Tampa Democrat loses state chairman campaign to Allison Tant

By WILLIAM MARCH | The Tampa Tribune
Published: January 26, 2013


Allison Tant of Tallahassee defeated Alan Clendenin of Tampa on Saturday in the race for chairman of the state Democratic Party.

The vote capped a hard-fought, often bitter campaign with accusations from each side of false rumor-mongering.

Clendenin, despite his long history as a party activist, cast the race as an attempt to revamp the unsuccessful party establishment of the past, and he promised to “rebuild, rebrand and recruit” a new party.

He said Tant, a former lobbyist married to a prominent Tallahassee lawyer, represented “Tallahassee insiders,” and promised to return power to the party’s grass roots.

Tant, with support of most of the party’s most prominent elected officials, including Sen. Bill Nelson; Democratic National Committee chairwoman and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz; and all Florida Democratic Congress members except Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, emphasized her history of activism for liberal and Democratic causes and ability as a fundraiser.

She, like Clendenin, also promised change in the party and said she has been politically active outside the party because the party organization was dysfunctional.

The outcome, in which representatives of each county cast weighted votes depending on the number of registered Democrats and voting history of their counties, was 587 votes for Tant to 448 for Clendenin, with 54 votes ruled invalid by outgoing Chairman Rod Smith.

“We are going to work together, we are going to be unified and we are going to beat Rick Scott,” Tant said immediately after the vote was announced.

“We are going to turn this party into a powerhouse for winning elections with the talent, energy and vitality of the people in this room.”

In an attempt to promote party unity, Tant backers elected Clendenin party vice chairman by acclamation.

The two made a show of unity, embracing on the stage in the party meeting in Lake Mary.

“Make no mistake, GOP, this team’s coming to get you,” Clendenin said.

* * * * *

The race was the first time in years there was serious competition for leadership of the state party, a reflection of what Democrats feel is the sudden improvement of their dismal political standing in Florida.

“I got the job because nobody else would take it” in 2009, outgoing Chairman Rod Smith told the crowd Saturday. The 2010 election plunged the party to even lower depths.

Democrats are exhilarated by the Nov. 6 outcome, in which, Smith noted, Barack Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin Roosevelt to win Florida twice in a row; Nelson easily was re-elected; and the party had its first significant gains in congressional and state legislative seats after more than a decade of almost continuous losses.

“The question now is whether we can take that same coalition … and get them to show up in off-year elections, get that same energy,” which was generated largely by Obama’s campaign, Smith said.

But for all the acrimony generated by the race for chairman, it’s an open question how much the outcome matters to the future of Florida politics, particularly the biggest prize on the immediate horizon, the 2014 governor’s race.

For years, the state Democratic Party has been at best a minor force in picking Democratic nominees or influencing the outcome of statewide elections.

Many of the 200 or so party activists gathered for the party election in a hotel ballroom in Lake Mary say the overriding, unifying force — the desire to unseat Gov. Rick Scott — matters far more than the chairman’s race.

“It makes relatively little difference,” said Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the state’s largest county party organization, in Broward. “Whatever tumult may occur will be washed away by the great uniter, Rick Scott.”

Karen Hodgen, a delegate from Pinellas County, said the likely difference a chairman will make in the 2014 race is “Nothing,” but then added, “Well, maybe they have some secret plan.”

But Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, attending as an observer, said the chairman can make a difference.

“They influence fundraising, they influence how the money is spent,” and how much a local party organization can offer local candidates, she said. “It’s all about the money.”

Hodgen backed Clendenin, like many other party activists, partly because of his history as one of them, an activist in the local, state and national party organizations.

“We love that,” she said. “He’s paid his dues.”

* * * * *

Tant, a prominent fundraiser for Obama, said her history of working for Democrats dates back to an internship in Gov. Bob Graham’s office in 1982. But some party activists questioned her lack of recent involvement in the party.

“I worked outside the party apparatus because of its problems” raising money for candidates and organizing for causes including disabled children, she told an occasionally hostile gathering of the party’s black caucus, most of them Clendenin backers, the night before the election. She called the party organization in her home county, Leon, “dysfunctional.”

Clendenin said the divisiveness of the race will pass quickly.

“We’re absolutely unified behind a common purpose,” he said.

Despite his loss, he said, he believes his campaign demonstrated to party leaders that, “A top-driven approach is something of the past. I think everybody in this party has heard that message,” including Tant. “I think this party is going to be forever changed.”

Tant said afterward: “I want to take on a very aggressive agenda, mobilizing these folks, and make sure they feel a partnership with the party.”

She said she wants to “move with urgency on fundraising. I think time’s ticking, and I’m anxious to get started.”

She agreed with Clendenin that the party must reject a “top-driven” approach, and said, “We’ve seen how the Obama campaign empowered and energized people at every level to participate in campaigns, unlike any other time” in history.


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