By Dr. Rachel Pienta
Post-election headlines for the last twenty or so years could easily be recycled. “Dems in disarray, shell-shocked Democrats” were two popular phrases in circulation after November’s surprise. We have been here before. Political folks and media pundits used to say that Florida determined the presidency. I always found that to be an over-simplification. I remember President Clinton losing Florida in 1992.
Over the weekend, the Florida Democratic Party elected new leadership. I should say, the party elected some new leadership. Chair Manny Diaz was a change at the top, the remainder of the executive slate returned. A few new faces earned spots on the Democratic National Committee. Walton County’s Samantha Herring joined Jackson County’s Judy Mount as the voices for the Panhandle.
From the vantage point of someone who has been taking a break from organized party politics for a few years, I am going to make a few observations. I’m going to explain some of my history for those readers who have become politically active recently and may be asking, “who the heck is this and where has she been the last few years?” My political involvement began in college and continued through much of the 1990s – working on a Congressional race, a gubernatorial race, as well as a presidential race and then working in a state Senate office, a Congressional office, and the state Legislature.
Discussion throughout the state party has ranged from a focus on changing the weighted vote to concerns about record-keeping and the party budget. On the weighted vote, my understanding is that changing it would bring Florida into alignment with Democratic National Committee policies. My thought regarding records and budget is that we need to have staff support each of the executive functions. A transcriptionist should prepare the party meeting minutes. The elected party secretary can review and certify those minutes. What has happened with the party’s finance staff? For many years, a professional bookkeeper was part of the staff. If that role was cut, it needs to be reinstated or the party needs to contract with a professional accounting firm.
The internal workings of the state party are one issue to address. The larger concern should be how we are reaching the state’s voters.
Since the 1990s, Florida’s population has grown. In fact, from 1990 to 2000 Florida added 3 million people. From 1990 to 2020, the state grew from 13 million residents to over 21 million. In 1990, the Democrats had a healthy party registration advantage of over one million registered voters. By 2020, the two major parties were within 100k voters of each other. The Democrats held the advantage. The biggest growth group over thirty years? Voters with no party affiliation grew from less than 1 million to over 3 million over three decades.
After the 2010 election, I joined state party leaders in addressing the issue of messaging. A group of elected officials, party members and staff convened in Tallahassee for a session with Dr. Drew Westen. (Future) State Representative Allison Tant and (future) State Senator Loranne Ausley as well as future Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum were all part of the group.
A professor at Emory University, Dr. Westen is a clinical psychologist who has researched and written extensively on social and political thinking. At the time, his now most noted book was only a few years old: The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. A follow up book is currently in progress. I believe some lessons were learned and applied.
I think it is important to return to a focus on messaging. Reports of messaging that claimed that Joe Biden would usher in a socialist regime surely influenced voters in the Latin American communities of South Florida. In the wake of last week’s attack on the Capitol. Spanish-language media has cast blame on Black Lives Matter and antifa. Messaging like this should not go unanswered. Another narrative has to be offered. The groundwork in counties like Miami-Dade cannot wait. Long term investments in field organizing structure need to be made and the Florida Democratic Party cannot afford to lose any more time putting personnel out in the field.
As has happened at the state level, on the county level the fastest growing registration group has been the unaffiliated voter. I do not believe we have enough reliable data to fully understand the behaviors of these voters at the current time. Postmortems of the 2020 election will likely offer more insights. That said, how can the Florida Democratic Party message to voters we know little about? To start, the Florida Democratic Party needs to look inward before pushing a new or revised message out.
In December, I spent time recovering from a bout with COVID. During that time, I picked up President Obama’s book, A Promised Land. The chapters that focused on his roots working as a community organizer hit several chords for me. Over the years, I have worked in constituent services as well as taught courses and workshops on subjects that included advocacy and civic engagement.
My takeaway from years of working with citizens to solve everyday problems has taught me that many of our neighbors do not know how to proceed if they are faced with a code enforcement issue or if they want to see a sidewalk built in their community, much less how to address larger policy issues about clean water or school safety. I believe that if the Democratic Party would build local infrastructure to meet citizens where they live and focused on helping people navigate problem solving from the local to state and federal levels, we would be the trusted messengers we seek and need to be going forward.
The Florida Democratic Party has the potential to be the group that helps people solve problems and lead better lives. It is time we lived up to that potential.