On Friday, a Florida Democratic Party (FDP) panel convened to hear three separate complaints filed last week by FDP members regarding the contentious race for FDP Chair. The FDP once again voted in favor of millionaire donor and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz appointee, Stephen Bittel, and against Florida Democrats’ progressive reform candidates. The hearings were held at Orlando’s Rosen Shingle Creek Resort and live-streamed by FDP Party Members Mario Piscatella and Zenia Perez here, here and here.
A Flurry Of Complaints
Complaints were filed January 1st and January 3rd, 2017, against Bittel and Miami-Dade DEC Chair, Juan Cuba. Complainants allege party insiders violated numerous Miami-Dade and FDP By-laws to elevate Bittel to run for FDP Chair. Bittel’s meteoric rise from multi-million dollar donor/fundraiser to local, then state Committeeman, took place in the space of two weeks. After he secured a local seat as Precinct 586 Committeeman under hotly contested circumstances and a midnight vote, Bittel announced his intention just days later to abandon that seat to run simultaneous campaigns for FDP State Committeeman and FDP Chair.
A third complaint filed January 4th by Bay County Committeewoman and Bittel supporter, Patricia Byrd, seeks to nullify Alan Clendenin’s election to Bradford County and his subsequent bid for FDP Chair due to violations of residency requirements. Clendenin’s statement dismissed Byrd’s allegations:
Instead of making the case for why he’s the best person for the job, it appears as though this candidate [Bittel] is trying to win by clearing the field using baseless and unfounded complaints to disqualify his opponents. Like other candidates in this race, as well as the past four FDP Chairs, I qualified for this position within our current rules. I know that these rules do not make sense to many people which is why I’m calling for them to be changed and will make this a top priority if elected. This complaint is nothing more than an unnecessary distraction from talking about how we move this party forward.
In a January 4th interview with The Progressive Army, party insider Bret Berlin admitted that Stephen Bittel himself, had encouraged the Precinct 586 candidate to drop out so he could run in Miami-Dade County. “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.”
Reformers knew at the outset that today’s FDP Hearing was biased in favor of Bittel. In his 15 minute opening statement, Miami Attorney Bruce Jacobs asked panel member David Drew about a Bittel press release claiming that Drew had endorsed him. Incredibly, Drew admitted on the record that he supports Bittel because of his ability to raise tens of millions of dollars for the party. But Drew denied that his support is an endorsement and said he asked the same two questions of each FDP Chair candidate. The first question was whether the candidate would push to change antiquated 1962 FDP Bylaws which allow for mischief within the party. His second question:
…I said, ‘We’ve been working on a budget of roughly $3M more or less for as long as I can remember, twelve—fourteen years. That’s hardly enough to keep the lights on in Tallahassee. We’re not players in this market unless we can come up with something better than that. The Republican budget is much, much greater.’ So I asked Mr. Bittel, as I have asked the other candidates, ‘Can you come up with a budget that is more like $13 or $14 million? That makes sense.’ He said, ‘I can probably do more than that.’ So I said, ‘In that case, then you’ve answered both my questions and at this point you probably have my vote.’ That’s not an endorsement. And I did talk to the other candidates and some of them have answered yes to one or both of my questions.
After the hearing, Mr. Jacobs told The Progressive Army:
This is an indication that the party is not yet ready to take its medicine. The Florida Democratic Party has an obligation to follow its own laws and rules. It is interesting that, Mr. Clendenin, who isn’t bringing millions into the party—they enforced their rules against that guy—but not against Bittel who didn’t get there the right way.
There’s been no integrity in the process for a long time and that is what this fight is about. It’s about the disconnect between the people who are connected to the banks, and the rest of the people. The people are losing faith in the system. From the beginning, everything I do here is about trying to bring back integrity to the process.
A Member of Democracy for America in Miami-Dade, Wendy Sejour, provided her take on the hearings:
In a predictable result, since the chair of the ‘unbiased’ committee had endorsed Bittel, the FDP has proven to us, the electorate, that the ends justify the means. They are comfortable with election fraud, and sham judicial hearings where justice and fairness are ignored. The sworn statements of more than 10 members were patently ignored in favor of party insiders. The FDP acted disgracefully and should be ashamed.
