Sen. Bill Nelson weighs in on eve of Florida Democratic chair vote

Sen. Bill Nelson is backing Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo for the Florida Democratic Party’s top post.

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is backing Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo to lead the Florida Democratic Party ahead of a Saturday vote in Orlando.

Longtime Nelson political adviser Pete Mitchell confirmed the senator — Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat — will throw the large chunk of votes he controls behind Rizzo, who has led the county party since 2012.

Rizzo, Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel and Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez are running to replace Stephen Bittel, who abruptly resigned last month after Politico reported accusations from six women that he made demeaning comments to women, leered and kept a breast-shaped stress ball in his desk.

A fourth candidate, Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo, gave up her pursuit of the job and has endorsed Patel.

There are about 1,200 possible votes for chair under the Florida Democratic Party’s voting system. Rizzo has announced endorsements from party activists and officials who control more than 300 votes. Nelson’s endorsement comes with 42 votes.

Rizzo, 70, lives west of Boynton Beach.

 

SEIU Prez Monica Russo drops bid for Florida Democratic chair

SEIU Florida President Monica Russo, second from right, is giving up her bid for Florida Democratic Party chairwoman. Still in the race, from left: Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez and Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

Stymied by the Florida Democratic Party’s eligibility rules, Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo said today she’s abandoning her bid to become state party chairwoman.

That leaves three announced candidates for the job heading into a Saturday vote in Orlando: Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel and Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez.

The women are seeking to replace Stephen Bittel, who apologized and resigned as party chairman last month after six women told Politico Florida that he often made demeaning remarks to women, leered at them and kept a breast-shaped stress ball in his desk.

Florida Democratic Party rules limit the pool of candidates for state chair to the top three Democratic Party officials in each of the state’s 67 counties. Russo, from Miami, does not hold a post with the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

Russo blasted the party rules in a statement this afternoon and said she’ll try to change them.

“The Florida Democratic Party needs to step out of the past and rigorously rejuvenate and empower grassroots leaders and give them the tools, support, and recognition they need for their organizing,” Russo said.

“We need to be more intentional about being open, inclusive, and cross-generational, a Party where Floridians from every community in all 67 counties feel like they belong. We have to take the time to do this and not only listen, but learn.  As soon as I sought election, I learned that the Democratic Party’s rules and structures are closed and exclusive. The rules do not make those who have fought alongside the Democratic Party feel welcome. This holds progress back, and changes are clearly needed. Though I am not eligible to run for Chair, I still plan on continuing my push for these commonsense reforms.”

Russo also said she’ll continue to work on union and Democratic priorities such as raising the minimum wage to $15 and expanding Medicaid.

“I do not need to be the Chair of the Democratic Party to continue the labor of love to which I have dedicated my work and my life,” Russo said. “I look forward to working with the next Florida Democratic Party Chair on this and other ways we can ensure all Floridians win and more importantly thrive in 2018 and beyond.”

Women urge changes, ‘soul-searching’ in Florida Democratic Party after chairman’s resignation

Candidates for Florida Democratic Party chairwoman, from left: Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez, Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo and Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

MIAMI — At a “watershed moment” for dealing with sexual harassment, four women seeking to lead the Florida Democratic Party pledged Thursday to bring changes after former party chairman Stephen Bittel abruptly resigned amid accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women.

The candidates vying to replace Bittel — Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel, Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez and Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo of Miami — appeared together for about 2½ hours at a forum sponsored by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

>>RELATED: Palm Beach County’s Terrie Rizzo Claims She’s Nearly Half-way to Florida Democratic Chair Win

A vote on party chair is scheduled for Dec. 9 in Orlando. Other candidates could emerge before the vote and Russo might not be eligible unless she succeeds in getting a rules change to open up the process to people who aren’t county party officials.

Bittel apologized and stepped down last month after six women told Politico Florida that he often made demeaning remarks to women, leered at them and kept a breast-shaped stress ball in his desk.

