Miami Democrats at War as Wealthy Real-Estate Magnate Tries to Take Over State Party

Last week, Stephen Bittel, a Miami real-estate magnate and major political donor, made the first play in a House of Cards-esque political drama he hopes ends with his running Florida's Democratic Party. First, though, he needed to secure a humbler role as a Miami-Dade County precinct captain, which he did in a quiet midnight vote.

Bittel soon confirmed what many had suspected: He intends to use the position as the first step on a ladder that could take him to state party chair.

But now a group of grassroots Miami Democrats is pushing back. They allege Bittel used his status as a wealthy donor to improperly nab the committee seat without a quorum of party members.

That complaint highlights a looming battle over the soul of the Florida Democratic Party during the Donald Trump years. Grassroots and pro-Bernie Sanders activists say they're upset a big-money donor such as Bittel might run the party, while Central and North Florida Democrats worry that a South Floridian might control the party for the first time in years.

Before that big-picture fight can play out, Miami Dems are facing questions over whether Bittel followed the rules to get his job. Three Miami-Dade members tell New Times they believe County Party Chair Juan Cuba and outgoing state Committeeman Bret Berlin rushed to appoint Bittel before anyone noticed rules had been violated.

"It all happened really fast," says Tomas Kennedy, a county party member. "They were taking advantage of people who’d been in that room for six hours. It was 20 minutes away from midnight."

Yesterday a Brevard County woman filed a Change.org petition repeating those concerns. The questions surrounding the vote "seem to indicate a pattern of blatant violations of established FDP bylaws and procedures, as well as purposeful maneuvering around the rules in order to pave the way for a wealthy donor to take control of the Florida Democratic Party," the petition says.

Cuba says he's heard complaints from party members about how Bittel was appointed, but he says he consulted a party lawyer, who agreed last week's vote was handled legally.

"I've heard the concerns raised, and we've checked with an attorney and a past parliamentarian as to whether the motion that Berlin made was allowable," Cuba says. 'They’ve told me it does not go against anything written in the bylaws."

Bittel and Berlin did not respond to New Times' requests for comment.

The whole drama revolves around the fact that, as of last week, Bittel did not hold an official position within the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party. To run for state party chair, Bittel would first need to become a captain of a small county precinct and then run for a larger county position. Once he attained that second job, he'd then become eligible to lead the entire Florida Democratic Party.

That's why, at an executive committee meeting last Tuesday, Bittel was sworn in alongside 137 other party precinct captains. Yet according to the party's current rulebook, it's illegal to swear in precinct captains at an executive committee meeting.

Berlin, the state committeeman, made a motion to suspend those rules and appoint that huge number of captains, which included Bittel.

Kennedy and other disgruntled Dems say the rule suspension and the appointments were not done by the book. To achieve a quorum, 77 members needed to be present. At the beginning of the meeting, 139 people said they were there, but members were told they could leave early. And video provided to New Times casts doubt that 77 people were present by the end of the night. Instead, some party members say they're concerned that the party's leadership rammed a powerful donor's appointment through the meeting at midnight while nobody was watching.

"Plus, a significant portion of the people in the room were not voting members," one member present said. "The only way you prove that is the number of people who voted in the second-to-last election of the night."

The members present said only 50 people voted in a runoff that elected Erica Grohoski-Peralta as the party's vice chair of outreach, but the meeting minutes oddly don't list the vote tally in that election.

But Cuba, the party chair, says everything was handled according to the rules.

"We vetted that concern," Cuba says. "Our bylaws saw that once a quorum is established, it is presumed unless anyone challenges quorum, and no one did."

Rumors had long swirled that Bittel was pressuring someone in the county party to step down and let him run for a higher seat. And virtually the minute Bittel was sworn in, state Committeeman Bret Berlin announced his resignation, giving Bittel a chance for a promotion. Some Democrats are also concerned that too many people were elected to represent Berlin's district and that Berlin should never have been allowed to hold office.

According to the petition:

Miami-Dade’s bylaws state that “Elected Membership shall be composed of one (1) man and one (1) woman who shall be elected from each of the election precincts at the first Primary election in a Presidential election year. Should the Democratic registration of any precinct total more than one-thousand (1,000) as of January 1 of a year in which qualifying for election to the County Executive Committee occurs, an additional one (1) man and one (1) woman are entitled to be elected to represent all such precincts.” In addition, the bylaws state that “the officers shall be elected from the Elected Membership at the Organization meeting.”

As of January 4, 2016, according to the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections website, the number of registered Democratic voters in precinct 579, where Berlin ran for precinct committeeman, was 896. According to both Miami-Dade DEC bylaws, and FDP bylaws, this would mean only one (1) Elected Member should be eligible to be elected from the precinct. According again to the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections website, Antonio Javier Diaz got the most votes in precinct 579, with a total of 84 votes, while Berlin came in second with 80 votes.

But Cuba instead says that the county Supervisor of Elections, not the state party, handled Berlin's vote, and that the county was certain Berlin's position was legitimate.

"This is part of a larger fight over, and larger intrigue over, who becomes the next state chair," Cuba says. And we're having a healthy debate about what we want in the next state chair. We have, I think, some very good choices. But I'm not 'appointing' anyone; it's up to the voters in the Miami-Dade Democratic Party to decide."

He then added that although "debate is healthy," "demonizing one another" isn't.

But grassroots Democrats have a bigger concern than whether bylaws were followed. They worry that a wealthy real-estate player such as Bittel — who made his fortune flipping Lincoln Road properties — could soon control the entire state party apparatus.

Bittel is known for chairing the secretive Florida Alliance, a group of Koch Brothers-style donors who influence elections using 501(c)(4) "dark money" donations, which don't need to be disclosed to the public. Though some say the Alliance is fighting the fire of conservative dark money with added fire, others — especially Sanders-style progressives — disagree with Bittel's approach.

Bittel's name also popped up frequently in the Russian Democratic National Committee email hack earlier this year: Party members found his personality so reprehensible they debated apologizing to the people Bittel sat next to during a large fundraiser.

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