Democrats Must Build a Bench in Medium Sized Counties

Several theories about the way to revive Democratic fortunes have been tossed about throughout the state for the past fifteen years, and most that have been implemented have been either half measures or have fallen flat.  While some Democrats continue to be in outright denial about the situation statewide, many have finally come to the realization that having the worst record in state elections of any party east of the Mississippi since 2000 is an embarrassment.

The current Democratic Party Chair battle has broken down along very familiar lines. Those satisfied with the status quo have lined behind Allison Tant and those who want change and some sort of strategic planning are behind Alan Clendenin. Of course exceptions exist to both general rules but for the most part that is how the race has broken down. Clendenin has offered a plan, and within he has a section on building a farm team, something I and my then business partners submitted a proposal to the FDP about in 2001.

Here is an excerpt from Clendenin’s plan:

Build a Farm Team

Recruit, recruit, recruit! You cannot say that loud enough or often enough. The
Democratic Party at every level must have an aggressive candidate recruitment plan.
Instead of going back to the same pool over and over we must look towards:
• Business leaders
• Churches
• Community volunteers
• Colleges and Universities
• Community organizations such as PTAs, Girl and Boy Scout leaders, and
active homeowners associations

These organizations are filled with quality Democrats capable of entering into a local
entry-level race. We need to expand our search and provide the support for the
candidates that will be our party’s leaders in ten years.

We must build a farm team bench to ensure our viability and future success.  You
don’t build a house from the top down. You start by laying a strong foundation that
will support the structure as it grows. High visibility, high profile elections attract a
lot of attention. But if we continue to neglect our political entry-level positions we
will never enjoy statewide success.

We will never move towards regaining our Democratic majority by standing on the
shoulders of republican school boards, city councils, county commissions and
mayors. Every DEC must have an aggressive strategy to identify quality candidates
who possess the skills and abilities along with the drive and ambition needed to
move up to higher political office.

Candidate recruitment must happen in all 67 counties. There are Democrats in all 67
counties and there are partisan and non-partisan elections where neighborhood
Democrats can compete. Today’s small county successes are tomorrow’s statewide

———End of excerpt—-Analysis below—

Florida’s Democrats have lost 13 of the past 14 elections for statewide (non-federal) office. This is a record which is comparable to that of rock solid Republican states like Utah and Idaho and worse over the same period as traditional GOP strongholds like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Arizona. It is logical and perhaps admirably pragmatic that some elements within a desperate party that has failed to properly train or promote a “farm team,” would turn to a proven statewide vote getter such as Charlie Crist to try and regain a foothold at the highest level. But even if Governor Crist runs  for Governor as a Democrat and wins, it does little to solve the problems the party has as a viable statewide force.

Many Tallahassee-based lobbyists  and consultants have overstated the importance of north Florida counties in the possible revival of the party. While it is certainly true that the leakage of legislative seats in the Big Bend and Panhandle areas has been dramatic, little can be done realistically to change the fortunes in that region. More importantly, that region does not have enough voters to really turn the tables in statewide elections or in tipping the legislative balance of power. Even if the Democrats carried every county between the Suwanee and Apalachicola Rivers, every election the GOP has won for statewide office since 2000, they still would have won. In some of these races, Democrats actually ran substantially stronger in the 2nd congressional district than in the rest of the state.

We have also heard from the party’s southeast Florida base that maximizing turnout in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties would make all the difference statewide. While there is some truth to the theory that more Democratic votes can be squeezed out of these three liberal metropolitan counties, both are already performing very well for Democrats and basing any statewide strategy around the three counties is difficult. What is important is that the party structures in all three counties become more organized and less beset by factionalism. For statewide elections these counties are critical but in order to cut into the GOP’s legislative majority other counties are more important.

The most important counties in the state, it can be argued to recapture the legislature and perhaps to win off-year statewide elections, are  (in no particular order) Brevard, Pasco, St Lucie, Sarasota, Volusia, Hernando and Polk. In each of these counties reapportionment afforded our party pickup opportunities this cycle but in each county those opportunities were blown by the Democrats. Additionally, local offices in these counties are dominated by Republicans and that gets us to the point where we need to work hard to rebuild our once strong infrastructure in these areas which allowed Democrats to defy national trends and top of the ticket weakness to win in these areas.

