KISSIMMEE — Florida Democrats on Saturday chose as their new chairman Rod Smith, a former state senator from Gainesville who faces a major challenge rebuilding a party ravaged by recent election losses.
A fiery former prosecutor and two-time statewide candidate, Smith seizes the party's reins at a critical juncture: Florida's 29 electoral votes will be vital in the next presidential election, Republicans will redraw the state's political districts and Sen. Bill Nelson, the party's lone remaining elected statewide officeholder, faces a tough re-election challenge in 2012.
"Today is the end of our period of mourning," Smith said in a long speech that was largely a motivational address to party activists. "From this day forward, we will no longer be dispirited, dismayed or discouraged."
He sought to inspire Democrats by reminding them how good they felt when Barack Obama carried Florida in 2008, and he ticked off three priorities as chairman: ensuring that Obama and Nelson are re-elected and that districts are redrawn in a nonpolitical way consistent with two constitutional amendments approved by Florida voters in November.
He gave a starkly different view of the role of government in people's lives from the one Gov. Rick Scott offered in his inaugural address Tuesday, when he said a "lean and limited government" is needed to function as a safety net.
"Those on the other side who believe that government is just another business forget that public safety, public education, public schools and public health are not for profit," said Smith, who received a loud ovation after his speech.
"He basically had to come in here and inspire Democrats, who are so deflated by our recent losses," said Andrew Gillum, a Tallahassee city commissioner picked by Smith to lead a drive aimed at young voters.
Smith was Alex Sink's running mate in the recent race for governor, in which Scott spent nearly $75 million of his own money and won by slightly more than 1 percent. Smith also ran for governor in 2006.
The new boss takes over a Democratic Party whose voice is further muffled by new veto-proof Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature. He cited the need for a better grass roots, get-out-the-vote operation and appointed Mark Alan Siegel, chairman of the Palm Beach County Democrats, to direct that effort.
Meeting at a convention hotel near Walt Disney World, Democrats grimly surveyed the post-election wreckage, beginning with dismal turnouts in heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Despite the party's most successful fundraising cycle ever, Democratic voters avoided the polls in droves as Republicans made the election a referendum on the president and his policies, drowning out the Democrats' message against corruption and insider dealing in Tallahassee.
"Republicans did an excellent job of nationalizing this election," said Scott Arceneaux, the Democratic Party's executive director.
Party staffers sounded defensive at times as they faced questions from activists about why the party's message fell flat in 2010. When Republicans tied Democratic candidates to Obama and then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it worked, but when Democrats attacked the GOP as a party of corruption because of the excesses of former state Republican chairman Jim Greer and ex-state House Speaker Ray Sansom, it didn't work.
Outgoing party chairwoman Karen Thurman fired a parting shot at the second-guessers.
"When you say, 'What are we going to do about this?' what are you going to do about this?" Thurman said.
Others said Democrats were powerless to hold back a tide of anti-Obama fervor that swept Republicans into power all over the country.
"We can't lose sight of the fact that what happened in this election was historic," Democratic strategist Steve Schale said.
The Democrats' self-analysis underscored the regional, urban-county nature of the party's strength in Florida.
The party won the crucial Interstate 4 corridor of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Orange counties in the past two elections, but those gains were wiped out by overwhelming Republican superiority in two Panhandle counties, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa, even though those counties accounted for only 2 percent of the statewide vote.
In a gesture of unity that was welcomed by the crowd of more than 300, the party's 2010 statewide candidates attended: Sink, Loranne Ausley, Scott Maddox and Dan Gelber all delivered enthusiastic speeches.
Gelber said a Democratic "counterweight" is needed now more than ever because Republicans are dominant and can't be stopped.
"They are going to overreach," Gelber said. "It's never been more important to be a Democrat. … We're going to have to rise up and take this state back."
"Those special interests are going to get out of control before we know it," said Sink, who called for an aggressive candidate recruiting effort now for the 2012 elections for Congress and the Legislature.
Democratic national committeewoman Diane Glasser of Tamarac said her party's poor showing was due in part to the failure of Sink and other candidates to connect with everyday voters.
"The one component that was missing was the personal touch," Glasser said. "Nobody really felt they knew the candidates."
The meeting had its share of gallows humor, as Democrats tried to put a humorous face on their predicament. Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, one of 44 Democrats in the 120-member House, introduced himself by saying, "I'm an endangered species."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.