After losing Florida for a second election in a row, and allowing president Donald Trump to triple his 2016 margin of victory, the Florida Democratic Party is in disarray and could be in line for a Hispanic savior.
Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a Cuban American lawyer and lifelong Democrat, has thrown his hat in the ring confirming to Univision that he will seek the state party chairmanship in January. Surprisingly, he would be the party’s third Hispanic chairman, following in the footstep of two other Cuban-Americans.
Diaz, 66, is widely credited with helping revive the city’s fortunes during his two term in office and enjoys nationwide name recognition after he served as the President of the United States Conference of Mayors. He would also enjoy a large cash advantage as he enjoys the backing of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, as well as local real estate developer and fellow Cuban American, Jorge Pérez.
“Democrats should celebrate. Mayor Diaz is a political rock star in South Florida and his contacts book is the envy of every Democratic party official,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democrat pollster and enthusiastic supporter of Diaz. “He is straight out of central casting as the person to lead the party into the next elections,” he added.
As a high-profile Cuban American with experience in local government, Diaz could be the perfect antidote to a disastrous election which saw Miami’s large Cuban exile voting block swing heavily to the right, adding an estimated 200,000 votes to Trump’s final winning margin of 370,000 in the state.
"My life has been about being a change agent and going into places that need fixing," Diaz told Univision. "I'm also a long term thinker," he added, noting that the Nov 3 defeat was a long time in the making. " This is something that has been developing over time and perhaps Nov 3 is the day that it caught up with us," he added.
The decision by Diaz was welcomed by some strategists who have long lamented the party's ineffectiveness. "I think Manny is a great choice, if he’s up for it. The challenge is - it’s not so much a repair job as it is a build from scratch job," said Steve Schale, a well-known Democratic Party strategist close to Joe Biden and who led Unite the Country, a pro-Biden fundraising committee, during the 2020 campaign.
"The party has long existed in name only, not withstanding a lot of good people’s effort to build it up - and it’s efficacy has been limited by access to donors. I think the job needs someone of Manny’s credentials," he added.
Like many Cuban Americans, Diaz came to the United States as a child – aged six - on what were known as the ‘Freedom flights’ from Cuba and credits his success to the opportunity he found in the United States. “At every turn of my life, especially in my youth, I benefited from a partnership with a government willing to invest in me,” Diaz said in a statement earlier this year announcing his decision to back Bloomberg.
The son of a political prisoner in Cuba who he says narrowly escaped the firing squad, Diaz grew up in poverty, working as a janitor's assistant to pay his way through high school and college.
In the 1970s he became politically active campaigning for the party's first Hispanic chair, Alfredo Duran, a fellow Cuban-American. He rose to prominence during the 2000 drama surrounding Elián González, a Cuban boy found clinging to a raft off the coast of Florida. The Clinton administration‘s repatriation of González infuriated Cuban Americans but Diaz was elected mayor the following year and spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
As mayor, Diaz successfully reformed a problematic police department and presided over downtown condo boom and the revitalization of depressed neighborhoods, such as the now fashionable Wynwood and Design Districts, and a new Performing Arts Center.
His ‘Miami 21’ vision for the city, produced in 2005, remains the blueprint for its approach to urban planning, combining economic development with people-friendly green spaces and bike lanes.
His term in office coincided with Bloomberg’s in New York. During that time, the mayors were both members of the national coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, they both tapped the same consultant to develop a climate action plan, and they collaborated on anti-poverty strategies. Now, Diaz serves on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“We worked on a number of issues together, where he was really, in many respects, an inspiration and a mentor,” Diaz told the Miami Herald.
This year, Diaz gave his backing to Bloomberg – and served as his national co-chair – in the Democratic primary, but switched his support to Joe Biden after Bloomberg dropped out of the race in March. Although Bloomberg’s campaign ended quickly, he pumped $10 million into the race on behalf of Democrats, working closely with Diaz on a series of Spanish-language ads.
“No one is better suited for Florida Democratic Party chair than Manny Diaz,” Bloomberg said in a written statement to Politico. “Manny ran the largest city in the state and intimately knows the districts and communities that Democrats lost this cycle. He is an inclusive leader who will expand the map and help us turn Florida blue again.”
The Democrat’s current Florida party chairwoman, Terrie Rizzo, has been sharply criticized in the aftermath of Election Day, but she has yet to say if she would seek a new term.
If elected as chairman his main priority will be to raise funding to build a stronger, better staffed infrastructure and boost its voter registration effort which was undermined by the pandemic this year. Critics of the state party complain it goes into hibernation after the November elections and fails to have a strong local presence.
“Mayor Diaz has a proved track record of accomplishment. In a world of talkers, he is the ultimate doer,” said Amandi. “His main goal is to create a party that is well organized and well financed and above all geared to one thing – winning elections,” he added.
A strong advocate of sustainable development and the need to address climate change, he is also likely to appear to the party’s environmental wing in Florida, where sea level rise and protecting the state’s vital eco-systems are major issues.
Democrats compare Diaz to the role played by Stacey Abrams in re-energizing the Democratic party in Georgia, where she also got $5 million in financial backing from Bloomberg. The former Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia is credited with helping deliver the state for Biden in November.
Abrams was criticized by some African-Americans for taking Bloomberg’s money due to his defense of ‘stop-and-frisk’ policies while Mayor of New York.
Diaz’s selection, however, could meet some resistance within the party from those who say it's time an African American was given the reins.
Leslie Wimes, a Democratic Party activist, said the party needs a Black woman to lead it. If Diaz is chosen, “I will never vote for another Florida democrat if this happens,” she tweeted. Democratic National Committee member Nikki Barnes, who is black, announced this week she is also seeking the post, saying she is running as a voice for those who are not “politically connected.”
Florida Democrats are hoping for a quick turnaround in 2022, when Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republicans, are up for re-election. That could be an uphill task. Besides being beaten in two consecutive presential elections, the Democrats lost two congressional seats on Nov 3. Republicans now hold all but one statewide office, including both senate seats. A Democrat has not won the state governorship since 1998.
The party was is such a bad state this year it sought aid from a covid-19 stimulus fund, the Paycheck Protection Program, for small businesses. The party eventually returned the roughly $800,000 it received.