Former Sen. Dwight Bullard arrived really early for his interview with the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida (DBCF). He would spend almost all of Friday, Jan. 6 at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, answering questions from the caucus’ executive committee and Black media from around the state.
At the end of Friday, Bullard still did not know how he faired after the six-hour long interrogation. What he knew is that he needed the recommendation from the DBCF and hoped he did enough to impress a roomful of his fellow Democrats, some of whom are his colleagues. If he were elected chair of the Florida Democratic Party Jan. 14, he would be the first African American to lead the statewide organization.
“The burden I carry is that you want to exceed expectations, that you want to impress and still come across as not expecting that they will support you,” said Bullard Tuesday. “Being African American is a double-edged sword in that you want to get the recommendation and meet the very high bar that people expect you to meet.”
Bullard received word of the caucus’ recommendation Saturday, Jan. 7 via a memo that said, “Our President, Henry Crespo Sr. will be casting his weighted vote for you.”
Crespo said the executive committee, chaired by Beverlye Neal, gave its blessings to Bullard.
“The candidates were very appreciative of how the interviews were conducted after spending more than six and a half hours with the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida,” said Crespo. “It speaks volume to the respect that they have for the organization and the constituency that we represent. But I truly also want to acknowledge our executive committee who deliberated intensely at times but professionally and ultimately rendered the decision to recommend Dwight Bullard as the next Florida Democratic Party chair.”
But Bullard has to still beat out candidates Stephen Bittel from Miami-Dade; Leah Carius from Osceola County; Alan Clendenin from Bradford County; and Lisa King from Duval County. And he has to get his message out that he is willing to break from establishment politics and address issues that are affecting Florida Black voters which, he said, has been largely ignored by the Democratic Party.
“What makes this year different from other years is the sentiment of the Black electorate, that they don’t want to be taken advantage of or exploited and I don’t think my fellow candidates understand that,” Bullard said. “I have stood up and fought for issues that oftentimes buck the establishment. I am the one that calls for social justice; I am the one who calls for criminal justice reform. The establishment has turned a blind eye to some of the issues that African Americans having being saying for decades, but more so in the last five years.”
During the candidate questioning they all agreed the Democratic Party and the Florida Democratic Party were broken and needed fixing fast. Some lamented the lack of resources during the recent Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and others noted that the party needed to be more inclusive of caucuses and recruit and groom more candidates who can win, especially young, Black candidates.
Bullard, who had to move to Gadsen County, to qualify to run for chair, said if elected chair, he would be at the “forefront of restoration” of the rights of the Floridians who were previously incarcerated.
“We as Democrats need to re-enfranchise those 2.5 million people who have served their time. We need to fully embrace issues around mental health and mental illness, something that may have lead to the shooting in Fort Lauderdale. At the same time, we need to protect our first responders such as those who were killed in Orlando. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can embrace multifaceted issues.”
To win, Bullard has to impress other Democratic Executive Committees and caucuses around the state.
In recent candidate interviews, the Orange County DEC Democrats scored Bullard a D+, saying his “performance was the most disappointing.”
“Yes, he was a great voice for Democratic causes in Tallahassee. However, running the party and being a legislator are two different things. Somehow, Bullard fails to grasp this,” a report entitled “How did Florida Democratic Party chair candidates perform? Grades of their Orange County DEC discussion.”
Bullard said FDP candidates need to acknowledge the role Black media plays. More than seven Black publishers and reporters attended the candidate interviews.
“The conversation that Black media was having in terms of buying participation as well as that the Democratic establishment needs to know who you are, didn’t necessarily click with folks. They think that print is dead,” Bullard said. “But you still have the most consistent voting base in America – African Americans over 45.”
Bittel, a developer from Coconut Grove, has drawn the attention of the Florida Democratic Party, after the Miami-Dade DEC filed a six-page complaint, alleging violations of the group’s as well as the FDP’s bylaws, asking that a Special Election Dec. 20 “and the events leading up to the aforementioned election” … and “this election must be immediately overturned.” The Miami-Dade DEC alleges conflicts of interests involving Juan Cuba and Bittel.
The FDP plans to hold a hearing Jan. 13, concerning the complaint. The chair elections are set for Jan. 14 at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando.
Bittel ascended to the ticket when Bret Berlin, a new state committeeman, resigned Dec. 10. Bittel has the support of Sen. Bill Nelson, who told the Tampa Bay Times, he is a fan and that Bittel would bring a lot to the party. Bullard, who lost to Bittel for the Miami-Dade seat, moved to Gadsden County and joined the ticket for FDP chair.
Bittel said he is a different kind of candidate because he is a business executive and has spent the last 15 months raising money for Democrats. The chairmanship would be his first elected position.
“The chair position is used as a consolation prize for candidates who have lost,” Bittel said.
King, a state committeewoman from Duval, wants the rules committee to review eligibility for running for chair since the process “has been distracting.”
“As a party, we’ve never been more divided. At the same time, the threats by Rick Scott and Donald Trump to the progress we’ve made have never been greater. The greatest challenges that the Florida Democratic Party faces cannot be solved with money,” King said throwing a jab at Bittel. “They can only be solved by a servant leader who is prepared to invest the time listening and learning from all of our members.”
She plans to do a top-to-bottom review of the FDP, and wants to include caucus presidents in strategic planning and development.
“I value the diversity of perspectives each caucus brings and the work that they do on the ground in their respective counties. The FDP must listen and consider the trends that caucuses are aware of, and I will work toward making sure each caucus, their presidents, and their members are actively engaged and contribute substantively to the work of the FDP.”
Osceola County Democratic Party Chair Leah Carius, who considers herself an outsider, believes that FDP needs to listen to get locals to succeed. She said the top seven counties get support from the FDP, and pointed out that during the Clinton campaign the “bright blue star” that is Osceola didn’t event get campaign signs.
“Nobody understands their communities better than these local and focused groups,” said Carius. “As chair, I will empower these entities by providing resources, training, and a seat at the table. I am not tied to the problems of the past and am, therefore, free to chart this new course.”
Clendenin, a retired air traffic controller, said that the Democratic Party takes for granted the support of the Black community and it needs to stop.
“We must recognize the influence and importance of the Black community to the success of our party,” said Clendenin. “No other group is as loyal or supportive of the Democratic beliefs. Our party is an inclusive party and we need to nurture and include our supporters. No one wants to be ignored or taken for granted.” He said the DBCF would always have a seat at every table during his administration.
“I fully understand and agree with the adage, ‘If you're not at the table, you're on the menu.’”