Get rid of state Dems’ stale, elitist leadership process

In 2013, Allison Tant, standing to the left, won the position of chair of the Florida Democratic Party. She is being congratulated by Vice Chair Alan Clendenin.
In 2013, Allison Tant, standing to the left, won the position of chair of the Florida Democratic Party. She is being congratulated by Vice Chair Alan Clendenin. Associated Press

On Jan. 14, the Florida Democratic Party will elect a new chair. Six days later, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president. The new state party chair will articulate the party’s response to Trump and run a party that hasn’t won a governor’s election in 22 years. The new chair will need to hit the ground running, raising money and recruiting candidates for the 2018 elections. This is a tough job.

Given the stakes, Florida Democrats should be passionately engaged in the election to pick their party’s next leader. But most of Florida’s nearly 5 million registered Democrats have no idea an election is happening.

It’s hard to blame them. This election is elitist, old fashioned and exclusionary.

Having helped set strategy for Florida Democrats during the past four years, I know the impact an energetic party chair can have. The current chair, my former boss Allison Tant, raised the bar for the job, traveling and fundraising tirelessly in support of Democratic candidates.

But the election to replace Tant should embarrass every Democrat.

The convoluted system governing Florida Democrats eliminates good candidates, encourages ridiculous loopholes and suppresses minority voices. The chair’s election isn’t even open to all Democrats. It is restricted to the people who are currently a leader of a Florida county Democratic Party.

Of the leading candidates for party chair, three used a loophole to qualify. They found a Democratic county leader willing to resign, then won the snap election to replace him or her, becoming a county party leader just in time. For two of the candidates, the loophole had to be stretched even wider. They lost the local leadership election in their home towns, so they repeated the process by “moving” to a rural county where a friendly local leader stood aside for them.

I can’t blame these candidates for working the system, because this system rewards those who can skillfully pull political strings.

But it should not. Every single Florida Democrat should be eligible to run for state party chair.

Incredibly, when the next chair is elected, only 150 people are eligible to vote and make that decision. The state executive committee, the party’s highest governing body, isn’t just small, it doesn’t look much like Florida Democrats either. For example, just 24 percent are African American and only 2 percent are Hispanic.

And even fewer Democrats among these groups hold the power: The vote is weighted to favor the biggest, most Democratic counties. A handful of people can swing an election against the will of the majority.

Florida Democrats, who pride themselves on inclusion and diversity, have inherited a closed and stale leadership system. When the vote for party chair is held, how many of the tens of thousands of passionate Democratic volunteers will even know it happened?

As chair, Tant has worked to address these challenges, traveling widely and appointing party officials with diverse backgrounds. But every effort to reform this broken process has been met with opposition and foot-dragging by the biggest county parties.

The time for delay is over. It is time for the Florida Democratic Party to reject the kingmakers, and throw the doors of this process open to a diverse group of Democrats.

Every candidate for chair of the Florida Democratic Party needs to commit to democratizing this process. The stakes could not be higher. Building the party begins with reforming how it governs itself.

Joshua Karp was communications director for the Florida Democratic Party from 2013 to 2015.