Donkey Demise

Miami-Dade's Democratic Party is a shambles. Blame Joe Geller, candidate and chairman.

And after a 30-second welcome from the dais, Geller is indeed back in his seat. A couple of speeches later, Gore strides on to the stage amid a burst of sustained applause. The county chairman is on his feet, leading the cheers until, slowly, the room settles down and the vice president launches into his address. But after a few minutes, Geller's attention strays to a perusal of Gelber's campaign brochure.

A few days later, Geller is sitting in the conference room of the Hollywood law office that he shares with his brother Steve, a twelve-year state legislator from southeast Broward County. State party rules will force Joe Geller to take a leave of absence from the DEC chairmanship by July 21, the deadline for submitting qualifying papers in Tallahassee. If he loses the primary in September, he can resume office. And though he has said he won't run for a fourth term in December, when party officers come up for election, he'll no doubt participate in the struggle for leadership that has already begun between loyalists and those he's alienated. Although he has run for office only once before (an unsuccessful bid for mayor of North Bay Village in 1998), politics clearly is his passion.

Geller critic Ray Zeller hopes the party can finally begin to rebuild
Steve Satterwhite
Geller critic Ray Zeller hopes the party can finally begin to rebuild
Gus Garcia wants to bring Cubans into the Democratic fold, but that may cost the party other Hispanic votes
Steve Satterwhite
Gus Garcia wants to bring Cubans into the Democratic fold, but that may cost the party other Hispanic votes

Geller claims he can recall his earliest political memory: He was just six years old and watching the election returns from the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential race. Today, at age 46, he adds wryly that it's remarkable he has no recollection of the Eisenhower years.

His family moved from the Bronx to (Miami-Dade's) Westchester when he was eleven years old, and it didn't take long for the young man to find an outlet for his political interests. At Miami Coral Park High School, he joined the Teen Democrats. (The student who recruited him into the club, he says, was Kendall Coffey, most recently known as an attorney for the Lazaro Gonzalez family during the Elian crisis.) At Florida State Geller joined the Young Democrats, became president of the chapter, and worked for the 1975 Carter campaign. He stayed on at Florida State through law school.

In 1984 Geller joined the Miami-Dade DEC, which oversees the work of the county's 80 Democratic districts, volunteers, and precinct captains, and develops candidates and election strategies. Four years later then-DEC chairman Simon Ferro (now the U.S. ambassador to Panama) was elected state party chairman, and Geller was picked as his replacement. He won a subsequent election for the seat and has remained in the post ever since.

The late Eighties were grim years for Miami Democrats. They'd failed to carry the county for four of the previous five presidential elections. In 1986 the party lost the governor's mansion and a number of legislative seats. Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen won a special election for Rep. Claude Pepper's seat after the legendary Democrat died. Democrats still outnumbered Republicans, but “people were saying Dade County had become a Republican county,” Geller recalls.

A fearsome demographic shift was taking place as well. Large Anglo voting blocs in the county's southern and northern reaches had begun to disappear as elderly transplants, the “condo commandos,” began to die off. Other residents moved out in the wake of immigration, and Hurricane Andrew drove tens of thousands of people from the area after 1992. Cuban immigrants, who for the most part registered Republican, moved into the neighborhoods. The party has been struggling to accommodate diversity, says Thomas Pinder, president of the All Peoples Democratic Club in northeast Miami-Dade, and he credits Geller with trying to bring in more people.

Among Miami's blacks the party has traditionally fared well, though the Republicans have recently made inroads. Geller also has targeted the Haitian community. “This is a crucial community to us,” he explains. “They can be a counterweight to other immigration groups that registered Republican.”

Geller is proud of his tenure. Under his watch Florida Democrats have made four out of five big-ticket wins. The party took back the governorship in 1990 and held it for two terms. Local Democrats also helped elect Bill Clinton twice, and those presidential campaigns make Geller especially proud. “It's the most important work I've done as chair,” he says, “probably the most important work I've ever done politically.” Geller knew Clinton from national Young Democrat organizations, and in 1991, even before Clinton had declared his candidacy, he became the first Democratic Party chairman in Florida to endorse Clinton for president. When Clinton carried the county in 1992, it was the first time in sixteen years that a Democratic presidential candidate had done so.

Which is all well and good, say his critics. But while Geller's focus on state and national victories has helped earn him a couple of nights at the White House, it has done little for Miami-Dade politics. In the meantime, critics maintain, he has destroyed the local party through gross neglect of its finances and its base.

There are only a handful of places where national politicians routinely travel to raise funds. These bastions of wealth and influence include Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. South Florida, always near the top of the list, funnels tens of millions of dollars to both parties each election cycle. And it's not just Clinton and Gore who drop by the Sunshine State. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and New York Senate hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton have come by looking for donations. So have New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

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