Florida’s major political parties to choose new leaders

The changes come after the GOP dominated November elections; Democrats look to rebuild its struggling party

By: - February 15, 2023 7:00 am

Former State Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade (left) and former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried (right) are under consideration for the Democratic Party Chair. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Florida’s Republican and Democratic state parties are meeting separately in Central Florida over the next two weekends to select new state party chairs to lead their organizations going into the 2024 presidential election cycle — and the stakes are high for both parties.

GOP dominance over Democrats has never been greater following the November elections, but Republicans face a possible donnybrook between former President Donald Trump — who has already announced his candidacy — and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appears to be getting closer to a presidential bid.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is looking to rebuild after the glum election results, recapture at least some of its “purple state” persona and take on a new face following the resignation of Chair Manny Diaz.

The contest to succeed Diaz is winding up as a battle between two women who have been elected officials: former Agriculture Commissioner and state-level Cabinet member Nikki Fried and former Miami-Dade State Sen. Annette Taddeo.

Both lost their races in the 2022 election, with gubernatorial candidate Fried losing to Charlie Crist during the primary, and Taddeo losing in a Congressional race to U.S. Rep. María Elvira Salazar.

Fried vs. Taddeo

Fried, an attorney, jolted the race earlier this week by announcing she would compete for the chance to bring the Democrats out of the political wilderness.

People waiting to vote in the elections. Credit: Getty Images

“As Chair, I will commit to rebuilding our Party from the ground up,” Fried said in a press release announcing her candidacy on Monday. “Our work will be in lockstep with County Democratic Parties, our Clubs and Caucuses, Democratic elected leaders, community organizations and supporters. As Chair of the Florida Democrats we will rededicate ourselves to voter registration, training, and growing our progressive coalitions.  I am determined to rebuild the trust of national committees and I will dedicate the full weight of the Party to quality candidate recruitment and to reforming our antiquated weighted vote system and bylaws which too often exclude rather than include.”

Fried’s statement also noted that her list of public endorsements account for nearly two-thirds of the required votes to win the Florida Democratic Chair election. But on Tuesday, Taddeo released a statement claiming that “she is the undisputed vote leader for Chair.”

Taddeo’s backers range from those on the progressive left such as “Gen Z” Congressman Maxwell Frost, state Rep. Anna Eskamani and Thomas Kennedy, a Miami-based activist with the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as well as establishment types like Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Chris Korge, the national finance chairman for the DNC.

That said, Taddeo’s list of backers hasn’t impressed some local party officials who pushed for Fried to enter the race.

“Nothing against our electeds because I love them, but it’s us who are down here who know what we need from the FDP as the people doing the day in, day out work,” Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee Chair Jennifer Griffith told the Phoenix. “I believe (Fried) would connect us all. She inspires across the board. I’ve seen it. It’s moderates. It’s progressives. it’s everything in between. She can also bring in donors, and that’s a priority for me. Give donors confidence in the state of Florida again.”

Longtime DNC member Alan Clendenin, who lost his own bid for party chair a decade ago, says that he hadn’t intended on weighing in on this year’s contest, but said he was motivated to reach out to Fried shortly after Diaz resigned to encourage her to get into the contest.

“I went to Nikki and I said, ‘I’ve looked around and I’ve been in this dog and pony show more than once and I know as well as anyone in the state of Florida what it’s going to take for the next chair,’” he told the Phoenix last week, emphasizing that there won’t be anything glamorous about the gig. He says he ended his pitch by telling her, “It’s going to be a crap job, and I think you’re ready for it,” laughing in retrospect.

However, Taddeo said, “I am the better candidate because I actually know what needs to be done and have a record of doing it,” she says in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

In addition to serving in the state Senate, Taddeo has previously chaired the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, which she says was a great training ground for leading the state party.

Taddeo also held several leadership positions with the DNC, something she noted while taking a dig at Fried.

“I served on the national DNC executive committee, where I was co-founder of the small business caucus, something that the state of Florida could desperately use to talk from the point of view as my experience as a small business owner, rather than a lobbyist supporting Republicans,” Taddeo said.

Fried was a lobbyist for various industries before she was elected Agriculture Commissioner in 2018.  And according to Florida Politics, “Fried made calls for and campaigned with Manny Díaz Jr. as Díaz, a Republican, ran for reelection to the House.” (Díaz is now Florida’s Education Commissioner.)

The electorate who gets to decide the Chair consists of the State Committeeman and State Committeewoman from each county with an executive committee (with their votes “weighted” higher based on the population of voting Democrats in that county) along with appointments from the House and Senate minority leaders, members of Congress, state officers, vice chairs, committee chairs, county chairs, caucus chairs, appointees from the (former) party chair and DNC members.

Three other Dems are running for party chair

The three other Democrats say that they bring the necessary skills to help the party get out of its current morass. They are Rick Hoye, Chairman of the Broward County Democratic Executive Committee, Alex Berrios, a West Palm Beach political consultant and Carolina Ampudia, the chair of the legislative committee of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.

Rick Hoye:

Hoye is an educator with organized labor ties and a background in law enforcement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis discusses education initiatives, some controversial. Jan. 23, 2023. Credit: DeSantis Facebook.

He says he is Detroit native who has worked as a police officer before decamping to Broward in the mid-aughts and has been teaching social studies and U.S. history to middle school students in Broward since 2008. He also serves as a union shop steward for the Broward Teachers Union.

He says his background will allow him to speak to people that the Democratic Party “has forgotten how to talk to.”

“I am a Black male schoolteacher at a Title 1 school,” he told the Phoenix in an interview. “I’m teaching a curriculum that is under attack and in a profession that’s under attack by the state.”

He says that it’s going to take a candidate that’s “new and fresh” to connect with rank-and-file Democrats, and he’s the man to do that.

“I have no misconceptions about what I’m walking into,” Hoye says. “I know it’s going to be extremely difficult, especially in the first year or so, but we get that credibility back by starting to connect and reconnect with our constituents.”

Alex Berrios:

Berrios is a Broward County native born to parents of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, he told the Phoenix last month.

His career had mostly been involved in boxing until he began getting involved with the Palm Beach County Democratic Party following Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

He moved up the ranks to become a regional field director for the FDP in 2018, and in 2021 he co-founded Mi Vecino (“My neighbor”), a nonprofit designed to register and turn out voters in Florida, with an emphasis on reaching Latino voters. He says during the 2022 election cycle the group raised over $2.5 million and it’s his work with this organization that he’s touting as his credentials to lead the party.

Earlier this month he announced his plan to rebuild the party by investing up to $1.1 million in annual grant funding to existing party organizations in Florida, according to a press release. That plan includes an “FDP University 2.0” program to provide regular training in technology, organizing, fundraising, communications, candidate recruitment and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“We can really only go up from here,” Berrios told the Phoenix last month. “I’m coming into this role to take accountability and to be responsible.”

(UPDATE: Berrios announced hours after this story posted that he was dropping out of the race and is now backing Fried for FDP chair).

Carolina Ampudia:

Ampudia is the past president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida and currently serves as the chair of the caucus’ legislative committee.

She has been an adjunct professor in anatomy and physiology at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, and became actively involved with the Service Employees International Union’s fight to organize adjunct professors at various colleges in Florida.

Chair Manny Diaz resigned in January 2023. Credit: Photos provided by Florida Democratic Party.

Ampudia was a major critic of Chair Manny Diaz and called him for him to resign in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 election. She says she would work to reform the party.

“There is a huge disconnect from the party and the community,” she told the Phoenix, adding that it’s important for the party’s leader to find the issues that the leaders in the communities are already working on and “uplifting them.”

She also says that there needs to be more accountability from the party chair and more “ethical spending.”

“Consultants and people external to the organizing effort should be kept to a minimum and justified to members,” she says in part of her six-page document laying out her platform.

Two Republicans vying for the GOP chair

With “supermajorities” in the Legislature, the largest lead over Democrats in voter registration in state history and a governor poised to potentially run for president in 2024, the Republican Party of Florida is at a pinnacle.

