State Politics

In Florida leadership battle, Democrats choose Dade’s Bittel, GOP stays with Ingoglia

Democrats awarded the leadership of their party to a Miami-Dade County resident for the first time in nearly 30 years when Stephen Bittel, center, won the vote Saturday.
Democrats awarded the leadership of their party to a Miami-Dade County resident for the first time in nearly 30 years when Stephen Bittel, center, won the vote Saturday. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

There was talk of major shake ups in both the leadership of Democratic and Republican parties in Florida after the tumultuous presidential season that saw the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

But both state parties on Saturday morning brushed aside long-shot challengers who tried to capitalize on unrest. In meetings just 2 miles apart in Orlando, both parties picked leaders mostly backed by their establishments.

Republicans voted overwhelmingly to return the keys to the state GOP to incumbent Blaise Ingoglia — endorsed by Sen. Marco Rubio — for another two-year term. Sarasota Republican Christian Ziegler, 33, had aggressively pitched himself as a leader who would be more inclusive and would work better with Gov. Rick Scott.

Ingoglia, who is also a state representative out of Spring Hill, won 152 votes to just 76 for Ziegler. Ingoglia spoke later about the need to heal after a bruising race.

“Look, let’s face the reality of this chairman’s race. This was a little negative,” the 46-year-old Ingoglia told Republican voters after he won. “We need to come together as a party starting right now.”

Less than an hour later, state Democrats awarded the leadership of their party to a Miami-Dade County resident for the first time in nearly 30 years. In a five-way battle, billionaire commercial real estate developer Stephen Bittel won 55 percent of the vote to coast to victory in a race many expected would be tighter.

Opponents of Bittel had bitterly fought against him by saying the wealthy longtime Democratic donor was being forced on party activists because of money. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida — and several members of Florida congressional and state legislative delegation supported Bittel.

Moments before Bittel won, former State Sen. Dwight Bullard told party activists that for too long “candidates have been pushed down our throats.”

“I’m sick and tired of it,” Bullard said.

But his speech didn’t move the bulk of the party. Bittel won 615 votes. Hillsborough activist Alan Clendenin won 232 votes. And Bullard finished third with 150 votes.

Before the vote, Bittel, 60, spoke for less than a minute to party leaders to assure them he would work with everyone in the party.

“When the votes are tallied the most important thing we can do is come together and work together and start electing Democrats,” Bittel said.

Bittel, who runs Terranova Corp, was a big financial backer of the failed campaigns for Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy. He also has served as the Democratic National Committee’s national finance co-chairman.

On Friday, a group of Democrats had tried to get Bittel disqualified from running for chairman, questioning the way he won a county position with the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. That challenge, and a second effort on Saturday, failed.

Yet the challenge will go on. Attorney Bruce Jacobs, a Bernie Sanders delegate, filed a lawsuit last week in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami seeking to overturn Bittel’s election as the Miami Dade state committeeman. If Bittel gets knocked out of that position, he would be unable to remain chairman under Democratic Party rules.

Clendenin struggled to get on the ballot. On Friday, a rules committee with the Democratic Party ruled he was ineligible to run because they questioned his residency. Clendenin had moved to rural Bradford County to win a state committeeman position to remain eligible in the race. On Saturday he appealed that decision to the full Democratic Executive Committee and won. That put him back on the ballot, where he finished a distant second.

Despite the drama, the election went better than expected, said fourth-place finisher and Duval County Democrat Lisa King.

“Every one seems to be okay,” King said. “There’s not blood on the floor. We’re a big raucous family. We have big fights. But ultimately we will all be back together.”

Bittel’s victory gives him a four-year term as party chairman at a salary of $100,000 a year.

Ingoglia’s win gives him a two-year term. Although the job pays $115,000 a year, it’s unclear if he accepts the salary. He didn’t list it on his 2015 financial disclosure, which he’s required to file every year as a state representative, which pays a salary of $29,697 that he did list.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. follow @JeremySWallace

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