The Hillsborough County Democratic Party's annual Kennedy-King fundraising dinner Saturday night was an unprecedented success for the recent, generally dysfunctional history of the local party, with a big, excited crowd swelled by dozens of local candidates and party officials.
They included everyone from state party chairwoman Allison Tant and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to most of the Tampa City Council. The list of local elected officials and candidates in the crowd of 380 took local party chairwoman Ione Townsend and County Commissioner Les Miller nearly 10 minutes just to introduce them all.
One name didn't get read: Tampa's Democratic Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
After a week at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia and a trip to Washington for a White House state dinner, Buckhorn was driving home from a vacation in North Carolina.
He's still looking at the 2018 governor's race, but his relations with local Democrats haven't always been smooth, partly because of his conservative, business orientation and because of Republican friends he's backed, including Attorney General Pam Bondi of Tampa.
The excitement prevailed even though the star speaker wasn't who local party officials had angled for, former President Bill Clinton. Instead it was 2004 presidential candidate and former U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, chosen from a list of surrogate speakers by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
Why Clark? "He was available," said party executive director Mark Hanisee.
In an interview, Clark said he was "appalled" at Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's slighting comments about the family of a serviceman killed in Iraq, and considers Trump unqualified to have a finger on the nuclear button.
Nelson has been on the warpath over congressional failure to fund anti-Zika virus efforts and recently said if Zika were spreading in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's home state of Kentucky, Congress would instantly be recalled to Washington to vote on it.
Asked whether he might drive a swarm of Florida mosquitoes to Kentucky, Nelson quipped, "I'm seriously considering it."
Public relations executive Tom Hall, known for his humorous speeches, warmed up the crowd.
He talked about the possibility that Trump's wife, Melania – "I think her name is Melanoma" -- is an illegal immigrant, "taking modeling jobs away from hard-working, red-blooded American women," and asked the crowd to help find Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's lost Republican Party credit card.
"There's some urgency – he's renovating his house again," Hall said.
The first speaker was Roque "Rocky" De La Fuente, a wealthy, self-funding but almost unheard-of U.S. Senate candidate, running against Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy.
He got the speaking slot by paying $10,000 to be a dinner sponsor, after doing the same at last month's Pinellas County Democrats' fundraising dinner for $12,000. He arrived in a big bus with "Rocky for President" T-shirts — that's what he was running for until June — and put them on dummies made of surplus marine survival suits set up on seats around the banquet hall, a previously little-known campaign tactic.
The crowd was partly a testament to efforts to resuscitate the local party by major financial backers including Hall and Alex Sink, Townsend and Hanisee.
Recent news about problems within the Trump campaign has state Democrats are almost giddy about their chances in November.
"Because Trump is running we have a chance of picking up some seats" in Tallahassee, former party chair Mike Steinberg said.
Contact William March at [email protected]