Florida Dems Pass Bizarre "Unity" Resolution Aimed at Silencing Party Critics

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo
Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo Photo by Edward Kimmel / Wikimedia Commons
Florida Democrats are constantly in chaos — but they're even more of a mess than usual lately. Left-leaning voices within the party are furious at leader Terrie Rizzo and second-in-command Juan Peñalosa since Republicans flattened the Dems in statewide races during the 2018 midterm elections. After the losses, critics noted that, among other things, major candidates failed to effectively reach out to Hispanic voters and ignored black and brown voices within the party.

But the party's leadership doesn't appear interested in soul-searching. Instead, Florida Democrats this past  weekend passed an absolutely strange "unity" resolution that seems like a middle finger to party members who suggest the leadership is doing a poor job. At least one party member has publicly called the resolution "Orwellian."

There is "ample division in the Florida Democratic Party," the resolution begins, before adding that "'true unity' offers more progress than all other planning combined." The measure then states that "we believe that unity is, in fact, the solution to all of our problems, both real and manufactured."

The resolution came as Rizzo’s critics have (reportedly) been debating whether to challenge her for party chair. Florida Politics first reported yesterday that the "unity" measure passed 845 votes to 138 — and basically served as a fuck you from Rizzo to Miami State Sen. Annette Taddeo, who has recently criticized the party in the press.

But the resolution also comes as dissenting voices are trying to shift how the party operates before the 2020 presidential election. Critics have long accused the Florida Democratic establishment of acting like an insiders' leisure club rather than an organization for everyday voters. Many of those critics are now fed up. They protested when the demonstrably unqualified billionaire funder Stephen Bittel mounted what was basically a coup to gain control of the party. Bittel was accused of racism and repeated sexual harassment. He resigned in disgrace, and Rizzo took over.

But since then, Rizzo's administration has sparred with party critics — a racially and ethnically diverse group of grassroots activists from multiple civil rights organizations — over whether to support more progressive causes. In July 2018, some of those activists attempted to force the party to ban donations from private-prison corporations. Their rationale: Boca-Raton based GEO Group, a major party donor, profits from the American deportation-industrial complex.

But the party brass fought to preserve donations from private-prison contractors. Penalosa, the party's executive director, sent internal emails calling the provisions "problematic." Other party members, including a former employee in Bill Clinton's White House, attempted to derail the vote with procedural tricks. The measure ultimately passed — but New Times found last month that the party is still indirectly accepting money from GEO Group.

In a different case, New Times reported that the party's former treasurer, immigrant-rights activist Francesca Menes, quit the state party and wrote on social media that she felt black voices were being ignored by party brass. She also said she was being "kept in the dark" about party finances and had been asked to sign financial forms she did not understand.

Rather than deal with those concerns, the party instead passed the "unity" resolution. Juan Cuba, the former chair of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, said the measure felt Orwellian in nature. "We have leadership right now that is more interested in self-preservation than they are about engaging in open and honest dialogue about the last election," he messaged New Times yesterday. "Any question or critique is seen as an attack. This attitude was made crystal-clear by the poorly worded resolution that was designed to shut down any dissenting opinions and portray a false sense of unity without doing the hard work of listening, reflecting, and sharing power to develop strategy."
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli