By year's end, a major change will hit the Broward Democratic Party. For the first time in two decades, Mitch Ceasar won't be at the helm, and the most Democratic county in the state will have a new party chairman.
Ceasar first became party chairman in 1996, and he's been re-elected every four years – often by mustering the political skills honed by years of party politics to defeat a challenger.
By January, he hopes he'll have a new job, as Broward County's elected clerk of the circuit court. He's competing against Democrats Brenda D. Forman and Elizabeth McHugh. No Republicans are running, so the winner of the Aug. 30 Democratic primary is virtually guaranteed to become the next circuit court clerk. Two write in candidates are running in November, but neither name will appear on the ballot and no write-in candidate has ever won an election in Florida.
Because he's running for clerk, Ceasar has already taken a major step away from the party. He put himself on leave as county chairman in August to focus on his campaign, though he's still a Florida member of the Democratic National Committee. After the primary, he plans to reclaim the keys to the party office for a final three months – and final presidential election.
"I've decided, because the job I'm running for requires serious attention, that I am not going to run for chairman of the party again. I plan to still be active in the Democratic Party [but] it's time to pass the political baton to other folks," he said.
Ceasar, 62, is a lawyer in Plantation with a practice that has included work lobbying city governments and lobbying on their behalf for grants for public works programs. The job of party chairman doesn't pay a salary.
He declined to give himself a grade for his five terms as party chairman. He said he's been in politics and been a lawyer long enough to know that's not a good idea.
"I think I've done pretty well," he said. He said the job can be thankless and tough at times, but "it's one I love."
Among the pluses, he said it's been "electrifying" to see and hear political figures like President Barack Obama in person.
Ceasar was on the front lines during the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, in which Florida's electoral votes were awarded to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.
And, he said, during a series of political stops flying around the state in 1998, he was able to call his children from Air Force One. From the president's plane, Ceasar said he also called his father. "He hung up on me because he thought I was kidding."
He said the lowest point was the outcome of the 2000 election, after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recounting of votes in Florida.
And he laments the state of politics today. "When I started 40 years ago, politics was a contact sport, but things have gotten so much worse. I remember in 2000 thinking things couldn't have gotten worse. And you look back on that thinking it was almost the good old days things have gotten so bad," he said.
Broward County is Florida's Democratic powerhouse. Elected officials at the federal, state legislative, county and city, town and village levels are overwhelmingly Democrats. And the vote that comes out of Broward can determine whether or not statewide elections for president, governor, U.S. Senate and other offices go to the Democrat or the Republican.
The percentage of registered voters who actually turn out to vote in Broward is among the lowest in the state, something that is a big problem for the Democrats during mid-term elections between presidential contests.
Ceasar said the Democratic advantage that comes out of Broward is huge. He's correct, but that hasn't been enough to win recent midterm elections.
In 2014, for example, Democrat Charlie Crist beat Republican Gov. Rick Scott in Broward by 180,556 votes, but Scott won the statewide election by 64,145 votes. In 2010, Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink beat Charlie Crist, then a Republican, by 131,161 votes in Broward. But the Republican won statewide by 61,570 votes.
Demographic change is a major factor. The retirees living in sprawling condominium communities were a large and loyal Democratic voting bloc in past decades. As they've died, Broward has an increasing number of younger voters and a larger share who are African-American and Caribbean-American, blocs who don't have a pattern of turning out as strongly in mid-term elections.
"I saw that coming and tried to, in effect, get other people involved, other groups, put them in the political pipeline, such as the gay and lesbian community, the Caribbean community and other communities," he said. "You didn't have to an actuary to see the senior vote was going to replenish itself, but not at the same rate as it did in the '70s."
After two decades Ceasar has accumulated some detractors. "That's because, if the Democratic chairperson is going to do their job right, they're going to have to say 'no,' and I have had to say 'no' to people every single day for almost 20 years," he said. "If you're going to do the job right, you can't be everybody's friend. You have to be a leader."
Cynthia Busch, a sometimes critic, said Ceasar can effectively communicate on issues, especially on television.
And she credits him for a principled stand in 2010 when he endorsed five incumbent judges up for election, including one Republican. He'd never before endorsed judges, but said at the time he felt compelled to act because all five judges were minorities – and they drew election challenges "because of the color of their skin."
Robin Rorapaugh, a Hollywood political consultant who supported former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch's 2008 unsuccessful campaign for party chairman, said Florida Democrats have had a tough time for much of the last two decades.
"Mitch embraced the challenge of leading the Democrats at a time when we were very much in the wilderness," she said. "It has been a difficult time to build the local parties."
He has lost one political contest, a 1978 race for state representative when he'd just finished law school. The lesson learned, he said: "It's more fun to win."
Personal: Age 62; wife, Donnie; two children
Residence: Plantation (moved to Broward in 1973).
Education: Bachelor's degree, Florida Atlantic University; law degree, Nova Southeastern University.
Political career: Democratic precinct committeeman, 1974 to present; unsuccessful candidate for state representative, 1978; executive vice president, Florida Young Democrats, 1977; treasurer, Sawgrass Expressway Authority, 1984; Broward Democratic Party chairman, 1996 to present (on self-imposed leave since August 2015); director, Federal Home Loan Bank Board, 1998 to 2000; member, Democratic National Committee, January 1997 to present (Rules Committee, 1997 to 2007; Southern Caucus vice chairman, 2000-2006; Executive Board, 2007 to present); chairman, Florida Democratic Party, 1998; candidate for Broward County clerk of the circuit court, 2016.