Two-Party Power

Political animals in Northeast Florida are eagerly watching to see if the area will get more respect (and perks) in Tallahassee government halls, considering the deep Jacksonville roots of both people who now chair Florida’s two major political parties.

That rare coincidence happened in January when the Florida Democratic Party elected Allison Tant as its chief. Tant, 51, was born and raised in Jacksonville and graduated from Duncan U. Fletcher High School in Jacksonville Beach, where she reigned as Miss Fletcher in 1978. The retired lobbyist and mother of three currently lives in Tallahassee and is chair of the Leon County Democratic Party.

Lenny Curry, 43, chair of the Florida Republican Party since 2010, is chair of the Duval County Republican Party. A father of three and CEO of an accounting firm, he’s a graduate of Middleburg High School, where he played football and baseball.

Only twice since 1980 have both Florida leaders come from the same part of the state and, ironically, the first time it was also Northeast Florida: Democrat Terrie Brady from Duval County (1993-1998) and Republican Tom Slade from Clay County (1993-1999).

Both current chairs said there are intangible advantages for Northeast Florida.

“We understand the message that works well in North Florida,” Tant said, which will help expand the base, influence and participation in the political process.

“North Florida has long been a powerful part of Florida politics. When you consider leaders like Senate President Jim King and former Speaker of the House, now Sen. John Thrasher, I think there is plenty of evidence of the importance of our region,” Curry said. “When you look at the crucial role our region’s elected officials have played, I would disagree with the notion that we haven’t had powerful representation in Tallahassee.”

Slade said there is potential clout for Northeast Florida that comes with holding the state chairs.

“It makes some difference, because chairs have access. It is important to have good access to get things done, and chairs have regular access to the executive and other branches of government as party chairs, and they can be extremely influential,” Slade said.

“With or without the party leadership coming from North Florida, the voter turnout in the past two presidential races that swung the state for President Obama has earned the region political respect from legislators who represent more populous Florida communities,” said Travis Bridges, who was chair of the Duval County Democratic Party during both Obama campaigns and now sits on the state party executive committee. “Tant’s visibility and roots in this region will be important to the success of Democrats running for both local and state offices.”

Beaches Democrats see Tant’s election as a great thing, especially in getting more shoreline Democrats involved in future political campaigns. The Beaches area has long been a Republican stronghold.

“My whole life centered around the beach,” Tant said. As a high school student, she used to take lunch breaks at the beach — in the days when students were allowed to leave campus.

“My early fondest memory is going to the beach with my mother. My piano teacher lived a block-and-a-half from the ocean, and I enjoyed the ocean while my sister took her lessons,” Tant said. “At one point, I was a proficient pianist.” Twelve years of piano lessons paid off in the Miss Fletcher competition.

Tant was recruited to run for chair by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic National Committee chair, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. It was Tant’s track record as a fundraiser that gave her the voting edge (587-507) against her challenger, Alan Clendenin of Hillsborough County.

For Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Tant served as chair of the North West Florida Finance Council and raised more than $330,000 from large and small donors. In 2008, she served on an Obama host committee for his second national fundraiser and was involved with Tallahassee donation efforts.

Tant also organized and hosted fundraisers across the state for Democratic Party candidates running for office at all levels of government. She caught the eye of party leaders for her outreach and grassroots organizing as head of the Tallahassee Women For Obama in 2008.

The Miami Herald described the January contest between Tant and Clendenin as “the most bitter and closely fought party election in decades.

After Clendenin was elected vice chair, the two asked for party unity from their supporters who had orchestrated a heated battle. Clendenin backers noted that Tant’s husband, Barry Richard, a lifelong Democrat, directed the Bush-Cheney Florida legal team for the 2000 vote recount. Clendenin framed himself as the grassroots candidate who could wrest control of the party from Tallahassee insiders.

Unlike Tant, Curry was re-elected unanimously at the state’s annual meeting in January, but he shares with Tant the challenge of unifying a party plagued by infighting, financial challenges and instability.

Frequent changes of the guard in both parties reflect the tumultuous times each experienced over the last two decades. Both have changed their top leader 10 times in the last 23 years. Curry is the fourth party chair since 2007. Tant is the third state chair since 2005.

