Jeff Atwater, David Jolly star at Pinellas GOP Lincoln Day Dinner


As one of the major counties along the I-4 corridor, Pinellas County will be a contested piece of real estate in choosing the next U.S. president. Ensuring it goes for the GOP nominee is in 2016 is the No. 1 goal for Pinellas Republicans for the next 18 months, recently elected party Chairman Nick DiCeglie said this weekend

The 2016 election was mentioned frequently during the course of the 2-1/2-hour Lincoln Day Dinner held by the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee on Friday night at the Hilton Carillon Park in St. Peterburg. It featured speakers state CFO Jeff Atwater and U.S. Rep. David Jolly, along with brief video comments made by potential presidential aspirants former Florida Gov.  Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

A total of 392 people attended, and the event brought in more than $127,000.

For many in the audience, it was their first time to see and hear Atwater in person. The state’s Chief Financial Officer is considered a leading candidate for the GOP nomination for the 2016 U.S. Senate seat, especially if Marco Rubio opts to not run for re-election. The West Palm Beach resident didn’t go for the red meat traditionally offered in such venues, however, instead giving a Ronald Reagan-type speech celebrating American ingenuity.

Slightly longer than 20 minutes in length, Atwater began his speech boasting about the state’s current economic fortune coming out of the Great Recession. He gave praise to current and previous Pinellas state lawmakers in the room for helping to get the state out of troubled times without raising taxes, and said it was all about the Republicans in Tallahassee trusting in the people.

Referring to how states such Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York Jersey raised taxes and their debt to balance their budgets, he boasted about how Florida chose a different path.

“We chose to worry more about your books than ours. We choose where you would be going with your small business rather than us, because we believed if we could focus on creating conditions for your success, by unleashing your creativity … you would bring us back.”

He then joked about what he called President Barack Obama‘s failures and how he only learned about them through reading The New York Times. “All he has to do was watch Fox and he knows everything in the world,” he said.

Then he went on a different journey, spending the majority of his time recounting some of America’s greatest inventors, starting with the Founding Fathers creating the Declaration of Independence. He ultimately name checked various entrepreneurs such as Eli Whitney, Charles Goodyear, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers. It went deeply historical, but the kicker — which was that some of those great innovators would have been hampered by regulations and government bureaucracy — came late in the speech.

Too late for some. Notably, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis could be seen reviewing his emails on his smartphone a couple of times during the dissertation.

Jolly provided the Obama-bashing. The CD 13 congressman noted that he has been in office a little more than a year, boasting that his victory catapulted the GOP to its historic congressional gains in November. He took plenty of shots at President Obama’s foreign policy, saying that he has turned “history upside down” by negotiating with Iran and Cuba and “letting” Russia intervene in neighboring Ukraine.

He went on to say Obama’s foreign policy “compromises our national security,” and said that while the U.S. no longer has to be the world’s policeman, “We do need to be the world’s leader.”

The most interesting part of his speech was his criticism of fellow House Republicans (such as Bilirakis) who voted in favor of the budget resolution that passed the House. Jolly was one of only 17 House Republicans to oppose it. “As a party we need to challenge ourselves on this,” he cautioned. “We need to do better.”

He said Republicans have to be a “solutions-oriented party” on how they eliminate deficits, proclaiming, “I have no interest in being part of a U.S Congress that I’m going to look back on one day and recognize that we actually increased the debt over the time of my tenure, not decrease it. We need candidates that share that commitment.”

Jolly and DiCeglie also cautioned all those in attendance to remain united as the party battles it out for their presidential nominee, words that take on resonance more than ever with state heavyweights Bush and Rubio possibly about to battle it out during the coming year.

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at [email protected].


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