Several theories about the way to revive Democratic fortunes have been tossed about throughout the state for the past fifteen years, and most that have been implemented have been either half measures or have fallen flat. While some Democrats continue to be in outright denial about the situation statewide, many have finally come to the realization that having the worst record in state elections of any party east of the Mississippi since 2000 is an embarrassment.
The current Democratic Party Chair battle has broken down along very familiar lines. Those satisfied with the status quo have lined behind Allison Tant and those who want change and some sort of strategic planning are behind Alan Clendenin. Of course exceptions exist to both general rules but for the most part that is how the race has broken down. Clendenin has offered a plan, and within he has a section on building a farm team, something I and my then business partners submitted a proposal to the FDP about in 2001.
Here is an excerpt from Clendenin’s plan:
Build a Farm Team
Recruit, recruit, recruit! You cannot say that loud enough or often enough. The
Democratic Party at every level must have an aggressive candidate recruitment plan.
Instead of going back to the same pool over and over we must look towards:
• Business leaders
• Community volunteers
• Colleges and Universities
• Community organizations such as PTAs, Girl and Boy Scout leaders, and
active homeowners associations
These organizations are filled with quality Democrats capable of entering into a local
entry-level race. We need to expand our search and provide the support for the
candidates that will be our party’s leaders in ten years.
We must build a farm team bench to ensure our viability and future success. You
don’t build a house from the top down. You start by laying a strong foundation that
will support the structure as it grows. High visibility, high profile elections attract a
lot of attention. But if we continue to neglect our political entry-level positions we
will never enjoy statewide success.
We will never move towards regaining our Democratic majority by standing on the
shoulders of republican school boards, city councils, county commissions and
mayors. Every DEC must have an aggressive strategy to identify quality candidates
who possess the skills and abilities along with the drive and ambition needed to
move up to higher political office.
Candidate recruitment must happen in all 67 counties. There are Democrats in all 67
counties and there are partisan and non-partisan elections where neighborhood
Democrats can compete. Today’s small county successes are tomorrow’s statewide
———End of excerpt—-Analysis below—
Florida’s Democrats have lost 13 of the past 14 elections for statewide (non-federal) office. This is a record which is comparable to that of rock solid Republican states like Utah and Idaho and worse over the same period as traditional GOP strongholds like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Arizona. It is logical and perhaps admirably pragmatic that some elements within a desperate party that has failed to properly train or promote a “farm team,” would turn to a proven statewide vote getter such as Charlie Crist to try and regain a foothold at the highest level. But even if Governor Crist runs for Governor as a Democrat and wins, it does little to solve the problems the party has as a viable statewide force.
Many Tallahassee-based lobbyists and consultants have overstated the importance of north Florida counties in the possible revival of the party. While it is certainly true that the leakage of legislative seats in the Big Bend and Panhandle areas has been dramatic, little can be done realistically to change the fortunes in that region. More importantly, that region does not have enough voters to really turn the tables in statewide elections or in tipping the legislative balance of power. Even if the Democrats carried every county between the Suwanee and Apalachicola Rivers, every election the GOP has won for statewide office since 2000, they still would have won. In some of these races, Democrats actually ran substantially stronger in the 2nd congressional district than in the rest of the state.
We have also heard from the party’s southeast Florida base that maximizing turnout in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties would make all the difference statewide. While there is some truth to the theory that more Democratic votes can be squeezed out of these three liberal metropolitan counties, both are already performing very well for Democrats and basing any statewide strategy around the three counties is difficult. What is important is that the party structures in all three counties become more organized and less beset by factionalism. For statewide elections these counties are critical but in order to cut into the GOP’s legislative majority other counties are more important.
The most important counties in the state, it can be argued to recapture the legislature and perhaps to win off-year statewide elections, are (in no particular order) Brevard, Pasco, St Lucie, Sarasota, Volusia, Hernando and Polk. In each of these counties reapportionment afforded our party pickup opportunities this cycle but in each county those opportunities were blown by the Democrats. Additionally, local offices in these counties are dominated by Republicans and that gets us to the point where we need to work hard to rebuild our once strong infrastructure in these areas which allowed Democrats to defy national trends and top of the ticket weakness to win in these areas.
With the exception of traditionally Republican Sarasota, these are counties where the Democratic infrastructure has been eroded to a certain extent, but counties where the local party structure has remained solid and areas where developing a real farm team of local candidates and activists should be intensified with the backing of financial muscle.
Party building requires, like any building, a solid foundation. In politics foundations are built of people – be they registered voters, party activists, eager candidates or motivated donors. Building the foundation necessary to begin and sustain a long-term resurgence of the Democratic Party requires creating a new backbone at the local level of committed activists, potential candidates, and major fund-raisers. This needs to be done by branching out in the community, having a presence in local chamber events and local community organizations. When the Democrats were dominating legislative elections in the 1980s, our party’s tentacles reached out into these sorts of places. But since the mid 1990s the infrastructure of the party has collapsed and those based in Tallahassee have done little if anything to arrest this decline.
With a core group of believers recruited in these places who share core values, while at the same time incorporating that most democratic of notions inclusiveness, we can begin to build the essential “Farm Team” of local elected officials, and lay the groundwork for a successful campaign operation statewide in the medium sized counties. This starts at the local level and then works itself up to the legislature and eventually statewide races.
It is in these counties, with proper planning and financing, that can turn the entire state around. With support and guidance from local activists these are the places that can provide the foundation and resurgence of the Democratic Party in Florida at all levels. Local elected officials have the most contact with the average voter and are therefore the primary point of contact between Party, its statewide candidates and the voter.
If Alan Clendenin is elected Chair of the party, the building blocks for this revival will begin in earnest. The entire Democratic Party and progressives throughout the state will be better for it.