TAMPA — Florida Democrats seemed to get the annual gathering they wanted Saturday: a sold-out gala with a roster of high-profile speakers, excited attendees motivated to challenge Republicans Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio and a conference of conservative moms meeting across the street to draw a contrast.
Still, tensions were escalating between the top contenders vying to run against DeSantis.
Behind the scenes, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried was ramping up her criticism of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s record, pointing to the former Republican’s mid-1990s moniker of “chain-gang Charlie,” a reference to his support as a state senator for a measure that revived a practice of making prisoners wear chains together while working along highways on chores like picking up litter. “We’re not talking about the 40s or 50s, or 60s, we’re talking about the 1990s,” she said.
“Republicans hate Charlie, independents don’t trust Charlie, and Charlie can’t mobilize our base. We will actually see the largest Democratic loss in Florida’s history if Charlie’s the top of the ticket, and he’ll pull down everybody else,” Fried warned in an interview with the Times/Herald. “The fact that he says, ‘Don’t worry about my past record. I’ve got Black friends,’ tells you that he is not ready for this moment, that he hasn’t evolved that he doesn’t understand what he did.”
Recent polls of the Democratic primary have shown Fried has been significantly trailing Crist ahead of the Aug. 23 election.
Crist, who served as Florida’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, ultimately leaving the GOP and becoming a Democrat, on Saturday defended his support for the chain-gang policy, saying in an interview it was important at the time to address crime statistics that were getting national and international attention.
“The reason was to show that breaking the law has consequences. That’s all. Had nothing to do with anybody’s skin color. It only had to do with somebody’s criminal record. And at the time, Florida was number one in violent crime in America,” Crist said. “I mean, it wasn’t complicated to figure out why we had a problem with crime. And so we’ve addressed it, we’ve stopped it, not completely, but reduced. ... So that’s the rationale behind that. That’s all.”
At one point, Crist attempted to speak at a rally of advocates for abortion access across the street and was chased out by protesters who chanted “voting blue is not enough.”
Some of the tension between the campaigns was fairly innocuous.
In the hallways around the JW Marriot ballrooms, where tables with merchandise for Crist and Fried were placed across from each other, volunteers from both campaigns blasted dueling playlists at each other all day Saturday. Campaign staffers snickered over which campaign had the most attendees wearing their candidate’s swag. When the Crist campaign doled out a coffee cart with cups featuring his campaign logo, Fried supporters took the free coffee and slapped the cups with stickers of her purple logo.
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But even the candidates’ most fervent supporters could not deny the primary would not be as important in the end as the effort to beat DeSantis, who has far more campaign cash to spend than Crist or Fried and commands more national attention.
“I’m really torn about who to vote for in the primary because I like both candidates. I just need a Democrat,” said Alyse Shelton, president of the Women’s Club of West Volusia. “Between the two candidates … I’m just hoping that it’s going to motivate enough young people to vote Democratic anyway.”
The Rev. James T. Golden, a state committeeman from Manatee County and Fried supporter, said he thinks Fried is the better candidate in a year when Democrats hope the overturning of Roe v. Wade will motivate their base to vote them into office. Golden said his number one priority was voting out DeSantis. Fried has attacked Crist’s positions on abortion during his time as a Republican.
“I think she has been very supportive of the issues that impact minorities in the state of Florida,” Golden said of Fried, adding, “What we’re really saying is that whether it’s Crist or whether it’s Fried, the state is going to be better off than it is under DeSantis.”
Meanwhile, during Saturday’s caucus meetings, Crist deployed a number of credible surrogates to defend his record and promote his candidacy.
Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, speaking during the LGBTQ caucus meeting and introducing Crist, said at first he was “skeptical” about the governor’s race, as a self-described “progressive’s progressive.”
“We all have a past and we all come with baggage, myself included. Did I tell you I used to be straight?” Smith said, to laughter. “So is spaghetti before you boil it.”
“Second and most importantly,” he continued, is “having a gubernatorial candidate who has the absolute best chance of unseating Gov. Ron DeSantis. I know that each of these criteria will be fiercely debated among Democrats. But I tell you in my heart that I believe that person is Charlie Crist.”
Incoming minority state House leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell said she also endorsed Crist because she believed in his evolution from being a Republican to a leading Democratic gubernatorial contender. But in speaking to Democrats’ Black caucus, by far the convention’s most active and well-attended session, Driskell said Democrats needed to stay focused on messaging to voters ahead of the general election.
“You make the Republicans own this failure. They have been in charge of the (state) House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion since 1998,” Driskell said.
“When people ask you why it costs too much for rent, blame it on DeSantis. If they say the gas is too high, they ask you why, you say DeSantis. ... ‘Yeah, you know, that damn DeSantis running our schools into the ground.’ We can play their game, too.”
Tampa Bay Times political editor Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.