Five Signs the Florida Democratic Party Still Doesn't Get It

Former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel
Former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel Florida Democratic Party
This was supposed to be the Florida Democrats' year. The blue wave was cresting. Andrew Gillum was a strong candidate for governor. Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott were grotesque, cretinous candidates and seemingly awful human beings. Everything looked so easy.

So of course the Florida Democrats blew it. They're the Florida Democrats! They're a group of party apparatchiks and generally privileged white people who treat political representation like a club and a hobby instead of seeing politics as the dire, important, often-life-altering issue it is. The party is staffed by people who reward those who stress loyalty and tradition over good ideas. Here's a primer on the major missteps the Democrats made this year en route to blowing the 2018 races for governor and senator:

1. Francesca Menes, the party's statewide treasurer, just quit and said black party members were being ignored and disrespected:

And now, a high-profile black female party leader has resigned, saying black voices are being ignored at the party's top levels. Last week, Democratic Party treasurer Francesca Menes, a Miami-based immigrant-rights activist of Haitian descent, announced online she had resigned from the state-level party and from her position as the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee’s “state committeewoman.” In a Facebook post, she wrote that she and other prominent black leaders in the party felt their voices were being overlooked.

"Basically, I'm at the table with no food on my plate, no food to share with others who I represent," Menes wrote on December 3. "As a state officer of the Florida Democratic Party, there was no real respect towards me or the 2 other Black State Officers. We are always kept out of the loop, having to demand information only to get dismissed."

She begged the party to learn from its mistakes in 2018, adding: "As I continue to reflect on the past couple of months and how the party showed up, or actually didn't show for my community it is disheartening. "

Reached via phone, Menes said today that she felt she was being intentionally kept "out of the loop" on the party's financials, and that she felt as if party Chair Terrie Rizzo constantly talked down to her. Despite the fact that she was the treasurer for the entire state party, she says she had not had a sit-down meeting to discuss party financials since May. She said the situation made her "uncomfortable" and that she was worried about signing off on financial statements that she says she'd been prevented from properly reviewing.

"I don’t trust white women who play dumb," Menes said. "I’m careful. I'm observant. And it’s just particular white women — watching how Terrie moves, she doesn’t have any leadership skills."

She said that other black state officials had expressed similar concerns, but said that they were choosing to remain quiet about the party in order to keep their jobs.

2. Stephen Bittel, the party's former leader, just got sued for a smorgasbord of alleged sexual harassment and impropriety claims:

Stephen Bittel, a real-estate billionaire who enjoyed a short reign as head of the Florida Democratic Party before resigning in disgrace last fall, sexually harassed a female employee by describing his sexual partners' pubic hair, detailing his pornography preferences, offering to take her shopping for lingerie, and touching her toes on his private jet, according to a new complaint filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

The allegations were outlined in a disturbing 27-page lawsuit filed Friday by 34-year-old Andrea Molina, who worked for five years as director of acquisitions for Bittel's real-estate firm, Terranova.

A spokesperson for Bittel issued a statement to New Times Tuesday calling Molina's allegations "sensationalistic and overblown."

"In this case, revisionist history is being used in an attempt to leverage Stephen Bittel for a financial windfall," the statement read. (Bittel's full statement is posted below.)

Bittel resigned last November following a Politico story in which six former Florida Democratic Party staffers and consultants described him as misogynistic and demeaning. Though the women did not accuse Bittel of inappropriately touching or threatening them, they described a pattern of behavior that created a hostile environment for female employees.

Molina's lawsuit adds more credibility — and detail — to the women's complaints. Before joining Terranova, Molina says, she earned $150,000 annually as a senior financial analyst for a commercial real estate firm. After meeting Bittel in fall 2012, she says, he recruited her to join Terranova, paying her only $90,000 a year but promising bonuses that would exceed her old salary. Bittel, who is 62 years old, also made numerous comments about her eventually taking over the company, according to the lawsuit.

But Molina says her contract with Terranova came with some strange provisions. The written agreement obligated her to remain "on call 24 hours per day, 7 days per week" and forbade her from disclosing her place of employment. It also came with an 18-month noncompete agreement that she says stopped her from leaving the company when she began being harassed.

Shortly after Molina started her new job, Bittel bragged that sexual harassment cases filed against him were "unwinnable" and that he was "unbeatable" because he "knew all the judges in Miami," she says. Bittel, who is a licensed Florida attorney, told Molina he had studied the law and noted that plaintiffs tended to win cases only when there was a "quid pro quo" demand for sexual acts in exchange for promoting or not firing an employee.

