UPDATE: 1/6/2017 a Complaint was filed in The 11th Judicial District Miami-Dade Circuit Court against The Florida Democratic Party, Juan Cuba, in his capacity as Chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee; and Stephen Bittel, in his capacity as State Committeeman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee. Bittel is a candidate running for the FDP Chairmanship under hotly contested circumstances.
The Complaint was filed on behalf of Miami Attorney Bruce Jacobs, personally and in his capacity as Miami-Dade Precinct 583 Committee Member and Dr. Mae Christian, in her personal capacity as the President of the Miami-Dade Democratic Black Caucus. Representing Plaintiffs are Bruce Jacobs, Amida U. Frey, and Anna C. Morales of the Miami law firm, Jacobs Keeley, PLLC.
At the time of this update, the 72-Count Complaint had not been entered into the Miami-Dade County Civil, Family and Probate Courts Online System.
Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief ordering the FDP prohibit Bittel from running in the January 14th Election for FDP Chair, declaratory Judgment deeming Bittel ineligible for the position he currently holds as Miami-Dade State Committeeman and any further relief that the court deems proper and just.
Mr. Jacobs posted a link to the signed, final draft of the Complaint on his Facebook page today and made the following statement:
“Today I filed a lawsuit against the Florida Democratic Party asking the Court to find that the election of Stephen Bittel, a wealthy donor with ties to Debbie Wasserman Shultz, violated their Bylaws and to make him ineligible to run for State Party Chair.
I am proud to be joined in the lawsuit by Dr. Mae Christian, President of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Black Caucus. Dr. Chrisitan[sic] has been fighting for voting rights since she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at Selma. She recently received the Congressional Medal of Honor for her efforts. We shall overcome!
Next week I hope to get a hearing once we get a judge assigned. Next Friday there is a meeting at noon in Orlando, Florida for the FDP to hear our complaint.
Get involved. Make a plan to attend either the hearing in Miami or Orlando or both. Make a donation to the legal defense fund. Sign up to become a precinct captain. Take action. We can do this.”
Progressive Democratic reformers are undaunted by a recent determination of the Special Committee of the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) declaring no rules had been violated in two highly controversial local and State elections. At issue are the circumstances surrounding the warp-speed election of millionaire fossil fuels investor and real estate developer, Stephen Bittel, and his positioning to blast through three local and state level races in the space of two weeks. At the first meeting of the Miami-Dade DEC on December 6, 2016, Mr. Bittel was elected in absentia to one of two Committeeman seats in Miami Precinct 586 after a campaign by paid lobbyists to stuff the ballot for a subsequent election–an election which had not even been publicly noticed at the time the email was sent. Progressive Miami-Dade Democratic Party members point to this email as evidence that a conspiracy was being orchestrated. The motion to ratify the vote was taken at midnight after a 6-hour meeting–an exhausting tactic used successfully by the old guard DNC throughout the Democratic Primary and Democratic Platform Committee meetings.
January 3, 2016, Complaint submitted by members of the Miami-Dade Democrats Executive Committee to FDP Chair, Allison Tant
A January 4th press statement issued by Miami-Dade Democrats Executive Committee members says, in part:
Yesterday, on January 3rd, thirteen members of the Miami-Dade DEC filed a complaint to the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) regarding the special election held on December 20th during which Stephen Bittel was apparently named Miami-Dade State Committeeman, and on the basis of which he claims to be qualified for the role of FDP Chair. The thirteen signatures on the letter include the Miami DEC’s Outreach Vice Chair, Erika Grohoski, and Zenia Perez, who held the office of Credentials Chair on the night of December 20. In addition, a separate letter was sent to FDP on January 2nd by attorney and Miami-Dade Precinct Committeeman Bruce Jacobs of Jacobs-Keeley Trial Lawyers in Miami.
