Moments after Hillsborough County Democrats selected Chris Mitchell to succeed Pat Kemp as party chair last week, the 26-year-old business consultant addressed the internecine warfare that has plagued the local party for years.
"For way too long this party, it's been divided," he said before a rare full house at the group's monthly meeting site, the Hillsborough Children's Board in Ybor City. "Some groups feel like they haven't gotten enough attention. Well, that ends today as well. We're going to be united."
His election comes a little over a month after the Hillsborough Democrats suffered one of its worst election nights in decades. The county hardly stood out; for Democrats across the Bay area, the state and the nation, November 2 was a night of futility.
And that includes Pinellas County, where last Thursday Democrats selected Mark Hanisee to succeed Ramsey McLaughlan to lead their Democratic Executive Committee (DEC). In his remarks, Hanisee praised the GOP and said the Dems need to learn from their post-defeat strategy in 2008. "They immediately went into the war room, analyzed what they did right, analyzed what they did wrong, reconfigured their party, went out and rebuilt their party, and they went out and raised money, and they recruited candidates, and they went out and hit us hard."
In his speech to his fellow DEC members in Hillsborough County, Chris Mitchell vowed that the party will not allow another "Jim Norman situation" to occur — in other words, losing a race that was theirs to win. Norman, the Republican Hillsborough County commissioner who ran successfully for state Senate in November, should have been an easy target, after suffering negative press on nearly a daily basis following the revelation that the late Ralph Hughes had paid for a vacation home for his family. But the Dems could not exploit his ethical lapse because they failed to offer up a live body to compete.
While Mitchell and Hanisee try to pick up the pieces locally, some state Democrats are expressing caution about the idea that Rod Smith will be replacing Karen Thurman as head of the state party.
Smith is a former prosecutor and state Senator representing Gainesville who's known as being an ideological moderate. He ran to the right of former Tampa Congressman Jim Davis in his unsuccessful bid for Democratic nomination for governor in 2006. He's noted for being a funny and and exciting live speaker — not that anybody in Tampa Bay could attest to that recently, as the lieutenant governor candidate was kept under wraps for whatever reason by running mate Alex Sink. And party bigwigs like Senator Bill Nelson are pushing him heavily.
That top-down approach turned off many progressives, who don't think much of Smith's centrist politics, and know even less about his plan for trying to turn the state blue in 2012. And some critics question the solidity of his plans to fix long-term infrastructure and planning when he's already declared that he will serve only two years as party chair.
Some in the black community also aren't pleased about Smith's seeming coronation. Orlando area state Senator Gary Siplin wrote a letter at the beginning of December to Senator Nelson, asking that he back an African-American candidate.
The only candidate that fit that description was a late entrant into the race, 31-year-old Tallahassee City Commissioner Andrew Gillum. But on the same day that Siplin mailed that letter, Gillum dropped out, realizing that Smith had already lined up an overwhelming majority of votes.
Kenneth Quinnell, who blogs for the Florida Progressive Coalition, said he was skeptical of what Rod Smith brings to the table, but will keep an open mind.
"One of the things that Democrats in Florida need to do to be more successful is to excite their base and get their different groups that make up our coalition to show up, and not just vote, but also contribute and volunteer and all of that stuff," Quinnell says, believing Gillum would appeal to black and younger voters. "I'm not saying that Rod Smith can't do those things, but it's not immediately obvious that he can."
In an interview with CL after he had withdrawn from the race and endorsed Smith, Andrew Gillum said one of Smith's challenges will be to make sure that all of the diverse voices within the party get his ear. As to criticism that Smith won't be open to progressive points of view, Gillum says, "Rod Smith genuinely represents a constituency of our party, but we have a diverse constituency. If he's smart he'll reach out to bring in strong voices from that diverse community that make up the Democratic party ... I think he can do it, but if he goes into this thinking he can singularly build this party and reach the diversity of this party singlehandedly, I think that would be a mistake."
In the aftermath of the last month's election, Democrats such as Alex Sink blasted Barack Obama's unpopularity as the reason they went down to defeat.
But other Democrats say that's taking the easy way out. Blogger Kenneth Quinnell, who worked for a time on Kendrick Meek's campaign, says Sink lost because of a lack of a clear message. "I think there's a real weakness in terms of knowledge in the Democratic Party and in Democratic campaigns on how to effectively run and manage and win elections," he says. "The ground-level day-to-day operations are just so bad, it seems that it's very difficult to win a race when you don't know what you're doing."
If, as the cliché goes, the first thing to do when you're in a hole is to stop digging, Florida Democrats sound like they've thrown away their metaphorical shovels. Now the real work begins.