Flashback to 1996 in Florida politics: The Republicans gained control of their second chamber in the Legislature, the Broward Democratic Party chairman had gone to jail, and Democrats in the left-leaning county lamented that one of their most frequent get-togethers was at funerals.
The new county party chair, Mitch Ceasar, took charge of the group of activists that December and asked for what appeared to be impossible: silence.
“Quiet! Quiet!” Ceasar said, holding a microphone in one hand and a bagel in the other. “We're on a roll here — or a bagel.”
The Mitch Ceasar era in Broward County Democratic politics is nearing an end, now that he announced that he will not seek re-election to a position he had won five times. Ceasar said that it was time to pass the baton on to new leaders.
“I felt 20 years was a great opportunity, a great experience,” Ceasar said Friday. “Often frustrating but still something I loved to do.”
His decision wasn’t a surprise because Ceasar had temporarily stepped aside from his party leadership role last year to run for Broward clerk of csourts. Friday was the last day to qualify to run as a precinct committeeman, something Ceasar would have had to do to run for chair.
After the Aug. 30th clerk of courts primary, whether he wins or loses, Ceasar said he will return as chair of the Broward Democrats until his term expires in December.
Ceasar’s vice chair, Cynthia Busch, took over the helm last year and will seek the seat at the party’s December election. It’s possible she will face challengers.
Ceasar, a 62-year-old lawyer from Plantation, is running to replace longtime clerk of courts Howard Forman, who is retiring. He will face three other Democrats: Elizabeth Ann McHugh, administrative director for Public Defender Howard Finkelstein; Brenda Forman, wife of Howard Forman who has worked in the clerk’s office, and court bailiff Shandrell Latrice Roscoe. Ceasar leads the pack in fundraising, with about $216,000, followed by McHugh who raised $81,000. Forman raised $32,000 and Roscoe raised about $4,000.
The winner of the primary is all but certain to win the general election in left-leaning Broward.
Hundreds of committeemen and women elect their Democratic party chair every four years after the election. The chair has some symbolic power as the leader of the county in Florida with the highest number of registered Democratic voters. The county party is tasked with helping turn out grassroots supporters for candidates for president and down the ballot.
When Broward Democrats turn out en masse they can make a difference — including giving Bill Clinton a big boost in 1992 and 1996. But when they have sluggish turnout the outcome can deliver important seats to Republicans — as happened when Rick Scott won the governorship twice.
Theparty chief job had no salary, but because of Broward’s importance in state and national elections, Ceasar parlayed it into a power base, with a trip on Air Force One, appearances on MSNBC and frequent overtures from state and national politicians.
Ceasar said one of the highlights was riding on Air Force One with Bill Clinton. One of the lowlights: the 2000 presidential recount.
“As a lawyer that terrible weekend when the Supreme Court took jurisdiction, I knew we lost,” Ceasar said.
Ceasar won five terms as county chair, a position the New York native ran with a touch of humor and competitive spirit.
He faced some criticism along the way for his work as a lobbyist for cities in Broward. Over the years Ceasar defended his lobbying work and said he had gotten some contracts before he became party chair.
In 1998, Gov. Lawton Chiles tapped Ceasar to serve as state party chair, a paid job which he held while also serving as Broward chair. Ceasar had lobbied Chiles’ office on behalf of a fireworks company seeking a partial lifting of a ban on fireworks displays after a series of wildfires.
Ceasar inherited a state party marred by infighting. After Republican Jeb Bush won the governor’s race, a few elected Democrats led a push to force Ceasar out and he resigned after less than a year in the position in 1999.
In 2008, after Broward voters favored an amendment banning gay marriage and Republican Al Lamberti won the sheriff’s race, former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch took on Ceasar. Deutsch, who was living in Israel and Hollywood, built up a coalition, including labor and gay-rights leaders, but ultimately couldn’t convince activists to “Ditch Mitch.”
“He is truly a strategist,” said Michael Albetta, a Democratic committeeman in Fort Lauderdale who has worked both for and against Ceasar over the years, and supported Deutsch’s effort. “No one should ever underestimate him. Ever.”
Ceasar launched his Broward political activism as a college student, starting the Tamarac Democratic Club.
“I was probably 50 years younger than everybody on the board of directors,” he told the Miami Herald in 2012.
In 1996, he took over the party from an interim director who filled in after another chair stepped aside amid scandal. He oversaw the party as the demographics of the county’s Democrats were changing. The “condo kings” — Jewish retirees who were “super voters” — were dwindling, and to remain relevant the party had to reach out to a more diverse crowd, including residents from the Caribbean and gay activists.
Now minority voters, largely black and Hispanic, make up the majority of Broward’s Democratic voters.
While there are more than twice as many registered Democrats than Republicans in Broward, both parties are vying for the growing number of independents who now outnumber Republicans in Broward by nearly 40,000.
Ceasar will remain on the executive board of the Democratic National Committee, a position he has held for about 10 years. He will return to Broward as county chair for one last presidential election this fall.
“I’m not coming back to change anything,” he said. “I plan to rejoin the team and be an additional ingredient in what was cooking in the last year.”
It’s rare for party chairs to last anywhere as long as Ceasar did. But Ceasar knew how to hold on to his position, said Diane Glasser, a Democratic activist from Tamarac who has known Ceasar for decades.
“He is a doer and a schmoozer and knows how to talk to people,” she said. “That’s why he stayed in for so long — people were always trying to run him out but they couldn’t.”
Tallahassee Bureau reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this article.