Broward County

Florida Democratic Party chair candidates join against Miami developer Bittel

Tim Canova (center) moderates a forum for the candidates running for Florida Democratic Party chair. From Left: Lisa King, Alan Clendenin, Leah Carius, Dwight Bullard and Stephen Bittel.
Tim Canova (center) moderates a forum for the candidates running for Florida Democratic Party chair. From Left: Lisa King, Alan Clendenin, Leah Carius, Dwight Bullard and Stephen Bittel. dsmiley@miamiherald.com

The battle for the fractured soul of the Florida Democratic Party came to South Florida Wednesday, and by the time the night was over the campaign to choose a new state party chair looked like a four-on-one fight.

Essentially declaring Miami developer Stephen Bittel an enemy of the state, the other four men and women campaigning to lead the wounded political party said following a candidates’ forum at a Pompano Beach union hall that they intend to block Bittel from winning. Bittel, they argued, is guilty of “strong-arming” and “bullying” his way into power, and represents the “smoke-filled room” politics that has turned off so many from the party.

“The four of us are standing shoulder-to-shoulder,” said retired air traffic controller Alan Clendenin, who is running for the party chairmanship alongside former state Sen. Dwight Bullard, Osceola’s Leah Carius and Duval’s Lisa King. “We have a majority of the votes.”

The group effort to keep Bittel, a prominent progressive donor, from winning the post Saturday during party elections in Orlando is just the latest tactic in a race that has been marked and, at times, marred by machinations.

The four of us are standing shoulder-to-shoulder. We have a majority of the votes

Alan Clendenin

Bittel started things off last month by maneuvering within the Miami-Dade Democratic Party to become eligible to run for the state chairmanship, followed by Clendenin and Bullard, both of whom lost local party elections and then moved to different counties to qualify to run for state party chair. Clendenin said Wednesday that he has been falsely accused in a party grievance of committing homestead tax fraud as part of his move from Hillsborough to Bradford County, and Bittel is the subject of a lawsuit seeking to toss him from the party ballot by an attorney he said previously represented Bullard.

Giving each other high-fives, Carius and King said Wednesday that “it’s us women who have followed the rules,” although some in the audience found little consolation in that.

In selecting the chair for the Florida Democratic Party, there are no winners

Elizabeth Judd

“In selecting the chair for the Florida Democratic Party, there are no winners,” Elizabeth Judd, a disgusted Democratic activist, said before the forum began at the Communications Workers of America hall on West McNab Road. “No matter what happens, and who ultimately becomes the chair, the way they got there is unethical.”

If Wednesday’s forum made one thing clear, it’s that before they can heal the Florida Democratic Party, the candidates hoping to win the state chair may have to first mend their own bruised images, and come to terms with what the party should function going forward in the Sunshine State.

The forum, moderated by Tim Canova, the Nova Southeastern University law professor who ran against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the primaries, made clear that the party remains divided between those who believe Democrats should embrace Bernie Sanders’ populist grassroots campaigning, and those more aligned with the traditional party power represented by Wasserman Schultz, the former national party chairwoman and a Bittel family friend.

We're obviously in a moment of crisis

Tim Canova

”We're obviously in a moment of crisis. It feels like our house is burning and we're in disarray,” said Canova.

Bullard, Clendenin, Carius and King made the case that the party ought to be driven more on the local level, and be willing to give greater trust to voters to believe in progressive issues and choose the right candidates. Presenting himself as a true liberal, Bullard told the audience that he often stood alone when he was a Tallahassee legislator promoting progressive causes.

“I have no problem taking .... the bullets on behalf of the things we believe in,” he said.

Bittel, however, said the key to the party’s success is changing its business model. He argued Wednesday that he is the only candidate who’s run a major corporation successfully, and said Democrats need a chair who will focus on expanding party infrastructure and recruiting candidates, not making speeches.

“It’s an interview process. We’re hiring the CEO of our party,” he said. “We need to change how we do business.”

Bittel left before his four opponents announced they intend to group together. But during Wednesday’s forum, he alluded to a belief that he was fighting the field.

“I’m not feeling the love tonight. They’re breaking my heart,” he said. “It’s terrible being the frontrunner.”

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