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Jax Daily Record Monday, Jan. 16, 201712:00 PM EST

Democrats pick major fundraiser as new party leader

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by: Lloyd Dunkelberger

Florida Democrats on Saturday picked a prominent fundraiser from Miami-Dade County to lead their party for the next four years, turning aside four other challengers.

Despite more than a month of political drama leading up to the Democrats’ state executive committee meeting, Stephen Bittel easily won the election, collecting 55 percent of the votes on the first ballot.

Alan Clendenin of Hillsborough County finished a distant second, followed by former state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Miami-Dade County, Lisa King of Jacksonville and Leah Carius of Osceola County.

Bittel, a wealthy real estate developer from Coconut Grove, was the favorite of the party establishment, drawing support from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and other influential party leaders.

Bittel, 60, said the vigorous fight to succeed Allison Tant, who has led the party through the last two election cycles, was a positive sign for the party.

“Contentious elections are reflective that there are Democrats all over Florida that are passionate, committed to coming together, moving forward together and starting to win elections,” Bittel said. “Contentious is good. It means that we care.”

Talking to reporters after his election, Bittel said he has ambitious plans for a party that has won two out of the last three presidential races but has lost virtually every other statewide race in recent years.

“We are going to grow this party to a size and strength that has never been seen before,” he said.

He promised an “enormous” staff expansion, more training for local Democratic organizations and the recruitment of candidates at every level, including city, school board and sheriff’s races.

“We have had an under-resourced operation in Florida for a long time,” Bittel said. “We will build a different kind of party and we will change things.”

He also said he will emphasize voter registration in a state where Democrats hold a narrow lead over Republicans and numbers of voters with no party affiliation continue to swell.

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