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Builders Stephen Bittel and Donald Trump have things in common

in Statewide by

Everyone in America knows the name of President Donald Trump. On the other hand, few are familiar with Stephen Bittel, even in his home state of Florida.

As of noon on Friday, Donald Trump officially became the President of the United States. As of January 14, Bittel became the latest Chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

For all of the obvious differences of party affiliation, the two men have some things in common. Both are wealthy developers. Both are known to say what is on their mind.

To no one’s surprise, Trump has a 55 percent negative rating (as does Hillary Clinton). One of the key factors leading to that score is the perception, true or not, that Trump is a bully.

As the vote for Democratic Chairman approached, Bittel faced four challengers unimpressed with his style. Dwight Bullard, Alan Clendenin, Lisa King and Leah Carius thought Bittel was pushing his weight around too much.

“Somebody in this race has been trying to bully and intimidate people,” Clendenin said.

Sound familiar?

In fact, the quartet had their own unofficial “Anyone but Bittel” cabal. They claimed to control 60 percent of the votes, thereby denying Bittel the chairmanship.

“We are standing shoulder to shoulder,” added Clendenin.

Sound familiar? Backed in large part by the Democratic establishment, Bittel won on the first ballot.

Democrats hate, to different degrees, what Trump is all about. They don’t like the way he won and the type of supporters he attracted.

The guess here is that in Bittel, Democrats have elected a chairman that will behave in some ways like Trump. In other words, he promises to be an aggressive, active chairman that seeks to make the Florida Democratic Party great again. #MFDPGA?

The task before Trump is well known. What confronts Bittel is understood mainly by those entrenched in party politics.

Trump knows a $20 trillion debt is daunting. In the world of Florida politics, so is the job facing Bittle and the Democrats. An example is illustrative.

My friend and former colleague Jason Gonzalez recently posted this “gee-whiz” nugget on Facebook. In the bluest of blue counties, Leon, here are the Republicans who affect those constituents on the state and federal level:

President and Vice-President; Speaker of the House and Majority Leader in the Senate; Governor of Florida and all three Cabinet positions; Speaker of the Florida House and President of the state Senate.

Here’s the final straw. With Dr. Neal Dunn’s victory in Congressional District 2 (Gwen Graham did not seek re-election), Republicans control all of those positions at the same time for the first time ever as of noon on Friday.

(NOTE: some Leon County residents, like this writer, reside in the district served by Rep. Al Lawson, a decent guy).

Bittel has heard the criticism of the state party for not helping develop a “farm team” or “bench” of young, charismatic candidates. Florida is far from alone in facing problems brought on by an overloaded focus on presidential elections at the expense of winning locally.

Look no further than the trouble Democrats have in nonpresidential year elections for an illustration. A must-read piece in Politico Magazine by Edward-Isaac Dovere shows the national dilemma confronting Democrats with Florida serving only as a microcosm.

Only 16 of our country’s governors are Democrats, while 32 state legislatures are controlled by the GOP. Democrats lost 1,034 state and federal legislative seats over the past eight years.

“There’s no bench, no bench for a bench, no one able to speak for the party as a whole,” Dovere wrote.

Over the years, Bittel has raised large sums for Democrats. As chairman, he has a chance to close some of the canyon-sized gap in money Florida Republicans have enjoyed for years.

If he employs some of Trump’s qualities in bringing disaffected Democrats, their passion and their money to the cause — and starts building a bench — being a bully won’t be such a bad thing. I am not in the business of giving Democrats advice, nor would they want it.

That being said, for one of the few times in recent memory, Florida Democrats may have made a good move in electing Stephen Bittel. Republicans should keep an eye and ear on him.

 

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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