Florida Democrats begin the long, hard road back to respectability

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A task force assembled by Florida Democratic Party chair Allison Tant in the wake of the midterm election debacle for Democrats had their first meeting on Tuesday, and the thoughts of the two co-chairs were illuminating.

“We know we have to take a critical look at ourselves internally,” acknowledged former Orlando police chief and Co-Chair Val Demings in a conference call with reporters immediately after the group convened for the first time. “And then really come out going into 2016 and 2018 with a winning message that will allow us to win more elections. I thought it was great beginning to a long process.”

But her co-chair, Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson emphasized that messaging wasn’t a critical problem for Democrats, attributing the Democrats’ shellacking to the usual suspects — a lack of participation amongst the base, distortions in television ads, and historical trends, such as the fact that the political party of a two-term president traditionally suffers in the midterm elections. In fact, Nelson said on that front, Florida Democrats actually outpaced the party nationally in not losing any net congressional seats. (Joe Garcia lost his bid for re-election to the House of Representatives in South Florida, but Gwen Graham made up for it with her victory in the Panhandle.}

And Nelson said that while it wasn’t discussed much in the initial meeting of the Leadership Expansion to Advance Democrats (LEAD) Task Force, he does support the idea floated by some Democrats to push for a constitutional amendment to have Florida statewide elections moved to take place simultaneously with presidential elections.

“I’d love to do it,” he responded. “The question is: can you get 60 percent of the vote to amend the Constitution? And as you can see, if a popular idea of medical marijuana dispensed by a licensed physician comes up just short, with millions of dollars spent, it’s going to be a tough campaign.”

With Charlie Crist losing the gubernatorial race to Rick Scott by a narrow margin, some analysts have looked back in retrospect and said that if Nelson himself had opted to run, he was the one Democrat with enough appeal to base Democrats and even moderate voters that he could have upended the GOP incumbent. Although on the call he once again denied that he was ever serious about running, Nelson (and his aides) kept the idea floating out there for months in 2013 and 2014 that he might step in and run. Today he insisted he had no regrets. “I made the right decision,” he said about staying in Washington, adding that “I never really seriously considered even though you all loved to speculate about me getting in the governor’s race.”

Val Demings says that if this task force is going to do a credible job, everything has to be on the table: staffing, policies, leadership throughout the state, turnout in specific areas of the state, and communications. “It has to include a critical look at every piece of this election process,” she said, adding that she wants the first sit-down meeting of the group to be “no-holds barred to come up with a message that resonates.”

But Demings also tossed out a familiar Democratic Party talking point used after losing big-time in an election: that they failed to get their message out. “I think sometimes we get caught up with bloc of people or group of people, when we need to communicate to all of the voters of Florida,” and said that more could be emphasized about the economy. “We do care about our corporations and businesses that employ the people that we are trying to represent, but our message really failed us.”

When one talks about the problems with the Democratic Party, the lack of a respectable bench is frequently mentioned. That bench could be strengthened by grooming lawmakers throughout the state, but the problem there is that there are so few who have been elected to the state Legislature. That’s why the talk about future candidates for state-wide office continues to be about mayors like Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn, Fort Lauderdale’s Jack Seiler and Orlando’s Buddy Dyer. Nelson said the party had to build “more of a bench,” and mentioned Democrats such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Patrick Murphy and Lois Frankel as part of that bench. “We’ll get the horses into the stables,” he insisted.

The task force also includes former party chairman Rod Smith; state Reps. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami and Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey; state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Miami; LGBT activist Joe Falk; Service Employees International Union State Council President Monica Russo; Democratic political consultant Ana Cruz; and Florida Education Association policy director Jeff Wright. Also it includes former Florida Obama for America State Director Ashley Walker; Leon County Commissioner Nick Maddox, Northwest Florida party leader Patricia Byrd and Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.