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  1. Florida Politics

Florida Democrats seek female support in coming elections

Sen. Bill Nelson speaks at the state conference for the National Organization for Women at Tampa Marriott Waterside Saturday morning. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL | Times]
Sen. Bill Nelson speaks at the state conference for the National Organization for Women at Tampa Marriott Waterside Saturday morning. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL | Times]

TAMPA — Florida Democrats seeking to win statewide elections in Florida made their cases this weekend to dozens of the state's most involved female activists. Three of the four candidates for governor established how important the female vote will be to their primary chances and their goal of turning the state blue in November.

But three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is seeking reelection, delivered a slightly different message, saying that the ramifications of losing one more seat to Republicans in the Senate could be devastating.

"Elections have consequences, and we've already seen the consequences of the last one," Nelson said. "Not just in women's rights."

During a Saturday morning speech to the state conference for the National Organization for Women, a group focused on gender equality that also takes on progressive causes, Nelson said that "a lot was at stake."

Nelson railed against the tax bill, the inability of Congress to come up with a DACA solution and attempts to end the Affordable Care Act. But Nelson said he was confident that women would turn the tide in the state.

"The Women's March wasn't just in Washington," Nelson said, referring to demonstrations across the country the day after the 2017 inauguration. "Fernandina Beach, in Nassau County, is as about conservative as you can get, but 1,000 women still walked down center street as part of the march."

Polls show that women are increasingly disenchanted by President Donald Trump and energy among female voters has been demonstrated in national events like the Women's March. According to a recent CBS poll, only 20 percent of women identify themselves as strong Trump supporters; more than twice as many say they are "strongly against Trump, period."

During the first day of the conference, the men seeking the governorship, Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine and Orlando-area businessman Chris King, spoke about the important women in their lives. Levine joked that his mom is more popular than him for her role in his television ads and boasted that his company's chief operating officer is female. King noted he met his wife in public schools and that his daughter held up a cheeky sign at the Orlando women's march.

"Without Hermione, Harry Potter would've died in book one," he recalled the sign said. "Hashtag girl power."

Meanwhile, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham fantasized of what it would mean to have Florida's first female governor in Tallahassee.

"The future is female," she said to applause.

All three endorsed Florida ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment that says civil rights may not be denied on the basis of gender. This week, Illinois became the 37th state to do so, putting the country only one state away from a landmark change.

"What a historic opportunity for Florida to lead the nation," Levine said.

Levine, King and Graham each had five minutes to speak at the opening night of the state conference. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, running in the Democratic primary as well, could not attend the Tampa event.

The room at the Tampa Marriott Westshore was full of activists, party leaders and election-year hopefuls, many of whom were first time candidates emboldened to run because of Trump, their anger at Republicans for shifting public school dollars to private schools and angst over gun violence.

Trump and those issues were on the mind of the gubernatorial candidates as well.

King laid out his strategy to pay for gun violence prevention: a proposal for a six-cent tax on bullets that he first announced Friday morning in St. Petersburg.

Graham vowed to eliminate the testing culture in Tallahassee, a frequent mantra of the former congresswoman, and to raise pay for teachers. And while she elicited boos for mentioning Trump, she said he credited him for awakening a counter movement on the left.

"I'm a silver lining person," she said. "The glass half full with Donald Trump is this is the kind of engagement I see all across the state of Florida."

The three candidates, and Gillum, will return to the Tampa Bay area next week for the second Democratic debate, Saturday in Largo.

In a room full of Democrats, the candidates were cautious to be kind to their counterparts while also trying to distinguish themselves before the August primary.

Levine, who said, "If any of the four of us become governor, our state will be in way better shape than it is today," also positioned himself as the candidate who has already championed a progressive agenda as mayor.

King, a political newcomer, said he would be a "transformative" governor with big ideas and not beholden to special interests.

Graham, meanwhile, echoed Levine's sentiment, but cast doubt on whether the rest of the field had a chance in a general election.

"Any of us would be better than what the Republicans are offering," she said, "but you've got to be able to win this race."

Contact Jonathan Capriel at 813-225-3141 or jcapriel@tampabay.com.

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