According to the lawsuit, Bittel described to Molina the "porn stories" he enjoyed reading and the pubic hair styling of women with whom he had slept. He frequently referred to himself as a "sapiosexual," a person sexually attracted to intelligence. On one occasion, Molina says, Bittel asked her to reset his Facebook password, knowing that a message would pop up showing another female employee's bare breasts.
3. Bill Nelson's campaign got whacked for failing to court the Hispanic vote. Via Politico:

Instead of organizing year-round, they’ve assumed demography would be destiny. Instead of selling progressive policies aggressively on Spanish-language media, they’ve assumed their positions on issues like immigration and health care would speak for themselves. And while Democrats are starting to put in more face time in Hispanic communities, Republicans are still doing a better job of nuts-and-bolts politicking with a demographic that is now one-sixth of the state’s electorate. Roberto Rodriguez Tejera, a Miami talk-radio host, says it’s often hard to find bilingual Democratic politicians and surrogates who will come on the air. Annette Taddeo, a Democratic state senator from the Miami area, says many of her fellow Democrats think they can introduce themselves to Hispanics a few months before Election Day with stump speeches and TV ads.

“I’m sick and tired of being the only Democrat who shows up at Nicaraguan events, Venezuelan events,” Taddeo says. “You can’t just show up in campaign mode; you’ve got to be present all the time.” In August, Taddeo attended the inauguration of the new president of her native Colombia—and was not surprised to run into Rick Scott. It wasn’t a major news event in the mainstream U.S. media, but just about every Colombian voter in Florida heard that their governor had paid his respects.

“Rick Scott is a master of this,” she says. “He gets that it’s not just about policies and issues. It’s about being there.”

4. Members had to fight like hell to force the party to stop accepting private-prison donations:

At a gala fundraiser for the Florida Democratic Party in Hollywood on Sunday, party leaders including Chair Terrie Rizzo stood onstage and repeatedly condemned the Trump Administration for imprisoning immigrant children at detention facilities across the country.

But when a group of activists proposed a ban on all political donations from the private-prison companies who profit off Trump's policies, a small but influential minority of old-guard party officials (and at least one former Clinton White House employee) fought back and nearly succeeded in killing the measure.

In the end, though, the resolution did pass by a large majority, ushering in a new era of anti-mass-incarceration activism at the party level in Florida.

The squabble illustrates an internal battle raging through the Democratic Party across the nation. As activists, many of them younger Millennials, push the party to take the moral high ground on issues including prison reform and campaign finance, many older, more entrenched officials have fought back behind the scenes. The Florida Dems' clash over prison cash also shows how grassroots activists are conflicting with establishment entities like the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaigns Committee (DCCC), which have both been accused of kneecapping progressive candidates.

"I think the whole thing was just a sign of the hypocrisy of the leadership of the party," Rachel Gilmer, an activist with the Dream Defenders, says of the fight over the resolution. "The meeting opened with a quote from Representative Val Demings about how supporting the Democratic Party is the only way to save the country, and how we need to stand up against Trump's family separation and hard-line immigration policies. But some people think it's OK to speak out against such policies while at the same time being deeply in bed with a company that works with politicians to put more people in jail."

5. Nobody seems to know if the Democrats illegally altered state forms in 2018. Via the Naples Daily News:

Florida officials confirmed Monday that they have launched a criminal investigation into the use of altered election forms by Florida Democrats to fix absentee ballots after the state deadline, expanding an investigation into potential election fraud that was first referred to federal prosecutors.

One state Democratic party staffer who was instructed to share the altered form with voters said she has “plenty of documentation to prove” several members in party leadership were made aware that the form, which was modified to include the wrong state deadline, was being circulated.

“Once I realized that the form was altered I brought it to the attention of several members in leadership. I have plenty of documentation to prove this,” Eli Logan, a Brevard Democrat, wrote in a private Facebook group message obtained by USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida.

Altered forms, which mirror those sent by Florida Democrats in the internal email in question, surfaced in Broward, Santa Rosa, Citrus and Okaloosa counties and were reported to federal prosecutors to review for possible election fraud as Florida counties completed a recount in three top races.

The email sent by a party official on Nov. 7 shows an apparent statewide effort by Florida Democrats to try to fix as many absentee ballots as possible after the state deadline.
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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.