Florida progressives have growing power, but where are their candidates?

A former Republican, an ex-corporate lobbyist and a former cop are leading for Democrats in 2022 as they try to win the governor’s mansion and a U.S. Senate seat.
The Fight for $15 campaign hosted a rally outside of St. Petersburg City Hall, calling for a hike in the minimum wage. Progressives in Florida point to the statewide success of policies like raising the minimum wage as evidence voters can embrace progressive ideas. [Times file photo]
The Fight for $15 campaign hosted a rally outside of St. Petersburg City Hall, calling for a hike in the minimum wage. Progressives in Florida point to the statewide success of policies like raising the minimum wage as evidence voters can embrace progressive ideas. [Times file photo]
Published July 15, 2021

Last summer, as Democrats in Florida floundered through the campaign season, another political operation was underway.

Devotees of Sen. Bernie Sanders, stinging again from defeat to an establishment favorite in a presidential primary, began a stealth attempt to take over the Florida Democratic Party. Working the phones, they quietly recruited hundreds of Sanders volunteers and delegates throughout the state to run for precinct captain — a thankless job on the lowest rung of the party power structure.

The effort revealed itself after the November election. Calling themselves “Not Me, Us Florida” after Sanders’ campaign slogan, organizers announced their coalition had won more than 1,000 precinct captain posts. They immediately flexed their new power, installing progressive leaders at county offices and electing Sanders delegates to key positions in the state and national party.

“Our message is clear,” the group wrote in a December press release. “We will wait no longer for corporatist and establishment Democrats to finally do what’s right for the people of Florida.”

Now, with the 2022 midterm elections approaching, progressive organization appears to be at a high point in Florida.

Yet the movement is still lacking a critical piece: candidates.

The state’s marquee races have not attracted a recognizable name from the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, and few expect one to emerge. The choice for Democrats in next year’s gubernatorial primary is so far between a former Republican governor (Rep. Charlie Crist) and an ex-corporate lobbyist (Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried). Rep. Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, is the clear front runner to challenge Sen. Marco Rubio next November.

Related: This is an unprecedented wave of progressive activism. Are Florida Democrats ready to seize it?

“Progressive” has become a catchall term ascribed to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. To some, it means supporting reforms that champion workers over corporations, expand the social safety net, aggressively tackle climate change and reduce the influence of money in politics. Policies like healthcare for all and eliminating student debt have become hallmarks of their fight. Others see the need for more drastic changes — a “revolution,” as Sanders has called it — that shifts the expanding wealth of the country’s richest people to the working class.

None of the three campaigns identified their Democratic candidate as a “progressive,” when asked by the Tampa Bay Times.

“Commissioner Fried is a Democrat,” her spokesman Max Flugrath said. Fried previously described her politics to the Times as “extremely socially liberal” on some issues, “but I’m also fiscally conservative.”

“It’s not about labels for Charlie,” spokesman Joshua Karp said of Crist, who has run for statewide office in Florida as a Republican, Independent and Democrat, “it’s about doing what’s right for all Floridians.”

“Val Demings knows public service is about representing everyone no matter where they live or what they believe,” responded Mark Bergman, an adviser to her campaign. Demings was a finalist to become Joe Biden’s running mate last year.

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Two decades of Republican dominance in elections have Florida Democrats uncertain how to win statewide. Crist, the party’s unsuccessful nominee in 2014, and Fried, the only victorious Democratic statewide candidate in 2018, have come out of the gates swinging at Gov. Ron DeSantis over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his fealty to former President Donald Trump. It’s a line of attack that could help nationalize this race, boost fundraising and gain them exposure.

But in interviews with the Times, progressive leaders inside and outside of the state party said they are already concerned Democrats are squandering an opportunity to champion ideas that could energize Floridians. They want nominees to campaign on bold changes and reject donations from corporations that more often side with Republicans. They point to successful recent statewide referendums for a $15 minimum wage, restoration of felon rights and medical marijuana as evidence that voters will embrace progressive policies.

“We cannot be the ‘Barely Not Republican Party.’ We have to be the Democratic Party,” said Nadia Ahmad, a Sanders delegate in 2020 who was recently elected to represent Florida on the Democratic National Committee. To Ahmad, that means introducing bold reforms to achieve the party’s platform and rejecting corporate influence, which she hasn’t seen yet from the top candidates.

Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani said so far she is hearing from the candidates “a bunch of buzz words, and I’m so over it.”

“Stop making it anti-DeSantis and start making it pro-what you’re going to do,” said Eskamani, who considered a campaign for governor before choosing to run again for her Orlando House seat.

CJ Staples, the lead organizer with Broward Dream Defenders, said he votes to help the candidate he views as less harmful, even if they don’t align with his and the organization’s more progressive views on policing. Dream Defenders was founded in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager killed in 2012 by a white neighborhood watchman in Sanford.

But his goal is “overwhelming the Capitol with our politicians so we don’t have to beg these liberals or these fake progressives to do what we want, because we’re putting in people who already believe that.”

Progressives hoped to influence the campaign in 2022 by electing a party leader more closely aligned to their movement. But they fell short of the votes needed — in part because of party rules that weigh votes from the largest counties more heavily. Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who was supported by many state lawmakers, was named the next party chairman in January.

