Update: Boynton Brown has since apologized.
“I apologize for my comments and I in no way meant to demean voters in Florida,” she said in a prepared statement. “Issues are the backbone of our democracy and the Democratic Party.”
There is truly no defeat the Florida Democratic Party will avoid snatching from the hands of victory. Donald Trump has turned the Republican Party radioactive. His polling numbers are plummeting right alongside the GOP as a whole. And the nation is seeing a groundswell of progressive activism at levels not witnessed since the 1960s.
So how does the new, incoming brass running the Florida Democratic Party respond? By telling constituents that "issues" don't matter and that it's not the party's job to focus on policies that will actually help anyone, like single-payer health care.
Last night, the party's new second-in-command, Sally Boynton Brown, spoke in front of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Broward County. And throughout the exchange, she steadfastly refused to commit to changing the party's economic or health-care messaging in any concrete way.
"This is not going to be popular, but this is my belief of the time and place we're in now: I believe that we're in a place where it's very hard to get voters excited about 'issues,' the type of voters that are not voting," Brown said.
Brown, the former executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, was hired last month to take over for the outgoing executive director, Scott Arceneaux. Last night was her first encounter with local progressives, who are already disgruntled after Stephen Bittel — a billionaire real-estate developer, gas station franchiser, environmental dredging company executive, and major political donor — was elected to serve as party chair earlier this year. Many progressives accused him of buying his way into the job via campaign donations.
And Brown's speech perfectly illustrates why the Florida Democratic Party (and the party in general) can't seem to get out of its own way and actually win elections.
How important is it for candidates to concentrate on "issues" like health care or economic equality, one audience member asked. Her answer? Not very. She said candidates moving forward should focus on "identity messages" instead, which she didn't actually define.
In a follow-up question, she also warned party members not to get too excited about turning districts from Republican to Democrat and said the best we ought to hope for is that Florida becomes more "purple." (She also said she was proud about not supporting either candidate in the 2016 Democratic primary, which is an odd sort of thing to boast about as a Democratic Party leader.)
Later in the meeting, she then said that people who are struggling to make ends meet — and often decline to vote because they say it doesn't matter — do not vote based on "issues" they care about and instead vote because they are "emotional beings." She added that people apparently skip voting because they've somehow forgotten about the "power of democracy," whatever that means.
She also said that taking money from large corporations such as Florida Power & Light could somehow be a good thing — and that the "relationship" created when gigantic corporations give thousands of dollars to political candidates can somehow make it easier for politicians to push back against corporations when they are "raping our country."
"It's not so much about the money controlling the conversation; it's about the people controlling the conversation," she said. "And right now, unfortunately, we live in a system where you have to have money to work the system."
(That system seems to be working pretty well in Florida as it is.)
Brown then attempted to explain what she believes the party's strategy ought to be instead. She contradicted herself multiple times and wasted a lot of air deflecting the fact that she wouldn't commit to forcing candidates to pushing for progressive changes that could help people — and perhaps excite them to get to the polls. Here's her nonsensical answer in full:
"At the end of the day, what really matters, is what our candidates decide to do. So, two things to that. One, I believe that the FDP needs to have an overarching 'identity message' that we are making sure that we are driving out to everybody. And, in that identity message, we identify key issues, health care definitely being one of them, and then we educate our candidates to be able to go talk about those with the best of their ability. So, I believe that the way that we have those conversations needs to be drastically different than the way it has been. As Democrats, I think we continue to try and connect with voters' heads around 'issues,' and 'facts,' and 'truth,' when we are now in an era of emotional politics, where people are scared, and we have to figure out how to connect with their hearts. And I think we have a lot of experimentation to do on how that happens. And I am not prepared to try and say 'issues' don't do that. Because I know there's a lot of people who think differently. What I would like to do is test different 'scripts' that really talk about that, and what I know is that health care and having accessible health care for all is one of the number-one issues that we have."
