Hillsborough County Democratic Party Chair Ione Townsend announced this week she’s running for chairman of the state party, rolling out endorsements by Tampa Bay and I-4 corridor party officials.
Townsend said in an interview she believes there is a path for her to win the crowded race to replace outgoing state party Chair Terrie Rizzo.
“There is no true progressive in the race that has the experience and success that I have,” Townsend said. “I don’t espouse my ideology loudly, but I am clearly on the left of the ideological scale.”
Her campaign could set up a progressive vs. moderate battle against former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, generally considered the frontrunner. Several Townsend backers were Bernie Sanders supporters, including his Florida 2020 campaign field director, Stacey Patel of Brevard County.
Other endorsers include Pinellas Chair Barbara Scott and Pasco Chair Kelly Smith, plus other party officials from Hillsborough, Polk and Brevard counties.
Townsend also has homefield support from a dozen Hillsborough elected Democrats, including Public Defender Julianne Holt, Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, incoming Tax Collector Nancy Millan, and countywide Commissioner Mariella Smith.
Townsend has been Hillsborough chairman since 2016.
In that time, fundraising has nearly quadrupled to more than $400,000 in 2020, making the party a significant donor to local candidates, and precinct representative rolls have grown substantially.
Hillsborough Democrats have also made election gains, including moving from a 2-5 minority to a 5-2 majority of the county commissioners over three elections and flipping an East Hillsborough state House seat.
Local insiders give Townsend, plus the county’s changing demographics, credit for that success.
Re-elected a week ago without opposition as county chair, she said her success came partly from focusing on the majority of Hillsborough Democrats who live outside the city of Tampa.
Besides Diaz, state chair candidates include Democratic National Committee member Nikki Barnes of Wakulla County; Cynthia Moore Chestnut of Gainesville, a former state House member and county commissioner; and Janelle Christensen, president of the party environmental caucus.
Some prominent Tampa Bay area Democrats have already lined up behind Diaz including Mayors Jane Castor and Rick Kriseman, DNC member Alan Clendenin, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, state Sen. Janet Cruz and longtime party stalwart and Cuban-American activist Elio Muller.
Cruz said she agreed to back Diaz before she heard that Townsend intended to run.
Diaz has drawn criticism from some local progressives for his role in 2000 as attorney for the Miami family of Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez.
At 5, Elian was brought to Miami by his mother, who died on the trip. Miami relatives sought to keep Elian instead of returning him to his father in Cuba, sparking an international incident that some believe hurt Al Gore in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.
Muller defended Diaz, saying he’s been “a progressive Democrat on everything but Cuba policy his entire career” and wouldn’t buck Biden administration Cuba policies.
“They’re not going to call him a socialist or communist,” Muller said, recalling the Republican attacks that undercut Joe Biden among Miami anti-Castro Cuban-Americans.
Townsend, 70, is a certified nurse practitioner originally from Maine and a mother of five sons. She and her husband, C.L. Townsend, a Florida native and an unsuccessful state House candidate in November, moved here from Maine in 2005.
“I have some pretty clear ideas about the kind of person we need” as chair, she said. “Somebody with a track record of success, who will create a budget and be transparent about it, who can build the party from the ground up, reform the 40-year-old bylaws; dive deep into the data, and be more service-oriented toward the counties.”
Correction: Terrie Rizzo is the outgoing chair of Florida’s Democratic Party. An earlier version of this story misspelled her first name.