Nevertheless, the vote demonstrated that progressives are learning to operate within the party structure. They have since forced the party to reconsider the weighted system for choosing a new leader. Organizers with Not Me, Us Florida and the 1,000 new precinct captains continue to strategize in private channels, members told the Times.

“I think it’s going to be one of the best things that happened in the party,” said Lucinda Johnston, a Sanders delegate who was elected chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Pinellas County. “This infusion of young progressives and older progressives mixing with all the variations of Democrats has been a good thing.”

Johnston said many longstanding party members were skeptical of her and the new progressives elected to leadership. “A rocky start,” she called it, but she said they have united around their animus for many of the bills DeSantis and Republicans pushed through the legislature this year.

“It’s pretty easy right now to see who the enemy is,” she said.

Marcus Dixon, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, downplayed the dissent caused by new arrivals and said the changes have been “healthy.”

It’s important, he said, that people from different parts of the “Democratic ecosystem” have a seat at the table and “feel heard.”

In 2018, progressives were hopeful they finally had a candidate to carry their torch. Andrew Gillum embraced their energy and their causes during the Democratic primary. He started his campaign as a supporter of Medicare for All, and he signed a social justice pledge authored by the Dream Defenders. Sanders joined Gillum on the campaign trail and offered a full-throated endorsement, a pivotal moment in the primary.

But after securing the nomination, Gillum shifted his position on health care and feigned ignorance about the pledge when confronted by DeSantis in a nationally televised debate. Gillum ultimately lost to DeSantis by less than half a percent. After an incident involving drugs in Miami and time spent in rehab, Gillum’s political career has yet to rebound, derailing the ambitious liberal’s future.

Michael Howson of Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward said he’s open to having conversations with candidates about the work he feels is needed, but that he won’t simply back them because they want grassroots support. Instead, he said, the group is focusing less on elected officials and more on connecting and educating the community they serve.

“Why should we continue to beg for you to fight for the things you say you believe in?” Howson said. “If all you care about is making a public show, we’re not going to participate in the show.”

Candidates have made early efforts to welcome the many factions of the Democratic Party into their campaigns. Joel Bravo, the deputy political director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said those efforts are often bittersweet. The group is happy to have major candidates such as Crist and Fried reach out, but they’re also aware of the politically expedient timing.

Bravo said before campaigns kicked off, his organization tried to get Crist to sponsor immigration reform proposals on a federal level but didn’t see them come through. In early July, though, Bravo mentioned that Crist cosponsored a bill to award citizenship to 5 million undocumented workers in essential industries. Crist, the party’s nominee for governor in 2014, has voted as a reliable Democrat since winning his congressional seat in 2016, but his past life as a Republican governor, attorney general and lawmaker leaves many progressives guessing on where he stands.

Fried won in 2018 by focusing her campaign on reducing gun violence and legalizing marijuana, two priorities among the party’s liberal base. But she has since angered progressives by staying quiet in the $15 minimum wage fight until just before Election Day. Her donor list includes some of the state’s most powerful businesses, including Disney and several power companies, and many left-leaning environmental groups have felt left behind by Fried, who campaigned for agriculture commissioner as a climate change warrior but who they say has since done little to address the problem.

Flugrath pushed back on that characterization, saying she has been an “environmental champion” on the Florida Cabinet.

Without a progressive candidate on the ticket, some groups on the left are focused on registering voters and engaging communities they say have been ignored by Democrats running for office.

Bravo said his organization is trying to find the “secret sauce” of how to activate the voter base, especially when it comes to Black immigrant communities. In 2018, he said, the coalition of voters from different racial and ethnic communities was stronger and brought Florida closer to electing a Democratic governor than it had been in years.

“We’re less focused on their runs,” Bravo said, “more so trying to bring it back to activating that diverse coalition of voters.”

Progressives also are increasingly cognizant of how Republicans in the past have used them to drive a wedge between Democrats and voters. Trump’s unexpectedly wide margin of victory in the state was built, in part, on surprising support from Latino voters in South Florida and around Orlando after a campaign in which the GOP hammered Spanish-language airwaves with messages tying Democrats to socialist leaders in South America.

Republicans are relying on that messaging again heading into 2022, even without a progressive on the ticket. Rubio called Demings “a far-left extremist” not long after she entered the race. Demings responded by tweeting a picture in her police uniform.

James Blair, a Republican strategist who worked on DeSantis’ campaign in 2018, said Democrats right now are “ping-ponging all over the place” trying to come up with a strategy that energizes progressives yet doesn’t alienate more moderate Floridians. But he expects candidates will eventually turn left in an attempt try to win next year’s primary.

“It’s a big game of who is going to blink first,” Blair said. “They all know whoever races to the left is going to stand the best chance in the primary, but they all know that’s what we want.”

Ricky Ly, a state committeeman from Orange County elected in the Sanders wave, said Democrats can avoid trouble in a general election if they steer clear of Republican efforts to elevate cultural battles that put their candidates on the defensive over ideas from the fringes of the progressive movement — like defunding the police — and often force candidates to turn their back on their base.

“We need to not get caught in the traps laid out by Republicans,” Ly said. “Critical race theory? No one was talking about that, and now we’re fighting to keep in schools something that never was in schools. It’s a Jedi mind trick.”