BROOKSVILLE — State representative candidate Rose Rocco stood behind the podium in the center of the stage, overlooking hundreds of people in the packed hall.
A local candidate's dream, right?
"Good evening, everyone," Rocco said, smiling, the first candidate to speak at Thursday night's Politics in the Park event.
She paused. Raised her voice.
"I said, 'Good evening,' " the Democrat shouted.
While the room was full, with as many as 500 people, according to organizers, it was immediately apparent that not many were listening to the candidates on stage.
Just behind the few rows of chairs facing the podium, roughly three dozen candidates were meeting and greeting people one-on-one and making their pitches. The 20 candidates who bought tables, at $250 a pop, passed out pamphlets and shilled their swag. Among the more notable items: a miniature foam dumbbell urging people to "exercise your right!" to vote.
Behind that, a line of people, mostly clad in the T-shirts of their favorite candidates, waited to cast ballots in an informal straw poll.
The din filled the hall.
Rocco struggled to speak over the room throughout her three-minute speech. But that was also the case for her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert Schenck, the more popular candidate of the evening, according to the poll.
The same was true for most of the roughly 36 candidates speaking in rapid-fire succession for the better part of two hours.
"This is a little chaotic," said Ramon Gutierrez, a Democratic District 5 County Commission candidate. "I'm glad I didn't pay the $250."
One of his opponents, Republican James "Jimmy" Lodato, agreed.
"The noise was so loud in the place we couldn't even speak to people across the table," Lodato said.
While the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce did a nice job putting on an event, he said, it chose the wrong venue and the wrong format.
He said all of the noise and the location prevented him from meeting potential voters.
"I think it's a travesty," he said, noting that he spoke with the chamber about having another event — in Spring Hill.
Morris Porton, chairman of the chamber's Politics in the Park committee, said the chamber was aware of the issues and would work to improve next year.
The chamber will be sending a survey, asking for input, to the candidates and sponsors.
"I'd rather have this kind of problem where we're overflowing with people," Porton said.
He said the event, the first of this type for the chamber, was a success.
"I think the public had an opportunity to meet the candidates individually and also to listen to them," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised with the turnout."
Several candidates also said they were pleased with the event, the turnout and the opportunity to meet new people.
"Overall, the event was fabulous," said District 4 School Board candidate Robert Neuhausen, adding that he was pleased with the turnout.
Republican supervisor of elections candidate Shirley Anderson said that while she didn't think the venue was good, she met new people.
"It's a good event," she said. "I feel positive about it."
Candidates tried to accomplish a lot in their three-minute speeches.
Many used the opportunity to introduce themselves and present their background and accomplishments. Incumbents used the opportunity to thank their constituents and to talk about their record and their vision for the future.
A few tried humor. Some threw barbs.
Among the most pointed came when Jason Sager got on stage and criticized his District 3 County Commission Republican primary rival, incumbent John Druzbick.
"When you Google my opponent … you will find that in three of the last four years he has voted to increase your property taxes," Sager said, claiming the increases have been felt dramatically by business owners. "There are two people that I know of that will get on stage and defend a pro-tax agenda on job creators: Barack Obama and John Druzbick."
Druzbick defended the increase in the tax rate he voted for this week.
"We have a $6 million deficit," he said after Sager spoke. "We need to find a solution.
"It's a shame people want to make it personal," he added.
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.