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Democrats express optimism at Tampa fundraiser despite GOP victories

One of the speakers, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, plans to make a big announcement next week.
Congressman Charlie Crist, seen here on Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020, spoke Saturday at a Democratic fundraiser in Tampa. He expressed optimism about the party despite the GOP's dominance, and is days away from making a big political announcement.
Congressman Charlie Crist, seen here on Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020, spoke Saturday at a Democratic fundraiser in Tampa. He expressed optimism about the party despite the GOP's dominance, and is days away from making a big political announcement. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published May 2
Updated May 2

TAMPA — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and other prominent state Democrats delivered a message of optimism about the future of the Florida Democratic Party at a fundraiser Saturday.

Crist spoke just days before he is set to make a big announcement — possibly declaring for the 2022 governor’s race — and hours after Republicans wrapped up this year’s legislative session by handing Gov. Ron DeSantis a string of conservative victories.

Speakers at the seventh annual Spring Fling fundraiser — an in-person and virtual event hosted by the Hillsborough County Democratic Party at The Sail Plaza, an outdoor venue — pointed towards the county party’s success electing Democrats across public office, including in a number of legislature seats.

Crist drew an analogy between Tampa Bay’s sporting triumphs and local politics. To him, the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl win, the Lightning’s Stanley Cup victory and the Rays’ World Series appearance all reflected Democrats’ success in local elections.

“Tampa Bay is on this roll,” he said. “It’s not just sports, it’s politics. Both sides of the bay are run by Democrats, Pinellas and here in Hillsborough... We should be the model for the state.”

Related: Charlie Crist plans Tuesday announcement as he weighs another run for governor

If Crist announces Tuesday that he’s entering the 2022 gubernatorial race, he will be the first Democrat to officially oppose DeSantis. U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — the only statewide elected Democrat — are among the other Florida Democrats who may also enter the race.

If Crist were to run for governor it would be another political twist in the three-decade career of the Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat. The 64-year-old served as Florida’s attorney general and then governor from 2007 to 2011. In 2010 he lost the three-way U.S. Senate race to Marco Rubio and in 2014 he lost the governor’s race to Rick Scott.

In 2012, Crist became a Democrat and since 2017 has represented Pinellas County’s 13th Congressional District.

Related: DeSantis won big during Florida’s legislative session. Now what?

The Democrats’ show of enthusiasm Saturday comes despite a 2021 legislative session dominated by Republican priorities. GOP legislators passed key bills such as HB 1, the “anti riot” bill that critics say criminalizes protests while also banning transgender athletes from women’s and girl’s sports and restricting mail-in voting.

In Tallahassee, “the reality is that we just don’t have the numbers to win,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, who attended the event virtually. While Democrats push for expanding Medicaid and worker’s rights, Eskamani said “we continue to hit a wall with the Republican majority, which means we have to organize to win” more seats in the legislature.

Hillsborough’s Democratic party is “an incredible model for success,” said Eskamani, who has launched a voter registration initiative in preparation for the upcoming elections. In 2020, the party won a 5-2 majority on the Hillsborough County Commission.

“This is a deep purple county that we have painted blue,” said Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren.

But the state party faces far greater problems. That was underscored last week in Tallahassee when Senate Democrats voted unanimously to oust Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, in a vote of no confidence, and replace him with Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

Related: Florida Democrats replace Senate leader in late-session revolt

Some state Democrats remain hopeful the local successes of the Hillsborough Democratic Party can be replicated statewide to turn red seats blue as the gubernatorial race approaches and then the party focuses on the 2024 presidential election.

“I have a hope and a belief because of what you all are doing in Hillsborough, that this is only temporary,” said state Rep. Michele Rayner, who represents House District 70 in St. Petersburg, of the Democrats’ difficulties.

“Our work is just beginning.”

State Reps. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, and Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, were also in attendance along with Hillsborough tax collector Nancy Millan, property appraiser Bob Henriquez, school board members and county commissioners.