As the state party rebuilds from its latest electoral shellacking, Black Democrats and Black-owned media outlets grill prospective leaders.
BY ANDREAS BUTLER
ORLANDO – The Democratic Party, both national and statewide, is in shambles.
After the surprising Electoral College defeat of Hillary Clinton, Republicans will consolidate their hold on power nationally after the inauguration of Donald Trump in less than two weeks. They already control both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
In Florida, Republicans control the governorship and both legislative bodies, even though for decades, there have been more registered Democratic voters that Republicans. Still, Democrats have won only a handful of statewide elections during non-presidential campaign cycles over the last 29 years.
In September 2016, the Florida Courier reported that the Democratic Party officials continued to run its usual campaign playbook of using fear and hoping that anxiety and dread of a Donald Trump presidency would turn out Black voters, despite warnings that Black “millennials” in focus group studies, including young Black Barack Obama “surge voters” in Jacksonville, showed little enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.
As early as July 2016, research indicated that Clinton was underperforming in Florida among young Black female Democratic voters by 12 percent when compared to Obama’s 2012 voter totals, and by 16 percent among young Black male Democratic voters.
The Black voter turnout strategy – the same one Democrats have used for losing campaigns in the past without Obama on the ballot – failed miserably again in November 2016.
Small counties absent
When Florida Democratic Party (FDP) leaders meet next weekend to pick a new party chair, a dozen counties will not participate in the vote.
The counties, which are small, rural communities, each lack a formal party organization, known as a local Democratic Executive Committee, disqualifying them from the vote. The missing counties are emblematic of the party’s organizational challenges in the nation’s largest swing state.
Urban vs. rural
Another challenge that Florida Democrats face, which is reflective of their national dilemma, is that their vote is centered in a handful of large urban counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange and Hillsborough.
With limited resources and time, the question always becomes how much effort should be made in turning out the vote in those major counties versus developing party organizations in smaller counties where Republicans have dominated state elections.
These are just some of the challenges facing the Florida Democratic Party as it selects a new leader to try to make the party relevant again.
Five candidates are seeking to succeed current FDP chairwoman Allison Tant. They are Stephen Bittel, a major party fundraiser and developer from Coconut Grove; Leah Carius, chair of the Osceola County Democrats; Alan Clendenin, a retired air traffic controller; former state Senator Dwight Bullard of Miami, representing Gadsden County; and Lisa King, a state committeewoman from Jacksonville.
But this year, Black Democrats are not sitting back waiting for something to happen and for everyone else to pick the state party’s leadership.
For the first time in recent history, they linked up with the state’s Black-owned media outlets to question prospective leaders and to make their own recommendation as to who should be in charge.
On Jan. 6, the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida (DBCF), led by chairman Henry Crespo, Sr., held a candidate forum at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando.
The DBCF has 19 chapters with more than 300 members across the state, including Black county and municipal elected officials and Democratic Executive Committee officers. It indirectly represents more than 1.6 million Black Democrats – about one-third of all registered Democrats in Florida.
In separate interviews during a six-hour meeting, the DBCF Executive Campaign Committee, chaired by Beverlye Neal, and her team asked the five candidates questions about their motivations, ideology, and what changes they plan to make in the party if elected.
A press conference with Florida Black-owned media outlets, including the Florida Courier, followed. All the candidates attended.
Black journalists raised an array of topics of concern to African-Americans, including restoring voting rights for ex-felons; fighting voter suppression efforts; preventing “gerrymandering” voting districts; increasing turnout among Black voters; utilizing Black-owned media for paid advertising; and being more accountable to Black voters – the most loyal voting bloc in the Democratic Party, both statewide and nationally.
Each candidate believed that he or she is the right person for the job. All five believe that changes are needed.
“We must abandon business as usual and how we have done things in the past. We have to find a better way to do things and bring in new ideas,” said Carius.
“Let’s build a 67-county strategy, including the 12 counties where no DEC currently exists,” Bullard advised. “In a swing state like Florida where margins are thin, it’s important to build a strategy to engage every Democrat in our state, not only Democrats who live in Florida’s bluest counties.”
Commented Bittel, “The solution is having greater Black representation and it starts with candidate recruitment and training. The greatest energy amongst Black voter participation and registration in the history of the U.S. was the candidacy and election of Barack Obama.’
“We need to encourage Black political participation, get more Black candidates, and fight back against Republican voter suppression. We must train find and train the right candidates and make sure they have the right resources.”
“The struggle is not over although many believe that it is. We have districts gerrymandered to have voter suppression. Our party doesn’t often stand up and fight in those districts. When we see discriminatory practices, we can’t let it go unchecked. We’ve missed opportunities in the past. We can’t have elections when people aren’t running against incumbent Republicans,” Clendenin explained.
“Why aren’t we utilizing Black media all year? We can get our message out this way. We can be on Black radio and advertise in Black newspapers. We can be in Black media to talk about our officials and the issues. We don’t talk to people in the community like we are supposed to. We can’t just talk to them during election time.”
Said King: “We will not win any election until we address the problem that voters don’t trust us.
Voters don’t think that we care about them. Even in our own membership, people feel disconnected. I know that the African-American community feels that way. There are also other communities that feel that way. To confront the problem, we must acknowledge that we have one.”
Every vote counts
In the November presidential race, Republican Trump beat Democrat Clinton by a margin of 49 percent to 47.8 percent, although Clinton only carried nine of Florida’s 67 counties. Obama won Florida by less than 1 percentage point in 2012, carrying 13 counties.
“Florida has been won and lost by 1 percent of the vote,” King said. “The 2016 election was lost in rural and suburban counties, which need support outside of when statewide campaigns are active within their border.”
“Every county, no matter how red or how small, has Democrats to be turned out.”
Bullard gets nod
In the end, the DBCF recommended Bullard for the state chairmanship.
“Based on the discussion of the DBCF executive committee, it was clear that Dwight Bullard has the clearest understanding of the need for grassroots organizing,” Crespo said in a press release this week. “And that is why is he received our recommendation.”
The Florida Democratic Party reorganization and chairs elections will take place on Jan. 14 in Orlando.
Lloyd Dunkelberger of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.