31-year-old Tallahassee City Commissioner Andrew Gillum announced Monday that he is seeking to replace outgoing Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman, who decided to step down from the post earlier this month just days after her party suffered major defeats at the polls.
Gillum will be challenging Palm Beach County Democratic Chairman Mark Alan Siegel and narrowly defeated gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink’s running mate, former state Sen. and attorney Rod Smith of Gainesville, whose name has been attached to the position since Thurman first signaled she would be stepping down in the middle of her second four-year term.
Her resignation is undoubtedly part of an effort by the party to reorganize and reinvigorate itself, and Gillum, who was first elected to the city commission at age 23, says the party failed to get its message out this election season, in which Democrats lost four congressional seats, seven legislative seats, and all five statewide races.
Gillum began the campaign [Monday] and has been calling Democratic committee members, party fundraisers and union leaders, pitching himself as a fresh alternative but also one with experience with state and national politics. “Our party has to pivot toward the future,” he said.
He was careful to praise Smith, who was Alex Sink’s running mate in her unsuccessful bid for governor. But in selling himself as an energetic, new face, the implication is Smith represents the past. “This last beating really hurt us and at the end of the day, I have to believe Florida Democrats want to win elections,” Gillum said. “We have to put in the infrastructure to make that happen.”
On Tuesday, Smith responded to the news by noting he’d received support from prominent figures within the party, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich. Such endorsements should go a long way come January when the almost 200 Democrats comprising the state party’s executive board will gather to elect a new chairman. Those voting will include committee members from each of the 67 counties, eight-county party chairmen, eight legislators, seven members of Congress, and Sen. Nelson.
Party leaders have underscored the daunting task that will await the new chief in the face of massive setbacks to the Democratic agenda throughout the state, as well as the shifting paradigm of power in Tallahassee in the form of a new Republican super-majority that has already flexed its muscle, overriding eight of Gov. Charlie Crist’s vetoes during last week’s special session.
From the St. Augustine Record:
“Anyone who is willing to take the helm of the Florida Democratic Party at this time must be a fighter,” said Mitch Caesar, Broward County Democratic chairman and a former state party leader. “It’s looking like a long way back.”
Ron Sachs, a Tallahassee public relations executive who served as communications director for late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, said the party should learn lessons from this fall’s defeat. But he also cautioned against blaming Florida’s results solely on a national tidal wave favoring Republicans.
“The Democratic Party is out of step with mainstream Florida right now,” Sachs said. “The party has not had a good message, or good messengers. They’ve got to change that, from the top to the bottom.”