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The Tyranny of Florida Democrats Must End

One of the nation's worst-run Democratic parties has a veto power that should be taken away.

The most likely outcome of the Democratic Party presidential primary was that we’d end up with a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket, and that’s exactly what we got.

Harris is “could have been worse” personified. She’s not Pete Buttigieg, or Susan Rice, or former Orlando police chief Val Demings. She’s also not Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or even Karen Bass. Like Biden, she’s an ideological chameleon: she came into elected office as a tough-on-crime prosecutor in 2004, and by 2019 was espousing the language of social justice and criminal justice reform. She knows the country is trending left, and has made overtures to progressives, including a Medicare for All plan that immediately fell flat. And to be fair, Harris is well to the left of most Senate Democrats on a few key issues, namely domestic worker rights and giving people money to get them through this pandemic.

The Harris pick was predictable. What’s more interesting, to me at least, is what happened to Bass, one of the frontrunners the Biden campaign didn’t pick, and the role that one of the worst parts of the Democratic Party—namely, its Florida branch—played in her demise. The events underscore one central point: that as long as Florida Democrats continue to hold any kind of sway, the party as a whole will suffer.

Bass, the current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, the former speaker of the California State Assembly, and a community organizer, would have been the “olive branch to the left” choice because she’s a longtime supporter of Medicare for All and has generally been a reliable progressive vote in the House. She also didn’t seem to have much interest in being president and was generally known as a team player in the House, so even if she is on the left, it’s safe to assume she wouldn’t have rocked too many boats in the Biden White House.

But if Biden had any intention of ever choosing Bass, Florida Democrats snuffed it out immediately. Why? Because Bass had the gall to treat communists as human beings, as when she expressed her condolences after Fidel Castro died in 2016.

“The comments are troubling. It shows a lack of understanding about what the Castro regime was about. So I have to learn more about her position and perspective on Fidel Castro,” Miami State Rep. Javier Fernandez told Politico in June. Bass walked the comments back, but by the end of July, The Atlantic’s Edward Isaac-Dovere—the go-to reporter for spilling dirt on any nominally left candidate—had a piece out about Bass going to Cuba in 1973.

Then, Politico reported in August that Bass had eulogized a former Communist Party USA leader, Oneil Marion Cannon, as a “friend and mentor.” One anonymous coward DNC member told Politico, “We probably lose Florida if it’s Bass,” and there was this quote from Florida Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi: “Karen Bass says she is not a communist, but she clearly has no qualms associating with or praising communists, which to most Hispanic voters in Florida, fairly or unfairly, is tantamount to being one.”

It was a coordinated effort to sink Bass, and it worked. Last week, the AP reported a similar story with a lede focused on a 22-year-old undecided voter of Cuban descent—despite the fact that, as the AP noted, most Cuban Americans born in the country or those who arrived after 1980 are in favor of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. The AP quoted Amandi, again: “The litmus test in Florida is: Do no harm, because it’s a state that is always decided by the thinnest of margins. Just taking off the table any segment of the Florida electorate could prove fatal,” he said.

RIP Karen Bass’s chances, undone by being nice about two guys when they died. Lesson learned: anyone to the left of Charlie Crist shall not be tolerated.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The Florida Democratic Party appears to exist solely to fight incremental progress and run smear jobs on anyone who’s ever shaken a socialist’s hand. Bass is just the latest example.

A similar thing happened to Bernie Sanders earlier this year because Sanders had the indecency to attribute Cuba’s high literacy rate to the Castro regime, something Barack Obama had done years earlier. Ahead of both the Florida Democratic Party’s election for its own chair in January 2017 and for the national DNC election the following month, Florida Democratic activists and fundraisers dumped the oppo book on both Dwight Bullard and Keith Ellison, two Black men and candidates for those jobs whose crimes were respectively going to Israel with Dream Defenders and being Muslim.

The man Florida Democrats eventually selected to be their chair was billionaire commercial real estate developer Stephen Bittel, who lasted less than a year because of several allegations of sexual misconduct and then was accused of sexual misconduct again a year later. (Bittel infamously owned a breast-shaped stress ball which he kept in his office, where, one woman told Politico, “There was a lot of boob stuff.”)

