After consulting with family and advisers over the past two weeks, Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee Chair Ione Townsend announced on Thursday that she is now a candidate to chair the Florida Democratic Party. 

What You Need To Know

  • Ione Townsend says Florida Democrats need to invest in Republican counties

  • She says that's the only way to turn the state blue

  • In 2020, Democrats lost two congressional seats, five state House seats, and Trump won big in Florida

“I’m not entering into this decision lightly,” she told Spectrum Bay News 9 this week. 

Townsend, 70, was reelected last week to her third two-year term leading the Hillsborough Democrats. That vote took place a month after the local party’s success stood out in what was otherwise considered a debacle of a statewide election for Democrats, with the party losing two congressional seats, five seats in the state House, and most egregiously, Donald Trump tripling his margin of victory from his 2016 Sunshine win.

“I think, in a time where Democrats lost pretty miserably across the state, Hillsborough was a bright spot,” Democratic strategist Maya Brown says.

As was the case in 2016, the presidential contest in Hillsborough last month wasn’t very close, with Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump by 6.8 points – almost exactly the same margin by which Hillary Clinton won the county four years earlier. 

Hillsborough’s reputation as a national bellwether in presidential elections is (at least for now) ancient history, as it has emerged over the past three election cycles as a Democratic stronghold in Florida. Democrats control the county commission by a 5-2 margin and hold all constitutional offices with the exception of Sheriff, where Republican Chad Chronister was criticized in his primary campaign for previously donating to Democratic candidates.

Townsend said her strategy, if elected as statewide chair, would be to “export” her success in Hillsborough to other counties throughout the state.

“The number one priority has to be to support those red counties,” she said. “Especially the local party structure and their volunteers. That’s where the heavy lifting is done. But if we do not have a plan to help them develop the infrastructure that they need to register voters, to get voters to sign up to vote by mail, and to turn those voters out, then we’re going to continue to lose.”

There are currently more than 74,000 more Democrats than Republicans in Hillsborough, explaining in part some of the party’s successes in recent years. Fundraising has also increased in recent years, in part due to the efforts led by executive director Mark Hanisee.  

But Susan Smith, the former Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida chair, says that Townsend deserves a tremendous amount of credit.

“I say that the money wasn’t there before because the party wasn’t there before,” she says. “I’ve been involved in the local party for 15 years. I’ve worked under eight different chairs in this local party, and I know the difference in what we have now. And I’m sure the donors recognize that also. So I think that if you build it, they will come. Ione has built it.”

And she wants to make it bigger. 

Speaking on behalf of her own candidacy at last week’s Hillsborough County Democratic Party election, Townsend said the party had raised $750,000 over the last two years, and she was now aiming to raise one million dollars over the next two years. She also said she wants to increase voter turnout by five percent and add the number of precinct captains from 425 to 500.

Townsend is the fifth candidate to enter the race for Democratic Party Chair (Learn more about the other candidates below) 

The first candidate to enter the race, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, seemingly rolls out another list of high-profile Democrats endorsing his candidacy every week. Among those backing him include Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Tampa state Senator Janet Cruz.

Townsend says she’s undeterred, citing her own list of endorsements.

“Mayor Castor doesn’t have a vote,” she responds. “We don’t know if Senator Cruz will have a vote.”

Most of those local endorsements for Diaz took place before Townsend entered the contest.

 “I would encourage everybody who has gone out ahead of the field, and endorsed the first candidate who has shown up, to reconsider some of us who have a really strong record

Maya Brown – who is neutral in the contest – sums up the challenge the next chair will face.

“A lot of folks are going to talk about you whether you do good or bad and I think for the foreseeable future, there’s a lot of stuff to fix. Not just from the institution, but also the messaging.”

The FDP party chair election is expected to take place next month, though a specific date has not been set yet.

Other Candidates in the Race

  • Nikki Barnes, 39  Democratic National Committee member from Wakulla County

  • Cynthia Moore Chestnut, 71 – Chestnut is a Gainesville resident and since 2014 has been the chair of the Alachua County Democratic Party. She’s also been a civil rights pioneer. She was the first Black woman elected to the Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission. She served five terms in the Florida House of Representatives (1990-2000)

  • Dr. Janelle Christensen – A USF graduate from Fort Myers who is the current chair of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida.

  • Manny Diaz, 66 – Diaz was the mayor of Miami from 2001 to 2009, and has a number of major endorsements of any of the candidates in the race, including Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have also cast their support for Diaz.