It took a decade of hard work, vigilance, and patience, but organizers in both historically red Arizona and Georgia were able to flip their states blue in both last November’s presidential election and their respective US Senate contests.
But not every southern swing state is moving to the left. Florida, for one, is going in the entirely opposite direction.
Once seen as the ultimate swing state, Florida is quickly becoming a Republican safe haven. Former President Donald Trump not only built on his 2016 margin of victory there, but Republicans also flipped several Congressional districts that should be relatively safe seats for Democrats by making major inroads with minority voters that Dems had long taken for granted. The list goes on, but simply put, Republicans ran roughshod over Florida Democrats. It wasn’t even close. And while the Republicans’ gross decision to gut the ballot initiative that should have returned voting rights to 1.6 million people certainly didn’t help Team Blue, the reality is that the Florida Democratic Party deserved the thumping it took.
Days after the election, I spoke with State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), an energetic and forward-looking progressive who is one of the few rising stars that Democrats have in Florida. She had some real choice words for state party leaders, who were soon relieved of their duties, and outlined her own vision for reviving the Democratic Party in Florida. The biggest component of her vision was abandoning a top-down apparatus for true grassroots organizing, and now, Eskamani is putting her plans into action.
Last week, Eskamani announced that her political action committee, People Power for Florida, was now registered as a voter registration organization, a step required by the state’s democracy-averse laws. The PAC’s goal is to empower people from the ground up, necessitated in part by the dire situation in which the Florida Democratic Party finds itself. In January, word broke that the state party, which had installed a new chairman just a few days earlier, had even stopped paying its staff’s insurance premiums, allowing employees to unwittingly rack up huge medical bills.
“When the new chair started, it became pretty clear that the economic situation of FDP was a lot worse than any one of us expected,” Eskamani told Progressives Everywhere late last week. “They were a million dollars in debt. The Wisconsin Democrats bailed the Florida Democratic Party out to reinstate health insurance for workers. It was a $300,000 bailout from the Wisconsin Democratic Party to Florida’s just to pay for the expired health insurance plans for workers.”
The party’s new chair, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, is a former Republican donor and pal of Michael Bloomberg and several other more conservative billionaires, so needless to say, he wasn’t exactly Eskamani’s first choice. Unsurprisingly, one of Diaz’s first acts was to lay off two-thirds of the state party’s staff. While Eskamani has committed to supporting the new chair and helping where she can, just practically speaking, ramping up her own organization is a necessary course of action, especially given her more progressive politics.
“The FDP has a lot of trust to rebuild, even with its donors. And meanwhile, you look on the ground and nothing is happening in the realm of voter registration,” she explains. “Groups are strategizing still and looking at 2020 data and things like that, which is, of course, valuable. But at the same time, there is no common ground effort that's taking place right now. And we want to play a role in filling in that gap.”
Eskamani says she hears the same question over and over again: Who is going to be the Stacey Abrams of Florida? But the answer isn’t as simple as just choosing a name and dumping hype and the hopes of millions of people on their shoulders. In Georgia, Abrams is a key figure, but also serves as a figurehead for a much wider army of organizers and organizations across the state.
Plenty of Black women have been doing grassroots work in Florida for years and Eskamani, who was an activist before she first ran for office in 2018, is conscious of recognizing their efforts and pledging to amplify and support them. In fact, that’s one of the two key pillars of People Power for Florida’s new plan.
CLICK HERE to Donate to People Power for Florida!
The first political issue to turn Eskamani on to protesting and activism was a restriction of voter registration drives enacted by the Florida GOP in 2011. Unlike in many other states, a civic-minded volunteer can’t simply decide one day to print out registration forms and hold an event to help people fill them out. Florida requires someone to have a special certification in order to register voters, and obtaining one can be an arduous task, especially for those unfamiliar with the process. One of Eskamani’s goals is to break down that barrier by providing the resources and training necessary for individuals and organizations that have largely been left to fend for themselves.
“The administrative burdens have not only suffocated the process, but it's created a dynamic where only groups that have an understanding of the process and resources and attorneys in case there are problems are the ones who can do it,” she says. “So our hope is that instead of just being one umbrella group that's leading voter registration, we actually want to create 1000 new groups. We want to empower everyday people to do their own voter registration drives. They can use our banner, but our focus is creating new leaders, so we don't want it to be about us. We want it to be about building collective power at a neighborhood level.”
The other pillar of the plan involves supplementing and assisting existing activist groups, which might have the on-the-ground energy and motivation but lack the funds or legal guidance to fully execute registration programs. In such a big state, the outreach that new and existing groups need to accomplish will take time, dedication, and patience, which has Eskamani girding for a long-term project. It could well necessitate a ten-year timeline similar to what was required in Georgia and Arizona, where the GOP still controls the state government.
There is no other option, really. Even though Governor Ron DeSantis has been amongst the most flagrantly reckless state executives during the pandemic, the state continues to drift rightward. There is little accountability; the GOP defenestrated Prop 22, the landmark 2018 voter re-enfranchisement ballot initiative that would have returned the right to vote to 1.6 million people, and without fear of anyone but their base, Republicans have ignored all the state’s problems and instead further attacked voting rights and embraced the culture wars that fuel right-wing terror.
CPAC is in the midst of hosting peddlers of hate speech on its Nazi rune stage, with an even more explicitly racist convention just down the road. DeSantis, meanwhile, caused a stir when he had the temerity to order flags lowered to half-staff in honor of right-wing bigot pig Rush Limbaugh, who spewed vile racism and abject lies until his last dying breath. The gambit is working as intended — it’s earning national headlines, riling up neolithic white nationalists on the right, and distracting the segment of the center-left that spends its time focused on responding to trollish GOP outrages.
The Limbaugh declaration was “bullshit,” Eskamani says, but also a distraction from the suffering that is still happening en masse in the state.
“The fact that we're caught up in this culture war when folks are calling my office because they're 22 weeks without benefits, it reinforces for me that we need to continue building power locally, not get caught up in some of the rhetoric,” she says. It might be good clickbait, but at the end of the day, it's not actually building any power.
“Things are just so disastrous in Florida when it comes to how emboldened conservatives have become that if we don't change the direction fast, it's gonna be even harder to look at Florida with the potential for a progressive future,” she adds, further explaining her sense of urgency. “Too many people are counting on us for that to become a reality.”
Eskamani only has until Tuesday to raise money for the operation, because lawmakers in Florida can’t raise money during a legislative session. If you can help, now’s the time!
CLICK HERE to Donate to People Power for Florida!
P.S. I have a political newsletter called Progressives Everywhere, which focuses on health care, voting rights, workers’ rights, and criminal justice reform—especially in red states. We’ve raised over $6 million to help flip seats in tough districts and red states. Recently, I’ve done big features on progressive ballot initiatives in red states with a leader of the ballot movement, saving the Supreme Court, building worker power in the gig economy, progressive laws in red states, and the economics of student debt. I’ve helped put the spotlight on then-unknown progressive candidates like AOC, Mondaire Jones, Katie Porter, and many others during their primaries. It’s news you won’t find anywhere else—or at least, it’ll be in the newsletter before you’ll find it anywhere else.
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