Suiting up for Sarasota Democrats’ dinner party

The Sarasota Democratic Party’s Annual Kennedy-King Dinner is a fine opportunity to meet and mingle with local democrats and tap into political and activist currents in the area. It is also a chance to sit pretty for a night.

The first thing to know about the Kennedy-King Dinner is that it’s actually a huge fundraiser. A huge, fancy fundraiser held at the Hyatt Regency on the bayfront. Oh, and tickets are $125. The second thing to know about the Kennedy-King Dinner is that it’s a networking frenzy.

I was invited by Mrs. Ardell Otten, a local activist involved with Newtown Nation – the community-led group that I intern with. Two in Ardell’s party couldn’t attend and expressed a desire for New College students with connections in Newtown to take their place.

I chose third-year Co-president Miles Iton as my date. Miles worked with Newtown Nation this past summer and still holds close relationships in the community. Plus, he’s going to be the youngest future President in U.S. history.

When we arrived, we quickly skirted the $8 valet parking and parallel parked down the street. The lobby was glossy and packed. Luckily, Mrs. Ardell found us with a warm welcome and escorted us to the sign-in tables.

New College Professor Brendan Goff was in attendance and, recognizing Miles, he steered him towards the student president of University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. My fate was similar: discovering I was writing about the dinner in the Catalyst, Goff graciously introduced me to everyone he knew.

The first person I was introduced to, I already knew. Jennifer Ahearn-Koch is running for city commissioner and we met at a Newtown Nation meeting where she was presenting for STOP, a Sarasota civic group working to end the nonpublic process of Administrative Approval for urban development downtown.

“All my activity started with grassroots, so I can relate,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I know what it takes to make time for issues, that work needs to be valued more and I will work closer with people to raise them up.”

Given her history of bottom-up political activism, I asked what advice she has for people getting involved with local issues. “Well, if they are a neighborhood association, I would advice them to do to go to the County Council of Neighborhood Associations. They can save you a lot of dead ends.”

Our conversation ended with coordinators ushering everyone towards the dinner hall. On the way, we passed tables of auction items including nostalgically framed Times’ Magazine covers featuring the Obamas, porcelain tea sets and a selection of art.

“Can I just say,” Miles said. “That this is so bougie.”

In the dining room, two large screens on either side of a stage flipped through photos from the Women’s March on Washington and it’s sister march in Sarasota. Pinkness abounded on screen. Waiters carrying champagne bottles scurried on and off the scene. We found our seats.

I stared down at a plate displaying salad wrapped like a bouquet. We made introductions around the table, at which sat one man, one black woman and four white ladies – just about representative of the demographics in the whole place.

One of our table mates was Jan Pearce, a former reporter at the Washington Post. I asked what she thought of Trump’s choice to boycott the White House Correspondents Dinner.

“It’s not good – I think it’s a different time for journalists, economically and politically,” she said. I agreed.

Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw was invited on stage to kick off the night with the pledge of allegiance. We all stood and joined in. Next up was founder of the West Coast Black Theatre Group, Nate Jacobs, who sung the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day in perfect agreement with the night’s theme: rise up, fight back.

“Are you ready to rise up and fight back Sarasota?” Senator Bill Nelson asked the room. Cheers responded affirmatively and Nelson dove headfirst into his keynote speech.

There were two main talking points of Nelson’s address: threats to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the “incredible power” of women.

The first point focused on the lack of a Republican replacement plan for ACA – or “Obamacare” – and predicted that “we are gonna save the bulk of the ACA.” The second point sounded like this: “The energy of the Women’s march – that was incredible,” and “Thank goodness for the women of America.”

Intending to jump at a chance to interview Mr. Nelson, I had planned to ask what he thinks is the best way to protect students from the effects of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdown and the lingering threats of Trump’s Muslim ban. By the end of his speech, I decided to ask instead why he didn’t mention either of these communities.

Nelson disappeared after the commencement speech but second-year Ximena Pedroza, also in attendance, had more success than me. She didn’t catch Nelson, but she did talk with several local representatives on issues of immigration.

“I asked Hagen Brody his stance on Sanctuary Cities and Campuses – he didn’t know but he did say that he is advocating for getting documented immigrants drivers licenses and, it’s true, driver’s licenses can change a person’s life,” Ximena said.

Brody, an attorney, is running for one of the two open city commissioner seats in the election taking place on March 14.

“I talked to the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] director of Florida about an upcoming meeting in Miami to address what they are doing next,” Ximena reported. The ACLU plans to organize rapid response teams to address mass deportations across the nation due to Trump’s executive order targeting 11 million undocumented persons.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” President of Sarasota’s Democratic Hispanic Caucus Cramer Verde said. “A lot of people – democrat and republican – are asking, why do you want to get rid of my neighbors? Really, it is more of an activist choice than political.”

The night ended with coffee and chocolate mousse cake with cherry drizzle. Before letting us go, our host Christine Jennings gave a tasteful reminder to donate to the cause and invited all to share cocktails upstairs. Miles and I decided to skip out.

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