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Florida Democrats Say the Party Must Change

Cubans for Biden and Haitians for Biden groups gathered in Little Haiti on October 18.EXPAND
Cubans for Biden and Haitians for Biden groups gathered in Little Haiti on October 18.
Photo courtesy of Donna Irene Photography

After getting trounced in this year's election, Florida Democrats agree: They need to change.

"We have got to get our shit together," says Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo.

Last week, President Donald Trump won Florida and its 29 electoral votes. Joe Biden won Miami-Dade County by a far smaller margin than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, an outcome some politicos attribute to the strides Trump has made in Hispanic communities. Two House Democrats in South Florida, Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, lost their seats to Republican newcomers to national politics.

After Election Day, a number of Florida Democrats took to Twitter to share their frustration, including state Rep. Shevrin Jones and state Sen. Jason Pizzo.

Pizzo says the Democratic Party, at least in Florida, needs systemic change.

"We got a group of senators and representatives from Miami-Dade and Broward together to do an election post-mortem" the day after the election, Pizzo tells New Times, noting that many were in agreement that the party needs to "dismantle and rebuild."

One of the main problems the party has had, according to Pizzo, is assuming what voters need rather than actually asking them. He says Democrats have lacked boots on the ground to listen to voters and find out what's important to them.

"We can't just meet people where they are and group them into some stereotype rather than listening to what they need," Pizzo argues. "We need to listen more and develop a strategy based on public input. No more secret meetings behind closed doors. It's gotta be crowdsourced."

Compared to Republicans, Pizzo says, Democrats have not been as present in South Florida during the off-years between election cycles.

That's a problem Taddeo says she's been complaining about for years.

"[Republicans are] registering voters since day one. They are constantly communicating, they're present in minority communities — even in communities they know they're not gonna win — just to chip away at the margins. We don't have the infrastructure they do," says the state senator, whose 40th District includes Kendall and much of South Miami-Dade.

Taddeo also cites the party's homogenous messaging to Hispanic groups. Hispanic voters have gained widespread national attention this election cycle, and many critics argue that politicians have wrongly categorized Latinos as a monolith group rather than seeing them as people from separate cultures with individual needs.

"Grouping the Hispanic demographic together, such as Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, is the equivalent of telling a French person your plans for Italy. They're completely different," Pizzo agrees.

Worse, Pizzo says, the party has not done enough to support local groups from those demographics, like Venezolanos con Biden.

Lucas Rengifo-Keller, a 23-year-old activist with Venezolanos con Biden, says his organization went mostly ignored by the larger Democratic Party.

"We didn't get a lot of attention until we were covered by Politico [this fall]," Rengifo-Keller says. "We didn't get the support we needed from the party, even though we understand the community."

In response to Pizzo's tweet asking for input on how to change the party, Venezolanos con Biden said they didn't have any help making a guide to battle disinformation in the Venezuelan community.

Rengifo-Keller came to the U.S. from Venezuela when he was nine and became a citizen in 2016. He says his family fled a socialist regime when they came here, and he knows that Democrats are not socialists, despite what some on the right have claimed. Still, he says, Democrats did not do enough this year to dispel the notion.

"My family and I fled authoritarianism. We don't endorse that brand of socialism or any notion that government should run the economy," he says. "But when Joe Biden says, 'Do I look like a socialist?' people in South Florida don't know Joe Biden. They don't know his stances."

Rengifo-Keller believes Democrats need to distance themselves from members of the party who are further left, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. He says the voters he spoke to were scared that Biden would be influenced by "the far-left fringe."

Other young Democrats in Miami also felt let down by this year's results and want to see the party change in advance of the 2022 midterm elections.

"I was definitely disappointed. It's hard to watch all these Democrats lose up and down ballot," says 19-year-old Mia Stevenson, the political director for Florida International University's College Democrats group.

Echoing Taddeo's point, Stevenson wants to see the Democratic Party engage more with voters even during off years, including registering voters. She cites the example of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who created a nonprofit to increase voter registration across the state, helping to flip Georgia blue.

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Stevenson says she hopes Democrats in Florida can follow Abrams' lead and do on-the-ground work to build momentum and curry favor with voters. She also hopes that after this year's election, the party will lean more progressive, as support increases for progressive policies like Florida's minimum-wage increase.

"I think we see that progressive ideas are popular, like the $15 minimum wage that passed this year. The ideas are popular, but progressive candidates across the state aren't being elected," Stevenson says.

Pizzo and Taddeo say they plan to meet as a party in the coming weeks to discuss major changes and how to push the party past a disastrous 2020 for down-ballot candidates.

"If we all really care about our constituents, the best way to help them is for us not to go backwards and to show them that we care about climate change, education, and unemployment," Taddeo says.

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