Bittel’s downfall comes as a variety of men in politics and media have been confronted with accusations of harassing and abusive behavior toward women. Democrats, who used to routinely accuse Republicans of waging a “war on women,” have been stung by accusations against Hollywood mogul and liberal donor Harvey Weinstein and two prominent members of Congress: liberal Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

“Let’s take a moment to realize that we are in a cathartic moment in our society, that this is our opportunity to do some soul searching, including at the Florida Democratic Party, and to identify the deficiencies that we have,” said Gonzalez, who is an employment lawyer and said she’s the only candidate for chair who has filed a sexual harassment complaint. She said she’d order a full investigation of the Bittel matter if she’s elected.

“I know that sexual harassment is real and that we ought not immediately jump to a conclusion that some woman is making it up. We believe you. For every woman who has told her ‘Me, too’ story and for those of us who have not had the courage to come forward, let me say now, unequivocally, I believe you,” Gonzalez said.

Said Rizzo: “This is a watershed moment in our culture, in society…Finally women are coming forward and we are being believed and it’s about time.”

If she becomes party chairwoman, Rizzo said she would implement policies and procedures to combat harassment and require party employees and members of county Democratic executive committees to undergo sexual harassment training.

SEIU President Russo said that when she became pregnant as a young labor organizer, a boss “told me I had to abort the child to stay employed. FYI, my child is alive and well in Gainesville, Fla….These are the sorts of things that we need to share so that folks know that’s not acceptable.”

Patel said new policies and procedures aren’t enough.
“The fundamental thing that we have to figure out is a change in our culture,” Patel said. “How do we exert feminine power in a way that transforms our power structures, such that we’re not using wealth, privilege, class and other things to dictate power?”

>>RELATED: Hastings, Deutch, Frankel endorse Terrie Rizzo for Florida Democratic Chair

 

Hastings, Deutch, Frankel endorse Terrie Rizzo for Florida Democratic chair

Palm Beach County Democratic U.S. Reps. (from left) Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings and Lois Frankel .

Palm Beach County’s three Democratic U.S. House members are backing Palm Beach County Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo‘s bid to become state party chairwoman.

Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

Rizzo today announced the support of Reps. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach, Ted Deutch of Boca Raton and Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach.

The Florida Democratic Party will vote Dec. 9 on a successor to Stephen Bittel, who resigned this month after being accused of inappropriate behavior toward women.

Four women are vying to replace Bittel: Rizzo, Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel, Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez, and Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo of Miami. Russo needs a change in state party bylaws to be eligible.

The four candidates meet tonight for a forum in Miami.

Click here to read more about the Democratic chairman’s race.

 

Palm Beach County’s Terrie Rizzo claims she’s nearly half-way to Florida Dem chair win

Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo claims she’s lined up “nearly” half the votes needed to become chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party.

But one of Rizzo’s rivals, Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez, says she expects a “very fluid process” between now and the party’s scheduled Dec. 9 election.

So far Rizzo, Gonzalez, Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel and Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo have said they want to replace former chairman Stephen Bittel, who abruptly resigned this month amid accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women.

Russo isn’t eligible to be state chair under current party rules, but will seek a bylaws change before the vote.

There are 1,204 possible votes for state chair, meaning a candidate would need 603 to win in the highly unlikely event that every eligible voter showed up for the Dec. 9 election.

Most votes are weighted by population (Miami-Dade County’s committeeman and committeewoman control 62 votes apiece, for example, while Palm Beach County Committeewoman Deidre Newton and Committeeman John Ramos get 41 each and tiny Hendry County’s representatives get only 1 apiece). There are also 178 votes controlled by elected officials. Sen. Bill Nelson gets 42 votes — 21 for himself or his proxy and 21 for his designee, former FDP Chairwoman Allison Tant. Nelson, who backed Bittel last year, hasn’t announced a preference.

Rizzo, who lives west of Boynton Beach and has chaired the county party since 2012, today announced 11 more endorsements. In all, she has been endorsed by 33 people who account for about 250 votes.

