Florida Democrats elect ex-Miami Mayor Diaz as state leader

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Democratic Party leaders elected former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz on Saturday as the state’s new party chair, hoping the Cuban American can turn the party’s fortune after losing two straight presidential races, six straight gubernatorial defeats and losses of both U.S. Senate seats.

Diaz, 66, defeated Hillsborough County party chair Ione Townsend and Cynthia Moore Chestnut, a former state representative and Gainesville mayor, getting 54% of the vote of party leaders in a meeting held on Zoom. He replaces Terrie Rizzo, who had been chair for three years and chose not to seek re-election. He is the father of University of Miami football coach Manny Diaz II.

Diaz is taking over a state party that lost ground in November’s election, causing some national political commentators to suggest Florida may no longer be a swing state but solidly Republican. While President-elect Joe Biden improved Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance in most states, President Donald Trump carried the state by 3.4 percentage points, up from 1.2 percentage points four years ago.

The party particularly needs to better its performance among Cuban Americans. AP VoteCast, a survey of the Florida electorate, found Trump won 58% of Cuban American voters statewide. Clinton carried Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populated and with a large Cuban community, by 30 percentage points. Biden only won the county by 7 points, which accounts for most of Trump’s increased victory margin in the state.

Republicans attacked Biden hard in Miami-Dade’s influential Spanish-language media, accusing him of being a “socialista” or even a “communista.” That message, which was ineffectively challenged, resonated among Cuban and Venezuelan voters, whose families fled those homelands to escape communist and socialist governments. Florida Democrats must win South Florida by large margins to offset the Republicans’ strong support in north Florida.

Diaz told Saturday’s meeting that Florida Democrats are “at a crossroads.” A lawyer, he served as Miami mayor from 2001 to 2009.

“While Democrats all over the nation made gains, we continue to lose ground, we continue to lose elections and, more importantly, when we lose, all Floridians suffer,” he said. “Especially our poor and working people, our Black and Hispanic, Asian and LGBTQ communities and our environment suffers. We cannot afford to fail them.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democratic statewide elected official, told the meeting that Florida Democrats need to learn from the the example set by their party in neighboring Georgia, where the once-solidly Republican state went to Biden in November as did both Senate seats in last week’s runoff election.

“It was a tremendous day and seeing what it means to actually have a ground game that gets out the voters,” said Fried, who is weighing a potential gubernatorial run against Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis next year. No Democrat has won that office since 1994. “It taught us some tremendous lessons.”