One thing that has to be said about the 2017 race for Florida Democratic Party chair is that it has been quite open. In previous years, everything was done behind closed doors. However, multiple candidate forums have been live streamed on Facebook, giving everyone a look at the candidates, not just state committee members. Because of the nature of these forums, it is important that the state committee picks the party leader that best represents the views of the party rank-and-file members in order for the election to have legitimacy. Yes, we have entered a new era of party politics, which will benefit everyone.
When looking over all of the candidates vying for the position, one candidate stands out as the best choice for chair of the Florida Democratic Party…Lisa King.
Lisa King has been involved with Florida Democrats since she was a child in the 1970s. When I got involved with the party in 1991, King was an important person in the Florida Young Democrats, as well as productive. Since then, she has remained committed to the Florida Democratic Party, as well as to Democrats in Duval County. As far as electoral success, King outperformed Hillary Clinton in Jacksonville City Council District 2 by 5%. Even though District 2 was a strong Republican district, King still raised $173,226 from organizations throughout the political ideology spectrum, which is quite impressive for a Democrat. In 2016, Duval County was one of the only bright spots for the Democrats on Election Night, with King being an important part of the North Florida Clinton team.
In addition to her involvement, she does seem to have the professional comportment needed to hold the office. During her campaign, she has talked about how she plans to bring people together, citing the work she had done in Duval County to bring Sanders and Clinton supporters together after the DNC Convention. As far as her plans for the party, King wants to make the party more open. She is the first candidate to say that selection of party staff should not solely determined by the party chair, but open to the FDP state committee. This approach would provide the democratic reform and transparency that is needed in the Florida Democratic Party.
Another benefit of Lisa King’s campaign is the no-drama approach that she is taking to campaigning. In 1787, James Madison wrote about factionalism in Federalist No. 10, warning us how small groups of people could work contrary to others or a community as a whole. In this election, just like past elections, we see factionalism, with the party establishment supporting Bittel, the Sanders progressives supporting Bullard, and those who are mad at Allison Tant supporting Clendenin. However, King, as well as Leah Carius, seeks the support of all Democrats, not just ones in a certain group. In order to have a strong Florida Democratic Party, the chair needs to be one that can work with all factions, and Lisa King seems to be the logical choice, and has proven that she has the ability to do so with her record of bringing Democrats together in Duval County.
Additionally, understanding the entire state of Florida is also another asset of Lisa King. As a Duval County Democrat, she is in the unique position to understand both rural and urban voters. While from North Florida, she is not Tallahassee-based, thus does not live inside the Tallahassee bubble. On a number of occasions, King has stated that the FDP needs to take different approaches to different parts of the state, and that is absolutely true. Bill Montford would never win a primary in Boca Raton, and a state party chair needs to recognize this.
Lisa King is, by far, the most well-rounded candidate running for this position. Even with that being the case, Florida Democrats still have a strong group of candidates. Still, some do have some shortcomings.
The choice of US Senator Bill Nelson is Stephen Bittel. Of course, he provides a strong fundraising background, which is needed for any political party. But during this campaign, he has failed to show that he has a strong understanding of how state and county parties work. During most of the forums, Bittel’s remarks have been more focused on name-dropping and anecdotal evidence than providing a concrete plan to rebuild the Florida Democratic Party. Still, one question that has not been asked (to my surprise) is how Bittel plans to take his DNC fundraising experience and transfer it to state politics in Florida. Raising money for people named Clinton and Obama is much easier than raising money for Florida House candidates. The only way to see this being successful is by having a top-down approach to rebuilding the party, and having a high-profile, top-of-the-ticket candidate drive the rest of the Democratic ticket. But Democrats have done this before, and it hasn’t worked.