Palm Beach County Dem Chair Terrie Rizzo eyes state party’s top job

Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

The sudden departure of a Democratic chairman cleared the way for Terrie Rizzo to become leader of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party in 2012.

Now Rizzo is making a bid to lead the Florida Democratic Party after Stephen Bittel abruptly resigned as chairman last week after being accused of inappropriate behavior toward women.

The state party is expected to choose a successor to Bittel next month. Rizzo said Monday she will be a candidate.

Palm Beach County Democrats have a statewide reputation for being well-organized under Rizzo’s leadership. She also has connections across the state as chair of the Florida Democratic Party’s caucus of county chairs.

“If elected to serve, I will work tirelessly and lead with unparalleled motivation to achieve the goals of our party to ensure the inclusion of those who have been left behind, protect every voter’s rights, lift up new leaders, and grow our Democratic base,” Rizzo said Monday in a post on her Facebook page. “Thanks to the grassroots efforts of Democrats from Destin to Dade, we have had monumental victories these past months. Florida Democrats must continue to move forward, build on the Democratic enthusiasm we’ve generated in cities and counties across the state, and now more than ever, we need an experienced and steady hand at the ​whee​l​. I believe my work as Chair of the Palm Beach Democratic Party, as the elected Chair of all Florida Democratic County Chairs and as a current DNC representative from Florida have prepared me well to be that steady hand, and I will work with full dedication and commitment for that purpose.”

Rizzo, 70, is a fitness professional who lives in Boynton Beach. She became acting chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party in September 2012 after Mark Alan Siegel was pressed to resign by party leaders for saying in an interview at the Democratic National Convention that pro-Israel Christians want to see Jews “slaughtered.” Rizzo was elected to a full two-year term as chairwoman in 2012, then re-elected in 2014 and 2016.

Bittel, a Miami real estate investor and major fundraiser, became state party chairman in January. He resigned shortly after Politico Florida reported that he created a hostile work environment for women with inappropriate comments, leering and keeping a breast-shaped stress-relief ball in his desk.

Asked to comment on Bittel, Rizzo said: “The party will regroup and move forward.”

Democratic ‘whiners’ urged to move on

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and wife Dorothy before Saturday night’s Palm Beach County Democratic Party fundraiser. It was the couple’s 29th anniversary. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

WEST PALM BEACH — Yes, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over Donald Trump in 2016 and would be president if not for a sliver of votes in previously Democratic Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, said Virginia Gov. and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe on Saturday night.

But McAuliffe, headlining the Palm Beach County Democratic Party’s annual fundraising dinner, spent minimal time on the rehash and said his party needs to move on from 2016.

“I’ve got zero tolerance for the whiners in our party. We have got to move forward. I cannot relive yesterday’s election but I can tell you this, we have got to move forward. Florida’s an important piece of the puzzle,” McAuliffe said.

McAuliffe is co-chairman of the 2020 Redistricting Fund, a Democratic effort to win governorships in key states to influence the redrawing of congressional and state legislative maps after the 2020 census.

“We’ve got to get off the mat. We’ve got to start winning. I think our party for too long has focused on the presidential. We raise billions of dollars and then we go dormant for a couple years after that and not focus on state and local races. We’ve got to get in and win at the local level,” McAuliffe said.

Winning governorships is crucial for Democrats to prevent Republican gerrymandering, McAuliffe said.

Republicans have held the Florida governor’s mansion since 1999. With Republican Gov. Rick Scott facing term limits next year, Democrats hope to break their losing streak in the open race to replace him.

“Goodness gracious, we need a governor here in 2018 because in 2021 when those lines are drawn, one person can stop a Republican legislature’s map, and that is the governor,” said McAuliffe.

 

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to keynote Palm Beach County Dem fundraiser

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Riviera Beach in 2001 when he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee. (Scott Wiseman/The Palm Beach Post)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe will be the featured speaker Saturday night at the Palm Beach County Democratic Party’s annual Truman-Johnson-Kennedy Dinner in West Palm Beach.

