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FDP Chair Sold To Highest Bidder, Stephen Bittel

Dwight Bullard Elected DNC Person

Stephen Bittel takes the podium for the first time as the Florida Democratic Party's newly elected Chair. Image courtesy of The Orlando Political Observer.

On Saturday, January 14, 2017, the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) held a much anticipated, but scandal-ridden race for State Chair. The room was filled to capacity with approximately fifty people in an overflow lobby. Among them were peaceful demonstrators holding up signs and keeping silent vigil. As expected, FDP superdelegates propelled Stephen Bittel to victory. Not so expected was the decision of the electorate to overturn a biased eligibility decision made the day before by a select FDP Judiciary Committee. Though Progressive favorite Dwight Bullard was not elected to DFP Chair, he and other reform party members did win some solid DNC victories. The FDP Chair election was live-streamed by Mario Piscatella, here.

FDP Judiciary Committee Report Overturned

Before elections commenced, the body heard reports on Saturday’s Judiciary Committee hearing regarding Miami-Dade DEC eligibility of Stephen Bittel and FDP Vice-Chair, Alan Clendenin. Alachua County State Committeeman, Robert Mounts, motioned the voting body to allow non-member Attorney Bruce Jacobs to speak. Mr. Jacobs, President of the Miami-Dade Black Caucus, Dr. Mae Christian, and Miami-Dade DEC members filed grievances challenging Stephen Bittel’s eligibility to run for FDP Chair.  Committeeman Mounts said he believed the refusal to allow Jacobs to speak would be a violation of due process of an individual’s right to counsel and grounds for appeal of the pending FDP Party elections, if he was not allowed to speak on behalf of complainants. A motion to allow a non-voting member to speak before the FDP body required unanimous consent for passage.

Committeeman Mounts’ motion was seconded, but numerous objections were raised and the motion to allow Jacobs to speak failed. The membership briefly chanted, “Let Bruce Speak! Let Bruce Speak!” before coming to order. As a member of the electoral body, Committeeman Mounts was allowed to continue to speak on behalf of Mr. Jacobs. The retired member of the Florida State Bar stated he was not there to advocate for any particular candidate and had no axe to grind one way or another, but as an attorney, after listening to the entire Judicial Committee hearing, he believed rules were violated.

Ever since I began my career early as Deputy General Counsel to Governor Reubin Askew, I’ve had a reputation of speaking truth to power, and being objective, and trying to be fair and follow by the rules. And the first rule I think had already been violated. The committee heard both cases. And in one case, I frankly believe, that they strictly followed the law with respect to how you change from one residence to another. It’s fairly simple. It’s not rocket science. And they were hyper-technical in enforcing those rules in the case against Alan Clendenin.

But in the case challenging Mr. Bittel, what I heard from his counsel—three high-powered lawyers, I assume, from Miami—was a lot of policy stuff. How much he can do for the party, how much money he can raise—all of these things—all these are great things. But they were irrelevant. They were irrelevant to the rules of procedure as to how we qualify first as a committeeman, and then as a state committeeman or woman, and be eligible to run for office here. These are our rules they have not followed. There are a number of instances where they were not [followed]. It appeared to me, frankly, objectively, as an orchestrated attempt to, as [Bittel] put it even before this happened, ‘to clear a pathway in the Party for him to become Party Chair.’

Committeeman Mounts continued:

If we want to change [the rules], we should get about doing it. But right now, it’s a duly elected State Committee person or Chair who is eligible to run for office. The bad news is that the Judiciary Committee heard both cases, which is in itself probably a violation. And certainly in his case a violation of the rule that they all be from places within 100 miles of Miami. The committee was stacked, apparently, with supporters of Mr. Bittel. At least, [Bittel’s] press release claimed that the Chairman, Mr. Dew, had already endorsed him. And, what we need is a fair and transparent process. If this recent election has taught us anything, it is that we must have a fair and transparent process where the thumb is not put on the scale for any particular candidate and they all have a fair shot at running.

