I hope each of you had a happy holiday season. I wish you and your family Blessings in ’23 and always.
After much reflection, I regret to inform you that I have chosen to retire as Florida Democratic Party (FDP) Chair, effective immediately. It has been a pleasure and honor to work with you, and, rest assured, I will continue to fight with you to get Democrats elected.
During my career, I have managed and turned around numerous large organizations, both private and public. I believed I could do the same for the FDP. Like many of you, I was upset to watch our party lose 27 out of 34 statewide elections from 2000 to 2020. I believed that building a year-round, statewide infrastructure and breaking down entrenched silos could begin to fix our broken system.
Florida is not a red state. We have a history of extremely close elections. Floridians overwhelmingly adopted constitutional amendments that reflect our values. However, we cannot win elections if we continue to rely on voter registration to drive turnout, build field operations only around elections, and expect to get our vote out without engaging voters where they live; listening to them and earning their trust- helping everyday people with their everyday problems.
During my tenure, I hoped to address these issues, and build a united party without silos, focused exclusively on our purpose- to elect Democrats. Instead, I found obstacles to securing the resources and a long-standing, systemic and deeply entrenched culture resistant to change; one where individual agendas are more important than team; where self-interest dominates and bureaucracies focus on self-preservation.
President Kennedy once warned, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” Renowned American writer James Baldwin told us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
It is important to understand how the FDP reached this point and how, without the three-legged stool of adequate resources, boots on the ground and effective messaging, the FDP has been rendered practically irrelevant to the election of Democrats. It is equally important that we compare reality with existing misconceptions of our resources, function, role, limitations, authority, and power.
Resources- the FDP has been starved. This did not happen overnight but is the result of ongoing, systemic decisions during the past 20+ years.
We have not elected a Democratic Governor since Lawton Chiles in 1994, leading to the disappearance of institutional state money that had typically gone to the FDP. Add a growing Republican majority (now super majority) and the problem only worsens.
Citizens United added to our problems. Committees of Continuous Existence and Political Committees replaced the FDP as the soft money (no limits) vehicle. Through their PCs, Florida candidates can accept unlimited funds- and have complete control of those funds.
Independent Expenditure groups (“IEs”) and non-profit organizations compete with FDP for funding. They promote an alternative for the delivery of basic FDP functions (field, voter registration, communications, and voter protection). These responsibilities and funding now rest outside the FDP, in these outside groups. During multiple cycles, donors have invested millions in these external organizations. For example, in the last 10 years, after millions of investments in Florida-based groups, Democratic registration has fallen far behind Republican and No Party Affiliation as the dominant political registration.
Mostly, these organizations are not able to participate in partisan voter registration, and their data is not accessible to FDP.
The 2022 cycle was the final nail in the coffin. National Democratic organization contributed just 2% of the amount they invested in 2018. Conversely, Florida donors contributed almost $20m to these same organizations to spend this money outside Florida. Our coordinated effort raised less than 50% of the required budget. Republican statewide candidates outraised our candidates by over $163m. Senate and House Victory raised money exclusively for their targeted candidates. Although less than in prior cycles, America Votes still estimates independent expenditures of $12.5m in 2022 ($250m+ during last 4 years).
Investments have and continue to flow everywhere except to the FDP. Contrary to popular misconception, FDP is not flush with cash and has no funds available to assist DECs, candidates, non-profits and others. Investments in FDP are barely enough to perform its minimal functions.
It is impossible to build or “rebuild” an organization without resources. Huge sums of money continue to be outside the control of the FDP. When reflecting on our disappointments during the past 20 years, one must follow the money. Who received the investments? What was the return on these investments?
Notwithstanding these challenges and the limited resources, I was proud of the amount of work actually performed by the combined tireless efforts of our DECs and our VAN committees. (Please refer to 12/22 close out memo).
Boots on the ground- Without financial resources, an organization needs an army of volunteers to compensate for lack of funding. Willing volunteers have become nearly in extinct in Florida since Obama’s last campaign in 2012.
