For once, Tampa Bay Democrats find themselves with a glut of good candidates capable of contending with GOP’s political stronghold.
“We have some excellent people in the Democratic Party this election season,” said Ione Townsend, chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee. “We have people who are passionate about representing their constituency, they’re passionate about the party, about their issues. And that’s an exciting thing to see.”
If only they weren’t all fighting amongst themselves. Three state House seats, a state Senate seat, and the Dist. 6 Hillsborough County Commission seat all have Democratic primaries Aug. 30, some with three or four candidates, even as some nearby Republican incumbents go unopposed. And Kevin Beckner, who’s leaving the Dist. 6 commission seat due to term limits, is running for county clerk against another member of his party, longtime incumbent Pat Frank.
“Everyone wants to run for the same seat,” said Susan Smith, head of the Florida Progressive Democratic Caucus, “and it can be really frustrating to those of us who live in a district where we don’t really have representation.”
She lives in Florida State House District 64, which is represented by Republican Jamie Grant, who is unopposed this year despite ethics questions in recent years. She said it may be an issue of residency — no Democrat would want to move to run there — and that perhaps residency requirements ought to change.
But there’s also the reality that an incumbent Republican like Grant would be incredibly well-funded, and most sane people who run for office do so because, well, they’d like to win.It makes sense: Open seats that appear winnable for Democrats will draw more primary contenders.
“Rational people look at these things and say, ‘What are my odds?’” said Democratic political consultant Steve Schale, who led President Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008 and has worked to recruit candidates for legislative runs. “If you’re a Democrat, are you more likely to run in an open seat in St. Pete, a leaning Democrat seat, or are you going to move up north and run against Chris Sprowls in a Republican seat? If you want to win, you’re going to run in the place that’s more competitive.”
Schale was referencing the two-person primary for St. Pete’s House District 68 seat, which Rep. Dwight Dudley is leaving to run for judge. Democrats Ben Diamond and Eric Lynn are in a tough primary there, the latter having dropped out of a Congressional primary against former Governor Charlie Crist.
Unfortunately, one major reason for some of the more crowded Dem primaries is identity politics — i.e. the thought that skin color trumps charisma and good policy when it comes to electability — and the fact that “minority access districts” are still a thing. House District 70, which Rep. Darryl Rouson is leaving due to term limits and to run for State Senate, has three Democrats: CJ Czaia, Dan Fiorini and former St. Pete City Councilman Wengay Newton. It’s a bizarrely shaped district consisting of predominantly African-American parts of four different counties. State Senate District 19 has a similar makeup. Four Democrats are running for that seat: State Reps. Ed Narain and Betty Reed, Augie Ribeiro and Rouson.
A wealth of primary candidates can be a good thing for a party that is trying to beat back the Republican Party’s dominance in the state.
“Not everybody’s going to win their contest. So what that does is, that deepens our bench. And that’s exciting.” Townsend said. “Candidates, when they come to me before they get into a race, I say to them, ‘Promise me one thing: you will not be one and done.’”
Primaries have their obvious downsides: they cause bitter division among party membership, which is perhaps best seen at the national level in the battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. They cost money when campaign dollars could be spared for the general election. Accusations hurled during the race at the eventual primary winner can be used against him or her in the general. And so on.
One advantage? They could be good practice for the general.
“I think that if Alex Sink had had a primary opponent when she ran for governor in 2010, she would have been a much stronger general election candidate and I think she would’ve been elected,” Smith said. “But she wasn’t really tested; she didn’t have a message defined, and I think that hurt us when it came down to the general election.”
There is one Democrat-held legislative seat in the Tampa Bay area that Republicans aren’t challenging: the H.D. 62 seat in which Rep. Janet Cruz is the incumbent. Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long are also unopposed this year.
And while there are a handful of crowded Democratic primaries, it appears that some lesser-known Democrats are challenging strong Republican incumbents, but a quick glance at campaign finance records suggests they’re not getting help from the party, or anyone else, in terms of fundraising.If the party doesn’t deem a candidate particularly strong, Schale said, it shouldn’t be obligated to spend time and resources on what will likely be a lost cause.
“Politics is the ultimate free market,” he said. “The party’s job is to win seats. The party’s job is not to cater to people who are running or do this or that… If they’ve got a candidate in the race who’s not performing, despite being a nice guy, he’s not going to win.”
Take Bernie Fensterwald, who is challenging the above-mentioned State Rep. Chris Sprowls for his seat in north Pinellas, a GOP stronghold. Fensterwald has qualified for the ballot, but records suggest no fundraising to date. Sprowls, on the other hand, has amassed over $168,000 in his reelection bid.
Schale said one way of determining a candidate’s viability is to scope out their ability to raise money.
Leila Abdelaziz, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic relations and Tampa Bay regional director for the Florida Young Democrats, warns that the focus on fundraising ability is a symptom of “corporatization” of the party, and could discourage prospective candidates from wanting to learn how to win seats.
“This is a pattern that goes on around the state,” she said. “We have very brave and very committed people that are filing to run for State House races, but the party is not helping them, is not supporting them, is not developing them because the party won’t think twice about that race unless that candidate can raise $50,000.”
Meanwhile, less-polished newcomers, despite potential (with a little grooming), get overlooked when the party should be trying to get them elected to city councils and other lower-level seats to prime them for future races.
“Every single election year there are municipal seats that are vulnerable and open,” she said. “You have elections that people don’t even file to run in. So there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, there’s a lot of leadership development that’s missing from the party as well, I think.”
But Townsend said locally, the party has sought to recruit younger activists and acquaint them with the party, and for those interested in running, groom them to run.
“I do believe in that very strongly that it’s our responsibility in the leadership to bring the young people up, to guide them, to develop them, to nurture them and to give them leadership opportunities and to start grooming them for office,” she said.
The four Democrats who qualified to run for Hillsborough’s District 6 commission seat by the June 24 filing deadline are a diverse bunch: former Plant City Mayor John Dicks, longtime activist Pat Kemp, former County Commissioner Thomas Scott and lawyer/transit advocate Brian Willis.
Dicks is running, he said, because he wants to help guide the county’s decisions on growth and infrastructure. Also, he said, he thinks he can win, and, perhaps unlike some Democrats, thinks he can do so beyond Tampa city limits.
“We took a good, hard look at the numbers, and Hillsborough County is trending Democratic,” he said. “And being a countywide seat — it’s a pretty big county — it looks like it would favor someone who had a broad appeal to the entire county. I think that’s where I’ll be successful.”
Kemp, meanwhile, came very close to winning in 2014 against GOP incumbent Al Higginbotham — she lost by half a percentage point despite being outspent four to one for another countywide seat. She thinks she’d do even better in November when, again, Democrats are supposed to turn out more heavily.
“That tells me the county is changing, because I did not change my message,” said Kemp, a progressive.
Scott said he waited out the 2014 election and wasn’t expecting a challenge.
“My plan was to get in in 2016 since I couldn’t get them to change their minds. So once everyone, I guess, heard I was running, the folks jumped in,” he said. “That’s neither here nor there; this is America. You have the right to run.”
Willis, who was the first to officially run, said he doesn’t want to run for any other seat — that he wants to tackle transit and other issues head-on at the county level.
“There’s just a lot of hunger out there for some new leadership and some new perspective on the county commission,” he said. “People are excited about some of the things that are happening in the community, but they see these generational challenges like transportation that have gone unresolved year after year.”
CL reached out to the Florida Democratic Party for comment, but did not hear back by deadline.