Local Democratic Party activists would like you to know: they’re a force again in Flagler County. Or at least they’re trying to be.
In some ways, they’re succeeding, especially when compared with their history over the past decade, when they’ve been little more than a marginal presence in county politics as Republicans of all stripes, despite bitter infighting and splintering, have surged—in elections won and a substantial gain in voter registrations.
The Flagler Democratic Party has a new elections headquarters at 2 Office Park Drive, staffed daily with volunteers and equipped with database-ready phone banks to help volunteers recruit, campaign and get out the vote, whether in local or less than local elections. It has a new Democratic Executive Committee chairman in Ralph Lightfoot, who’s orchestrating the re-energized efforts and who’s turned a deficit in the party’s accounts into a $6,000 surplus at the moment, making the opening of the new headquarters possible. The All Flagler Democratic Club, the social arm of the party, was just chartered, and now holds a weekly chat session at the Office Park Drive location every Monday at 1 p.m. There’s also the Democratic Women’s Club, chaired by Courtney Chapman.
The party recently benefited from the experience and energy of two particularly adept volunteers—Sue Hecht, who won several elections as she held a state legislative seat in Maryland for 12 years, and William Sullivan, a 31-year-old Palm Coast volunteer and party activist who’s operated as a field director in Flagler, laying foundations for the election year’s operations down to a get-out-the-vote operation as the primary nears. Sullivan and Hecht speak with the sort of enthusiasm that enthusiasm calibrated to make things happen.
With Lightfoot, they’ve been recruiting precinct captains (where Democrats have been regularly outplayed by local Republicans), though they only have 13 of the needed 23 captains in each of the 23 precincts. They have a list of local voters divided between “warm,” “hot” and “cold” with precinct captains responsible for calling each one of them and encouraging them to vote at least by mail as part of their get-out-the-vote operation. They’re also adding members to their Ambassador’s Club, the 50 to 60 contributors who make a $120-a-year commitment. Jill Augustensen-Scott, the office manager, is a former union organizer.
What it all adds up to is rebuilding a home for Flagler Democrats where they feel welcome and engaged, while giving Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters a reason to vote in larger numbers.
A Focus on Independents
“One of our biggest objectives locally here is GOTV for August,” Sullivan said, using the acronym for get-out-the-vote. “Because a lot of people do not necessarily realize that there is another election in August, because of having the confusion of having the presidential preference primary separated, a lot of people think the primaries already happened, and they think they don’t have to vote again until November.”
“Especially NPAs,” Lightfoot said, referring to independents. “They just turn off. When they hear primary, they just tune out.” Florida is a closed-primary state, meaning that in partisan races, only Republicans may vote in republican primaries and Democrats in Democratic primaries. Independents, who form almost a third of the electorate, are locked out.
Rebuilding a sense of place for Flagler Democrats who have been alienated from the party.
But there are several non-partisan races on the ballot even in August, including races for school board and the Palm Coast City Council, where all registered voters may cast a ballot regardless of party affiliation. And if the race for Supervisor of Elections stays as it is, with just three Republicans, then that primary in August will also be opened to all voters regardless of affiliation. “It’s not really a primary for those races. It can be won or lost if one of them gets 50 percent,” Sullivan said. “So we want to get the correct information out there that NPAs absolutely can participate in that election, and we want to encourage them to do so, and also that Democrats, sure they may have voted for Hillary or Bernie already, but you have all those other primaries where their voices can still be heard.”
Sullivan’s focus is on larger pictures: helping all Democrats, not specific races, and looking at the long term. “Any effort is not, at least from my view, a short-term effort,” he said. “A substantive effort is a long-term view. I’m certainly not going to make any promises for overnight turning Flagler blue. But what I can say is that there is a concerted effort to provide what I alluded to before—providing a home for Democrats. That may sound kind of cliché, or something like that, but I actually think it’s really important, because there are a lot of Democrats and liberal-leaning independents in Flagler County who may not have previously been aware of much activity of the Democratic Party here in Flagler County. So part of it is raising the profile of the party, and providing an open invitation for people who do want to be involved, to get involved, whether it’d be directly with the DEC or one of the DEC-affiliate chartered club, the women’s club or the all Flagler club, and we encourage people to join the local party. This is the grass roots. This is where the party structure, the rubber hits the road.”
