Democratic Insider Sues to Block Wealthy Donor's Run for State Leader

Stephen Bittel, a billionaire real-estate developer from Miami Beach, would like to lead the Florida Democratic Party. Most Miami Democrats see no issue with that. Bittel has been donating money to political campaigns for years and has helped prop up politicians such as U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

But the small group of progressives in the Miami-Dade Democratic Party don't agree with Bittel's money-slinging ways: At least 14 members of the county Democratic Party say they believe Bittel broke a litany of party rules to try to get himself elected to the state chairmanship.

Now one of those Democratic insiders is suing.

Bruce Jacobs, a Miami lawyer and former Bernie Sanders presidential delegate, filed a lawsuit against Bittel, county party Chair Juan Cuba, and the entire Florida Democratic Party, for — as he sees it — letting Bittel break an alleged host of rules to campaign for party chair. Jacobs filed the suit along with Dr. Mae Christian, president of the Miami-Dade Democratic Black Caucus.

"Mr. Jacobs and Dr. Christian file this lawsuit only after the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party and the Florida Democratic Party steadfastly ignored, delayed, and refused to enforce their bylaws and Florida Election statues in the election of Mr. Bittel," the suit says.

A lawyer for the Bittel campaign accused Jacobs of needlessly obstructing the political process.

"Yesterday more than 20 voting members, ranging from the Florida College Democrats to the chair of the Small County Coalition of Florida, endorsed Stephen Bittel for chair of the Florida Democratic Party, and it’s disappointing that Mr. Jacobs is manipulating the judiciary to obstruct the voting rights of Florida Democrats," lawyer Mike Moskowitz says. "We are confident this frivolous lawsuit will be dismissed."

The exact details of the fight are truly wonky — party insiders are warring over obscure legal phrases buried in party bylaws — but the battle exemplifies the current state of Democratic politics. After Donald Trump's election, progressives have blamed so-called establishment Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Wasserman Schultz for blowing what should have been a shoo-in election.

Local progressives opposed to money in politics have aligned themselves against Bittel, a close ally of Wasserman Schultz's. Bittel's critics say he's using his influence as a major political donor to buy himself a seat in Florida politics.

The fight began in earnest December 6, as the wheels began turning what would lead to the Florida Democratic Party's election of a new leader. To run for party chair, candidates must first hold elected offices in local county parties. At the beginning of December, Bittel held none — until December 6, when he was sworn in just before midnight at a Miami Democratic meeting.

But progressives now say that vote was illegal. They claim not enough members were in attendance to vote Bittel in, among other charges. Regardless, Bittel was named a Coconut Grove precinct captain that night.

After Bittel was elected precinct captain, a higher-ranking Miami-Dade County state committeeman resigned, in a move many suspect had been orchestrated by Bittel. At a December 20 election, Bittel won the committeeman seat handily. This now allows him to run for party leader.

Last week, after anti-Bittel groups sent the state party two complaint letters, party leaders announced they would hold a hearing to discuss any issues with Bittel's election January 13 — one day before the party elects a new state chair.

Jacobs is now asking a judge to invalidate Bittel's appointment before that January 13 meeting begins.
Cuba, the party chair, has told New Times that party lawyers have signed off on all the elections that have allowed Bittel to climb the county party's ranks in a single month. Cuba has stressed multiple times that Bittel won his committeeman seat fair-and-square.

Others aligned with Bittel say his opponents are running a shadow campaign to try to discredit him. As of December, Jacobs represented Bittel's major opponent for state party chair, former state Sen. Dwight Bullard. An outspoken progressive, Bullard lost his reelection bid last year after his state senate district was redrawn. He's since mounted a campaign to run the Florida Democratic Party instead.

In the weeks since, Bullard announced he will run for state chair from Gadsden County, in North Florida, despite having long lived and worked in Miami-Dade. High-ranking Democrats are also split between the two candidates: Bernie Sanders has endorsed Bullard, but Rep. Keith Ellison, who will likely lead the Democratic National Committee this year, has thrown his support behind Bittel.

Multiple sources close to Bittel have called Bullard hypocritical for accusing Bittel of violating party laws while running in a county in which he's never lived. Others have also dismissed Jacob's suit as a "media stunt."

But Jacobs told New Times last week that he is simply trying to get the Miami-Dade Democratic Party to enforce its own rules.

"Chariman Cuba and the FDP have ignored repeated written demands since December 6, 2016, that Mr. Bittel be held to the same rules as every other Democrat who seeks office," the suit says. "They are also ignoring repeated requests for public records in an effort to stonewall discovery of their failure to enforce the bylaws."

Here's a copy of the suit: