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Florida Democrats Elect Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz As New Party Chairman

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- After crushing defeats in the November elections, Florida Democrats on Saturday selected former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz to take over as chairman of the state party.

Republican President Donald Trump won comfortably in Florida on Nov.3, with a three percentage-point victory over President-elect Joe Biden. The GOP also made gains up and down the ballot, adding five state House seats, flipping a Senate seat and ousting two South Florida Democratic congresswomen.

Diaz, who replaces Terrie Rizzo, said the Florida Democratic Party is at a crossroads.

"While Democrats all over the nation made gains, we continue to lose ground," Diaz, who served as mayor of Miami from 2001 to 2009, said during an online meeting Saturday afternoon of the party's State Executive Committee.

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Diaz, 66, emphasized the need for Democrats to work together to make inroads in Florida, where the GOP has controlled both legislative chambers, the governor's mansion and the state Cabinet for more than two decades.

"We must look past what divides us and build on what unites us, today and in the years to come. The eyes of many in this country will be upon us. Let us show them that we will do everything to turn Florida blue," he said.

Diaz's election to head the Democratic party in the third-largest state came amid an ever-growing partisan rift in Florida and the nation, with Trump backers continuing to believe the president's disproven claims that the election was "rigged" or fraudulent.

The new chairman takes over days after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol as members of Congress prepared to vote on the certification of states' presidential electors to cement Biden's victory. At least four Florida men have been charged with crimes associated with what some political analysts characterized as an "insurrection."

"Let us be the ones who bring healing and unity. Let us be what we have always been. Let us be a Florida Democratic Party that speaks for the voiceless, fights for the oppressed and will ensure that America remains the shining beacon of hope and democracy for the entire world," Diaz said.

Diaz, who was born in Cuba, hails from Miami-Dade County, where Democrats suffered the greatest losses during the 2020 election cycle.

While Biden won the county, Trump received nearly 200,000 more votes in Miami-Dade than during the 2016 election, significantly narrowing the margin. Former Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Murcasel-Powell and Donna Shalala were ousted by GOP challengers. And, following a recount, former Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez lost his re-election bid by 32 votes to Republican Ileana Garcia.

In getting elected chairman Saturday, Diaz defeated former state Rep. Cynthia Chestnut of Gainesville and Ione Townsend, the chairwoman of Hillsborough County Democrats. Rizzo did not seek another term.

Speaking prior to Saturday's vote, Chestnut argued that "the time has come" for a Black woman "to serve at the helm" of the state party.

Townsend pointed to her 10-year record in Hillsborough, saying she "charted a course for our failing party in a county that was controlled by Republicans and turned it into a reliably deep blue county controlled by Democrats."

She garnered support from 30 percent of the 160 participants who cast ballots Saturday, while Chestnut received a little less than 17 percent.

Democrats also re-elected Judy Mount to serve as the party's vice chairwoman and re-elected Casmore Shaw as secretary.

State Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer congratulated Diaz on his victory.

"Congratulations to @Manny_A_Diaz on your election as @FlaDems Party Chair...we are fortunate to have you at the helm, and I look forward to working with you to improve our party!!" Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, tweeted.

Addressing the meeting before Diaz's selection, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat elected statewide, acknowledged that Democrats have "a lot of work to do" in Florida.

Fried said 2020 was a "difficult" year. But she drew attention to Georgia --- a state where Biden defeated Trump and where two Democrats defeated incumbent U.S. senators this week, handing control of the Senate to Democrats --- as an example of "what it means to actually have a ground game that gets out the voters."

Fried, too, emphasized the need for Democrats to rally together.

"We are stronger when we are united. We cannot afford to fight amongst ourselves. We are not each others' enemies.

If we are going to change our state, and if we are going to remind the citizens of our state that we are the party of the people, that we are the ones who are going to fight for them, then we have to do it as one party," she said.

(©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)


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