In 2018 and then again in 2020, it looked like the Brevard Democrats might be going places, challenging strong Republican incumbents like Sheriff Wayne Ivey, and making gains in nonpartisan races like the School Board and municipal councils across the county.
But with the opening shot in the 2022 election season now less than two months away, the local Democratic Party appears to be beset by a host of problems, and is conspicuous by its absence from most upcoming races.
During this coming election cycle, there are just 15 Democrats contesting seats across 11 different races thus far but none for county-wide seats or for the County Commission. That compares to 31 candidates in many races in 2018 and 32 in 2020.
On top of an apparent hard time recruiting talent to run for office, the party is dealing with declining voter registrations, a sour national mood, and the loss of at least one potential future leader with name recognition: lawyer Alton Edmond.
‘It needs to wake the party’
Earlier this year, Edmond, the man who challenged Sheriff Ivey in the 2020 elections to be Brevard’s top law enforcement official, quietly left the party to become a political independent.
Many learning of Edmond’s departure, describe it as a blow to the local party’s fortunes.
“Could it hurt? it could,” said Alex Goins, a Democratic city councilman for Cocoa. “It needs to wake up the party,” Goins added. “For Alton to make a decision like that, they need to listen to what his issue is so we don’t make the same mistakes again. That is what we need to do.”
But the party’s top brass appears unfazed by Edmond’s departure and the mounting evidence indicating that Democrats are backsliding from the momentum they had been building a few years ago.
Party leader Pam Castellana attributes Democratic Party challenges to what she described as “structural barriers” that Democrats are forced to deal with in the face of a dominating Republican presence in Brevard.
“We believe we are critical in defending democracy and we are willing to do that fight,” Castellana told FLORIDA TODAY. But she acknowledged that “many” have left the party.
“Many have left because of the hostile environment, because of the hostility they have received from elected officials as well as their neighbors simply due to their political affiliation, whether actively engaged or not,” she said.
All of this spells trouble for the state of the Democratic Party on the Space Coast.
“The state of the Democratic Party is there is no elected Democrats in the county as of right now, and after the 2022 election, it is going to be the status quo,” said Christopher Muro, an associate professor at Eastern Florida State College. “That means it is really weak.”
Edmond, for his part, blames Castellana and her executive team for the problems of why he left the party.
“After putting myself at risk and feeling like I made great sacrifices to run for the office that I ran for at the time that I ran for it, I felt like the Democratic Party used me and discarded me once the campaign was over,” Edmond said.
Edmond was the only person to challenge Ivey in his tenure as sheriff. Ivey, first elected in 2012, was unopposed in 2016. Edmond, a Black attorney and former public defender, would eventually lose but managed to take almost 34% of the vote.
A self-described moderate liberal, Edmond first became acquainted with the Brevard Democratic Party when he claimed he was terminated from his position at the public defender’s office after wearing a Black Lives Matter tie to work. (The Public Defender’s office denies that was why Edmond was let go.) He then joined the party in 2018 when his friend Goins announced that he was running to be a city councilman for Cocoa.
Since his loss to Ivey, Edmond has been increasingly frustrated with the party which he believes has distanced itself from him since he was a candidate.
“Instead of supporting a candidate for public office regardless of their readiness to run for office, ability to successfully campaign and/or community support for the candidate — radio silence,” he said.
Castellana rejects the notion that Edmond has been marginalized by the party, either while still a member or since he registered as non-party affiliated.
“He was invited to a Democratic party fundraiser in May and asked to sing the national anthem,” Castellana said. “He has been reached out to as much as an NPA as he was a Democrat. He is not running for office. I wouldn’t reach out as much to someone who isn’t running for office as someone who is.”
The party’s declining registration numbers suggest that Edmond is not the only person to have left the Democrats since the last election. Party registration numbers obtained from the Supervisor of Elections Office in early May lays bare the obstacles facing the Democrats as they try to remain relevant and competitive with Republican counterparts.
The difference in registered voters between the two parties has ebbed and flowed over time. Republicans began with a 35,000 party registration advantage at the beginning of 2016, the earliest data available from the records request.
That disparity steadily increased to nearly 48,000 during February of 2020 before plateauing at that number. However, it increased again in August of that same year until January of 2021 when the difference ballooned to 55,000 registered voters.
