02/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Florida Democrats Infighting But Eyes on 2010

Florida Democrats, flush with success from the Obama victory in November, have returned to their double-barreled normalcy -- party infighting while preparing for the next big election. That takes place in 2010 when there will be an open seat for the U.S. Senate.

The Peninsula State was politically relatively quiet as it entered 2009 -- but that didn't last long. After the short-lived back-slapping because the state's 27 electoral votes went for President-elect Barack Obama, not-all-too-polite political activity became the norm.

1. A new Demo party chief took control in Miami-Dade,
2. A coups d'etat to oust populous Broward (Fort Lauderdale) county party boss Mitch Ceasar failed miserably but left scars,.
3. A reinvigorated offshoot organization emerged to seek out "moderate" candidates.
4. A large number of office-holders began "hinting" they might be available to run for the Upper Chamber seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Mel Martinez.

Most vicious was the infighting in Florida's most Democratic county, Broward.

"Just don't send me any emails from now on," one unsuccessful Broward legislative candidate, wrote to a fellow Executive Committee member who had supported the popular Ceasar with an online endorsement. Ceasar was opposed for county chief by former Congressman Peter Deutch (who ran an edgy campaign complete with Ditch Mitch buttons). The endorsement for Ceasar, however, reminded DEC members that the longtime (16 year) party chief had overseen a quarter of a million vote cushion provided to the other 66 counties in November -- to insure Florida's electoral victory for President-Elect Obama.

In Miami-Dade, the change in party leadership was much more civil. Twenty-nine year old, hard-working Benjamin John (B.J.) Chiszar -- a party organizer -- took over the county chairmanship when popular Chairman Brett Berlin decided he would take on State Patty boss - former Cong. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon. But Berlin found his candidacy for the state chiefdom unpopular with rural-based officials. He gracefully bowed out when other committee reps urged him to spare the party from unnecessary infighting.

State Committeewomen Diane Glasser, a Tamarac city commissioner, was one of many who praised Berlin for his wisdom in not generating an intra-party battle.

Meanwhile, an invigorated party offshoot is making news -- Florida Mainstream Democrats, a group organized several years ago by some 25 legislators. It showed its vigor in 2008. Its publicly stated goal: "Rebuilding the Democratic party infrastructure in rural counties with large numbers of Democrats who continue to vote Republican." The group has scheduled its first " Statewide Conversation" Feb, 6-7 in Sarasota and (via emails) has invited key party supporters all across Florida to attend. According to Chair Rep. Loranne Ausley, of Tallahassee, the group aims to "recruit and support moderate candidates with mainstream values, who are electable in swing legislative seats."

"Our organization will be concentrating its resources in only a few races, rather than spreading our funds indiscriminately throughout the state."

Among its goals, according to the web page posted by Executive Director Tevya Harely: "Mainstream Democrats support fiscal responsibility... government should focus on the issues that matter to Florida's working families... and faith and moral convictions are the centerpiece of our families and our communities. Mainstream Democrats understand that people of faith make vital contributions to our communities and our way of life."

Huge vote-getter State Senator Dave Aronberg -- one of the founders of the Mainstream group -- said the organization can lay claim that it is helping elect Democrats in rural Florida counties for the first time in years "while working with the state party

And, now, looking forward to 2010, political activity is underway (by both parties). The 2010 U.S. Senate race for the seat currently held by retiring GOP Senator Martinez is the hot topic for discussion, with a number of candidates expected to take a shot to join Dem Sen. Bill Nelson in the Upper Chamber.

"It is clear that Florida will be a central battleground in the 2010 election," Thurman said.

She confidently added, "On November 2, 2010, Florida will be electing another strong Democrat to the U.S. Senate, who will work to implement President-elect Barack Obama's vision of change and join Sen. Bill Nelson in representing the Sunshine State in the tradition of Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles."

But, before that happens, party leaders know there is going to be a big battle to select a nominee. Speculation on who will seek the Democratic Senate nomination includes names such as Cong. Ron Klein, Cong. Allan Boyd, Cong. Kendrick Meek, State Sen. Dan Gelber, and the State's Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. Whoever wins the party nomination will face one of a strong field of GOP contenders. These may include Cong. Connie Mack, Cong. Adam Putnam, Attorney General Bill McCollum, former House Speaker Mario Rubio, former House Speaker Allan Bense, and even Gov, Charlie Crist, although he says he is " too busy" to think about it. There were rumors former Gov. Jeb Bush would enter the race, but he announced he would not , Wednesday's front page stories in The Miami Herald and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that "he is taking a pass."

Herald political writer Beth Reinhard said the announcement by Bush "set the stage for fiercely competitive primaries."

Democratic party leaders heartily agreed.

In the meantime, on January 20, party leaders -- both progressive and moderate -- around the state are preparing for Inauguration Night receptions - at a community center (Deicke Auditorium) in vote-rich Broward and at the oceanside Rusty Pelican on the Miami- Key Biscayne causeway. Similar functions are being planned from the Florida Panhandle to Key West. In Miami, party leaders will honor the inauguration "with a special day of service" on Jan, 19 in which all party committee members will volunteer for some charitable or community activity.

"Things are fairly harmonious," one longtime Democratic activist said.

Just before Christmas, the state party gathered to elect its leaders, who will work to continue "the momentum that Democrats have built over the past several elections," according to Dem spokesman Eric Jotkoff in Tallahassee. Party officials said that despite some early criticism, there was widespread support to have Thurman keep the seat she has held since 2005. The official word was that "she was re-elected unanimously" as State Party Chair. Thurman, first elected Chair in May of 2005, pledged to continue efforts to modernize and build the party from the grassroots, as well as to persistently hold Republicans accountable.

In addition to re-electing Thurman, members of the Florida Democratic Party Executive Committee elected a new Vice-Chair, Secretary, Treasurer and 10 Democratic National Committee members. Rhett Bullard, a life-long resident of Hamilton County, was elected as party Vice-Chair. Bullard, who has been a leader in organizing and fundraising for Democrats in rural areas across North Florida, will assist Thurman in recruiting candidates, fundraising, and expanding the party throughout the state. Rick Boylan of Pinellas County was elected as party Secretary, and Leon County resident and labor leader Alma Gonzalez will serve as Treasurer.

In addition to Thurman and Bullard, who as Chair and Vice-Chair, serve as members of the Democratic National Committee, party leaders elected the 10 members of the DNC from Florida. They include Sen.Tony Hill, Duval; Mitch Ceasar, Broward; Chuck Mohlke, Collier; Alan Clendenin, Hillsborough; Jon Ausman, Leon; Diane Glasser, Broward;Terrie Brady, Duval; Nancy Jacobson, Orange; Rep. Joyce Cusack. Volusia; and Evelyn Garcia, Palm Beach

Florida Democrats are already joyful in their effort to confront embattled Republican House Speaker Ray Sansom, forcing him to resign a part-time Northwest Florida State College post. News media -- along with daily Democratic fuming -- had exposed that the Speaker had accepted a $110,000 job at the school while he had steered more than $34 million to the institution and had authorized other "questionable" state expenditures.