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THE DEMS, POST-TIM SHEA

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; "We're not there to make a point. We're there to win elections."

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That's how Tim Shea sums up 16 months of running the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee, a tenure that ended May 3 when Shea resigned, possibly to run for an open judicial seat. It was the end of an era that saw the Democratic party's focus shift from, in Shea's words, idealism to pragmatism.

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In December 2004, Shea succeeded Doug Head as chairman of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee. Shea wasn't a political newbie. In 2002 he won a spot on the Orange County school board. For years, he was a politically active trial lawyer. He did some work for unions, a powerful base of the Democratic party. He wrote checks to candidates and came to DEC meetings and events. And as Head wearied after 12 years of running the show and being the face of the local party, Shea approached him and volunteered to take over. Head gave him his blessing, and shortly after the November elections, the party voted to make Shea its leader.

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; The two are a study in contrast. Head is an affable, silver-haired man who talks politics with a wide grin. He has a wry wit and an appropriate dose of cynicism for a guy who has seen what local politics has to offer, good and bad. Head is also an agitator; he's marched in peace rallies and more than once during his tenure, he publicly rebuked Democrats he thought weren't acting Democratic enough (former county chairman Linda Chapin and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, for example). He energized the party's base and he got out front on issues. Sometimes he put his foot in his mouth — like equating a gay person voting Republican to a Jew voting for Hitler — but he was an effective spokesman.

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; Shea is bulky and mustached. He's direct and blunt. He's a centrist with little patience for ideologically driven "nonsense" pushed by what he deems "fringe" liberal activists. He's considerably more reserved than Head during interviews; not unfriendly, just more straight-ahead and businesslike (though, like Head, he does mix in some salty language, but not until the tape recorder and notepad are put away). He's a Starbucks junkie who says what he means and says it with authority.

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; And when he came in, he had a different idea of how to run the party. "I had a pretty good idea of what the party was and what the party needed to do," Shea says, sipping a cold decaf concoction that, based on the reaction of the Starbucks clerk, seems to be his usual. "The biggest weakness of the party was that it had become irrelevant to the political community. It simply was not relevant to elected officials, it wasn't relevant to many professional Democrats, it wasn't relevant to the money people. It was relevant to the volunteers, but it was not relevant to the [elected Democrats]. It was not relevant to the candidates."

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; The party, he felt, got too frequently dragged "into rabbit holes," pulled in too many different directions by its various interest groups. It wasn't cohesive. It wasn't professional. It didn't employ pollsters or have any paid staff. It didn't have an office; Head ran things out of his house. Its fund-raising was lackluster. The party's base of contributors felt they could get more bang for their bucks by giving directly to candidates. In turn, candidates didn't need the DEC because the party didn't offer them anything they couldn't do themselves, Shea says.

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; "And then after they got elected on their own, some within the party would attack them, rather than work with them," Shea says.

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; The best example of the differing philosophies is how the party handled state Rep. Sheri McInvale. Elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic district in 2002, McInvale's tendency to side with the religious right soured her relationship with party activists. In 2002, she almost lost to a gay Republican candidate, Patrick Howell. In 2004, McInvale didn't draw any GOP opposition, but she did face a heated primary — and the DEC, under Head, threw its weight behind her opponent, Marni Berger, writing Berger a $15,000 check a week before the election. This year McInvale again faced a challenge from fellow Dem Scott Randolph, a lawyer well-liked by the party's base. But instead of backing Randolph, Shea tried to talk him out of running, then announced that the party would support all of its incumbents. To do otherwise, he says, invites disaster.

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; When Randolph matched McInvale's fund-raising numbers, McInvale switched parties — a move that may doom her political career come November. But Shea's point was made. He doesn't think it's his job to decide who is and who isn't a "good Democrat." His job, he says, "is not about message." If that philosophy means throwing the DEC's support behind an incumbent Democrat who has alienated the base, so be it. Idealism is out; pragmatism is in. "Local politics is pragmatism," Shea says.

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;THE RAINMAKER;

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; Shea was certainly a rainmaker. In 2005, the DEC banked about $150,000, more than it ever had in a non-election year and double what the local Republican party took in. It moved into an office, hired an executive director and began building a state-of-the-art computer database for its candidates and precinct captains.

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; Before taking over, Shea approached a number of prominent Democrats who he felt should give to the party, but chose not to. They gave to state and national candidates, but not locally. Shea pitched them, seeking seed money to build the party's infrastructure. He says he had about $50,000 lined up before he took over, most of which ultimately came through.

