Florida Democratic Party Chair Race Gets Competitive

To say the Florida Democrats are doing badly would be an understatement. In 2014 they experienced almost historic setbacks by losing a prime opportunity to take the governor’s mansion and House seats. Two years later, with redistricting in the State Senate and U. S. House of Representatives producing a somewhat favorable map, they were looking forward to November 8. All seemed confident of a Hillary Clinton win and capturing Florida’s Republican Senate seat. Yer none of this came to pass. Clinton lost Florida by a thin margin, and Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Patrick Murphy with hundreds of thousands more votes in his favor. The State Legislature experienced extremely weak Democratic gains, Rep. Carlos Curbelo won big in his swing seat, and even Patrick Murphy’s seat went Republican. The only bright spots were Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s defeat of senior GOP Congressman John Mica, and a surprise victory against State Sen. Miguel Díaz de la Portilla. Indeed, no one can deny that 2016 was an abject failure for the Florida Democrats.

Only a few months after this humiliating election, on January 14, the Florida Democrats will meet in Orlando to choose a new leadership team, along with a new chair after incumbent chair Allison Tant declined to run for another four years. A gaggle of Democrats from all backgrounds have emerged to run for this seat, engaging in strange antics to win over the committeepersons and elected officials voting in Orlando. The front runner currently is developer Steve Bittel of Coconut Grove, a millionaire and controversial figure in the party. He is a top member in the secretive Florida Alliance, a dark money group that supports progressives across the state, which has been likened to a Democratic version of the Koch brother’s machines. He has been attacked however by many progressive supporters of Bernie Sanders for his close association with former DNC chair and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and for alleged misconduct when he was running for county committeeman-one of the few party positions allowed to run for chair. The party has decided that they shall hold hearings on this misconduct, however it will be the day before the vote for chair. Bittel’s main pitch is his skill as a fundraiser for the relatively cash strapped party, promising to fill its coffers once more.

Developer Steve Bittel (L), and former State Sen. Dwight Bullard (R) are both top candidates for chair. Photo Credit: Miami Herald

The other main competitor in the race is former State Sen. Dwight Bullard, whose southern Miami Dade seat was lost this year to the Republican Party. Bullard hails from the Sanders progressive wing of the party, and has been supported by Sanders’ group Our Revolution, even though Sanders himself remained neutral. Despite this, Sanders’ preferred candidate in the DNC chair election, Rep. Keith Ellison, supports Bittel and not Bullard, which has caused some disarray among progressive circles. One of Bullard’s greatest weaknesses is, however, his stance on the Israel/Palestine issue. Bullard opposed and abstained on a bill punishing businesses that boycott Israel, although he at last voted for it. Additionally on a trip to Israel his guide was a supporter of terror groups. The fallout relating to this issue is one of the reasons he lost his seat and is considered a controversial figure even within Democrats. Bullard has advocated drastic reform of the party and a “67 county strategy” similar to former DNC chair Howard Dean’s “50 state strategy” that helped the Democrats capture the White House and both houses of congress in 2006 and 2008. Bullard lost the election for Miami Dade committeeman which Bittel won in a close election, and then decided to move to rural Gadsden county, 200 miles away, in order to run for committeeman there, which he won. This slightly murky action has earned Bullard ire from party reformers, and is seen as possible hypocrisy as he opposed such county shoppers in the past.

There are three other candidates, although they have had no where near the press and endorsements of Bittel and Bullard. Progressive activist Alan Clendenin, who ran against Allison Tant for chair in 2013 and after losing a committeeman race in his native Hillsborough county moved to Bradford county and was elected there to stay in the running. Duval county Committeewoman Lisa King, who managed the North Florida campaign for Hillary Clinton and Osceola County Democratic Party Chair Leah Carius, who has been one of the loudest critics of the current leadership of the party are also in the race, although they lack endorsements. All of these candidates will have to conquer much more than their opponents to win the position of chair. They will also have to get past the strange and convoluted system that the Florida Democratic Party uses to elect its chairs.

The process to elect the chair is simple at first and widely published. Each county has a committeeman and a committeewoman which can cast a vote for chair. Where the complicated and byzantine part comes in is how the individual votes are weighed. If it weren’t for data consultant Matthew Isbell’s 2013 piece on how the weighing works it would be a fair guess that the information of the complete process would not be available on the Internet.

The formula works as follows for each county
Take the county’s registered Democrats and divide it by the states registered Democrats. Multiply the results by 100. This indicates the percent of statewide registered Democrats that each county accounts for. We will call that figure D
Take the county’s Democratic share of the vote for the last time it voted for President, Senate, Governor and divide each by the statewide totals for the respective race. Add the three fractions together and divide them by 3 (to get the average). This indicates the average percent of democratic candidate votes that the county in question provides for the statewide total. We will call this figure C
Add figure C and D together
Multiply the answer by 5
Round the total to the nearest even number (up or down).
Any county that would round to 0 automatically gets 2
This is the method for allocating weighted votes to each county.

With this process, candidates from populous counties have a distinct advantage. Steve Bittel, for example, already has 64 votes built in due to hailing from Miami Dade. In addition to the committeepersons, each elected official, from State Rep. to U. S. Senator, has a vote weighted depending on how high up they are. This system results in what normally would be 110 committepersons (as 12 counties in Florida shockingly have no Democratic leadership and thus will not be voting) and 72 elected officials voting having a grand total of 1,204 votes. These votes will be public, and it will be possible to ascertain where the elected officials of Florida stand on how they want the party to go. So far, no elected official has endorsed Dwight Bullard, but Rep. Ted Deutch, Rep. Lois Frankel, Rep. Alcee Hastings and State House Minority Leader Janet Cruz have all endorsed Steve Bittel. With such a crowded field and a simple plurality or majority needed to win, the Democrats will have a big fight. It will all depend on how the remaining southeast (Miami Dade, Broward, Palm Beach) and Orlando area (Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola) committepersons vote. Regardless of who wins, the Democrats should have an active chair who is committed to party reform and an aggressive stance towards 2018.