Clearly, the FDP picks and chooses when to enforce its own rules, and big moneyed interests always seem to get a pass. I reached out to Civil Rights icon and President of Florida Democratic Black Caucus, Dr. Mae Christian, to ask her thoughts about the result of the hearing. She asked me if I’d attended and wondered about the result. Because I’d seen Dr. Christian on the live-stream, I was surprised she hadn’t already heard. But Dr. Christian knew better. Without even a hint of surprise in her voice, she told me:
I didn’t stay. Them people don’t care.
I would have preferred to represent myself in there. I’ve been a foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement since I marched on Selma in 1965 and have been a Democrat since 1974. Approximately fifty-four years. I’ve been here for twenty years, and have never seen anything like this before. Juan Cuba has only been there for four years. They’re not telling you how they got him elected.
I wrote the [original] grievance about this but the Party did not see that the bylaws and procedural guidelines weren’t followed. The [December 6th] quorum was not respected. People kept voting and the interim credentialing chair kept adding them. That girl in the black dress lied about the credentialing chair. Once the quorum was lost, they allowed Berlin to suspend the rules. But the agenda had already been set. Bittel ran all of those elections. They gave this man a precinct and walked him through. These people are violating their own bylaws. I knew that this case wasn’t strong enough because the people who reviewed the grievance already made their decision after a telephone conference the day before the hearing.
There are so many grievances that African Americans have filed all over the state that they’ve ignored. It was not just about Bittel, this was about the whole procedure. You heard what that guy, Drew said. It’s about big money influence. We have a case pending in court, and I’d like to speak for myself.
Progressives’ Next Moves
Despite the hearing results, progressive reformers who want to get money out of politics are undaunted. After listening to each candidate for FDP Chair speak at the January 11th Forum moderated by Tim Canova, a group in the process of forming a new Florida Democrats’ Progressive Caucus threw their support behind progressive reform candidate and former State Senator, Dwight Bullard. In a January 4, 2017 Press Release, Sen. Bullard announced an eight-point platform, and called upon the Democratic Party to “Move hearts with authentic, hands-on and grassroots leadership.” Sen. Bullard believes inspirational leaders will grow a grassroots membership and seed small donor fundraising.
Sen. Bullard told The Progressive Army, “My goal is to restore faith and confidence in the Democratic Party that’s been missing for some time in Florida. We are coming up on the 20th anniversary of Democrats losing control of the State Legislature.” A high school teacher since 2000, Sen. Bullard got involved in Florida’s legislation at a time when people were trying to dismantle the school system. “GOP did not want to expand Medicaid to save lives. We had issues regarding the environment and the potential damage to the water supply in Florida, and the GOP wanted more permissive laws for drilling and fracking.” Sen. Bullard was frustrated from a legislative standpoint, saying, “It seemed like we were fighting a losing battle. The Democratic Party was exacerbating those problems by not challenging those wrongs in a real way. They were not rallying troops in Florida around the things that concern each of us: environment social justice, minimum wage and education.” Those are the issues important to Sen. Bullard and why he says he is running for Chair of the Florida Democrats.
In an interview on The Benjamin Dixon Show, Sen. Bullard said he has always been an activist politician, much to the chagrin of the establishment Democratic Party. He is keenly aware that people in his state feel a desire to see fundamental change, but says, “Folks don’t feel as though the Democratic Party is the real alternative because it won’t fight for the things that matter to the people.” Bullard’s plan is to embrace local leaders who reflect their communities.
The Democratic Party does not represent the great diversity of a state like Florida. A leadership team under my administration would be diverse and representative of LGBT rights and the ethnic communities which make our state as vibrant as it is.
What I would hope for as we embark on this initiative is to raise the profile and viability of those folks to create a real solid bench of candidates with a big D behind their name who are not afraid to speak to those issues and start winning elections. I am committed to barnstorming the state, talking to Democrats and to a lot of people who are not a part of the party. I want to meet people where they are.
From a fundraising standpoint, Sen. Bullard would like to see a party less driven by corporate money, which utilizes the strategy Senator Sanders did in his 2016 Presidential campaign, by using small dollar donations.