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; Donors are attracted to tangible, "bricks and mortar" displays of their money, which is what Shea offered. And he's spent money just as fast as he raised it. In 2005 the party spent all but $1,146 of the $148,288 they raised. That same year the Orange County Republicans raised $72,420 and spent just $53,882, leaving an $18,558 surplus.

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; Shea also focused on bringing young professionals into the fold. It's a common refrain — echoed by Dem politicos, speaking on background, of course — that DEC meetings are full of people who have nothing better to do than complain. "The lame and the infirm populate DEC meetings," one Democratic insider says. "People who have nothing better to do than go to a meeting and bitch."

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; Bring in young professionals, Shea believes, and you're not only building a less hackneyed, debating society–style party, you're laying the foundation for the next generation of candidates.

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; He created leadership luncheons to nudge movers and shakers back into the process, and he wasn't coy about wanting to check the influence of activists and "naysayers."

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; Under Head, the party had too many social functions Shea saw as "soft," says one source, who like other prominent Democrats interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity. Shea wanted discipline. He wanted to spend money on tangible assets, not networking events.

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; Such changes in philosophy have led some loyalists to conclude that the party is turning into a home for "rich white guys," as another Dem puts it. Executive committee membership numbers have fluctuated since Shea took over. (During his tenure, the party registered about 7,000 additional Democrats in Orange County; at the same time, Republicans added about 8,000 members to their rolls). Partly, the fluctuating numbers had to do with record-keeping problems.

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; Shea has also said he'd like to bring in more consultants to professionalize the party's outreach programs, and not everyone likes that idea. "The question is, do we want a lot of people participating or do we want a lot of people writing checks?" asks one Dem.

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; In a perfect world, you'd like both. Shea says it's incredibly naive to discount the role money plays in local elections. For his 2002 school board race, he raised about $90,000, and that wasn't the high-profile affair of, say, a mayoral election.

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; But reaching out to all of the party's groups — contributors, politicians and volunteers — is a delicate act. Especially so when, in unguarded moments, Shea wears his disdain for some of what he considers the more disruptive activists on his sleeve.

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; And, as even his friends and supporters will tell you, he has a reputation for abrasiveness.

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;TOUGH GUY;

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;; The Orlando Sentinel's editorial board has lambasted the school board for not quickly implementing a series of proposals for improving the school system laid out by a blue ribbon commission headed by Bill Sublette, a leading Republican who has run unsuccessfully for mayor and Congress in recent years. Shea doesn't take such criticism lying down. Before the commission even released its report, he sent out an e-mail accusing Sublette of "pandering to the press." In January 2005, he wrote an op-ed accusing the Sentinel of being "mean-spirited, misguided and ill-informed," and of not understanding the complexity of the issues the school board faced.

;; The sarcastic, dismissive tone of the op-ed was classic Shea, and quite an amusing read. "Perhaps we should market a new Tim Shea wind-up toy," he suggested. "Just wind it up, and it does what the Sentinel says. Remote-control government."

;; Then, two paragraphs later, he told the editorial writers to take a walk into traffic: "To the Sentinel editorial board: Relax, calm down, take a deep breath and cross Colonial Drive on foot."

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; In March 2005, Orange County commissioner Bill Segal — another centrist Democrat — dressed Shea down at a county commission meeting for being too antagonistic with home builders during an impact fee debate. "You're a little abrasive, you're a little bit confrontational," Segal, himself a developer, said. "I think you're going to get a lot further … if you would just be a little easier to deal with."

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; That same week, Segal told the Sentinel, "I love Tim. He's a personal friend. But his style is hostile, bellicose and abrasive."

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; Other friends and supporters echo the criticism. Ask around and usually, on background, you'll hear words like "abrupt." Others will say he lacks patience or social skills.

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; But those descriptions come tempered with the sense that the Democratic party now has a clear direction. It's no longer a rudderless ship. And Shea can be tough, but that's a natural tendency from a trial lawyer with a background in union politics. "You gotta be tough to survive," says one source.

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; That toughness, and that rebuilding of infrastructure, may have been exactly what the party needed to regain its footing, says another.

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;STOPS AND STARTS;

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; Based on numbers alone, the DEC has done well in recent years. On June 1, when Robert Stuart is sworn in to the Orlando City Council, every person on the dais will be a Democrat. On the Orange County commission, Democrats control four of the seven seats. Orange County voted for John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000. Dems also have a majority on the school board. In terms of voter registration numbers, Head took a 15,000-person deficit in the 1990s to a 28,000-person lead over the Republicans when he left in 2004.

