December 17, 2016

Keith Ellison says Florida Democratic Party candidate Stephen Bittel understands need for 'deep organizing to win'



U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota has endorsed Stephen Bittel, a wealthy Coconut Grove donor and developer, in his quest to become the Florida Democratic Party chair.

Bittel confirmed that Ellison was backing him on Thursday. Bittel's team that is helping him seek the state party chair post issued a statement from Ellison today:

"I support Stephen Bittel's campaign because I believe that the future of the Florida Democratic Party is built on effective field campaigning, raising the resources to win down ballot and statewide races, and recruiting top flight candidates who recognize the strength of the party apparatus. We need to do deep organizing to win and Stephen gets that."  

Ellison is the frontrunner to become the next chair of the Democratic National Committee and Bittel gets a vote in that race.

Before Bittel can run for state party chair, he has to win his race for Miami-Dade state committeeman on Tuesday where he faces former state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay. About 500 Democratic activists are expected to participate in that vote Tuesday. The winner of that race is likely to win the state chair vote Jan. 14.

The race for the Florida Democratic Party chair has become nationalized with both Bittel and Bullard drawing support from national figures. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' organization, Our Revolution, is backing Bullard. 

December 14, 2016

Democratic senators form committee to fundraise separately from Florida Democratic Party


Democratic state senators have filed paperwork to create their own fundraising committee, splitting from the Florida Democratic Party in the middle of a political fight over who will lead the party.

The Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee will take over raising money and coordinating campaigns for state Senate races, now run under the Senate Victory organization of the FDP.

"We've grown, and we raised a lot of money this cycle," said Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens. "We've created an infrastructure now, and a staff."

The new organization, first reported by Politico, will be an "affiliated party committee," which under state law can put up to $50,000 toward a legislative campaign. That's the same amount a party can give -- and much more than the $1,000 an individual lawmaker's political committee can contribute.

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

Senate Democrats pointedly named their group the "Legislative Campaign Committee" -- rather than "Senatorial Campaign Committee" -- which suggests they may try to get House Democrats to join them.

Fueling the division is the upcoming election to replace retiring FDP Chairwoman Allison Tant. With no other big candidates seeking the seat, the post is likely to fall to the next Miami-Dade County committeeman: outgoing state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay or major donor Stephen Bittel of Coconut Grove.

Bittel, the apparent frontrunner, was a key force behind the Florida Alliance, a secretive outside fundraising group that was at odds with Braynon and other party Democrats in some of this year's legislative races.

Braynon has made no secret of his support for Bullard over Bittel. But he insisted Democrats remain united in spite of senators' departure from the party structure.

"We're all still Democrats," Braynon said.



Bernie Sanders' Our Revolution backs Dwight Bullard for Miami-Dade Democratic party position



Bernie Sanders' organization Our Revolution has endorsed former state Sen. Dwight Bullard for a position within the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and subtly bashed his opponent, Stephen Bittel, a wealthy Coconut Grove developer and major campaign donor, without naming him.

The winner of the state committeeman race Dec. 20th will run for Florida Democratic Party chair Jan. 14 in Orlando.

"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."

Bullard said that Democrats who worked on Sanders' campaign in Miami-Dade reached out to him to ask if he would want an endorsement by Our Revolution for his state committeeman race. Bullard's friend Marcus Ferrell, who lives in Jacksonville and did African-American outreach for Sanders, then approached former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner who serves on the board of Our Revolution. Bullard said he hasn't spoken directly with Sanders.

Just as Sanders has pushed for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota for Democratic National Committee chair, Bullard said he hopes that Our Revolution can boost his candidacy as well.

"I am hoping for a similar push, momentum swing in a smaller way at the state level," Bullard said. 

Earlier this month, Bret Berlin was re-elected state committeeman but days later resigned to make way for Bittel to run for the position. Before Bittel can run for state chair, he must first hold a county position.

It's unclear if Sanders' opinion will carry much weight in a county and a state that he lost overwhelmingly in the March Democratic presidential primary.

Hillary Clinton won about 75 percent of the vote in Miami-Dade and 64 percent in Florida. Although Sanders had fervent fans in Florida, he focused on other states and waited to show up in Florida one week before the primary after many voters had already cast ballots.

But Sanders has continued to draw interest since Clinton lost -- he drew a crowd at the Miami book fair in November.

When members of the county party's executive committee gather to vote Dec. 20th, it will include several new members who are Sanders fans.

