Political drama in Miami-Dade could fuel race to head Florida Democratic Party

Miami-Dade Democrats voted Tuesday on the successor for outgoing local party chairman Dwight Bullard, a state senator from Cutler Bay.
Miami-Dade Democrats voted Tuesday on the successor for outgoing local party chairman Dwight Bullard, a state senator from Cutler Bay. Associated Press

The most momentous election in recent memory for the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party ended late Tuesday after more than three hours of political wrangling that could determine the future of the Florida Democratic Party.

At stake at the reorganization meeting were not only the reins of Miami-Dade’s Democratic Executive Committee, but also the chances that a deep-pocketed donor might find a way to run for the far more powerful position of chairman of the state party, which has been reeling since its drubbing in the Nov. 8 election.

Juan Cuba, until recently the local party’s executive director, won the Miami-Dade chairman’s post. Dotie Joseph, a former North Miami Beach assistant city attorney, became vice-chairwoman. Business consultant Bret Berlin was reelected state committeeman without opposition. Francesca Menes, policy director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, became the new state committeewoman.

Outgoing chairman and state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who chose not to seek reelection to his party post after losing his state seat last month, wanted the vice-chair position. But party rules require the vice-chair to be a woman if the chair is a man, and vice versa, so Bullard’s bid was made moot by Cuba’s win. Bullard was nominated for the committeeman post, too, but lost to Berlin.

The biggest intrigue, however, was over a man who wasn’t even listed on the ballot: Stephen Bittel, a Coconut Grove developer and major Democratic fundraiser.

Bittel wants to head the Florida Democratic Party. The wrinkle: Only party members elected to county posts are eligible to run for state chairman. And Bittel wasn’t eligible for a county post because party rules make those seats available only to precinct captains — and Bittel wasn’t one of them.

So what’s a well-heeled donor quietly backed by big-name Democrats to do? Hope he can cut a deal.

If Bittel can get one of three people elected Tuesday — Cuba, Joseph or Berlin — to step down, he could try to fill the resulting vacancy, and then qualify to run for state chair in January. (Getting Menes to drop out wouldn’t help Bittel, because the committeewoman office must be held by a woman. The gender requirement for the vice-chair — that she be female if the chair is male — doesn’t apply anymore if there’s a post-election vacancy.)

Hours before Tuesday’s election, held in a stuffy, windowless Miami Springs union hall, Bittel told the Miami Herald that he hadn’t asked anyone to agree in advance to drop out for him. “I don’t even know who is going to win,” he said. “It would be an exercise in frustration at this point.”

If one of them does ultimately create a path for him, however, “I am willing to serve,” Bittel said.

Cuba denied he’d be willing to give up a position for Bittel, a Democratic National Committee member. Under “zero circumstances,” Cuba said after winning his election.

Joseph’s immediate answer was “no.” But after asking reporters to explain Bittel’s potential play, she said: “It depends. I don’t know what’s going on, or what the details are. So, yes, I will leave the door open — I always reserve the right to leave the door open — but my answer is no.” (“Sorry not sorry — I’m honest,” she added.)

“I look forward to four years of being state committeeman,” Berlin said after winning reelection.

When pressed if there was “zero chance” he’d give up the post, Berlin refused to say and rejected the suggestion that he was leaving the possibility open. “I’m not going to give respect to that question. I love being committeeman.”

Machinations to make way for state leaders preferred by weighty party interests are nothing new. Allison Tant, the state party’s current chairwoman, first won the Leon County party’s top job after her rival — knowing Tant had major Democrats behind her — dropped out of the race so she’d be chosen unopposed. Tant announced that she would not seek a second four-year term after the Nov. 8 election, following Hillary Clinton’s Florida loss and the party’s disappointing congressional and state legislative results.

Bittel is now the only Miami candidate openly interested in succeeding Tant. Bullard and Annette Taddeo Goldstein, another former local party chairwoman, were interested in the job, too, but they needed to win a county-level party office to qualify and failed to do so.

The same happened to Alan Clendenin, Tant’s 2013 opponent and a longtime activist from Tampa, who lost his state committeeman race Monday in Hillsborough County. Another serious candidate, former congressional staffer Susannah Randolph of Orlando, would need to cut a similar post-election deal as Bittel to be eligible, but none of her obvious allies got elected in Orange County.

Behind the scenes, no one might have a bigger say in the state race than U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the only Democrat elected statewide who is expected to face a difficult reelection race in 2018. Awaiting elections in Florida’s largest counties, Nelson hasn’t publicly backed any candidate but is said to privately favor Bittel. Bittel said he and Nelson spoke about the position several years ago but agreed not to discuss it further until if and when Bittel found a path to make him eligible to run.

Bittel is a major contributor to federal, state and local races, and to political groups — including Florida Alliance, a secretive network of Democratic donors that has at times been at odds with the party. He’s also given tens of thousands of dollars to the county party — and to the state party, which means he had a hand in hiring Cuba and paying his salary as the Miami-Dade executive director.

Miami-Dade and Broward have an outsize influence in the party election: Committeemen and committeewomen vote for state chair according to a formula based on the number of registered Democrats in the county. Broward leads the state, followed by Miami-Dade.

Broward Democrats elected Cynthia Busch as the new local party chairwoman Saturday. She replaced Mitch Ceasar, who headed the Democratic Executive Committee for two decades and didn’t seek reelection. Grace Carrington won the committeewoman race without opposition, and Committeeman Ken Evans was reelected.

An earlier version of this story didn’t specify how Tant got into office.