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In Florida State House Democratic Primary, Broward Incumbent Faces Competition From A Progressive Challenger

Bobby DuBose Elijah Manley composite photo 2020 House primary election.jpg
Compilation: Florida House, provided
Rep. Bobby DuBose, left, and Elijah Manley, right, are competing in an Aug. 18, 2020, primary for state House district 94, which includes parts of Fort Lauderdale, Wilton Manors and Plantation.

The race is one of several House Democratic primaries that political observers say reflect a national trend of young progressives challenging incumbent Democrats. The incumbent's challenger started his political career in high school.

Elijah Manley’s first race was for president of the United States.

At 16, he filed to run for the nation’s top job, vying unsuccessfully for the Green Party nomination. At the party’s August 2016 convention in Houston, the then-Fort Lauderdale High School student listed the issues he cared about, the issues he hoped to bring attention to while knowing he was too young to legally hold the position he was trying to win.

“We need someone to fight against the horrors of climate change, being from Florida,” Manley said to a cheering crowd. “We need someone to fight for clean air and energy in our country. We need someone to fight transphobia in our country. We need someone to fight for Black and Brown lives in our country. We need someone to defeat white supremacy in our country.”

Since then, the races kept coming.

In 2018, he lost a bid for an at-large seat on the Broward County School Board. The contest drew national attention, as it was just months after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and incumbent Donna Korn was facing a fierce challenger in Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the massacre.

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Despite his third-place finish, Manley took nearly 19 percent of the vote. More than 43,000 people filled in the bubble next to the name of a 19-year-old recent high school graduate, a Black gay gender-fluid socialist who grew up poor in the historically-Black Fort Lauderdale neighborhood of Sistrunk.

Manley tried unsuccessfully for the Socialist Party nomination for president this year before ultimately endorsing Bernie Sanders. And now, at 21, he’s running to represent the community that raised him in the Florida House of Representatives. If elected, he’d be one of the youngest members ever in the Legislature, and only the second out gay Black member.

Manley is seeking to oust Rep. Bobby DuBose, a Black Democratic incumbent and incoming co-leader of the chamber’s minority caucus. After four years on the Fort Lauderdale City Commission and now six in the Legislature, DuBose is an established candidate who is highly respected among his colleagues.

DuBose's slate of major endorsements would suggest he has won the trust of his community, as well: teachers, firefighters, public employee unions, local clergy, the Sierra Club, the Sun Sentinel editorial board.

The race is one of several House Democratic primaries that political observers say reflect a national trend of young progressives challenging incumbent Democrats.

“I think you will see more and more of these types of primaries in the coming years,” said Kartik Krishnaiyer, a Democratic political analyst and consultant who founded the progressive blog The Florida Squeeze and lives in Coral Springs.

“You’re likely to see a mainstream Democrat, … an establishment Democrat like a DuBose, a leadership-type, versus a progressive insurgent,” Krishnaiyer said, characterizing the race as similar to recent Congressional upsets: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman’s defeats of Joe Crowley and Eliot Engel in New York, and Cori Bush’s takedown of William Lacy Clay in Missouri.

Three other Florida House Democratic primaries in particular that have garnered attention are the challenges facing Reps. Anika Omphroy in Broward, Al Jacquet in Palm Beach County and Kim Daniels in Jacksonville — although those incumbents are more conservative than DuBose.

Krishnaiyer said, in safe Democratic seats, he expects to see more progressive candidates replace incumbents when they term out. DuBose is term-limited and cannot run for re-election in two years.

“While I think [Manley] is an underdog, a big underdog in 2020 — in 2022, all bets are off,” Krishnaiyer said. “I do think [this race] sets him or another progressive up very well for when the seat is open.”

Krishnaiyer has consulted for House Victory, the political fundraising arm of Democrats working to flip GOP seats in the state’s lower legislative chamber. As incoming co-leader of the caucus, DuBose is helping steer House Victory, but Krishnaiyer has not reported to him directly nor has he worked on DuBose’s current or past races.

Michael Calderin, who leads the Florida Democratic Party’s progressive caucus and also lives in Coral Springs, said his group is pushing to see more Democratic legislators face challengers from the left — especially those who are willing to turn down donations from corporations and lobbyists. His group has endorsed Manley.

