrying backroom deals for years.  It seems, though, that when they think that backroom dealing will benefit them those concerns evaporate.  All anyone has in politics is their word.  When you start saying one thing and doing the complete opposite you lose your credibility, which is hard to get that back once you lose it.  The childish games that these four candidates are playing are the exact reason why people don’t trust the FDP.  It is also why donors have very little faith that the FDP will spend their money wisely, which is the reason the FDP has historically struggled to raise money.  As we all heard during the primary last year, if there is ever a campaign to Stop X put all of your money on X as they are likely to win.  So, in the end this all probably means Bittel is poised to win.

In the interest of fairness I do have a confession to make.  I have been a card-carrying member of the Dwight Bullard fan club for many years.  He is an incredibly talented Democrat who has unlimited potential.  In my conversation with him he stated that it is a misconception that he cannot raise money.  He said that he was spread so thin late last year with his day job, his job as FL Senator, his re-election campaign, AND his role as Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chair that he didn’t have the time to do it all well.  Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt on his claims that he can raise money, which I am willing to do with a good Democrat like Sen. Bullard despite the fact that many of the people who worked most closely with him warn people about how bad he was as Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chair, it would be an almost criminal misuse of his talents to have him sitting in a room for hours on end dialing for dollars.

Sen. Bullard is an eloquent speaker, a Fmr. FL Senator with a deep knowledge of issues important to our party and state, and an endless number of other wonderful qualities.  His talents are elite in many of those areas, but he is not an elite fundraiser.  The most optimistic outlook would have him matching, or slightly exceeding if you want to be really optimistic, the current fundraising levels of the FDP.  It is obviously up to Sen. Bullard to decide what he wants to do, but as a general principle people should stick to the talents they have that others lack instead of focusing on things others can do as well if not better than them.  One concern with Sen. Bullard is that he may be taking advice from people who don’t have his best interest at heart.  I say that because it is beyond curious that GOP controlled Sunshine State News is touting his candidacy despite the fact that he was a liberal lion in the Florida Senate.

Lisa King is another candidate for FDP Chair who was impressive when we spoke earlier this week.  I have never heard a bad word spoken about her, and she was better than advertised.  Ms. King is an intelligent, articulate, and passionate Democrat.  She is also an impressive public speaker.  What stood out the most in my conversation with her is the fact that she not only talked about supporting changes to the party bylaws, she had very specific changes that were well thought out and more detailed than anyone I have ever heard speak about the subject.  I don’t agree with all of the changes she wants to make, but I applaud her for taking the time and energy to have a tangible plan for change instead of just talking about the fact that she thinks we need to make changes.  Making the FDP Executive Committee more diverse and inclusive is one things I completely agree with Ms. King on.

While Ms. King’s suggestion that the FDP Executive Committee should be better informed about party activities is something I can get behind, it would be a bridge too far and a grave mistake if the FDP Executive Committee started doing things like making decisions about vendors as Ms. King floated.  The FDP should be more transparent with their Executive Committee, and spend more time giving the Executive Committee more details about their activities. The FDP Executive Committee, though, is filled with volunteers.  Executive Committee members pay money out of their pocket for things like travel, so it actually costs them money to be a member of that body.  I am not minimizing the dedication or sacrifices that are made by the FDP Executive Committee, but it should not micromanage the professionals hired by the chair who are much better equipped to make such decisions because they do this for a living.

Stephen Bittel is the fourth candidate who I spoke with regarding his candidacy for FDP Chair.  I wrote about fundraising being the main job of FDP Chair (click here to see) earlier this week, but the other main job of FDP Chair is to be the CEO of the organization.  Mr. Bittel has more experience as a CEO than all of the other candidates combined.  He founded the company that he runs, so he is a self-made man who lives in a union household.  While it takes the benefit of the doubt, if not a leap of faith, to see any other candidate match or exceed the money raised by the current FDP Chair there is no question that Mr. Bittel is very likely to break all FDP fundraising records.  Mr. Bittel spoke of a $30 million budget for the FDP.  Even if Mr. Bittel is being wildly optimistic and only raises half the amount he claims, it would still be several multiples more than any of his opponent could raise under the best of circumstances.