Brown was right, in that her viewpoint didn't get anyone excited. After she finished her answer, the man who asked the question literally walked right out of the room as she was answering the next question.
The answer was so confusing that at roughly 35 minutes into the clip, an elderly black woman asked Brown to clarify her point. She brought up the fact that poor people of color don't get motivated to vote for Democrats because both major parties haven't done much to help those communities prosper in decades.
"You're not touching their issues," she said to Brown. "The platform has to come from issues. Can you explain that to me so I can get unstuck?"
Brown then explained that, as a person in charge of party "staffing," she's not in charge of what policies her candidates push. And then she contradicted herself a split-second later by admitting it's her job to "elect Democrats."
"My job is to elect the Democrats who go do the governance and then go figure out the policies and issues," she responded.
And then yet another audience member chided her for her answer.
"You sort of hinted when you first answered that you felt that what got people out to vote wasn't really issue-oriented," the man said. "The evidence is that that's not really true at all. Voter participation tends to crash, but when somebody tends to bring out issues, that's when [people] come out. We saw that with Bernie Sanders. And so I think you have a contradiction there."
At this point, Brown argued that poor people are simultaneously struggling to make ends meet but also don't vote based on what policies will benefit them.
"I believe that what we saw with Bernie was a phenomenon that did not just have to do with issues he was talking about. I believe it was much more than that. Trump had a similar phenomenon. And frankly from Justin Trudeau all the way to the future around the globe, we have seen similar phenomenons. The issues have not been the same everywhere. So, I believe that people are emotionally reacting to the emotion. I believe, and again I don't have the data to back this up, but is that Bernie found a core group of people who were excited about 'issues,' and their passion, and enthusiasm, and energy created an emotion that more people reacted to. That's what I saw from an outside perspective."
She added that "they are emotional beings who are struggling to make a living, and they need to know that somebody's going to be on their side and be able to help them."
"They're struggling to make a living over issues," the audience member responded. "Those are economics."
"I'm not going to get into the hard-head debate," she said. "I'm just sharing my perspective and that we absolutely will do data testing to see which scripts work best [and then share that with our candidates]." (So now Brown's job does include deciding policy? What?)
It's worth noting that Hillary Clinton's campaign relied on data testing to an almost extreme degree in 2016 and lost catastrophically after much of that data turned out to be wrong.
Let's pause for a second: Who is not an "issues person"? Politics is entirely about issues. The basic reason you vote for anyone is because you want that person to accomplish things that make your life better. Who are these "emotional beings" that get excited about candidates but don't care about policy?
The rest of the meeting didn't inspire much more confidence. Brown was also asked about the party's plan to convert formerly red states or counties to blue ones — and her response was that she had spent the past six years working to instead turn Idaho "purple," and that's the best we ought to hope for in Florida (which voted twice for Obama).
"I think that it's unrealistic to think that you convert red counties to blue," she said. "I think you have to ask red counties to come up with a long-term strategic plan on how they're going to move the needle forward, and the FDP is committed to working with them, and making sure that they have resources to accomplish that plan."
(Genuine question: Does the party not realize it needs to win Republican-held seats to win a majority at the state or federal level?)
"I'm lost someplace," one woman eventually said. "I understand what you're saying, but I don't fully agree with it. We have lost the governorships. We have lost most of the races. But I hear the people in Washington saying, 'Change? We don't need to change.' Democrats have not won on the basis of saying, 'We are not as bad as the other guy.' If you don't run with candidates on decent issues, people are still not going to vote."
Another woman then jumped in and called the current party a "dirty church."
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Brown's actual response: "I am starting to get tired."
In perhaps the most tone-deaf statement of the night, she said voters can be persuaded to go to the polls by reminding them they can "change their lives" through the "power of democracy."
So poor people have just forgotten about the power of voting rather than resigned themselves to the fact that no matter what party they vote for, their lives never seem to get better. That explains it!