As Monday night’s presidential debate loomed, Orlando residents bonded in a civil manner at two presidential debate watch parties hosted in two classy downtown bars and eateries. One took place at The Abbey, put on by Southern Strategy Group, and the other at Mucho Tequila and Tacos, hosted by the Tiger Bay Club.
At both, Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters socialized with no hostility. The overall theme at both was one of congeniality and friendship, with an electric energy around the debates and a hope of being entertained by them, and perhaps informed, too.
At The Abbey, red and blue lights showered the dark bar, and young people in business-casual clothes mingled about while thumping bass-heavy music provided a backdrop. In the corner of the bar, guests had the option to participate in a photo booth with red and blue boxing gloves and masks depicting Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
According to Southern Strategy Group Managing Partner Kelly Cohen, the lighthearted tone was on purpose — it was intended to bring everyone together in the midst of a heated political season.
“We wanted to bring everyone together,” she said. “We wanted to lower things a bit for the debate. We have Trump supporters, Hillary supporters, Gary Johnson supporters … we wanted to have a little civility, a little fun.”
She said she believed everyone supporting every candidate “loved America,” but that they differed in how to go about fixing the country’s problems. That was where the tension came from, she said.
Inside, Donna Dowless sat perched at the bar waiting for the debate to begin. She said she was curious to see each candidate detail their positions.
“I want to see each candidate specify how we’re going to move forward to accomplish the goals of this country,” she said. “Peace, freedom, equality, diversity, growth, the economy. I hope to see some of that in discussion.”
But others like Kunal Patel said the party was enjoyable for the way it offered a bridge between the two divided parties.
“It’s simply a good thing to have people come together and take a look at politics and discuss as colleagues, rather than two sides,” he said. “It’s a great way to move people ahead.”
Over at Mucho, the party was smaller and more intimate, the crowd generally older and coming in larger groups, whether friend or family. The lighting was warm, and the atmosphere more relaxed, with less room to stand and walk around and more tables to sit down at instead.
Nancy Robinson, vice president of Tiger Bay’s local chapter, said it was “exciting” to see so many people engaged.
“As crazy as this election has been, it’s done good to involve people in the process,” she said. “Being engaged is important.”
A guest at the Tiger Bay party, Brandon Ellsbury, shared a similar sentiment — for better or worse, the election has brought out a fire in people to get interested in politics.
“I hope that young people will take notice of the debate,” he said. “Not just stay home because the options aren’t good.”
But a guest at The Abbey, Lyndon Carter, said despite the enjoyable party and its intentions to heal a rift, Orlando wasn’t in need of much healing.
“In general, there’s a difference between the national election and what’s going on here locally,” he said. “Orlando is extremely collegial. It’s inviting to different backgrounds. The national election is catering to a different type of voter than is found here. A lot of these people already know each other. Orlando isn’t as polarized as the rest of the country. The rest of the country should be more like Orlando.”