With more than 200 protesters gathered outside the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon, Sen. Marco Rubio took the stage Friday night at a donor dinner.
While those outside demanded a town hall meeting to talk about issues like health care, Rubio spoke inside to as many as 300 people who paid between $130 and $250 a ticket for the Pinellas County Republicans' annual Lincoln Day Dinner.
Bob Kohler, a Bellaire resident, said he and other protesters are furious that Rubio will speak to people who pay to see him, but won’t hold a meeting open to everyone.
“He will attend a function like this, where people will pay a lot of money to come see him, but he won’t talk to the people,” Kohler said. “He only talks to the money.”
Inside the hotel, Rubio spent a large portion of his time on stage addressing the media. He told the crowd that “press is a business” that “cover politics as entertainment.”
“It's always been a business, but it's a business in which you are paid and rewarded by how many people click onto your article," Rubio said.
He said he’s spent a lot of time working on his VA Accountability First Act proposal, but that bills like it haven’t received much media attention.
“I know that if I spent all my time working on the VA bill and so forth, we’ll get very little coverage, because that doesn’t get a lot of clicks and a lot of attention, but if I spend time saying something outrageous, I’ll get a lot of coverage,” Rubio said. “So I’m incentivized to do that, on both sides. And you see it every day in the news.”
Rubio says voters share part of the blame for clicking on and sharing news articles reporting what he called “outrageous” claims.
“Let me tell you, I obviously don't agree with everything that's ever been written about me. But I'm grateful we have a free press. I'm grateful we have a free press where people have the right to investigate and find things that are wrong.”
“And I'm grateful that we have a free press where people have a right to be wrong, to get things wrong, and that we have a right to call them out for it," Rubio said.
“We’re a nation of justice and justice is rooted in the truth and truth is rooted in the facts."
"If anyone violates the Constitution of the United States, if anyone does something that's wrong, I promise you that I will be the first person that will say it," he said. "But I also think that it's important for us to be fair and to know the truth and not simply to respond to the political pressures of the moment.”
He says issues like the national debt, higher education struggles, Islamic radical terrorism and unemployment for young people are not being discussed by the media.
“We are borrowing money at a clip that is sustainable, “Rubio said. “You can argue about how to fix it but you can’t argue that it exists. And yet somehow we're being ignored. And I promise you, and I wish I didn't have to say this but it's true, at some point in the lifetime of virtually everyone in this room, if we do nothing, we will have a debt crisis in this nation and then people will ask, ‘Well, how did it come to this?’ And the answer will be because for years we argued about everything else and we never got to this.”
Reporters were told before Rubio took the stage that he would not be answering questions before or after his speech.
Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis, who has held town hall meetings over the last few months, introduced Rubio. Before that, he told the crowd that Republicans are going to “turn the country around” and won’t be “stopped by the liberals.”
“I know I had my town hall meetings –I’m getting beat up – it’s nice to see friendly faces here. But you know what? It’s for a good cause. It’s for a good cause and they’re not going to intimidate me. Are they going to intimidate you? Hell no.”
Sen. Jack Latvala wrapped up the night with a short review of the recent Florida legislative session.
Latvala spoke briefly about issues like higher education, the environment and the opioid epidemic.
The Senate Appropriates Committee Chairman expressed disappointment about bickering between Republican lawmakers during the legislative session, which ended May 8 with an $83 billion budget that Florida Gov. Rick Scott may still veto.
“It’s a little bit disappointing that with a Republican House, and a Republican Senate, and a Republican governor, that we can’t all work a little better together to make things work better,” Latvala said.
Latvala said lawmakers may need to reconvene to address budget concerns.