State Politics

Embattled Florida Democratic Party chairman keeps job, for now

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel, and future House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee of Miami.
Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel, and future House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee of Miami.

Two top African-American Democrats in the Florida Legislature aired their grievances Tuesday with Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel, reaching an apparent truce — for now — after Bittel called black lawmakers “childish.”

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens and future House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee of Miami stopped short of asking Bittel for his resignation during a two-hour-long private meeting at Bittel’s Miami Beach office Tuesday.

But the lawmakers, who remain upset, said they demanded that Bittel take a more inclusive approach to leading the party ahead of the 2018 election.

“There are things that he is going to have to do, that the party is going to have to do, to make sure that respect is shown,” Braynon said, citing outreach to minority communities and diverse party committee appointments as examples. “There have to be legitimate action items.”

Does he think Bittel will follow through? “I don’t think he has a choice,” Braynon said.

On Saturday, Bittel told another senator that Braynon had been acting “like a 3-year-old” at the party’s annual fundraiser. Bittel apologized Saturday night and again Tuesday, Braynon and McGhee said.

Braynon said it wasn’t up to him to call for Bittel’s resignation, given that he’d never backed him as chairman in the first place — and wouldn’t if the vote took place again today, he added, a sign of his lingering displeasure.

“I would not vote for him again, just like I didn’t vote for him before,” Braynon said.

In a statement Tuesday, Bittel tried to strike a more positive tone.

“Our meeting was productive and we are moving forward together to secure victory in 2018,” he said. “Together we are focused on electing Democrats who will stand up for working families and bring change and economic progress to Florida.”

Local TV news crews awaited the lawmakers when they emerged from the meeting, without Bittel at their side.

“At the end of the day, it’s about respecting the entire big tent,” McGhee said of the party moving forward.

McGhee would not say if he will create a campaign committee for House Democratic races separate from the party, as Braynon did for the Senate before Bittel took over. Braynon said he had been urging McGhee to join him even before Saturday’s incident.

“I’ve got to take this back to my members,” McGhee said. “This is something that the members have to make a decision about.”

The dispute began Saturday after Braynon cautioned Bittel that lawmakers would be upset if they were scrapped from the program in order to speed up the keynote appearance of former Vice President Joe Biden. Bittel ignored Braynon, so legislators — who have little to look forward to in the GOP-controlled Legislature — were left unrecognized at the Leadership Blue gala. They had lined up by the stage and were not immediately told they’d been passed over.

When Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation asked Bittel about the snub after the dinner, Bittel lashed out at Braynon — even though lawmakers of all races and ethnicities were mad. (Book and Bittel are white.) Braynon found out about Bittel’s comments, as did other black lawmakers who then confronted Bittel at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood.

By Monday, some Florida Democrats were calling for Bittel’s resignation. Jimmy Deininger of Duval County, secretary of the Florida Democratic Senior Caucus and a former Bernie Sanders presidential campaign volunteer, emailed the chairs of county Democratic Executive Committees and Democratic caucuses, asking them to endorse Bittel’s ouster.

“As members of the Florida Democratic [Party] we must make it clear, from the top to the bottom, that we will not stand for this conduct and rhetoric regardless of power and/or position in our Party,” he wrote.

But major Democratic politicians did not follow suit, including Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, one of three Democrats running for governor and the only African-American among them.

“It was a bad choice of words, but the parties deserve the opportunity to work through the issues without outside distractions,” Gillum said in a statement to the Miami Herald. “I’m hopeful for today’s meeting between the leadership so that collectively we can focus on the agenda of defending public education, protecting and expanding healthcare, and finally rebuilding our economy so that it works better for more Floridians.”

Another contender, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, said in a statement she was “disappointed to hear of the events that took place between the chairman and legislative leaders.”

“As I said earlier on Saturday at the gubernatorial forum, we need more love — and that includes more respect for all of our fellow Democrats,” she said. “I have spoken with legislative leaders and with the chairman. I believe he understands the weight of his actions and regrets them. There’s no place for disrespect in our party. We absolutely must move forward with unity, urgency and determination to end the nearly twenty years of one-party rule in Tallahassee that has hurt our kids and schools, our economy and environment.”

The third candidate, Orlando entrepreneur Chris King, did not respond to a Herald request for comment.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the only Democrat elected statewide who is up for reelection next year, said he didn’t know the particulars of Bittel’s remarks.

“I don’t know the details so I can’t comment to you,” Nelson said at the U.S. Capitol.

The senator, who backed Bittel for chairman, expressed support for Bittel’s party leadership more broadly.

“He’s been doing a great job,” Nelson said.

A wealthy developer and longtime fundraiser, Bittel was elected to lead the party in January, following a divisive internal election. He hired Sally Boynton Brown, who used to run the Idaho Democratic Party, to head the Florida operation. There is no obvious successor awaiting Bittel should he step down.

Last month, Boynton Brown was forced to apologize after she told the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Broward County that poor voters don’t vote based on policies: “They’re emotional beings who are struggling to make a living, and they need to know that somebody’s going to be on their side and be able to help them.”

McClatchy correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report from Washington.