Currently, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the county by more than 60,000 voters.
It embodies how the party has failed to convince supporters of their strategy for building on the momentum gained as early as a couple of years ago.
Brevard’s a GOP bastion
According to political observers, there are inherent reasons explaining why Republicans have dominated the local political scene — and part of it is structural.
“I think it is a combination of things,” said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. “They do not have the demographic diversity of some of the more Democratic leaning counties.”
Fewer minorities live in Brevard, those who are traditionally more liberal leaning and tend to favor the Democratic Party, Jewett said
“Among the white residents who live there, they tend to be a little wealthier,” Jewett added. “Historically, households with higher incomes are more supportive of the Republican Party, so that is part of it.”
A second key reason is that the fate of the local political parties is tied to the national mood and to the parties at the state and national level.
When former President Barack Obama lost the midterms in his first four years, his party also lost several gubernatorial races and “Republicans won more legislative seats then they had since 1928,” Muro said.
Republicans represent Brevard in the Florida legislature and the governor’s mansion. Republicans also dominate the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.
Democrats had momentum
However, history demonstrates that single party dominance in local politics is not absolute.
“The reason the Democrats were so hot in 2018 is because Stacey and Sanjay (Patel) were very fiery supporters of Bernie Sanders,” Edmond said. “They were very impassioned in support of a candidate they believed in and were behind.”
Upon taking the reins, the two inherited an organization that was, for the most part, irrelevant.
“We inherited a party that was ineffective and closed,” said Sanjay, the state committee person at the time. “It wasn’t very inviting. It felt almost invisible.”
Their passion during the Sanders campaign translated into a flurry of action for Democrats in the proceeding months.
They began by investing in the organization’s infrastructure, moving the headquarters along Hibiscus to a location along US1 to make their presence more visible.
The Patels then began developing a committee structure to oversee different activities, from recruiting potential candidates to raising funds for purchasing campaign materials.
“We identified all the different responsibilities necessary to make an effective organization,” Sanjay said. “We set off, and created committees, and assigned folks to them.”
The 2018 elections became the proving ground of the Patels’ approach. In that cycle, the Democrats won 11 of the 21 nonpartisan contests, according to Sanjay. In 2020, they elected their candidates in 18 out of the 22 nonpartisan races, including Jennifer Jenkins ousting Tina Descovich from the School Board.
Recently however, Republicans have begun to reassert their dominance in the local political scene.
Republicans surprised many when Peter Filiberto defeated veteran Democratic candidate Phil Moore in a special election in Palm Bay back in March. Palm Bay is considered one of the few areas in Brevard where Democrats have a small advantage.
Moore lost by roughly 1,800 votes.
Castellana recognizes that the Palm Bay special election was a self-inflicted injury. “The special election was on us,” Castellana said. “It was not the candidate. We learned from that race and we are definitely prepared for our upcoming races.”
But Muro is doubtful. The problem, he said, is that the Democrats are not adopting approaches and polices that align with Brevard voters.
“The Brevard County Democratic Party doesn’t want to play like they are in Brevard County,” Muro said. “The Democrats want to continue to embrace the platform that is very left of center.”
He points to party support of abortion and climate change policies as well as much of President Joe Biden’s agenda, which is not popular locally.
To his point, many of the Democratic victories are confined to contests in which the candidate does not have to disclose party affiliation, such as the school board and municipal races.
Sanjay, however, believes the challenges are far more complicated, which include the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which has hurt the Democrats “ground game” of gathering and knocking on doors.
COVID, he said, “limited our ability to organize as successfully in person, frankly the kind of volunteer effort required to knock half a million doors in four years is exhausting — and we’ve lost some great organizers to injury, fatigue, and the despair of living in a county where the values of the majority don’t at all align with our own,” Sanjay added.
Could the Democrats turn it around?
Edmond believes so, referring to the thousands of volunteers that can be mobilized to recruit volunteers, candidates, and voters. If they can leverage that, along with retaining their enthusiasm for getting out the vote — Democrats have a chance.
“I am open to returning to the party if things change in the future and I feel like the party is moving forward again, but I am content with being a non-party affiliated or even exploring other options to ensure that whatever candidate, issue, or endeavor that I support is worthy of and has earned my support,” Edmond said.
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