Our Revolution backed Bullard during his state senate race in November. Bullard lost to Republican state Rep. Frank Artiles.

Another sign that Bullard is running in Clinton territory: the Dec. 20th election will be held at the Clinton headquarters in Wynwood.

Miami Herald photo by Pedro Portal


December 08, 2016

Stephen Bittel quietly became a Miami-Dade Democratic precinct captain this week

@PatriciaMazzei  IMG_Bittel_7_1_VT9NK7SB_L269015500

In the latest twist in the political saga over who will be the next Florida Democratic Party chief, Miami fundraiser Stephen Bittel quietly became eligible earlier this week to potentially seek the position.

Bittel was one of 131 people formally sworn in as a member of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee late Tuesday night when the local party approved a motion to accept applications submitted during the course of the four-hour meeting. Meeting minutes list Bittel as a new DEC member in precinct 586, though he was never spotted in the room. No attendance was required.

Bittel declined to comment in any detail to the Miami Herald on Thursday.

"I hope I'll have more to say in the future," he said. "I care very deeply about the future of our community, state and country."

He wouldn't say who turned in his form. Some Democrats speculated he had funded the Pizza Hut delivery that arrived mid-meeting, after the arroz con pollo from earlier was mostly gone. ("I'm a pizzaholic," Bittel said, without confirming his involvement.)

Because Bittel's Coconut Grove precinct didn't have a captain -- most precincts are vacant -- he automatically became his precinct committeeman. (Another man from the same precinct who also became a member Tuesday hadn't signed his application, so Bittel got dibs on being named captain.)

That matters because it means Bittel is now eligible to run for a local party position next time there's an election. His allies are pushing behind the scenes for one of three Miami-Dade officers elected Tuesday to step aside precisely so that a new election is called and Bittel can run. That's the only way the wealthy developer can vie for the state party chairmanship in January.

Newly elected Miami-Dade DEC Chairman Juan Cuba -- who has said there's "zero circumstances" under which he'd step aside for Bittel to join the leadership ranks -- noted that the long list of new members also includes many former Bernie Sanders supporters and other Democrats previously uninvolved in party politics.

"We're glad to be growing the Democratic Party so quickly already," he said.

An earlier version of this post suggested new DEC members had to attend Tuesday's meeting in person to submit their applications. They did not.

Photo credit: C.W. Griffin, Miami Herald file

Outgoing Florida Democratic chief tackles five questions about party's future

via @adamsmithtimes

Five questions for outgoing Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant:

As you prepare to leave office after four years, what would be your advice to next chairman and other leaders in the Florida Democratic party? Put another way, if could do anything to change or reform the party in Florida to make it more effective and successful, what would you do?

My advice would be to never take your eye off of fundraising. If I could change one thing about the party it would be to modernize and streamline the bylaws and governing structure to allow more people to enter the process. I think reforming the bylaws would go a long way towards improving our inclusivity and grassroots engagement.

Is the Florida Democratic Party today stronger than it was four years ago? Eight years ago? 

Financially and organizationally we are in a much stronger position now than we were four or eight years ago. We’ve maintained a larger professional staff and managed to shatter all previous fundraising records. While building a bench isn’t a process that can be completed in one or even two terms as chair, but I’m confident the gains we’ve made will pay dividends in coming cycles. We’ve also managed to make strong inroads in Vote By Mail, data, and digital programs since 2013. The Municipal Victory Project has helped the FDP flip city council and county commissions as well as pick up seats in red areas. 

With the growing importance of independent political committees, and with money-raising largely dependent on legislative leaders, isn't the party chairman's job becoming less and less relevant? Does it even matter much who the next chairman is, so long as competent administrative staff is in place? What would you hope to see in the next chair? 

It’s certainly true that over the last 30 years the influence of parties has changed and that trend has only accelerated post-Citizens United. This isn’t a trend either state party chair can dramatically alter so the focus has to be on adapting to the new realities and figuring out how to compete for resources. The next chair must be able to manage the party, get our message out to Floridians, and successfully raise enough money to compete in as many races as possible. 

Anything you would do differently if you could or wish Clinton and other campaigns did differently?  

Obviously hindsight is 20/20 but I think we should have pushed ourselves to work harder in ex-urban and rural areas. There were certainly working class voters in ex-urban areas we could have held on to with more outreach. 

