Democracy Is Messy

Charles Dusseau won the dubious honor of leading the local Democratic Party
Steve Satterwhite

Last week, just hours after two momentous court decisions dealt severe blows to Democrats' hopes of retaining the White House, local party activists filed into the county's Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City. They had not come to rally around their wounded leader, Al Gore. Nor had they gathered to decry other controversial aspects of the November 7 election. They were there to vote. It was time to select the eight officers who would guide Miami-Dade's Democratic Party for the next four years.

Over the course of five chaotic hours, there was no escaping the eerie feeling of presidential déjà vu. Confusion reigned. Tempers flared. Election rules changed with dizzying speed. Ballots were counted, recounted, and counted again. Accusations of incompetence, coercion, and racism flew with abandon. And by the end of the long night, no clear victor had emerged for two of the most hotly contested races.

Roughly 175 people showed up for the December 4 conclave. Unfortunately the Caleb Center's auditorium was not available, and the party's bank account was too low to allow for renting a private room. So outgoing vice chairwoman Dorothy Jackson settled for holding the election in the foyer of the auditorium, where a podium, tables, and chairs had been arranged.

It had fallen to Jackson to organize the event. She had hoped to invite Miami-Dade election supervisor David Leahy to conduct the proceedings, as he does for local Republicans. But in light of the recent presidential unpleasantness, she decided not to ask. That left her in charge of everything. "Nobody helped me do anything," she groused a few days later. "All they did was bitch and complain."

The assembled political junkies, formally known as the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee (DEC), consisted of elected committeemen and women from around the county, the heads of about 25 Democratic clubs and caucuses, and Democrats elected to a countywide office or the state legislature. As they arrived they were supposed to show their credentials, register on a sign-in sheet, fill out a party loyalty pledge, and pick up their ballots.

Jackson, who would have been overwhelmed working alone, rounded up three volunteers to help, but an hour and a half after the scheduled 7:00 p.m. start, they were still signing in people. Several committee members complained they weren't on the alphabetized list, only to discover after careful searching that their first names had been used instead of their surnames. In the confusion some people signed one required form but not the other. And though eight party offices were up for grabs, the only ballots ready for distribution were those for the chairmanship.

Surveying the wreckage at the end of the evening, Florida Democratic Party executive director Screven Watson commented, "Unfortunately the disaster began at the beginning. If they had gotten it right, none of this would have happened." Watson had been sent by the Tallahassee party headquarters to observe and assist. "They had me come because they knew there were going to be problems," he groaned. "And they were right."

The county's Democratic Party has long been something of a laughingstock. It has perpetually struggled to raise sufficient money. Its members often spend more time assailing each other than Republicans. Ideological differences over Cuba have turned partisan allies into sworn enemies. Those divisions had led to two competing slates of candidates "heading toward each other like locomotives," noted Gregg Ullman, the lone office-seeker not affiliated with either faction.

Shortly before 9:00 p.m., after a malfunctioning microphone was fixed, the secretary called roll. That's when the man running the meeting, twelve-year chairman Joe Geller, realized he hadn't properly registered. Once that oversight was corrected, Ray Zeller, a long-time activist and strident Geller critic, nominated former county Commissioner Charles Dusseau as party chairman. Former Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber seconded the nomination with an impassioned speech in which he blamed the state and national parties for abandoning the locals. Dusseau, he argued, would increase the Democrats' credibility.

After another second for Dusseau, several people stood to nominate Thomas Pinder, a businessman, former police officer, and Geller partisan, for chairman. As the nominees delivered three-minute campaign speeches, party executive Watson and two volunteers sprawled on the floor behind the podium preparing ballots for the other seven offices.

Loyalists then cast their votes for chairman, received new ballots, and moved on to the other races. The state committeeman election was a three-way contest pitting Zeller against archrival Gus Garcia and the unaffiliated Ullman. In the committeewoman contest Cindy Hall, an official with the United Teachers of Dade, challenged incumbent Paullette Wimberly, the first black state committeewoman in the Miami DEC's history.

The women's campaign speeches touched on money -- or rather the party's lack of it. "Four years ago labor was insulted in this forum and told that [it] wasn't needed," Hall scolded. "But you know what? You're broke." She promised an end to the cold war between labor and the local Democrats. If she were elected, union money once again would flow into party coffers.

Wimberly responded by lashing out. "I may not have the money," she protested, "but who carried the Democratic Party? People who looked like me. We carried the Democratic Party. I won't walk away for four years and then decide to show up."

Again the assembled party activists marked their ballots.

Behind the podium Watson and his crew were finishing up their count in the chairman's race when they made a horrifying discovery: They had three more ballots than registered voters. Watson went ahead and declared Dusseau the winner by a margin greater than three. At 10:15 p.m. Geller ceded the podium to the new chairman, who scrapped his victory speech in favor of pushing along the other elections.

Now came the results of the state committeeman's race. Watson declared that because three candidates were involved, a majority of votes cast was needed for victory. No such luck. So the state party official decided to impound the ballots and hold a future runoff between top finishers, Zeller and Garcia. Brandishing a copy of Robert's Rules of Order, Ullman vowed to contest the decision.

The battle for state committeewoman was breathtakingly close. But as in the chairman's race, three extra ballots mysteriously appeared. If they were included, they could change the outcome. This is when Watson learned that some people had signed the loyalty pledge but not the registration form. In the procedure they had followed, if you didn't register, you couldn't vote. But when the three unregistered delegates stepped forward to be counted, Watson went ahead and counted them. Fateful decision. The state committeewoman's race now ended in a tie.

"You are not going to cheat!" griped an angry Dorothy Jackson as she marched over to a table set up beside the podium. On the table were several ballots that had been dropped off by delegates who had left early. They caught Jackson's eye. Suddenly she scooped them up and dramatically tore them in half.

"You've ripped them up!" screamed outgoing party secretary Anastasia Garcia, lunging for the ballots.

"They all cheated!" Jackson shot back.

Dusseau tried in vain to regain control.

"Point of order! Point of order!" shouted 81-year-old Ginger Grossman. "One hundred and thirty-three people signed in. How did we get one hundred thirty-six votes?"

"Thanks for the mathematical help," Dusseau sniped sarcastically.

As the election entered its fourth hour, several in the audience began to shout: "This is wrong! This is wrong!"

The meeting was disintegrating. Delegates were walking out. Dusseau futilely attempted to announce a future meeting.

Around midnight, immediately after the final election, what was left of the meeting ended in adjournment. Wimberly, however, refused to leave. She was incensed, certain she'd been robbed of victory.

"I think we did a fair job," said Watson defensively.

"Don't steal my vote," Wimberly said menacingly.

A few feet away stood outgoing chairman Joe Geller, visibly relieved no longer to be running the asylum. "I think I'll go dancing," he cracked.

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