Florida Dems: Jumping Their Primary

The Florida Democratic Party is in a defiant mood. Over the weekend it decided to press ahead with plans to hold its presidential primary on Jan. 29, in violation of Democratic National Committee rules that allow only Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina to hold contests before Feb. 5. As a result the DNC is expected to make good on its threat to strip Florida of its delegates at the party's nominating convention in August 2008. The state faces an additional punishment, too: the leading Democratic presidential contenders signed a pledge, promoted by the four early-voting states, not to campaign in Florida if the state stuck to the pushed-up date. Though Florida Democrats debated alternatives, such as holding a caucus or mail-in vote after Feb. 5, in the end they decided to hold firm. To find out why, NEWSWEEK's Arian Campo-Flores spoke with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Broward County. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did Florida Democrats arrive at the decision to stick with the January 29 primary date?
Debbie Wasserman Schultz:
The party leadership has been going through a pretty deliberative and communicative process over the last months, as well as, concurrently, the congressional delegation going through the same deliberations. We all came together in agreement that the only way to maximize Florida Democratic participation--3.4 million of them--in choosing who we believe should be the Democratic nominee was to make that selection on Jan. 29, and that any other option would disenfranchise our voters. Mail-in [voting] would require paying to vote [since voters would have to pay for postage], and was extremely expensive anyway. And a caucus would have been incredibly exclusive and internal, and the rank-and-file average voter would never have been able to participate. So there really was no viable option to maximize our Democratic voter participation. We also couldn't risk, given that we have a very important property-tax cut that's on the ballot that would devastate social services across the state and education funding as well, we couldn't risk not having enough Democratic voters show up at the polls and have that pass. There are also regional and municipal elections on the ballot.

How much internal dissent was there over the decision?
It really wasn't difficult. There were a few dissenters in the party leadership--quite honestly, the normal lead dissenter in the Democratic Party leadership in Florida [Jon Ausman, a DNC member from Tallahassee, who frequently disagrees with the party leadership]. But there was actually significant unity both in the elected and the party leadership. Three-quarters of executive committee members indicated their support and took two different votes. This is the most significant swing state in this election. It's incredibly important that we have our say and make sure that our votes are counted.

Was there one particular meeting or discussion that persuaded Florida Democrats to stand firm?
There was not one. There were several. The congressional delegation has been settled on this for quite some time, for most of the time this has been under discussion. The only other alternative we considered was one put forth by Sen. [Bill] Nelson, that we have a ratifying convention to ratify the results of the Jan. 29 primary. But there was almost no alternative that we proposed that was going to be acceptable [to the DNC]. At the end of the day, [Florida Democratic party chair] Karen Thurman got feedback from the other four [early primary] states, that even if we said yes and even if we came into compliance and declared Jan. 29 a beauty contest, they still won't allow the candidates to campaign in Florida. That's when we said we're not going to allow our voters to be held hostage. We need them to be more relevant in the process. I believe our delegates will be seated at the convention. But whether they are or not, on Jan. 30 the media will report the results, and that will give [the winners] momentum going into Feb. 5 [when some 20 states hold their contests]. That will make sure Jan. 29 is a significant factor in the overall results.

How much pressure did the DNC put on the state's Democrats to change the primary date?
They were quite insistent that the only option was to choose an alternative plan, and they, in our opinion, were totally unreasonable. They refused to really negotiate an acceptable alternative plan. A mail-in ballot done the proper way would cost $7 million, and they offered $800,000. We're not Iowa or New Hampshire or a state where you can drive across in a matter of an hour. You can't run, logistically, a caucus-style election in a state our size. We asked to sit down and have a reasonable discussion about how to maximize our voters' participation. They were absolutely uninterested in sitting down and figuring that out with us. So based on everything I've said, it became clear that we should just stick to the Jan. 29 date so we make sure Florida voters are counted.

Are you worried that Florida will lose its clout as a result of this dispute?
On the contrary. I think this will be the final straw that will break this ridiculous primary process and give impetus to create a regional primary process that respects diversity and the appropriate role that a variety of states should have. At the end of the day, there isn't anyone who can change the fact that we're the fourth-largest state, with 17 million people. It's kind of hard to impact our clout. There's no getting away from that. All the rules and foot-stamping in the world can't change the fact that Florida will be the most significant factor in who becomes president of the United States next November.

How damaging is it to Florida and to the Democratic presidential hopefuls that they've pledged not to campaign in the state?
I think we're going to see activity between now and Jan. 29. They're each going to have to decide to what degree their appearances comply with the pledge that they signed. That's kind of a discussion for each individual presidential candidate. I'm aware of scheduled appearances of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and I assume other candidates [will come too]. I certainly hope it will not be for just paid participation. There is a way for there to be grass-roots participation, even if it's for a couple dollars, so it can expose Democratic candidates to a large number of people in Florida. But at the end of the day, the four states should release the candidates from the pledge … It would be shortsighted if they insist on enforcing the pledge.

Can you explain the new "Make It Count" campaign that the Florida Democratic Party just announced?
They established a Web site, makeitcountflorida.com. It's going to be our push to make sure Democratic voters are aware that there is a primary that will count, that we intend to conduct a full-blown campaign, from schoolhouse up to presidential candidates, and make their vote count. We will take that message all the way to the convention floor in August 2008, with the full expectation that the full delegation will be seated.