September 8, 2007

Florida Politics Highway by Highway

You can learn a lot from a road, especially in Florida.

Interstate 10 across North Florida takes you through three separate political worlds from East to West--Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville. Or, if you want the scenic route, highway 90 will give you Old Florida--run-down sawmill towns, the old cotton-tobacco country that still votes Democrat, and then that swath of counties that as far as I can tell have nothing but prisons until you get to Jacksonville.

I-75 South takes you through another Democratic enclave--the University of Florida bubble in Gainesville. Ten minutes in traffic there gives a sense of the growth problem Florida faces in almost every part of the state. It prepares you for Orlando.

If you wanted to waste 4 hours, once in Orlando you could drive to Tampa and back on Interstate-4, or drive to Daytona and back. Either way, you'd be on the trail of the elusive but all-important "swing voter" and ready to beg for mercy from central Florida's "transportation problem."

Already that's a day and half of driving, and you haven't even seen South Florida! Or Polk County, Lawton Chiles Country (marked in Red). Hope you've got a good, working car stereo and a pocket full of gas money.

V.O. Key Jr., author of the "bible" of Southern politics up till 1949, Southern Politics in State and Nation, gives you the full sense of Florida's vastness in his chapter on the state. You feel in the driver's seat:

From Miami to Pensacola, as the crow flies, is about the same distance as from Atlanta to Washington, from Indianapolis to Lincoln, Nebraska, or from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. It is twice as far from Memphis to Chattanooga. From Jacksonville to Miami the road stretches about as far as from Springfield, Illinois, to Columbus, Ohio. Or, if a person travels from Tallahassee to Key West, he might have in the same mileage gone from Montgomery, Alabama, to Springfield, Missouri. Even the lesser distances impress. From Miami to Tampa the distance is about the same as from New York to Boston.

Old Havana

In the "metro" area of Tallahassee in the 1950s and 40s--Leon, Gadsden, and Jefferson counties especially--tobacco had replaced cotton as a big cash crop. The tobacco fields supplied labor for many black women and were good pay if you stayed long enough to rise up the ranks. They were of course paid less than their white counterparts.

In 1942, Lucille Love of Quincy began working in a tobacco plantation at the age of 13. For 15 cents a day she pulled weeds and worked as a "toter," carrying tobacco leaves. In 1944, she moved on to pushing down tobacco loops for 75 cents a day:

Yeah, pushing the [loops of string] down from around the stalk so that the tobacco could grow up and you could wrap that string around that tobacco so it wouldn't fall down as it growed up. You know the wind blow against it and would blow it down. But you see, if you had it wrapped when the wind and rain would fall that string what we had wrapped around it would help support it and Lord Have Mercy in looping tobacco those that wrapped and pushed down that loop went behind the person that was wrapping. Now that's up and down, up and down looping all day handling the person what's on a bench above you looping that stalk with that string bring it up to thte fellow up there he tie it and you go back down the loop, that's all day.

I don't understand this process at all, but I get dizzy just reading about it. This way of life dominated Havana in that era as well as Quincy. Amazing to think of all the work done just so somebody could chomp on a cigar.

This was Old Gadsden County, and nothing much seems to have replaced what is gone. They kept sending their votes to Chiles, that's for sure.

(Credit to Florida State Archives for the photo and Maxine Jones's article "Black Women in Florida 1920-1950" in The African American Heritage of Florida, edited by David Colburn and Jane Landers for the excerpt)

September 7, 2007


I worked on the RSS Feed a bit today. Should work better. Now it should be called "Walkin' Lawton" and not "The He-Coon Walks."

Just enter your e-mail in the space or click on "Start Walkin" to subscribe to the feed.

Georgia On My Mind

Just a heads-up, I'll be going to Georgia next week. On the way I'll be visiting Jimmy Carter's birthplace in Plains and taking pics. Lookin' forward to it. The contrasts between Carter and Chiles will be very interesting.

Walkin' Havana

From the North, walkin' into town. You can see to the left that Burger King is the key landmark now. The shade tobacco markets are long gone.
Well-furnished hall for such a small town.
I liked the contrast between the old railroad ties and the golf carts.
The Burger King is open for business; local flavor is dead.
Antique Row. Mostly empty.
Subway has crept its way onto Main Street. The rest was mostly empty.
You're a real town when you've got your own police.
Antique fire department, too.
Crossroads of Havana. North to Georgia, South to Tallahassee.
East and West to antiques.