Given the continuing GOP dominance in Tallahassee government and therefore in fundraising, do you expect another tough off-year election in 2018 when virtually every statewide office will have open races? 

It remains to be seen how a backlash to Trump’s presidency could impact races down ballot. This will be the first off-year cycle with a Republican president since 2006, when Democrats won a cabinet seat and made strong gains in the legislature. I’m confident we will have some strong contenders for statewide offices in 2018.

--ADAM C. SMITH, Tampa Bay Times

December 06, 2016

Miami-Dade Democrats pick leaders amid political drama over Florida party

IMG_IMG_bullard_2_1_2Q9NPIEJ_L269366158@PatriciaMazzei @AmySherman1

The most momentous election in recent memory for Miami-Dade County Democratic Party ended late Tuesday after more than three hours of political wrangling that could determine the future of the Florida Democratic Party.

At stake at the reorganization meeting were not only the reins of Miami-Dade’s Democratic Executive Committee — but also the chances that a deep-pocketed donor might find a way to run for the far more powerful position of chairman of the state party, which has been reeling since its drubbing in the Nov. 8 election.

Juan Cuba, until recently the local party’s executive director, won the Miami-Dade chairman’s post. Dotie Joseph, a former North Miami Beach assistant city attorney, became vice-chairwoman. Business consultant Bret Berlin was reelected state committeeman without opposition. Francesca Menes, policy director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, became the new state committeewoman.

Outgoing chairman and state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who chose not to seek reelection to his party post after losing his state seat last month, wanted the vice-chair position. But party rules require the vice-chair to be a woman if the chair is a man (and vice versa), so Bullard’s bid was made moot by Cuba’s win. Bullard was nominated for the committeeman post, too, but lost to Berlin.

The biggest intrigue, however, was over a man who wasn’t even listed on the ballot: Stephen Bittel, a Coconut Grove developer and major Democratic fundraiser.

Bittel wants to head the Florida Democratic Party. The wrinkle: Only party members elected to county posts are eligible to run for state chairman. And Bittel wasn’t eligible for a county post because party rules make those seats available only to precinct chairmen — and Bittel wasn’t one of them.

So what’s a well-heeled donor quietly backed by big-name Democrats to do? Hope he can cut a deal.

More here.

Photo credit: Steve Cannon, AP

November 30, 2016

Who will Sen. Bill Nelson support for Florida Democratic Party chair?



Sen. Bill Nelson, the key elected Democrat in Florida who will likely have influence in selecting the next Florida Democratic Party chair, hasn’t publicly revealed who he will support.

“The Senator is aware of some candidates who have expressed an interest and will be monitoring the upcoming local DEC elections which determine who is officially eligible to run,” said Pete Mitchell, Nelson’s former longtime chief of staff who is advising him on his 2018 campaign.

It appears that Nelson is waiting for some of the large Democratic counties to first elect their own leaders before he weighs in publicly on who should replace Allison Tant, who announced after the Nov. 8th election that she wouldn’t seek re-election in January.

Broward Democrats will elect their state committeeman and woman Saturday while the Miami-Dade party elects its leaders Tuesday.

Across Florida, committeemen and women vote for the state party chair according to a formula based on the number of registered Democrats in the county which means that Broward and Miami-Dade have the most influence.

Nelson is the lone statewide Democrat in elected office in Florida and the Republicans have placed a target on this back for 2018.

While Nelson easily beat U.S. Rep. Connie Mack in 2012, this time he could face a far more formidable opponent: Republican Gov. Rick Scott appears poised to run. A former hospital CEO, Scott can tap his personal wealth and friendship with President Elect Donald Trump.

Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller who has known Nelson for decades said he hasn’t heard from Nelson who he plans to support.

“When he weighs in I think for a lot of us that will be a very very important step,” Geller said. “He is the single individual that if he chooses to influence the race will have the most influence. Thus far I have not heard him choose to use it.”

In 2013, Nelson backed Tant.

Nelson will want a party chair who can help unify the party and raise millions of dollars. The key candidate who could generate big bucks for the party is Stephen Bittel, a prominent national fundraiser and Coconut Grove developer. Bittel told the Herald earlier this month he “might” want the position but he appears to be a serious candidate because he has been contacting Democratic activists. However, for Bittel to run would require some maneuvering because he isn’t a precinct committeeman, a prerequisite to run for the state chair position.

There is a long list of potential candidates to run for state chair. Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay and Susannah Randolph, former district director for U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson have both said they will run for chair.

