Florida Democrats race to the bottom 

They should be riding high. Instead, they’re fighting over who gets to be party chair.

How thoroughly has the Republican Party dominated the Democrats in Florida in recent decades?

So much so that the Democrats’ gain of two seats in the state Senate last November represented the first time the party had gained seats in that body in 30 years.

Add the defeat of most of the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the GOP-led Legislature, the gain of five seats in the state House, the addition of four Democrats to the state’s Congressional delegation (a net gain of two), and oh yeah, President Obama’s unpredicted victory in the Sunshine State over Mitt Romney, and yes, you could say it’s a new era in Florida for Democrats.

But reality bites. Those gains now give the GOP “just” a 76-44 advantage in the House, and a 26-14 edge in the Senate. And the Get Out The Vote effort led by the Obama For America (OFA) campaign, heralded nationally as the greatest ground game effort in U.S. politics, has left the state.

Trying to insure that 2014 will be more like 2012 — and not like the debacle that was 2010 — is the focus of party members in choosing their next party chair. The choice is between Hillsborough County’s Alan Clendenin and Tallahassee resident Allison Tant.

Clendenin, 53, is a 20-year member of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee and serves as both a State and Democratic National Committeeman. This is not his first bid to lead the state party — he was a candidate for the office in 2010 when Karen Thurman stepped down after a rocky six years, but he dropped out when he was big-footed by former state Senator and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Rod Smith.

Now the only person standing in the way of Clendenin’s dream is another candidate promoted by party insiders: 51-year-old Tallahassee lobbyist Tant, a late entrant who was prompted to run by political heavyweights Bill Nelson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Not surprisingly, Clendenin is unimpressed.

“I’m really less concerned about what a couple of elected leaders believe,” he told CL while sipping on a cup of coffee in Tampa’s über-chic Oxford Exchange on New Year’s Eve afternoon. “I’m more concerned about a vision for the party, and that’s part of what I bring to this election, which is a voice for change. What those individuals bring to the party is a voice for the status quo.”

Clendenin’s theme is “Rebrand, Rebuild and Recruit,” and he emphasizes that the party needs to change its top-down philosophy if it’s to be competitive. And he says Democrats should not be blinded by the successes from last November.

“If you want the Florida Democratic Party to look like the Florida Democratic Party of 2010, I’m not your guy,” he says, alluding to the shellacking that brought the state Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, among others. “If you believe the Florida Democratic Party needs to look a lot more like the OFA organization of 2012, then I’m your choice as FDP chair.”

Clendenin says the key is to regionalize the party, giving more power to local Democratic executive committees, something OFA did by opening up dozens of local offices throughout the state. OFA also focused on what they called “sporadic voters,” meaning those voters who fell into a targeted demographic but didn’t traditionally come out and vote.

Two days after the 2012 election, outgoing party chair Rod Smith said the key to continued electoral success in Florida would be to focus on women, blacks, Latinos and young voters. “We just have to now keep the machinery in place and keep doing what we’re doing, and not just walk away and say ‘We had a great night’ and it’ll automatically come back to us next time,” he told reporters on a conference call. “It won’t.”

But infrastructure requires money, which is why some Democrats are supporting Tant. “Allison is a proven fundraiser,” says Rick Boylan, a state committeeman for Pinellas County. “And in all of my observation of state parties over the years, a requirement in order to be a successful fundraiser is to make sure that the elected officials are behind you, helping raise money.”

Tant’s stated agenda wasn’t released until New Year’s Day. It echoed much of Clendenin’s designs, which he announced several months ago, such as empowering local Democratic groups and emphasizing candidate recruitment.

Although the race has fired up party members throughout the state, the electorate that will make the ultimate decision in Orlando on January 26 is extremely limited. The two committeepersons in each of the state’s 67 counties get votes, as do heads of caucuses and elected officials. But the vote is weighted toward those counties with the greatest Democratic voter turnout in recent elections, which is why the big three South Florida counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach) have by far the biggest influence. In sum, approximately 1,150 people will decide the race — out of 4.8 million registered Democrats in the state.

That’s why last week’s announcement that representatives from those three counties are backing Clendenin was a possible game-changer, and prompted the Tampa Democrat to declare publicly that he would be the next chair. Not so fast, countered Allison Burke Morano, a vice chairwoman of the state party. She says that any “official” count right now is incomplete, because the weight of each vote based on the 2012 election hasn’t been recalculated and distributed (if that sounds complicated, it is).

