By Paul Blythe
We at the North County Democratic Club call it Pancakes and Politics but, as one guest said, this year’s version was more of a pep rally with elegance.
Elegance and grit, as it turns out. And we mean grit, not grits.
For the Sunday brunch attended by more than 200 Democratic faithful at the North Palm Beach Country Club, we scrambled together a speaker lineup as diverse and delicious as the bagel, omelet, sausage and pancake breakfast served by the Farmer’s Table restaurant.
So, what do you get when you mix a Yale University student who five years ago survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a Florida high school history teacher who has become the poster nemesis of Moms for Liberty, a candidate who we believe can and will knock out Republican Rick Scott as Florida’s junior U.S. senator, and a party official who worked on issues of mental health, loneliness and isolation for the U.S. Surgeon General in the Biden-Harris administration before he became Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried’s executive director?
How about a production that we, or at least I, never expected. Four independent speeches with a surprisingly uniform theme: Courage. The courage of conviction, participatory democracy and meeting people where they are.
Sari Kaufman, the first speaker of this year's fundraiser, was a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018 when the alarm went off in February 2018, confusing the students because they had already had a shooting drill that day. Their debate teacher ordered them out of the room and didn’t tell them this was not a drill until they were outside the school.
“I ran for my life and found safety at a local restaurant next to the school, where I watched the unthinkable news story develop,” Kaufman said. “First they reported five dead, then 10 and then 17.”
In the ensuing weeks, she attended funerals for her classmates. “I did not feel like a 15-year-old anymore.”
Since then, she has become an anti-gun-violence activist, organizing March for Our Lives in Parkland and running the Students Demand Action Club at Yale.
And she has learned a few things about politics along the way.
“After the shootings, my classmates and I went up to Tallahassee and showed the country that when young people come together and speak up, we can get red-flag laws passed in Republican state legislatures,” she said. “However, as you have seen, Republicans now want to repeal the progress we made. Therefore, the only way to ensure that we have major life-saving legislation is by turning out more people to vote and electing more Democrats. The Democrats are the clear champions for gun-violence prevention. Biden has been leading the way for reducing gun-violence. The Democrats were able to pass the first major piece of gun violence prevention legislation in three decades this past year called the Bipartisan Save Our Communities Act, which for the first time in more than a decade is leading to lower gun violence deaths. Now recently Biden just established the Office of Gun Violence Prevention at the White House.”
“This project is amazing,” she continued to resounding applause. “But it could be temporary if we do not continue to elect Democrats. While people will write off Florida and say it was lost to Republicans, I, especially as a young person, am not willing to believe that. It needs each of us to stand up and organize, to volunteer and speak out in support of Democrats. The difference between Democrats and Republicans could not be clearer in Florida. Republicans now allow someone with no training to carry a gun around in public. Republicans propose to arm our teachers with guns in schools and Republicans want to repeal red-flag laws. But we in this room can be the difference. The ones to go out there and fight to save lives.”
She stands by what she quickly learned at age 15 after the mass shooting at her Broward County high school – “that to achieve our ideal action, we needed to flip Florida and the country blue.”
And the best way to do that, she said, “is to meet people where they are.”
Our master of ceremonies, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, introduced our second speaker as being “on the front lines of the fight for academic freedom.”
But Brandt Robinson says, “I’m really not doing anything other than teaching history. That’s all I’ve ever done. I’m not some radical Marxist or socialist. I deeply love and care for my students. On the first day of the year, I’m very proud to tell my students …My job is not to tell you what to think. My job is to teach you to be a better thinker.”
Robinson is in his 27th year as a history teacher at Dunedin High School, the school that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis graduated from a year before Robinson started teaching there.
And he has other more recent, indirect links to Florida’s authoritarian governor – as an opponent to DeSantis’ and the Legislature’s extremist education laws – the Parental Rights in Education Act, the Don’t Say Gay law and the Stop Woke Act among others. This opposition comes in various venues: his popular TikTok videos promoting the teaching of American history in its entirety, his part as a plaintiff in a lawsuit opposing onerous restrictions on teachers’ unions and his practice with his wife, Carol, of speaking against Moms for Liberty whenever members of the book-banning group appear at school board meetings.
