Florida’s most prominent Democrats seeking statewide office convened in Sarasota for the county party’s annual Kennedy-King Dinner. U.S. Senate candidate Val Demings received the “Champion” award from the Sarasota Democratic Party, and every major candidate for Governor took turns batting at incumbent GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In many ways, the packed hall at the Sarasota Hyatt Regency sent as strong a message as any stump speech. A total of 690 tickets were purchased, a sell-out event and the first major gathering organized by the local party since the pandemic.
Demings, a clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, enjoyed headlining status. The Congresswoman made clear to Democrats in a red-leaning county she knows the fight to unseat U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will not be easy. But she encouraged everyone in the party to adopt the “Never Tire” message of her campaign as a personal motivator between now and November.
“Come Nov. 8, we’re going to elect Democrats up and down the ballot,” she said, “and I will be elected the next U.S. Senator to represent this great state.”
She cited her service alongside civil rights legend John Lewis, and noted a federal voting rights bill named for the late Congressman was already passed by the Democratic House and awaits action in the Senate. Along with it are the Equality Act, the Freedom to Vote Act, universal background checks, and a bill codifying a woman’s right to choose. That alone should be reason to motivate Democrats to elect her over Rubio, who is part of the 50-member minority caucus helping to stop any progressive legislation from moving forward.
The party gave Demings its Champion award, which former county chair Christine Jennings compared to a certain other honor given out by the Republican Party of Sarasota “like candy.” The county Republicans just gave its 10th Statesman of the Year award to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.
The evening also saw speeches from gubernatorial candidates Charlie Crist, Nikki Fried and Annette Taddeo, who each took the stump for four minutes to make their case to voters. No direct shots were tossed at one another, but each suggested they present Democrats with the best path to the Governor’s mansion.
Crist, who occupied the office for a term himself — but as a Republican — is making his second run for Governor as a Democrat. The St. Petersburg Congressman reminded Democrats that when Joe Biden announced he was running for President in 2019, he said defeating Donald Trump was the paramount goal. “In this race, the only thing that matters is we defeat Ron DeSantis,” he said.
He challenged the incumbent’s frequent characterization of the “free state of Florida.”
“He talks about the fact we’re the freest state in America,” he said. “Apparently not if you are a woman and would like the right to choose. Apparently not if you are LGBTQ and would like not to be harassed in school. Apparently not if you are Black or Brown and want to vote in free and fair elections.”
Fried noted that her win in the 2018 Agriculture Commissioner contest was the only time a Democrat has won statewide in Florida since 2012. She suggested Democrats would be wise to entrust her with the nomination in 2022.
“Democrats are looking for a standard-bearer. I am asking you to trust us again,” she said. “Put in our G.O.A.T. … Trust me again. We will beat Ron DeSantis.”
She also noted a personal South Florida connection to Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’m so proud the next U.S. Supreme Court justice is not only a public defender but hails from the same high school I graduated from,” she said.
Taddeo, a state Senator, said her personal story as a Colombian immigrant whose father was kidnapped by communist terrorists before she fled to America would make it hard for Republicans to paint her as a socialist. She also discussed learning English in Alabama and facing racism in school there. “When I tell you I’m ready for a tough fight, I mean it,” she said.
She promised to also fight for the party in the months ahead.
“I know the road is long, the mountain is high, but I’ve beaten the odds time and again in my life,” she said.
“Boy, will we make history in Florida again.”
The event offered a chance for party members to shower praise on outgoing county chair JoAnne DeVries, who talked about such electoral successes as winning School Board seats and batting down a recent attempt to reverse single-member voting for County Commission races.
Beyond selling out the event, Jennings called for major donations from the floor, and raised tens of thousands in additional dollars, including a $10,000 check from Jerry Springer, the talk show host and former Cincinnati Mayor.