Palm Beach County Democratic chair vies for state party’s top job

The sudden departure of a Democratic chairman cleared the way for Terrie Rizzo to take the reins of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party in 2012.

Now the abrupt resignation of Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel amid accusations of his inappropriate behavior toward women has made Rizzo a contender for the top Democratic post in America’s largest battleground state.

Florida Democrats will choose Bittel’s replacement at a Dec. 9 meeting in Orlando. Rizzo, a 70-year-old fitness instructor who lives west of Boynton Beach, is one of four party activists — all women — who have announced they are pursuing the job.

Rizzo was vice chairwoman of the county Democratic Party when former Chairman Mark Alan Siegel was pressed to resign after saying in an interview at the 2012 Democratic National Convention that pro-Israel Christians want to see Jews “slaughtered.” Rizzo took over for Siegel and later won elections for county chair in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

In addition to Rizzo, Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez, Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel and Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo have declared interest in becoming state Democratic chairwoman.

The four Democrats are scheduled to appear together Thursday night in Miami at a forum sponsored by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. The event will be livestreamed beginning at about 6:30 p.m. Thursday on the Miami-Dade party’s Facebook page.

State party elections are notoriously Byzantine affairs, so candidates could emerge or drop out between now and the election. For example, Russo, of Miami, is seeking a change in party bylaws so she can be eligible.

The leadership contest comes after an embarrassing few weeks for Florida Democrats.

Bittel announced his resignation Nov. 17 after Politico Florida reported that six former party staffers or consultants said he often made demeaning or inappropriate remarks to women, leered at them and kept a breast-shaped squeeze ball in his desk.

Bittel’s departure came three weeks after a top Democrat in the Florida Senate, Jeff Clemens of Atlantis, resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

“All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better,” Clemens said.

Noting the current climate, Gonzalez says one of her assets as a candidate for Florida Democratic Party chairwoman is her experience as an attorney dealing with employment law.

“We are in a crisis right now with regard to sexual harassment exposure…Just because somebody resigns doesn’t mean your legal liability for exposure, that that window closes,” said Gonzalez, a former state party treasurer. She is the only Hispanic in the race.

Patel alluded to the Bittel exit in her announcement.

“Sexual harassment in our own party, for example, diminishes and undermines our efforts to stand up for equal pay, equal rights, and equal access to health care for women…We must create space to speak truth to power,” said Patel.

Bittel, a Miami real estate investor and major fundraiser for Barack Obama and other Democrats, became chairman in January with the backing of Sen. Bill Nelson and other party leaders as Florida Democrats sought to regroup from Republican Donald Trump’s November 2016 win in a state Obama had carried twice.

“It’s sad. I have a very heavy heart” about the party’s turmoil, said former Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant, who opted not to seek re-election this year. “While I’m sad about the apparatus of the party, I still am optimistic about the chances of Democrats in elections in 2018.”

Democrats next year will try to win a Florida governor’s race for the first time since 1994. They will also defend Nelson’s Senate seat against an expected Republican challenge from term-limited Gov. Rick Scott.

Democrats in Florida and nationwide hope to see gains in 2018 based on the statistical trend of the last 84 years that the party in control of the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections. Despite the Clemens and Bittel resignations, Florida Democrats have been buoyed by a September special Senate election victory in Miami and a win in an officially nonpartisan St. Petersburg mayor’s race that took on partisan overtones.

“Florida Democrats must continue to move forward, build on the Democratic enthusiasm we’ve generated in cities and counties across the state, and now more than ever, we need an experienced and steady hand at the ​whee​l,” Rizzo said in announcing her candidacy for chairwoman.

If she becomes state chairwoman, Rizzo said she will emphasize precinct organization and grass-roots support as part of a “full 67-county strategy.”

Rizzo teaches weight training, pilates and other fitness classes for corporate clients. She and her husband, an information technology executive, moved to Palm Beach County in 2001. Rizzo said she first became involved in politics as a volunteer for Democrat John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. She got involved in the county Democratic Party as a precinct organizer, then vice chairwoman before Siegel’s resignation.

Rizzo has enlisted Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon, long active in Democratic politics and the Florida floor manager for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, to help her corral votes for chairwoman.

There are 1,204 possible votes for chair under the Florida Democratic Party’s system. Rizzo so far has received commitments from party activists who control more than 250 votes, Gannon said Wednesday.

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