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; But Shea's tenure hit a roadblock four months in when the area's most prominent Democrat, Dyer, was indicted on election law charges and the city scheduled a special election to select his temporary replacement. The charges against him were based on a vague and untested absentee ballot statute, but Dyer didn't help himself by spending his first year in office alienating his base through budget cuts and City Hall layoffs. No top-tier Dems signed up to run, and the seat looked like it belonged to former Mayor Bill Frederick, a Republican.

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; Shea did what was, in his estimation, the only thing he could do. The party sued to halt the special election, arguing that the mayor pro tem — Republican Ernest Page — should keep the seat. It was a two-pronged move: Legally, Shea thought the city was misreading the law; politically, he needed to do something to keep the party energized. A circuit court judge initially sided with the city, but the charges against Dyer were dropped and he returned to office before the DEC appealed.

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; "It was not really demagoguery," Shea says. "Because we really believed our interpretation of the law was correct."

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; In November 2005, the party took another public relations hit when the head of the local NAACP chapter switched his political affiliation to Republican. Derrick Wallace said it was a business decision, that in his construction work 90 percent of the time he was working with Republicans. He felt that because a lot of the region's power brokers are Republicans, the switch might bring more clout to the NAACP. Republicans crowed that this was historic and that the Democrats no longer had a lock on the black vote.

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; April brought another black eye for Dems: State Sen. Gary Siplin was indicted on charges that he improperly used tax dollars to pay campaign workers. Shea downplays the significance of Siplin's arrest, however. Even if Siplin is convicted, the overwhelmingly minority makeup of the district will keep it safely Democratic, he says.

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; The Democrats will probably lose one county commission seat — Bob Sindler is term-limited out, and his replacement will probably be Republican state Rep. Fred Brummer — and they're not even trying for the region's most powerful position, Orange County mayor. There, Rich Crotty looks set to coast to a second full term without a Democratic opponent.

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; So why hasn't the party been more effective in recruiting good candidates? Shea wasn't focused on that during his tenure. His priority was laying a groundwork that would attract good future candidates. It's a long-term plan, he says. This is only year two.

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; And he hopes it's a plan his successors stick to.

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;THANKLESS JOB;

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;; "It's a god-awful, thankless job," says one party insider of the chairman's position. "You just want to pull all your hair out."

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; The trick is trying to bring together disparate groups that think the party should stand for different things. The activists want to rally behind candidates and think the party itself should be on the forefront of contentious issues. Candidates want assurance that the party will actually help them out and won't take swipes at them if they wind up on the wrong end of an issue. And they want to know that they won't have to distance themselves from the party they belong to. Several elected officials interviewed for this story say — and Shea confirms — that they've had a very minimal relationship with the DEC since they took office.

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; Shea answers questions about divisions in the party delicately. "There are some who belong to the party who believe the party should be a vehicle for their views and their agenda, that the party should be a vehicle for advancing their political perspective. I do not share that view. I believe the party should be a vehicle for assisting Democrats and gaining elections. There are some people who volunteer for the party who've been around for quite some time who would rather lose elections on principle than win elections. You can't get anywhere in a political organization losing elections for any
;reason.

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; "But I will say that there are some — Republicans have them too — there are some on the fringe who believe that their worldview is the correct worldview, and they will attempt to bend the activity of any party or organization toward their worldview. That's the way it is."

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; Shea spoke often of bringing in new faces: active, professional people whom he believed would be the party's next generation. He hosted leadership luncheons to keep the party's movers and shakers in the loop. "Mainstreaming" the party, as he puts it, was more important to him than ensuring that liberal activists were happy. In that sense, one Dem says, grass-roots organizing efforts have declined since Shea's arrival. There's a potential downside there: Volunteers who joined up for the 2004 presidential election might not stick around if they feel unwelcome.

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; But, party members say, Shea's dedication to remaking the party using a business model came at the right time, even if the "people infrastructure" isn't in full bloom. Technologically, the party is moving into the 21st century. It is creating a database for candidates and precinct captains with loads of voter information crucial to running campaigns. Shea plans to upgrade to a wireless computer system — similar to but eventually higher-tech than the ones used in 2004 by well-financed political committees such as America Coming Together — that will enable volunteers to update information instantly, on the fly. Access to the database will also help volunteers make phone calls for their candidates without having to congregate in a central phone bank.

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; "There's a great deal of pent-up demand for a functioning, efficient Democratic party," says Shea. "My focus is on infrastructure. I'm not diverting traffic, I'm trying to build bridges."

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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