Who will lead the Pinellas Democrats?

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This Thursday night the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee will choose on whether or not they want to retain their current chair Mark Hanisee, or go in a different direction and support his challenger, vice-chair Susan McGrath. Hanisee was initially elected in 2010, and won re-election in 2012. And there is a possibility of another candidate getting in the contest as well.

Although 2014 was a brutal year for Democrats, Pinellas County Dems had one small but important victory that came out of the midterms last month – former Largo Mayor Pat Gerard defeated former Clearwater House Republican Ed Hooper, meaning that the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners will now have a majority on the board for the first time in at least half a century.

But McGrath thinks it’s time for a change.

The LGBT activist, who currently serves as president of Stonewall Democrats in Pinellas County,  was elected DEC Vice Chair of the Pinellas Democrats in December of 2012.

The biggest blot on Hanisee’s resume as party chair comes from his involvement in the Democratic Party’s failure to field a candidate in the CD13 race last month, allowing Republican David Jolly to run unopposed by a Democrat in his second time at the polls.

After Alex Sink said she would not run again against Jolly this fall (after she lost to him in the special election in March), the Democrats had to scramble for a viable opponent. Unlike every other congressional voting district in Florida (if not the majority around the nation), the CD13 seat in Pinellas County  was and still is considered a swing district, with an almost equal number of registered Democrats and Republicans residing in it.

But when former NAACP St. Pete president Manuel Sykes attempted to enter the Democratic Primary this past summer, he was subjected to a withering personal rebuke from Hanissee warning him that he would become “persona non grata” if he were to go through a candidacy. Sykes did not run, but not before embarrassing Hanisee by playing the  phone call for Tampa Bay Times reporter Curtis Krueger back in the spring. Hanisee defended his comment by saying that he took such a stance, “Because he lives in another district, he’s never run for office before, (and) he has no prior political experience. If you check the demographics, it’s like a 2 percent, 3 percent African-American district.”

Nevertheless, the action definitely alienated members of the party, and not just African-Americans. Ultimately the party came up with only one candidate to run, but Ed Jany dropped out less than two weeks after he was recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to run against Jolly.

Largo/Mid-Pinellas Democratic head Rich Piper says that he doesn’t believe that Hanisee had much to do with either event, saying that Gerard was an attractive candidate who ran a good campaign. And he says that most of the blame for the Jany debacle resides with the DCCC and with Scott Arceneaux, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. His biggest complaint about Hanisee is the current chair’s failure to attend the last four consecutive executive board meetings, and five out of 11 this year.

Piper, a former professor of political science at the University of Tampa for over 30 years,  is currently neutral in the race, and says neither candidate is particularly what the party needs right now.  He’s actually been trying to recruit a third candidate to enter the race, who he would not name (although Hanisee and McGrath are the only two declared candidates, Piper says DEC rules allow for there to be floor nominations before Thursday night’s vote). He says McGrath has been “adequate” as vice-chair, but later conceded that if it’s just between Hanisee and McGrath, he’d support her over the incumbent.

Pinellas Democrat Jim Jackson is no longer a voting member of the Pinellas DEC, but he told SaintPetersBlog that he’s fully backing McGrath for party chair.

“I think Mark may drop out, but Susan has all the really great people who are backing her,” he says. “I think people realize that this election, the whole group dropped the ball, and Mark was part of it, so we desperately need something new.” He says his only concern is that there’s “still some of this homophobic thing,” that may prevent the whole party from embracing her if elected.

Hanisee received a strong endorsement in the most recent edition of La Gaceta this week by editor/publisher Patrick Manteiga, who worried in print that McGrath will make the Pinellas Democratic Party “the gay caucus.” He went on to write that “This is a real fear we have after seeing it happen in Hillsborough County,” referring to what he alleges occurred when Pat Kemp ran the Hillsborough DEC, though whether that is an accurate comment is certainly in question.

Mantegia also wrote that McGrath supporters (like Jackson) have been spreading rumors that Hanisee will drop out of the contest before Tuesday’s vote. But unfortunately we couldn’t clarify that with Hanisee, as he did not return our phone calls over the past two days.

McGrath spoke briefly with this reporter on Monday and said she would be available to speak on Tuesday, but had yet to return our phone call when we went to post this story.

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.