October 25, 2007

Interstate-4 Politics

From Tampa west to Orlando and Daytona Beach, the "I-4 Corridor" is not just a busy highway full of fools who try to turn around on the grassy, wet median and get stuck, it's a political dividing line for Florida.

People talk a lot about how you have to drive south to get to the North in Florida, and vice versa. I wonder if I-4 isn't a sort of flip-flopped Mason-Dixon Line for the Sunshine State. You could get off I-4 at the Magic Kingdom exit and hear nothing but New York, New Jersey, and Japanese accents all day. But if you got lost and took any number of Orlando exits on the way to Mickey Mouse, you could land yourself between a Confederate flag and a shotgun. A couple years ago, I saw a sticker on someone's home window in suburban Orlando that read: "Protected by Rebel Security Force." Another: "It's 12:25, do you know where your gun is?" As late as the 1950s, the Ku Klux Klan commanded membership across Orange County.

Orange County is a political and economic barometer for the whole state. Martin-Marietta, now Lockheed-Martin, used to employed upwards of 10,000 people in Orlando. These mostly white middle-class professionals and workers lived in newly built suburbs like Pine Hills. The end of the Cold War closed plants like this one, as well as military bases and training grounds all across Florida. Today, Pine Hills is a racially diverse community, including many recent immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean. Crime rates have given it the moniker "Crime Hills." An old Navy training facility has become a green, planned neighborhood called Baldwin Park. Puerto Rican immigration has swelled the ranks of the Orange County Democratic Party. Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stories dot Orlando's Colonial Avenue.

Al Gore carried Orange County in 2000, as did Kerry in 2004. Any candidate, Republican or Democrat, who wants to carry the Sunshine State must at least establish an early, strong field organization in Orange County, Osceola County, and Seminole County. In voting behavior, the region splits evenly between liberals, independents, and conservatives. The I-4 Corridor mirrors the rest of the state: Haitians, Cubans, crackers, historically black communities, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, orange groves, palm trees, lakes, beach parties, hurricane parties, gridlock traffic, Dixiecrats, Confederate flags, amusement parks, Jewish community centers, Unitarians, and maybe even a few butterfly ballots and pregnant chads.

Something to think about when you're stuck in traffic on I-4.

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