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Findings by Florida Democrats Support Election of Millionaire Donor Bittel to Chair

After a Humiliating National Defeat, Florida Democrats Are Still Playing Dirty

(Miami Herald)

“I just watched Bernie Sanders endorse Keith Ellison for DNC Chair on t.v. last night, and today he stabbed Sanders supporters in the back by endorsing Stephen Bittel—a person appointed by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who colluded with others to rig the Democratic Primary against Bernie Sanders.” Ricky Ly, Sanders Delegate and Democratic Precinct Captain, Orlando, FL

In an effort to stop corruption and repair the party’s reputation in the wake of revelations leading to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation as DNC Chair, an active circle of Miami-Dade’s progressive reformers is waging a desperate battle against established Florida Democratic Party insiders.  At last week’s Miami-Dade DEC reorganizational meeting it was painfully obvious that the reformers’ agenda is at odds with established FDP members even after their stunning November 7th defeat.

A convoluted plan to overthrow Sen. Dwight Bullard as the progressive choice for Miami-Dade DEC Chair indicates long-time FDP members are still hooked on pay-to-play at the county and state levels. That their coup could succeed makes clear the party’s “future” is firmly in their big monied grasp. And the future looks grim.

Latino Rebels describes what is perhaps the clearest picture of the chicanery:

Former Executive Director and current Chair Juan Cuba initially declared a run for the State Committeeman position against lobbyist Bret Berlin. On the day of the deadline to switch races, Cuba announced that he would instead be running for the position of Chair. This is significant because if Cuba won, this would block Former State Senator Dwight Bullard from running for Vice Chair, since both Chair and Vice Chair must be gender opposite according to the bylaws.
This move allowed Cuba to run Dotie Joseph for Vice Chair and because no significant opposition would be organized after Bullard was taken out, she was sure to win. This led Bret Berlin to run for the now open State Committeeman race, a position which holds significant sway on the election of Florida Democratic Party (FDP) Chair. Bullard attempted to be nominated on the floor to challenge this, but Berlin had organized and prevailed with a large number of votes.

On Thursday, December 15, FDP Special Committee Findings were submitted, rejecting a Grievance over the legality of Miami-Dade DEC reorganization meeting which was filed by county party members. The rejection confirms that any notion the party is repairable is a longshot, at best.

Juan Cuba with Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, posted on Cuba's Facebook Page on 11/5/16.
Juan Cuba with Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton,
posted on Cuba’s Facebook Page on 11/5/16.

On November 29, more than a dozen progressive activists and some newly elected party members were called to a meeting to meet then-Miami-Dade DEC Executive Director, Juan Cuba. Cuba was running against Bret Berlin who had thrown his hat into the ring in a bid for DEC Chair to replace Sen. Bullard. The group hoped to compare the Cuba’s commitment to reform to the policies of Bret Berlin who announced he’d be running to unseat Bullard as well.

One meeting attendee said, “[Cuba] tried to pitch himself as a former Bernie supporter, explained he couldn’t take sides during the primary because of his position in the party. He told us he was looking for support in the upcoming election and claimed he wanted to bring people into the process. I just didn’t buy that he was a full Sanders supporter. Many sensed he was more worried about earning votes. Or maybe he worried there’d be a disruption during the election.”

Progressives’ suspicions were validated the following week when Cuba played a pivotal role in a convoluted plan to oust Bullard and position Bittel to take over as FDP State Chair. The takeover was complex and assisted by lobbyist Stephanie Grutman who was, at a bare minimum, waging a quiet email campaign to amass 137 voting membership applications in support of Bittel’s initial run for precinct captain. Progressive supporters of Bullard were caught unaware.

Email from Stephanie Grutman, recruiting Bittel supporters, dated 12/4/16
Email from Stephanie Grutman, recruiting Bittel supporters, dated 12/4/16.

Grutman is a Tampa Bay political lobbyist with Ballard Partners who started her career as an intern for, and later became a top aide to, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Before resigning as DNC Chair, Wasserman Schultz appointed Bittel Co-Chair of the National Finance Committee to “supercharge” DNC fundraising. Ballard Partners are also long time lobbyists for Stephen Bittel’s multimillion dollar real estate development business. Another Ballard Partner lobbyist, Susie Wiles most recently worked as Donald Trump’s Florida Campaign Manager. 

Either Wasserman Schultz and Ballard Partners see no conflict in lobbying donors for both Democrats and Republicans, or the crossover in the party’s moneyed donor base has rendered their goals indistinguishable from one another. Miami-Dade’s progressive reformers are skeptical that Bittel is yet another neoliberal buying himself a place of prominence within the party. Adding to that skepticism is the voice of well-known local activist and political columnist, Leslie Wimes, who emphasizes the extent to which Bittel’s election was an inside job. 

Wimes says, “Stephen Bittel has never stepped one foot in a DEC meeting. He has no clue of how the party actually works.” There is no pretense of “rising up through the ranks” here. Apparently, Florida Democrats believe financial contributions are enough to garner the trust of the voters.