Robinson had his first run-in with Moms for Liberty in 2020 when he realized that a woman who filed a challenge against the text book he was using in his African American history class had the same last name as a male student who had dropped out of the class just three days after the start of the semester. He said it became “pretty certain” to him that the student took the class only so his mother could get a copy of the course outline and syllabus, which she used in her challenge. He said “what she did was well within her rights,” but her challenge was unanimously rejected.
He learned that she was a member of an organization that had just formed a few months earlier in Florida – Moms for Liberty.
“Their playbook involves intimidation, and she continued that by filing a formal records request. So I had to submit all the materials I used in class, all the video links. All the handouts. Nothing came of that as well. But then in January of 2022, our education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times … did a big story on everything that had been taking place in my classroom. And I don’t say this to joke, but if you Google my name, Brandt Robinson, and Marxist, the article will come up” because the parent alleged Robinson was trying to indoctrinate students with Marxist and socialist ideas.
“As 2022 unfolded, the governor began his re-election campaign and … began his regular refrain of accusing teachers like me of engaging in indoctrination and grooming and later he would add sexualizing our students,” he said.
“Carol and I realized we had to start going to school board meetings because Moms for Liberty were there and we had to be the kindest … but most fierce and credible people in the room.”
They and like-minded teachers across the nation have continued to that for the last year and a half. “And we’ve seen the result of that last Tuesday. If you’re unaware … the Moms for Liberty candidates lost 80 percent of all the races they ran in. They lost 90 percent of the suburban districts they ran in.”
Robinson says the assault on teachers by Republicans has been going on since Jeb Bush was governor, and he put the blame, at least in part, on older voters like himself.
“We would not be here, if those who are old like us …had all been doing our parts to get involved in participatory democracy,” he said. “Just think about that. Voting is fundamental and we understand the assault on voting rights of the last three years, but we’ve been here before. If we had been involved in participatory democracy, which is what this is. This (Pancakes and Politics breakfast) is participatory democracy. This, as Sari says, this is about meeting people where they are.”
Meeting people where they are. Participatory democracy. Speaking out at school board meetings. Refusing to be intimidated. Having the courage of your convictions.
Aronberg introduced the third speaker of our event as “one of the best chances Democrats have in the entire country to swing a Senate seat from red to blue.”
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Congresswoman from Miami-Dade County, introduced herself as DMP, “your U.S. Senate candidate to defeat Rick Scott,” an immigrant and a Latina whose journey began 35 years ago when her mother “had the courage to leave everything behind in my home country of Ecuador and decided to bring me and my sisters to a country where she knew she was going to be able to afford opportunities that we would never be able to have” in Ecuador.
She is running, she said, because she sees so many people struggling in Florida – from the cost of home owners insurance here, to the lack of affordable housing, to the unavailability of health insurance for the poor. to housing, from health care, prices are out of control, affecting everyone of us, including businesses. But also because “none of us can afford to let them (Republicans) continue to get away with attacking our freedoms.
“I know that we are all very, very frustrated, worried, because our democracy is going through an existential threat. But we also know what happens when we allow self-serving politicians like Rick Scott -- who lacks the courage to stand up for our community – what happens to our country when we do nothing. I know Florida. I know who we are. We are an independent state that doesn’t allow anyone to tell us what to do. We know what hard work is ahead…And we know what courage looks like.”
And she laid out a half dozen reasons why she believes Scott, who has won two Florida gubernatorial races and one U.S. Senate race, will lose to her.
“Rick Scott has never run in a presidential election year,” she said. “He has never won by more than a percentage point. He has never run against the millions of women who are going to be marching to the ballot box this year … He has never run against a Latina like myself that knows exactly how to communicate with my community. Has never run against the millions of Floridians who will have the courage to say no mas, no more.
“And this fight is not going to be easy, but I have done this before. I was able to flip a seat red to blue against a very popular-at-the-time, two-term incumbent (Carlos Curbelo in 2018). And Rick Scott is one of the most vulnerable senators that we have in this country. We have polling that shows I’m going to be able to beat Rick Scott, but I’m going to need every single one of you … to join my campaign … And I’m going to ask you, please contribute to my campaign. This man contributed $64 million of his own money to his campaign.”
Why would someone spend that much for a position that pays $174,000 a year? Because, she said, Scott has since become the richest member of the Senate.
But the first thing Mucarsel-Powell said Sunday was, “The first thing I want to say today is Sari Kaufman makes me proud to be a Floridian. Brandt Robinson makes me proud to be a Floridian.”
