Billy Corben blasts Miami-Dade Dems leadership for refusing to move Chair vote from Passover Shabbat

‘We’re supposed to be better than this.’

Documentarian Billy Corben is calling out leadership within the Miami-Dade Democratic Party for refusing to reschedule its Special Election for a new Chair so it doesn’t conflict with a Jewish high holiday.

Corben, who is seeking the Chair post, says the party’s unwillingness to budge is yet another example of why it is overdue an overhaul. Miami Gardens Sen. Shevrin Jones, who is running with support from the acting Chair, is less critical of the party but supported changing the election date.

Miami-Dade College Democrats President Manuel Fernandez and Biscayne Gardens Chamber of Commerce President Bernard Jennings are also candidates.

Members of the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee (DEC) are set to vote 7-9:30 p.m. Friday for someone to serve as Chair through December, when the position will again be up for grabs.

But there’s a problem. Friday after sundown, when voting is to occur, coincides with the sabbath during Passover, an eight-day holiday that with Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah constitute the Jewish high holidays.

For orthodox and conservative Jews, as well as some reformed members of the religion, the weekly sabbath — called Shabbat in Hebrew and among people of the Jewish faith — is a day of rest. Work is forbidden, as is the use of electricity and motor vehicles.

The upcoming sabbath, Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach, is observed similarly to normal sabbaths but it attracts more participants because of Passover.

On Sunday night, Corben called on acting Miami-Dade DEC Chair Laura Wagner to reschedule the election so it would “maximize participation by my fellow Jewish DEC members and avoid any perception of anti-Semitism.”

Wagner did not respond. She also did not respond to a request for comment Florida Politics sent Monday morning.

Eden Giagnorio, Communications Director for the Florida Democratic Party, told Florida Politics the Miami-Dade DEC will not honor Corben’s request.

“As Passover begins today, the Miami-Dade DEC is moving forward with a sense of urgency to hold the election for a new Chair on Friday,” she said by text. “Any members who cannot attend in-person on Friday may send a proxy vote on their behalf. The stakes for 2024 are too high to stall progress.”

Corben took the issue online to X, where he again called for the election to be reset to a later, more inclusive date. The responses ranged from outraged to mocking.

“Florida rarely shocks me, but it regularly disappoints me,” he said.

He told Florida Politics that past Chairs Joe Geller and Annette Taddeo, both former lawmakers whom Corben sought as moderators for a since-canceled candidate forum, tried to bring the Passover conflict issue to the DEC’s attention. Geller corroborated this during a brief phone conversation Monday. Florida Politics also reached Taddeo, but she couldn’t speak at length due to a family issue.

Corben said the inconsiderate scheduling and subsequent snub by DEC leadership, compounded by what’s happening overseas and on college campuses across the country, only fuel concerns that Democrats have an antisemitism problem.

“The scheduling issue is occurring now, at a time when tensions are so fraught in the Middle East and with issues surrounding Gaza and Israel. The news this week has been about Columbia University nonstop. And the fact is there are a lot of Jews who feel unwelcome in the Democratic Party,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m one of them, but what we’re doing here in Miami-Dade is not helping to dispel the reputation that Democrats are unfriendly to Jewish people.”

He noted that if the Special Election were scheduled for Good Friday or during the month of Ramadan, the holiest period of the year for Muslims, he’d feel the same way.

“We’re supposed to be better than this,” he said. “We point at the Republicans when they pull these kinds of shenanigans. We’re supposed to believe in free and fair elections and maximizing turnout and enfranchisement. We’re supposed to want open and honest debates. The White House had to make a statement and speak up about the fact that Jews feel they’re maybe not welcome in the Democratic Party anymore. I don’t want my fellow Jews to feel that way.”

Shevrin Jones was the first to announce his candidacy for DEC Chair. Three others have since entered the fray. Image via Colin Hackley/Florida Politics.

Party unrest

Corben announced his candidacy for DEC Chair last week. He said he’s running to reverse Democrats’ losing trend in Miami-Dade County, which will likely feature many short-term losses as the party recalibrates. He also wanted to prevent what would otherwise amount to a “coronation” of Jones, a well-regarded rising star in the Democratic Party whom President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign has tapped as a surrogate.

Jones boasts ample bona fides necessary for the DEC Chair job. He’s a trailblazer, the first openly gay person elected to the Florida Senate, and a more than capable lawmaker. He’s also frequently in the conversation about potential 2026 candidates for Governor and helmed numerous voter engagement initiatives focused on helping Democrats regain ground in a state where Republicans now outnumber them by a nearly 900,000-person margin.

Jones confirmed his candidacy for DEC Chair last Tuesday, three days before Corben said he would run. Speaking by phone Monday, Jones told Florida Politics he was displeased that ongoing turmoil within his party was gaining attention rather than its efforts to win races this year.