When it comes to fundraising, size definitely matters.  The reason why the tens of millions of dollars that Mr. Bittel would likely raise for the FDP is infinitely better than the few million dollars any of the other candidates could raise is because it will allow the FDP to do more things and give the organization a bigger margin for error.  It is why the New York Yankees can be competitive if one of their $20 million players wind up being a bust while such a bust would devastate a small market club as that one amount represents a much smaller portion of the overall Yankee payroll.  When a person or organization backs dozens of candidates you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some.  No amount of money can buy anything close to a 100% win rate, but a lack of money virtually guarantees failure.  That is why it is critical for the FDP to have enough money to avoid putting all of their eggs in one or two baskets.

It takes money to organize the entire state of Florida and play in as many races around the state as the FDP should play in.  Now, just because a candidate or party has a lot of money doesn’t mean that they will spend it well as too many candidates waste money on things that have no hope of benefitting their campaign(s).  Mr. Bittel has suggested things like the FDP buying a union print shop, which would take the profit out of printing mailers.  That would potentially save Florida Democratic candidates millions of dollars every cycle that they could invest elsewhere instead of lining the pockets of mail vendors who have a win rate that leaves a lot to be desired.  A cohesive message/platform is critical too, as Mr. Bittel understands and reminded me of when we spoke, but the best message and best ideas in the world won’t matter if you don’t have the money to communicate your message/ideas to the public.

All of Mr. Bittel’s opponents talk about a small dollar donor base, which the FDP should do a better job cultivating, to significantly increase the money flowing in to the FDP.  Out of the thousands of Democrats who run for office every year below the national level I cannot think of one who raises millions of dollars through small dollar donations, and if there are one or two examples it would represent a small fraction of one percent of the pool of candidates who run.  When looking at organizations instead of candidates, which the FDP is, there isn’t a single example of using small dollar donations to raise millions of dollars.  If raising millions of dollars for an organization like the FDP was that easy, it would have been done already.  Ms. King has said she would just hire someone to do the job, but if there was someone who the FDP could hire to raise millions of dollars Chair Tant would have hired that person a long time ago.

Since not a single entity like the FDP has raised millions of dollars with small dollar donations, it will require large dollar donations for the FDP to raise the money needed to be successful.  Large donations only come from wealthy donors or special interests.  Mr. Bittel is the only candidate for FDP Chair with a large network of wealthy donors than can be tapped to fund a large portion of the FDP budget, and the only candidate who himself can write a massive check.  Every other candidate will have to raise dollars from special interests to have any hope of being successful, and those special interests will expect something in return.  Sen. Bullard is the only person with a history of telling those special interests to pound sand, but that hinders his ability to raise money.  Mr. Bittel is the only person who can afford to not take their money, or stand up to them if they expect something in return for their money, and be successful.

Mr. Clendenin claims he can and has raised a lot of money, and Ms. King raised an impressive amount of money for her race in Jacksonville.  Those successes are like being a record breaking running back in high school.  While impressive, it doesn’t mean you can play in the NFL.  The one candidate who I have yet to mention is Leah Carius.  Ms. Carius is a lovely woman who is a passionate Democratic advocate.  That being said, while the FDP is better off for having her involved she doesn’t appear to be ready for the primetime position as the FDP Chair.  Ms. Carius appeared to be out of her depth at the candidate forum I attended last night.  Mr. Bittel is the only candidate to succeed at the highest levels of fundraising, who has decades of experience as a CEO, who we know wants to be the FDP Chair solely for the good of the organization, and who does not need to use the position as a stepping stone in his own career.

Mr. Bittel, like any good CEO would, is eager to work with most of his opponents to build the best team possible at the FDP.  There is not a single major issue where Mr. Bittel strays from Democratic orthodoxy, and if one arises it is likely that Mr. Bittel will be to the left of where the Democratic Party is.  The fact that Mr. Bittel is unquestionably the best candidate when it comes to the top two qualities needed to succeed as FDP Chair, fundraising and being a successful CEO, makes him the only rational choice for FDP Chair.  The fact that Mr. Bittel seems to be the only adult in the room at the moment makes him the only choice if the FDP wants to be taken seriously any time over the next four years, if we want to build a Florida Democratic Party that we can all be proud of, or if we want to actually start beating Republicans instead of ourselves for a change.

(Author’s Note: Please feel free to send any comments, suggestions, column ideas, or hate mail to

Sean Phillippi is a Democratic strategist and consultant based in Broward County.  He has worked for campaigns on the federal, state, and local levels, including the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  Sean is the Managing Member of TLE Analytics LLC, the political data and consulting firm he founded in 2012.


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