January 2, 2016, Complaint submitted by Bruce Jacobs, Esq., to Florida Democratic Party Chair, Allison Tant
Perhaps the most substantive difference between the two complaints is the inclusion of a “drop dead date” on January 5, 2017, within which period of time attorney Jacobs requested the FDP Committee to reply. I spoke with attorney Jacobs and asked what would happen if the FDP failed to adequately remedy the grievances in the complaint. Jacobs, who was a Sanders Rules Committee Delegate, told me he is prepared to file a civil lawsuit, if necessary. “If I need to be the one to file a lawsuit then I’m willing to do that because we need to start acting with integrity. I shouldn’t have to file a lawsuit, but I am prepared to do so if Florida Democratic Party leaders won’t enforce their own rules.” Jacobs emphasized, “Somebody needs to hold the [Florida Democratic] Party accountable so that they are not putting a finger on the scale in favor of wealthy donors. It’s all about who is going to handle the power with integrity and make the voters believe that the Florida Democratic Party is going to use its power for the good of the people instead of wealthy donors.”
A summary of the rules violations cited in the Miami-Dade DEC complaint cites:
● Inclusion of non-members in voting procedures;
● Lack of clarity about the presence of quorum and the percentage of proxies;
● So-called ratification of a prior invalid motion by Bret Berlin on 12/6;
● A physical blockade against observers at the beginning of the meeting when crucial motions were being cast and voted upon;
● Confusion surrounding the precinct committee(wo)man election/appointment in precinct 586; and
● Potential conflicts of interest involving Miami-Dade DEC, Juan Cuba, Mr. Bittel and applicants for DEC membership.
As Progressive Army’s Andre Roberge reported last month, as soon as Bittel weaseled his way into Precinct 586, he simultaneously announced his brazen intention to abandon his Committeeman position a mere six days after obtaining it, to seek not one, but two higher offices.
The political chicanery was orchestrated by long-time Miami-Dade DEC and FDP leadership and hired lobbyists whose ultimate goal was securing the FDP’s highest office for a millionaire donor who had not once previously been elected to any office. Bittel’s shameless announcement proves he had no intention to serve the interests of the people in Miami’s Precinct 586. He likewise had no intention to serve the interests of Florida residents during his next pit stop as Miami Dade’s State Committeeman. He and other FDP members seem to believe that raising money is a top priority in governing the Party.
In a recently videotaped interview by Orlando Political Observer about his bid for FDP Chair, Bittel admitted that unnamed party members “created a path for me to run”. The Complainants have, to some extent, determined which Party members conspired to create that path. The Miami-Dade DEC Complaint alleges:
We, the undersigned duly elected Precinct Committeemen and Committeewomen of Miami-Dade County make the following Complaint against the Chair of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee, Mr. Juan Cuba (the Chair), for violation of the bylaws of the Miami-Dade DEC, the Bylaws of the Florida Democratic Party, and rules of parliamentary procedure in order to conspire with several known and unknown individuals to bend and break the rules regarding the Special Election held on December 20th and the events leading up to the aforementioned election. Because of the rules violations outlined below, we strongly believe that this election must be immediately overturned, along with the motion to accept the credentials report, and the motion to ratify Bret Berlin’s invalid motion at or around midnight on December 6th. Furthermore, because this special election is a prelude to the upcoming F.D.P. elections scheduled for January 14th in Orlando, it is critical that these grievances be immediately and publicly addressed.
Bret Berlin, who made the allegedly invalid motion on December 6th, resigned just six days after his election to Miami-Dade State Committeeman. Immediately after winning his election, The Miami Herald reported Berlin’s statement that there was “no chance” he would step down and, further, he was
“not going to give respect to that question.” In a telephone interview, Berlin expressed no ethical reservations about his behavior or the role he, specifically, played in setting up Stephen Bittel’s meteoric rise to a position he did not earn through actual representation of the needs of the people in his district and state, but gained entirely by “virtue” of his big dollar political contributions and successful fundraising.
When I asked him why he reversed his promise to constituents, Berlin became defensive and framed himself as a public servant who willingly sacrificed himself for the betterment of The Party upon learning that a South Florida Democrat had an opportunity to be the first FDP Chair in 25 years. Berlin said:
I loved being a Committeeman for 12 years. I won by the largest margin of anybody else who ran for that seat. I ran against the former DEC Chair and the person who was handpicked for that seat before him. There was stiff competition and I still won by an overwhelming margin. I do a very good job and am very committed to the party, otherwise I wouldn’t have won by that margin. I’ve dedicated a portion of my life to this volunteer position which involves a lot of time, money and time away from family which is precious to me. I had zero intention of stepping down because I wanted to serve. I’ve never submitted a reimbursement for travel expenses. I’m not a political consultant. I don’t do it for the money. I do it because I love the party. This is how I give back. I make sure that progressive candidates get elected around the state. The most important job of committeemen and women is to make sure the county gets resources from the state and then to elect the person who will be State Chair.