With the exception of traditionally Republican Sarasota, these are counties where the Democratic infrastructure has been eroded to a certain extent, but counties where the local party structure has remained solid and areas where developing a real farm team of local candidates and activists should be intensified with the backing of financial muscle.

Party building requires, like any building, a solid foundation. In politics foundations are built of people – be they registered voters, party activists, eager candidates or motivated donors.  Building the foundation necessary to begin and sustain a long-term resurgence of the Democratic Party requires creating a new backbone at the local level of committed activists, potential candidates, and major fund-raisers. This needs to be done by branching out in the community, having a presence in local chamber events and local community organizations. When the Democrats were dominating legislative elections in the 1980s, our party’s tentacles reached out into these sorts of places. But since the mid 1990s the infrastructure of the party has collapsed and those based in Tallahassee have done little if anything to arrest this decline.

With a core group of believers  recruited in these places who share core values, while at the same time incorporating that most democratic of notions inclusiveness, we can begin to build the essential “Farm Team” of local elected officials, and lay the groundwork for a successful campaign operation statewide in the medium sized counties. This starts at the local level and then works itself up to the legislature and eventually statewide races.

When the Democrats dominated the Legislature in the 1980s, these counties were represented by the likes John Long, Charlie Roberts, Jack Aschrel, Sam Bell and others who mixed knowledgeable policy positions with an emphasis on local issues, and strong local ties to the community. These legislators represented perceived conservative areas but were consistently outperforming the national ticket in their areas and voting largely a progressive line on key state issues.

It is in these counties, with proper planning and financing, that can turn the entire state around. With support and guidance from local activists these are the places that can provide the foundation and resurgence of the Democratic Party in Florida at all levels. Local elected officials have the most contact with the average voter and are therefore the primary point of contact between Party, its statewide candidates and the voter.

If Alan Clendenin is elected Chair of the party, the building blocks for this revival will begin in earnest. The entire Democratic Party and progressives throughout the state will be better for it.

21 thoughts on “Democrats Must Build a Bench in Medium Sized Counties”

  1. When ever we tried to build a bench in PBC it was always the old guard (Burt,Wexler,etc) who cut off our legs.

  2. I mean it is one thing to copy and paste, but really. You literally just copied and pasted this guy’s stuff onto your blog. What a joke. I hope this is all just an ah ha gotcha kind of thing, because I can’t see how anyone would take you seriously.

  3. Honestly, I have heard some things on this website that make no sense from time to time, but what you said makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Of course he is going to copy and paste it. It is an “excerpt from Clendenin’s plan”.

  4. Lewis in Lauderdale

    Excellent piece. One little quarrel with your analysis though:

    You say….

    “With the exception of traditionally Republican Sarasota, these are counties where the Democratic infrastructure has been eroded to a certain extent, but counties where the local party structure has remained solid and areas where developing a real farm team of local candidates and activists should be intensified with the backing of financial muscle.”

    Sarasota remains heavily Republican as well at the local level. So the local party infrastructure is as bad here as in the other counties you list.

  5. An excellent analysis and critique of Florida’s recent past, present and possible future.

    Alan Clendenin’s ‘plan’ is political science at its best.

    In the event Ms. Tan Richard is elected Chair of the Florida Democratic Party, the citizens of Florida would be well served if she implements organizational structures for winning future state and local elections, as presented in Mr. Clendenin’s plan.

  6. As a Tant supporter I can say I agree with every word of your analysis on page two. Well written and argued.

    My question to you is why do you think Clendenin is uniquely able to solve this problem and Tant cannot? Allison has been around the party for 30 years and understands better than anyone the relationships and partnerships needed to return to the 1980s style party, something you state twice in this piece. The excerpt from Clendenin’s “plan” doesn’t match your analysis. He’s making a broad based statements and you are interpreting it the way you want to, the way I’d want to also if I supported him.