November 14, 2016

Dwight Bullard's position on Israel could cost him support of Jewish Democrats for state party chair



Sen. Dwight Bullard, who wants to run for Florida Democratic Party chair, is facing resistance from some Jewish Democrats after he was accused of meeting with a man linked to a terror group in Israel earlier this year. 

Bullard says that the accusation lacked “merit” and that he is a supporter of the Jewish community.

Bullard is one of multiple  candidates who are considering the state party position after Allison Tant announced Friday that she would not seek re-election in January. That could set off an intraparty fight about who would be the best person to lead the Democrats after it suffered crushing defeats including Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in Florida.

The Bullard name is a longtime fixture in Miami-Dade politics because both of his parents served in the state Legislature. But he could face an uphill battle for state party chair due to his position on Israel.

A political committee for Florida Senate Republicans ran an ad this summer accusing Bullard of spending time with a "terrorist" during a trip to the Middle East.

NBC6 Miami reported that Bullard was photographed with a tour guide affiliated with the anti-Israel BDS movement, a pro-Palestinian group with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, designated by the State Department as a terrorist group.

Bullard told the station the man was a "tour guide in old Jerusalem" and he "had no idea" of his political affiliations.

He told NBC6 that he is "pro-Israel, but I'm also pro-Palestine in that people can co-exist. ... My position is co-existence."

Bullard also faced heat for his vote in October 2015 against a bill that would ban the state of Florida from entering contracts with companies that boycott Israel. But when it reached the full Senate in January he voted for it and it passed unanimously.

“A number of folks called me concerned over my committee vote,” he told the Miami Herald. “For the sake of not being the thorn in anyone’s side I decided to vote for it on the floor.”

He told the Miami Herald that he shared the same concerns as the ACLU of Florida which wrote in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott that the bill “is a clear violation of of long established First Amendment law.” The ACLU urged Scott to veto the bill but he signed it into law.

Bullard told Colorlines, an online news site about race and culture, that boycotts are protected free speech: "We look back now in hindsight and say, '[Fighting] for the boycott and divestment movement against the South African government was the right thing to do.' How that is somehow different as it pertains to Palestinian rights is really inexplicable."

Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mike Moskowitz, who raised $1 million for Clinton and is a frequent contributor to Democrats, said he will actively work against Bullard if he runs for chair and will call activists and members of Congress to urge them to oppose Bullard.

“I will discontinue all financial support if he becomes the chair; and will call around to all financial donors in the entire state and ask that they commit to do the same,” he said.

Former state Sen. Steve Geller, who was elected to the Broward County Commission Nov. 8, said Jewish Democrats won’t support Bullard.

“I think he is just wrong on this issue,” he said. “Did the Republicans take it a little too far? Yes. Do I think Dwight is a terrorist? Not at all."

But Geller said that Bullard should have disassociated himself with the anti-Israel BDS group.

Geller and Moskowitz don’t get to vote on the chair position -- that decision lies with state committeemen and women in January. But those who have a vote are likely to listen to input from prominent fundraisers and elected officials who could play a role in the 2018 races for governor and U.S. Senate. Committeemen and women in South Florida play a major role in selecting the chair because they get votes based on a formula that takes into account the number of registered Democrats in their county.

Bullard told the Miami Herald that he will seek re-election as county party chair Dec. 6th and then run for state chair.

He said that Jewish Democrats should not be swayed by the attack on him about his Middle East trip.

“I would hope they would hear me out and not fall victim to a political smear campaign that has no merit,” he said.  “I never met with a terrorist. Did I take a trip to Israel and the West Bank? Absolutely. The notion that I am anti-Israel and pro-terrorism, that was all orchestrated unfortunately by my opponent. I’ve never been any of those things. I continue to be a strong supporting of the Jewish community.”

Bullard lost his state senate race to Republican State Rep. Frank Artiles in a heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade district. The attack ad about Bullard’s trip to Israel was in Spanish.

Evan Ross, a member of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and a political consultant who is Jewish, also raised concerns about Bullard.

“Having a party chair who supports BDS and speaks out against Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state would do irreparable harm to the relationship with the more than two-thirds of Jewish Floridians that consistently support Democrats,” Ross said. “We need a chair who will unite people at this critical time for our party, state and nation.”

