After Complaints, Florida Democratic Party Will Hold Hearing on Wealthy Donor's Election

Update 1/13: The Florida Democratic Party unanimously threw out both complaints against Stephen Bittel on Friday, January 13.

When Stephen Bittel, a wealthy Democratic megadonor from Miami Beach, announced plans to run for the top job at the Florida Democratic Party, pushback was inevitable. Bittel, who made the majority of his fortune selling properties on Lincoln Road, is the public face of the Florida Alliance, an organization that donates Koch brothers-style "dark money" to Democratic candidates. Many progressive Florida Democrats disliked Bittel's modus operandi.

But the Miami-Dade Democratic Party's leadership has allegedly broken rules to help Bittel run for state chair. The claims have not helped his reputation among Bernie Sanders-style Democrats.

Those Sanders Democrats are not giving up the fight. Two progressive groups filed complaints with the Florida Democratic Party this week. The state will officially hold a hearing January 13 to discuss the allegations against Bittel, says a party spokesperson.

According to a letter New Times obtained, the state will discuss the pair of complaints for 45 minutes each at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando. The timing is interesting. The party chair elections are set for January 14.

One complainant, Bruce Jacobs, a Miami lawyer and former Sanders presidential delegate, sent Florida Democratic Party chair Allison Tant a letter January 2. Jacobs tells New Timest he believes Bittel was elected illegally. If the party doesn't address those concerns, he intends to sue.

"There are credentialing issues that have never been addressed from [Bittel's election], and if the party doesn't handle this right and their intention is to run out the clock, I'm going to sue earlier," Jacobs tells New Times.

Another group of 13 Miami Democrats filed a complaint yesterday against county party chair Juan Cuba.
Many of the complainants are aligned with former state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who is also vying for the state chairmanship. Jacobs' law firm, for example, represented Bullard as of December.

Democrats aligned with Bittel have accused Bullard's fans of causing an unnecessary ruckus after their candidate lost an election. Cuba, the Miami chair, tells New Times that the state believes Bittel was elected legally and that complaining about the election will only tear Florida Democrats further apart.

"We had an open and transparent election, everyone was heard, and motions were passed or failed on the floor," he says via phone. "Despite efforts to disrupt the meeting, we had an election for state committeeman in which Stephen Bittel won overwhelmingly. The membership decided."

In December, Cuba told New Times that the Miami-Dade party's lawyers had reviewed the complaints made about the election, but found that everything had been handled according to party rules.

But Bullard- and Sanders-aligned Democrats are not surrendering. Jacobs sent the state party a complaint Monday, January 2. In the letter, he accuses Bittel and the Miami-Dade Democrats of orchestrating a scheme to ensure the deep-pocketed Bittel earned a seat within the county party.

In order to run for state chair, a candidate must first hold an elected seat in a county party. Before December, Bittel held none. But at a December 6 county executive committee meeting, Bittel was appointed as a Coconut Grove Democratic precinct captain. His opponents say that appointment, which occurred at midnight, was illegal, because party rules say precinct captains cannot be appointed at executive committee meetings.

"That process lacked integrity and clearly violated the FDP bylaws," Jacobs wrote in his letter. "I am willing to volunteer my time to bring this matter before a Miami-Dade County judge to ensure the Florida Democratic Party enforces its own bylaws."

Jacobs added it was strange the party would hold its hearing in Orlando rather than Miami, where the original election occurred.

Mere days after Bittel was appointed, Miami's state committeeman, Bret Berlin, resigned. That paved the way for Bittel to run for the open seat — and for state leader. Bittel won that seat December 20.

Bittel's opponents claim many of the party members who voted for him December 20 were not legally appointed.

Progressives have also accused Bittel, Berlin, and Cuba of orchestrating a scheme to get Bittel promoted. On December 4, a local Democratic consultant, Stephanie Grutman, sent an email warning that Bittle would compete in an election later in December — Bittel's opponents say that email proves party members knew in advance Berlin would resign and pave the way for Bittel.

One Miami Democrat told New Times last month that the entire ordeal felt like "the most boring episode of House of Cards ever."

In a letter filed yesterday, 13 Dade County Democrats wrote they "strongly believe [Bittel's] election must be overturned." They believe Cuba had a conflict of interest during the vote because Bittel has donated so heavily to the party.

"In an act that can only be best described as quid pro quo, Mr. Cuba seems to have exercised his power as Chair of the Miami-Dade DEC to select December 20th, 2016 as the date for the aforementioned special election in an effort specifically designed to exclude Mr. Bittel’s strongest opponent, State Senator Dwight Bullard, from being able to attend said election," the letter reads.

Cuba, via phone, denies any sort of collusion or conflict. The Florida Democratic Party will elect a new state chair January 14, but the political shenanigans appear to be far from over. Bullard has announced plans to run against Bittel from a seat in Gadsen County instead.

Here is the full complaint letter from 13 Miami Democrats:

Here is the letter announcing the January 13 hearing:

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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.