In Tampa, FL Democrats vent frustrations following bruising legislative session

‘We gotta go everywhere’ to be competitive, FDP Chair Nikki Fried says

By: - May 8, 2023 11:22 am

Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried speaking at Centennial Park in Tampa on May 7, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

Approximately 48 hours after the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature concluded a blockbuster legislative session that produced major conservative policy victories on abortion, immigration, public-employee unions, the death penalty, LGBTQ+ issues, and higher education, Florida Democrats gathered in Tampa for a pep rally on Sunday afternoon to revive their spirits and aim for better times ahead.

“Every single day that Ron DeSantis opens his mouth, he is taking away our freedoms,” declared Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried in kicking off the two-hour event in Centennial Park in Tampa’s historic Ybor City district. “But I have a message for Ron DeSantis — you will never be president of the United States.”

We need every seat contested up and down the ballot.

– Nikki Fried

While the line elicited a hearty cheer from the hundreds of Democrats in attendance, it couldn’t mask the fact that the governor remains one of the dominant figures in all of American politics and, with the help of the Legislature, has moved the state even further to the political right than it was two months ago.

Fried acknowledged the difficulties the Democrats are up against and the work required to become competitive again in the Legislature and all forms of government up and down the Sunshine State.

“That means we gotta come and we gotta show up,” Fried said. “We got to go into our communities. We gotta knock on the doors. We gotta talk to our neighbors. We gotta do voter registration. And vote by mail. And we gotta go everywhere. And so, if this moment inspires you, run for office. We need every seat contested up and down the ballot.”

While Democrats has been in the political minority in the state Legislature for decades, congressional redistricting last year pushed by the governor reduced their delegation makeup to just eight seats compared to 20 Republicans, while they also lost control of county commissions in places like Hillsborough and Pinellas in 2022.

Crowd protesting Gov. DeSantis at Tampa rally on May 7, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)


Not’s that it’s easy for some Democrats who do hold elected seats, such as Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins.

Jenkins told the crowd that the cost of doing her job has been exceedingly high, referring to the harassment she has confronted since being elected in 2020. But, she said, “the cost of doing nothing would have been higher” and attacked state Republicans.

“Bans on books. Bans on drag queens. Bans on Disney, on history, and our bodies,” she said. “Isn’t it odd how they passionately defend bans as a way to protect children but refuse to ban assault weapons that murder them in their schools.”

On guns, the GOP-led Legislature passed a permitless-carry bill this spring that means that Floridians will no longer be required to get a permit from the state, which required taking a safety training course, to carry concealed weapons. The measure was criticized by several rally speakers, and a one-minute moment of silence was taken to note the mass shooting at a Texas shopping mall on Saturday.

“None of this is normal,” said Wendy Malloy with Moms Demand Action, a gun-control group. “You want everyone armed in this state, Gov. DeSantis? How about start with allowing guns at your campaign rally? Or having guns on the floor of the Florida Capitol. Those places are deemed too precious for firearms, unlike the schools where our kids go every single day.”

The Legislature approved a measure pushed by the governor that would no longer require a unanimous jury verdict to sentence an individual to death. The change stemmed from the collective outrage felt last fall after a Broward County jury imposed a life sentence, and not the death penalty, on Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who murdered 17 people in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“Once a defendant in a capital case is found guilty by a unanimous jury, one juror should not be able to veto a capital sentence,” DeSantis said in a press release when he signed the bill last month. “I’m proud to sign legislation that will prevent families from having to endure what the Parkland families have and ensure proper justice will be served in the state of Florida.”

But Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, criticized the governor during the rally for backing the bill.

“Someone needs to explain to this guy that the sentence is not what changed my life,” he said. “What changed my life happened five years before when a 19-year-old was able to purchase an assault weapon, an AR-15 [rifle] legally.”

‘Real issues’

Former Orange County state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said the Legislature ignored the “real issues” that affect Floridians like housing affordability and lack of health care coverage and was instead “obsessed with culture wars and solving problems that do not exist.

Former House Dem. Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith in Tampa on May 7, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

“All LTBTQ people. All transgender people. All drag queens. All LTBGTQ youth who are under attack relentless this legislative session, all they want to do is live their lives in peace and happiness,” he said.

Smith has filed to run for a state Senate seat in 2024 and said that getting an openly LGBTQ+ Latino like himself back in the Legislature would be “a form of resistance.”

“Making sure that our voices are represented in elected government matters more than ever before, and we need real leaders in Tallahassee who are going to fight for real freedom and equality,” he said.

Another win for DeSantis this spring was a “paycheck protection” proposal that prohibits the use of paycheck deductions for most public-sector union dues and mandates that unions be decertified if they don’t count at least 60 percent of their bargaining unit as dues-paying members.

“This legislative session was a rough one because Ron DeSantis set his sights on working people, and the Republican Legislature marched in lockstep to carry out his orders, but we’re not going to stand down,” said Jim Junecko, president of the West Central Florida Labor Council, who added that the GOP ignored more substantive issues. “They didn’t do anything about rent costs increasing. Insurance rates. Utility hikes. They don’t care about that because they’re not the party of the people.”

Tampa-based Democratic House members Dianne Hart and Susan Valdes also appeared at the event.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.