Democratic activists do not appear to have coalesced around any single candidate so far for chair and many of them have lost previous races including Annette Taddeo, who most recently lost a Miami-Dade primary for Congress; Alan Clendenin, who lost to Tant in 2013 and recently lost a bid for a Hillsborough County School Board seat and former state Sen. Dan Gelber who lost a race for attorney general against Pam Bondi in 2010.

Photo by the Associated Press

Big Miami donor says he 'might' want to head Florida Democratic Party

@PatriciaMazzei IMG_Bittel_7_1_VT9NK7SB_L269015500

Throw a big-name donor into the growing list of potential new chairs of the Florida Democratic Party: Stephen Bittel

The Coconut Grove businessman, who heads Terranova Corp., picked up the phone Monday night when a Miami Herald reporter called to ask if he's thinking of seeking the position. A couple of local Democrats had floated his name.

"I might be," Bittel said. "I care very deeply about our community, state and country, and if enough of our party leadership and grassroots think that I'm the one that can do the best job, I think service to my country is really important."

Bittel faces the same challenge as several other possible contenders whose names have surfaced in recent days: He's not a Miami-Dade County precinct committeeman for the party -- a requisite post to run for county chairman or committeeman and, later, state chairman. Allison Tant, who currently occupies the Florida job, said Friday she won't try for another term following last week's disappointing election results for Democrats.

"We have some special rules in our state party," Bittel acknowledged, "but we have in the past elected people to leadership positions who didn't naturally fill all the roles, and we figured out a way to get it done. If we get to the place that enough people coalesce in support of me, we'll figure it out."

Bittel, who raised serious dollars for Hillary Clinton and Patrick Murphy, noted he's served as the Democratic National Committee's national finance co-chairman and has been involved with the national and state parties for a long time.

"I'm the story that requires me to pinch myself all the time: I was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital, I went to public schools, and I've been very fortunate," he said. "This is giving back.... We have, in two years, some really important elections."

Phuoto credit: C.W. Griffin, Miami Herald file

Broward Democrats to brainstorm about Florida Democratic Party chair election



The last time Florida Democrats elected their own chair, it was a drawn out battle with pressure from on high: U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the national party chair, and Sen. Bill Nelson pushed for lobbyist Allison Tant who beat Tampa activist Alan Clendenin in January 2013.

This time, one of the key power brokers in the decision to elect Tant’s replacement -- Broward state committeeman Ken Evans -- says that Democrats should start the process by listening to fellow activists first.

While some of the candidates vying for the chair position have contacted Evans seeking his support, he says he isn’t ready to commit to any candidate yet.

Evans will host a listening session on Thursday evening to begin the process of brainstorming the type of qualities that activists want in their next chair.  

“It's for me to take notes, see what they want,” he said. “Do they want a party in Tallahassee that is going to be money people like it was? Do they want to work on grassroots? How do we bring that to work together. I think people need be heard right now -- they are upset and hurt.”

Evans said he invited a few dozen active Democrats in Broward including activists who supported Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, club presidents and members of the Democratic Executive Committee to meet at Duffy’s restaurant in Plantation.

Evans said he doesn’t want Democrats forced into making an early decision. The election for the four-year position will be held in January.

“Let’s just wait, not rush into things,” said Evans, who was a leader for Clinton on LGBT outreach. “We saw what happened with the DNC and that. Let’s just be fair and let people run, let’s do the right thing. That’s why I want to have communication with the local people, I want to get some guidance from people who are going to elect me."

(For the record, Evans has no interest in seeking the state party chair position although he will seek re-election from Broward Democrats in December as state committeeman.)

State committeemen and committee women elect the chair based on a formula that gives weight to the number of registered Democrats in their county which means that Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach hold the bulk of the power. We don't yet know for certain who those people will be since county party groups will hold their elections before the state party election in January.

Broward has about 600,000 Democrats -- the highest number in the state -- followed by Miami-Dade which has about 585,000 Democrats and Palm Beach with 384,000.

Tant announced last week that she would not seek re-election, setting off a long list of potential candidates who are interested in the seat.

In addition to Clendenin, other names in the mix include former Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairwoman Annette Taddeo; Susannah Randolph, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson’s former district director; state Rep. Ed Narain of Tampa, who narrowly lost a state Senate race in the August primary; Miami political consultant Christian Ulvert; former state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach; and state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, who heads the Miami-Dade party and lost his seat Tuesday.

(Tampa Bay Times photo of Allison Tant, left, when she beat Alan Clendenin, right, for state party chair in 2013.)