    So what in Clendenin’s record makes you believe he can turn around the counties you listed and develop candidates like the ones you mention??????

  7. Well Pasco County which you mention quite prominently here was being run by Alison Morano who you guys have already sparred with. She wouldn’t know the first thing about actually organizing or building the base of a successful party organization so I wouldn’t think twice as to why Pasco’s numbers get worse and worse every election.

  8. What I have found is that there are too many kingmakers, those who decide which candidates to support and which to ignore. In Miami Dade, for example, we’ve had the Democratic Party establishment trying to dictate the selection of candidates while ignoring that the Hispanic community down here makes this county a different animal to work in. No wonder that even though this is a blue county, in local elections Republicans win almost always and they are in the majority. But, I think that the FDP is leading by the example that the DCCC is setting.

  9. I think the FDP and DCCC is the perfect example of kingmakers. Take the 2nd CD for example. Both the DCCC and FDP tried all they could to make Bembry their guy without even trying to hide it. In the end, it bit them in the ass. But yes, this is bad. We are seeing the “Kingmaker Syndrome” in Orange County as well with Randolph using his position as DEC Chair to nominate himself of the position of Tax Collector.

  10. A few points here. First off, thanks for the compliment. But let us look further. Tant must know since she worked for Mark Gibbons in the 1980s that at the time we had lots of progressive minded Democrats elected from districts Reagan and Bush carried. This takes a plan, and patience. Alan Clendenin has worked as an organizer both for a national union and at a localized level for a long time now. He has been a big part of flipping Hillsborough County from a difficult county to crack 50% to the Republican nirvana. That is a proven track record. We’ve also been able to pick up more local offices recently in the Tampa Bay area, and those are the building blocks for the future.

    I hope Tant understands if she becomes chair we will all be behind her but want to see action on grassroots revitalization and development.

  11. Heck! How about the DCCC Vice Chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, not supporting three Democratic Latins against her real good friend, Ileana Ros Lehtinen, and because of her great working relationship with the Balart brothers? But, the best example is probably how Debbie recruited Gloria Romero Roses from Broward County to run against Joe Garcia in a South Miami Dade/Monroe County seat.
    Debbie is doing it again with the Tant – Clendenin race.

  12. Excellent post. This has been an ongoing problem. Things are getting worse and worse as our relationship as a party with community organizations, homeowners associations, chambers of commerce and similar organizations have broken down. Our “leaders” and I use that term loosely do not care and they simply think the way to solve this problem is to continue to force a top down, Tallahassee driven party on the DECs throughout the state. This is why we cannot accept Allison Tant as our chair without a real fight.

  13. There is no bench. Look at our younger members elected to the House in recent years-Jared Moskowitz, Katie Edwards, Shevrin Jones, Evan Jenne, Marty Kiar. All had parents heavily involved before them. I am not saying that they don’t deserve to be there and won’t/didn’t work hard, but it looks like the only bench is being put together by the parents who want their children to have a job.

    If we had a bench we wouldn’t have people like Rick Stark being elected when we had 2 long-term faithful Dems running against him.

    And deals are already being made to bring back a recycled Palm Beach House member who lost his primary for his Boca-based seat, even though he lived in Coral Springs the whole time.

  14. Incredible that was; DWS openly made statements praising Ileana and the Diaz-Balart brothers. The Gloria Romero Roses thing was a debacle. She lives in Southwest Ranches which is actually in DWS’ district. Mario Diaz-Balart’s district comes into the area (it has a substantial amount of SW Broward) but is NOWHERE NEAR the formed MDB/Rivera district now held by Joe Garcia. I agree that this was outrageous.

  15. Both Katie Edwards and Rick Stark were registered Republicans as recently as 2009, so that’s the Democratic bench I suppose. Edwards was also in Dade County at the time. So maybe that’s the plan. Let the Republicans develop young talent and then coax them to switch parties because it is impossible to get elected as a Republican in most of Broward County.

    The reality of this situation is that it is pathetic. We need to build a real bench everywhere.