Ordinarily, when state lawmakers hold public meetings with constituents and county officials, much of what’s discussed ranges from the mundane to the obscure, from infrastructure to budget funding.
On Thursday, however, the national discord over elections and the pandemic dominated the later half of a three-hour Pinellas legislative delegation meeting at the St. Petersburg College Seminole Campus.
The loudest cheers came when residents said that more needed to be done to prohibit vaccine and mask mandates and asserted, without evidence, that Florida’s voting system was at risk of fraud.
Unsubstantiated charges of fraud in the 2020 election have proliferated this year, even after Republicans such as Gov. Ron DeSantis concluded that the state’s election process was a “model for the rest of the nation to follow.”
In Hillsborough, the county GOP has demanded an audit of the vote, echoing demands that have led to the troubled recount of the Arizona vote. Meanwhile, DeSantis is locked into legal battles over prohibiting vaccine mandates on cruise ships and mask mandates in schools.
Loud cheers punctuated speakers at Thursday’s meeting, even though Rep. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, had asked the audience to withhold applause in order to get through the nearly 70 speakers.
Cathi Chamberlain, a speaker from the group Defend Florida, said she firmly believes the 2020 election was stolen from former president Donald Trump. Defend Florida describes itself as a “large red wall” built to protect Floridians from business shutdowns, health mandates and protect their constitutional rights, according to their website.
Chamberlain said the group has investigated the voter rolls and have canvassed voters identified as suspicious, but did not say how they were flagged.
She called out Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who was not present at the meeting. Sprowls has said that the 2020 election went smoothly. Pinellas has a Republican Supervisor of Elections who supports mail ballots.
“The (Republican National Committee) wants us to ignore what we have seen, we will not,” Chamberlain said, to applause.
She asked the delegation of Pinellas County state lawmakers to join Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Central Florida Republican, and call for a full audit of the voter system in Pinellas. Sabatini has called for an audit of Florida’s largest counties, Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Orange.
Over loud applause, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said that if the speaker had any specific instances of voter fraud, they should be speaking with the sheriff and the state attorney.
A few members of the crowd said that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri wouldn’t respond to their requests.
“We make the laws, they enforce the laws,” Brandes said. “That is who is responsible for election integrity.”
One person shouted “not for long you don’t!” at Brandes. From different corners of the room, people repeated “AUDIT.”
After the meeting, Brandes said voter rolls will never be 100 percent perfect, but the question is whether it amounts to fraud or just people moving around and outdated addresses.
Audra Christian, from the group Community Patriots, called for the local lawmakers to hold a special session to discuss mask and vaccine mandates. According to its website, Community Patriots lists God, “Constitution”, the rule of law, and limited government among its top “values.”
Currently, 13 Florida school districts require mask wearing with only a medical opt-out allowed. Pinellas is not one of them. They often mentioned another Sabatini initiative, a bill he filed on Wednesday that would restrict any state or local government from imposing any mask mandate or vaccination mandate.
About 15 other speakers, some from Community Patriots and others from small groups, came forward to demand for a special session or to call out the vaccine as being dangerous.
A handful of times, DiCeglie had to tell speakers to remain respectful or cut people off who were going beyond the 2-minute window set at the beginning of the meeting.
One speaker spoke for about 30 seconds, asking the delegation to call a special session, then addressed DiCeglie directly and said she would yield the rest of her time so people could applaud freely. They did.
Many with concerns about mandates or the election system addressed feeling abandoned or left behind by the delegation. Occasionally from the back of the room, a person would gruff ‘you work for us.’
Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, have avoided answering whether or not they’d call a special session to discuss mask mandates.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Defend Florida ambassador Cathi Chamberlain claimed Sheriff Gualtieri wouldn’t respond to her. She was not part of the group saying that at the meeting.