Hernando County Democrats prepare to pick new leader

BROOKSVILLE — There is peace again in the local Democratic Party.

That's the assertion by Hernando Executive Committee chairman James Singer, who says his role as a unifying force is done after 10 months on the job.

The 86-year-old Brooksville resident is stepping down from the post he took last September after his predecessor resigned, citing deep rifts in the party leadership.

"I'm an old man and I was needed for stepping in and straightening up a couple of things, but my work here is complete," Singer said Tuesday. "There's absolute unity in the party. There is harmony and good fellowship and friendship and working together."

The DEC will hold a special election for a new committee chairman at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Temple Beth David, 13158 Antelope St. The meeting is open to the public but only DEC members can vote.

The winner will take the post and immediately serve the remainder of a four-year term that ends in 2012. At least one nominee is expected: Steve Zeledon, a longtime party member who now serves as vice chairman.

Singer wouldn't comment on other possible nominees or whom he plans to support. He also declined to comment on the specifics of past rifts.

Former chairman Cy Wingrove resigned last August, writing in a passionate two-page letter to committee members about how his efforts to bring the party together to elect Democrats to public offices were met with opposition by cliques of members "determined to rule or ruin.''

Elected to the chairmanship in late 2008, Wingrove wrote that people he thought were his supporters "were only backing me because they felt I might somehow eliminate their opposing factions.''

Wingrove's resignation came at an inopportune time, two weeks before the primary election and three months before a general election predicted — accurately, as it turns out — to result in a rout of Democrats. The local party lost its only county commissioner in Rose Rocco's defeat.

Singer handled the transition well, said Harvey Martin, a longtime DEC member and president of the Hernando County Democratic Club.

"When Cy Wingrove resigned, things were pretty well torn apart, but Jim stepped in and pulled the party together and started doing some fundraising," Martin said. "I think he's done a great job."

Not everyone agrees, though.

Singer had little interest in hearing from members whose ideas about the direction of the party differed from his, said former vice chairwoman Pat Hernandez. "We tried to work with him," said Hernandez, who stepped down last fall because of health issues. "He was the kind of leader who felt that, because he was chair, he was wiser than anybody in the DEC and therefore he wouldn't listen to anybody else's opinion."

For example, Hernandez said, the state party encouraged every county to open a headquarters. State committeewoman Kathy Lambert set up an office in Spring Hill, but Singer refused to go there, Hernandez said.

"Nor did he encourage any members to come to the facility," Hernandez said. "It was manned by about five people."

Jay Rowden, who served as party chairman from 2004 to 2008 and is now a state committeeman, said he understands Singer is seen by some as a my-way-or-the-highway chairman. But it was calculated, not personal, and it worked, Rowden said.

"I think Jim had to do that because things had become so dysfunctional, he had to display that leadership and say, 'We're not going to debate things for hours and hours, we're going to do this,' " Rowden said. "That's exactly what they needed."

Zeledon, who did not return messages left at home and on his cell phone Tuesday, has his own controversial chapter in the party.

In 2000, he narrowly lost the chairman election to Dom Cabriele, and the two were increasingly at odds after that. Cabriele called an election to remove Zeledon as treasurer on grounds that he failed to do his job. Zeledon called Cabriele a control freak who did not allow him access to the checks and kept financial information from him.

The state party ordered Cabriele to reinstate Zeledon. But in 2003, Scott Maddox, then chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, ordered all officers of the Hernando DEC to resign, including Zeledon and Cabriele. After an initial effort by Cabriele to fight his ouster, the state eventually appointed new officers.

Zeledon deserves credit for how he handled that chaotic time by following party guidelines, and his knowledge of technology and his personality would serve him well as chairman, Rowden said.

"You've got to work well with people," he said. "If you can't, you're doomed. The whole organization is doomed."

Martin agreed Zeledon is right for the uphill task of making the Democratic Party relevant in Hernando County, where the GOP holds a slight edge in registered voters, Democrats often fail to show up at the polls in significant numbers, and the fight for independent voters can be fierce.

"We got a big job ahead of us to raise funds and educate the people," Martin said. "We got a trip to the cleaners in 2010. The people didn't get out to vote, and our biggest chore is getting people out to vote."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando County Democrats prepare to pick new leader 06/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 10:25pm]

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