Yesterday, longtime party titan Jon Ausman sent out an email discussing the need for Florida Dems to focus on municipal races this year. This is also a need at the local DEC level where the Democratic Party has failed to assert itself in these elections which represent the building blocks for future success. Party building has to be done at the local level in a bottom-up fashion, not a top-down one.
Local elected officials tend to be more able to raise money at a local level for the party and are closer to their constituency and thus help our statewide campaign efforts. 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 is best served by rolling up our sleeves and focusing on municipal elections throughout the state in 2013.
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. The aforementioned Jon Ausman played a big part in this thinking, as at the time he was closely advising Maddox. 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. In each of these races the call was put out to activists across the state to join in and help, and in three of the races, I personally volunteered my time (Tampa was the exception).
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.