By Paul Blythe
The Palm Beach County Democratic Party called in a “superstar” and “an American hero” Saturday night, Oct. 7, to rally our base for what party leaders said will be a challenging and consequential 2024 election year -- from the February municipal elections to the November general election that will pick the president.
U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, the “superstar,” and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the “American Hero,” both gave inspiring speeches – although in far different ways -- to a packed ballroom of Democratic Party volunteers, organizers and elected officials at the county Democratic Party’s 19th annual Truman Kennedy Johnson Gala at the West Palm Marriott.
State Attorney Dave Aronberg, the master of ceremonies for the night, introduced Frost, the youngest member of Congress and the first member of Gen Z to be elected to the chamber, as the party “superstar.” Giffords, the former congresswoman from Arizona who has become a leader in the fight to end gun violence since she was shot in the head in 2011 by a gunman who killed six people and injured 12 others, was described as “an American hero” by County Democratic Chair Mindy Koch.
The county Democrats sought the nationally known figures for their big annual fundraiser in the beliefs that 2024 is crucial not only for Democrats but for democracy in Florida and the United States, and that Palm Beach County is key to the national and state fights. The party wants to raise money for the campaigns ahead and to inspire and motivate its local candidates, volunteers and voters.
Palm Beach County is Ground Zero
“Let us understand that Palm Beach County is Ground Zero for the entire state, and that the work that we do here today has to save our entire country,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, whose District 20 includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. “So I always prioritize Palm Beach County not because I love Broward County any less, but because I come to Ground Zero. And I make sure we pour everything into Ground Zero, and I make sure you have everything you need in Ground Zero because we will win Ground Zero, we will win the state of Florida, and we will so win the United States of America. So I thank you once again for being here, as we deal with chaos in D.C., and we see that the Republicans don’t know how to rule or even govern – neither in the state nor in the House of Representatives. Let us understand that we cannot allow these extremists, these MAGA extremists, to define who we are in this country. We are not extremists. We are not anti-anyone. We collectively work together. So I thank you so much again, Palm Beach County Democratic Party, for bringing us all together.”
Cherfilus-McCormick was one of dozens of elected Democrats among the event’s approximately 300 attendees. They ranged from municipal and special district officials such as Greenacres Mayor Joel Flores and Port of Palm Beach commissioners Dr. Jean Enright and Dr. Deandre Poole; to most of the county constitutional officers such as Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, Public Defender Carey Haughwout and Tax Collector Anne Gannon; to state legislators such as Sen. Bobby Powell and Rep. Jervonte “Tae” Edmonds, whose districts both include much of north Palm Beach County; to members of Congress, such as Cherfilus-McCormick and Rep. Lois Frankel, of West Palm Beach.
Give 'em Hell Frost
Frost, the gala’s “special guest speaker,” spoke before Giffords and started off hot to give Republicans hell in the way Democrats were hoping for – just like “Give ‘em Hell Harry” used to do.
“In case you haven’t been paying attention, no one is really holding the gavel in Congress right now, and it’s a problem that Republican leadership brought on themselves,” Frost said. “But tonight isn’t about the politics of the disfunction going on in Congress. Tonight is about the fight for our rights. Tonight is about the fight for our communities, our families, our planet, our democracy. It’s about how Florida Democrats are going to kick out these far-right fascists from power and put in Democrats who are going to fight for our most marginalized communities.”
Like Giffords, Frost is known for his activism in the anti-gun-violence movement, and he recounted how that led to him being elected to Congress in 2022 at the age of 25. He spoke of being a 15-year-old drummer in an Orlando-area arts high school jazz band in 2012 and, just before a school concert, having dinner with other bandmembers at a restaurant where they watched a breaking news report about the massacre of 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“This had a profound impact on me,” he said. “I wound up going back to the concert that night. I couldn’t play right. I kept dragging, I kept missing hits, I was rushing because I kept looking behind me at the Exit signs, scared that somebody would come into that theater and kill my friends, my family, myself. But that anxiety is something that we all, and especially young people, live with right now on a day-to-day basis. Gen Z is known for many things but we’re also the mass shooting generation, a generation that has the fear of gun violence -- in our schools, in our communities, in our blocks and even in our own homes.”
Call to Action
Not long after that, he said he went to Washington, D.C. a memorial for those who died at Sandy Hook, “and that is when I had my call to action. A call to action is an event or a series of events that lead you to make a commitment.”
At a hotel where many relatives of the victims stayed, he met and spoke with Matthew Soto. “Matthew’s sister (Victoria Leigh Soto) was a teacher at Sandy Hook, and when she heard the gunshots, she hid her entire class in the cabinets and the closet and saved their lives. And she was killed,” Frost said. “Sitting across from Matthew -- he was about a year older than me -- and seeing a 16-year-old with the demeanor of a 60-year-old crying over his sister who was murdered for going to class changed my life forever. I ran straight to my hotel room. I called my mother. I was in tears. My mother just retired after being a public-school educator of 37 years. And I called my mom and I said, ‘Mom, for the rest of my life I want to fight for a world where no one has to feel the pain that I just saw in students today.’ And so from thereon out, I got involved in the fight to end gun violence.”
