Florida Democrats pick Manny Diaz as new leader

Democratic activists chose Diaz, 66, as their new chairman, picking the former two-term Miami mayor. He now has just a few months to prepare for the start of the 2022 campaign season, when Democrats will try to unseat U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, left, seen here in March 2020, with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, left, seen here in March 2020, with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. [ JOSE A. IGLESIAS | Miami Herald ]
Published Jan. 9, 2021|Updated Jan. 10, 2021

Shortly after Florida Democrats were drubbed up and down the ballot in November, ex-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz phoned a former chief of staff and asked why he wasn’t part of a group urging Diaz to seek the position of state party chairman.

“I said, ‘Frankly, I wouldn’t wish this job on my worst enemy,’” former Democratic state Rep. Javier Fernandez recalled in a recent interview. “It’s the most thankless job in Florida politics.”

And now it belongs to Diaz.

On Saturday, Democratic activists chose Diaz, 66, as their new chairman, picking the former two-term Miami mayor to lead a wounded party in the nation’s biggest political battleground. He now has just a few months to prepare for the start of the 2022 campaign season, when Democrats will try to unseat U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis, and win back flippable seats in Congress and the Florida Legislature.

“Our Florida Democratic Party is at a crossroads. While Democrats all over the nation made gains, we continue to lose ground. We continue to lose elections. When we lose, all Floridians suffer,” Diaz said Saturday as he and two other candidates addressed party voters in a video conference before the vote. “I do not believe in a fate that will fall upon us no matter what we do. I believe in a fate that will fall upon us if we do nothing.”

Diaz, who is Cuban-American, will face immediate challenges, starting in his backyard, where many Hispanic voters rejected Democrats as socialists in November and turned to President Donald Trump.

The state party lost ground in the 2020 elections, as voters handed the GOP a greater majority in the Florida Legislature and sent more Republicans to Congress. Florida Republicans continued last year to best Democrats in voter registration. And Democrats were embarrassed this summer when it turned out they had solicited and received a federal paycheck protection program loan intended for small businesses.

The Florida Democratic Party entered the new year cash-poor, and has also been weakened in recent years by the exodus of donors, activists and lawmakers who have split off to run their own political organizations, meaning Diaz will need to coordinate with a network of operators with their own agendas. And he’ll need to do work with segments of the party that coalesced this week behind his opponents — former state lawmaker Cynthia Chestnut and Hillsborough County party Chairwoman Ione Townsend — in an unsuccessful effort to block his ascension.

But Diaz’s new position returns him to national relevancy, and positions the one-time president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors as the chief liaison between Florida Democrats and President-elect Joe Biden’s Democratic administration. His supporters — a group that includes billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and many of the state’s elected Democratic lawmakers — say he brings an unmatched resume and network of relationships to the role at a precarious time for the party.

“The bottom line is we’re in a real delicate state of affairs in Florida,” said Jorge Mursuli, a veteran civil rights activist who has frequently crossed paths with Diaz. “As progressives, we’ve disappointed stakeholders around the country and we need leadership that can bring us all together and help us envision how to move forward. And Manny has always done that.”

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Adds Mursuli: “Whether you like his vision or not is a whole other issue, I suppose. But he’s a visionary guy who brings all sorts of voices to the table.”

Diaz knows how to wield a position that is only as influential as the person who occupies it.

When he took over as Miami’s mayor — a mostly ceremonial position with little concrete authority — the city was reeling from scandal. Nationally, Miami was known as a city where people threw bananas at City Hall — evoking a “banana republic” — amid political attempts to interfere with a controversial federal raid to seize 6-year-old Cuban national Elián González to return him to Cuba. (Gonzalez’s Miami family was represented by Diaz, who is an attorney.)

Miami had its problems under Diaz, including financial shell games that made Miami the only city sanctioned twice by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Called the “phantom mayor” by the press early in his tenure for his preference to work behind the scenes, he left the job with the moniker “Money” Diaz, a knock used by some critics to note his perceived insider status.

But Diaz’s two terms led to a global re-branding of Miami as an international city with a burgeoning arts and culture scene. He helped negotiate major deals that led to hundreds of millions of dollars in new public projects, including two new bayside museums, one of which hosted forums last fall featuring President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.

It was a tumultuous time. But even as scandal engulfed much of City Hall, he was able to get politicians on the same page, in part through diplomacy conducted in smoke-filled conversations on patio of the mayor’s second floor suite at the historic Dinner Key government building.

“When he wanted something done, when he wanted to talk to a commissioner, he would say come up after 5 or 6, and they would sit out there — Manny’s a heavy smoker — and he’d have the cigars out for a while,” said Joe Arriola, one of two Miami city managers under Diaz. “People felt comfortable and got a lot of things done that way.”

That skill could prove valuable as the new party chairman, especially after a race in which progressives and some prominent Black activists — including former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum — aligned against him.

“There are really two key constituencies who are really concerned about a potential Manny Diaz chairmanship: the progressive wing of the party and a lot of the leading Black voices within the party,” said Michael Calderin, chairman of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida. “His record on policing and the way the Miami police department has used force in the past is a big concern to both of those groups. There’s not really a significant record of Mayor Diaz working with either Black leaders or progressive leaders, and both groups are going to be looking for that to change immediately, should he become chair.”

People who worked with Diaz in Miami say criticisms of his record with police ignore that he introduced reforms. For this new role, Diaz was endorsed by the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida and won endorsements from across the state, including Black members of Congress and the only Democrat elected statewide, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Diaz’s supporters also note that while the former mayor renounced his party affiliation before becoming Miami mayor — he registered again as a Democrat in 2012, after he was out of office — his record as a party activist is strong, dating back to the early 1970s. Mike Abrams, a former Miami-Dade County party chairman and state lawmaker, said Diaz was part of a group that quietly helped consolidate Democratic support behind Jimmy Carter and against southern Gov. George Wallace ahead of the 1976 Florida presidential primary.

“Manny can be tough and ruthless,” Abrams said. “In 1980, when we were both involved in the [Ted] Kennedy [presidential] campaign and I was running it down here, he felt I was ignoring South Dade and he end-ran me and went to the leadership of the campaign to get resources for an office in South Dade. He did it without telling me. The truth of it is that he was kind of right. If he has to be tough, he knows how to do it. Even with his friends.”

Mursuli recalled Diaz appearing in a political ad that he says was “critical” to fighting a referendum to repeal a county human rights ordinance banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. At the time, Mursuli said, many Hispanic politicians were reluctant to openly embrace gay rights for fear of political fallout.

“It was basically just him talking about the issue and fairness, and he actually mentioned he had gay people in his family,” Mursuli said of the ad. “And between August and Election Day, we picked up about six points with Hispanic males. It was absolutely timed with that ad.” The referendum failed, and the ordinance stood.

Diaz’s relationship with Bloomberg — who committed $100 million to support Joe Biden’s Florida campaign last year — could also be helpful financially for the party, though it’s unclear if the billionaire ex-mayor will remain invested. A Bloomberg spokeswoman would not make him available for an interview.

And his allies hope his Cuban heritage and knowledge of Miami will help Democrats stem losses and rebuild trust among South Florida’s Hispanic voters, who went heavily for Trump in November.

“He was successful and can interchange with the most powerful of Democrats across the country,” said Mark Richard, a labor attorney who works with a number of Florida’s unions. “But he’s also someone who can go into Versailles and have coffee and talk about why there’s room for your family within the Democratic Party.”