Tomorrow the top Democratic leaders in the state will meet in Orlando for the Florida Democratic Party's annual convention. After a disastrous outcome in the 2016 election, this year's conference is perhaps the most important in recent history. As usual, Florida remains a key battleground for 2020 — President Donald Trump's own advisers call the state an absolute "must-win."
But already tensions are heating up between the Florida Democratic Party's (FDP) establishment wing and its bluer, progressive members. This morning, party leaders across the state received an email from convention organizer Chris Wills, a volunteer for the Joe Biden campaign. The correspondence raised major questions for at least a handful of progressive activists who found the timing and content of the message unsettling.
"[It] has been an honor to serve as the FDP Convention Coordinator for all the volunteers who are organizing across our state to ensure we flip Florida blue with Biden!" Wills' email states. It ends with a call to action: "I look forward to standing side-by-side with you and our Democratic nominee in 2020, to defeat Trump and Trump-ism and most importantly, to defend our democracy!"
Tomas Kennedy, an activist and member of Miami's chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, says the email gave the appearance of endorsing Biden.
"A lot of Florida Democratic elected officials have been pressured to endorse him and have endorsed him already," Kennedy says. "I think it's weird they would send that email."
Looks like someone at @FlaDems leaked the state convention email list to the @JoeBiden campaign, who used it to send an email saying he is already the nominee. Are all the campaigns going to get access to this list or are FL Dems putting their thumb on the scale for Biden? pic.twitter.com/svgPkJoRzW— Thomas Kennedy (@tomaskenn) October 10, 2019
Kennedy also criticized Wills' use of the phrase "our Democratic nominee" in a pro-Biden email by calling it a "lame rhetorical trick."
Others have raised concerns about how Wills accessed the email list. William Byatt, a party delegate and treasurer of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, says he isn't sure how the Biden campaign got his email address and worries other campaigns were not given equal access to contact information.
"The fact that it's going to a specific campaign that it already looks like a lot of FDP leaders are kind of circling the wagons around just makes it even more problematic," he says.
Wills, the Biden volunteer who sent the email blast, says those criticisms are unfair.
"I find it disheartening that some who don't support certain candidates are doing the work of Donald Trump and trying to tear down the candidate that they don't support," he tells New Times.
Wills says the email list came from a publicly accessible dataset on FDP's website, with some additions based on the campaign's shoe-leather research. He says his use of "our candidate" was meant to refer to whichever candidate the party ultimately champions.
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"It was important for us going into the convention to strike the same tone that Vice President Joe Biden has struck since the launch of his campaign, which is Democratic unity — that is, no matter who the nominee is, we must stand together and defeat Donald Trump and Donald Trump-ism," Wills says.
Heading into the convention, Wills and Kennedy agree on at least one thing: Democrats must avoid a repeat of 2016.
"Unfortunately, some that are trying to make this into a big issue have been repeatedly trying to tear down other candidates and campaigns... and I don't think that's a winning strategy for us," Wills says. "It didn't work out in 2016, so I think it would be intelligent for those that did not get the outcome they wanted in 2016 — which I think would be every Democrat — that we don't use the same tactics to tear each other down."
Kennedy enunciated a more pointed takeaway: "There's all this baggage that Florida has from 2016, with Debbie Wasserman Schultz shilling for Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie Sanders," he says. "They're not supposed to be putting their thumb on the scale."