July 7, 2004
(ST. PETERSBURG, FL) A last minute Wednesday afternoon e-mail from the Kerry organization coupled with a front page event listing in that morning’s St. Pete Times convinced me to see what a full-blown presidential campaign stop looked like. Besides, it wasn’t raining, the sun had set, and the St. Pete venue (above) was comfortably retro.
First news of the event hinted that the stop might not be well attended because of the lateness of the announcement and the even later hour (10 PM) for the candidates scheduled arrival. The location, a nostalgia-laden St. Petersburg Coliseum, seemed a safe bet if first-call crowd estimates of maybe 1,000 were anywhere near accurate, but the 20’s-era ballroom with a capacity of maybe 1,500 would fill quickly if just a few more than the minimum hoped-for faithful turned out. And that’s exactly what happened.
Due to security screening, supporters were asked to show up two hours early, which meant an 8 PM arrival for the late night event, and that’s if weather didn’t interfere. By the time I got there about 9:30, the closest parking was a half mile away and the line to get in snaked two blocks east towards the bay, then north a block before wrapping back around to the rear entrance of the Coliseum.
Police estimated maybe 10,000 total, I think it may have been more like 6-7,000, but still a lot of people showing up late at the last minute to listen to presidential politicians stumping on a hot, humid, summer night in Florida.
Protesters were corraled across the street on the other side of the fenced sidewalk on the south side of Fourth Avenue North. This is where I ended up once the crowd dimensions were grasped and the reality sank in of maybe making it inside in a month of Sundays. The two sides were harmless and save for an occasional eruption of over-the-top outbursts from both camps, the event was a satisfying civics lesson on the mechanics of what promises to be a memorable election. As for language, recent Senate exclaimations have been more colorful. The most entertaining chant was "Four More Months!", rivaling a previously seen "ReDefeat Bush!" bumper sticker in concise creativity. (For a video version of the event, view my short Quicktime AVI file here. I call it, "Fahrenheit About 80 Degrees, Give or Take, But It’s Summer And Could Be A Lot Worse.")
When the overflow size of the crowd became apparant, loudspeakers were set up outside for the candidates speeches, audible for the most part and drawing the loudest applause when health care issues were brought up. The Iraq war wasn’t much discussed this night, taxes lightly touched on, but targeted references to Florida’s math problem as it relates to vote counting wasn’t lost on the crowd — you can read my savvy November, 2000 explanation as to how this happened. (Most Floridians are aware that former Florida Secretary of State Kathryn Harris is currently enrolled in the witness protection program as a U.S. Representative.)
As the cutoff for local news loomed closer, the event began winding down. As the campaign folded up the public events for the night, the entourage again passed in front of the Coliseum and stopped. To the unscripted delight of the hundreds still outside, the two candidates jumped out of their SUVs and began working the rope line in a well scripted but seemingly impromptou meet and greet of genuinely enthusiastic hand-pumping and apparantly sincere facial recognition. A unique memory for most in the crowd, just another sea of faces in a "What town are we in?" whistle stop for the candidates. Democracy in action, combining popular entertainment and the heart of our heritage.
©john siebenthaler 2004