After Action Review

Why DMFI entered the Florida 20 race

DMFI’s political action committee nearly $32,000 against state lawmaker Omari Hardy

Wilfredo Lee/AP

Florida Rep. Omari Hardy debates a bill during a legislative session, Tuesday, April 27, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

Before Omari Hardy went public with a slate of controversial Middle East foreign policy views last month, Israel was a virtual non-issue in Florida’s 20th Congressional District special election to succeed the late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL). Like most candidates in the 11-way primary that took place on Nov. 2, Hardy, a 31-year-old state lawmaker from Palm Beach County, had broadly expressed his support for Israel at a local Jewish Democratic forum in September. 

He reversed course in a mid-October interview with Jewish Insider, declaring his opposition to supplemental Iron Dome funding for Israel and coming out in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Jewish state. Hardy’s about-face unsettled the dynamics of a relatively uneventful race, bringing Israel to the forefront and setting the stage for a possible showdown with the pro-Israel community.

Two weeks later, Democratic Majority for Israel was on his case. With just five days remaining until the primary in the South Florida district, which includes West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, the pro-Israel advocacy group spent nearly $32,000 on phone banking and print and digital advertising, hitting the first-term lawmaker over his positions on BDS and Iron Dome funding. 

“Until Hardy emerged as an anti-Israel candidate, there was not a compelling reason for us to be engaged in the race,” Mark Mellman, the president of DMFI’s political action committee, explained in an interview with JI on Thursday. “Once he emerged as an anti-Israel candidate, there was a compelling rationale to make sure that he did as poorly as possible.”

Hardy, a staunch progressive who identified with the coalition of outspoken far-left House members known informally as the “Squad,” placed sixth in the Tuesday election, garnering support in the mid-single digits, consistent with polling conducted in mid-October that put him in a similar position.

“This is a guy who, more or less at the last minute, changed his position on Israel issues to try and cultivate an anti-Israel audience,” Mellman charged. “It was critically important to us not only that he not win, but that his vote be held down as low as possible.”

DMFI’s five-figure independent expenditure, spaced out over the course of a few days, was relatively meager compared with its last — and perhaps most high-profile — offensive strike, when the group poured more than $2 million into the Ohio House primary between Shontel Brown and Nina Turner this summer. 

But Mellman said it would be unwise to compare DMFI’s approach in the two races. In Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, the “objective” was to elect Brown, a pro-Israel Democrat and local party chair, “in what was, in effect, a two-woman race with an opponent who was well-known and spent over $6 million,” Mellman told JI. “We achieved our goals in both elections, but each required something different.”

DMFI’s first anti-Hardy ad, published in the Oct. 27 print edition of the South Florida Jewish Journal, noted the first-term lawmaker’s support of “the anti-Israel and antisemitic BDS movement,” while lambasting his opposition to legislation that would guarantee $1 billion in supplemental aid for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system.

Whether Jewish voters in the district were in need of the nudge was somewhat unlikely. Most Jewish community members in the district who spoke with JI in the lead-up to the election had ruled out voting for Hardy because of his positions on Israel. 

Still, Mellman argued that from his vantage point, Hardy seemed potentially more viable than the election results indicated. He had, for instance, earned an endorsement from the leading local daily, the Sun-Sentinel, and, in the final days of the race, received major support from a progressive political action committee boosting his campaign on television.

“We saw a need here, and we entered, and we ended up with exactly the kind of outcome that we wanted,” Mellman said.

Mellman downplayed the suggestion that DMFI’s South Florida attack might, in advance of the 2022 midterms, represent a warning shot against progressive primary challengers who express anti-Israel views. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he said. “I would say, if we look at all the elections that took place on Tuesday, there is a lesson.”

“You had Shontel Brown winning overwhelmingly in the general election, having beaten an anti-Israel candidate in the primary,” Mellman said. “Eric Adams was a strong defender of Israel throughout the mayoral campaign,” he added, referring to New York City’s mayor-elect, who prevailed in a crowded Democratic primary last June before winning the general election earlier this week by a decisive margin. “There are some other candidates who weren’t, and they fell by the wayside, and he’s the guy that got elected mayor.”

“The fundamental lesson is that being an anti-Israel candidate makes no political sense,” Mellman claimed.

With the midterms on the horizon, Mellman said that DMFI is mulling involvement in a number of upcoming elections, in spite of the uncertainties around redistricting. “We’ll be involved in those races where we can make a difference and where a difference needs to be made,” he said.

Potential forays might include New York’s 12th Congressional District, where Rana Abdelhamid, a progressive activist who supports conditioning aid to Israel, is challenging Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) with backing from Justice Democrats; Texas’s 28th Congressional District, where Jessica Cisneros, another Justice Democrats-backed candidate, is gearing up for her second bid to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX); and Illinois’s 6th Congressional District, where a redrawn map is pitting Rep. Marie Newman (D-IL), who opposed Iron Dome funding in September, against Reps. Sean Casten (D-IL).

DMFI was the only pro-Israel group directly involved in the South Florida race, although the Jewish Democratic Council of America did host a candidate forum on Oct. 20. Neither organization made an endorsement in the race. The special election is almost certainly headed for a recount after Tuesday’s results showed a virtual tie between Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness and healthcare executive Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick. Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief came in third.

“We would have been thrilled with a lot of different people coming in first,” Mellman said, “and the people who came in first, second and third were all very good from our point of view.”

As for Hardy, Mellman said he had no “particular inkling” that the state representative would adopt a tougher stance on Israel, on which he has doubled down since the interview with JI a few weeks ago. “I’ve talked to a number of people in Florida who know him in the legislature,” Mellman said, “and I will say they didn’t have any particular inkling either.”

Hardy did not respond to a request for comment from JI. But he seems to have relished his position as DMFI’s latest bête noire, former versions of which have included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and 2020 Massachusetts congressional candidate Alex Morse

“ACHIEVEMENT: Unlocked!” Hardy tweeted last week after DMFI unleashed its first salvo in the district. “The Democratic Majority for Israel (@DemMaj4Israel) is attacking me for supporting Palestinian human rights. Who else has earned DMFI’s ire?” Tagging a group of progressive Democrats, including Turner and Bowman, Hardy added: “I couldn’t ask for better company.”

Mellman said the tweet made no sense to him. “I don’t even get it,” he told JI. “I don’t know what he unlocked or whatever. But what was locked up was his failure in the race.”

A few days later, in late October, Hardy returned another volley from DMFI, again on social media. “Hey, @DemMaj4Israel!,” he wrote on Twitter. “The next time you do a robocall attacking me for supporting human rights in Palestine, you might want to remove me from the call list! 😂 That might save you a few cents.”

“It is clearly a waste of effort and campaign resources to bash a candidate to the very candidate that you’re bashing,” Hardy added in a follow-up tweet. “It’s amateurish and careless and it shows how little thought went into the effort. That is all.”

For his part, Mellman seemed unbothered by the accusation. “Our goal was to make sure he lost,” he said of Hardy. “He went down in flames. He can make whatever jokes he wants. But we’re the ones that are laughing last.”