Discourses With: A Florida Democrat on Why Florida Democrats Keep Losing
'There really wasn’t a message that offered voters anything to be attracted to.'
Last Tuesday was a pretty horrible night all around for Florida Democrats.
The party lost two Miami-area congressional seats that they flipped in 2018. Though President Donald Trump lost re-election, he more than doubled his margin of victory from 2016 in Florida, thanks in large part to a 20-plus point swing towards Trump in Miami-Dade County from 2016. And maybe most importantly, the Florida GOP has increased its majority in the state House by at least five seats and possibly more to come—just in time for redistricting in 2021. It was another massive disappointment for one of the country's worst-run state parties.
Yet Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani, who was first elected in 2018 to a seat then held by a Republican, easily held on in her Orlando-based district with a nearly 20-point win. Eskamani did so while running as an outspoken liberal who has criticized the party's reliance on corporate donors and the way it's shied away from labor issues. Despite the Democratic wipeout on Tuesday, Amendment 2, a measure to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, passed with over 60 percent of the vote, in spite of tepid support from the state party and full-throated opposition from the Florida GOP.
Last week after her victory, Eskamani—who has said she's considering a run for governor in 2022—tore into the state party leadership, calling for them to resign. “It was a bloodbath for Democrats," Eskamani told Discourse Blog in a Friday phone interview. "In Florida, there really wasn’t a message that offered voters anything to be attracted to."
The following interview has been condensed for length.
So, what happened in Florida on Tuesday?
It was a bloodbath for Democrats. As soon as I finished our victory speech, I learned we were negative five seats in the legislature and lost two congressional seats in Miami-Dade, and of course the whole state went to Trump.
There really wasn’t a message that offered voters anything to be attracted to. There was very much an anti-Trump campaign coming from the party and the Biden campaign. Meanwhile the Republican operatives just focused on three main issues, and they did a proactive campaign localized for the Republicans. The three were socialism, defund the police, and [Payroll Protection Program] money, because the [state] Democratic Party made the foolish decision of applying for a PPP loan.
There was a complete lack of an organized field operation over an extended period of time. One of the [Democratic] wins in Miami-Dade was the county mayor race, and Daniella Cava won her seat [in that race] in large part because she had field [organizing], she was one of the only campaigns that had an on the ground operation. My campaign had field as well. I did not see the pandemic as a reason to stop, but a reason to reinvent field operations. We stopped doorknocking and turned our volunteer infrastructure toward constituent services. 'How can we help you during this pandemic?' It really gave me an in-depth perspective on constituent services.
The minimum wage measure passed by 22 points on Tuesday. When you were trying to get Democrats like [Commissioner of Agriculture and Florida's only statewide Democratic official] Nikki Fried to support it, what reasoning did you get from party leaders about why they wouldn’t [aggressively] support it?
Well, talking to advocates that support the measure from the union spaces and what not, it definitely seemed like it was corporate influence was holding Nikki Fried back. She used to be a lobbyist, that's her background. That's what's so ironic about it, she's been branded as the face of the Democratic Party, but now everyone's trying to protect her watered-down stance on Amendment 2. So basically not holding her accountable. You're only the top Democrat when it's easy and you don't want to be responsible when things get hard. OK, got it.
This is what the party has told me: they included it in their digital voter guide online, which was texted out apparently to millions of people. So they had a recommendation of yes on 2. But that's pretty much all they did. It wasn't an intentional outreach effort. Joe Biden supports [a $15 minimum wage]. There was no effort to include that message or use the lack of support of Amendment 2 by Republicans as a negative. You just didn't see a lot of effort to talk about it.
So what are the repercussions for Florida because of what happened on Tuesday, especially in the state legislature?
Well, it’s going to be a hell of a lot harder when it comes to fighting for the issues that matter. Florida has yet to pass any COVID-19 relief bill. We don’t convene until January so it’s going to be almost a year, so that means folks on unemployment are receiving [pandemic unemployment assistance] and that’s only $125 a week. Evictions are being noticed. All these issues we need to address become much harder because corporate influence is going to override a lot of these working people issues. We’re going to be redrawing maps and the majority party is going to redraw maps once more. It sets a difficult stage [for] meeting basic human needs.
A $15 minimum wage amendment is not left, you know what I mean? It's not progressive, I feel like it's common sense. It’s our Democratic values to care about working people, and to say, "Maybe a mom can't survive on $8.56 [Florida's current minimum wage] an hour." We're talking about people like my mom who passed away from cancer when I was 13 years old, and she worked at Kmart. That was her career, it was retail. She was on her feet for hours every day and she deserved to make more money for the work she did.
