Citrus Democrats will play a key role in the 2006 election, former Gov. Buddy MacKay told an enthusiastic crowd at the annual Democratic Executive Committee unity dinner Saturday night.
MacKay spoke to about 170 people, the largest turnout in the event's history, committee chairman Mike Jarrett said.
"I'm not used to this," MacKay said after the crowd greeted him with a standing ovation. "We've got a new day coming, and it's going to be a great day. You can feel the enthusiasm."
MacKay ran for governor in 1998 but lost to Gov. Jeb Bush. He served as governor for 23 days after former Gov. Lawton Chiles died in office just before his term ended.
Since then, MacKay has remained visible in state political circles.
He said the Democratic ticket in 2006 offers a formidable challenge to Republican opponents.
"We've got an extraordinary group running," he said. "We should have strength from one end of the Cabinet to another."
MacKay's speech was laced with humor, but his message was sobering: He said that recently the once Democratic stronghold of Alachua County had become Republican after campaign organizers there galvanized the GOP base.
Democrats need to show the same fervor and political strategy, he said.
"We're playing with a bunch of pros," he said. "We in many instances are a bunch of amateurs among the pros."
MacKay said Democrats should not be afraid to stand up to Republicans.
"Government should stand between money and power," he said.
Improving Florida's education system should be a top priority, he said. And the state's political leaders should make sure that growth pays for itself.
"We should not be subsidizing the newcomers, those of us who live here," he said. "I would rather have my children well educated but driving on potholed roads if that's the choice we have to make."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, was originally slated to be the event's keynote speaker. But a scheduling conflict forced him to cancel, Jarrett said.
Former County Commissioner Josh Wooten, who was the dinner's emcee, told the audience that after MacKay was selected as the new keynote speaker, there was a "huge spike in ticket sales."
The dinner also included short speeches from a number of Democratic candidates, including gubernatorial candidate Carol Castagnero; District 4 County Commission candidate Bernie Leven; District 5 U.S. representative candidates Richard John Penberthy, John T. Russell and H. David Werder; attorney general candidate Walter G. "Skip" Campbell Jr.; and agriculture and consumer services commissioner candidate Eric Copeland. A representative for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson also spoke.
The speeches from MacKay and the candidates drew enthusiastic applause from local Democrats, who have not fared as well as they would have liked in recent elections.
In Citrus County, all five county commissioners are Republican, as are all members of the legislative delegation.
Sheriff Jeff Dawsy and school superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel are Democrats, but the county's other top officeholders - tax collector, property appraiser, elections supervisor and court clerk - are Republicans. School Board elections are nonpartisan.
But Saturday's dinner was a time for celebration and party-building - and there was no shortage of humor.
Throughout the evening, Wooten asked audience members to submit answers to the question, "What is worse than hunting with Dick Cheney?"
At the end of the evening, the group honored Herb and Barbara Hampton as Man and Woman of the Year. John and Kitty Barnes received the group's lifetime achievement award.
In his acceptance speech, John Barnes noted that in the last election, 29,000 registered Citrus County voters did not vote.
"Most of them were Democrats. We need to turn them out," he said. "I urge you to help get them back out, because it can make a difference."