Palm Beach Democrats Meet, Squabble, Pick New Leaders

Categories: Broward News
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They may have just won a national presidential election, helping carry Florida for Obama and glorying in the defeat of the despised Allen West, but the Palm Beach Democratic Party executive committee was surprisingly prickly at its reorganizational meeting last night. It's the family squabbles that are the worst.

It was not a night to discuss issues, except by indirection. Most every candidate for party leadership posts made mention of the need for outreach to traditionally under-represented groups -- particularly Hispanics, whose votes have been widely credited with putting Obama over the top. Otherwise, it was all about who could best manage the nuts and bolts of winning elections. 


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There were some touches that were -- there is no other word for it -- undemocratic: a loyalty oath; open (as opposed to secret) ballots. But hey, it's their party.

Neither were there shortages of skepticism, cynicism, and paranoia:

We asked an acquaintance whether a gent in the front of the room was a candidate, and the acquaintance confirmed it, saying, "Why else would you wear a suit to this?"

There was a rustling among the folks seated beside us, and we hear a woman among them whispering that word is out to "be careful" because "there are reporters here."

Another acquaintance, an officeholder's aide who asked not to be named, bitterly told us the room has been packed, "shipping them up from the Boca condos." Shipped by whom? "The Aaronson machine," he hissed. 

The most common recurring theme among the scuttlebutt was that, electoral victories notwithstanding, the party may not really be in such great shape, that the triumphs came on the coattails of the Obama campaign's fantastically well-organized presence. Not a candidate for party office failed to mention the need to retain the folks who volunteered for Obama -- and to avoid a repeat of the 2010 off-year disaster in 2014.

The business part of the meeting was called to order by retired New York State Supreme Court Judge Ira Raab, the party parliamentarian. He's a bantamweight and tough as nails, nicely pulled together in suit and tie (though he's not running for anything), with major gravitas and the streets of New York in his voice. His lengthy -- very lengthy -- and detailed description of the balloting procedure to come wore down the crowd. They began to grumble, but Raab shut them down: "I didn't need a gavel in court," he announced, "and I don't need one now."  He remained standing ramrod straight at the front of the room through a good portion of the evening, like a Buckingham Palace guard. 

Candidates for party chair were Mike Coleman and incumbent Terrie Rizzo. Coleman worried that with the presidential race over, some 1,400 volunteers for Obama would now be "on the sidelines." He complained that the county has "3,000 miles of roads" and the party has "just two offices open." Rizzo let county Tax Collector Anne Gannon speak for her, Gannon touting Rizzo's understanding of "changing demographics" and her fundraising prowess. 

A strange interlude followed, in which West Palm Beach Dem activist Ellie Whittey was nominated, took the floor, made rambling speech -- "We are not united," her theme -- and announced she's not running. All righty, then...

Rizzo, as incumbent, was also chairing the meeting. Would she immediately cede that duty to Coleman if he's elected? Would there be a formal passing of the mic? Rizzo's reelected, so those questions went unresolved.

The balloting process dragged on, to much grumbling from the crowd, then grumbling about the grumblers ("She's a complainer," the woman to my right said of a woman toward the front.) Rizzo asserted control, told the crowd, "We will be here a length of time."

Intermezzo: Side course of introduction of elected officials and/or their staff reps in attendance. Biggest cheer of the evening goes up as Congressman-elect Patrick Murphy, who took down Allen West, is introduced. We will have Allen West to kick around... in absentia!

State committeewoman race was between Cheryle Davis-Darrell: cheerful, African-American, highly credentialed former educator, Social Security activist and a volunteer in multiple county social services; Carole Kaye: determined, immigration attorney, advocated that party change to secret ballot and reimbursement of party volunteers' expenses (good idea!); and incumbent Bunny Steinman (all easy self-assurance, touted her connections to state party pashas and her stature as presidential Elector for Obama). 

Clout prevailed: Steinman carries the day.

The most dramatic turn of events, touched with pathos, came in the race for state committeeman, which went to incumbent John Ramos, an urban planner by profession, whose platform emphasized outreach -- to Hispanics like himself, African-Americans, Haitian-Americans, the LGBT community, and labor. 
 
The pathos was that Mark Alan Siegel went down in that race. Siegel chaired the party until September, when he was ambushed by a rightwing wacko website and had to take a leave of absence over the Christianists' edited version of his complaint about fundamentalists' belief that the Second Coming is bad news for the Jews

Siegel made a good show of it, at first, with a forceful, unapologetic appeal to the crowd before the vote. Unlike the evening's other losing candidates, however, he failed to come forward and congratulate his victorious opponent. Siegel's a trouper, a veteran of political combat with seven terms in the New York State Assembly under his belt. For now, though, this seems like his last hurrah. 

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact fire.ant@browardpalmbeach.com.











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