When Scott Maddox assumed the Chairmanship of the Florida Democratic Party in January 2003 he used his experience as Mayor of Tallahassee to put forth an idea that Mayors could be the easiest way to build a real bench for statewide races. In early 2003 Maddox and his new FDP staff spread out throughout the state to work in Mayoral campaigns. Elected were Pam Iorio in Tampa, Lois Frankel in West Palm Beach and Buddy Dyer, who was a former Maddox rival for Attorney General, in Orlando. Nat Glover in Jacksonville, another FDP target, was not elected.
Maddox claimed victory and convinced many party activists that these victories were a sign the party was rebounding and building a deep bench for future races. But the reality is that heavily favored Democrats had won in all three cities. In the case of Iorio she was well known throughout Hillsborough County. Dyer and Frankel were former high profile legislators who had both recently served as Democratic leaders in their respective chambers. Moreover, the GOP did little if anything to target these cities. In West Palm Beach for instance, Frankel defeated another Democrat, albeit an erstwhile one, in Joel Daves.
Winning big city mayor’s races were good for party morale but did nothing to boost the ticket during Maddox’s tenure as party chair. When Maddox threw himself into the Governor’s race in 2005 chaos ensued and the FDP moved on. The party under Maddox had taken a decidedly political turn, with the Chairman involving himself in factional disputes in local areas in order to benefit his own political career. But Maddox did teach Democrats, whose sole focus had been the State Capitol, that other races were worth targeting and winning.
Rod Smith took a similar focus in 2011 upon becoming party chairman. But instead of just winning the easy races, his FDP was able to orchestrate the shock of recent Florida electoral politics. Alvin Brown’s upset victory over the GOP establishment proved that the FDP’s strategy could bear fruit. Mike Hogan, a one-time House member, had many of his former legislative colleges campaign for him including Adam Hasner, Mike Haridopolos and Marco Rubio. Yet Brown won in a heavily Republican city.
The victory instantly made Brown a sensation and the talk of the political chattering classes. The race also had a definitive psychological effect on a Florida GOP which had rarely, if ever, lost a high profile, contested race over the previous decade. The lesson I took from Jacksonville was that while the GOP has manipulated the machinery of state elections by controlling lobbying and fund raising infrastructure in Tallahassee, municipal elections are more open opportunities for the Democrats.
The lesson was demonstrated again this week when Buddy Dyer won a third full term in Orlando by smashing well-funded Republican Ken Mulvaney and conservative Democrat Phil Diamond. Sure, Orlando is a heavily Democratic city these days (which it was not in the 1990s) but Dyer has consolidated an unbreakable grip on the city even when politically motivated witch hunts against him were instigated largely at the behest of Tallahassee based Republicans. His brand of activist Government has been opposed by even some Democrats like Diamond, but the voters have clearly shown they prefer smart spending that grows the stature and profile of a city over “fiscal prudence.”
Former State Rep. Jack Seiler is compiling a record similar to Dyer in Fort Lauderdale, a city that previously has not been proactive in promoting its image. Fort Lauderdale benefited from an activist County government including a tourism development board of the highest quality, but the city itself did little under former Mayor Jim Naugle to grow its brand. Bob Buckhorn, Tampa’s new Mayor, has been similarly effective and visible.
With Democrats gaining a stranglehold over the big cities in the state similar to the GOP’s control of state government, the building blocks are in place for the party to use municipalities to reinvigorate itself. This is after all what Scott Maddox claimed was the way forward in 2003, even if he did not have the patience or understanding to see the project through.