Did Miami Democrats Know Party Member Would Resign, Paving Way for Wealthy Donor?

Did a prominent Democratic donor cut a backroom deal in order to gain control of the Florida Democratic Party? An email New Times obtained raises new questions about the ongoing battle over who gets to lead Florida's Democratic Party during the Donald Trump years.

The email's author, lobbyist Stephanie Grutman, denies any sort of collusion took place inside the Miami-Dade Democratic Party as a wealthy donor tries to muscle his way up the ladder to become Florida's party chair. But some of her fellow party members say they're concerned.

Here's the backstory: Stephen Bittel, a South Beach real-estate mogul and major donor, wants to run the state party. But to become eligible, he needs a local political seat. Last week — under questionable circumstances — Bittel became a local precinct captain. Soon afterward, Brett Berlin, a state committeeman, resigned so that Bittel could run for his seat.

That move has already opened a fissure in the party, with many progressives — and Bernie Sanders — backing his opponent, Dwight Bullard.

Now comes new controversy over this email, which some of Bittel's opponents say proves the fix was in long before the dominoes began falling that let the donor into the mix for state party chair.

The email was sent on December 4 by Stephanie Grutman, a South Florida lobbyist, who was trying to find people to vote for Bittel during a December 19 meeting. In the message, Grutman said she needed to help sign up 100 new Democratic Election Committee members in two days.

"They also need to be available to attend a meeting on the evening of Monday, December 19, and they need to be people you can trust so that you can ask them to vote for Stephen Bittel," she wrote.

The only problem: When Grutman sent that email, nobody was supposed to know that December 19 meeting was going to happen. (The vote was eventually scheduled for December 20.)

As of December 4, Bittel did not hold a position within the Florida Democratic Party and still needed to pass through a series of hoops in order to even qualify for a theoretical December 20 vote. A major Miami-Dade Democratic Party member would have needed to resign before anyone could have scheduled that December 20 meeting.

This, then, leads to an obvious question: Is this email evidence that Bittel cut a deal to get elected?

Grutman, though, denies that. She says she was simply guessing when she picked out that December 19 date.

"Everyone was talking about how the dominoes may have been falling, and that's how I hoped the dominoes would fall," she said. "I was just assuming. And I was reading the same articles everyone else was reading." She said a new election would have had to have been called ten days after any party member resigned — she said she simply guessed that December 19 would work.

"One of the challenges having worked at or around the party for a while, you kinda know how you think the dominoes are going to fall," she said.

Berlin, the state committeeman who dropped out to make room for Bittel, also insists that he didn't know in advance that he'd be stepping aside. He says he had every intention of serving his full term.

"Dropping out was not something I was remotely considering at the time," Berlin tells New Times. (He said he had no knowledge of Grutman's email before New Times contacted him about it.)

Miami-Dade Party Chair Juan Cuba did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Bittel himself did not respond to an email message.

But some members of Miami's Democratic Party have long suspected some sort of "fix" had been in the works to help Bittel — the public face for a group of dark-money donors called the Florida Alliance — gain control of the state party.

On December 6, Bittel was rapidly sworn in as a party precinct committeeman in Coconut Grove. For Bittel to run for state party leader, he would then have needed to hold a higher position within the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, which meant someone in the party needed to resign — quickly — to make way for him.

And that magically happened: Four days later, on December 10, Berlin, who was Miami's state committeeman, resigned. And on December 12, Bittel announced he would run to take Berlin's place.

Bittel's December 20 vote was then put on the schedule.

So how did Grutman, a local lobbyist, know all that would happen, eight days in advance?

With Berlin gone, his open position has thrown the Miami-Dade Democratic Party into chaos. Bullard, a former state senator, says he wants to challenge Bittel for control of the state party — on Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders' political action committee, Our Revolution, announced it was backing Bullard. But yesterday, Rep. Keith Ellison, the frontrunner to head the Democratic National Committee next year, announced he was backing Bittel instead.

Grutman, the lobbyist, lamented the fact that the last handful of state party chairs have been elected through backroom wheeling and dealing. Current party chair Allison Tant, for example, was elected under similar circumstances. She said she hoped the next party chair finally changes the rules to simply allow outside candidates to run without first climbing the party ranks.

"It looks like a fix, but it isn't," Grutman said. "It's unfortunate, but that’s how you have to qualify. It’s disgusting."

Here's Grutman's message in full, with the contact information redacted:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.