Dems on the mend

Hillsborough Democrats forgo their feuding ways, hope for modest gains

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As we get ready to break for the summer, the time when all the really important people in politics — the big fundraisers — are away in the Hamptons or Cashiers, N.C., or wherever, I thought we'd revisit the Hillsborough Democratic Party.

When last we checked in with this soap opera, in July of 2005, the party had split into two factions. Traditional Democratic activists, including African Americans, older Latin politicos and labor unions, found themselves in a struggle for power with a newer generation of activists, many trained in the proving grounds of the Dean/Democracy for America organizations and MoveOn.

In the middle of the mess was Janeé Murphy, the Hillsborough Democratic Chairwoman who did not seem to possess the political skills to hold it all together. Murphy was credited with increasing the diversity of the Democratic Executive Committee, but in the end, she resigned after a tumultuous meeting that included shouted accusations of racism from some members (Murphy is black) and her tearful exit from the meeting room.

At the very least, I can report that those kinds of unpleasant outbursts don't happen any more at Hillsborough DEC meetings. The whole feeling has changed, with a move from the dark and antiquated setting of Latam restaurant in Centro Asturiano to the brightly lit and spacious meeting room at The Children's Board in Ybor City.

I've heard from those who attend that the crowd is more serious, more focused on the task at hand: winning elections.

That matches the message from and focus of the new Hillsborough chairman, Mike Suarez.

"I've reached out to as many people as possible to involve them" in the DEC, Suarez said. That has meant a lot of time re-convincing Democrats who gave up on the organization during the Murphy years. There remain important Democrats who aren't re-engaged in the local committee or who haven't been reached by Suarez. But no one I talked with had anything bad to say about the party's current direction.

For Suarez, the lack of open dissension alone is a victory. "We're a unified party," he said. "Our goal is to win elections. And that leads to winning more elections."

Today, Democrats in Hillsborough have more to hang their hat on than just wishful thinking and outrage at former Gov. Jeb Bush. At times during the past decade that seemed to be all they had, as Republicans swept the state and the county, claiming the County Commission and the majority of the legislative delegation here.

Things started to change, even if just a little bit, in 2006.

First, Democrat Charlie Justice beat a better-funded Republican opponent to win a seat in the Florida Senate (even if Kim Berfield beat Justice in Hillsborough). That win coincided with the Democratic takeover of Congress and the ascension of Nancy Pelosi to House Speaker, a rallying point for Dems everywhere.

Then, in March, Democratic activist (and former Creative Loafing art critic) Mary Mulhern upset incumbent Tampa City Councilman Shawn Harrison. The race was nonpartisan, but both candidates were well known for their party affiliations.

After that victory, Democratic consultant Mitch Kates declared:

"This is the new Democratic team and the new Democratic Party in this part of the country. And people better start getting used to it."

So can Hillsborough Democrats do something with their momentum? It isn't going to be easy. Fact is, the election calendar and the biorhythms of term limits are against them in 2008 — there are no open seats on the ballot at this point.

With GOP incumbents camped in their seats, the business of recruiting new Democratic candidates is tough. For the first time in memory, the DEC is being run by two former candidates — Suarez and vice chairwoman Deborah Cope — who know how grueling and difficult the campaign trail can be. That provides a better focus for the group, but doesn't make it easier to sell someone on running against a well-funded, entrenched incumbent.

"We've been out of power for so long in some of these seats that it is hard to get good people to run for them," Suarez said. "The people who are the best to win in those seats are also the most intelligent as to how tough it is to win in the seat."

Take the South Tampa House seat now held by Republican Faye Culp. Her district performs Republican, but not so strongly that it would be out of the question (like, say, New Tampa) for a Democratic challenge. But Culp is a phenomenon, someone whose lackluster record bears no relationship to her incredible political people skills. Suarez knows; he lost a 1998 race to her in this district. And Culp has three more years before she is term-limited out in 2010.

Likewise for many other safe legislative seats in eastern Hillsborough and north Tampa.

If Democrats are looking for a House win, their best shot is against Kevin Ambler, who represents northwestern Hillsborough. The problem? The district is Republican in nature and Ambler hasn't made any negative headlines that would immediately prompt voters to throw him out.

The best options for Democrats are in two countywide seats now held by Republicans, County Commissioner Brian Blair and Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson. Both have already drawn a Democratic challenger, Lee Nelson against Johnson and Ybor City financial planner Kevin Beckner against Blair. Expect bigger names than those to be courted for those seats as well.

Suarez said his goals are very modest: to get the DEC to put aside all matters except those that directly contribute to winning elections. To win one countywide campaign. And to be competitive in one House race.

Baby steps, for sure. But at least, Suarez hopes, the group is headed in the right direction.

For a daily dose of political pearls, visit my blog, thepoliticalwhore.com.

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