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Florida Democrats Look To Regroup, Plot 2020 Course

Sean Shaw, a former state House member from Tampa who lost a November race for attorney general.
Sean Shaw, a former state House member from Tampa who lost a November race for attorney general.

As they deal with painful election losses and try to devise a plan for the 2020 presidential election cycle, Florida Democratic Party leaders announced Thursday they have formed a commission to help build an infrastructure that they hope will yield future wins in the nation’s largest swing state.

The commission was formed amid intra-party disagreements about political strategies that should have been avoided or better embraced in the November elections, which included losing races for governor and U.S. Senate.

“We need to have an honest discussion about why our electoral record is so poor statewide and why some activists and other groups feel disconnected from the party,” said Sean Shaw, a former state House member from Tampa who lost a November race for attorney general.

Shaw will chair the “Path to Power” commission along with Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, longtime Gainesville Democratic fundraiser Cynthia Chestnut and former state Sen. Jeremy Ring. Fried is the only statewide elected Democrat.

“Democrats had a lot of bright spots in this election. … We also had some tough losses and as a party we need to examine and assess the 2018 outcomes,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement.

Since losing Bill Nelson’s long-time U.S. Senate seat and Andrew Gillum’s chance at the governor’s mansion in November, Florida Democrats have not gathered for a statewide party meeting. But they are scheduled to meet Feb. 9, a date that was added after 25 Democratic county chairs and party committee members signed a petition and called on Rizzo to move to Feb. 2 a meeting scheduled for March 1 to March 3.

Instead of moving up the date, Rizzo offered two events for Democrats to meet.

The perception that party leaders were slow to respond to requests to meet brewed tension among some Democrats. Juan Cuba, who this week resigned as Miami-Dade County party chairman, said party leaders were “alarmingly silent” in the two months after the election when asked about dissecting the 2018 outcomes.

Further evidence that morale was low came when the party’s treasurer, Francesca Menes, resigned. In a hand-delivered resignation letter submitted Jan. 15, she said she was uncomfortable with how party leaders dealt with the midterm election losses.

“This is a decision that I do not make lightly,” Menes wrote, “but a decision that I have wrestled with for the past three months. There is a lot going on in the party, a lot that I am very uncomfortable with and very disappointed to see unfolding.”

When she left her party post, Menes made leaders aware that she believed there was a “lack of fundamental structure of accountability and engagement” and urged them to not run the “same plays from the same playbook.”

National Democratic leaders will depend on the state party’s infrastructure to try to help block Republican President Donald Trump from winning in Florida next year, and at least one state senator said this month that she worried the party was acting slowly.

“We have a lot of work to do, and frankly, we are already late,” said Miami Sen. Annette Taddeo, who is serving on the “Path to Power” commission.

“The pace at which we are moving is non-existent, and it is not OK,” Taddeo added.

Since facing the mounting criticism, party leaders have been more responsive to requests from activists. In addition to creating the “Path to Power” commission, Rizzo is circulating a statewide survey to get feedback from Democrats about how to do better in 2020.

“What we need is an unbiased, hard look at how we are going to win elections,” said Casmore Shaw, the secretary of the statewide party. “Like any organization, we can’t stay stagnant, we have to be evolving --- and that is what we are doing at FDP.”

A copy of the survey obtained by The News Service of Florida shows questions that focus on how the party communicated with volunteers and staffers to provide information about programs, the election recounts, whether technology the party invested in was useful and what efforts should receive further investment.

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