The first time I volunteered was 1972. Hundreds of volunteers worked at headquarters throughout Miami-Dade. We worked for the love of party, for the love of a cause. Many of us had been volunteers and marched against the war, for civil, women’s, farmworkers and immigration rights. We volunteered to give back; we were fighting for the greater good not personal ambition. We worked seven days a week, including holidays. We communicated face to face with voters at their doors and in their communities.
With the exception of some DECs and campaigns, it was difficult to find people volunteering this cycle. Volunteer recruitment was not a priority. There was no energy or sense of community or urgency. Recruiting, training and building volunteers seemed to be an afterthought. Large events and recruitment efforts, traditional tools for capturing volunteers, did not exist. We have plenty of social media activists, not roll-up-your-sleeves volunteers. We communicate virtually, not personally.
Case in point, “relational canvassing.” How does it work? Sitting on your couch, you are paid for contacting friends and family virtually. If you really care about Florida, this is something you should be doing anyway. Instead, we created yet another way to avoid a ground game, recruit volunteers and meet voters face to face. Supporters of relational canvassing argue that 46k “relational touchpoints” are the equivalent of 348k door knocks. You know what is ALSO the equivalent of knocking 348k doors? Actually knocking on 348k doors.
Without funding or volunteers, we must spend our limited money on paid canvassers to replace volunteers who used to work for country and party. We have created an industry of workers who surface every two years and work mostly for the money and the benefits, not for a cause. It has become a job, like any other job. We create jobs- we do not recruit field soldiers committed to a cause.
Note our experience with a municipal election in 2021. Our Municipal Victory Program targeted a city council race in Jacksonville. As Election Day approached, I learned that our collective bargaining agreement prevented our staff from working on the Monday before Election Day. My offer to trade for one or two replacement days later in the year was rejected. Imagine not being required to work the day before Election Day. These are simply “jobs.” Our job should be to elect Democrats.
We are not nurturing homegrown talent. We are not building a bench of future political organizers and managers. We have created bureaucracies and perpetuated job security. Most of us are aware that paid canvassers are not as effective at persuading a voter as an excited volunteer. For them, it is just a job.
Committed to what we preach, we began paying these workers a $15 minimum wage. This cycle, many of these workers pushed back, demanding $20-$25 per/hour. IEs and non-profits pay higher wages because they ramp up for elections every two years, keep skeletal staff during off years, and receive millions to sustain themselves between elections. Their concern is not to build a year-round, statewide structure. Without adequate funding, it is impossible for FDP to build a year-round, statewide organization.
In addition to these funding and volunteer challenges, the 800-pound gorilla to our north continues to co-opt FDP’s ability to manage. Washington continues to believe they are better equipped to determine our campaign strategy, target universe, messaging, staff hiring and firing decisions. People with little, if any, familiarity with Florida hand many of these directives down to us. Once, just once, those of us on the ground, who know our communities, would love to have a say in these decisions.
My “choice” to hire coordinated staff was no choice; my decision to replace underperforming staff midway through the campaign was rejected. Coordinated staff made it clear; they worked for Washington, not the FDP. My disagreement with their target universe and a suggested alternate universe was ignored.
A similar issue exists with regard to state house, senate, and congressional elections. FDP has no say in the recruitment, funding or support for any of these candidates. These campaigns are exclusively and historically within the purview of House and Senate Victory and the Congressional Campaign Committee. Numerous frustrated state house and senate candidates and congressional candidates regularly reached out to FDP but there was little FDP could do to help.
Effective Messaging- During my election, I shared the concerns expressed by many Democrats that our messaging was faulty or simply non-existent. In fact, I was surprised to learn that FDP had a hands-off approach to messaging, believing this was the exclusive purview of our candidates. For example, it was shocking to learn that FDP had not adopted a public position on the minimum wage state referendum.
In 2021, FDP launched a messaging project to ensure the use of tested messaging in our communications and hired a nationally renowned data scientist; these were shared with our entire Democratic ecosystem through live presentations, an interactive library that housed over 1,000 messages and weekly talking points. Specific messages for our U.S. Senate and Gubernatorial candidates were also tested.
