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Joe Biden Tells Florida Democrats 'Soul Of America' Is At Stake

Screen grab from Leadership Blue 2020
Florida Democratic Party
Screen grab from Leadership Blue 2020

Florida Democrats held their annual convention Saturday – this time virtually, in yet another concession to the pandemic.

This year’s Leadership Blue 2020 has added urgency, as the state is considered a must win for Donald Trump to get a second term in the White House. 

Most polls have Democrat Joe Biden leading Trump, but party organizers remember that Hillary Clinton was in the same position before eventually losing Florida – and the country – to Trump.

The party’s leaders were on computer screens, with most apparently taped. National Democratic Chairman Tom Perez and then South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn introduced Biden.

“If he wins Florida,” Clyburn said of Biden, “he becomes the next president of the United States. And we will move just a few steps closer to making this country’s greatness accessible and affordable for all.”

Biden then spoke for a little more than 15 minutes, from the same sunny front porch where he appeared in May during his first virtual rally, a glitch-filled affair with pixelated screens and patchy audio.

This time, the technical issues were but a memory. He thanked the Florida Democratic officials who appeared, wishing he could be there in person.

“Florida is an incredibly important battleground state for our campaign in 2020,” he said. “We have to do everything we can to make sure Democrats across and up and down the ballot in Florida are successful. Successful this November. The stakes in this election have never been higher."

Most of his speech revolved around the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter rallies.

“We have more infections that any nation in the world,” Biden said. “Millions are still out of work. As a nation, we’re grappling in real and meaningful ways to deal with a legacy of systemic oppression and racism that has kept too many of our country from realizing their full share of the American dream.

“It’s time for us to take a real hard look at uncomfortable truths,” he said. “It’s time for us to face the deep, open wound of systemic racism in this nation. Nothing about this is going to be easy. Nor is it going to be comfortable. If we simply allow the wound to scab over once more without treating the underlying injury, we’ll never truly heal."

He said he’s running because the “soul of America is at stake.”

The web event came as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis faces a growing chorus of criticism for his handling of the pandemic in the Sunshine State, where COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in recent weeks and the number of deaths related to the highly contagious respiratory disease continues to soar.

The virtual convention was scheduled to last two hours but wrapped up within an hour.

The online convention robbed Democratic grassroots supporters of an opportunity to mingle with Biden, lesser-known candidates and one another.

Perhaps more important, the absence of a face-to-face fete prevented lesser-known candidates running for local or legislative seats from attending after-parties where critical connections are established and contributors stroke checks to candidates and political committees.

“Do you want to go see Billy Joel in concert or at a Zoom concert? There’s no way to describe both, except one is great and one is sorry,” John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer who hosted a fundraiser for Biden at one of his homes last year, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview.

The virtual convention --- which cost $50 to attend and drew about 1,000 viewers --- deprives people of “all that fellowship and all that goes with it,” including photos, said Morgan.

“People love pictures with other people. So they don’t get to take a selfie. They don’t get that. But at the end of the day, these conventions are really just about raising money. I’ve been to them, and they’re horrible,” he said.

But Beth Matuga, a Democratic political operative and fundraiser, said conventions aren’t the best way for candidates to raise money.

Donors contribute to campaigns because they “believe in the cause,” especially in state legislative races, Matuga said in an interview.

For fundraising purposes, the virtual convention might not be a disadvantage for legislative candidates “because there’s not as much of that star-driven desire to write a check,” she said.

“The donor community has never been completely jazzed up about that,” Matuga added.

Removing in-person events “helps candidates to do more really focused call time, which is the backbone of a good fundraising campaign anyway,” she said.

Democrats on Saturday evening jabbed at Trump, DeSantis and other Republicans, who are holding their national convention next month in Jacksonville.

GOP leaders decided to move key parts of the convention from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville after Trump expressed displeasure that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, was "unable to guarantee" that coronavirus social-distancing requirements would be lifted before the event.

But as the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continues to mount, Republican National Committee officials on Wednesday announced they were scaling back the convention.

Only regular delegates will be allowed to attend the first three days of the GOP convention, while they will be able to bring guests to hear Trump publicly accept the party’s nomination on Aug. 27.

The News Service Of Florida contributed to this story.

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.