November 4, 2007

Chiles and His Florida: Taylor County

Between the Panhandle's Old Cotton-and-Tobacco Belt and the citrus farms, amusement parks, and space coast of Central Florida are Taylor County's mud flats and tidal marshes. Not a McDonald's in sight on county road 361--the "beach highway" along the Gulf. Just pinewoods, scrub brush, and bald eagles. Farther south, follow state road 51 to find the gently sloping falls of the Steinhatchee River. There isn't much man-made on this coast other than birding towers, boat ramps, and the occasional beachside condo complex. Mention the words "Keaton Beach" to any of the tens of thousands of visitors to Daytona, Cocoa, or Clearwater Beaches and you're likely to get a blank stare. I doubt that Taylor County has made the history books much since President Zachary Taylor gave the jurisdiction its name in 1856.

The Daytona-Cocoa-Clearwater crowd is missing out. The salty breeze blowing over the "Nature Coast" marshes is refreshing after a week in the city.

Come Election Day, Taylor County is fried mullet, Confederate flag, Dixiecrat Country. The county seat, Perry, was named after a Confederate general. The Supervisor of Elections for the county lists registration at about 8,700 Democrats and 2,700 Republicans. But be warned: If you're lookin' for more than a few thousand dye-in-the-wool Democrats--ones who will vote for Bill Clinton as well as those pesky big city Democrats from Miami--you'll have to go to Jefferson County's old plantation country up north, Gainesville's university culture out east, or Orlando and Tampa down south.

In 1990, Taylor County was Chiles-MacKay country. But by 1994, not even Walkin' Lawton Chiles could get enough Dixiecrats and Democrats to pull the level his way to carry the jurisdiction. Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Buddy MacKay, Bill McBride, and Jim Davis fared much worse in their later bids. Perhaps the only way a moderate or liberal Democrat could win the county now is by walking it personally, door-to-door...and then hitching a ride on the nearest outboard to meet the folks out on the water. You're much better off fishing for the plentiful redfish and sea trout than you are casting for Democratic votes.

U.S. Congressman Allen Boyd (D), the Blue Dog Democrat, Iraq war-supporting Democrat who represents Taylor, the rest of the Big Bend, and all of Tallahassee, is so entrenched that he faced no opposition in 2006. But when he retires, and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D) ends his career, look for a long Democratic drought in Taylor County. To find a Democratic politician in Florida who knows how to pronounce Steinhatchee (STEEN-hatchee), who has taken a dirt road or two off of highway 19-98--one who can win Florida's 2nd congressional district from Taylor County to Tallahassee--you'll have to go to the history museum.

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