If there is one thing positive about this year’s Florida Democratic Party chair’s race, it is that we are really seeing each candidate’s vision for Florida. DECs are taking the extra step to not only inform themselves about the candidates, but are sharing their forums with others. With that being said, the Orange County DEC has provided a valuable service by posting their interviews with all the FDP chair candidates online. Because of this, this site will not be sending out any questionnaires because the information being provided is already at a much higher level than it had been in previous elections for this position.
With that being said, the interviews held by the Orange County DEC showed us that Florida Democrats have vastly different candidates when it comes to this year’s chair race. In the past, it had always been “establishment vs. anti-establishment”. This year, we see real solutions and discussions about the future of the party. Luckily, we don’t hear the same talking points by all candidates, but have an olio of different viewpoints. Some performed quite well, and some not so well. So, here is a “grade” for each performance.
Alan Clendenin: A-
Out of all of the candidate interviews, Alan Clendenin’s interview was the only one that discussed the largest problem with the Florida Democratic Party, which is that vendors are in control of every aspect of the party. He also, like many others, advocated that the political operations of the FDP should move to Central Florida (a reoccurring theme during these discussions). As far as his strategy, he continued to go back to his 2012 plan, which could still be implemented today, which calls for neutrality in the primaries, implementing a 67-county strategy, recruiting candidates at the local level, build on community ties, and broadening the fundraising base of that FDP funds do not rely on a handful of powerful donors.
While his plan does focus primarily on elections, he does lack some substance when it comes to the FDP’s role in a political agenda. More talk about whether the FDP should take a role in the legislative process would be beneficial. Additionally, with the 2016 election cycle being a true cycle of change, Clendenin’s plan should be updated to address contemporary realities. Still, even with that being said, he had a strong performance.
Dwight Bullard: D+
If anything Dwight Bullard’s performance was the most disappointing. Yes, he was a great voice for Democratic causes in Tallahassee. However, running the party and being a legislator are two different things. Somehow, Bullard fails to grasp this.
Most of his interview was about messaging and how Democrats need to return to its progressive roots. But the issues that he wants to focus on are more likely to shrink the electoral base instead of broaden the base. When asked specific questions about the structure of the Florida Democratic Party, he simply went back to messaging. Overall, it did not seem like he had a strong knowledge of the Florida Democratic Party organization, with the exception of what he had experienced as a member of the Florida Legislature.
He did have some ideas of substance, such as moving the FDP between Central Florida and South Florida (though did not stay if it should be the entire party or just the political operations), and that Democrats should focus on non-gubernatorial constitutional races.
Bullard also believes that the Florida Democratic Party chair should be a public figure and should be visible. Since Florida is not a parliamentary system, this idea might not be practical, especially in a state where most voters are not aware, or simply not interested, in state-level political figures with the exception of the governor. This tactic seems like something that a former legislator would support, but it is not known if it would be effective at a state party level.
Overall, Bullard seems ill-prepared to take over the Florida Democratic Party. The chair position relies on more than just rhetoric. Unfortunately, he does not show any understanding of how state parties operate.
Leah Carius: A
If anything, Leah Carius was a breath of fresh air. As the chair of the Osceola County DEC, she talked about taking a new approach to not just DECs, but to the way that we conduct campaigns in general. She understands that more efficient campaigns are those that can pool resources together, bring in the best and the brightest, not necessarily the one that brings in the most money. Basically, her philosophy seems to be that the FDP should run smart campaigns, not just throw money at candidates and see if they grow.
As far as her experience in governance, Carius and her DEC led the charge to get rid of non-partisan races in Osceola County, a question that seems to be a very high priority for Orange County State Committeeman Doug Head. Carius’s leadership on this non-partisan fight shows that she has the ability to promote party politics while also promoting good governance.
Her overall platform does discuss the need to start from the bottom and work up, which creates a bench for future elections. She also states that Florida Democrats should have a full-time field office, with political operations being located in Central Florida.
Finally, she addresses some of the problems with the FDP purely being , what I call, a “donor first party”, which leads to rank and file DEC members being unable to participate. First, when it comes to governance, Carius notices a link between campaign contributions and voting records. As far as the average Democrat in the state, she understands that the venues that the FDP picks to hold conferences and conventions are usually out of the price range of the average Democratic activist.