I’d like to bring the Florida Democratic Party into the 21st century using technology in a very real way. There’s no reason we can’t pay homage to FDR with fireside chats using Facebook Live and free live-streaming technologies which are at our disposal. What that does is create a level of transparency.
When asked what distinguishes Sen. Bullard from the rest of the candidates on the FDP Chair ticket, he says,
I am the only candidate running who has actually served in elected public office. I bring techniques to the table that the other candidates don’t possess because they’ve never held office before. I’m not just giving pep talks. I have experience to offer. People out there have to believe you’re going to do what’s right. It cannot be overemphasized that people want a paradigm shift. They are tired of the business as usual model. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over. And that’s just what we’ve been doing.
Referencing President Obama’s OFA initiative to organize at the local level, Sen. Bullard says he’d take that plan a step further.
Engagement has to be continual. Democrats need to be more present along issues-related platforms like Fight for $15, healthcare expansion, decriminalization and legalization of marijuana because it feeds into the voter base which we rely on, but sometimes ignore. When we look around the country we see far too many people of color being victimized by a criminal justice system that’s way too violent. There’s nothing unpatriotic about saying that the criminal justice system is flawed and criminalizes a particular people at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world.
The UN made a distinction that our jails, in comparison to the rest of the world are over populated. We need to address concerns about implicit bias and the imbalances in the system. That’s what the people are asking for. Democrats are uniquely positioned to have a conversation about that. In Florida we need look no further than the 2.5 Million disenfranchised citizens of this state who can’t get their voting rights back even after they’ve already paid their debt to society. It’s criminal that we have that many people in Florida who cannot vote.
About the problems which have plagued Florida’s local and state elections this year, Sen. Bullard says:
More reforms should be in place so the system looks a lot more transparent so that the inherent problems which forced me out of Dade don’t end up victimizing potential candidates in the future. Our rules ought to reflect a more open and transparent form of Democracy. Democrats should be on the right side of history about the expansion of democracy.
I’m a history major and a teacher. I am pursuing goals in this election that I’ve always pursued. Anybody can look at my legislative record and know that you won’t have to pull teeth to get me to work for women’s rights, immigrant rights, sanctuary cities, the LGBT community and on local human rights ordinances—supporting the positive and fighting the negative, but always being on the right side of history. In my role as Chair I won’t abandon that role. Not by any stretch.
Sarah Coutu is the Santa Rosa County Chair and FDP State Commiteewoman. This morning, Santa Rosa DEC officers voted unanimously to support Dwight Bullard. She wrote to The Progressive Army:
We do not feel that anyone should be able to buy their way into a position in our Party. We are NOT for sale! Stephen Bittel promised me a position if he wins Chair. I told him that would not earn my vote. He said he will win without me and promised me the position even if I support someone else. I told him that I didn’t want a position and that I was dedicated to building the party in my county.
This the most critical time in modern history to unite and stand against the Republican Party. The house just voted to begin dismantling the ACA! Our minorities across the board are about to have the hardest fight of their lives. This is the time for the Democratic Party to mend every fracture and become the strongest it has ever been!
Today’s hearings confirmed that the dark money in our party has no mercy. This was another example of pay to play. It is not acceptable to apply the rules to one individual and not the other. It is also a major conflict of interest for the chair of today’s committee to have openly endorsed Stephen Bittel prior to the hearing. This is NOT democracy!
We may very well have one chance to save our party and begin winning elections again. Florida plays a huge roll in nationwide elections. The Florida Democratic Party had this one chance to recover from the huge losses on November 8th and prove that they were serious about change. I personally feel they have instead sealed our fate to another 8 years of losing elections. Today feels like the beginning of what others are calling “Trump’s World”. Before today, there was hope we could start winning elections in 2018 and thereafter, bringing the party back to the people, uniting our forces across the entire party to stand strong against the republicans. I’m afraid we have just opened the door for Trump to do catastrophic damage to our country, with no force to stand against anything he wishes to do.
The FDP Chair elections are tomorrow, January 14th. An evidentiary hearing in the civil case has been set for January 20, 2017. Mr. Jacobs informed the FDP panel that all of the witnesses from the December 6th election will be given an opportunity to speak. Power to the people.