“The fact that this has become the headline as far as media is concerned as it pertains to Miami-Dade County, it’s unfortunate because we didn’t have to get to this point,” he said. “There’s so much work that we need to be doing, and the fact that the party is spending time on something like this takes energy away from planning what we need to be doing within the next several months before the election. It’s not contributing to us winning.”

Regarding Corben’s request that the DEC Chair election be moved to a later date, Jones said he’d prefer the party honor it.

“I don’t think we should disregard this,” he said. “We don’t need to rush to do it Friday. We don’t want to ostracize people, and our Jewish brothers and sisters shouldn’t feel as if they have to choose between (observing their religion and voting).”

Jones carries an endorsement from Wagner, who took over as acting Chair after Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried removed Robert Dempster from the position last month along with two other county Chairs.

Fried initially suspended Dempster, who had faced criticism for more than a year before his ouster. Democratic supporter Thomas Kennedy, a former Florida Democratic National Committee member, called Depster’s removal “an embarrassing waste of time,” according to NBC News.

Complaints against Dempster included that he denied requests by other DEC members to reconvene in-person meetings. Dempster explained that it was easier to make a quorum by holding them remotely.

Corben said that it was for that reason that on Friday he organized an in-person Chair candidates forum for this Wednesday in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. Dempster, Geller and Taddeo agreed to serve as moderators. To accommodate everyone, he later changed it to a hybrid format, with in-person and remote attendees both being able to ask candidates questions.

But just after 10 p.m. Sunday, Wagner sent an email to DEC members saying the Miami-Dade Democratic Party would host a candidates forum of its own — at roughly the same time and day as Corben’s event. Miami Herald political reporter David Smiley is set to moderate.

The email came from the account of the party’s former Secretary, Nikola Patterson-Molina, who resigned amid the March shakeup. Wagner did not identify herself in the email, signing off only as “Secretary.”

Joe Geller said scheduling an election for Friday night is “inconvenient as hell,” regardless of whether it also conflicts with a holiday. “We didn’t have to do that.” Image via Joe Geller.

Before canceling his event, Corben wrote back with three concerns. First, the DEC-organized forum would be remote-only, which could put “less politically connected” candidates at a disadvantage. Second, Wagner’s involvement could constitute a conflict of interest, since she endorsed Jones. He said she should recuse herself.

Corben’s third concern was about the event’s conflict with Passover Shabbat. Asked by text just before 6 p.m. Monday whether Wagner replied to his email, Corben wrote, ‘Ha. No.”

Dempster said by text that he has “no idea” why Wagner chose to hold the election on Passover.

“I certainly cannot explain her steadfast refusal to reschedule after validating concerns have been raised by multiple DEC members of the Jewish faith,” he said.

Geller, who is running for the Miami-Dade School Board, questioned why the DEC chose to step in with its own forum after Corben already arranged for one to take place. He said he hadn’t known Corben’s event wasn’t under the official DEC banner until later.

“I just thought it was a nice thing,” he said, adding: “It’s funny. They threw out the previous Chair because he only did stuff on Zoom, and now they’re doing this on Zoom.”

But Geller pushed back on Corben’s argument that Wagner’s endorsement of Jones was inappropriate, noting that he’d done the same thing during his two-plus decades as Chair.

He also said that while people were upset with Dempster being invited to participate — and in one case drawing a comment Dempster decried as “the single most racist thing” he’d ever heard from party leadership — he’d more than earned his place at the moderator table.

“He’d been removed — I didn’t support that — but he was still the Chair of the party, and I don’t think it’s like (Leon) Trotsky where we should be writing him out of history like he never existed,” Geller said “I hope it’s not that. There’s been enough recriminations. We should be trying to unify now, not continuing to have divisiveness.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.



    April 23, 2024 at 12:22 am

    Good Morn ‘Ting America,
    As we now see and as I, Earl Pitts American, wisely informed several months back we are whitnessing a mass exit of American Jews from The Democratic Party.
    I, Earl Pitts American, am sorry for the deep disapointment, trama, and self-loathing American Jews are dealing with regarding their past shame of supporting The Democratic Party.
    I, Earl Pitts American, Welcome you all to the safety and open arms of Love, Respect, and Honor of The Republican Party. Where you are protected from the wrath of the Evil, Sadistic, Democratic Party and their evil minions.
    And Jewish American Parents you may want to consider bringing your childern home from many of the most radical of America’s Colleges until after we have Donald Trump safely installed in the White House and given another 6 months to restore National Safety along with Law and Order.
    Welcome American Jews to the safety and open arms of The Republican Party. We love you and will restore safety and prosperity for you and your beloved Family.
    Thank you,
    Earl Pitts ” EARL STANDS WITH THE JEWS” American

  • Phil Morton

    April 23, 2024 at 8:08 am

    Joe Geller and Thomas Kennedy are correct. This entire situation should have never come to pass.

Comments are closed.


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