How to Fix the Pathetic Florida Democratic Party

To reverse their dismal midterm election performance, Florida Democrats need to embrace working people, the environment and Unite Here.

Hamilton Nolan

Try this message: "We don't want you to be in poverty or underwater." GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images

In all of the exultation over the unexpectedly strong performance of Democrats across the country in the midterms, there was one glaring bastion of suck: Florida. Them again. In the Sunshine State, the Democratic candidate for governor — Charlie Crist, a former Republican — got obliterated by proud fascist Ron DeSantis by a 60-40 margin. The Democratic candidate for Senate — Val Demings, a former police chief — was beaten almost as badly by simpering-jar-of-hair-gel Marco Rubio. Florida should be a swing state, but it’s not. The reason is that its Democratic Party is weak, incompetent, or both. But there is a way to change that.

There is no law of nature that makes Florida a red state. Barack Obama won the state in both 2008 and 2012. In 2018, a fledgling Ron DeSantis, newly emerging onto the national stage by trailing close behind Donald Trump like a child on a leash, only narrowly defeated Andrew Gillum, an actual progressive, by less than one half of one percent. The idea that Florida is some sort of impregnable Republican fortress has only taken root recently, as Trump made his tacky Palm Beach palace the headquarters of a global armada of bloodthirsty boat owners, and the Florida Democratic Party responded by… cowering in the corner, and trying to run to the middle with a laughable lack of success. 

I was born and raised in Florida. Charlie Crist has been a major political figure there for decades, and I can’t tell you a single thing that he stands for except looking like a man who would be cast as a politician on a network television show.” I can tell you, however, that any belief that the angry, sunburned car dealership owners who make up the Trump and DeSantis base represent the majority of Floridians is an awful misreading of the state. I can also tell you (and the Florida Democratic Party) that those people, who want to vote Republican, will never decide to vote for a Democrat who ran to the middle if there is also a Republican on the ballot. Instead of giving voters a weaker version of something bad, Florida Democrats should try giving them something good. 

Georgia has two Democratic senators. Do you think Georgia is naturally more liberal than Florida? It ain’t. The party needs to get its act together. 

Florida is a tourist economy that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean like a perpetual piñata for hurricanes. Twenty one million people live there, and a ton of them work in the thankless, underpaid jobs that make any tourist economy run. From Jacksonville to Daytona to Orlando to Miami to Panama Beach, millions of Floridians scrape by working at the hotels and stores and restaurants and tourist attractions that keep the state afloat. Those same people also directly suffer under Republican state governments that don’t even care enough to build a functional unemployment or healthcare system, as was amply demonstrated during the pandemic. 

Most Floridians live by the coast. Much of that coast is going to be underwater during this century. That is not some wacky, far-off fantasy. It is happening now. My hometown of St. Augustine was flooded twice by hurricanes in a two-month period this year. Homes on the beach are falling into the ocean in Daytona. Coastal cities flood on sunny days. It’s a problem. 

Labor and the environment: that is the coalition that the Florida Democratic Party should represent. It is a winning coalition. Democrats should be the party that will raise wages and protect worker rights and push for universal healthcare and fight climate change. For every DeSantis-loving boat owner, there are 50 people who hate them, because they are the obnoxious boss. They are the people who build McMansions on the beach dunes and run over the neighborhood cats in their gargantuan, pristine pickup trucks.

The Democratic Party should not scrape and mewl and try to cater to those people softly — it should tell them to fuck off, loudly. To watch the Democrats run a former Republican and a former police chief in a purple state two years after the largest racial justice protests in American history is pathetic. No wonder potential Democratic voters in the state aren’t energized. For what? Give them a genuine vision. To represent working people in Florida does not mean confining yourself to some red-baited electoral socialist prison. It means representing the people working at the gas station and the grocery store and the cafe. They need help, and Republicans aren’t helping them! To represent the environment in Florida does not mean catering to some tiny sliver of college educated Greenpeace members. You know who has a direct interest in environmental preservation? People who go fishing. That’s a lot of people. Some of them even have boats.

I do not want to just harangue the state party with a vague prescription for change. I can tell them who to call: Unite Here. The hospitality workers union has thousands of members in Florida, particularly in Orlando and in South Florida. I spent time in Miami earlier this year reporting on the union’s efforts there, where they are carrying out their well-honed formula of organizing workers in hotels and airports and stadiums, building those workers into a militant and well-disciplined force, and using that force to sway local elections, creating a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle that can bend an entire region’s politics to become more worker-friendly, which then feeds more union organizing, which feeds more political power for workers, and so on. It works. Unite Here knows how to do it. The union’s massive door-knocking campaign was a major difference in the close midterm victories for Senate Democrats in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona. The Democratic Party of Florida should be knocking on the union’s door with a home-baked pie right now, asking them how to win.

Earlier this week I spoke to Gwen Mills, the secretary-treasure and former national political director of Unite Here. She points to the union’s successful efforts to elect pro-labor Democrat Daniella Levine Cava as mayor of Miami in 2020 as proof that opportunities abound in Florida. In South Florida, a perpetual problem for Democrats — that has worsened in recent elections — has been conservative Latino voters. But Mills emphasizes that the work of investing in labor organizing before pure political organizing works there too. We’re trying to drive organizing campaigns with an economic message, so we can build a level of organization around economics. Because if we just try to build in South Florida around Republican / Democrat lines, we’re not gonna get there,” she says. It’s a multi-year thing at the county level around economics.”

Here you have an organization that knows how to organize workers to improve both their own lives, and the awful politics that keep them down. Only 5.2% of Florida workers were union members in 2021. That has to change. The state is run by a party that hates unions, wants wages low, and is determined to do nothing to stop the scientific process that will see the state swallowed by the sea. That has to change. The Democratic Party needs to be bold. Call Unite Here. Yell at the damn selfish boaters. And try running an actual leftist next time. There is nowhere to go but up.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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