Committeeman Mount’s statement was briefly interrupted by raucous applause, before continuing:

The lawsuit has been filed and it will be heard January 20th, regardless of what we do. The judge has agreed to hear evidence and if that happens, it’s going to be a blot on the Party. It’s going to be public and those people who voted for Sanders and those people in the African American community who feel disenfranchised are gonna feel like….

Mr. Mount’s statement was interrupted by the speaker, who announced his time was up. Michael Moskowitz of Fort Lauderdale law firm Moskowitz Mandell Salim & Simowitz, offered Bittel’s rebuttal. Representative clients of the Moskowitz firm include such Wall Street firms as Bank of America, J.P. Morgan, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, UBS Financial and Wachovia Bank & Mortgage Corporations. Every one of those investment firms was deemed “too big to fail” and received tax payer bailouts after the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis and recession. A twist of irony, given that Bruce Jacobs’ firm, Jacobs Kelley, PLLC, specializes in the representation of struggling homeowners whose mortgages went underwater in the aftermath of that crash, many of whom lost their homes to foreclosure.

Moskowitz addressed the body:

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. For those of you who know me, I rarely get a microphone. But, since it was handed to me, I am going to use it. I am counsel for Stephen Bittel. Let’s not talk about politics. Let’s not talk about the make-up of the committee. Let’s talk about the complaint. Let’s talk about what the overwhelming evidence was that was submitted to your committee, where they ruled unanimously against the complaint.

Members in the crowd shouted objections from the floor, challenging Moskowitz’s membership status. A Bittel supporter proclaimed the crowd’s objections were out of order. Moskowitz continued addressing the Judiciary Committee report, but questions about his membership status persisted until Mr. Moskowitz finally responded, “Yes, I am [a member]. I’m carrying Ted Deutch’s proxy.” Rep. Ted Deutch is a U.S. Congressman for Florida’s 22nd District.

Moskowitz’ closing statements were drowned out by boos from the crowd as members objected to his appearance by proxy, believing his proxy did not qualify him to speak before the body. The objections of the membership were not addressed and the matter proceeded to a vote anyway. While members cast their votes, some Democrats implored superdelegates to vote with the people: “Don’t sell out our party!” “Vote No!” One statement, “Money does not win elections! Passionate people win elections!” was met with rounds of applause. A man with an accent can be heard in the video encouraging members to vote for the people. In response, another man says, “He must be an immigrant.” Despite unanswered objections over the propriety of the motion, the weighted superdelegate votes confirmed the Judiciary Committee report 770 to 172 and Bittel remained eligible to run for Chair.

FDP Vice-Chair Alan Clendenin next addressed the findings of the Judicial Committee report by laying out facts which he said pointed to his eligibility, stating simply, “What happened yesterday had very little to do with fact, and more to do with agenda…. Let’s make this right.”

Bill Rettinger, one of five panel members who voted against Vice-Chair Clendenin the day before, offered his rebuttal. Rettinger stated emphatically, “I do not want a person running for chair of my party—” Rettinger paused, and course corrected saying, “—and our party, that is violating the law. Sorry, it’s as simple as that.” Rettinger’s hypocrisy was noted by members of the body who believe Bittel himself violated FDP and Miami-Dade By-laws to run for Chair. Like Moskowitz, Rettinger’s argument was met with resounding boos. When votes were tallied, his speech proved unpersuasive. 188 members abstained, 210 members sided with the Judicial Committee to disqualify Clendenin, and 749 voted to allow him to retain his State Committeeman seat and run for FDP Chair. The announcement resulted in applause.

FDP Party Elections

The votes of FDP superdelegates are much more heavily weighted than regular voting members within the party–just how many votes they count for is difficult for an outsider to determine. Social media accounts from party insiders speculated Wasserman Shultz’s vote counted for 46 votes. The Progressive Army was unable to determine that figure. It seems to be a well-guarded secret.

The same heavily weighted superdelegate votes which permitted Clendenin to remain in the election also buoyed Bittel to victory. In the end, Bittel received 612 votes. Alan Clendenin was awarded 211 votes. Progressive-backed Dwight Bullard received 150 votes. Challengers Lisa King and Leah Carius received 106 and 19 votes, respectively. Mr. Piscatella also live-streamed the Florida DNC superdelegate elections here and here.

