Hillsborough County Democrats elect a new chairman

Michael van Hoek takes the reins; Tim Heberlein is the party's new vice-chair.

"This is a real, real privilege for me to stand up here in front of the Democratic Party of Hillsborough County and be nominated and elected by acclimation. That means so much to me," van Hoek said immediately after being elected party chair. He later said that he wants to make sure that each precinct in the county has a Committeeman and Committeewoman representative. "When Democrats have organized precincts, they have an engaged electorate, and we win elections. And it's as simple as that," he said.

Van Hoek, 54, is a Tampa native who attended Tampa Catholic High School, and later this summer, he'll graduate from USF with a Bachelors Degree in Public Health. He spent 30 years working as a field paramedic, then later went into EMS administration, and has also taught high school and college courses. He's currently retired.

Before van Hoek was selected, White had challenged the vote, saying that it would be more beneficial for the party to do what the Hillsborough Republicans did last year, in selecting an elected official to chair their party (in the case of the GOP it was Brandon state Senator Tom Lee who replaced Art Wood).

But other party members said in fact that such a request had been made to local elected officials, with nobody stepping up to take the helm.

The meeting was unusual, even by Hillsborough County DEC standards.

Acting chair Lydia Hudson began the event by blasting some of her fellow members who she said had criticized her for failing to appear at a party sponsored picnic earlier this month. She had a pretty excuse - she was in the intensive care unit with a medical problem. Hudson was one of several Democratic Executive Committee members obviously annoyed about negative comments made in emails and on social media about the state of the party, and none of them were shy about expressing themselves.

Former Vice Chair Ella Coffee, who has had to step down from her role because of her work with the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office, went even further in making those in the audience feel guilty. Looking extremely pained, Coffee began her presentation by explaining that she was going to the hospital in the morning because of a kidney stone that she was suffering from.

"Guys, if we work our precincts as hard as we work the gossip lines," Coffee said at one point, alluding to the sniping inside the party. Coffee discussed how the party made less money at their Kennedy-King dinner last week than anticipated, in part because a certain chunk of the membership opted not to attend because of their unhappiness about the keynote speaker, former Republican governor Charlie Crist.

Crist disappointed many in the crowd last week by only speaking for just over seven minutes, a major disappointment considering he was the featured speaker and made few headlines.

Coffee also made reference to the fact that two of the brightest members of the party we're challenging each other in a primary election next year (that would be Mary Mulhern and April Griffin opposing each other in the County Commission District 7 race). "We have got to be together," she told the audience.

Whether they do, as always, remains the question for the Hillsborough Democrats going into the 2014 elections.

  • Michael van Hoek addressed the Hillsborough DEC moments after he was elected

The much maligned Hillsborough Democratic Party is coming off one of its best performances in years. They not elected Barack Obama by a bigger margin than in 2008, but they were also successful in winning one tight House race (Mark Danish in District 63), and nearly another (Gail Gottlieb narrowly lost out to Republican Russ Spano in HD 59).

But after Party Chair Chris Mitchell stepped down to work for the state party last month, the fact of the matter was that going into Monday night's Democratic Executive Committee meeting at the Children's Board offices in Ybor City, they had zero candidates applying to replace him to lead the party.

But the only declared candidate to run for vice chair, Michael van Hoek, was nominated during the meeting to be chairman. He then elected unanimously to lead the party into next year's elections. Moments later, Tim Heberlein, the head of the Hillsborough Young Democrats, was elected vice chair, defeating Gerald White.

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