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News-Press: Florida Democrats plot turnaround

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Written by
Bill Cotterell

HOLLYWOOD — Leaders of the Florida Democratic Party on Saturday heard a four-point turnaround plan for recovering from last year’s rout at the polls.

The party will take a business-like approach to raising money, organizing at the county level and recruiting credible young candidates to attract voters “Remember, people invest in this party, it is an investment just like anything else,” Chairman Rod Smith told members of the Democratic Executive Committee. “They invest because they believe in our principles but they become frustrated if they don’t see winning. It’s a scorecard, folks.”
Democrats are trying to rebound after Republicans last year gained four congressional seats in Florida and won all the statewide races.

When he took over the party in January, Smith enlisted entrepreneur Rita Ferrandino to head a task force of political and business experts on ways to shake up the team.

Ferrandino said her group interviewed scores of donors, past candidates and officeholders, leaders of many Democratic clubs and county committees, even corporate-turnaround consultants. The four major recommendations of the proposed plan are:

• Raising $500,000 in “new” money by June 30, 2012, above what the party normally takes in during the run-up to a presidential campaign.

• Modernizing fund-raising, field operations and communications, with emphasis on recruiting strong candidates — particularly young ones.

• Assessing which races can be won, and are worthy of state-party involvement.

• Building a network of strong party committees in all 67 counties.

Smith said Democrats can’t continue writing off the Panhandle and need to invest more in small counties where most voters register Democratic and vote Republican.

Hundreds of party activists, along with many lobbyists and major Democratic donors, gathered at the Diplomat Hotel and convention center for the annual “Jefferson Jackson Day” dinner, the party’s biggest fundraising event of the year.

Smith said “we’re not adequately staffed” at the state level. He said Ohio’s Democratic Party has 22 employees, while Florida’s has only nine. He said field operatives are needed to organize Hispanic voters in Central Florida and to find young talent.

“If you went to the New York Yankees and asked who’s the best high school pitcher in Oklahoma, they could tell you. If you went to most large corporations and asked who are the young employees likely to be CEO some day, they would know,” said Smith. “But we can’t do that.”

He said the Republican Party of Florida set up field operations all over the state and began grooming young candidates 25 years ago. That’s especially true in the Panhandle, Smith said, where Gov. Rick Scott and other statewide GOP candidates have rolled up big margins.

“We can’t lose Bay County by 20,000-plus votes and think we’re OK because we’ll pick it up in Dade or Broward,” he said. “You can’t lose the Panhandle by the margins that we lost and just think we’ll pick it up in our Leon or Alachua County strongholds. The numbers don’t work that way.”

Committee members applauded Smith’s plan.

“What I like about this is the focus on working with the county DECs and making sure they’re really functioning,” said Beth McMillen of Palm Bay, who chairs the Brevard County DEC.

State Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said the party can’t just keep doing what has failed in the past.

“It’s good that we now have the entire Democratic Party on the same page and focused on re-electing President Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson,” said Williams. “I think the Democrats are united in trying to turn back what Gov. Scott attempts, and we’ll eventually be in a position to regain a majority.”

Smith, a Gainesville attorney and former state senator, lost a bid for lieutenant governor last November. He said Republicans are outspending his party $4 to $1 and have better organization at the congressional district and county levels. Smith estimated there aren’t more than a half-dozen counties with fully staffed, aggressive DECs in Florida.

“There is no change that comes easy, but here’s the simple truth,” he said. “We haven’t won the governorship of Florida since Lawton Chiles. If you entered kindergarten in this state and just graduated high school, you never had a Democratic governor — and by the way, your education suffered because of that.”