And earlier this month, The Intercept reported on what sure looked like a successful effort by Rep. Donna Shalala to kill a rollback on the Trump administration’s sanctions on Cuba in order to protect a single Miami-area freshman, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

But while Florida Democrats are great at preventing things from moving even nominally to the left, they’re utterly useless at everything else. Just a few examples from the past few months: the state party accepted hundreds of thousands in PPP loans in April, a possibly illegal move that was immediately jumped on by Republicans. And in July, the Intercept reported that more than 50 Democratic legislative candidates wrote the state party begging for access to NGP VAN, the Democratic voter database which is essential for campaigns. The state party was charging candidates anywhere between $750 to $3,500 for access, depending on what office they were running for.

Cartoonishly bad administration could perhaps be forgiven if Florida Democrats actually won, but they don’t do that either. No Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate has won this century. In 2018, Florida was the red wall keeping the blue wave from becoming a tsunami. The Democrats not only lost a gubernatorial race to Ron DeSantis; they also lost a United States Senate race to Rick Scott, the state’s deeply unpopular incumbent governor, and the man who quite possibly has the world’s deadest eyes.

There’s also growing evidence that hard-line policies towards Cuba aren’t even necessary to win in Florida. In fact, the most popular Democratic candidate in the state in the last 20 years has been…Barack Obama, the same man who began the process of normalizing relations with Cuba and was slammed with the “socialism” label nonstop by the GOP for years.

Here are some excerpts from a late October 2008 report in the Guardian on how Obama was driving fears among older Cuban-Americans and potentially giving John McCain a firewall:

“Comunismo,” said Michael Garcia, 30, the son of Cuban émigrés who works at his family-owned accounting business.

“I shouldn’t have to pay more taxes because I work harder than other
people,” he said. “The things that Obama say scare me because that’s
everything that Fidel said. These things are associated in my mind with
going down the path to communism.”

“Obama is saying 100% the same things that Castro was saying before 1959,” said Nerty Piscola who left Cuba as a teenager in 1969. “It sounds good. Many people want to be equal, but the result is that everyone is equal and everyone is poor. We don’t want to go through the same experience again.”

The fears run even deeper among those who were adults at the time of the revolution. “If Obama takes power, you are going to see all the people going to the fields to cut sugar cane,” said Lazaro de Jesus, a sign painter.

Lorraine Thomas, a businesswoman who left Venezuela in 2002, argues that an Obama White House would destroy the very essence of America.

“If Obama wins, I think he is going to take half of the American dream
away,” she said. “You are going to come here and you are going to get taxed a lot of money and you are going to give money to people that don’t work and are lazy.”

Obama won in Florida by nearly 300,000 votes. During his first term, he eased some of the sanctions and travel restrictions on Cuba. He paid a heavy price for this treachery against Florida exiles by winning the state again in 2012.

There are signs everywhere that the old assumptions about the third rails of Democratic politics are withering away. Most prominently, the grip of ultra-hawkish pro-Israel voices on the party has been loosening for years. The 2020 cycle has seen repeated efforts by Israel hard-liners to either defeat pro-Palestinian incumbents like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar or to prevent pro-Palestinian insurgents like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush from winning their primaries. They’ve failed every time; on Tuesday, for instance, Omar won her primary handily. The evidence is clear: something is changing.

There’s no reason this can’t be the case in Florida too. It’s a large, influential swing state, but this isn’t a call to ignore the state in elections; rather, it’s a call to ignore the people who lose to Republicans constantly and then claim to have some superior wisdom about what it takes to win. Florida Democrats aren’t just morally inept in their advocacy against strong positions in a society that’s deeply unequal. They’re also normally inept too, in that they haven’t won anything to justify the veto power they have over the Democratic Party platform.

If there’s any chance of turning this shell of an opposition party into one that prioritizes improving life for workers and vulnerable people—fat chance, I know—you’re going to have to piss off some Floridians who make way too much money telling Democrats what they can and can’t do. That challenge should be embraced.

Screenshot: CBS/YouTube