Berlin disingenuously claims the December 6th election was an attempt to accommodate new party members at the grassroots level. Remarkably, when referencing the deadline he and Juan Cuba imposed on new party members to apply for voting privileges Berlin says, “We used the December 15th deadline as an opportunity to facilitate those people who wanted to join the party through the ‘DemEnter’ movement. We threw it to the grassroots and let them decide who could be Chair–not me. Every single application we received was processed timely and everyone who wanted to be a member got to be a member. It was a true grassroots effort.” In other words, Cuba and Berlin intentionally noticed the year’s first post-election voter application deadline by giving Miami-Dade new party members the bare minimum 10-day notice required by state and county Bylaws to help bring new Democrats—largely voters inspired by Bernie Sanders’ grassroots political movement—into the party. If Cuba and Berlin were truly interested in bringing in Sanders progressives, they could have extended the notice period to allow more voting applications to be made organically, rather than hire lobbyists to stack the deck for their super-funder of choice.
I asked Berlin whether it was “grassroots” to hire lobbyists to stuff the ballot in favor of a candidate who would bypass county and state Democratic Party rules designed to ensure party leadership ascends the ranks from the bottom to the top—practically the definition of the term. Berlin declined to answer my question, deflected responsibility and claimed instead, “I had no information or knowledge about that until after the fact. Zero knowledge. That had nothing to do with me.” When pressed for his personal opinion on the fairness of that practice, the words which next came from his mouth displayed a stunning level of cognitive dissonance: “What’s not fair is what the Democratic Party did in the Presidential Primary, putting its thumb on the scale.” Berlin was referring of course, to the scandal which erupted when Wikileaks revealed DNC bias against Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary. I asked Berlin why, if he felt that former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had been so unfair during the primary, he had no concerns about her ties to Bittel. Berlin’s response: “I have never seen a relationship between them.”
— RoseAnn DeMoro (@RoseAnnDeMoro) December 30, 2016
I pointed out that Wasserman Schultz appointed Bittel Co-Chair of the National Finance Committee in September 2015—a move which some local Democrats felt was a positive because Bittel’s moneyed connections would “supercharge” DNC Fundraising. Berlin replied, “She was the Party Chair. Bittel is a big donor. Every Chair in the history of the Democratic Party appoints big donors. I don’t judge by political affiliations because that’s an unfair metric. There’s a saying ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’. You can’t fault somebody for having a political relationship. What’s important to me is what a politician’s opinions and beliefs are. I’ve had an opportunity to work with and know Stephen Bittel and believe him to be a strong independent reformer who believes strongly in progressive issues. I have the same opinion of all of the candidates running for Florida’s Democratic Chair.”
Berlin and I discussed the political environment in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision which necessitates politicians in both establishment parties spend more time fundraising than representing their constituents, and the resulting disillusionment of voters across the political spectrum whose representation has been hijacked by moneyed interests. Berlin told me he believes the Citizens United decision is one of the most detrimental things to happen in modern American politics. “We should be working to fix the laws that allow democracy to work. [The Citizens United decision] allows democracy to be abused. That’s the issue. The issue is the disproportional say that people of means have in our democracy. Restoring faith in our Democratic Party is done by addressing Citizens United.” We further discussed the low turnout levels in Florida and across the nation which result from voter disgust. I asked Berlin how he’s comfortable backing a man who embodies everything he just said was wrong with politics—the disproportional representation granted to a man of means who never actually represented the people in the office he held for just six days before simultaneously announcing bids for Miami-Dade State Committeeman, immediately followed by FDP Chair. Berlin was incredulous when he said, “We had record turnouts in Miami-Dade County. Money is not evil, it’s necessary to run a campaign. Lots of elements go into elections. I will not demonize somebody because they have the ability to raise money. Just because someone is a donor or fundraiser does not make them ineligible to become State Chair.” Clearly frustrated, Berlin reiterated, “This man is the son of a school teacher who attended public schools and then made it big. I don’t think he should be demonized for that. We have had two other candidates who encouraged someone to drop out and then ran in that county. Are you aware of that? Two other candidates did that. To try to wrap a cloak around Bittel as bending rules is unfair when those rules have been twisted by two others. Three of the five did not follow the ‘normal path’. Who is to say what normal is?” The Miami-Dade DEC and FDP Bylaws define what ‘normal’ is, Mr. Berlin.
