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Generational challenge brewing in vote for state Democratic party chair

The November election is over but another is heating up in the Florida Democratic Party.

Andrew Gillum, considered a rising figure in the party, said Tuesday that he is challenging establishment favorite Rod Smith for the job of state chairman.

"Our party has to pivot toward the future," the 31-year-old Tallahassee city commissioner said in an interview.

Gillum began the campaign Monday and has been calling Democratic committee members, party fundraisers and union leaders, pitching himself as a fresh alternative, who also as someone with experience with state and national politics.

He helped raise money for Barack Obama in 2008 and serves as national executive director of the Young Elected Officials Network, an arm of the People For the American Way Foundation.

But Smith responded Tuesday with the endorsements of several top Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings and Florida Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich.

"Certainly new direction is needed and that's why I'm offering myself," Smith said, noting his experience with fundraising and statewide network.

Gillum was careful to praise Smith, who was Alex Sink's running mate in her unsuccessful bid for governor and ran his own unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2006. But in selling himself as an energetic, new face, Gillum implied Smith, 61, 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."

Karen Thurman announced shortly after the election that she would step down as chairwoman.

Gillum said Democrats failed to engage voters early enough and allowed the GOP to paint them as the reason for the poor economy, despite Republican control in Tallahassee. "There's probably plenty of blame to go around about what happened," he said. "My focus is how to make sure we start early, we're engaged."

Gillum's backers say he has the right profile: He's young, African-American, was the first of his family to attend college and is charismatic. He was elected to the city commission at age 23.

But Smith is a veteran of state politics, including a stint as state senator from the Gainesville area.

Aside from the late start, there are some logistical hurdles. Gillum would need to become a state committeeman or a county party chairman to be eligible for the job. Gillum is neither.

There is wrangling behind the scenes among Leon County Democrats to change that.

The state chairman will be elected in a vote — probably in January — of nearly 200 Democrats who make up the party's executive board. The group includes committeemen and committeewomen from all 67 counties, along with eight county party chairmen, eight legislators, seven members of Congress and Sen. Bill Nelson.

Generational challenge brewing in vote for state Democratic party chair 11/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 10:20pm]
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