Democratic politics in Florida is about personalities, tribalism and losing elections. Understanding this is the key to grasping everything that happens around the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) and local DEC’s.
Florida’s Democrats have been on a nearly two decade losing streak with results reaching historic low points in the last two election cycles. During the course of the last six years, love him or loathe him Alan Clendenin has made pointed critiques of the Florida Democratic Party and how it operates. Clendenin has also made lots of enemies and grated folks with his personal style. His story is the ultimate one of a Florida Democrat – a critic whose support and opposition over the last four to six years represents the tribalism based on personalities that plagues the party. Clendenin’s critiques of the party have only grown in relevance during this period as Democrats have lost one election after another. Some would claim his criticisms shield the fact he hasn’t done much heavy lifting over the past four years when he was FDP First Vice Chair and he has contributed to the factionalism that is ripping the party apart.
But even Clendenin critics must admit he has carried the day in one important manner – this FDP Chair’s race that will conclude Saturday outside Orlando is being fought on his terms. The Clendenin critiques and agenda are what Florida Democrats are discussing and debating following the 2016 election debacle and have defined this period of post-mortems. Whether or not that is good thing or not can be discussed but it is reality – Clendenin’s critiques have carried the day.
Every candidate for Chair of the FDP is discussing some degree of reform and empowerment of the State Executive Committee. Each candidate has had to answer questions about the party headquarters location, how DEC’s are going to be empowered going forward, what a prospective chair would do about vendors and party staff who even if they are well-trained nice people continue to lose elections driving Democrats into a deeper and deeper hole each cycle. Every candidate has had to address the perceived lack of transparency that has come from the party over the past several election cycles. Democratic politics in Florida seems to be immune from the type of results-based accountability that dominates all other spheres of life in western society. Clendenin’s critiques have begun to change that thinking, something that is long overdue.
This race has seen Clendenin lose some of the urban support he had in 2013 while gaining new followers in rural counties where the Democratic brand is permanently damaged, even more so than it was two or four years ago. Candidates perceived to be establishment-backed such as Lisa King have paid intense lip service to the empowerment language Clendenin has used. Stephen Bittel, perceived by insiders as the front-runner for chair has even addressed many of the items on the Clendenin agenda though his personal presentation style is far inferior to that of King or Clendenin himself.
In Dwight Bullard, progressives have a champion of reform who has walked the walk, running for chair. Bullard’s rhetoric sounds similar to Clendenin’s because after all the former State Senator has time and again fought lonely, losing battles against the establishment of BOTH parties in the legislature and public life. Leah Carius has proven to be a thoughtful rising star in the party with her articulation of the need for reform and empowerment. She has a bright future and has clearly cast herself as someone not tied to the old order.
Democrats tend to decide races like this based on personality, factionalism and tribalism. I expect this race to be no different. A tribe of establishment figures, southeast Florida elites, fundraisers and those who profit off the party have gravitated to Stephen Bittel. For many of them maintaining control of a dying party and continuing to keep the spigots on trumps actual changes. These factions have pulled all the stops in later days of this campaign in order to achieve a victory – one that might be a pyrrhic one based on the toll to the establishment order that this tone of this campaign has taken.
Bittel has been forced by the tenor of this campaign, set by Clendenin to at least pay homage for the need to change the party. It also should be noted Bittel himself seems a genuinely intelligent and progressive figure even if his support tends to be those who benefit off a non-transparent and weak party. It is entirely possible that if he wins, he could emerge as a surprise to many of those who fear his ascension currently.
Lisa King represents a safer landing spot for those who want reform but don’t want to burn down the house. Her rhetoric has been responsible and has focused on uniting the party while not allowing southern Florida elites or Tallahassee-based consultants to run roughshod over the processes involved in party (re)building. Clendenin himself may still win the race but factionalism and personality-driven objections to his style, and critiques of his job as First Vice Chair might doom him.
Irrespective of who wins this chair’s race, Clendenin has won the day – he has set the agenda for what the party is talking and thinking about following another electoral debacle. Whether he wins on Saturday or not, he and his supporters can hold their heads high because the tenor of this campaign has certainly been different than the one four long years ago.