Additionally, throughout 2022 FDP held 54 press events and sent 1,136 press releases promoting our messages. This unprecedented messaging program provided the foundation for Florida Democrats to articulate a thoroughly researched, disciplined and unified message second to none in the country.
A friend recently shared a debate on social media. One side argued we were not progressive enough; the other argued we were too progressive. The very argument about labels and identity makes the point. It is more effective to argue for Democratic principles and values instead of labels. We fight over labels, not improving people’s lives.
Campaigns are about winning and winning requires hard work and resources. No amount of hard work or resources can overcome a bad message, a message that fails to connect with people where they are. The point of messaging is to win votes. You do that by not prompting ideological polarization.
Many continue to lose sight of our mission- to win elections not arguments. High ideals are important, but mean little without the power to put them into practice. People who win elections determine policy; those who lose go home. If we continue to divide the electorate on self-described ideology, or insist on messaging that appeal only to a very narrow sliver of the population, we will continue to lose.
We can win without abandoning our core values of decency, respect, individual freedom and equality. Through polling or on the ballot, the majority of Americans, including Floridians, agree with our core values. Floridians supported Fair Districts, Medical Marijuana, Felon Voting Restoration, clean water and raising the Minimum Wage.
When swing voters and working-class voters join us, we win; when they do not, we lose. It is curious that our universes typically include “persuadable” voters. Those of us more interested in winning arguments do not try to persuade. What matters to them is a litmus test; I am right- you are wrong. To persuade, one must be willing to listen and walk a mile in their shoes.
The results are evident. Voters support our core values, but not our candidates or our party. Perhaps, if we start speaking to them in a language, they understand about shared values that affect their everyday lives, then, just maybe we will win back their hearts and their votes. Poll after poll often asks voters to rank their top five issues and the Democratic Party’s top five issues. Unfortunately, the voters’ five top issues rank near the bottom of the list of Democrats Party issues.
One final point. According to a recent Sachs Media study in Florida Politics, in November 2020, Florida voter registration was virtually even. Among those who registered since November 2020, the share identifying as Democrats declined 13 points, NPAs jumped 11 points and Republican registration mirrored the same percentage of their share of November 2020 registrations. Florida’s growing Republican registration advantage is due largely to the share of voters consistently held by the GOP, combined with significant movement away from Democrats to NPAs.
Coordinated campaign- Based on the foregoing, (inadequate resources, lack of boots on the ground and ineffective messaging) it is not difficult to understand why our coordinated campaign failed to meet our expectations. Without adequate resources, staffing (both paid and volunteer), offices, get out the vote and direct voter contact, voter registration, and training efforts were severely reduced.
By off-year historical standards, 2021 was a good first step. The hope was that in 2022, assuming historical investments, we would build on the progress made in 2021. The coordinated campaign was our hope for the future. We hoped to utilize the surge in funding and activity to build sustainable structures beyond 2022. We hoped to institutionalize party unity, a team approach, year-round work and staff, messaging, strategy and an organizing approach.
A coordinated campaign model and table would help fund modest off year budgets. Future off years would have a continual (but scaled down) field staff and training programs that build, nurture and service our DECs, community teams and volunteers. We hoped to build the party from the ground up, training, and sustaining a community based organizing structure. We would compete in all 67 counties. If we achieved these things, success in 2022 would carry forward to future elections.
Historical investments never arrived, and a broken, unsustainable system was exposed. Although we started our effort earlier than in prior cycles, it was still too late. We were not able to afford necessary staffing or opening the desired number of offices. Those we did open were too late for community buy-in.
It was difficult to execute programs in a meaningful way. Until we resolve the issues addressed in this letter, it will be difficult to execute a successful coordinated campaign.
Maybe it is not always about trying to fix something that is broken. Maybe it is about starting over and creating something better. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
I wish my successor Godspeed.
January 9, 2023