Yet Another Loss
But there’s a catch: Sullivan seems to have been successful enough that the state Democratic Party just recruited him away from Flagler. “Everything that I’ve been working on, I’ve been working to train and impart my knowledge as a professional organizer to Ralph and to the vice-chair, Sue Hecht,” Sullivan said. As a foot soldier, he doesn’t know where he’ll be sent.
But he says that while the party will be working to organize the whole state, the responsibility to make a difference at the ballot box remains hyper-local. “It’s not just about a one-way street. It’s not about the cavalry coming in. For any effort to be successful locally, it requires local support. So what we have to do as the DEC here in Flagler is exactly what we have been doing in the last few months, which is kick-starting our fund-raising, organizing ourselves, establishing our presence with our office and what not. That will facilitate and amplify any resources that we do get from the state or from the national campaigns down the road.”
“We knew we weren’t going to keep him,” Hecht said. “He has helped us enormously, but we knew he wasn’t going to be with us. We have the basis of what we need to do, we have people that are going to be able to move forward. We hope to get Will back, it would be a lot easier if he was here, but we already got the phone banking done for the Hillary campaign before Will came on. We’ve got our strategy, and we have the basis of doing this today.”
Local Democrats still have a very difficult job ahead. Republicans had been dominating registration tallies until the Barack Obama surge of the late 2000s, when Democrats regained the advantage, briefly and not by much: they had a two-point advantage in March 2009. They rested on their laurels. And they quickly lost it as the tea party surge and the subsequent establishment of the even more radical Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies turned the numbers in the Republicans’ favor.
But more has been made of the Republican advantage than the numbers justify: while Democrats have lost 5 percentage points in registrations since their peak in 2009 (they’re down to just over 32 percent of the Flagler electorate), Republicans have not regained their strong numbers of the early 2000s. They have merely maintained themselves at a certain level: they had 37.6 percent of Flagler voters registered Republican eight years ago. They’re a little over 38 percent now. While that means they have capitalized on some of the newcomers to the county, the real gain has been among independents, not Republicans. Voters registering independent have surged from 21.3 percent eight years ago to 27 percent today. They’re still growing.
The Dark Times
Sullivan’s hoped-for strategy of making the local Democratic Party more effective at wooing those independents aside, Democrats have, at least until recently, conceded to Republicans as if Republicans were the only game in town. That’s been part of the Republican success: Democratic defeatism and apathy. It’s showed in the party’s candidates and a dismal record of electoral carnage for almost a decade.
The party has been unable to field more than the usual names for local races, and even then, it’s not managed to field more than a few candidates here and there, compared to the usual red tide of GOP candidates in every race.
Over the past eight years and with rare exceptions local Democrats have been incapable of producing new, viable candidates for any office. They have relied on their old standard-bearers—George Hanns, who’s served on the county commission for a quarter century but could never be described as a force in the party, Barbara Revels, by most measures the most demonstrably effective elected official in the county, but generally not because of identifiably Democratic principles, Colleen Conklin, the last surviving Democrat on the school board, and Jim Manfre, the sheriff who first won in 2000.
A dearth of Democrats, and embarrassment to overcome.
One exception in the past five years was Jason DeLorenzo, the last Democrat elected to the Palm Coast City Council, where his stance has been indistinguishable from that of Republicans. He’s now running for the county commission, the only non-incumbent Democrat running. Eight Republicans are running.
Milissa Holland, the former county commissioner and at one time the Democrats’ best hope, has defected to the Republican Party in preparation of her inheritance of the seat Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts must give up, being term-limited. She did not feel she could have a bright political future as a Democrat. She does not face serious opposition, though the three open council seats, bucking the trend thanks to the absence of incumbents, have produced a dozen candidates, including a batch of new, untested Democrats. The two school board elections have also produced a more even party split among the six contestants. (The city and school board elections are ostensibly non-partisan.)
