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Pam Keith over Grayson in final pitches to Pinellas Democrats

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson says he feels confident going into the homestretch of the race for U.S. Senate.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson says he feels confident going into the homestretch of the race for U.S. Senate.
Published Aug. 27, 2016

CLEARWATER — A 47-year-old Miami labor attorney and Navy veteran paced around a pint-sized Marriott hotel ballroom Thursday evening, throwing out ideas to Pinellas County Democrats.

They loved it.

Require that the military buy guns only from manufacturers that don't sell civilians AR-15-style weapons? That sounds interesting. Make gun owners carry insurance? Absolutely. Collect data on judges to ensure they apply the law evenly to all races and genders? Worth a shot.

"Equality under the law is not about the way the law is written," the attorney told roughly 75 people at the monthly meeting of the Pinellas Democratic Party. "It's about the way the law is applied."

If you hadn't seen the flurry of social media feeds, you might not know who the attorney was. She's Pam Keith, and she's running as a Democrat for U.S. Senate in Tuesday's primary. You may have heard of her opponents, U.S. Reps. Alan Grayson of Orlando and Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, but she hasn't gained much traction — which is curious, based on the crowd's reaction.

Teresa Kelly, 56, of St. Petersburg voted early for Grayson. Based on how Keith electrified the crowd, did Kelly have buyer's remorse?

"Maybe a little," Kelly said. "Maybe I didn't do my homework, and I'm ashamed to admit that."

Keith said in an interview after her speech that she felt the political winds blow against her candidacy. She said her effort to snag the nomination is a "long shot," and she has had plenty of time to think about why that is.

"Our media has to rethink how they handicap candidates," she said. If the party establishment favors one candidate, "then the media ought not rely on that." She added "simple research" can separate which underfunded candidates are putting in the hours versus which ones filed just to have their names on the ballot.

"You call people asking for money and they say, 'Well I've never heard of you,' " she said. "I call the media and say, 'Hey, write about me,' and they say, 'Oh, well, you have no money.' "

Some people Thursday night did know of Pam Keith, and some who didn't before walked out with her yard signs. The entire room gave her a standing ovation.

"It was wonderful," said Rob Sterling, 68. "I immediately liked her, I mean, as a person."

Toni Walker, 69, the county party credentials chairwoman, said she voted early for Keith, even though "They're all great choices."

"I voted for Pam," Walker said. "Of all the people, she'd probably get the lowest number of votes because she's not a well-known figure. But I liked her because she's squeaky clean."

Both Grayson and Murphy would bring baggage to the general election — Murphy with his reliance on his father's money and a June dustup over his business credentials, and Grayson, most recently, with controversy swirling over domestic abuse allegations from his ex-wife.

Murphy was invited to speak, but county party chairwoman Susan McGrath said the short notice didn't give him enough time to attend. Grayson was in the area and spoke after Keith.

As McGrath introduced him to Thursday night's crowd, Grayson interrupted her.

"Alan was born in the Bronx and raised in public housing," she said. "He graduated at the top 2 percent of his class —"

"I know that already," he said, walking toward the podium, to nervous laughter. "I really appreciate what you're doing, but it's late."

Grayson ticked off a list of selling points, getting dozens of progressive priorities signed into law among them, and touted his signature slogan — that he would be a "senator with guts." He won applause from the crowd, and a standing ovation from most at the end. But the applause was louder and longer for Keith.

Afterward, Sterling, who voted early for Grayson, said, "Alan Grayson is Alan Grayson. He's wonderful, he can be somewhat abrasive, he can be somewhat abrupt, but he can also be very warm, very cordial, very friendly."

Grayson said he felt confident in the homestretch of the campaign.

Later, during the party meeting at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater, 12600 Roosevelt Blvd., Grayson spent time criticizing Murphy. He zeroed in on a $1 million donation Murphy's father made in July to the Senate Majority PAC aligned with his son. Grayson ignored Keith, who listened from the front row.

"I'm the only Senate campaign supported primarily by contributions of less than $200," Grayson told the crowd.

"And mine," Keith exclaimed.

"Okay," Grayson said, "we can take that up later, Pam."

Contact Jack Suntrup at jsuntrup@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.