TAMPA — Hoping to revive their party into an effective force in county politics, Hillsborough County Democrats held what leaders called a record-breaking fundraiser Saturday night with a local favorite as speaker, U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Patrick Murphy.
Facing a fractious primary against Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, Murphy told the crowd he has the temperament and political style to win the 2016 Senate race.
A liberal firebrand known for inflammatory rhetoric, Grayson sharply criticizes Murphy on the stump while the more conservative Murphy uses a softer tone.
He began his speech at the party's Kennedy-King fundraising dinner noting that he "stood with the president" by supporting the proposed nuclear arms limiting agreement with Iran.
In the speech and an interview, Murphy sought to emphasize his commitment to Democratic values, suggesting he's just as true a Democrat as Grayson.
He noted that he's strongly pro-choice and in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples.
"The single biggest problem in our country is the disappearing middle class," he said, and he supports a minimum wage increase to help solve it. Comparing himself to Grayson, he said, "The biggest single difference is style — his get-in-the-mud style. On issues, there's not that huge a difference."
In his speech, Murphy stuck with his campaign approach of seeking to distinguish himself from Grayson without mentioning him by name.
Murphy is backed in the primary by some of Hillsborough County's most prominent Democrats, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and such high-level fundraisers as Tom Scarritt, Alex Sink and Betty Castor.
Democratic consultant Barry Edwards said Hillsborough is probably a Murphy county in the primary.
"There's a very traditional Democratic base in this county, old-line Democrats" who tend to be moderate and establishment-oriented, he said.
But Murphy is too conservative for some.
A former Republican from Jupiter who made his name by unseating conservative firebrand Rep. Allen West in 2012, Murphy angered some Democrats with stances such as favoring the Keystone XL pipeline and work requirements for food stamp recipients, and has been only a lukewarm supporter of the Affordable Care Act.
Susan Smith of Tampa, head of a state party progressive caucus, who backs Grayson, skipped the dinner, saying she didn't want to attend because Murphy was the speaker.
"I'm here for the local party, because they promised me the money they raise will go to local candidates," said former City Council member Mary Mulhern, another Grayson backer.
Party chairman Elizabeth Belcher said Murphy was invited for the event before Grayson entered the race; she said Grayson will speak at a county party meeting this month.
At the dinner, public relations executive Tom Hall announced a new fundraising initiative called the Hillsborough Society, led by himself and Sink, aimed at making the local party more of a force in elections.
He said the members will pick candidates to back, but will also pay dues, $1,000 a year, which will go to the local party; he hopes to recruit up to 100 members.
For years, Democrats acknowledge, such high-dollar donors have avoided giving to the local party.
Party executive director Mark Hanisee said about 320 people attended the dinner Saturday, and more than $60,000 was raised.
Those figures are small compared to the local Republican Party, which raised three times that at its recent annual fundraising dinner. But for the county Democrats, they're records, said Hanisee.
William March can be reached at email@example.com.