All county-wide constitutional offices but one are held by Republicans: the Supervisor of Elections, the Clerk of Court, the Tax Collector and the Property Appraiser. The exception is the Sheriff’s Office. Three Republicans are running for supervisor. No Democrats. No one is contesting the seats held by Jay Gardner, the appraiser, and Suzanne Johnston, the tax collector. Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth is ceding the way to her deputy, Tom Bexley, who is expected to win in a cakewalk as Democrats are fielding another candidate from a previous century who has yet to win a race: Doug Courtney.
Democrats are fielding a pair of candidates for state House and Senate against GOP Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner, but Adam Morley, running against Renner, has yet to show more mettle than a pony-trailed Pollyanna while Curtis Ceballos, who is running against Hutson—and has only electoral losses to his credit—risks going where Courtney has gone before. Neither Democrat is able to raise money to compete with the Republicans.
Local Democrats have also been a source of embarrassment. The last two Democrats to hold county-wide office are Kimberle Weeks, the former supervisor of elections, and Manfre, the sheriff. Weeks resigned and faces a dozen felony charges. Manfre just last month agreed finally to settle two-year battle with the Florida Ethics Commission over ethics charges, and has yet to be publicly censured and reprimanded. His tenure was so weakened that he drew a Democratic opponent in retired deputy Larry Jones, who’s never run for office before. Six Republicans and an independent are also running for that seat.
The largest other ethics fines to be levied against local officials in the last two years went against Democrats. Conklin had to pay a $1,500 fine last December over a dog-ate-my-homework sort of mail flub involving a form she’d filed religiously for years. The fine was initially $25. Inattention exploded it. Revels in January 2015 had to pay a $2,500 fine over a more serious lapse involving her conflict of interest during the county’s purchase of the old Memorial Hospital in Bunnell, now the sheriff’s operations center.
As for the Party of Lincoln…
No wonder there was a pronounced, faintly smug celebration Friday at the opening of the Republican Party’s elections headquarters at 55 Plaza Drive, on the second floor of the strip that includes Outback restaurant in the heart of the city. Supporters posed with a cut-out of Donald Trump, hobnobbed with a few local candidates and spoke as if victory was theirs from the top of the ticket on down. (Just as pronounced, however, was the absence of establishment Republicans in a crowd dominated by the more radical wing of the party.)
Sullivan and Lightfoot have no illusions. They know where the party was. But they want to stress that that past is no longer prologue.
“No doubt, there is definitely a ton of work to do,” Sullivan said. “I’m very confident, although we’ve experienced some dark times, right? On the local and on the state level. I feel very confident that the party both at a national level, a state level, and here in Flagler County, at the local level, these DEC leaders recognize both what has come before, and what needs to happen now and where we need to go in the future. I believe they’ll be working very hard to accomplish that. I understand that Flagler County has underperformed in the past for Democrats, and that it’s frustrating for people who remain liberally here, and who are disappointed. I think those frustrations were warranted and totally legitimate. I would not second-guess any of those. What I would point out to is where we are now, and where we are clearly going, and the professionalism with which it’s being approached. This is not just a façade. There is substance, what’s going on here, and the people that are involved with it care about substantially moving the party forward in a substantive way that benefits local Democrats and also benefits our contributions to the state races and obviously our contribution to the national effort.”
Then there’s the broiling alternative that Sullivan wants to stress.
“We might be having a philosophical discussion about the direction of our party, whether to be a little bit more centrist or a little bit more leftward,” he says, “and that’s fine. That’s healthy. That’s what supposed to happen in a big-tent party. And we are a big-tent party, unlike, I would say, the other side, right? The other side has had also frankly a civil war for the soul of their party, and I’d say their soul has been crushed. It’s been lost. The party of Abraham Lincoln now is represented by Donald Trump. I think that’s sentence should be allowed to kind of hang in the air there. It says everything.”