TALLAHASSEE — The head of Florida's black legislative caucus is complaining to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson that the mostly white Florida Democratic Party elite is ignoring African-Americans and has all but crowned a new leader without their input.
"We would urge you to recommend that the Party consider and select an African-American candidate to assume the post of Party chair, which could potentially increase African-American voter turnout and fundraising and would be historical for this state," the caucus' chairman, state Sen. Gary Siplin, wrote Nelson in a letter sent Thursday.
But the letter was too late.
It was issued just as the only black candidate for party chairman, Andrew Gillum, threw his support to Rod Smith, the running mate in Alex Sink's doomed campaign for governor.
With Gillum's endorsement, Smith has enough support to be chosen party chairman next month. Nelson, who hasn't responded to the letter and couldn't be reached Friday, supports Smith.
Gillum's run against Smith and Siplin's letter spell trouble for an already troubled Democratic Party. Despite a 600,000 voter edge, it lost every statewide election in November, leaving Nelson the only statewide elected Democrat. The party also lost so many legislative seats that Republicans have veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.
A major problem, Siplin said: Black voters, a pillar of the Democratic Party, weren't inspired. The Sink-Smith ticket effectively ran from President Barack Obama. And the campaign didn't hire enough consultants with experience in getting black voters to the polls.
Smith said he didn't want to discuss Siplin's letter.
"I haven't talked to Gary about it, and I'm not prepared to talk publicly about it until I speak with him," Smith said.
But Smith said Siplin is mistaken in believing black voters stayed home in disproportionate numbers. "African-American voters, compared to 2006, voted in bigger numbers," Smith said.
Siplin's letter on behalf of the 24-member caucus urges the party to hire more black consultants, but he said he had no one in particular in mind.
Siplin's letter was issued from a state Senate e-mail account by a state Senate employee who was engaging in partisan business.
"If that's what happened, it was a mistake," Siplin said.
At any rate, Senate President Mike Haridopolos' office said the e-mail broke no rules barring campaigning on state time.
Siplin, of Orlando, said he gave top Democratic officials advice on how to run an effective absentee-ballot program targeting black voters but was told they wouldn't vote by mail. Then days before the election, he said, the party desperately tried to mount a campaign targeting black voters — too late.
"We need someone who knows how to win elections and reach out to black voters in charge of our party," said Siplin in a subtle dig against Smith, who lost as a gubernatorial candidate in 2006. Still, Siplin said, Smith is a "friend" from their days serving together in the Florida Senate.
Gillum said the party could have won the governor's race if it had done more to motivate black voters. He said he didn't participate in writing Siplin's letter.
"If you've got a group of that stature and size voicing a concern," he said, "then there's a problem."