So it's so frustrating because some folks are kind of quick to blame progressive values for these losses and it's like, Amendment 2 passed overwhelmingly and that was an issue we could have branded as a Democratic issue for our downballot folks. Especially since Biden endorsed it, you could take that clip and just put it everywhere.
There's been a lot of talk about what happened in Miami-Dade and the socialism attacks [resonating with Cuban-Americans]. Miami-Dade supported the minimum wage amendment by 40 points. What do you think exactly happened there?
I think Amendment 2 earned support from every political identiy, which reflects the fact that working people and working people issues can transcend party lines. And it comes down to how you communicate that to your audience and how do you ensure that your candidates are also aligned with it, versus distancing yourself to it.
The corporate influence is so damaging to us.
So do you think the socialism attacks made an impact?
Oh, absolutely, and the lack of a response [from the state party] didn't help. When you're called a socialist there's so many potential avenues for you to fight back. On the socialism front, I think the first attack is to throw it back on Republicans who engage in corporate welfare and benefit from a socialized healthcare program at the end of the day, too.
You ran in a district in 2018 that was previously represented by a Republican. Stepping outside of Florida for a bit, what do you think about these arguments that progressives are costing swing-seat members of Congress and other state legislatures their seats?
I don’t buy into the notion that progressives are the problem. The whole notion of defund comes from communities of color, it’s not like a bunch of white liberals teaming up to come up with that. So you have to respect the perspectives of movement people and it’s not their job to market things. We have to understand what our constituents want and then talk about it, right?
For example, I didn’t hear much dialogue focused on a local level about ending mass incarceration and affordable housing or demilitarizing the police...these are all issues that are tied right back to the conversation of investing in our communities. When someone throws that attack at you, you need the resources to respond—and the reality is this election cycle there was enough money to respond, a lot of money came into Florida—you can respond back and say, "I've never said defund the police. What I do want to see is an end to mass incarceration, I don't want us to criminalize poverty, and the reality is that if we invest in affordable housing and mental health, the work of police is easier and our communities are stronger and healthier and safer for all."
[...] And the conventional wisdom is to ignore the attacks, but I learned it the hard way my first campaign, you gotta respond back and you can't let your opposition define who you are. And when you don’t have a proactive message or response a strong field operation to meet people where they’re at, you need to consider the response and quickly. And the reality too is that we’re dealing with a Republican Party that lies cheats and steals with no consequences whatsoever. So we're always at a disadvantage, but you can expect those type of attacks.
What do you think are the fundamental problems with the Florida Democratic Party? Can you fix those problems by replacing leadership, or what would you do to change the trajectory of things?
Well, we are definitely asking for new leadership. It's time that the chair and executive director step down and new leaders step in. We've lost two major elections under their leadership. A lot of the party positions are preplanned, these aren’t democratic processes, we need debate to happen over the options and things not to be predestined. We’re also very siloed in the Democratic caucus. [Florida] House Victory and Senate Victory [legislative Democrats' campaign arms] operate independently as opposed to the Democratic Party as a whole, so there needs to be cohesion.
And then finally, the corporate influence is so damaging to us. There are so many issues, whether it's corporate tax breaks or minimum wage or wage theft or loopholes that corporations benefit from, development that has effects on the environment, utility companies, Big Sugar—there’s so many layers here that the Democratic Party doesn’t champion like climate change. We talk about climate change and yet so many of our candidates take money from fossil fuel companies that don't allow for any legitimate policy movement on climate change. So we're very much stymied by the influence of corporations on multiple issues, and that's a problem.
And also it ties to the consulting culture. We use a lot of same consultants all the time statewide and these are the same consultants who lose races...honestly, there's so many webs there that I don’t even know. But we need to stop leaning on the same consultants who keep losing races all the time.
Do you think this is something you want to take on in the leadership of the party? What are your plans for the future?
Well, right now our focus is just on cleaning ship. We want folks currently there to understand they need to step back from the leadership of the party, and I’m already getting folks thinking about running or want help recruiting someone. I’m not at that point to make a decision on who should be the chair, but I do want it to be a transparent and democratic process, and I want to engage everyday people so we're very committed to facilitating conversations with every day people versus conversations continually taking place behind closed doors.