Florida's Tim Canova, Chair of Progress For All

The Progressive Army contacted Tim Canova for comment on Bittel’s election win. Mr. Canova, who ran a grassroots primary campaign against Debbie Wasserman Schultz and now serves as Chair of Progress for All, was attending a protest of the Sabal Trail Pipeline, but was nonetheless able to provide a written statement:

In his campaign for Florida Democratic Party chair, Stephen Bittel pledged to rebuild our party and mend the rifts between progressive and establishment Democrats. He pledged to reform the antiquated and unfair party rules for electing party officials, to not favor incumbents over Democratic primary challengers, and to encourage vibrant public debate and discussion within the party to chart a new course and winning message in the future. It is now up to all of us grassroots Democrats to hold him to his promises.

Florida Democratic Party DNC Elections

Despite the disappointing loss of FDP Chair to a billionaire appointee of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, there were some solid gains for Florida progressive reformers, who were elected to the DNC and hold superdelegate status, themselves.

While he did not win FDP Chair, Gadsen County State Committeeman Dwight Bullard now has a position in Florida’s DNC. Bret Berlin, who played a pivotal role in “creating a path” for Bittel to run, was stripped of his superdelegate credentials.

Francesca Menes, Newly Elected DNC Treasurer, courtesy Florida Immigrant Council website
Francesca Menes, Newly Elected DNC Treasurer, courtesy Florida Immigrant Council website

Miami-Dade Progressive favorite, Francesca Menes, was elected to fill the vacancy of FDP Treasurer, which was left when Judy Mount was elevated to First Vice-Chair. Ms. Menes defeated her opponent Cynthia Busch 596 votes to 401. Ms. Menes currently serves on the Florida Immigrant Council as Policy and Advocacy Coordinator and Florida Wage Theft Task Force Coordinator. Ms. Menes boasts a history of doing progressive work within her community and a long list of achievements, including coordinating a national network to campaign for Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, successfully leading the 2014 “We Are Florida’s Future” campaign to pass in-state tuition for undocumented students, developing and implementing a Voter Engagement Program in two counties and five cities that same year. She represents the FLIC on various national organizations, including the Black Immigration Network, and is the co-coordinator of #Rights4ALLinDR. She has served on the board of Florida Jobs with Justice, was appointed to the Commission for Women, Community Action Agency and has received numerous honors and recognitions. In 2014 she was named one of the “20 under 40 Emerging Leaders in South Florida by the Miami Herald.

Though elections like this one and the 2016 Presidential Primary have caused many to abandon the Democratic Party in search of an inclusive, progressive option which puts the issues of the people over big money, Bruce Jacobs believes that’s the wrong approach. He and other Miami-Dade Progressives are part of a Facebook page called Our Revolution Miami. Jacobs says,

Right now we should be taking our party back. It’s our party. We’re democrats. I’m not doing this to split the party up. I’m trying to heal the party. We can’t expect them to just say, ‘Here are the levers of power.’ Posting on Facebook about how Debbie Wasserman Schultz deserves to be out of the party isn’t going to help us. These people have lost their way, and we can help them find it. They want us to walk away and leave the party. They’re fine with that. But that’s the wrong answer, in my opinion.

We’re not going to do it that way. Ultimately, this is in many ways the end of business as usual. It’s time to get to work. Bernie Sanders is the general. I believe in him and I believe in his path, and I’m going to follow him into battle. Doing what we’re doing and organizing so that we can get people into precinct spots is what’s going to make a difference. Everybody running away is running in the wrong direction. Get behind me. The fight’s this way.

FDP posted a congratulatory Tweet yesterday, announcing that Bittel won the election and the news was greeted with relative hostility. You can check out the responses here.

Written by Pamela John

Pamela John

Pamela is a Smith College Alum and Cultural Anthropologist. Full time activist for social justice and perpetual volunteer. Follow her on Twitter @WoobieTuesday.

Managing Partner, Big Amp Media. Pamela John is a Contributor to Progressive Army.

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