State Politics

Big night for Florida Democrats ends in acrimony over chairman’s racial remarks

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel, left, and state Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel, left, and state Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens.

The Florida Democratic Party’s big annual fundraiser ended in acrimony Saturday night after Stephen Bittel, the party chairman, dismissed anger from lawmakers who didn’t get introduced on stage as a “childish” complaint from African-American legislators.

Bittel also said that state Sen. Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, the Senate Democratic leader who had expressed lawmakers’ unhappiness to the chairman, was acting like “a 3-year-old.” Bittel has since apologized.

Most Democratic legislators — not only African-American ones — were upset that Bittel, looking to speed up the program to get to former Vice President Joe Biden’s keynote speech, scrapped the part where Braynon and Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa, the House Democratic leader, would present the members of their respective caucuses. Biden noted that his appearance was keeping him from his wife on the night of their 40th wedding anniversary.

Braynon, who said he didn’t care one way or another about speaking at the annual Leadership Blue gala, nevertheless warned Bittel that lawmakers would not like being passed over. Already, the party had decided not to introduce each legislator by name, citing time constraints. Instead, Braynon and Cruz were each supposed to get four minutes each with their colleagues on stage before U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson introduced Biden.

Bittel, whose relationship with Braynon has been contentious, ignored Braynon’s warning, even though lawmakers had begun lining up by the stage and didn’t know the program had been changed. Bittel proposed bringing lawmakers up after Biden spoke. By then, the dinner’s roughly 1,300 attendees were streaming out of the room and the legislators got no recognition, other than a pre-taped video that featured some of them, along with the Democratic candidates for governor.

After the dinner, Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation, who is white, asked Bittel about the snub — prompting Bittel’s outburst blaming African-American legislators for complaining, even though Cruz, who is Hispanic, and others were also angry.

“He said, ‘They’re like children, these black lawmakers. They just don’t get it,’ ” Braynon said, relaying what Book told him. “ ‘I raised more money in this amount of time than they ever could.’ 

Book declined to comment.

State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

A furious Braynon decided not to confront Bittel immediately and declined to speak to a Miami Herald reporter after the incident Saturday night.

“I wouldn’t have cared if he told us we couldn’t be on stage,” Braynon told the Herald on Sunday. “I was trying to protect you, tell him members were going to be upset. And he has the audacity of calling me a black child.”

“My real issue with him,” Braynon added, “is his disrespect of the Legislature.”

Word of Bittel’s remarks, first reported Sunday by Politico, quickly spread Saturday night among the tight-knit black legislators, and they set up a private meeting with Bittel and new party president Sally Boynton Brown in one of the conference rooms of the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood. There, a small group of African-American lawmakers let Bittel know they were mad at how he had referred to Braynon — and to them.

“I’m sorry,” Bittel said, according to three attendees.

“I respect all of our elected officials, especially our legislators who are on the front lines fighting for Democrats and our values,” Bittel said Sunday in a statement to the Herald. “My behavior did not reflect that. I sincerely apologize and I will do better.”

Rep. Shevrin Jones of West Park, one of the lawmakers present, said he urged Bittel to bring African-American legislators into the party fold.

“We are considered an afterthought,” Jones said. “We’re only brought in to deal with issues when it’s election time, and we need to have the same seat at the table as anyone else.”

Jones and the others also stood up for Braynon.

“By no means will we, as black legislators, stand for our leader, Oscar Braynon, to be disrespected in any way,” Jones recounted telling Bittel. “This is not one of those things that, because we’re calling you to the carpet, you say, ‘OK, let’s sit down.’ It does not work that way. We’re not going to take it.”

Rep. Kionne McGhee of Miami, the incoming House Democratic leader who was also present, said the incident was a “teachable moment” for the new chairman.

“It wasn’t so much the apology that we were looking for, but to have a discussion about how we move forward as a unit,” he said, adding that he hopes for “continued dialogue” with party brass. “The 2018 election is very important.”

Jones said Bittel telephoned Sunday morning to apologize again.

The dispute comes after a legislative session marked by racial issues, none more evident than the resignation of former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican who stepped down after he used the word “niggas” in front of two African-American senators.

Saturday’s incident marred what otherwise had appeared to be a successful evening for the struggling party, which elected Bittel as its new chairman in January following a heated internal campaign. One of Bittel’s opponents was former Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, whom Braynon supported.

Ahead of Bittel’s likely election, Braynon split the Senate’s campaign arm from the party. Braynon pushed to create the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee as a rebuke to Bittel’s involvement in the Florida Alliance, a secretive outside fundraising group formed by Bittel and other donors that was at odds with Braynon and the party in some of last year’s races. McGhee and Jones said they told Bittel the House might also splinter if the relationship with the party doesn’t improve.

“Steve, you’re crazy,” Biden told Bittel from the stage Saturday night. “Being chairman of a party, particularly in such a large state, is maybe the most thankless important job in the world.”

An earlier version of this story misstated former Sen. Frank Artiles' use of the n-word.