Young Sanders-supporting progressives have been playing the game by the rules, heeding Sen. Sanders’ call to action delivered via live-stream during the August 24th launch of Our Revolution. They’ve been active participants in the democratic process. They’ve volunteered in their communities, knocked on doors, phone banked as if their lives depended on it, have become active voting members in their local progressive parties and are running for local level offices the old fashioned way. So apart from obvious wealth, how did Bittel, who has allegedly never stepped one foot into a Miami-Dade DEC meeting, suddenly find himself situated to occupy one of the most influential state political offices in the nation?

Miami-Dade progressive party insiders believe the party establishment has been plotting the takeover of their state party since 2014, and that the effort is being led by Wasserman Schultz. At least one FDP reformer stated a belief that district lines were redrawn specifically to include Bittel’s residence so he could be voted in as precinct captain on December 6th—a prerequisite of FDP Bylaws for State elections. There are rumblings which may lend credence to rumors of double dipping and double dealing. 

Sunshine State News Reporter Nancy Smith quoted an unnamed source who stated, “Stephen Bittel has been paying Juan Cuba’s salary as executive director of the Miami-Dade DEC ever since Annette left to run for lieutenant governor in 2014.” Said Smith, “Cuba decided at the last minute to run as chair of the DEC…. Now, if Cuba wins, he can resign and appoint Bittel to his position. Under the rules, that would give Bittel a clear pathway to run for FDP chair.” That analysis proved prescient when Bret Berlin turned in a letter of resignation just four days after his election.

At the December 6th county elections meeting, Erika Grohoski Peralta (who was elected DEC member that night) and others were signing up more than 50 non-voting members milling about the room who wanted to apply for voting membership. She did not know that two days earlier, Grutman sent an email plotting to stack the meeting with people who would support a vote for Bittel as the precinct captain.

Miami-Dade DEC officials presided over a half-day, after-hours meeting. Naturally, many members had to leave before votes took place. In stark contrast to the marathon meeting, the actual motion to confirm new voting members was made, seconded and passed without objection in just 31 seconds.

                        Video of the meeting presided over by Miami-Dade officials on 12/6/2016.

The Democratic new blood in attendance that night agrees: when Bret Berlin made the motion to swear in volunteers, he had in his hand a stack of paper—but they had no idea they were applications of Bittel and 137 of his supporters, which had been surreptitiously harvested by lobbyists. Grohoski Peralta confirmed, “Bittel was not in the room that night. The 138 members were not in the room that night. We later found out through sharing of emails that this was planned all along. They were mobilizing people and stacking the vote with 138 new members.” Some present were adamant there was no quorum at the time the motion to swear in new members was made. The video confirms there were plenty of empty seats.

“It all happened really fast,” said a Miami-Dade party member, who asked to remain anonymous. “They were taking advantage of people who’d been in that room for six hours. It was 20 minutes away from midnight.”

When the dust had settled, Miami-Dade party officials filed a December 8th grievance seeking redress from FDP leadership. FDP Chair Allison Tant tendered her resignation the next day, telling party members she would not seek re-election in January. Brevard County DEC Member, Stacey Patel, started a Change.org Petition demanding FDP investigate the meeting. In a telephone interview yesterday, a Miami attorney was working on a Complaint to be filed Monday against the Florida Democrats. Hours after that interview, the Special Committee led by Tant submitted its official rebuttal to the grievance, finding there was a quorum and the motion was proper. The decision by Florida Democrats’ highest leaders dealt a body blow to party reformers. In subsequent correspondence, the attorney who planned to file a Complaint recanted his previous statements, leaving open to speculation questions about the Complaint; is it now on hold, if not being reconsidered altogether?

You can find the Committee’s findings below:

Download (PDF, Unknown)

What unfolded December 6th is reminiscent of the DNC’s conduct during the Nevada State Democratic Caucus in Las Vegas, behavior which was repeated again at the contentious Democratic Platform Committee meeting in Orlando. It’s a chaotic and exhausting strategy, which has proven effective to maintain the status quo at the expense of minor technicalities, like Democratic Party wins and abysmal voter participation rates on which they pin blame. If entrenched Democrats continue engaging in vicious battles with no exit plan, they will indeed lose the war. The party’s losses are minuscule when compared to the suffering of the American electorate and the global consequences.  

In a follow-up article, Reporter Jerry Ianelli says, “…Grutman, denies any sort of collusion took place inside the Miami-Dade Democratic Party as a wealthy donor tries to muscle his way up the ladder to become Florida’s party chair. But some of her fellow party members say they’re concerned.” He points out that Grutman’s December 4th email presents a problem: “When [she] sent that email, nobody was supposed to know that December 19 meeting was going to happen.” Grutman goes to great lengths to dismiss any strategic maneuvering. Voters need not worry. Grutman says, “It looks like a fix, but it isn’t.” It’s all just a coincidence, folks! Simply “dominoes falling”, benignly. The trouble is, when dominoes fall, it is generally without implication. Unless, of course, those dominoes are strategically aligned in the manner of a Rube Goldberg machine. A machine which could result in the election of yet another Florida multi-millionaire donor to an unearned position with national implications, to a position for which he is not qualified. Call it return on investment.

Written by Pamela John

Pamela is a Smith College Alum and Cultural Anthropologist. Full time activist for social justice and perpetual volunteer.

Managing Partner, Big Amp Media. Pamela John is a Writer for Progressive Army.

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Findings by Florida Democrats Support Election of Millionaire Donor Bittel to Chair