“The Chairman of the Democratic Party has about as much job security as a baseball manager,” wrote St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) political reporter Tim Nickens in April 2000, shortly after Bob Poe became the state’s top Democrat. Party members had high hopes for Poe, a former Orlando Magic executive and a consultant in the business of rescuing start-up companies, but he lasted only two years.

Poe had replaced Charles Whitehead of Bay County, who’d come out of retirement to rescue a party that was broke and had been getting clobbered in elections for six years. It was Whitehead’s second stint as party chair, previously serving 1980-1988. Health reasons forced him to step down in February 2000, just 10 months later.

Whitehead’s predecessor, Broward County’s Mitch Caesar, resigned in March 1999, also after only 10 months at the job. Among those who applied pressure to step down was U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and then-Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. One party official criticized Caesar for failing to call a meeting of the party’s executive committee and draw up a strategic plan in the 100 days after Democrats took a bath in the general election, losing control of the governor’s mansion to Republicans, who also regained control of both legislative houses.

Caesar had taken the reins from Duval County Teacher Union chief Brady, who during a five-year term saw Democratic Party candidates at all levels take a trouncing at the polls and Democrats across the state weakened by racial tensions resulting from a battle to replace House Speaker-designate Willie Logan, a black legislator from South Florida.

Nickens wrote in an April 2000 story that Brady “rarely returned reporters’ telephone calls to present the party’s view,” while Slade “filled columns of newspaper articles with his colorful quotes on Florida politics.” Brady did not return calls for this story.

Slade said that Brady took over the Democratic Party at a time when it was facing some almost-insurmountable obstacles. The party voter registration was still in decline from the nation’s infatuation with Ronald Reagan. A February 1999 report by Randy Pendleton, a veteran Tallahassee political reporter for The Florida Times-Union, noted that in the 20 years since Reagan became president, the percentage of Democrats among registered Florida voters dropped from 67 to 45, while Republicans’ percentage increased from 28 to 40 percent.

Now there appears to be a reversal of party fortunes. Curry faces some big challenges due to internal party problems and scandals involving Republicans, as well as changing Florida demographics that favor Democrats.

“Curry became chair at one of the roughest times the state Republican Party ever had,” Slade said. “It was just a mess he walked into. It’s not as easy to be chair of the GOP as when I was.”

Curry was elected vice chair in January 2011, serving under David Bitner. Curry’s accounting and finance background was a perfect fit to address problems resulting from the financial scandals under the three-year leadership of Jim Greer, who was ousted in 2010 and accepted a guilty plea deal on four counts of theft and one count of money-laundering. Intense party infighting among various factions supporting candidates for the U.S. Senate race followed Greer’s ouster.

In September 2011, Curry took over as head of the party when Bitner, stricken by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease), stepped down after just 10 months at the helm. Bitner died shortly after. “I am focused like a laser on ensuring that we have the leadership to stop Barack Obama’s big government agenda,” Curry said following his first election.

Not only did Florida Republicans lose both the presidential and U.S. races in 2012, they took hits in legislative contests that resulted in the GOP losing its supermajority in both houses. An effort to oust three state Supreme Court justices also failed. Curry said it was a grassroots campaign to oppose the retention of those justices, citing judicial activism.

In a Palm Beach Post story on the election, Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam summed up the results: “We got our teeth kicked in.”

Yet Curry was easily re-elected unanimously and without opposition.

“Lenny does a great job. These things were bigger than us,” state Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala told the Palm Beach Post. “You have to look at the whole national picture.”

“Curry was returned because he is very likeable, honest, and has a solid philosophical foundation,” Slade said. “He will do a good job.”

Following his most recent re-election, Curry said his top priority was the re-election in 2014 of Gov. Rick Scott and the state’s all-Republican Cabinet. Tant’s goal is to unseat them all.

Since Curry took over the party, he’s been hit with headlines about Republican Party infighting, campaign contribution scandals, voter registration fraud and voter suppression.

In the past, Democratic Party chairs have been ousted by critics of, among other things, neglecting grassroots party building and failing to build a farm team of potential candidates. Those very objectives are part of Tant’s five-point strategy, goals that are similar to Curry’s. o

Bussard, a retired journalist, is a member of the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee and the Beaches Democratic Club.