Nearly a decade into anti-gun-violence activism, he joined a non-violent march in Orlando in defense of black lives in 2020. “And on the streets of Orlando,” he said, “I was maced, I was tear gassed, I was arrested and I was in jail on the same streets that I now represent in the United States Congress.”
About that time, friends encouraged him to run for the U.S. House. He declined, but it planted the seed in his mind, and two years later, when U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando, ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Marco Rubio, Frost ran for her open House seat.
At first celebrated for his youth and the hope that he could draw his generation to the Democratic Party – “We are a party that should be proud that last year over 70 percent of Generation Z voted for Democrats” – Frost has doubly won over Democrats for his willingness and ability to take the fight to Republicans, castigating them head-on on the House floor and at events like the TKJ Gala.
“I think we all understand at this point that we live in a dangerous time,” he told the West Palm crowd to a standing ovation. “We have a far-rightwing movement, an extreme movement fueled by hatred, homophobia, antisemitism, bigotry, white supremacy, transphobia and racism rapidly growing all across the state of Florida. And it is of no surprise to people, because these people feel empowered, not just by folks on Twitter or Newsmax or FOX News but by our government here in the state of Florida.
“Our state is run by a governor who is abusing his power to target marginalized communities. He is too obsessed and too interested in running a failed campaign for president… He is more interested in running for president than running our state. He has no answers to the issues we actually care about: ensuring that we have more affordable housing, fixing this insurance crisis, ending gun violence, combatting the climate crisis. He doesn’t have the answers, so his decision here is to scapegoat marginalized communities. To feed into the hate to excuse his failures for our people.
“And we know what’s going on: book banning, working to erase queer kids, targeting public education, dehumanizing immigrants, erasing and changing black history, removing elected officials from office. The list goes on. And our opposition here isn’t just to a conservative leader that we disagree with. Isn’t just about the policies. It’s about the way he’s doing it.
“And I want to be very clear. As someone who goes to Washington D.C. to work, and we compromise and work with people we disagree with there, democracy is NOT something we can agree to disagree on.”
Short and Powerful
Then, there was Gabby Giffords, the keynote speaker.
In his last introduction of the night, Aronberg said, “She came a long way for us, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, founder of ‘Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence.’ Understand what it’s like to face overwhelming barriers. She understands what it takes to get past them. From a crappy Arizona childhood to her bridge-building politics and her remarkable recovery from traumatic injuries, Gabby personifies courage. Today she leads Giffords, the gun violence prevention organization she cofounded. Giffords is a non-profit organization that shifts culture, changes policies and challenges injustice, inspiring Americans across the country to fight gun violence.
“As she leads Giffords, Gabby continues to make remarkable progress in her recovery. She helped raise awareness about aphasia, the language impairment she has suffered since her shooting. She enjoys spending her free time playing the French horn, biking, practicing yoga and learning Spanish.…That kind of resiliency, perseverance and courage is one that resonates around the world. It has helped her overcome tragedy, work tirelessly to recover when the odds were stacked against her and become the nation’s most renowned leader in the fight to end gun violence.”
After waiting for a long standing ovation to die down, Giffords steps to the microphone and starts, abruptly: “I have known the darkness of days. Days of pain and uncertain recovery. Left despondent by (unclear) … confronted by paralysis and aphasia (unclear) … I put one foot in front of the other. I found one word, then another. My recovery (unclear) make me stronger. Words once came (unclear) … today, but I have not lost my voice (unclear) ... word OUT even when you have to fight to find the word. (Long applause.) I also learned I can fight. Fight will stop the gun violence (unclear)… continuing lies. We are at a crossroads. We can achieve (unclear) … We can protect our families, our future. We can vote. We can be on the right of history. (She slows to enunciate the next six words very distinctly.) Please join us in this fight. Thank you very much.” And she ends as abruptly as she started.
She has spoken for less than a minute and a half, and she often was hard to understand. But when she is done, she receives the longest, loudest standing ovation of the night – because we all understood it required something exceptional from within just for her to be there, for her to speak.
Giffords resonates. She inspires. Just in a different way from Frost.
'We Must be United'
But most importantly, far earlier in the show, Chair Mindy Koch reminded her party: For Democrats to win, the work must be done.
“Here’s what I absolutely do know,” she said in her welcome to the dinner. “The demographics are changing in Palm Beach County, and we must be united to elect Democrats. We must be united to elect Democrats. We must make those calls, walk those neighborhoods, register voters -- so that we can elect them. Oh wait, one more thing. We have to have a Democrat running in every election. So, if you were thinking about it, qualifying for the municipals is in November. So you know there’s still time.”
Then, after introducing her election coordinators, Koch says, “When they call to ask for your help, I hope your answer will be a resounding, ‘Absolutely. Sign me up.’”
The North County Democratic Club of Palm Beach County also will soon be holding its annual fundraiser to celebrate our party and help enable us to continue our important work. To learn more about the NCDC's Pancakes & Politics and to reserve your spot now, please visit Pancakes and Politics | NCDC (northcountydemocraticclubpbc.com)