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Five takeaways from a night of politics in St. Pete

Thursday night was big for St. Pete politics.

That evening, several local candidates mingled at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce’s Popcorn and Politics hobnob. Later, local Democratic candidates spoke at a Sierra Club-sponsored gathering at Cage Brewery, featuring a surprise appearance from Lt. Gov. nominee Chris King.

King spoke at the Chamber event asking voters to choose the Democratic ticket this November. King is running alongside Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum to replace outgoing Gov. Rick Scott. Gillum’s opponent, Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis, could not make the event, instead sending a surrogate to speak on behalf of the campaign. DeSantis chose Pinellas County Commissioner Jay Beyrouti.

The two were the only to speak at Popcorn and Politics formally. Other candidates prowled the room speaking with voters. Jeff Brandes and his opponent, Democrat Lindsay Cross, both worked the room. Jennifer Webb, the Democrat running to succeed Kathleen Peters in her House District 69 seat was also there, but her opponent, Ray Blacklidge was not.

Peters, who is running for Pinellas County Commission to replace the late John Morroni and her opponent, Amy Kedron, both were unable to attend but sent campaign staff.


George Buck, the Republican challenging Congressman Charlie Crist in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, was there, but Crist was in Washington D.C. and sent staff.

Cross and Webb both spoke later at Cage Brewery.

Here are five takeaways from the Thursday evening politicking:

Don’t send Jay Beyrouti to do your bidding.

Seriously, DON’T. Beyrouti’s brand of politics no doubt align with some members of the Republican Party. He, after all, led the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee for four years until stepping down in 2012. But he’s not exactly what one might call, a captivating speaker.

Beyrouti spoke for about five minutes. The gist of his talking points was this simple: DeSantis is a good Christian. DeSantis will be tough on crime and ban sanctuary cities. DeSantis wants school choice. DeSantis is proud of free-market conservatism. 

That was his basic sentence profile for almost the entire speech. There were long, awkward pauses between sentences — during which you could sometimes even hear people groaning, sighing or whispering to the person next to them.

There was one zinger.

“Oh, he’s also not, I might add, under FBI investigation.”

Chris King recognizes he needs local candidates to succeed.

“You can’t just send us to Tallahassee without sending a whole bunch of wonderful representatives and senators. Please, please don’t just focus all of your attention on electing Andrew Gillum and Chris King. If you send us up there without those folks, it’s going to be pretty miserable,” King said during his Cage appearance.

This is important because both Gillum and King have been speaking to groups and appearing at rallies all over the state since Gillum won the Democratic Primary in August. The pair pitch a bunch of priorities, but, most notably, the $1 billion plan to increase per-pupil spending in public schools and raise teacher salaries.

However, when asked last week whether that’s possible without adequate support from Democrats in the House and Senate, King didn’t really have an answer.

Local Democrats seemed a whole lot more into winning than Republicans.

Brandes showed up to schmooze with voters, but he stuck with a familiar crowd chatting with current and former staffers and other supporters. He shook some hands and answered some questions, but it was his opponent, Cross, who was really working the room.

Cross was constantly talking to someone. She assertively approached anyone who wasn’t already engaged in conversation and inserted herself into some ongoing conversations. Her campaign manager, Ella Coffee, also worked the room. Later, at Cage Brewery, Cross, an environmental scientist, took the stage with a powerful and enthusiastic speech.

“This is the time for us to rally together and say we are sick and tired of the special interests being a priority over the people,” Cross said. “I’m not taking any of that bull crap. We need to be putting a scientist into the Senate.”

Webb delivered a similar speech demanding change in Tallahassee. Webb also stayed at Cage until the bitter end, not leaving until after the band playing for the evening finished two full sets.

Candidates might not be earning any votes by attending these types of events.

At both events, the vast majority of attendees had already made their political choices. These were the types already in the political know; they’re typically party-line voters, though certainly not exclusively.

While Popcorn and Politics at the St. Pete Chamber event was a mixed bag of Republicans and Democrats who were commingling quite nicely, the Sierra Club event at Cage was a deep blue horde of die-hard Democrats and progressives. No one at Cage Thursday night came in wondering whether they were going to vote for Cross or Brandes. Most were well-aware who the candidates were, and even if they didn’t, the answer is simple — just vote for whoever has a “D” after their name on the ballot.

The win for the night probably came for Cross and Webb who, taking advantage of a gathering of like-minded voters, might have scored some campaign cash, convincing supporters to join their ground game to knock on doors and reach undecided voters.

Popcorn apparently goes really well on cheesecake.

Unless you are a total foodie, this is not earth-shattering news. But Ruth’s Chris, the restaurant that catered Popcorn and Politics, decided to take the theme all the way into dessert, serving cupcake-sized cheesecake topped with caramel drizzled popcorn.

The consensus on the food (and perhaps the lineup, as well): Love the sweet and salty, but the popcorn was a bit stale.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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