Florida Democrats recoil at Karen Bass VP floatJune 27, 2020
Florida Democrats are rising in opposition to the news Joe Biden is vetting a running mate who once lamented the death of “Comandante en jefe” Fidel Castro.
An early ally of Biden’s presidential campaign, California Rep. Karen Bass’ name surfaced this week as a possible vice-presidential pick who could help balance his ticket because of her deep progressive roots and her activism against police brutality, an emerging issue in the presidential race.
But Bass‘ comments about the longtime Cuban leader following his death in 2016 — when she respectfully called him “comandante en jefe” (in Spanish, commander in chief) — is politically poisonous in Florida and even more toxic in Miami, home to many exiles from socialist Latin American regimes that include Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
The Florida Democratic Party has spent two years fighting a renewed GOP effort to brand them as socialists, and the state and national parties are spending big this year in Miami to defend two congressional seats and win two crucial state Senate contests in districts with sizable Cuban-American populations. All four lawmakers condemned Bass’ Castro remarks.
“The comments are troubling. It shows a lack of understanding about what the Castro regime was about. So I have to learn more about her position and perspective on Fidel Castro,” said Miami state Rep. Javier Fernandez, whose bid for an open state Senate seat could bring Democrats closer than ever to flipping control of the chamber.
“Praise like the one that was given by Bass at the time of Castro’s death is inconsistent with my family’s experience with what the regime did — and continues to do — to people on the island, which is to suppress human rights, keep people under a totalitarian thumb and stifle economic growth,” Fernandez told POLITICO.
Bass’ congressional office pointed out that her remarks were similar to those made by President Obama at a time when the U.S. sought better relations with Cuba.
The Biden campaign declined comment about either the controversy or the running-mate vetting process. It’s keenly aware of how explosive remarks about Castro are after his opponent, Bernie Sanders, was buried in an avalanche of criticism over comments that failed to condemn the Cuban dictator.
With such antipathy toward Castro and socialism, Florida became the first state in the primary in which Biden won a clear majority of Hispanic voters, a signature victory that put a sizable dent in a progressive talking point that the issue no longer mattered to Latino voters in the biggest swing state in the nation.
Polls show Biden with a 7-point lead in Florida right now, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. But Democrats worry the presence of Bass on the ticket would needlessly help Republicans in a state where the GOP has historically eked out come-from-behind wins. Florida Democrats also favor a home-state congressional candidate as Biden’s running mate, with Val Demings also under consideration. Demings, a Florida congresswoman who is African-American, is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus while Bass chairs the group.
Two of their congressional colleagues from Miami, Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, are facing reelection challenges from Cuban-American Republicans who have made socialism a top issue. Both support Demings as a running mate for Biden but say that Bass‘ comments in their own right are problematic, and both had also condemned Sanders remarks about Castro in the primary.
“I disagree with the Congresswoman’s comments on Cuba. I invite people to come to Miami where we can educate them on the tyrannical dictatorship that has decimated Cuba for 60 years,” Shalala said, adding “my focus is on helping her and Joe Biden win Florida, the White House, and save our country.”
Mucarsel-Powell said she opposes “comments that show an ounce of sympathy for violent dictators.” Like Shalala, however, she declined to criticize Bass directly.
Bass’ congressional office stood by her 2016 remarks about Castro’s death, when she said, “I wish to express my condolences to the Cuban people and the family of Fidel Castro. The passing of the comandante en jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba. I hope together, our two nations will continue on the new path of support and collaboration with one another, and continue in the new direction of diplomacy.”
A spokesman for Bass told POLITICO in a written statement that the comments underscore how she had “long been an advocate for improved relations with Cuba, which is why she traveled to Cuba with Secretary Kerry in 2015 when he raised the US flag over our embassy in Havana; and separately with President Obama for his historic visit in early 2016. Her condolence statement, which like President Obama’s and Secretary [of State John] Kerry’s statements called for relations to continue in the then-new path of support and collaboration, is consistent with her belief in the power of diplomacy to forge better relations among nations, even in the face of fundamental disagreements with their governments and leaders.”
The night before commenting to POLITICO, the California congresswoman’s office briefly took down the comments from her website. When the site went live again, it featured Kerry’s and Obama’s remarks as well.
President Donald Trump’s campaign said in a written statement that the controversy with Bass was “further evidence that Joe Biden’s pool of potential VP candidates is an ever-shrinking group of radical leftists who look approvingly at brutal, socialist, totalitarian regimes. The names on this list are walking, talking proof that Biden is too weak to stand up to the most extreme fringe of his party, including people who remember Fidel Castro fondly.”
Miami Democrats say there’s a distinction between Bass’s remarks and those of Obama and Kerry: the use of the phrase “comandante en jefe” which to many Cuban-Americans sounds like a term of endearment.
“His followers called him comandante en jefe so they didn’t have to call him ‘G-d’ in public, and his detractors so they didn’t have to call him ‘El Diablo’ in public, too,” state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami-area Democrat and Colombian-American, said via text message.
“As someone that was thoroughly vetted before, I can tell you that words matter, especially if you put them in writing,” said Taddeo, who ran for lieutenant governor in the state in 2014. “As a running mate, there are consequences to what you say and write, especially in Florida, where no matter what the polls say today, our state will be decided by less than one point.”
Taddeo isn’t on the ballot, but Fernandez and state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez are. Democrats are four seats away from winning control of the Florida Senate. A fourth Miami-area seat, held by a Cuban-American Republican, is up in 2022, when the Florida legislature begins the once-a-decade redistricting process.
Fernandez and Rodriguez, who has been a surrogate for Biden’s campaign, both said Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy on standing up to socialist regimes after Sen. Marco Rubio’s longtime friend, former Rep. David Rivera, inked a lucrative deal with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and Trump’s refusal to grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans as he began turning his back on Juan Guaidó, once recognized by the administration as Venezuela’s legitimate leader over Nicolas Maduro.
“I trust Vice President Biden’s search and vetting process,” Rodriguez said. “Just like we condemn Trump’s abandonment of Guaidó, the legitimate democratic leader of Venezuela, in favor of usurper and dictator Maduro and just like we condemn David Rivera working for Maduro, so do we condemn statements made by Rep. Bass that fail to repudiate the brutal oppression of communism and the Castro regime.”