By Jim Bleyer
Former Democratic state party chairman Stephen Bittel made disparaging remarks about black legislators at a major party fundraiser last June 17. There were no repercussions.
He apologized for his racially derogatory tirade and then it was business as usual for the Florida Democratic Party.
Five months later Bittel resigned in the face of sexual harrassment allegations by six women. So insulting the Black Legislative Caucus was not sufficient to replace him; “inappropriate behavior” sparked his resignation. Apparently the Florida Democratic Party does not believe spewing racial slurs constitutes inappropriate behavior.
On Jan. 22, John Parker, a national Democratic committeeman from Duval County, referred to African-Americans as “colored people” at a party meeting. Casting racial aspersions was pro forma for Parker, according to people who knew him.
Terrie Rizzo, the state party chairman who succeeded Bittel, was informed of the incident—at the latest—in early February. Calls by Afro-Americans for Parker to resign were ignored—by Parker, by Rizzo, and by Lisa King, Parker’s wife and chairwoman of the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee.
Parker resigned Wednesday after a Florida Politico article about the incident and the state party’s inaction went viral. Instead of acting quickly and declaring him melba months ago, the Democratic party did nothing about Parker—-until the racist remarks became public. Parker had no option but to quit.
Lies about the repugnant episode rolled out fast and furiously. Parker says he meant to say “people of color” but the context and his history suggest otherwise. King stated that in 23 years of marriage “I have never before heard him refer to African-Americans as anything other than black or African-American.”
A stunning statement in light of Parker’s reputation among Duval Democrats.
Then there’s Rizzo. She didn’t reply to a letter from Duval Democrats complaining about Parker’s racism. She wasn’t quoted in the Politico story. Tampa Bay Beat reached out to Rizzo in the days leading up to the Politico revelation.
No response. Harpo Marx without the horn.
Gwen Graham, a year ago considered the favorite to capture the Democratic nomination for governor but now polling a puny 9 percent in third place, touted Parker on her list of supporters.
Late to the party on the most substantive political issues, Graham kept mum until after the incident surfaced nationwide Wednesday. She then joined the suddenly swelling chorus calling for Parker to quit.
It’s inconceivable Graham had no knowledge of Parker’s remarks prior to the national brouhaha. Two weeks ago, Graham tried to buoy her failing campaign by declaring she is the only Democratic candidate that can win the governorship.
Chutzpah to the max.
If anyone asked me a month ago about the four Democrats and three Republicans in the race, I would have said Gwen Graham was the only candidate that had zero chance of winning. Parker didn’t put the final nail in her coffin; he threw dirt on it.
African-Americans comprise around 30 percent of Democrat registrants. Progressives all told number at least 50 percent but have always been marginalized by the state power brokers.
This year progressives have promised to flex their muscles. They are instrumental in the NextGen America effort to register Millennials and the Reform Generation. Many have promised not to “fall into line” and support candidates who do not subscribe to traditional Democratic ideals and values.
Their tolerance for Rizzo has stretched beyond the breaking point. They won’t support Graham who obsequiously caved to oil, banking, and coal interests during her brief tenure in Congress.
Propaganda from her father’s buddy Howard Dean that Graham is “most progressive” is insulting to young people who are well versed on her voting record. They will never place an “X” by her name.
Tampa Bay Beat reported on Mar. 20 about the state Democratic party’s historic failure to embrace statewide Afro-American candidates. This year there are two excellent ones: Andrew Gillum for governor and Sean Shaw for attorney general.
While most states around the country are expecting to ride that heretofore elusive “blue wave,” the Florida Democratic party is succumbing to self-inflicted headwinds.
The divisive Rizzo should resign—progressive Stacey Patel would be an excellent replacement—and the equivocating and philosophically-bereft Graham should withdraw her candidacy. Those moves would catapult the party back into the thick of the November battle.
It would mean the difference between winning three statewide races and getting bageled.
Writer’s note: My mother, Florine Bleyer, who passed in 2003, was acquainted with one of the personages mentioned in this blog piece.