The final guest speaker at Pancakes and Politics didn’t say it, but he did make clear exactly who makes him proud when he started his speech by asking veterans in the room to stand for applause.
Then Phillip Jerez, the Florida Democratic Party’s Executive Director, announced, “What a great day it is to be a Florida Democrat.”
He introduced himself as a son of Dominican immigrants living in the Bronx and said he had worked in Florida politics for a decade, but the most critical thing to know about him was his work on the issues of mental health, loneliness and isolation for the U.S. Surgeon General.
“When we talk about convincing people to vote, we have to remember that for so many of us, getting through our days is sometimes simply an act of survival.
“I will tell you all what I always tell our (Florida Democratic) team:
“It takes a great deal of courage to get up and do the work that we do. It takes courage to stand up for others. It takes courage to be kind. It takes courage to collectively reach out behind ourselves and do the right thing. And it takes courage to dust ourselves off and pledge to fight. Because the courage is what gives people the will to keep going in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. Courage is what the North County Democrats have.
“After the 2022 election, this group decided that instead of packing it in, you got up and got organized, because this is a group that knows Florida is worth fighting for. This group knows that in order to take back Florida, we have to get back to the basics, and that starts with getting out of the super minority in the Legislature, getting abortion not only on the ballot but getting passed into law. Listen you all, there are only six seats we need to flip the Legislature to get out of the super minority. And it fills my heart with joy to know that this club, the North County Democrats, have already collected over 1,500 petitions to get abortion on the ballot.”
He then enthused about all the Democratic victories on Election Day this past Tuesday. “In Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania and even in Ohio, you all.”
“And after Tuesday’s Democratic wins, I don’t know if you all saw but we had our DNC chair, Jaime Harrison, and the Biden Harris campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, in South Florida,” he said. “Right after Tuesday’s big wins, they were here. That’s important. After Tuesday’s big wins, they could have gone anywhere in the country and they chose to come to Florida … to remind everyone that Florida is in play and that’s in part because of the large work we’ve done to rebuild the Florida Democratic Party under Chair Nikki Fried’s leadership.
“Over the past nine months, your Florida Democratic Party has been hard at work to position Democratic candidates for every seat and in every corner of the state. We are focusing on year-round organizing and bringing in new voters and aggressive communications and fundraising strategies and supporting important candidates and ballot initiatives that will be on the 2024 ballot.”
“Democrats,” he said, “we can and will do this….This is a state that only 10 years ago, reelected President Barack Obama. This is a state that only seven years ago voted for medicial marijuana. This is a state that only five years ago voted to return rights to returning citizens. This is a state that only three years ago voted to pass a $15 minimum wage. And this is a state that next November not only will we get reproductive rights on the ballot but we are going to codify it into law.”
SHOUT OUTS TO ATTENDEES
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel
Florida Sen. Bobby Powell
Palm Beach County Mayor Gregg Weiss
Port of Palm Beach Commissioner Carissa Lall Dass
Port of Palm Beach Commissioner Deandre Poole
Florida Democratic Party Committee Woman Dr. Maria Cole
PBC Democratic Executive Committee Vice Chair Sean Rourke
PBC Democratic Executive Committee Secretary Marvelous Washington
For U.S. Senate: Deborah Mucarsel-Powell, former U.S. Representative from Miami-Dade County
For Palm Beach County State Attorney: Alexcia Cox, Gregg Lerman and Craig Williams
For Palm Beach County Public Defender: Daniel Eisinger
For Palm Beach County Sheriff: Alex Freeman
For Florida House, District 89 (north and west Palm Beach County): Rachelle Litt, former Palm Beach Gardens mayor and commissioner
For Florida House, District 94: Debra Tendrich
For Delray Beach City Council: Tennille DeCoste
DEMOCRATIC CAUCUSES, CLUBS and ALLIES
Caribbean American Caucus
Democratic Women’s Club
Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee
Blue Wave Coalition
Speaking Up for America
OTHER NOTABLE GUESTS
Ann Brown, former U.S. Consumer and Product Safety Commissioner with the Clinton administration
Terrie Rizzo, former Florida Democratic Party Chair
Former Palm Beach Gardens Mayors Eric Jablin and Mark Marciano
Cover photo by Paul Blythe. Speaker photos by Gregg Lerman.