“We don't necessarily expect every race to be a win, although this is certainly a seat that could be,” Calderin said, referring to the race between DuBose and Manley. “We see strong leaders who are willing to put themselves out there and take a chance. We need to encourage that. We need to show that Tallahassee doesn't have to be bought and paid for.”

The progressive challenger

Elijah Manley has been homeless on and off throughout his life. The experience shaped his political identity.

At one point, when he was in middle school, he and some of his siblings stayed with their mother in her car for a few days, then moved into a storage facility. They showered at the beach and ate breakfast and lunch at school.

“For dinner, we would go to Publix, and we would get some baloney, some bread,” Manley said. “We would get a cooler. We put the baloney, the drinks and everything in a cooler to keep it cool. And we ate baloney sandwiches.”

Later, in high school, he stayed with a friend’s family for a while.

Manley didn’t tell many people what was going on, because he was afraid he would get taken away from his mom. He said a couple of teachers helped, buying him deodorant, clean socks and a new pair of shoes.

Manley’s mother, Marchette Davis, said of that time: “It’s something you really don’t want to remember, but you really can’t forget.”

Manley couldn’t forget it.

“That really showed me that poverty is a very serious issue, and that there's so many people who don't really see a real path to get to the middle class,” Manley said. “This middle class everyone’s talking about — it really doesn't exist for a lot of people.”

His childhood motivated his string of runs for public office.

In his campaign to represent state House District 94, Manley has made banning hydraulic fracturing — also know as hydrofracking — in the state a major priority, as well as environmental and water quality issues more broadly. Some environmental groups endorsed him, including the Everglades Trust and the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida.

Some Black progressive community leaders are supporting Manley, including former Fort Lauderdale City Commission candidate Marie Huntley, known as Miss Peaches, and Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward activist Tifanny Burks.

“When I'm putting my energy behind candidates, especially in 2020, it’s the people who I've seen repeatedly showing up to protests, who are listening to the organizers on the ground, who are taking that and incorporating it into their platforms,” Burks said. “And Elijah’s one of those people.”

Whichever candidate is elected, he’ll be in the Democratic minority in the House.

Democrats in the Legislature often split on strategy: Do you fight hard on every issue, knowing you’ll lose? Or do you choose your battles carefully, negotiating with Republicans in hopes of getting some small wins?

“There's certainly room for both and there's need for both,” said Calderin, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.

“Right now, we have far too many who are willing to play nicely and not enough who are willing to take the fight to the Republicans,” Calderin said.

He's supporting Manley in hopes of getting a fighter.

Florida House photo Bobby DuBose 2019.jpg
Florida House
Rep. Bobby DuBose, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, participates in a meeting of the House Transportation and Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee in January 2019.

The established incumbent

Bobby DuBose has focused on education and criminal justice reform during his six years in the Legislature, fighting to raise teacher pay and restrict the use of restraint and seclusion — controversial strategies often deployed by schools to discipline students with disabilities. He has also worked to secure compensation for people who were wrongly incarcerated.

He was a leading voice in the push to secure posthumous pardons for the Groveland Four, Black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in central Florida in 1949 and were killed or imprisoned because of the lie. The Legislature voted to offer their families an official apology, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis granted the pardons earlier this year.

“That was a huge deal. That was a big win for our community,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, a fellow Black Democrat who represents West Park and is running for a state Senate seat. “Bobby has done a lot, not just for his community, but for the state of Florida.”

DuBose characterized his work on the Groveland Four as part of a larger commitment to dismantling institutional and systemic racism.

“This is very personal to me. I live this on so many different levels,” DuBose said. “I'm not doing this because it’s cool. I’m doing it because I'm raising four young Black boys in this America. And every day, every decision I make, I think about how it's going to impact them.”

Those young Black boys are his sons Ethan and Jacob and his nephews Michael and Mylik, whom he and his wife Yvette took in and raised as their own. Yvette is helping out in DuBose’s race as his communications director.

DuBose’s colleagues describe him as hardworking and reliable, solid on Democrats’ litmus test issues like public education and abortion rights.

