We’ve editorialized extensively about Palm Beach County’s continued decline in Democratic voter numbers, but what’s worse is the decline in actual Democratic precinct committee people over the last few election cycles. At the organizational meeting on Thursday participation rates were high among DEC members as reported by the Palm Beach Post’s George Bennett.
The DEC members wisely re-elected John Ramos as their State Committeeman. Ramos was facing opposition from none other than Mark Alan Siegel whose four year tenure as DEC Chairman was plagued by scandal, declining election performance and public gaffes. Bunny Steinman was re-elected State Committeewoman. Years, ago when I was a local party staffer in Palm Beach, Steinman pioneered a precinct development program that has been wildly successful, and without it perhaps the Republican momentum in the county would be even stronger.
With Siegel out of the DEC Leadership and seemingly out of the picture, the county has an opportunity to reverse recent negative trends. While Palm Beach and Broward Counties are often grouped together in the minds of those from outside the area, increased pressure has been placed on Broward to turn out Democrats due to Palm Beach’s failings. The party has lacked a strong chair since Monte Friedkin stepped down after the 2002 election and with his resignation went much of the infrastructure that had been developed during his tenure. This included multiple full time staffers, field offices, a visible public relations presence and most importantly a strong party apparatus to reign in dissident Democrats and the independent power bases of elected officials.
Palm Beach was the only urban county in the state where Alex Sink’s performance was at the same level as Buddy MacKay’s in the 1998 election when Jeb Bush won by 11 points statewide. In every other urban county, Sink ran several percentage points higher than MacKay had in 1998. Palm Beach was also the only urban county where John Kerry’s 2004 performance was better than Obama’s 2012 (by contrast, Obama ran at least 9 points higher in Orange BOTH in 08′ and 12′ than Kerry). Keep in mind Obama, won Florida in 2012 by a point while Kerry lost the state by 5 points in 2004. Miami-Dade County has seen a reverse shift going from a marginal county in the late 1990s to 62% for Obama in 2012. But much of this growth has happened in-spite of a DEC that has constantly been beset by infighting and factionalization.
Broward County stands in contrast to Palm Beach and Miami-Dade in several important ways. Sunday afternoon the Broward County Democratic Party held its every four year organizational session at a banquet hall in Tamarac. It’s the same hall where the party has held numerous events in the past including my first DEC “victory” party on a long night in 1998 when the Democrats were wiped out across the state. But that night compared to many that came after seemed like the good old days, as the party had actually won a handful of statewide races, far different than what has happened since in off-year elections.
The Democratic Party reelected Chairman Mitch Ceasar for his fifth term. His election was in hindsight a mere formality despite spirited opposition from Cynthia Busch, a local OFA leader. Busch and her allies made many valid critiques of the local party during her campaign, but ultimately she failed to convince the majority of DEC members that a change was truly needed. The Chair’s election had taken a nasty turn, but this was nothing new at all. Florida’s most Democratic urban county has a vibrant Democratic activist base where disagreements seem to be numerous but participation always remains high. Ceasar’s DEC, which he has been the Chairman of for 16 years has over 800 seated precinct committee members, a sharp contrast to Palm Beach which after years of neglect has fewer than 300 seated members. Much of the continued participation rate owes itself to the enthusiasm of Busch and other activists, but Ceasar rightfully can take much of the credit for the continued high rate of precincts filled throughout the county and the public posture of the party. Broward has also produced the highest victory margin for Democrats at the top of the ticket for the entirety of Ceasar’s tenure. Whether he deserves credit or not for that can be debated, but that record stands in contrast to the declines being seen recently in Palm Beach.
But the dissidents in Broward were not without a significant victory. Longtime State Committeewoman Diane Glasser was knocked off by Maggie Davidson, who has also been a long time activist and local organizer. Davidson played an important role this year, in Lois Frankel’s wins in both the Democratic Primary and General Election in CD-22. Davidson was able to skillfully marry the dissidents who backed Busch with several other DEC members who had worked with her on campaigns or on numerous woman’s causes. Glasser was beaten soundly, and Busch herself was elected as the 1st Vice Chair of the party later in the afternoon. Ken Evans, considered a rising star in state party circles was elected the new State Committeeman.
While the Broward DEC certainly can improve by taking some of Busch’s critiques about communication, and use of new media, the party does not have the problems of Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and some other large county DECs. That does not mean that the party should reject the participation or critiques from the dissident group that backed Busch. In fact, from my personal discussions with many yesterday, it seems the Broward DEC will be more proactive the next few years in communication and organizing. Still much needs to be done to make the Broward DEC as effective as it could or should be; but the DEC could be much worse as evidenced by the county’s neighbor to both the north and the south.
Changes at the top of Democratic organizations are good things in many places, but in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade County, they have been too frequent and often representative of the types of factional warfare that has doomed the Democrats in many winnable elections throughout the state. The lack of consistency in either county has been partly caused by meddling politicians either trying to control the party or worse yet, keep weak for their own personal gain.
New Palm Beach Chair Terrie Rizzo (who took over from Siegel in September and was elected in her own right last week) and Miami-Dade’s Annette Taddeo-Goldstein have their work cut out for them in making the party a relevant organization locally. Both have said the right things initially, but it is early days still and much heavy lifting is still left to be done.
Author’s note: As a former staffer for the Palm Beach Democratic Party but a seated precinct captain in Broward, I have a unique perspective on what goes on in both counties and how they stack up against one another. I also served as the statewide Director for the DEC Chairs Association at one point in time so I have a general sense of how local parties should be structured and how they should perform. This by no means makes me the sole arbiter on these things but does mean I have an opinion that is well formed through well over a decade of experiences in the party.