The only flaw that Carius had was the lack of discussing the current problems with the business of the Florida Democratic Party, which were addressed by Clendenin. However, her lack of discussing this might show that she plans on bringing in a new look FDP. Her interview should give Florida Democrats hope. Even if she does not win, she should be an important part of any party development in the future.
Lisa King: A-
Lisa King provides a strong mix of local activism, governing experience, and knowledge of state party business. In short, King might be the most qualified candidate to run for the Florida Democratic Party chair in decades. During her interview, she showed that she had a vast knowledge of the inner workings of the state party. As far as being a candidate in the past, she has the ability to create a strong grassroots campaign without sacrificing fundraising activities. Basically, she is the complete package.
Unlike Bullard, whose ideological approach would probably narrow Florida Democrats to a far-left party, King understands that Democrats are different throughout the state, and that the same message that resonates with someone in Miami-Dade will not with someone from Duval County. Therefore, King’s plan to expand the ideological base and to make the Florida Democrats a party similar to big tent parties in Europe. In addition, King addressed the need to protect minority voting rights, something that should be addressed by all candidates.
The reason King decided to run, she says, is because of the anger in the party that occurred between Sanders and Clinton supporters during the last primary. Her experience in Duval County shows that she can bring left and center-left factions together. Additionally, Duval County Democrats did perform quite well compared to other counties throughout the state.
Even with a strong resume, King did fail to expand on a few things. First, she did not really discuss how to involve DECs in the statewide process. However, since she has been a long-time member of the Duval DEC, I am sure she would be able to easily address this issue. The second issue is, again, the issue that Clendenin brought up about rebuilding the party structure. Many feel that King will continue the legacy of current FDP Chair Allison Tant. However, King failed to address this issue.
Overall, King does have the gravitas and intellect to be a strong Florida Democratic Party chair. Her experience at all levels of party and governing organizations would absolutely benefit the Florida Democratic Party. However, the major concern is if she would shake things up.
Stephen Bittel: C
Prior to this interview, Stephen Bittel was primarily known for his fundraising ability. During the interview, he continued to stress a fundraising approach to party politics, putting less emphasis on grassroots activism.
As far as his demeanor during the interview, Bittel came off as being scripted and having ready-made lines, with similes thrown in to make the points sound simplistic. A number of times he failed to answer the questions that were given to him. For example, one question that was ask is if the FDP should pay local volunteers or bring in people from other states, but Bittel did not provide an answer. He also did not provide an answer regarding Doug Head’s non-partisan elections question.
One criticism of Bittel is that he is not a “grassroots” person. When discussing grassroots organization, he talks about his progressive history and how he plans to keep that progressive point of view in the party. However, it seems as if Bittel is confusing grassroots with modern progressivism, which is comparing apples and oranges.
His platform seems to be that throwing money at problems will help, a complete deviation from Leah Carius’s message. This approach would be to raise money and hire field staffers and people that would make the party grow. However, he did not discuss ways to improve the DECs, and instead looks to money for the solution. Not all, and possibly most, issues regarding the Florida Democrats doesn’t revolve around money, but instead around understanding the needs of the local DECs. Bittel failed to do this. Finally, he would not commit to moving the FDP political operations out of Tallahassee.
Overall, Bittel’s performance was disappointing. He had the opportunity to discuss party building, but always pivoted to explaining how money would help party building. However, unlike Dwight Bullard, Bittel does have a basic understanding of how the party structure works. Unfortunately, he seems to think that the FDP should operate the same as the DNC, which puts money first. Unfortunately, that will not help Florida Democrats, as it hasn’t done so in the past.
Where did Orange County miss the boat?
The job that the Orange County DEC did in putting together these interviews was exceptional. However, they did miss some opportunities to ask some other questions. One subject that seemed to be missing from the discussion was the issue of diversity. A few questions on expanding diversity would have been nice, especially since some feel that the Osceola County DEC has a problem with diversity among its executive members. Also, more should have been discussed about the role of House and Senate Victory. Some candidates did touch on this, but it should be a larger party of the conversation. Finally, media was rarely discussed. Dwight Bullard was the only one that talked about approaches to media in depth. Unfortunately for Bullard, this was the only thing he talked about. Still, the overall job that the the Orange County DEC did on this was phenomenal, and they provided a great service to Florida Democrats.