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In battleground Miami-Dade County, Democrats battle each other

Florida Democrats voted to permanently suspend their Miami-Dade County chair, changing leadership in a key county eight months before the general election.
Nikki Fried holds a press conference criticizing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his response to the recent flooding on April 18, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Nikki Fried holds a press conference on April 18, 2023, criticizing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his response to the recent flooding in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

MIAMI — In a rare election year shake-up, Florida Democrats voted Sunday to permanently remove Miami-Dade County Democratic Party Chair Robert Dempster from his post, after state party Chair Nikki Fried suspended him earlier this month.

In a meeting stretching nearly seven hours, Dempster and Franklin County Chair Carol Barfield were removed from their elected positions by members of the Florida Democratic Party State Central Committee. Palm Beach County party Chair Mindy Koch, also suspended by Fried, was reinstated despite a 67-36 vote in favor of her removal, which did not meet the required two-thirds threshold. The Franklin and Miami-Dade Democratic committees must elect new permanent chairs within the next 45 days.

“When I was elected chair, I made a promise that we would never have another election cycle like 2022,” Fried said in a statement following the vote. “We need our local parties to register voters, recruit candidates and raise money to ensure that we’re competitive in 2024 and beyond.”

Dempster declined to comment on his removal and instead directed inquiries to Thomas Kennedy, a former Florida Democratic National Committee member, who called the vote “an embarrassing waste of time” and said that the party’s efforts “would be better spent talking to voters like me who switched to [no party affiliation].” Kennedy recently left the Democratic Party in protest of President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

It’s the latest episode of turmoil and setback in several tough years for Miami-Dade Democrats. After improving their performance there throughout the Obama years, Biden’s vote share in Miami-Dade crashed 10 percentage points in 2020, a big reason why Trump won the state somewhat comfortably despite losing nationally.

Dempster and his Miami-Dade allies lobbied central committee members in the weeks ahead of the vote, urging the delegates involved in the vote to reverse Fried’s move.

In a letter obtained by NBC News and signed by Wayne Brody, the vice chair of the Miami-Dade Democrats’ Voter Protection Committee, Dempster allies outlined to committee members their argument for Dempster’s reinstatement, saying his removal was not in compliance with state party bylaws and was motivated by personal animus. 

“As some of you know, and most others will have guessed, there is a group of members of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party who were displeased at the election of Chair Dempster and unhappy about how he has run the Party since,” Brody wrote, explaining that the group could have sought to remove Dempster themselves with a two-thirds majority vote of the local party.

Rather than taking that course of action, the letter went on to deride an “all-too-public debate on the application of an inapplicable bylaws provision.”

“Please be clear that I am not suggesting that Chair Fried is in league with our dissident group. I believe she was misinformed and poorly served in this instance,” the letter continued.

Dempster’s suspension was first announced in a public statement from Fried on March 4. Dempster and his counterparts in Palm Beach and Franklin Counties were, according to the statement, removed as part of a strategy to get local Democratic parties “back on track.”

“Over the past year, the Florida Democratic Party has made repeated attempts to mitigate complaints received prior to my election as Chair,” Fried wrote. Citing ongoing unresolved issues and noncompliance, Fried warned “the cost of inaction is too high.”

Of course, the action itself may prove disruptive, too. 

“The last thing you need is, going into an election year when we have primaries in August, [is] to disrupt the party the way it’s being disrupted,” Maria Elena Lopez, the Miami-Dade Democratic Party’s current acting chair, told NBC News a few days prior to the removal vote.

Following Sunday’s vote, Lopez lamented the removal vote as “not a very pleasant process.”

“All the parties that are going through this have been kneecapped for at least six weeks,” Lopez said last week, adding that the party is already enmeshed in a “doom and gloom type of narrative,” a nod to significant Republican electoral gains in once unbreakably Democratic Miami-Dade County.

“By doing this, has she accomplished anything to improve the local party? No, not necessarily.”

A Democratic stronghold up for grabs

Republicans have been gaining momentum in South Florida for several years now.

As Democrats across the country celebrated the red wave that wasn’t in 2022, Miami-Dade County stood apart as an example of conservative wins.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won the county by the largest margin of any Republican governor in decades, all three Miami-Dade congressional seats stayed red, and Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Rep. Val Demings, his Democratic challenger, by a whopping 16 points after having lost his home county in 2016.

Some began to wonder if Miami-Dade County would be considered battleground territory for much longer.

Former Miami-area Democratic candidate Robert Asencio, who lost his race against Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez in 2022, believes the area is still competitive for Democrats, but with caveats.

“With the current playbook? With the status quo? No,” he said, adding an expletive.

Asencio serves on the central committee in the Florida Democratic Party and voted to uphold the suspension of all three county chairs. “If we don’t create change then we have no one to blame but ourselves,” Asencio said.

Asencio says he felt firsthand the ramifications of what he calls an “absent” local party. While he acknowledged the candidate takes the lion’s share of responsibility for a campaign’s success, he says he was frustrated by the county party’s lack of infrastructure and believes it shares some responsibility for the losses.

For Lopez, she believes Republicans’ focus on community building has paid dividends.

“The Republicans have done that,” Lopez said of GOP community organizing efforts in the county. “That’s how they actually got people engaged because they were in the communities,” she added, lamenting that her party has not been able to match that kind outreach because, due to a lack of funding, “it’s very hard to build anything on a consistent basis.”

Despite successes at the ballot box, the Florida Republican Party has had its own public controversy. The party’s former chairman Christian Ziegler was removed by state Republicans from his post as he faced allegations of rape and video voyeurism in late 2023. (Prosecutors have since declined to bring the charges against Ziegler, citing a lack of evidence.)

The rare move by Democrats to suspend elected county chairs follows an already difficult week for the party in Florida. In November the state party submitted Biden as the sole candidate for the Democratic nomination, triggering an automatic cancellation of their primary under Florida law.

But that may have inadvertently contributed to low turnout for Democrats last week, possibly affecting down-ballot contests in several areas across the state. DeSantis called the Florida Democratic Party “the best opposition party we could ever ask for” and credited the canceled presidential primary for conservative gains in the state.

“That totally tanked their turnout and that gave Republicans an ability to win the Delray Beach Mayor, right? Which has not exactly been solid Republican territory,” DeSantis said at a press conference last week.

Democrats, though, celebrated Tuesday night as a successful night for the party, pointing to key wins in a handful of other municipal elections.

Finding a foothold ahead of the general election 

Biden faces a lengthy and contested general election rematch against Trump, who defeated Biden in Florida by more than 3 percentage points in 2020. GOP Sen. Rick Scott is up for re-election too, as Democrats face a challenging Senate map nationally.

And locally, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava — one of the only remaining countywide elected Democrats — is up for re-election to serve a second term in one of the most influential positions in the state, attracting attention to a key summertime election.

A spokesperson for Levine Cava’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Dempster’s removal.

Whether the leadership changes at the county level will make a marked difference in Democrats’ performance in Miami-Dade and statewide is yet to be seen. Asencio noted that some critics of Dempster’s removal didn’t want to see intraparty turmoil ahead of a big election.

“I’ve heard the argument that optics, right? People are concerned about the optics” of having a removal vote in the middle of an election year, Asencio said.

But, he added: “What worse optics are there if they continue to lose?”