Independence Day and the accompanying fireworks shows weren't technically supposed to get under way until Friday, but state government seemed to be on holiday for most of the week.
Democrats got the party out of the way early with their annual fundraising soiree Saturday, though they ditched the red (for obvious reasons) and white in their newly renamed Leadership Blue Gala. Gov. Rick Scott toured the state to thank veterans, an appropriate run-up to the holiday and a potential political boon to his re-election campaign.
The capital city itself was largely quiet, with the highest profile event being the swearing-in ceremony for new Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, the first Cuban-American to hold that position.
PAINT THE TOWN BLUE:
If there's a reason Florida can go from voting for Barack Obama in 2008 to Scott in 2010 and then back to Obama in 2012 -- aside from political schizophrenia -- it's turnout. In presidential election years, just about everyone who is politically involved votes. In midterm years, the electorate tends to be older, whiter and more conservative.
Democrats are hoping to somehow turn that formula around this year, or at least lessen the swing, as they work to get former Gov. Charlie Crist his old job back and protect the gains in Congress and the Legislature that they made two years ago. That was also a theme when former President Bill Clinton spoke at the party's fundraising dinner Saturday night in Broward County.
"We have to be creative in how we reach people and how we get them to the polls," Clinton told a crowd of more than 1,500 supporters who paid up to $250 to hear the former president speak. "If we're going to preserve democracy, real democracy, we've got to show up."
Displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of politics, Clinton illustrated his point by saying that Democrat Alex Sink should have won a special election earlier this year to replace the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in a Pinellas County congressional district. Sink was defeated by Young's onetime aide David Jolly.
"Alex Sink won the independent votes by almost twice the margin President Obama did. But the registered Democrats did not turn out," Clinton said, noting that Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe won his election because black voter turnout matched that in the general election.
"If they can do it, you can do it," Clinton said.
The Clinton event raised $1.1 million -- topping previous earnings for the annual "Leadership Blue Gala" fundraiser, formerly called the "Jefferson-Jackson Dinner" -- and nearly 1,600 supporters were expected to attend the event at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, another historic high, according to Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant.
As far as the larger goal -- defeating Scott -- Tant promised that 2014 would feature "the largest field plan that the Florida Democratic Party has ever seen." And U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also serves as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said the DNC has created a "vast and sophisticated voter file" called "Project Ivy" that it is sharing with state parties to help in turning out voters.
Republicans didn't seem scared, but perhaps that was because they were having too much fun trying to cause mischief. They hammered Crist for failing to release the tax returns of his wife, Carole. A plane towing a banner reading "www.CharliesTaxReturns.com #WhatsCristHiding," paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, flew overhead prior to Crist's arrival.
RPOF Chairwoman Leslie Dougher met briefly with reporters to blast Crist for the tax returns and for his absence earlier in the day.
"What are you scared of?" Dougher said. "The more you hide something, the more people want to see it."
Crist, flocked by supporters upon his entrance to the hotel, dismissed the demands.
AWARDS AND VOTES:
Meanwhile, Scott was touring the state to hand out the "Governor's Veterans Service Award" to hundreds of former service members. Scott, a Navy vet himself, created the award in March.
"The courage and sacrifice these veterans displayed while serving our country has contributed to the freedoms and opportunities Florida families benefit from every day," Scott said in a prepared statement following one of the ceremonies.
But the governor's outreach also has a political component as he prepares for a bruising and close fight with Crist. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that an average of 1.6 million veterans lived in Florida from 2008 to 2012, the most recent figures available. That accounts for about 10.8 percent of state civilians age 18 or older in 2012.
"They tend to be older, and they also tend to be high-turnout voters and conservative," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
In addition to this week's ceremonies, Scott showed up for other events the week before wearing a "Navy" cap. And on Tuesday, Scott's campaign released a Web video with a veteran talking about the state's "vet-friendly" environment and why he's supporting the governor.
Lawmakers helped Scott with his pitch this spring by approving the "Florida GI Bill," which expands university tuition waivers provided to veterans, pays for military and guard base improvements and aims to increase employment opportunities for veterans while trying to convince more of them to move to the state.
But Democrats still said Scott hasn't done enough -- highlighting the governor's failure, for example, to get the Legislature to approve Medicaid expansion.
"Floridas veterans deserve better," said Joshua Karp, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. "If Scott really cared about Floridas veterans, he would have accepted federal funding to expand access to health care for over 40,000 veterans who currently lack it."
CHIEF JUSTICE HAS IMPACT:
Away from all the squabbling between Democrats and Republicans, the Florida Supreme Court held a more dignified ceremony to swear in Jorge Labarga as the court's first Cuban-American chief justice. And in at least one case, Labarga's impact was quickly apparent.
Labarga, 61, whose family immigrated to the United States after the Cuban revolution, became the state's 56th chief justice and the fifth from Palm Beach County.
He replaced outgoing Chief Justice Ricky Polston, 58. Polston remains on the court, though he has applied to be the next president at Florida State University.
But Labarga's impact was seen in something else that happened this week, something mentioned by Justice Barbara Pariente during the swearing-in ceremony.
Pariente noted that when the court ruled in March that undocumented immigrants cannot be admitted to The Florida Bar, Labarga "reluctantly" agreed with the majority but offered his own strongly worded opinion that called on the Legislature to change state law to allow so-called "Dreamers" to become attorneys.
"The Legislature heard your words and passed legislation that allowed this applicant to be admitted to the Florida Bar," Pariente said, referring to an immigrant who was the subject of the court case.
The day after Labarga's swearing-in, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners recommended the court admit Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio, of Largo, to The Florida Bar.
A law-school graduate who became an undocumented immigrant as a child when his parents overstayed their visas in the United States, Godinez-Samperio moved a key step closer to becoming a Florida attorney with the recommendation.
"I've been waiting for over three years and the dream had seemed so far away," Godinez-Samperio told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. "Now that it's happening, now that it's becoming reality, it's unspeakable."
STORY OF THE WEEK: Jorge Labarga is sworn in as the state's first Cuban-American chief justice.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I am a voice for the people in the district, not a vote for any particular person to become Senate president." -- Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, about her race against former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. Bogdanoff is a supporter of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is fighting with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to lead the chamber after the 2016 elections.