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Impeach Trump? Tampa Bay is divided, just like everywhere else

To impeach or not to impeach the president? That is the question Tampa Bay residents are debating.
Nearly 300 people attended a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg.
Nearly 300 people attended a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2019
Updated Dec. 18, 2019

The political drama is playing itself out across the country, and Tampa Bay.

Residents flocked to their partisan corners on Tuesday as Congress hurtled toward impeaching President Donald Trump.

“The first thing on my mind? What a waste of time,” James Stratton said. “No. 2? Bring it on.”

Stratton is president of the Tampa Bay Trump Club, which that evening hosted an anti-impeachment, pro-Trump Christmas party at Mugs Sports Bar & Grill in Clearwater.

Mary Neff, 75, of Madeira Beach, takes photos during a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at St. Petersburg's North Straub Park. "I'm sick of it," Neff said. "The man's a criminal."
Mary Neff, 75, of Madeira Beach, takes photos during a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at St. Petersburg's North Straub Park. "I'm sick of it," Neff said. "The man's a criminal." [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, about 300 or so attended a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally at North Straub Park. Amid holiday decorations they held up signs saying “Dump Trump” and “Santa, give Trump to Russia.”

Julie Taitano, 37, came to the rally wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon of a baby Trump in a diaper.

“I’m terrified by what’s going on right now,” the St. Petersburg resident said. “Trump is ignoring our constitution and the entire Republican party is standing behind him.”

• • •

On one side are those who believe President Donald Trump should be impeached on allegations that he abused the power of the presidency to benefit himself and obstructed Congress when it investigated the first charge.

On the other side are those who believe impeachment is a politically motivated farce; a dying gasp from a swamp in the process of being drained.

Each side was on display Tuesday, from St. Petersburg’s “Nobody Is Above The Law Rally” and similar events in Tampa and Spring Hill to the pro-Trump Christmas party in Clearwater.

POLITIFACT: Trump’s claim the whistleblower got the Ukraine call wrong is Politifact’s 2019 Lie of the Year.

National polls reflect the local polarization. A survey conducted by Quinnipiac University from Dec. 11-15 of 1,390 registered voters showed that 45 percent of Americans think the president should be impeached and removed from office while 51 percent don’t.

The partisan divide is stark: 95 percent of Republicans do not believe the president should be impeached, while 86 percent of Democrats believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office.

A man waves handcuffs during a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg.
A man waves handcuffs during a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

However, the same poll shows many believe the president has done something wrong: 53 percent believe Trump has abused his authority while 48 percent believe he has committed crimes while in office.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the St. Petersburg Democrat running for re-election to Congress, announced Tuesday that he would vote to impeach.

“I take no joy in my decision to vote to impeach President Trump,” Crist said in a statement. “But given the facts presented, I’ve come to the grave conclusion that the President abused his position of power to such a degree that we have no choice but to act.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee quickly sent out a press release blasting Crist for “voting with his political overlords to overturn the 2016 election.”

• • •

The pro-Trump Christmas party was not conceived with impeachment in mind.

The Tampa Bay Trump Club assembles every other month. This particular gathering was slated to feature a meet-and-greet with local GOP candidates, a talk from a conservative author who wrote about communism’s alleged influence on the Democratic Party and to raise money for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches and Eckerd Connects.

But these days it’s hard to escape the specter of impeachment.

“While the media and the Democrats try to make everyone miserable with ‘Punishment in search of a crime,’ we will be doing the opposite during the holidays,” wrote Stratton on a Facebook post publicizing the Christmas party.

President Donald Trump speaks Tuesday during a meeting with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in the Oval Office of the White House.
President Donald Trump speaks Tuesday during a meeting with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in the Oval Office of the White House. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]

Local Republicans are also planning their own events. Hillsborough County Republican Party Chairman Jim Waurishuk said he’d been in touch with the Trump campaign about organizing counter-protests in the bay area. He said impeachment has energized local Republicans.

“Within the party, I don’t see anything other than full-blown support for the president,” he said.

That support is evinced by groups like Stratton’s Trump Club. Some supporters are so dedicated that they periodically form "Trump squads,” driving around the region in cars decked out in “Make America Great Again” signs and American flags.

When asked what he would say to someone who supports impeachment, Stratton said he’d tell them to listen to President Trump.

“I would say stop watching the news and just watch one rally in full,” he said. “You’ll discover how the media tricks people into believing something that is just out of context and totally untrue.”

• • •

At St. Petersburg’s pro-impeachment rally, as they chanted “lock him up,” there was a rare sighting: A sign that said “Republican for removal.”

“I’m embarrassed by my party,” said Republican Kirk Welter, 55, of Seminole. “The actions don’t fit the office.”

While Welter considers himself a fiscal conservative who supports Trump’s effort to bring more manufacturing jobs to the U.S., he said the president’s actions, including his attempt to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival, was too much for him.

“My party is blindly following a president that doesn’t deserve the office,” he said. “The way he conducts himself, I wouldn’t accept from one of my employees, let alone the president of our country.”

Nearly 300 people attended a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg.
Nearly 300 people attended a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Jacob Harper, 26, sees impeachment as a choice between saving American democracy or allowing Trump to become a dictator.

“I just think it was a clear constitutional violation and we are headed towards a fascist state if we don’t do something about it,” he said. “It’s either convict or crown."

Judy Hoffman, 68, doesn’t believe the conversation over impeachment is what’s dividing the nation.

“The division came first," she said. "We’ve become increasingly partisan over the last 10-20 years.” She blamed social media and the rise of 24-hour cable news dominated by pundits.

Said Hoffman: “I wish more people were open-minded and followed the facts, rather than just their bias.”

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

People wait for the start of a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg.
People wait for the start of a pro-impeachment, anti-Trump rally held Tuesday at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]