Newly-elected Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel isn’t the kind of guy who shies away from a fight.
And judging by his resounding victory Saturday, after a nasty campaign against four other candidates for the Party leadership, he doesn’t fight to lose.
“Contentious elections are reflective that there are Democrats all over Florida that are passionate, committed to coming together, moving forward together to win elections. So contentious is good. It means you care,” Bittel said after defeating some candidates with much longer- and better-known records in state party politics.
Bittel is taking over a Party that consistently has more registered voters statewide, but rarely wins statewide. Democrats now have almost powerless minorities in the Florida House, Senate and congressional delegation. The battle Bittel won, between the candidates and their backers, was one of shaking up the Party, and the question was whether that could be best done by someone claiming grassroots credentials or someone well-established in the money class.
During a break in the FDP annual meeting at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando Saturday, Bittel talked about building out a staff and leadership team “in a way that is reflective of all parts of our party, including people who supported my candidacy or other candidates.”
Judy Mount of Jackson County, previously serving as party treasurer, was elected first vice chair. Francesca Menes of Miami-Dade, from the county’s Little Haiti community, was elected treasurer. Casmore Shaw of Osceola County became state secretary.
Bittel said he’d be in the FDP’s Tallahassee headquarters for several days this coming week to meet staff and others.
“I have plans for enormous staff expansion,” Bittel vowed. “We’re going to grow this party to a size and strength that has never been seen before.”
He also noted how the FDP has been under-resourced for a long time: “that changes today.”
On Saturday, Bittel said that published reports suggesting he is a billionaire are not accurate. Yet the Miami Beach lawyer and businessman with interests in real estate development, oil and gas [chair of the Terranova Corp.] is wealthy enough so to beg the question. Bittel is also a well-known bundler of campaign contributions, and a big donor on his own, having personally donated more than $900,000 to various Democratic candidates and party committees. He said he’s also contributed generously to non-partisan, progressive issues not related to candidates, such as voter registration, public education and health care. I’m not stopping any of that.”
“I’m not stopping any of that,” he added.
Both Bittel and one of his chief rivals, Alan Clendenin, survived challenges to their candidacies just before the election on Saturday.
And enough controversy surrounded Bittel, Clendenin and, to a lesser extent, Dwight Bullard, that Bittel found a need to defend how he came to run for the position, saying he ran because party leaders came to him. There were protesters in the hallway of the Rosen Shingle Creek, holding up signs accusing Bittel of “buying” the Democratic chairmanship. A Democratic activist lawyer and a civil rights leader in Miami have sued to have it overturned. Because of the sharp divide, some delegates refused to vote.
Nevertheless, Bittel drew 55 percent of the ballot, in a weighted system that gives some delegates more votes than others.
And plenty of Democrats at the event appeared happy to have him, whether they voted for him or not.
State Rep. Amy Mercado, a former chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, praised the entire elected slate of officers led by Bittel as strong and diverse.
That diversity includes the fact that they do not all represent the same factions.
“There are enough differences in that group now that they have to figure out how to balance and move forward,” she said.
Still, others expressed some anger, particularly those delegates who self-identified as Bernie Sanders Democrats.
Bruce Jacobs, a Miami lawyer who served as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention last summer, and Mae Christian, a prominent Democratic civil rights activist from Miami, sued Bittel and the Party, charging that his path to the chairmanship was rigged.
A court hearing is set for Friday with Judge Lisa Walsh of the Miami’s 11th Judicial Circuit.