Liberal-moderate rift not a factor in crowded Florida primary to succeed Alcee Hastings

‘Everything is up in the air,’ former county Democratic chairman says

Former Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief is one of 11 Democrats running in the special election to succeed the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings in Florida’s 20th District. (John Parra/WireImage via Getty Images file photo)
Former Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief is one of 11 Democrats running in the special election to succeed the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings in Florida’s 20th District. (John Parra/WireImage via Getty Images file photo)
Posted October 6, 2021 at 5:30am

The battle between progressive and moderate Democrats that’s been dominating Washington has yet to spill into the next special election for a deep-blue House seat in Florida, where a crowded field has attracted little outside spending as candidates try to reach a disengaged electorate.

Eleven Democrats and two Republicans are vying in the Nov. 2 primaries in the 20th District to replace the late Democrat Alcee L. Hastings, who died in April. Hastings won a 15th term last fall by 57 points, while President Joe Biden carried the district that spans Broward and Palm Beach counties by 55 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. As a result, the Democratic nominee is expected to have a heavy advantage in the Jan. 11 special general election. 

The 11 Democrats on the ballot include several high-profile current and former elected officials, who have divided the allegiances of the local political elite. 

And while a handful of national Democratic groups have endorsed in the race — including 314 Action, Brand New Congress, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Elect Democratic Women — the contest has attracted nowhere near the national attention and investment that was showered on recent special elections in heavily Democratic districts in Ohio and Louisiana

Those races were seen as proxy wars for the Democratic divisions that have held up Biden priorities in Congress such as infrastructure and social programs. But in Florida, the Democrats running to succeed Hastings largely identify as socially progressive and have resisted opportunities to attack each other. 

“This election will provide political scientists, after the fact, a great opportunity to explain things to aspiring politicians,” said Mitchell Ceasar, who spent 20 years as chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party. “Will money make a difference? Will name recognition make a difference? Will years of service, being an elected official, make a difference? Everything is up in the air.” 

The field includes five elected officials who are resigning from their positions to run for Congress, as required under Florida law: state Sen. Perry Thurston, state Reps. Bobby DuBose and Omari Hardy, and Broward County Commissioners Dale V.C. Holness and Barbara Sharief. 

Priscilla Taylor, a former state representative and a 2019 candidate for West Palm Beach mayor, is also running. And two other hopefuls, health care executive Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick and retired federal labor investigator Emmanuel Morel, have appeared on congressional ballots before. 

Battling for the GOP nomination are advertising company owner Jason Mariner and welding inspector Greg Musselwhite, who lost to Hastings in 2020. Four other candidates will also be on the ballot in January. 

Cherfilus-McCormick unsuccessfully challenged Hastings in the 2018 and 2020 primaries, taking 30 percent in her most recent effort. She has attracted media attention for the $2.3 million loan she made to her special election campaign. 

That was $1 million more than seven other Democratic candidates combined had raised through June 30, according to the most recent disclosures, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.

Cherfilus-McCormick told the paper that using her own personal wealth allowed her to maintain her independence. 

“I knew that other campaigns were going to take money from different donors and lobbyists,” she said. 

She had only spent $367,000 by the end of June, but it allowed her to join the handful of candidates who have aired television ads in the district. 

The self-funding also opened her to scrutiny over a $2.4 million loan that Trinity Health Care Services, the company she oversees, received from the Paycheck Protection Program, a relief initiative designed to encourage businesses not to lay off workers during the pandemic.

Cherfilus-McCormick has attempted to position herself as a progressive outsider in the race and has released an ad calling for a universal basic income. She is endorsed by Brand New Congress, the group that has backed progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. 

But the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the other national liberal group involved in the race, is backing Hardy, a first-term state representative who was also endorsed by the Sun-Sentinel’s editorial board this week. 

Like other progressives who have disrupted the traditional route to political power in Washington in recent years, Hardy, 31, has proved adept at amassing and rallying followers on social media. He has attracted national attention to political crusades, including a viral video of his confrontation with city commissioners over power shut-offs at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. More recently, he has created a buzz in some Washington circles with a jab at D.C.’s much-maligned restaurant scene

Sharief, a former Broward County mayor, has the endorsement of 314 Action, which supports candidates with scientific backgrounds, and Elect Democratic Women, a PAC formed in 2018 by Democratic congresswomen. 

Sharief is a nurse practitioner who founded a pediatric home health care company and has been involved in local politics in the region for the last decade. She described herself as a “fiscal moderate and a social progressive” on a Miami Herald questionnaire distributed to the candidates, making her one of the most centrist candidates in the race. 

“She is a strong candidate with experience for making change for Broward County, has a strong background in science, and we look forward to helping her win in November,” 314 Action spokeswoman Alexandra De Luca said. Sharief loaned her campaign $230,000 of the $297,000 in receipts she reported raising through June 30. 

Thurston, a former minority leader of the Florida House who was elected to the state Senate in 2016, loaned his campaign $101,000 of the $283,000 he raised through June. Aside from the self-funders, the top fundraisers in the race at the end of the second quarter were Holness, who took in $306,000 and DuBose, who raised $227,000. 

Holness, who has deep roots in the region’s political establishment, has also worked to portray himself as Hastings’ chosen successor. The claim has attracted its own scrutiny because he has no proof, although Holness has been endorsed by Hastings’ son, Alcee “Jody” Hastings II.