The other high-profile South Floridian in this race is former Senator Dwight Bullard. Bullard is a great legislator, a great speaker, and overall nice guy. However, he does not seem to have a strong grasp at the problems that are facing the Florida Democratic Party. As Steve Schale said (who I totally agree with on this issue), the FDP chair needs to be a CEO or a manager, not an activist. Yet, most of Bullard’s message, as well as that of his supporters, seems to be more about ideology than party structure. As someone who voted in the Orange County presidential preference primary for Bernie Sanders, I am the first to admit that Bernie’s message is not one that will win over Florida. The fact is that Hillary won 64.4% of the vote. Another progressive, Alan Grayson, was also destroyed in the primary. Not only does this show that the state in general is not progressive, but registered Democrats are not that progressive either. A message based on far-left ideology will just hurt the party, not help it.
As I stated before, Leah Carius is someone who should be listened to when it comes to rebuilding the Florida Democratic Party. As a true DEC chair (not just someone who uses a DEC chair position as a stepping stone for FDP chair) she can provide knowledge and vision when it comes to DEC issues. She has clearly shown that she understands the disconnect between the state party and the DECs, as well as the struggles the local DECs have in general. However, the FDP chair needs an understanding of statewide party politics (which is why her having a map of all the counties in Florida during some live streams is a liability, not an asset). As much as people want to move the party’s operations from Tallahassee to Central Florida (which should have been done years ago), the party still needs to be connected to Tallahassee. Therefore, someone who knows Tallahassee as well as the rest of the state is vitally important. If Carius was to lose, the FDP should create a DEC Liaison position and, without hesitation, give her that position. Again, Leah Carius is valuable to the Florida Democratic Party.
Alan Clendenin has run for this position before, and is usually the candidate with the best vision regarding the future of the Florida Democratic Party. When it comes to some of the problems that face the FDP, Clendenin knows them like the back of his hand. The plan that he has presented, which is not much different from what he presented in the past, would move Florida Democrats in the right direction. However, having a good plan and being able to effectively implement that plan are two different things.
Clendenin’s run this time around seems to have a different tone than previously. And while it is not necessarily Clendenin that has change, those who support his candidacy have changed. In 2013, Clendenin’s campaign was based on providing Florida Democrats an alternative to the status quo. However, in 2017, Clendenin’s support seems to come from those who either were mad that Allison Tant in 2013, or those who have fallen out of favor with Tant and the Florida Democratic Party since 2017, and might see supporting Clendenin’s candidacy as a way to get back at the party or Tant personally. While Clendenin’s plan is spot on, this type of factionalism is not what Florida Democrats need to move the party forward.
Overall, Florida Democrats have some strong choices when it comes to Florida Democratic Party chair, with each person bringing different things to the table. However, if this race has shown us anything, it is that factionalism is destroying the Florida Democratic Party. Determining support for state chair candidates based on patronage, ideology, jealousy, anger, or personality should not be the norm. Unfortunately it has become the norm, and Lisa King seems to be the strongest candidate for the FDP chair position to bring Florida Democrats together.
Over the last few weeks, this website has seriously questioned Stephen Bittel’s and Dwight Bullard’s ability to lead the Florida Democratic Party. However, if one of them wins this position, it is important for all of us on every side of this race to extend an olive branch and talk to one another about the future of the Florida Democratic Party. Yes, we can have disagreements, but everyone should be focusing on the common good, which is to get Democrats elected in Florida.
Yes, many of us, including myself, have fanned the flames of factionalism. But with Trump’s victory, Democrats need to work together more than during any time in the past. That means burying the hatchet when it comes to personal clashes that have happened over the years. Basically, it is time to grow up.
This also means staying away from vicious labeling of those who we disagree with, something that I was a victim of in 2013 and that Kartik Krishnaiyer has been a victim of this time around. This level of discourse should never be tolerated, and Florida Democrats need to shut the door on anyone willing practice this method of discourse, and not further embrace them. That is something Donald Trump would do, not Democrats!
Florida Democrats have the opportunity to move their party forward. As MacKenzie McHale from The Newsroom said, “are you in or are you out”?