Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis compared the way Republicans run Florida to how Fidel Castro runs Cuba as Democrats rallied supporters Tuesday for coming elections.
State workers fear retribution if they say what they think about how the state is run, said Davis, a U.S. representative from Tampa.
"I had a state worker put his arm around my shoulder, he looked around the room to make sure nobody was looking at him, and said "Jim, I'm for you.' What kind of country is that? I've had the same conversations with other people - in Havana," Davis said at the Florida Democratic Party's unity luncheon.
Later, he added, "There are people I run into every time I'm (in Tallahassee) who are afraid to express criticism of their own government and to have their voice heard. That is not democracy. That is not a healthy environment."
Republican officials criticized the comment.
"It's entirely irresponsible and unbelievable that someone who pretends to be a serious candidate for statewide office would compare Florida to a communist regime," said Andy Palmer, the state GOP's executive director. "The fact that the state continues to grow by over 400,000 people a year is evidence that this is a great place to live."
Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democrats' only statewide elected official, criticized the way Republicans have used their leadership in Washington and Tallahassee.
"This is a dog-eat-dog, two-party state where the other party has figured out how to cut all the corners in order to just completely run over the minority party. It is time for us to change that," said Nelson, who will likely face Republican Rep. Katherine Harris as he seeks re-election.
Nelson said the public wants professionalism and courtesy.
"For this democratic constitutional government to work, You've got to have an ability to get along, to reach out and build consensus in order to govern a country that is as broad and is as diverse as our country is," Nelson said.
State Sen. Rod Smith, the other major Democrat running for governor, criticized Republican policies on education, Medicaid, stem cell research and more.
"We are going to have a unified Democratic Party in the fall because it means so much. There is a difference in our parties," Smith said. "The poor, the sick and . . . the families of this state need our help."
The luncheon raised $100,000 for the Florida Democratic Party. Nelson and party chairwoman Karen Thurman suggested it as a way of showing their top candidates standing together for the good of the party.
Republican Gov. Jeb Bush can't seek re-election because of term limits. Republicans hoping to replace him include Attorney General Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.
Gallagher issued a statement about Davis' remarks.
"Anyone who understands the true nature of Fidel Castro's brutality would know better than to make the remarks Jim Davis made today," he said. "Fidel Castro is a murderer, responsible for the imprisonment, torture and execution of thousands of his own people, and thousands of Cuban-Americans across Florida have suffered greatly due to his brutal dictatorship."
Davis later released a statement to clarify his remarks.
"I would never and have never compared any of our democratically elected leaders to Fidel Castro. But let me be clear. There is a climate of intimidation in Tallahassee. That's not good for democracy. That's not good for Florida's families. And that's no way to run state government," he said.