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Watch dueling protests over impeachment outside Charlie Crist’s office

As Democratic calls for impeachment grow louder, Trump supporters say the president deserves four more years in office.

ST. PETERSBURG — Protesters rallied outside U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s office in downtown St. Petersburg on Monday, reflecting the national furor over impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump for his dealings with Ukraine’s president.

On one side of First Avenue N people held up signs calling for impeachment and thanking Crist for standing strong.

On the other side, protesters decked out in red said none of the recent revelations suggesting Trump pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political rival, Joe Biden, had shaken their faith in him. He deserves four more years in office, they said — or even eight.

Cars honked as they passed, though it was hard to tell who they supported. About 400 people came out for the lunchtime protest. The crowd supporting impeachment was nearly twice the size of the anti-impeachment crowd.

The dueling protests were triggered by a “Stop the Madness!” event headlined by effusive Trump supporter U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz. Organized by the Republican National Committee outside Crist’s office, it called on him to withdraw his support for impeachment.

Gaetz’s incursion into a fellow congressman’s territory was to be part of a national Republican strategy to ramp up pressure on Democrats in districts they view as vulnerable.

Jonathan Riches, 42, who is against impeachment mingles with a pro-impeachment crowd on First Ave N in St. Petersburg Florida October 7, 2019. "I'm glad its peaceful. I told them when I went to the other side that I am glad, and I respect that everyone is being peaceful," he said. Pictured right of Riches is Holly Herold. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

But the Pinellas Democratic Party quickly organized a counter-protest to blunt the Republicans. Crist, meanwhile, wasn’t on the scene — he was busy at the Tampa Bay Ray’s playoff game to throw the ceremonial first pitch. His office released a statement about the rally, saying “protest and the right to free speech is as American as apple pie," while reiterating Crist’s support for impeachment.

With less than an hour before the protest, however, Republicans announced that Gaetz wouldn’t be there. His team cited “a miscommunication on the RNC’s part.”

Most Republican protesters didn’t seem to mind and used the opportunity to show support for the president and hurl insults at those across the street. “Where’s your American flag?” a man shouted. One women blew kisses at her adversaries and pointed to her rear end.

Rosie Paulsen, Chairwoman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said her support for the president boiled down to the strong economy. Originally from Ecuador, she said she didn’t want the U.S. to turn to socialism.

“Impeachment is another way for them to try to stop what he’s doing, which is putting America first,” said Paulsen, 49. “This is another way to smear his name.”

A red Camry drove up and Candace D. Meeks jumped out, waving a “Keep America Great” Trump 2020 sign. Meeks, a Hillsborough County substitute teacher, supports Trump’s prison reforms and economic and education policies.

Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky— which included him specifically asking Zelensky for a favor — looked to her like he was trying to protect the country. “That’s a leader talking to another leader, wanting to make sure things are legal inside their country,” she said.

Barbara Scott, Chairwoman of the Pinellas Democratic Party, said Democrats turned out in big numbers to send a message to Republicans like Gaetz that Crist’s constituents want him to continue pressing for impeachment proceedings.

“It is not common practice for one member of Congress to go into another members of Congress’s district to do this kind of thing," she said. “It really shows the kinds of tactics the Republican party is using.”

Albert Li, 50, said the whistleblower’s complaint is what drove him to the protest. After the Mueller Report came out, he didn’t support impeaching Trump because he knew the odds of a Republican-controlled Senate made success unlikely. But the latest wave of reporting on Trump’s dealing with Ukraine changed his mind.

“Trump was asking a foreign country to help dig up information on a political rival,” he said. “That’s obviously a crime.”