LAKE BUENA VISTA — During the Florida Democratic Party's state conference this weekend, Alex Sink of Tampa appeared to move closer to running for the Pinellas County U.S. House seat vacated by the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young — not in her own words but in words spoken about her.
Comments at Saturday night's dinner at the conference by Sen. Bill Nelson, the state's senior elected Democratic official, and national Democratic Party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz strongly suggested Sink will run, and that national Democrats want the current Democratic candidate, Jessica Ehrlich, to drop out.
Sink has said she's considering running, and friends have said off the record they expect her to.
In Nelson's speech, he praised Sink's late husband Bill McBride, who received a posthumous award for service during the dinner, adding that McBride “will bequeath to us the next congresswoman from the 13th Congressional District” — language backers normally use to show support for a declared candidate, sounding almost like an announcement of Sink's candidacy.
Asked about Nelson's comment, Sink called it “rousing encouragement.” Asked whether it was more than just encouragement, she said jokingly, “You heard him say it.”
Meanwhile, Ehrlich, who ran against Young in 2012 and began another campaign six months ago, sought to boost her candidacy at the conference, including speaking at a lunch for the delegates Saturday.
But in an interview afterward, she declined to say firmly that she will stay in the race in a primary against Sink if Sink runs.
“I'm running for Congress,” she said when asked if she'll stay in the race against Sink. “I wasn't afraid to run against Bill Young and stand up to the establishment.”
Pressed for a direct answer, she said, “I'm focused on my campaign.”
Wasserman-Schultz, a Congress member from Weston, snubbed Ehrlich in a speech to the conference delegates at the dinner.
After effusively praising other Democratic candidates for contested legislative seats, she declined to mention Ehrlich in comments about the 13th district seat.
Wasserman-Schultz said only, “With your help we will elect a Democrat to Florida's congressional district in Pinellas County.”
Young's death means Gov. Rick Scott will set the date for a special election to fill the seat, but so far there's been no word from the governor's office on when it will take place.
Asked about efforts to recruit Sink, Florida Democratic party Vice Chairman Alan Clendenin of Tampa said the party can’t afford not to have the strongest possible candidate in the District 13 race.
“We need seats,” he said. “We need pickups. An open seat in a Democratic-leaning district is the kind of low-hanging fruit we can’t afford to ignore. We need to have our best possible candidate there.”
Local Democrats say the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national party organization that recruits and aids House candidates, recruited Sink to run after Young announced, just prior to his death, that he wouldn’t run again.
Sink and Wasserman-Schultz both dodged the question of whether the national party recruited Sink.
“You’d have to talk to the DCCC about that,” said Wasserman-Schultz. “At the DNC we haven’t been involved in putting our thumb on the scale for any particular candidate.”
But she acknowledged having talked to Sink about the race shortly after Young made his announcement.
Sink said only that she’d been contacts by people “from the district and from all over Florida and from Washington too -- they need help up there.”
DCCC spokesman David Bergstein said he “wouldn’t say we recruited her,” but confirmed that DCCC Chairman Steve Israel, a House member from New York, had talked to Sink about the race after Young’s announcement.
“A candidate like Alex Sink who has a strong record of solving problems would be extremely competitive in this district,” Bergstein added – stronger praise than national Democrats have ever paid to Ehrlich.