Though the electorate is a select group, general interest is sky-high, and the battle is playing out in political blogs. None have been bigger cheerleaders for Clendenin than the South Florida-based Political Hurricane, which broke a story in December alleging that Tant had lobbied in 2000 for ChoicePoint, the parent company of DBT, the infamous firm hired by then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris to purge felons from the voting rolls. Tant denied the allegation to the Miami Herald, and was backed up by Martha Barnett, a former colleague at Holland & Knight.

Critics of Tant also point to the fact that she has made donations to over a dozen Republicans over the years, and that her husband, Tallahassee attorney Barry Richard, represented George W. Bush in the 2000 recall in Florida.

Speaking to CL last week, Tant said she had had enough of the “outright lies told about me.”

“I have been unfairly hit about my husband, I have been unfairly hit about my former law firm… They put out a lie that is absolutely incorrect about the voting purge issue.”

Tant also bristled at Clendenin’s charge that she’s the candidate of the status quo, calling it laughable. “He’s been part of this whole insider Democratic party that’s prevented reform from happening. It seems like if you’ve been inside you could make some changes, but those changes haven’t been made.”

One change that Clendenin has been accused of not supporting is the inclusion of marriage equality in the state party’s platform when he chaired the platform committee, a charge that Clendenin, who is openly gay, bitterly denounces.

“I was the chair of the committee, not the dictator of the committee,” he avers, indirectly accusing Tant supporter Susanna Randolph of fanning that particular story. “Even though she knows that’s inaccurate and a lie, she keeps on saying I came out in opposition to marriage quality.”

For her part, Randolph says all she knows is that while President Obama and the DNC were coming out in support of same-sex marriage, the FDP stayed silent, at a time when Clendenin controlled the group. “For whatever reason that was, I think a lot of folks talk about [a lack of] leadership.”

Tant’s campaign manager, Christian Ulvert, also doesn’t think much about the complaint that Tant gave financial contributions to Republicans in the past. “It totals a few hundred dollars, compared to more than $35,000 that Allison herself has personally contributed to Democrats.”

Chris Mitchell is the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee chair, and a strong supporter of Clendenin. He dismisses the notion that Allison Tant will be a rainmaker, saying the same thing was heard of FDP chairs Karen Thurman and Rod Smith, but they didn’t have a plan. He says Clendenin does.

“The idea that we can just bounce from one person to another and that’s the whole fundraising apparatus is absolutely crazy … If we have a plan, if we have a track record, and if we’re showing progress… that will outlast whomever the chair is.”

Mitchell also says it’s absurd that party officials like Scott Arcenaux are “pounding their chests” after last fall’s election result. Referring to the fact that the Dems had 48 seats in the state House in 2008, 39 in 2010, and now 44 in 2012 shows that “we’re not really making any progress.”

But Mitchell’s predecessor as Hillsborough DEC head, Pat Kemp, says she thinks Clendenin is the wrong choice to lead the state. “I’ve never seen him do door-to-door stuff or being involved at all at the grassroots level,” says Kemp, who worked alongside Clendenin for four years and is one of the few local Democrats willing to speak out against him. “That’s not something I would associate with Alan. He was much more of a person wanting to be involved in the other kinds of roles at the party, but not grassroots, in terms of where he puts his hours.” She also questions his bona fides on progressive issues, saying he was the only member of the Hillsborough DEC who didn’t support a public option when the health care reform bill was being debated in Washington.

Several other Tampa-area Democrats told CL off the record that they like Clendenin personally, but think it would be bad for the party if he were elected. One local Democrat with knowledge of state party affairs says the party will end up bankrupt. “The doors will close in three months, and we’re going to have to open up super PACs to run the campaigns. The party will cease to exist as we know it.”

Some Democrats say 2014 will be unlike off-year elections in that, regardless of who their gubernatorial nominee is, the party will be energized to defeat Rick Scott. But Susannah Randolph says the Democrats are in no position to be so confident.

“I think the #1 thing that Democrats should understand is that regardless of Rick Scott’s approval ratings right now, he could still win re-election, and that nothing should be taken for granted. I think whomever the chair is, he or she has to not only be able to replicate the kind of power that the OFA organization brought, but to tailor it… [H]ow do we take the animosity towards Rick Scott and use him to make this state blue for a long time?”

Tampa Democratic political consultant and former state party executive director Ana Cruz does not think the infighting is good for the party.

“We have to keep our eye on the prize, and that is to be ready for 2014. All of the shenanigans, and all of the Democratic infighting that is taking place over this, is not getting us any closer to ensuring that our party is whole.”

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