The center of the political world, at least for Florida’s Democrats, on Saturday was the two-story atrium at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, an oasis of cool air and sweet smells – the hotel’s signature white tea scent – between busy Ocean Drive and the beach.
At one point or another, virtually everyone in the Democratic political world ventured into the hotel lobby, not just to get from Point A to Point B, but to see and be seen, schmooze and strategize.
The hotel lobby is the unofficial Main Street for the big annual gathering of Florida Democrats, anchored by the big Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner expected to draw some 1,200 people to a nearby ballroom.
Here are updates from the Democrats’ gathering, from the lobby, to the caucus rooms, to the nooks and crannies, to the main ballroom.
The Democrats’ haul
Florida Democratic Chairwoman Allison Tant said the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner fundraiser will break a record with the number of people and amount of money raised. She said 1,300 people will pack the ballroom at the Westin Diplomat, and the dinner will raise $850,000.
Last year the party raised $600,000.
Party leaders attributed their strong showing to a hunger among Democratic donors to deny Republican Gov. Rick Scott a second term.
“We have to take him down. That is the focus of this party,” Tant said. “People are so anxious for a change they almost don’t care who the person is. The enthusiasm is incredible.”
Democrats “have had enough and they want a change, and they want Florida to get on a road that’s going forward instead of backward,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. “A lot of people are petrified that the state is going into a ditch and the leadership just isn’t there.”
“Rick Scott has continuously demonstrated how out of touch he is. And that’s why our event so successful tonight. It’s why we’re going to defeat him next November. It’s why he’s the most unpopular governor in the country and we’re really exited to be here, excited to build off the enthusiasm from the November 2012 election,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Democratic leaders embrace Crist
Florida’s top Democrats said they’re satisfied with the transformation that turned former Gov. Charlie Crist from a Republican to a Democrat – who may become the party’s candidate next near to take on Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
“We welcome anyone who decides that their views and their values line up with the Democratic Party,” she said, before running through a list of actions Crist took as governor that she said demonstrated his true colors: extending voting hours because of long lines in the 2008 presidential election, making it easier for felons who have served their time to get their civil rights restored and getting rid of touch screen voting and implementing paper ballots.
“There are a lot of examples that Charlie Crist has in his record as a Republican that I think he probably decided that he lined up more with our party’s values than theirs and we welcome that.
“We are not, unlike the Republicans, a party that requires a rigid adherence to extreme dogma. We are a big tent. The true definition of a big tent. So we have blue dogs and we have yellow dogs. We have more progressive members and we have conservative Democrats. We all come together around core values and we support a core agenda.”
The most important rivalry today might not be the battle between Democrats and Republicans, but between South Florida and South Texas.
The keynote speaker for the Democrats’ dinner is Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio. His city’s Spurs hope to deny the national championship to the Miami Heat, in an NBA Finals series tied at two games each.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, presented Castro with a Heat Jersey with the name “Castro” emblazoned on the back.
He responded by pulling out and presenting her with a Spurs Jersey with the initials “DWS.”
Wasserman Schultz, who said she had no idea she was going to get a jersey back, said she was reluctant to wear it. Maybe she’ll wear it while working out, she said, then came up with a better place to wear the Spurs apparel: while she’s cleaning her house.
Castro, who was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, said the Florida Democratic Party is all about “opportunity for all.” Florida Republicans are about “opportunity for some.”
He echoed intense Democratic criticism of Gov. Rick Scott for vetoing legislation that would have eased the process for obtaining drivers licenses for young people in the country illegally because their parents brought them here as young children. “This is just one more example of the divisiveness that’s too much a part of the Florida Republican Party today.”
Nelson says he’s staying put
Democrats spent much of the spring crossing their fingers, hoping that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the only statewide elected Democrat, would run for governor.
In recent weeks he’s sought to tamp down the talk, and did so again Saturday. “I have no plans to run for governor. I have no intention of running for governor.”
Re-elected last fall, he’s now chairman of the Senate Aging Committee. If Democrats keep control of the Senate, he’d become chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and No. 2 on the Armed Services Committee.
“I’ve got my hands full as senator,” he said.
Charlie Crist is attracting lots of attention.
His attempt to slip into the Diplomat early Saturday afternoon, after a morning appearance before a Democratic group on the Gulf Coast, wasn’t a quick trip.
Outside the hotel and in the lobby, people wanted to stop and talked to the Republican turned Democrat – who’s widely assumed to be planning a run for governor.
Crist said he was at the event so he could “meet some of the nicest people I’ve ever met: Florida Democrats. I’m just listening and enjoying the opportunity…. Just listening to people and hearing what they have to say.”
He said he doesn’t have a timetable to make or announce a decision about seeking the Democratic nomination. “I don’t have a timetable, really. I just think it’s important to listen and see what’s on the minds of my fellow Floridians.
He was accompanied by veteran Democratic strategist, Ashley Walker, who ran President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in Florida. She took pains to emphasize she’s not working for him.
Though he’s been out of office since January 2011, he hasn’t lost the people skills that make him one of the nation’s best retail politicians.
Before he stepped out of an elevator, he said hello to a fellow passenger and asked how she was doing.