The incoming co-leader of the House Democratic minority, DuBose plays a statewide role in working to elect more Democrats to the chamber. Currently, there are 46 Democrats out of 120 seats; it was 47 before former Broward County commissioner and Rep. Kristin Jacobs died of cancer in April.

House Victory, the political fundraising arm, hasn’t supported either candidate in DuBose’s contest; as a matter of policy, the group stays out of races in safe Democratic seats, concentrating resources on its efforts to oust Republicans.

The fact that DuBose is sharing the leadership position in itself is a sign that he’s a team player, his colleagues said. His partner in the post will be Hollywood Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne, who said the caucus has been at odds in recent years and needed to avoid a divisive leadership fight.

“You always hear about it in politics: ‘Oh, they need to create a unity ticket, a unity ticket.’ We actually did that,” Jenne said.

Jenne said DuBose’s work during this year’s legislative session demonstrates the kind of legislator and the kind of person he is.

DuBose and Jenne were freshman legislators together along with Jacobs. DuBose organized a dinner in Tallahassee in January so Jacobs could reunite with her full class, some of whom are no longer in office. It turned out to be their final gathering.

DuBose also helped Jacobs with her legislative work as she battled colon cancer.

“Bobby basically kept everything he was working on … thrown over one shoulder, and when Kristin got sick, … he picked up everything over his other shoulder,” Jenne said. “Bobby was managing bills for her. Bobby was presenting bills for her. He was doing the job for two.”

The Florida House of Representatives chamber
The Florida House of Representatives chamber

At issue in the race: campaign finance

The opponents’ critiques of each other are somewhat familiar in today’s Democratic politics.

Manley has slammed DuBose for taking corporate donations. With more than $100,000 in campaign contributions, DuBose has significantly out-raised his opponent, bringing in donations from some of the major players in Florida politics: U.S. Sugar, Publix, Disney, AT&T and HCA — the largest for-profit hospital chain in the country.

Manley said DuBose should reject donations from donors “whose corporate actions bring direct harm to our district's constituents.” He argued the sugar industry has hurt Florida’s environment and water quality and that for-profit hospitals have contributed to health care being unaffordable for many.

DuBose rejected the notion that accepting corporate dollars means he’s been bought by companies.

“I don't have a million dollars to dump in a race to let you know who I am and what I'm doing. And so I do raise funds. I do have fundraisers. And people do give money to support my candidacy,” DuBose said. “But my record will show you that that does not dictate and guide me.”

He offered an example: the Fraternal Order of Police supported him during his 2009 run for Fort Lauderdale City Commission. Shortly after taking office, DuBose voted against a pay increase for police, arguing it was financially irresponsible given the economic crisis at the time.

Manley said he has not accepted donations from corporations, but his campaign finance records are not complete. He has been fined thousands of dollars this cycle for filing late and incomplete records of his donations, although he said he is hoping to come to a settlement agreement with state officials. According to his current filings with the Florida Division of Elections, he has raised about $35,000.

Manley argued the campaign finance reporting system is difficult to use and said he doesn’t have the money to hire staff. He also pointed out that he has hundreds of donors who give small amounts — many just $1, $5 or $10 — which makes listing the donations time consuming. And the missed filings also took place while he was battling pneumonia earlier this year. He believes he suffered from COVID-19 but said he was not able to get a test at the time. As a result of his illness, he said, he got behind.

The Sun Sentinel editorial board cited Manley’s financial woes as evidence of his inexperience. DuBose agreed.

“In this climate, we don't really have the luxury of having someone start learning on the job. This particular cycle, … our lives depend on it,” DuBose said. “We've got to make sure that we have folks that are going to be able to, on day one, know how to maneuver the process. We don't have time to let this moment pass by.”

Manley called that argument “condescending” and pointed to other Florida politicians who started young: Rep. Dan Daley, who was first elected to the Coral Springs City Commission at 22, and former Tallahassee mayor and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who won his first race in the capital city’s government when he was 23.

“I'm not some type of person who doesn't know anything and will go to Tallahassee and be struggling to really learn,” Manley said.

There is no Republican or unaffiliated candidate running in the general, so the primary is open: anyone in the district can vote, regardless of party.

Early voting in Broward County began Aug. 8 and continues through Sunday, Aug. 16. Election Day is Tuesday, Aug. 18.