September 6, 2007

Chiles and His Florida: Havana

Havana didn't have as much personality as I hoped when I visited last weekend, so I didn't stay long. It looked like most folks felt the same way when they got there. Main Street was almost bare and antique shops looked dead. Supposedly, thousands and thousands of people descend on Havana each year in search of the best antiques. It didn't look much more active than Monticello or Chattahoochee, though. I'm guessing it's a winter town that thrives on flocks of antique-crazy snowbirds.

The rest of the pics will come tomorrow. For now, Main Street, rural Florida. This is what happens when you take the one sustaining industry--tobacco--out of Havana:

Rosewood, Florida

Rosewood, Florida is one of those Southern villages like Philadelphia, Mississippi that claims little history other than violence. There is nothing to distinguish in the tourist guides for "off-the-beaten-track" or "forgotten" Florida landmarks beyond the massacre that took place on January 4th 1923.

Rosewood sheltered 150 to 200 people, but had churches and a school and enough distance to distinguish it from Sumner and the other villages nearby.

On New Year's Day, a white woman in Sumner accused a unnamed black man of attacking her, and a search party with dogs formed. For a week, the gang attacked Rosewood, believing it harbored the attacker. They burned the school, churches, and every home but one in the village. Some whites lived in Rosewood, and a few helped women and children to escape.

Accounts differ on exactly how many people died, but the figure could be as high as 30 or 40--enough so that the survivors never returned and lived with nightmares.

By the time Lawton Chiles came into the world in 1930, lynchings were coming to an end in Florida, but the state was still relatively small and 7 years is a short time--enough to be "recent" history. The kind you read in the newspaper not a book.

This was the world he knew was a boy.

The massacre came to his desk in 1994, when as governor he signed a bill giving millions in compensation to the survivors and descendants of Rosewood. Governor Chiles called the killing a "blind act of bigotry."

(Photo credit to Florida State Archives)

September 5, 2007

Lawton Chiles, Blogging Pioneer

Nowadays, you can be wake up a U.S. senator, get "Youtubed" in the morning, hold a press conference to deny the rumors at 1PM, admit fault at 3PM, resign at 5PM, and go home with head hung low at 6PM. All thanks to the internet.

But going "viral" with a campaign message and playing the free media game didn't start with Youtube. It didn't start with the internet even. It started before CNN.

In my mind, the 1970 Chiles U.S. Senate campaign's plan to send out snippets of the "Walkin' Notes" to supporters and media outlets represents one of the first attempts at a blog.

The Notes are what a campaign blog should be. Short, thoughtful, quirky, funny. It's all you need to know Chiles' personality and commitment to run a fresh, people-powered campaign. And they're straight from the field. You can almost smell the shoe leather on 'em.

Since he couldn't meet everybody--even in the Panhandle--the notes extended his campaign's reach. Once the notes got out in the papers and people's mailboxes, the buzz began. When everyone else was doubting him, Chiles could sleep well knowing he had the Big Mo'.

In his entire 40-year career, he never wrote anything down in formal memoirs or a preserved diary--except the Notes. But what he left is a poem for this entire career.

Chiles and His Florida: Havana

Havana, as you'd expect, was named after the original in Cuba. From the 19th century up until the right around the time Lawton Chiles breezed through town in summer of 1970, the farms surrounded Havana thrived growing "shade tobacco," which is used to make cigar wrappers. By the time Chiles got there, the industry was falling on hard times and Havana hadn't yet discovered its next calling--antiques. The Walkin' Notes tell the story:

I talked with some farmers last night and learned something about shade tobacco. There are no quotas or allotments as there are on regular tobacco. The only allotment is that the tobacco company tells you how much of your tobacco they will buy. They make a contract with you and then from this contract they finance anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 of the cost of planting shade tobacco. Now, shade tobacco costs more to make a crop than about anything you can raise — around $3,000 an acre. So of course it's every risky business, but the returns can be high. One of their fears is too much water, and they're very concerned this year with all of the water that they have. Also, they're concerned because there was generally a cut by the tobacco companies, about 40% across the board, on their contracts. This has kind of depressed the area. I asked them if the new requirements in regard to television advertising of cigarettes and the warnings that have to be applied on the package have affected them, and they told me that it wouldn't affect them at all. Actually, there may be more shade tobacco needed because this is the outside leaf used in rolling the cigar. So they won't be affected by any cutback in cigarettes.

