The embattled chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, Stephen Bittel, is prepared to quit if members of the legislative black caucus want him gone for dismissing them as “childish” amid a dispute at a million-dollar weekend fundraising gala, top Democrats tell POLITICO Florida.
Bittel compounded the controversy Saturday night by initially accusing the African-American lawmakers of “playing the race card” once they took offense, lawmakers say. But Bittel soon apologized and spent two days expressing contrition to party leaders.
To clear the air, Bittel set up an 11:30 a.m. meeting Tuesday in his Miami Beach office with Senate Democratic leader Oscar Braynon and the future Democratic leader in the House, Kionne McGhee. Both are both African-Americans from Miami.
“Stephen is a true believer in the party and if the party needs his head, he’ll give it,” said one Democrat familiar with Bittel’s thinking. “If Oscar or Kionne want him he’s gone.”
Braynon, who spoke extensively with POLITICO about the controversy after it happened, said he didn’t want to comment further but added that he’s ready to sit down with Bittel to figure out a way forward. The two have had a fraught relationship ever since Braynon pulled the Senate Democrats’ elections machine out of the party once Bittel was elected in January.
McGhee said House Democrats also might withdraw from the party structure as well now. He wants to talk to Bittel first.
“When someone asks to meet, out of respect, I’ll meet,” said McGhee. “The question we have now is what is he going to do to make sure that 2018 is not jeopardized.”
One reason neither lawmaker may ask for Bittel’s resignation: many Democrats think he’s the best chairman for the party. Bittel, an independently wealthy developer and longtime Democratic donor, can still raise money.
Elected just six months ago on a pledge to unite the party and help it raise an astonishing $30 million, Bittel has done neither. Knowledgeable insiders have been sidelined. And some state lawmakers say they sensed the chairman doesn’t understand the limits of their power and fundraising capacity in Tallahassee, where Republicans control the Legislature, the governor’s office and the three statewide Cabinet posts.
Ironically, Bittel’s divisive comments came right before the keynote speaker for the $1 million gala, former Vice President Joe Biden, talked about the need for unity and decency.
“We have to make it clear what we stand for. We have to refocus our attention on how to unite America and the values for which we stand,” said Biden. He also called out Bittel, an old friend and donor, and said he was “crazy. Being chairman of a party, particularly in such a large state, is maybe the most thankless important job in the world.”
By that point, Democratic lawmakers were anything but thankful.
Shortly before, Bittel gave the order to speed up the fundraising program at the event so Biden could give his speech and then get home to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary. But Democratic House and Senate members were expecting to be recognized onstage. When informed by Braynon that lawmakers wouldn’t like the slight, Bittel dismissed the concerns.
Braynon’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa, was angry at the disrespect but Bittel responded with a quip about how much money was being raised. Another state senator, Lauren Book, said she approached Bittel about the same time, leading him to again boast about the success of the fundraiser.
But Bittel then went the extra step and said “the black caucus members were acting like three-year-olds and childish,” Braynon told POLITICO, adding that Bittel singled him out for being “like a child.”
Braynon was so angry that Democratic staffers almost forced him out of the room, which he left upon their advice.
“The leader would have killed the chair,” said a Democrat who witnessed the incident said. “Why did he have to blame the black caucus? It was Cruz who was the first one really upset about it. It had nothing to do with race … Bittel isn’t a racist. But he’s a rich white man who doesn’t know that the things that come out of his mouth can be really offensive.”
As word of the incident spread in the Diplomat hotel in Hollywood, members of the caucus demanded to speak with Bittel. Sen. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach confronted Bittel about 1 a.m. Sunday. As they began to argue – the raised voices could be heard in an adjoining room – Bittel slipped again.
“Why are you playing the race card?” he asked, according to Democrats to whom Powell relayed the conversation.
Asked by POLITICO about Bittel’s comments, Powell wouldn’t confirm or deny it, nor would a spokesman for Bittel.
McGhee, who showed up with Braynon and other caucus members after Powell found Bittel, almost chuckled in disbelief when he was asked about the encounter and the “race card” comments. McGhee said he doesn’t think Bittel is a racist but needed to understand how out of line he was.
“At the end of the day, the statement was made. We laid down the law to him about how we felt. We litigated this,” McGhee said. “Now the question at this point is what does Bittel do to unify this party?”
For Bittel, it starts with him saying “I’m sorry” repeatedly.
“I have much to learn and I am committed to being better and learning from this mistake. I sincerely apologize,” Bittel said in a written statement provided to POLITICO late Monday. “I am working with Democratic leaders to mend fences, move forward and make our party stronger.”
A big test for the party comes this summer during the special election for Florida’s 40th Senate District in Miami. It was vacated earlier this year after Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles resigned for using a slang variant of the n-word in a heated exchange with black lawmakers.
One Democrat to whom Bittel spoke said he “is ready to quit if he’s asked. He is sorry. And he wants to make amends.” A fundraiser who has worked with Bittel in the past said the chairman is now learning how tough the job is.
“He’s not used to this. He’s used to being a big donor who gets ass-kissed by politicians and party leaders, or he’s the developer who gets his way,” said one longtime party insider. “The whole time he thought the party was just run by idiots and all it would take is his leadership. Now look at where we are.”
Sen. Book, a white lawmaker to whom Bittel first made the “childish” comments about the black caucus, said that she hopes “this is an opportunity for everybody to continue to be sensitive to a topic we need to pay attention to. This initially had nothing to do with black lawmakers or Jewish lawmakers or Latino lawmakers. This had to do with lawmakers disrespected in our view.”
Bittel’s style also rankled staffers at the Democratic National Committee, according to hacked emails released by the group Wikileaks last year. In one exchange, two DNC staffers joked about sidelining Bittel at a 2016 Miami fundraiser.
"Bittel said this morning he was coming so just plan on it, but he doesn’t sit next to POTUS!" DNC national finance director Jordan Kaplan wrote in an email to a deputy, Alexandra Shapiro, at the time.
“Yes — Bittel will be sitting in the s——-t corner I can find,” Shapiro responded.
After President Trump’s surprise win in Florida, Democrats were despondent. They hadn’t lost an open presidential seat in 16 years in Florida. Democrats who backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in his primary bid against Hillary Clinton partly blamed party elites for the loss. The division carried over into the Florida Democratic Party chair race where Bittel, a Clinton donor and friend of former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, fended off challengers backed by Sanders supporters.
Soon after Bittel assumed office, Democratic operatives buzzed with speculation that he wanted to sideline Democrats loyal to the party’s executive director, Scott Arceneaux, who’s well-respected in Tallahassee and Washington and was leaving his post. Arceneaux wouldn’t comment. Many were further surprised when Bittel decided to pass over the consultant who helped him win his chair race, Reggie Cardozo, who wouldn’t comment.
Bittel, instead, picked an outsider from Idaho with little knowledge of Florida, Sally Boynton Brown, to be the party’s executive director. Brown last month apologized for embarrassing remarks at a progressive caucus meeting in which she said poor voters are “emotional beings” who don’t care enough about “issues.” Earlier in the year, Brown ran for DNC chair and caused a stir during a forum when she spoke about race relations and those in her party who don’t get it.
“My job is to shut other white people down when they want to say, ‘oh, no, I’m not prejudiced. I’m a Democrat. I’m accepting,’” Brown said. “We have to teach them how to communicate, how to be sensitive and how to shut their mouths if they are white.”