Democrats elect money-raiser new state chairwoman

By George Bennett

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

LAKE MARY —Florida Democratic activists followed the will of the party’s top elected officials Saturday and chose Tallahassee fundraiser Allison Tant as party chairman, capping the most contentious leadership race the party has seen in decades.

Tant won on a 587-to-507 vote over Hillsborough County Committeeman Alan Clendenin. She succeeds Rod Smith, who opted not to seek another two-year term.

Tant assumes leadership of the Democratic Party in America’s largest swing state, where President Barack Obama has won the past two presidential elections but where Republicans have controlled the governorship and state legislature since the 1990s.

Tant, 51, has raised money for President Barack Obama, Sen. Bill Nelson and other Democrats. She was elected chairwoman of the Leon County Democratic Party in December, but does not have a long history with the grass-roots activists around the state who control most of the votes under the party’s weighted voting system.

Tant overcame her initial lack of grass-roots backing with some big-name endorsements, including those of Nelson, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and most of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation.

Tant’s supporters stressed her fund-raising prowess, saying she can help erase the party’s traditional financial disadvantage as Democrats try to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.

“One number should worry you – 70 million. That is how much Rick Scott spent in 2010. We need to be prepared and have the resources and grass-roots movement to match this,” said Miami-Dade Democratic Chairwoman Annette Taddeo in nominating Tant.

Clendenin, 53, is a retired air traffic controller and labor activist who framed his candidacy as a choice between grass-roots party workers and political elites.

“Does our party belong to a group of Tallahassee insiders, consultants and lobbyists — or does it belong to us?” Clendenin said in his speech to party activists.

Clendenin and Tant and their supporters clashed bitterly in recent weeks. But immediately after Tant’s victory, the rivals hugged and clasped hands. Clendenin was then elected party vice chairman by acclamation.

“Make no mistake, GOP. This team’s coming to get you,” Clendenin said as he and Tant stood together.

Tant also made an appeal to party unity after her victory.

“We are going to work together, we are going to be one party, we are going to be unified to go forward and do all that we must do together in the bonds of friendship, sisterhood, brotherhood, inclusivity and we are going to beat Rick Scott,” Tant said.

Palm Beach County supplied considerable drama in the chairman’s race. State Committeeman John Ramos joined other South Florida committeemen and committeewomen in pledging support for Clendenin this month. But a few days later, Ramos announced he was backing Tant. He wavered over the past two weeks, but ended up supporting Tant.

In a final twist, Ramos’ 41 votes for Tant were disallowed on Saturday because he signed his ballot in the wrong place, party officials said.

Broward County Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar, who was state chairman in the 1990s, said Friday he was worried about lingering fallout from what he called the most divisive chairman’s race he has seen. On Saturday, however, Ceasar said he was heartened by signs of unity after the chairman’s vote.

“The stakes are too high for us to be anything other than united when we leave here,” Ceasar said. “We need to realize — and I think we do — that we know Democrats as we gather here today are not the enemy. The enemy are the Republican Party, bad decisions and Rick Scott.”

Throughout this weekend’s gathering of Democratic leaders, celebration of 2012 successes was tempered by apprehension about the party’s traditional weakness in nonpresidential elections.

In addition to delivering the state’s 29 electoral votes to Obama, Democrats kept Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat, gained four U.S. House seats and picked up seats in the state legislature. Much of that success was due to the Obama campaign organization, which won’t be in place in 2014.

“The question now for the Democratic Party is not whether we can win national elections,” departing chairman Smith said. “The question is whether or not we can take that same coalition of a new-looking Florida and we can translate a message that works in Tallahassee in the off years. Can we get African-Americans, women, young people and the constituency particularly of the Hispanic communities……can we get them to show up in off-year elections? Can we get that same energy in off-year elections?”

http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/democrats-elect-money-raiser-new-state-chairwoman/nT7gn/

 

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