ST. PETERSBURG — Surely nobody in Tampa Bay politics could at once exude gentle kind-heartedness and also strike fear in the heart of prominent politicians who annoyed him than Harvey Morgenstein, a giant in Democratic politics who died Friday at age 85.
Woe to the prominent elected official or party activist who tried to sneak out early from one of Morgenstein's Greater Pinellas Democratic Club dinners. Even as an octogenarian who relied on an oxygen tank, Morgenstein would rise to his feet and bark his disapproval, leaving even the most self-important politico cowering.
For 23 years, while the Pinellas Democratic Party bounced from dysfunctional to semi-functional and until recent years toiled as the minority party, Morgenstein was a steady force of confidence and optimism for party faithful. The Greater Pinellas Democratic Club, which really was and always will be Harvey and Betty Morgenstein's club, routinely draws crowds of several hundred and pretty much anybody who aspires to statewide office.
Some 200 people packed into Temple Beth-El on Monday to pay their respects, and naturally the cars overflowing into the surrounding neighborhood were sprinkled with bumper stickers touting all manner of Democratic politicians.
Rabbi Michael Torop remembered Morgenstein as a voracious reader, intellectual, crusader for social justice and a sucker for the underdog. Many politicians remember him the same way.
"Harvey always stood by me even when he knew — sometimes especially when he knew — that we were facing tough odds. And he didn't do it just for me," said Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg. He called Morgenstein "a principled community leader who never hesitated to get involved to try to make things better."
Often mistakenly assumed to be a transplanted New Yorker, Morgenstein was born in Charleston, W.Va., and spent much of his young life in Maryland, where he worked as a purchasing agent for the city of Baltimore. He moved to Pinellas in the 1960s, and sold leather goods at a flea market for 15 years before throwing himself into the Greater Pinellas Democratic Club, which he grew into the largest club of its kind on the west coast of Florida.
"He didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk," Rabbi Torop said.