With Florida Democratic Party in balance, lowly Miami-Dade race goes national

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., pictured during a Dec. 2 forum on the future of the Democratic Party in Denver. Ellison said he’ll resign his seat in Congress if he’s picked as DNC chairman in February.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., pictured during a Dec. 2 forum on the future of the Democratic Party in Denver. Ellison said he’ll resign his seat in Congress if he’s picked as DNC chairman in February. AP

The lowly race for Miami-Dade County Democratic Party committeeman has gone national, ahead of a special election next week that will likely determine the future of the Florida Democratic Party.

The two committeeman candidates, Coconut Grove developer Stephen Bittel and Cutler Bay state Sen. Dwight Bullard, drew big-name endorsements this week that thrust the county race into the spotlight — and reflected the tense dynamics of Democrats wrestling with their identity after Hillary Clinton’s loss.

On Tuesday, Bullard won the backing of Our Revolution, the political organization created by former Clinton rival Bernie Sanders.

“An extremely wealthy donor wants to buy his way to lead Florida’s Democratic Party, and the only thing between him and control of the party is our political revolution,” Our Revolution wrote in an email sent to some Florida Democrats Tuesday night. “Here’s where you come in: we need people like you in Miami Dade County to become precinct chairs and vote for Dwight Bullard on Tuesday, December 20.”

On Thursday, Bittel unveiled the support of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the frontrunner to lead the Democratic National Committee and an early, prominent Sanders backer who has also been endorsed by Our Revolution. Bittel is a DNC national finance co-chairman — and therefore a voting member in next year’s DNC chair election. He’s also Jewish, and could help Ellison, who is Muslim, make friends with critics who think he’s not in tune with the party’s Israel defenders.

Ellison did not respond to requests for an endorsement statement, and Bullard questioned whether Ellison knows “the full story.”

Bittel, aware that his detractors cast him as “a rich white guy,” said the apparent endorsement “validates my progressive credentials with the grassroots.”

“It tells them I’m a guy with the right heart,” Bittel said.

Though Clinton won 75 percent of the Miami-Dade vote over Sanders in the March presidential primary, Sanders, an independent, remains one of the party’s few well-known leaders. He drew a big crowd at last month’s Miami Book Fair, and many of the Miami-Dade party’s 140 or so new members are apparent Sanders voters (more than 200 more people have also applied to join).

The winner of the Bullard-Bittel race is by default expected to become the next chairman of the state party. No other major eligible candidates have declared their interest ahead of the Jan. 14 election. FDP Chairwoman Allison Tant said last month she wouldn’t seek another four-year term.

The position pays $100,000 a year. Bittel told the Herald he wouldn’t take a salary if elected, though “nobody should vote for me because I’m in the fortunate position to not need a salary.”

Bullard, he said, “cares about our party, is a talented public speaker and a nice guy.”

“I think I have a better experiential skill set to lead the party, by far,” Bittel said.

Bullard cautioned against allowing a wealthy donor to dictate the party’s future.

“We’ve seen this story before,” Bullard said. “Not to disparage anybody, but there needs to be a recognition by anyone aspiring to lead the state party that there’s a chasm, a worry that the process is not equitable. That people are hand-picked.”

Miami-Dade Democrats reelected Committeeman Bret Berlin on Dec. 6. He stepped down four days later, paving the way Bittel’s candidacy in the Dec. 20 special election.

Bittel hadn’t been eligible to run for a county-level post on Dec. 6 because he wasn’t a Democratic precinct captain. He became one that day and now qualifies. Bullard, the party’s immediate former chairman, ran for committeeman on Dec. 6 and lost. He also lost his state Senate seat last month to Republican Sen.-elect Frank Artiles.

Bullard tried to delay the committeeman election after two Democratic activists filed a grievance to invalidate the Dec. 6 election results. The state party said Thursday it did not find evidence to support their complaint.

Behind the scenes, supporters for both men have fired off emails urging Democrats to back their candidate. Bittel and Bullard have also both spoken at recent meetings of local Democratic clubs.

The intense committeeman race has already caused a rift among state Democrats. Florida senators filed paperwork this week to create their own fundraising committee, separate from the party. The move was intended to distance senators from Bittel if he becomes FDP chairman.

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens butted heads with Bittel this year over the funding of legislative races. Bittel, a major donor to the state and county parties, is also a key player in the Florida Alliance, a secretive outside fundraising group that operates independently from the party structure.

Bittel told the Herald the Alliance will still exist if he becomes party chief, though “one of the most cogent arguments for me as state chairman is that I can bring our family back together,” including donors, labor unions and “hopefully” state senators, he said.

The Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee will take over coordinating state Senate campaigns. Under state law, it will be allowed to contribute just as much as the party, $50,000, toward any legislative campaign.

Braynon said other Democratic senators, including incoming Minority Leader Jeff Clemens, agreed with the split, which is similar to the one Republican senators made with the Republican Party of Florida in 2015. In Democrats’ case, however, the existing FDP leadership supports the senators’ move, Braynon said.

“We’re all still Democrats,” Braynon said.