The woman said it was her birthday.
“30th?” he said. No, she replied: 40. Crist insisted it was “30” – leaving the woman beaming.
Patricia Byrd, from Panama City, and Samantha Hope-Herring, from Walton County, went up to the former governor and came away with smart phone pictures.
“I think he’s a fair person. When he was a Republican governor he tired to cross party lines and be fair,” Byrd said. “I think he’s a very viable candidate.”
Hope-Herring called Crist a “viable candidate” for the Democrats.
Alex Sink is making the rounds, and sounding an awful lot like a candidate for governor.
In an interview, she blasted Gov. Rick Scott as “so ill equipped, so incompetent. Doesn’t understand Florida yet. Has made a lot of bad decisions and I think it’s going to be easy for us to craft a message and inspire voters to get to the polls next November and get him out of office.”
Sink, who served one term as Florida’s chief financial officer and was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor, said she’s considering entering the race for the party’s 2014 nomination to run for governor.
“It’s time for me to seriously consider whether I might intend to be a candidate again,” she said. “I’m just getting connected with a lot of former supporters and a lot of Democratic activists and beginning to think through the process of whether I might run again.”
She’s been largely on the political sidelines for the last six months, following the death in December of her husband, Bill McBride, who was the Democrats’ nominee for governor in 2002.
McBride lost to re-election seeking Gov. Jeb Bush. Sink lost to political newcomer Rick Scott.
What factors will go into the decision?
“I am not going to run unless I am totally confident that I will win. That’s first,” she said in an interview.
“And that means having a lot of support from Democrats. It means raising the money it takes to wage an effective campaign. We know regardless we’re going to be outspent 2:1,” she said. “We have to evaluate to e sure that the voters are paying attention this time.”
She said she and her children will “have a little family meeting in the next couple of weeks and decide where we might be going.” She said she’d have to start raising money by fall if she’s going to run.
Speaking to a gathering of state representatives, she said Democrats need to improve their messaging. She called for an agreement “on three top line messages for a platform to be talking about like a drumbeat.”
“We” need to share with Floridians who we are ad democrats, and why, if the Democrats are in charge in Tallahassee, their lives will be different.”
Sink said Democrats need to reach out to the business world, and tell them why Democratic priorities – such as expansion of the Medicaid health program for the poor – would be good for them. “We can’t cede that territory to the Republicans.”
Nan Rich, the only Democratic candidate for governor who is officially in the race, has been traveling the state for the past year.
She’s made more than 200 campaign stops, something she said would pay off in next year’s primary and general election. “I believe strongly very strongly in grassroots activism. I come from community activism. It re-elected Barack Obama and will elect the next governor of the state,” she told a gathering of Democratic state representatives.
Rich said she’s finding women are ready for the state’s first female governor, to which state Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, yelled out, “Some men are too.”
In a comment aimed at likely gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist – who was a Republican when he was governor before and is now a Democrat – Rich described herself as “a lifelong Democrat. I have certain values and priorities and you all know what they are because you all share them. The truth is so many people around this state share them.”
Rich brought her message to small groups meeting throughout the day, including a bout 60 people gathered for the meeting of state legislators and about 100 people at the state Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus.
But she was denied a speaking slot at the big dinner, where more than 1,200 people are expected. The state Democratic Party leadership said it’s to streamline the program after complaints the dinner usually lasts too long; Rich supporters think the party leaders are trying to grease the skids for Crist.
Rich has received a publicity bonanza in recent weeks over the state party’s decision
“This is kind of a blessing in disguise because the media attention … is incredible,” she said. Reporters who didn’t give her campaign any attention “now all of a sudden they’re calling and wanting to know what I have to say.”
Republicans have had a field day accusing Democrats of silencing one of their own. Their “Free Nan Rich” campaign includes mailers and an automated Robocall to Democrats, and a drumbeat of press release taunting the Democratic Party leadership.
Rich said she’s been getting good consideration from grassroots party activists. She said 300 people she’s met from her year of campaigning attended a Friday night reception.
Even though she isn’t well known, Rich said there’s a long history of Democrats who weren’t well known when they began their campaigns going on to win statewide races
Regardless of what happens in the primary, Rich said, Democrats will be unified to oust Gov. Rick Scott.
“We have all the evidence out there why this man should not be re-elected governor,” she said.
She said it was “unconscionable” for the Republican-controlled Legislature not to accept money from the health care law known as Obamacare.
She said the failure to accept $51 billion from the federal government would have provided health care for 1 million Floridians and created about 120,000 jobs over 10 years.
Randy Fleisher, president of an unofficial Democratic group called the Davie Dem Club, was sporting a “Nan” sticker.
He said Rich has “great credentials.”
He said he’s frustrated that some in the party leadership appear to be eager for a Crist candidacy.
“The party hierarchy is looking for a messiah to come in and win Florida.
“It doesn’t make any sense for me that the Democratic Party is waiting for Charlie Crist. I remember Chain Gang Charlie,” he said. “He’s a charmer, but that’s not what I want in a governor. I want somebody who’s right on the issues, and has been there since the beginning. Not somebody who is a wily weather vane. His big trick is spinning in the wind.”