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 And, to be fair, Ceasar also has historical documents hanging about, including some signed by Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR.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."
Ceasar says he was "suspicious" of Lewis.
"Why would he need the whole county?" Ceasar says. Though he made no direct accusation, the chairman noted that "the list does have great value for resale as a profit center."
He denies Lewis' claim that he was banned from the DEC office after the contentious phone call. "This is like monkey business," he insists. "We've never banned anybody from the office."
Ceasar points out that Lewis also announced last week that he is running for a state House seat against Matt Meadows, a fellow black Democrat. This is a no-no in Ceasar's book, a sign of disloyalty. "This isn't about [VAN] or the Democratic Party or Mitch Ceasar," he says. "This is about Lewis and his ambitions."
Here's the problem: It's Ceasar's job to help Lewis achieve his ambitions, not thwart them. If two strong Democrats compete for a seat in the Legislature, he should help each equally, not try to destroy one of them.
And it's also clear to me that Ceasar is dead wrong about the database. He's hoarding information that is meant to be shared.
In the end, Ceasar alienated a bright and motivated Democrat from party leadership, someone who is determined to bring regular people into the mix. And you wonder why the best candidates the Florida Democrats have been able to field lately are the likes of Jim Stork, Ron Klein, and Bill McBride? It seems to pervade the Democratic Party at the national level as well. Call it the Kerry Syndrome.
This isn't meant to be a broad indictment against Ceasar. All the local party's failures certainly can't be blamed on him. A tall and engaging fellow, he definitely has his talents. I saw him in action during the 2000 presidential election fiasco. It was impressive. No doubt the DEC could do a lot worse.
But Ceasar proves that a party leader should have term limits, as most politicians do. The party has been stagnating under his leadership. Club meetings are dull, members dwindling. Old Democratic leaders are dying off, and nobody is filling their place.
Worse, the entire party is immersed in a culture fueled by moneyed interests one need only look at the recent actions of some of the top county Democrats, like Ilene Lieberman and Josephus Eggelletion, to see that. The elected Dems in Broward County, generally speaking, are uninspiring at best and abjectly unethical at worst.
And Ceasar feeds off that corrupt culture. As a lobbyist or "grant facilitator," as he terms it he tries to help cities get extra county and state money. At the same time, he represents private clients, including towing businesses and garbage companies, before the municipalities where he works.
It's an ethical minefield. And his employment record as a lobbyist isn't impressive. Numerous local municipalities including Wilton Manors, Pembroke Park, Miramar, Hallandale Beach, and Davie have decided not to renew contracts with him, often citing the lobbyist's ineffectiveness as the reason.
He does have part-time gigs with a couple of those cities and retains recurring contracts with Tamarac and Deerfield Beach, which together pay him more than $80,000 a year. There's no telling how much he makes from his private clients. Ceasar refuses to discuss his lobbying but claims to work 60 to 80 hours a week for his unpaid labor for the DEC. That wouldn't seem to leave him much time to earn that paycheck he gets from taxpayers.
In the end, nobody seems too happy. Hard-working Democrats like Randy Fleischer and Phil Busey complain that Ceasar doesn't do enough for the party. At the same time, elected officials have lamented that he doesn't do enough for their towns.
It's time for Ceasar to concentrate on his day job and let some new blood, like Andrew Lewis, make a go at reviving the Democratic Party.
Keep New Times Broward-Palm Beach Free... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering South Florida with no paywalls.