Elise Stuewe of Ruth’s List FL in a training at the Florida Young Democrats meeting in Tampa on May 6, 2023. (Photo credit: Mitch Perry)
Florida Democrats, who haven’t even managed yet to find someone to run against Rick Scott for re-election to the U.S. Senate next year, are finding recruitment of candidates for down-ballot races difficult, too.
Their plight was made stark during an exchange at a Florida Young Democrats workshop during the state party convention in Tampa last weekend.
“I know pro-choice women who have been very discouraged by the possibility of getting to a Legislature where their voices aren’t going to be heard,” one trans woman member in the audience told Elise Stuewe, training director at Ruth’s List Florida, who was conducting a workshop titled, “How to Run for Office.”
The trans woman added that she knew others who were reluctant to run for county office, “when the state seems so willing to preempt county and local rule.”
Steuwe responded that life for members of the Democratic “superminority” in the Florida Legislature was supremely challenging but stressed that there remain “critical races where the outcomes really will have meaningful impacts on people’s lives.”
“I think the broader question of how we keep people engaged in the political process at a time when it’s demoralizing is to try to focus on in the short run — what are the wins that will make an impact on people’s lives? You know, at least slow the damage,” Steuwe said.
“Slowing the damage” isn’t an exactly a stirring call to arms, but the exchange illuminates the plight of the Florida Democratic Party in spring 2023. Still reeling from their electoral blowout last fall, Democratic lawmakers found themselves on the losing side on crucial votes regarding unions, immigration, abortion, guns, the death penalty, and school tuition voucher expansion in the just-concluded legislative session in Tallahassee.
What about their 2024 chances?
“I feel hopeful, and I feel that we learned a lot of lessons in the 2022 cycle,” said Cassidy Whitaker, 27, a Florida Young Democrat and statewide political director for Ruth’s List, which recruits and trains pro-choice Democratic women for office.
“I feel excited that President Biden is going to be at the top of our ballot next year and I feel like we are ready to, at the very least, come out of the superminority, because we have to,” Whittaker said.
Whitaker, like other Democrats, acknowledged the party might not realize significant progress in electing its members but stressed: “This is a long game, and we have to play the long game and we have to understand that the candidates that we support right now are going to be our bench for future seats.”
She does believe the inclusion of a potential ballot measure on abortion rights will spur female candidates to run for office.
“This was the most harmful year in Florida’s history on choice,” Whitaker noted. “And Florida was the last safe haven in the South for abortion, and that is not the case anymore, so we have to do literally everything that we can, at the very least, to climb out of the superminority — which I believe we will do.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signing of the six-week abortion bill (at 10:45 p.m. on a weeknight) has led some national political observers to already write the obit for his presidential ambitions. (A Newsweek columnist declared that signing that bill “made himself unelectable as president.”)
But it’s not exactly clear how much abortion will hurt him or the vast majority of GOP state lawmakers who voted for the measure this past session. (That’s presuming it takes effect, which won’t be determined until the Florida Supreme Court rules on whether the state Constitution protects abortion rights in litigation over last year’s 15-week abortion ban).
Historically, unpopular decisions in Tallahassee — particularly those made in the spring of an off-year election — have rarely redounded on those same lawmakers when they face reelection, although abortion has proved a particularly potent issue for Democrats throughout the country since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade landed last summer.
Tampa Bay area strategist Jackson McMillan, who led a workshop on campaign vendors and procurement in a game-show style format on Saturday, said the perception that Florida is now a red state has led to a “brain drain” of Democratic campaign staffers.
“It saddens me to say, honestly, that I’m probably one of the most experienced staffers who works on local campaigns and doesn’t work specifically as a ‘consultant,’” said McMillan, who is just 21 but has been working in politics since 2019. Many of his peers no longer live and work in Florida, he said.
“They’ve taken jobs out of state and it’s definitely going to be interesting to see how these campaigns on a larger scale like Rick Scott are going to staff up going into 2024,” he said.
“I can tell you, at the end of the [Charlie] Crist campaign and the [U.S. Senate candidate Val] Demings campaign, the last month to two months, they were so desperate for staff they were hiring people even for junior leadership positions who had never worked on campaigns before.”
Kevin Parker is a young Democrat from Osceola County contemplating a run for the state House of Representatives. He’s now the Central Florida field organizer for Equality Florida, the leading LGBTQ advocacy group in the state.
“There’s much-needed change in Florida,” he said.
“That won’t happen in just an election cycle. This is going to be a long-term effort, and so it’s important that we identify people now who have that passion, who have that drive, who have that commitment to change, and get them ready for when those seats open up. So that way, when that time comes up, they’ll be ready and hit the ground running. Because right now as Democrats we are at an extreme disadvantage in the state of Florida when it comes to our elections up against Republicans.”
Parker noted that four members of the Florida House represent some part of Osceola County, and three of them are Republicans: Caroline Amnesty, Paula Starke, and Fred Hawkins. Kristen Arrington is the only Democrat.
“If you talk to the Democratic Party about running, they’ll try to steer you to running for a seat that is outside of where you live,” Parker said, adding that state law only requires that legislative candidates live in the district that they represent “at the time of election.”
But moving to run presents challenges. “Really, nobody has the means and ways of literally picking up where they live to move to a different district to campaign there,” he said. “And even then, you’ll get pushback from that community because you really haven’t lived there for ‘X’ amount of time. So, it’s really a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ thing.”
Tim Gilbert, 36, is vice chair of the Citrus County Democratic Party, president of the Citrus County Young Democrats, and an alternative Planning and Development Commissioner for Citrus County.
In a county running 70% Republican, he’s working to change things at the hyperlocal level, and takes delight in the upset victory in an Inverness city council race last November. That’s when little-known Crystal Lizanich defeated two opponents — including a firebrand conservative who “made a name for himself locally by spearheading a movement to ban LGBTQ materials from county libraries,” according to the Citrus County Chronicle — by just 40 votes.
“We knocked on doors,” Gilbert said. “They asked us, ‘Are you a Democrat?’ We said it’s nonpartisan, doesn’t matter. When we start talking about real issues? People agreed with us. Those Republicans all agreed with us. When we said we don’t want more government overreach. We don’t want to lose our local home authority to rezone how we see fit. We don’t want this, and they say, ’We don’t either!’”
Other Young Democrats remain optimistic.
“We can’t just stop and allow things to happen that we don’t agree with,” said Nomy Santos, a 36-year-old Orlando resident. “So, we have to stay engaged — and it’s kind of motivating. Like, it’s got way too conservative for a lot of people in Florida, even for Republicans.”
If nothing else, Santos said, the weekend was a great way to connect with people from around the state.
“We feel defeated, but I think we’re getting energy from each other, focusing on wins, and mobilizing our communities and connecting,” she said.
Correction: In the original story, a member in the audience was misidentified by gender. The phrase has been corrected.
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