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Top Florida Democrat steps down after party’s widespread losses in 2020

Terrie Rizzo said she won’t seek another term as chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party
Terrie Rizzo chair of the Florida Democratic Party speaks during the general assembly at the state convention Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Terrie Rizzo chair of the Florida Democratic Party speaks during the general assembly at the state convention Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Dec. 4, 2020|Updated Dec. 4, 2020

Terrie Rizzo won’t seek another term as chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, she announced Thursday, ending a three-year tenure that saw the party lose a U.S. Senate seat, a narrow race for governor and, most recently, the battle for the state’s 29 Electoral College votes.

By stepping down, Rizzo avoided a brewing showdown for her job, where the party’s defeats and financial stewardship under her watch were likely to come under significant scrutiny. In addition to the electoral failures, the party this summer faced criticism over a controversial decision to apply for a federal coronavirus aid intended for small businesses. The party said it returned the money.

In a letter to party members, Rizzo said that though the results weren’t always reflected at the ballot box, she and her team laid the groundwork for future long-term success. Rizzo credited her tenure for eliminating the party’s debt, purchasing a permanent Tallahassee base and raising “a record $20 million to invest in year-round organizing.”

“Even with all of this progress we still made mistakes — but we can learn from them,” Rizzo wrote. “And although we didn’t get everything right, I believe that we can still celebrate our progress while acknowledging and improving upon our shortcomings.”

Rizzo was elected chairwoman in Dec. 2017 to replace Stephen Bittel, who abruptly quit after a year on the job amid workplace harassment allegations. Rizzo at the time was chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Democrats, a title she has held since 2012.

Months after she took over, Democrats won an upset in a special election for a Sarasota state House seat. The early victory appeared to be an early ripple in the Blue Wave expected to hit during the midterms. But while Democrats won big across the country, the wave crashed in Florida as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson lost to ex-Gov. Rick Scott and the party’s nominee for governor, Andrew Gillum, lost to Republican Ron DeSantis. Both races resulted in a recount. Nikki Fried, now the agriculture commissioner, became the party’s only statewide elected official.

Rizzo vowed the party would do better in 2020. They hired dozens of full-time staff, created a statewide voter integrity unit and, with Gillum, set out to register and re-engage with 1 million voters. But when the coronavirus hit, party registrations plummeted and the campaign cycle ended with Republicans closing the registration gap with Democrats to a historically narrow margin.

All of that could have been forgotten had Democrats delivered Florida for Joe Biden, or at least kept it close. Instead, President Donald Trump won the state by much more than his 2016 victory while Democrats suffered losses all down the ballot. Heading into election night, Democrats hoped to narrow Republican majorities in the state House and Senate. Instead, Republicans expanded their lead in both chambers, while taking two Democratic-held Congressional seats. Meanwhile, neighboring Georgia flipped blue for the first time since 1992.

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Since the election, Democratic leaders have called for major changes in the party, starting at the top. At least two people have emerged to challenge Rizzo — former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Democratic National Committee member Nikki Barnes.

Diaz on Thursday thanked Rizzo for her “her tireless work for Florida Democrats,” adding: “I look forward to the work ahead with Terrie and so many other FDP leaders across the state to elect more Democrats up and down the ticket.”


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