Miami-Dade County

Miami über-donor eyes Florida Democratic Party chair after local election

Following weeks of acrimony and intrigue, a divided Miami-Dade Democratic Party named Coconut Grove developer Stephen Bittel to a local leadership position over former state Sen. Dwight Bullard late Tuesday night — priming the progressive donor for a run at the state party chair while potentially furthering factions within the party.

Bittel, who was forced by party rules to seek the obscure post of Miami-Dade County state committeeman in order to run for Florida chairman next month, cut a polarizing path to the position. Amid cheers and a smattering of boos, he sought Tuesday to unify a boisterous crowd and downplay accusations that local leaders engineered his ascension through back-room deals.

“The urgent need for progressive activism runs in my veins, runs in my family,” Bittel told the hundreds packed into the cavernous former Wynwood headquarters of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. “This will be my first and last election … It’s time to bring everyone together.”

It’s time to bring everyone together.

Stephen Bittel

With 413 votes cast in a field of eight, Bittel beat Bullard — who missed Tuesday’s event while cruising with family — by a count of 250 to 161. He’ll now face Alan Clendenin in a bid to take control of the state party following chairwoman Allison Tant’s decision to step down.

“This race has gotten national attention because everyone knows it’s a launch pad for state chair,” said Bittel, 60, who made his fortune as chairman of Miami commercial real estate firm Terranova Corp.

As Bittel mentioned, Tuesday’s special election held a high profile because of its relevance for the state party and the friction it created among rival factions and Democratic leaders. In order to run for state chair, a candidate must first win a spot locally.

Bittel, co-chair of the party’s national finance committee, drew support from Democrat heavyweights like Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota and national party chair heir apparent, and the Florida Education Association. Supporters saw him as the kind of powerful and successful businessman needed to steer Florida Democrats forward in the wake of a devastating election cycle.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ political organization, Our Revolution, backed Bullard. And some frustrated Democrats contended that Bittel — a prominent party booster and member of a private progressive donor group called the Florida Alliance — represented a step in the wrong direction for a party too caught up in money, machinations and power.

Some of Bullard’s backers pushed to stop Tuesday’s election, arguing that local leaders had improperly worked to make Bittel eligible to campaign for a party spot by manipulating rules and convincing former committeeman Bret Berlin to resign just four days after being elected to the job. At one point, Bullard’s supporters shouted “Shame!” — a reference to a scene in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — during Bittel’s nomination speech.

“They deserve a round of applause for this manipulation,” Sam Feldman, among those nominated for the committeeman post purely for the sake of ripping Bittel, said during a speech. “This is a sham. It’s a fixed election.”

With Bullard not in attendance, the event felt somewhat anti-climactic. Denzel Burnside III, a friend who spoke on Bullard’s behalf, said the public school teacher had informed the party months ago that he would be out of town celebrating his niece’s christening and tried unsuccessfully to move the event. Newly elected Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Juan Cuba said Bullard told him for the first time Sunday afternoon that he’d be missing the meeting due to a “previously scheduled trip.” Cuba provided an email from Bullard.

Bullard, fresh off a senate loss to Frank Artiles, felt stung by the way he was treated, according to his friend.

“Unfortunately, there was a lot of things that happened behind closed doors. We’ll just leave it at that,” Burnside said.

Bittel will now run against Clendenin, who lost a local party election in Hillsborough County and, as Bittel remarked Tuesday, reportedly moved into a trailer in Bradford County in northern Florida in order to win a local post and become eligible to run for state party chair. Bittel said both he and Bullard did what they had to do to become eligible for the statewide post, but the party should change its rules.

“It’s time for a change. Neither I nor Dwight would be able to run tonight if we didn’t follow the rules,” he said, before seeking to bring the boisterous crowd together. “This isn’t the Clinton party. It isn’t the Sanders party. It’s the Democratic Party.”