Florida Dems look for inspiration in Holllywood

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More than 1,200 Florida Democratic Party activists gathered Saturday night at The Diplomat hotel in Hollywood to get fired up about an election that takes place in 541 days.

It’s better for FDP members to took ahead to 2016, though, since their hopes of removing Rick Scott from the governors mansion fell agonizingly short in November.

Things haven’t been much better in Tallahassee this spring. Even with three extra weeks to work together in session, Florida House Republicans and Scott appear to have successfully staved off the Democrats (and Senate Republicans) main goal this year: to expand Medicaid to more than 800,000 Floridians without  insurance.

After caucus meetings during the day Saturday, party members gussied up for the evening’s Leadership Blue Gala. Three congressional  Democrats — Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Baltimore-based Rep. Elijah Cummings — addressed the crowd during the two-hour event.

Cummings gave a dynamic, passionate speech, touching upon his hardscrabble youth that ultimately saw him become a member of the Kappa Society at Howard University.

He said the policies of the Democratic Party had given him so much in his 64-year lifetime, such as voting rights and education.

“Don’t mess with my voting rights!” he shouted.

And he tried to put education in perspective in our post 9/11-world.

“While I’m concerned about the terrorists, I’m concerned about ISIS, I’m concerned about all of us that might do us harm, but the greatest threat to our national security is a failure to properly educate every one of our children,” he said, before his voice was drowned out by cheers.

Cummings gave a shout-out to unions, saying they improved his family life: specifically his father, a former sharecropper from South Carolina who went to Baltimore with his wife in the 1940s.

“In South Carolina, he was making 15 cents a day,” Cummings said. “When he came to Baltimore he was making a dollar an hour … that’s a raise! He got health care benefits, time and a half, he was able to buy us a house, he got overtime that allowed us to go on vacation back to South Carolina. … it allowed us to buy a new house into a better neighborhood so I could get a better education.

“We must continue not a series of campaigns, but a progressive movement,” he called out, leaving to a standing ovation from virtually the entire crowd in the main ballroom at The Diplomat.

The difficult task of following Cummings was assigned to Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii considered a rising star in Democratic ranks.

Gabbard, 34, served two tours in Iraq after joining the Hawaii Army National Guard. She said when she first announced her candidacy in 2012, she polled at 5 percent. She overcame, though, defeating her Democratic Party opponent (former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann) by 20 points at the end.

She praised two Florida Democratic members of Congress, Gwen Graham and Patrick Murphy, who are among the new representatives in Washington. “He’s someone I recognized and made friends with immediately because we are of like mind,” she said of Murphy, now running for Senate in 2016.

Most poignantly, Gabbard told the story of Staff Sgt. Mary Valdez, raped by a fellow soldier weeks before her 2011 deployment to Afghanistan. Valdez pressed charges, and took the solder to trial, but he was acquitted and still serves in the Army.

“The military justice system failed her,” Gabbard said. “I was awestruck as she swore to follow the constitution. The resiliency, the courage and the resolve was truly something to behold. Rather than walking away … she made a choice to be a part of the solution.”

Gabbard said she loves the Army and is proud to have been a solider, but she pledged to help to reform the military justice system “so that it no longer fails people like Mary,” adding that “her courage should serve as an inspiration to us all.”

Warner closed the evening also talking about his humble beginnings before he became an early investor in wireless service provider Nextel, and quickly became very rich.

Warner was governor of Virginia 2001 to 2005, and has been in the Senate since 2006. Before most of the country was familiar with Barack Obama, Warner was hyped as a possible foil to Hillary Clinton‘s chances for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 before  he opted not to run.

He’s ready for Hillary now, though, he told the crowd.

At times his speech sounded a bit like Marco Rubio’s on the stump. He talked about the 80 million millennials in the country now, a generation into a “giving” and “sharing” economy as demonstrated by the popularity of such services as Uber and AirBNB.

Warner also talked about how college isn’t for everyone, another issue that Rubio frequently raises.

Virginia used to be a solid red state, but has changed dramatically in the past decade, which as a former state party chairman was a source of pride for Warner. He said that should keep Florida Democrats’ hopes alive, in spite of their power deficit in Tallahassee.

In spite of his attempt to boost up members of a party with a long way to go to reach parity in Florida, there were grumbles.

One Hillsborough County Democrat, who wished to remain anonymous, said the evening was OK, but took exception to party Chairwoman Allison Tant’s comment from the stage that it’s  “never a better time than now to be a Florida Democrat.”

“Really?” said the young Democrat. Commenting that Medicaid expansion didn’t happen this year in Tallahassee, the party member said it’s hardly the time to revel in how the party is changing lives for the better in the Sunshine State.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the 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. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.