Joe Gruters, who has been the party chairman, has announced he’s stepping down in that role. He will remain a state senator in the Legislature.

The two men vying for the chair are Evan Power and Christian Ziegler.

Evan Power:

For Leon County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Power, this is his second bid to lead the party.

According to his bio, the Chattanooga, Tennessee native began his career in Florida politics by working for Marco Rubio when the now senior U.S. Senator from Florida was serving in the Florida House of Representatives. He was elected vice chair of the Leon County GOP in 2010 and chair in 2014. Power also serves as the chair of all the county chair Republicans in Florida. He currently works at a Tallahassee-based consulting and lobbying firm.

His pitch to the Republican voters is that he’s led a local party in a blue area to some big victories and says he can duplicate that on a statewide level while working to generate more GOP voter turnout.

“I’m a guy who has visited over the last six years almost every single county in the state and know what it’s like to fight in almost every county,” he told the Phoenix.

Power attributes the rise in support for Republicans up and down the ballot last year on DeSantis and the GOP-dominated Legislature, who he says have been “willing to lead on policy and deliver conservative wins.”

“The voters have responded to that and said we want to have these kinds of bold leaders leading our state and they’ve been rewarded by switching their voter registration and voting Republican,” he says, adding that he believes the governor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic generated a migration of citizens to flock to the Sunshine State in the past two years for “the type of freedom and leadership that DeSantis has provided.” (Keep in mind that early in the pandemic, DeSantis did close public schools.)

Power is reluctant to weigh in on whom he would support for president if DeSantis enters the presidential sweepstakes later this year and potentially challenges former President Donald Trump for the nomination.

“I think the focus of the party right now has to be building infrastructure and continuing to build on the gains that we have,” he says. “The primary process will work itself out and I think at the end of the day, whomever we nominate for the Republican ticket is going to be light years better than Joe Biden.”

Christian Ziegler:

Currently the Republican Party of Florida’s vice chair, Ziegler’s communication and social media skills have elevated him up the ranks of local and state Republican Party politics since he first began work writing staff analysis reports for the Florida Legislature after leaving Florida State University in 2005, he told the Phoenix.

Ziegler worked on Sarasota-area Congressman Vern Buchanan’s first election for Congress in 2006, then went with him to Washington, D.C., for a few years before returning to Florida.  In addition to his work with the Sarasota and the state party, he served one term as county commissioner (opting not to run for reelection last year) and has worked on the school board campaigns for his wife, Bridget, who has become a nationally known figure of her own helping to create the conservative parental rights movement Moms for Liberty.

“I’ve been very involved, very hands on, very aggressive as vice-chairman,” Ziegler tells the Phoenix. “I’ve been told by other members they don’t know if anyone has been as aggressive as the vice chairman as I have, but it’s really a passion of mine. To be honest, the county commission stuff was an honor and awesome, but the party stuff has been a passion.”

Ziegler continues:

Bill signing of HB 7, on restricting certain conversations about race in the classroom. April 22, 2022. Credit: Aly Legge’s campaign website.

“I’ve been in the room with candidates or elected officials and what happens is maybe their consultants come up to them and say, ‘Hey, look, you’re just going to rile up the base. You already have their support. You need to go after the people in the middle, so maybe you need to back be a little soft on these issues.’” says Ziegler. “And I think the governor’s done the complete opposite. What the governor has done is focus on these issues that people care about. That they’re passionate about. They’re impacting families, and they’re just issues that are right to take the lead on.” (Keep in mind that Democrats, progressives and other advocates have a different view on how DeSantis has handled his performance as governor.)

The voters in the GOP race for chair include the chair and State Committeeman and State Committeewoman in each county; members of Congress; 10 voters chosen by the governor, 10 chosen by the Speaker of the House and 10 from the Senate president; and other state-wide elected officials.

The Florida Republicans will meet this Saturday to decide their leader. The Democrats will take their turn on Feb. 25 to decide who will be their chair going into 2024.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.