Local Democrats are stuck between a rock and a hard place in tonight’s vote for a new state committeeman, which would be a stepping stone for the Florida chair position the same year that the Democrats lost the traditionally blue state to a rabid Republican in a crazy presidential contest and a no-show Senator that spent most of the year campaigning for president.
In one corner, they have former Sen. Dwight Bullard, a longtime legislator who has had their back, someone who fights for the little people, whose family legacy is steeped in the Miami-Dade blue party but who couldn’t even win re-election in his own seat this year.
In the other corner, they have prominent developer Stephen Bittel, a proficient fundraiser who has likely raised millions for dozens of Democrats, who leaders have bent over backwards to put in the running because they say it’s a matter of life and death for the Florida party.
No pressure now.
The Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee will meet at 6 p.m. tonight to discuss the pros and cons and take a vote. But the campaigning has been fierce. Committeemen and women have been bombarded with phone calls — both live and recorded — and emails in the past week to sway them one way or another. Or mostly Bittel’s way.
In what seems like a dirty campaign move, there was an email sent out to recruit new committee members — so long as they promised to be available Tuesday to vote for Bittel. Who cares if they never show up again, right?
But, ladies and gentlemen, it’s all legal. As disgusting as it may seem. The process allows for this.
A couple of low-level Democrat activiststs called Ladra over the past week, completely disgusted with what they see as a repeat of the national race — having a party-chosen candidate rammed down their throats. It’s Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton all over again for them. They say the rich man is trying to buy the position.
“Taking no credit away from Bittel. He seems like a great guy and he’s done a lot of good for the party,” said one of them. “But this makes the rest of us feel worthless. What does this say to the little old lady who gave $10? What does this say to the person who stands on the corner holding a sign for 12 hours? This tells them they are worthless, that they don’t matter.”
Well, certainly that they don’t matter as much as a guy who can leverage millions of dollars for blue candidates, a guy who has had President Barack Obama at his Coconut Grove home for a fundraiser.
Thats what some leaders, who also did not want to be identified, told Ladra was the justification for the convoluted process by which tomorrow’s vote came. First of all, Bittel was not even a precinct captain until earlier this month at some midnight hour vote with a questionable quorum that party leaders did not expect anybody to ask about (but grassroots Dems have) because it may have violated the party’s own bylaws. Then, almost immediately like a well choreographed dance, State Committeeman Bret Berlin resigned to pave the way for a special election so that Bittel, the newly appointed precinct captain, could run. All this so he can run for the chair of the Florida Democratic Party.
Some high-level Dems told Ladra that we want the Florida chair to be someone from the 305. That this would be good for the area and that we also need someone who can raise the money that will be necessary for Sen. Bill Nelson to hold onto his seat in 2018. That person, they say, is Stephen Bittel. Surrogates like newly-elected State Rep. Daisy Baez tell anyone who listens how Bittel’s advice and support was pivotal in her victory.
But can’t Bittel do that without the chair title? Can’t he continue to raise funds for the Dems he deems deserving and keep his day job? Apparently, he’s been doing great so far. Certainly, he would still have the ear of young no-name Democrats running for open seats formerly held by Republicans. What does he get out of it?
“People want to invest where they have complete trust in the leadership and know that the leadership has also invested first,” Bittel told Ladra in a telephone interview Monday. “I’ve had their trust for years.
“This will enable me to marshall the resources of every Democratic organization in the state. We need to start working as a team, build a progressive infrastructure that will be our highway to successful campaigns. We need to plan together and right now we are too busy shooting at each other. This circular firing squad has to end.”
“My heart is broken after this election and I am tired of losing,” he said, adding that he wants to beef up the blue bench through the Sunshine State. “We need a significant investment of time, money and resources in training candidates and we need to be competitive in every county, city and school board race.
“The goal is to have Democrats win elections.”
Ladra told him she was skeptical. He can still stay involved and keep his day job. Florida Democratic Chair seems like a full-time gig, especially in the wake of 2016’s losses and Dem senators coming up with their own fundraising arm. Is Bittel going to retire as CEO at Terranova Corporation, where he leads “a team of professionals in the ownership and operation of a commercial real estate portfolio valued at nearly $1 billion,” according to the website?
He seems to be convincing everyone. He’s got the teachers behind him, other labor unions, and now Congressman Alcee Hastings. Bullard, who could not be reached for comment and may be out of town for Tuesday’s vote, is backed by Bernie Sanders and his revolution-minded Dems.
But by no means is it going to be easy. The #StandWithDwight group is still complaining loudly and will likely make their case Tuesday night.
For his part, Bittel said he, too, was concerned about the convoluted steps he had to take to get here.
“We have a complicated set-up. I prefer to let people run and vote. I hate the process,” he said. “It’s how most of our party chairs have run in the last 10 years. And I gotta get in so I can change it.”
But Ladra is skeptical again. Why would he change the mechanism by which he got this far? Especially since Bittel believes the end justifies the means?