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Florida Democrats working to be competitive again

The parties' fortunes and philosophies have been heading in opposite directions.
PX Media
The parties' fortunes and philosophies have been heading in opposite directions.

Republicans control Florida's Legislature, Supreme Court, Governor's Mansion and Cabinet posts.

Florida is now a Republican stronghold. The GOP has super-majorities in both houses of the Legislature and controls the state Supreme Court, the Governor’s Mansion and all the Cabinet posts. Now the Florida Democratic Party is trying to become competitive again.

Not so long ago, Florida was considered the biggest swing state in the nation. It went twice for former President Barack Obama, in 2008 and 2012. But last November’s elections were a disaster for Democrats. Even the blue counties got redder. And now GOP State Chair Christian Zeigler is looking to control city and county commissions.

Here’s State Democratic Chair Nikki Fried at a Democratic fundraiser in Tallahassee earlier this month:

“We are never, ever, ever having a November ‘22 ever again. Ever.”

Fried took over the Florida Democratic Party in February and is making a lot of changes. For one, she says, the party is reclaiming all the functions it had outsourced -- especially voter registration. Two, she says the party isn’t waiting to organize for the 2024 elections, as had been its wont. Fried laid out her goals, already stumping for Tallahassee Representative Allison Tant.

“The floor is to make sure we get people like Allison re-elected,” Fried said. “That we flip 6 to 8 seats to get us out of the minority. That we reduce voter registration by at least 30 percent gap. That we have a constitutional ballot initiative for reproductive health care that passes -- and it’s going to pass. That we re-flip our blue counties to being actually blue. And that’s the floor.”

Democratic strategist Steve Schale praises Fried’s focus on voter registration.

“Republicans have never taken their eye off of basic organizing, and frankly, Democrats have,” he said. “So I think from the standpoint of building a good foundation, focusing on registration is the right thing to do. Not only does it help register voters, which is key to winning, but the very function of voter registration requires you to organize in communities where maybe you don’t spend enough time.”

Schale says giving away too many functions of a political party is how state Democrats lost their way. He says the party functions should be:

“...recruiting candidates to run for office…registering voters…making the case why voters should register as Democrats… And if Nikki Fried does one thing in her term and that is to build that basic partisan infrastructure back at the Florida Democratic Party, whether she wins a bunch of races or not, that’s going to set the party up to be competitive in the future.”

Fried says the state party has a youth council advised by Congressman Maxwell Frost of Central Florida, the youngest member of Congress. She says she’s about to hire for several youth organizing positions.

But while some say Democrats should focus on climate change or abortion to mobilize young people, Orlando State Representative Anna Eskamani says the party should be championing economic issues.

“One of the most common subjects when I work with young leaders in my office and in my district -- folks are also worried about rent,” she said. “They’re worried about having a good-paying job. They’re worried about the cost of living and corporate greed and just the inequities within society.”

Representative Dotie Joseph of North Miami echoes Eskamani’s sentiment. Joseph says Democrats should focus how voters are faring on issues like property insurance and health care.

"Who stands to gain from the political games the Republicans are playing?” she asked. “Because it's not us. It's not me or you. It's not if you're black or white. It's not if you're old or young. But just when you think about who's standing to benefit from this, it's usually, probably someone contributing to their campaign."

Eskamani was a Democratic activist as a college student, and she remembers that candidates who came looking for volunteers often took student labor for granted. She doesn’t.

“Part of our success is just based on the issues we fight for, the office environment we create and of course, the pipeline we’re building,” she said. “So many of our past interns now work in the Legislature, they work on campaigns, they are policy analysts in different nonprofits…So we’re also building a pipeline that is needed for the future success of Florida.”

Eskamani and her team have been hosting youth organizing boot camps at Florida State University, the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida. Next up: Florida International University.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Margie Menzel