HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Close to rock bottom after the last election, the Florida Democratic Party is gearing up to transform itself.
State party chairman Rod Smith told party leaders Saturday that if Democrats hope to regain relevance in Florida, sweeping changes are needed.
"This party has got to make major changes in the way we are structured, the way we do campaigns, the way we do much of our work as a party, and in the way we raise money and manage ourselves as a party," Smith told members of the state party executive committee meeting in Hollywood for the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
He didn't offer details, but the broad outlines seem obvious:
• Democrats need to do a better job of raising money. Resurrecting a system used under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, Smith said he would name a board of trustees, including major donors and fundraisers, to bolster the party.
• The party needs to be much more effective at recruiting and training candidates for all offices.
• The party must do a better job of building up local parties and needs to increase its staff and more effectively manage field operations.
"Here's the simple truth. We haven't won the governorship of Florida since Lawton Chiles,'' Smith said. "This is probably the first time that I can say if you entered kindergarten in this state and just graduated from high school, you never had a Democrat governor. And, by the way, your education suffered because of it."
Smith noted that Democrats don't even have enough legislators any more to procedurally block bad bills.
"If you were looking at us and grading us as a team or business you would have to say, 'I don't know what we necessarily have to do, but we absolutely have to do something different from what we're doing,' " Smith said.
A task force headed by Sarasota Democratic chairwoman Rita Ferrandino collected hundreds of pages of recommendations from donors, party leaders and grass roots activists, though specific recommendations have not been released.
Democrats are virtually irrelevant in Tallahassee these days but more than 1,000 people turned out for the annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner, where speakers included U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson; U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the national party chairwoman; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel of New York; and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
The party reported raising more than $700,000, a record for a nonelection year, and touted recent mayoral victories in Tampa and Jacksonville.
"If we claim to be the party of progress then we need to deliver on that,'' Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the crowd. "Citizens want elected officials with idealist hearts and pragmatic approaches."