Big City Mayors Represent A Democratic Benchmark

Alvin Brown's win in Jacksonville sent shock-waves through the GOP establishment

When Scott Maddox assumed the Chairmanship of the Florida Democratic Party in January 2003 he used his experience as Mayor of Tallahassee to put forth an idea that Mayors could be the easiest way to build a real bench for statewide races. In early 2003 Maddox and his new FDP staff spread out throughout the state to work in Mayoral campaigns. Elected were Pam Iorio in Tampa, Lois Frankel in West Palm Beach and Buddy Dyer, who was a former Maddox rival for Attorney General, in Orlando. Nat Glover in Jacksonville, another FDP target, was not elected.

Maddox claimed victory and convinced many party activists that these victories were a sign the party was rebounding and building a deep bench for future races. But the reality is that heavily favored Democrats had won in all three cities. In the case of Iorio she was well known throughout Hillsborough County. Dyer and Frankel were former high profile legislators who had both recently served as Democratic leaders in their respective chambers. Moreover, the GOP did little if anything to target these cities. In West Palm Beach for instance, Frankel defeated another Democrat, albeit an erstwhile one, in Joel Daves.

Winning big city mayor’s races were good for party morale but did nothing to boost the ticket during Maddox’s tenure as party chair. When Maddox threw himself into the Governor’s race in 2005 chaos ensued and the FDP moved on. The party under Maddox had taken a decidedly political turn, with the Chairman involving himself in factional disputes in local areas in order to benefit his own political career. But Maddox did teach Democrats, whose sole focus had been the State Capitol, that other races were worth targeting and winning.

Rod Smith took a similar focus in 2011 upon becoming party chairman. But instead of just winning the easy races, his FDP was able to orchestrate the shock of recent Florida electoral politics. Alvin Brown’s upset victory over the GOP establishment proved that the FDP’s strategy could bear fruit. Mike Hogan, a one-time House member, had many of his former legislative colleges campaign for him including Adam Hasner, Mike Haridopolos and Marco Rubio. Yet Brown won in a heavily Republican city.

The victory instantly made Brown  a sensation and the talk of the political chattering classes. The race also had a definitive psychological effect on a Florida GOP which had rarely, if ever, lost a high profile, contested race  over the previous decade. The lesson I took from Jacksonville was that while the GOP has manipulated the machinery of state elections by controlling lobbying and fund raising infrastructure in Tallahassee, municipal elections are more open opportunities for the Democrats.

The lesson was demonstrated again this week when Buddy Dyer won a third full term in Orlando by smashing well-funded Republican Ken Mulvaney and conservative Democrat Phil Diamond. Sure, Orlando is a heavily Democratic city these days (which it was not in the 1990s) but Dyer has consolidated an unbreakable grip on the city even when politically motivated witch hunts against him were instigated largely at the behest of Tallahassee based Republicans. His brand of activist Government has been opposed by even some Democrats like Diamond, but the voters have clearly shown they prefer smart spending that grows the stature and profile of a city over “fiscal prudence.”

Former State Rep. Jack Seiler is compiling a record similar to Dyer in Fort Lauderdale, a city that previously has not been proactive in promoting its image. Fort Lauderdale benefited from an activist County government including a tourism development board of the highest quality, but the city itself did little under former Mayor Jim Naugle to grow its brand. Bob Buckhorn, Tampa’s new Mayor, has been similarly effective and visible.

With Democrats gaining a stranglehold over the big cities in the state similar to the GOP’s control of state government, the building blocks are in place for the party to use municipalities to reinvigorate itself. This is after all what Scott Maddox claimed was the way forward in 2003, even if he did not have the patience or understanding to see the project through.


16 thoughts on “Big City Mayors Represent A Democratic Benchmark

  1. Excellent article. Maddox was right on this and many many other things

    He did not get the opportunity because of party infighting to implement his vision.

  2. MS

    Maddox bankrupted the party and used his chairmanship to try and settle petty disputes. He was the worst.

  3. Maddox is a joke. How do you have a southern accent without being from the south? The article does not give credit to Scott it gave credit to those after. Maddox is so bad.

  4. And he was cleared on every count. The party was messed up long before Maddox came in and Thurman was worthless. She aligned the party with tallahssee lobbyists many of whom were interested in keeping the GOP in as big a majority as possible.

  5. Maddox was the ultimate panderer. The crime was that we as Democrats allowed him to get the levers of power with the FDP. His accent as you call it was turned on and turned off when needed.

  6. nice blog – i like this article and i think this raises interesting question. should the democrats pour money into building local infrastructure, patronage and a farm team. but then we cannot abandon the legislative races but the truth is we have won very few big legislative races in the last 15 years. i am not sure why we keep pouring money into legislative races we cannot win or wasting money in seats we should win easily. we raise so little money relatively speaking and i think the money spent in jacksonville was much more strategic and useful. i disagree on dyer. glenda hood was a republican mayor. winning the first time was not that easy. true fredrick was the mayor before and he was at least then a d. i agree now that i have talked myself into it that the local races need to be stressed by the state party. that is how you build a bench something we have not done in florida for years.

  7. Just because your cleared doensn’t mean your not guilty. He was sleeping with everyone too. Again just because he wasn’t caught doensn’t mean he didn’t do it. They guy has always been scummy. I think the party needs some big help. A little sugar is not going to do it or a Republican that is also currently under investigation. The party needs to go back to the old way of Howard Dean and be more like the Republicans. You vote wrong…you are out. So in that case..bye bye..Abruzzo. For morning star wake up honey no way is Abruzzo walking into any seat this time.

  8. Municipal elections do provide a clear way forward for the Democrats and do give an opportunity to deepen the farm team so to speak.

    The problem is once you’ve been a big city mayor or a high profile county commissioner, the State House is a step down and the State Senate is not always appealing.

    If the ultimate goal is to develop better legislative candidates this simply may not work.

  9. But should winning legislative races be all the state party worries about? They’ve been smoked for years doing that. They keep losing legislative races and ultimately let the GOPs superior local organizations dictate what happened at the city and county levels.

    I think municipals and county races are important particularly in large cities/counties.

  10. Most of these Mayors do not represent statewide candidate potential. But they can exercise a lot of control locally and help our legislative candidates with visible endorsements and campaign work.

    Big city mayors have the bully pulpit so to speak in their local press. We need to coordinate a communications strategy as a party that takes advantage of that reality.

  11. The Repubs used city, county, water board, school board etc to groom potential office holders and skew legislation in the big counties. We have been late to do the same but it is happening now!

  12. This is a very good point. From a communications perspective, we never seem to take advantage of statements or good deeds by our local officials.

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