Labor leader exits race to head Democratic party


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Painting the process as antiquated and snobbish, a veteran union organizer has dropped out of a heated contest to take over the helm of the Florida Democratic Party.

Monica Russo, the statewide head of the Service Employees International Union, and her supporters had struggled for weeks to find a way for the labor leader to become eligible to succeed former party Chairman Stephen Bittel, who abruptly quit the post last month after being accused by female workers and consultants of creating an uncomfortable work atmosphere.

The party's executive committee will vote Saturday in Orlando on a successor to Bittel. Alma Gonzalez, a state committeewoman from Hillsborough County, Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo and Brevard County activist Stacey Patel are vying for the top spot.

Florida Democratic Party rules require candidates for the chairmanship to be county party leaders or state committeemen or committeewomen, but Russo didn't meet either of those qualifications.

To become eligible, Russo would have had to move out of Miami-Dade County, a maneuver previous party leaders have used but which Russo rejected. Or Democrats could have changed the rules during Saturday's meeting, something that would have required a two-thirds vote and which would have been unlikely to succeed.

Russo issued a lengthy statement Wednesday that harshly criticized the party's election process for being “closed and exclusive.”

“The rules do not make those who have fought alongside the Democratic Party feel welcome. This holds progress back, and changes are clearly needed. Though I am not eligible to run for Chair, I still plan on continuing my push for these common-sense reforms,” she wrote, adding that the party needs to make all Democrats “feel welcome and engaged.”

Russo's critique mirrors that of other activists, including former party Chairwoman Allison Tant, who have called on Democratic leaders to revise the manner in which the party boss is chosen.

The party's by-laws not only require potential candidates for the chairmanship to be county leaders, but executive-committee votes are based on a complicated formula that takes into account the number of registered voters in each county and how they cast their ballots in the most-recent general election.

Critics complain that the system gives too much power to party “insiders” and to Democratic strongholds in the highly populated Southeast Florida counties of Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

“It's ridiculous,” Tant told The News Service of Florida.

Tant said Barack Obama could have moved to Florida and been ineligible to become the head of the state party.

“It limits our ability to be effective when we can only choose from a small cadre of people,” Tant said.

Russo said that Democrats' influence “lies in grassroots leaders and we need to welcome new activists and young people into our fold because it is not just about how much money a person can raise or the existing connections a person may have -- it is about giving everyone a seat at the table.”

The fight over a new leader comes at a critical time for Florida Democrats, who were hoping to pick up several legislative seats next year and are facing the likelihood of being outspent in statewide races for governor, state Cabinet and the U.S. Senate.

Party activists were hoping to go into 2018 riding a wave of momentum generated by two critical victories this fall. State Sen. Annette Taddeo won a heated special election in September, recapturing a Miami-Dade County seat long held by Democrats. In St. Petersburg, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, a former Democratic state House member, retained his position after a fierce contest against former Mayor Rick Baker.

But the victory laps were tarnished by separate controversies involving Bittel and former state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who quit his legislative post after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Clemens was slated to take over as head of the Senate Democrats after next year's elections.

Now, Democrats -- who have long struggled with infighting between factions -- face the prospect of attempting to unify behind the second party boss in less than a year.

“There may not be a more critical time to come together given what we're handed a potential gift in Donald Trump and what's going to be the anti-bounce from him,” said Screven Watson, a former Florida Democratic Party executive director who's managed at least three campaigns for party chair.

Democrats have the opportunity to take back the governor's mansion after two decades and flip seats to reduce the Republicans' majority in the Legislature, Watson said.

“But if we have a circular firing squad, which many times we have proven to do, then we're going to give that gift right back,” he said. “A fractured party is the first step to ruin.”

The two leading candidates in the race for the chair, Rizzo and Gonzalez, lauded Russo's contributions to the party and stressed the need to come together.

“The important thing for us is at the end of the day here we have got to be united because we do not have time to waste. There are external forces pushing on us, and as long as we remain internally focused we cannot defend the principles for which we stand,” Gonzalez, who called Russo “one of my she-roes,” said in a telephone interview.

Russo, through her union members, has been instrumental in turning out votes and raising money for Democrats in state and local races.

“I appreciate all Monica has done for working families and labor members in Florida and think she clearly wants to make a difference for the Florida Democratic Party. We need her voice at the table,” Rizzo said in a text.