Berlin did not acknowledge the fact that one of those candidates he refers to, former state Sen. Dwight Bullard, was forced to move to another county as a result of the above-mentioned FDP establishment hijinks. The third candidate who moved into another district to position himself for FDP Chair is Alan Clendenin, FDP’s current First Vice-Chair.
More worrisome to many in the Florida Democratic Party than Bittel’s ties to Wasserman Schultz are his ties to the lobbyists who helped Donald Trump win the 2016 Presidential election. In the Orlando Political Observer video Bittel proclaims, “I woke up after Election Day, sick.” One presumes Bittel was sick that Donald Trump had just been elected. As proof of their concern, progressive activists within the party point to Bittel’s connections to the political lobbying firm, Ballard Partners. Ballard Partners lobbyist, Susie Wiles, was Donald Trump’s Florida Campaign Manager. The day after Trump won the election, Wiles told Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet, “I would hope that some of the people who helped [Trump] win Florida would be considered for transition jobs,” adding she was eager to offer her advice on candidates. The lobbying firm’s President, Brian Ballard, was Florida’s highest paid Republican lobbyist, reporting a median compensation of $2,346,000 for the last quarter of 2015, alone. Bousquet says Ballard is a key Trump advisor, “at the top of a short list of people who played key strategic roles in [Donald] Trump’s Florida victory” who “stand[s] to be rewarded with more than good seats at January’s inauguration.”
Which brings us full circle back to that December 4th email from Ballard Partners lobbyist and former aide to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Stephanie Grutman. Despite such dubious connections to big moneyed Trump lobbyists, disgraced FDP establishment members like Wasserman Schultz, low Democrat voter turnout and dismal election outcomes, Miami-Dade and State level FDP politicians have not flinched about bending the rules to elevate an inexperienced elected representative who plans to continue raising high-dollar contributions from lobbyists to fund Florida Democrats.
I asked Berlin to elaborate on the ways he sees Bittel as a party reformer. Berlin declined to comment. When pressed he said, “I don’t speak for him.” I made clear that I didn’t expect Berlin to speak for Mr. Bittel and again asked how Berlin, personally, sees Bittel as a party reformer. Berlin reiterated, “I don’t speak for him. I know he’s long been critical of the state party and I encourage you to reach out to him and ask about that. He’s not part of the Florida Democratic Party establishment and never has been. He wants to see lots of changes. Reach out to him, because I don’t speak for him.”
I had, of course, reached out to Mr. Bittel and to each Florida Democrat named or copied in the Complaints, including former state Senator Dwight Bullard. At the time of this publication, no statement from Mr. Bittel had been received. Another candidate for Florida Democratic Chair who was copied with the Complaints, Alan Clenendin, emailed this statement in response to my inquiry:
Those who benefit from maintaining the status quo continue to fight Democrats attempting to take the party in a new direction. I’m deeply discouraged by the tactics that opponents of reform have used, I’m hopeful this race will be about who has the best plan and vision for the Florida Democratic Party.
A late breaking story by Jerry Ianelli of Miami New Times yesterday indicates “a party spokesperson” provided a letter indicating the State will hold an official hearing on the complaints on January 13, 2017, the day before the FDP Chair Election on January 14, 2017. According to that letter, Ianelli says, the complaints “will be discussed for 45 minutes each at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando.” It should be noted here that the letter was not published with the Miami New Times article and has not yet been verified.
As Mr. Ianelli notes, the timing of the hearing just the day before the FDP Chair election is “interesting”. It remains to be seen what effect if any, a civil suit filed on behalf of Miami-Dade DEC members could have on the race for Florida Democratic Chair. It also remains to be seen if the Democratic Party, at state, local and federal levels will wake up and acknowledge that political gamesmanship, prioritization of money over-representation of the people played any role in the stunning loss in the 2016 Presidential election, and whether they will continue to bleed active party members who seek alternatives to politics as usual.