The race for Florida Democratic Party Chair has emerged as a microcosm of the fight between Bernie Sanders progressives and pro-Clinton partisans for the soul of the Democratic Party. Stephen Bittel, a billionaire donor and close ally of former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is controversially ascending as a frontrunner in the race.
Attorney and Bernie Sanders delegate Bruce Jacobs and Dr. Mae Christian—a civil rights activist who marched at Selma on Bloody Sunday, Congressional Gold Medal recipient, and Chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Black Caucus—have filed a lawsuit against the Florida Democratic Party for violating their own rules so that Bittel could become eligible to run.
“I helped integrate the local DEC along with State Rep. Gwen Cherry in 1974, so I’ve been around for 54 years. I’ve never seen shenanigans like this,” Christian said in an interview. “In reference to Bittel and the resignation of Bret Berlin, it was already predicted in the newspapers that someone was supposed to give up their seat.”
An email leaked to the Miami New Times revealed that before DNC State Committeeman Bret Berlin resigned six days after he was elected, lobbyist Stephanie Grutman was already soliciting support for Bittel to run for the seat. This raised suspicions that Berlin was coerced to resign in order to provide an opportunity for Bittel to become eligible to run for Florida Democratic Party Chair. Bittel won the committeeman position with overwhelming support from the Democratic establishment, and admitted in an interview with Orlando Politics that Democratic Party officials “created a path” for him to run.
“This is an action for declaratory judgment which seeks a determination that the election of Stephen Bittel as Miami-Dade County State Committeeman violated the bylaws of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party and the Florida Democratic Party,” stated the lawsuit, which calls for Bittel to be removed from the election for Florida Democratic Party Chair. “Only months after the DNC leadership failure resulted in the loss of the presidential election, the Florida Democratic Party and the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party leadership violated their own bylaws and guidelines to strong arm Stephen Bittel, a wealthy donor with close ties to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, into a leadership position in the Miami-Dade DEC in a calculated effort to make him eligible to run for State Party Chair.”
In 2015, when she was DNC Chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz appointed Bittel co-chair of the DNC Finance Committee. Bittel hosted a thank-you dinner for her after she resigned as DNC chair, as well as a fundraiser for her re-election campaign—which Vice President Joe Biden attended. The back-door deals and violations of Florida Democratic Party rules to make Bittel eligible to run for Florida Democratic Party Chair resemble the ways in which Wasserman Schultz violated the DNC charter to boost Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in the Democratic primaries.
The Florida Democratic Party is holding a meeting to hear Jacobs and Christian’s complaint on January 13, which is the day before the formal election for the next Florida Democratic Party Chair.