By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The waiting room in Mitch Ceasar's law office is stocked with fancy magazines. There's Golf Connoisseur, Kiplinger's, Wine Spectator, and, in a prominent position on top of the table, an issue of Cigar Aficionado with a grinning Gen. Tommy Franks on the cover.
Not exactly the kind of publications you'd expect from the Broward County Democratic leader.
Inside the Democratic Executive Committee chair's office, one finds a shrine to... Mitch Ceasar. There's a painted portrait of him, an elaborately framed copy of the 2002 cover of Gold Coast Magazine when he was named one of the 50 most powerful people in Broward County, and pictures of Ceasar with Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Alcee Hastings, and others.
It's not uncommon for people to turn their offices into self-homages. And, to be fair, Ceasar also has historical documents hanging about, including some signed by Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR. But an impromptu tour of Mitchland last week seemed to lend at least some prima facie evidence to criticisms that he's a self-obsessed lobbyist who is out of touch with the working-class people whom Democrats have done such a dismal job of attracting this century.
His detractors and there have been many have said such things for years. Last week, Ceasar gained a new critic in Andrew Lewis, president of the county's Democratic Black Caucus. Last week, Lewis noisily resigned from the Democratic Executive Committee. "Mitch Ceasar is the embodiment of everything bad about politics and government in Broward County," he says. "He's a do-nothing. He's all grandstand and no substance."
Though both men are originally from New York, Lewis is something of the anti-Ceasar. While the Democratic chair is a lawyer, Lewis proudly describes himself as a blue-collar guy, a security guard with just a little college in his background.
"When I first went to a Young Democrats club, there were a bunch of lawyers and doctors there," Lewis says. "I said, 'I'm a security guard.' They would say, 'Oh, you're in securities?' And I said, no I'm a security guard. They said, 'Oh, you own a security company?'
"And I said, 'No, dude, I guard your house. '"
Although Ceasar vaulted to party leadership a decade ago after 20 years of lobbying, Lewis is breaking into politics at the ground level. He took over the nearly defunct black caucus a couple of years ago. Lewis gets most of his information from his barber shop and church; Ceasar hobnobs with top Democrats at national conventions. Lewis' idea of politicking is knocking on voters' doors on Sundays. Ceasar's is going to gala fundraisers on Saturday evenings attended by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in South Florida.
But the two men had the Democratic Executive Committee in common. Until last week, anyway. That's when they butted heads over one of the most valuable commodities in politics: voter information. With midterm elections coming up, Lewis says he wanted to increase voter turnout in Broward County's African-American communities by targeting the homes of black Democrats who have voted only in presidential elections in the past. He would encourage them to vote in state House battles and the race between Democrat Ron Klein and Clay Shaw, the Republican lawmaker and Dick Cheney chum who has occupied Florida's 22nd District congressional seat for the past quarter century.
"I think the elections we're having now are some of the most important in our history this is life and death," Lewis says. "This is the Iraq War; this is whether we hit Iran. For black folks, this is about AIDS and diabetes and whether we can get into the 21st Century."
To reach those black folks, Lewis needed access to the Voter Activation Network (VAN), a Democrat-controlled database that includes in-depth information on all voters. According to the VAN website, the database "works best when it is shared as widely as possible; we want every Democrat in a state to have access, not just a couple."
That may be the ideal, but it's not the reality in Broward County. In Florida, the state party purchased the VAN database and then sold it for $3,400 to the Broward DEC, making Ceasar the VAN overlord in these parts.
Lewis called Ceasar, told him his plan, and asked for access to the database.
Ceasar said no.
"First of all, we just paid for the list, and second of all, the list is a tool for many, many things, and it obviously has value," Ceasar explains of his decision. "But I told him that I would feed him a handful of black precincts at a time."
This infuriated Lewis.
"I'm the only guy out there whose job it is to bring out black folks to vote Democrat," explains the activist. "I sleep this stuff; I dream about this shit. I should not be begging Mitch Ceasar to see the database. I should be able to look at this information at 2 o'clock in the morning or 2 o'clock in the afternoon. It's a matter of dignity.
"Just give me the damn password. Why are you holding it? It's about control and paranoia and power. Power of information is complete power. He is not about decentralizing power so that the Democratic Party can benefit."