Two 2018 Democratic candidates for governor — Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and businessman Chris King — are expected at the $175-a-plate event, said county Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo. Congressional hopefuls Pam Keith and Lauren Baer, who are running for the seat of U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, are also expected, as is Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel and a host of local Democratic elected officials.

Palm Beach County, with more than 386,000 registered Democrats, is at the northern end of the most heavily Democratic region in Florida and always crucial to Democratic efforts to win statewide races.

Republicans targeting Nelson with billboard on algae bloom

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is hoping to tie anger about the toxic algae bloom that has fouled waters in the Treasure Coast to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat the GOP wants to knock off when he seeks re-election in 2018.

Starting today, commuters driving past Interstate 95 at 10th Avenue near exit 64 will see a billboard urging them to “TELL BILL NELSON: Do more to fix Florida’s algae crisis.”

Nelson authored legislation that was passed into law in 2014 to direct $82 million for research into the causes and control of algae blooms and to give additional resources to communities affected by them.

The senator has also sponsored legislation that would, for the first time, pave the way for states and local communities hit hard by algae blooms to get federal assistance.

That legislation passed the Senate’s Commerce Committee in May. The Senate’s GOP leadership will determine when it is brought to the floor.

Nelson, first elected to the Senate in 2000 after a stint in the U.S. House of Representatives, could face Gov. Rick Scott in what would be an expensive, all-out battle Democrats can’t afford to lose if they have any hope of recapturing a majority in the Senate.

The GOP is already at work softening up Nelson.

“After 40 years in Congress, Bill Nelson has only reinforced his ineffectiveness as a lawmaker,” NRSC Communications Director Katie Martin said. “Floridians deserve a senator who will win the fight to fix the algae crisis, and decades have proven that Bill Nelson isn’t the man for the job.”

An algae outbreak curdled sections of the St. Lucie River in 2016, damaging businesses and angering residents who blamed Lake Okeechobee discharges for the smelly bloom.

State lawmakers passed a plan this year that would have the state store water south of Lake Okeechobee as a means of eliminating the discharges and, they hope, the algae spread.

For his part, Nelson is aware he has a political target on his back.

His campaign sent out a fundraising pitch Thursday mentioning Scott and President Donald Trump.

“CNN has ranked Florida’s Senate race as one of the most competitive races in the country next year,” the campaign pitch read. “And just last week, Gov. Rick Scott and Donald Trump met in New Jersey to begin plotting their campaign against Bill Nelson.”

The campaign said “a generous group of donors has stepped up big time and has offered to MATCH every donation we receive this week.”

“With Trump personally recruiting Scott to be his rubber stamp in the Senate, we CANNOT afford to waste this extraordinary opportunity to have your donation DOUBLED – making every dollar you give go TWICE as far – but time is running out.”

The donation match ended on Friday, but Nelson’s fight for re-election is only just warming up.

Florida Democratic Party seizes on Charlottesville for voter registration push

A candlelight vigil drew more than 100 people to mark the deadly weekend in Charlottesville, Va. The Florida Democratic Party hopes the events in Virginia spur voter registrations. (Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Post)

Within hours of Saturday’s car-ramming death at a demonstration against white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel was urging Floridians to “Take a stand — register to vote, join your local Democratic Party, and defend our democracy.”

The party on Saturday night announced that it is planning “Rally to Register” events across the state this coming Saturday in response to the deadly gathering of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members in Charlottesville.

“The white supremacists who organized the hateful demonstrations and violent protests in Charlottesville want to intimidate us–they will not,” Bittel said in a statement released by the party Saturday night. “We will not fall silent, and we will not allow these acts of terror to subdue us. We are proud to be launching a statewide effort to expand the vote and counteract these acts of hate with hope. We are encouraging every Floridian to participate and #RallytoRegister on Saturday, August 19th. Take a stand–register to vote, join your local Democratic Party, and defend our democracy.”

The state party said it consulted county Democratic parties and clubs about the idea and “the response from local Democratic leaders was overwhelming–Democrats are fully committed to responding to hate with hope.”

Details of the upcoming registration effort have not been released.