Florida Democrats should have been riding high right now, fresh off two recent victories and with a stable of gubernatorial and legislative candidates pawing at the starting gate in advance of next year’s elections.

Instead, party insiders are facing a leadership race, even before the wounds from a bitter battle early this year have completely healed.

Four women have lined up to replace Stephen Bittel, a Miami Beach businessman who stepped down as chairman of the Florida Democratic Party on Friday after being accused of leering at female aides and consultants and generating such a generally creepy atmosphere that some women didn’t want to be alone with him.

Bittel quit less than a month after the man in line to take over as head of the Senate Democrats, Jeff Clemens, resigned from his legislative seat after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

Before leaving his post as party boss, Bittel scheduled a Dec. 9 meeting for the state Democratic Party executive committee to choose his replacement.

The slate right now includes Alma Gonzalez, a lawyer for Hillsborough County; Palm Beach County activist Terrie Rizzo; Stacey Patel, head of the Brevard County Democrats; and Monica Russo, state president of the Service Employees International Union.

Under the state party’s bylaws, Russo isn’t eligible to be party chair right now because she isn’t a county chair or a state committeewoman.

But the executive committee could amend the rules at the Dec. 9 meeting and allow anyone to run, a change many party activists have endorsed for some time. Or the election could be postponed until January to give more time for a state committeeman or woman to resign and make room for Russo to take their place and thus become eligible. 

“We’re looking for opportunities to see if we can make this work,” Russo said in a telephone interview.

It wouldn’t be the first time Democrats used some fancy footwork to make room for a party leader. Bittel became state committeeman after a resignation, which paved the way for him to become chairman.

But that precedent — and Bittel setting the date for picking a successor, which gave him control over the process — isn’t sitting well with party treasurer Francesca Menes.

Menes, a state committeewoman from Miami-Dade County, wants interim Chair Judy Mount to postpone the election until January to give the candidates more time to campaign and provide party insiders more time to ponder their prospects.

Menes posted an open letter to Florida Democrats on her blog Tuesday, prompted, she wrote, by “the uncomfortable process that the party is on track to repeat the same process, where those who know how to game the system, are doing it once again.”

She’s proposing a process that would allow Mount to serve as interim chair until the election of a permanent chief in early January.

The leadership contest comes less than a year before the November 2018 elections, where Democrats are hoping to win back the governor’s mansion after two decades and pick up several legislative seats in swing districts. Democrats got a boost this fall with victories in a high-profile Senate race in Miami-Dade County and a St. Petersburg mayoral race.

But now they are unexpectedly grappling with the process of replacing Bittel.

“We cannot enter the 2018 election season with bad energies and bad vibes where members of our party and our voters see the internal functions of the party where many double standards exist,” Menes said in the post.

When asked whether she would consider Menes’ suggestions, Mount referred a reporter to Mark Herron, the Florida Democratic Party’s general counsel.

Herron said the party’s bylaws require an election within 30 days of Bittel’s resignation, which would be Dec. 20.

Postponing the Dec. 9 meeting even by a week could become problematic because of the Christmas holidays, Herron pointed out.

“Democrats need to resolve this as quickly and efficiently as possible because we don’t need uncertainty going into 2018,” he said.

But Menes insisted that the bylaws allow a way for the vote to be delayed, which prompted her to pen the open letter.

“It is frustrating that, as Democrats, people are not willing to speak up when they see things are wrong because they have so much fear in their heart about we lose, we lose, we lose,” she told The News Service of Florida.

Menes, 32, said she understands why many of her peers are registering as independents rather than Democrats, even if they support the party’s platform.

The perception is that Democrats “have no backbone and they don’t stand for anything, so why would anyone support you,” said Menes, who ran for the state House last year but lost in a primary to Rep. Roy Hardemon.

It’s not just independents that are disheartened, according to Menes, who said she hasn’t endorsed any of the candidates in the leadership race. 

“Right now, it’s very clear inside the party (that) they’re all losing hope in this process,” she said.

MEMBER PROJECTS TOP $1 BILLION

House members are proposing to spend $1.12 billion through hundreds of projects they hope to take back home from the legislative session that starts Jan. 9.

Riding high atop the wish list is Rep. Bobby Payne, a Palatka Republican who offered 17 proposals on Tuesday totaling more than $105 million.

Last week, House members proposed 310 separate projects, worth more than a half-million dollars, while in Tallahassee for a pre-session committee week.

Being away from the Capitol for the Thanksgiving holiday didn’t slow down the requests, even though most of the proposals won’t make it very far.

On Monday and Tuesday, 159 projects, collectively worth $267 million, were filed.

Payne’s proposals include what is now the single largest ask: $69.5 million (HB 3259) for drinking water infrastructure improvements in Palatka.

As of Wednesday morning, House members had created a 673-strong project list for the session. But the proposals will have to compete with diminishing revenue, rising health-care and education costs, and the need to cover Hurricane Irma repairs and an influx of Puerto Rican evacuees from Hurricane Maria.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has made clear that the priority will be on relief related to Irma, which caused billions of dollars in damage to the state in early September.

Unlike the Senate, the House requires members to submit each spending proposal as an individual bill.

Overall, Republicans had filed 451 project bills collectively worth $819.8 million. Democrats have rolled out 221 bills worth $295.7 million. There is one bipartisan proposal (HB 2135) regarding a livestock pavilion in Marion County.

Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, had made the second-largest request. He’s seeking $34.4 million for a Lake Nona campus building for Valencia College (HB 2437). 

Meanwhile, Rep. Manny Diaz Jr, R-Hialeah, is asking for $52 million through 23 projects, including $28 million for a STEM Center on the north campus of Broward College (HB 2423).

Across the political aisle, Hardemon, D-Miami, is pitching for $50.9 million in 25 projects, including a $25 million intermodal logistics center at Poinciana Industrial Park in Miami-Dade County (HB 2767).

TWEET OF THE WEEK: “There ya have it. Vote Radel 2020 “At least I’m not a pervert” — Former U.S. Rep. Trey Radel (@TreyRadel), a Southwest Florida Republican who resigned from Congress in 2014 after being arrested on a cocaine-possession charge, replying to a tweet advising him to run again because “at least your (sic) not a pervert.”

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