Word came that a lot of people were looking for me to come to Havana, so even though it wasn't on my schedule, I made a side trip over there. It's just outside Quincy. One fellow invited me to his house for catfish stew for lunch — it sounded good — but the day was slipping away and I had to get back over to U.S. 90.

September 4, 2007

The "Handbook"

So I finished the Florida TaxWatch handbook for new governors. Platitudes-a-plenty but there are a few recurring themes in the recollections of former chiefs of staff and budget directors:

1) Don't hire campaign staff for senior policy posts

2) Hit the ground running with the legislature right after you win: liaise, liaise, liaise

3) Get your budget cookin' quick, hire a budget director soon

And then somehow you keep your sanity governing 67 counties spread over two time zones...

Polk County Civil Rights

I'm looking for more information on the civil rights movement in Polk County. Trouble is, there doesn't seem to be a Polk NAACP. The closest thing is the Orange County NAACP.

Jacksonville and Tallahassee and Miami have a pretty rich heritage of struggle. I don't see much about Polk or Lakeland, until you get to the 70s and integration.

Ditch the Disney Goggles

The mythology of Disney and commercialization of every paved inch of Orlando has created such a Mouse-shaped media monster that Florida--the lore, history, and violence--has gotten lost. Florida is part of American history too, and it didn't begin with Mickey.

It takes a lot of driving and mapping and studying, but if you get off Interstate-4 enough times, you see it sometimes. You see it when you walk the Lawton Chiles Trail.

And when you get home and hit the books, you find some shocking stories. After the 70s, tourists started to judge each region of Florida by how many miles to Disney World. But before and after Disney, the real social and political question in Florida is: how far are you from Georgia? Madison County is close to Georgia:

As late as 1952 several Florida counties with a majority black population had few registered voters. For example, even though they represented almost 50 percent of the population, no blacks registered to vote in Madison County. But 586 African Americans bravely marched to the Madison County courthouse in 1954 where they were finally allowed to register. Five hundred and fifty-eight of them registered as Democrats. Similar conditions existed in other counties, including Gadsden, Flagler, and Jefferson.

Credit goes to The New History of Florida, edited by Michael Gannon, for the excerpt.

The number of miles to Georgia will tell you a lot, and none of it is on the Disney tour.

September 3, 2007

Look for the Union Label

As I shuffled through materials from my archive of Chiles records, I noticed that even back in his state legislature years 1958-1970, he always got union-printed business cards and other materials.
I know that back in the old days, the phosphate mine unions in Polk County were strong.

I see that a number of unions --carpenters, steelworkers, etc--have endorsed John Edwards for President on the Democratic side, but their strength today is less than half what it once was.

Also in honor of Labor Day, here is an article on the influence of today's labor movement on the presidential election.

From Bradford to Gainesville

On my trip to Gainesville last week, as I sat in traffic I noticed an ambulance with "Bradford County" marked on it zooming--or trying to zoom--past the stationary cars to the major hospital next to UF.

I was thinking about how far it must be from Bradford County to Gainesville--must have been a serious illness/injury.

Although I don't recall seeing it in the "Walkin' Notes," ambulance distances is a big issue in rural areas and I'm sure it came up somewhere in the Walk.

September 2, 2007

Chiles and His Florida: Gretna

As of 2004, the population of Gretna was about 1,700. The town is about 88% black. In 2000, a third of families lived below the poverty line. The per capita income for the city was $9,062. When I pulled into the convenience store to pick up a Gatorade, I felt farther away from Disney than on any trip in Florida so far.

It's only about a mile west of Quincy, so close that I wonder if the towns are related in their origins. Maybe Gretna was a black neighborhood that segregation-era white Quincy officials didn't want to include in the city limits for some reason. Who knows. Tough to say because I can't find any information on the town other than Wikipedia. It doesn't have a town manager or town hall. It must be "managed" by the county. I assume Quincy fire and police cover Gretna.

I doubt things were much better in 1970 when Chiles walked through. I'm glad it was on the trail. When Chiles retired from the U.S. Senate in 1988 and came to work in Gadsden County on health care issues, I'm sure he remembered all of the county's walk: Quincy, Havana, and Gretna.

The AME church in Gretna, with a van. I assume it doubles as a polling location, as many churches do in rural areas.
One of several run-down businesses.
Definitely the main hang-out. The "Seminole" convenience store.
There is a really quiet, cool, green walking path between the two sections of Gretna.
Walkin' Gretna.
Another local hang-out. The tire shop.