October 13, 2007

"Corner Counties" in Politics

Geography can turn a small problem of political apathy into a big one in a hurry. Rural voters in the "corner counties" of America often stay at home on Election Day for good reason. When you're living in Jay or Century or Baker in Florida, or North East or Port Deposit or Colora in Maryland, you're probably on the outside looking when it comes to political inclusion.

It matters come lobby day, when you've gotta schlep across the whole state to get to the state capitol. It matters on the campaign trail of statewide races--attorney general, governor, U.S. Senate--when none of the candidates bother to visit your town or even your county. It matters on Election Day when nobody has campaign signs to show their pride, or literature from the candidates, or a single article in the hometown paper taking note of the race. If the candidates don't show up, why should you? Most important, it matters after Election Day, when state services take more time to make it to the corners, and when they get there they're received with a double dose of cynicism and frustration.

Let's compare two "corner counties"--Cecil County, Maryland and Escambia County, Florida--and see what puts them on the outside.

Cecil County has the unique geographical curse of being miles and miles from the state capitol in Annapolis, but very close to two large metro areas and political centers--Philadelphia, PA and Wilmington, DE. A lot of folks in Cecil County just got there from Philly or Wilmington, and they've brought their sports and political allegiances with them--Maryland be damned. They're Eagles fans, Philly politics junkies, and union workers in Delaware. And when you throw a lit piece for a Maryland campaign in front of them, they're more likely to use it as a coaster for their Miller Lite than read it and care about it. They don't vote in Maryland or follow Maryland politics or even identify as Marylanders--they just live there. Cecil County today for many is a political no man's land, and as thousands more people move there to buy up in the woods near the Chesapeake Bay and relax before their hour commute to Pennsylvania or Delaware, the bigger the problem for Maryland state government.

Escambia County's problem is worse in some ways and better in others. It's far away from Tallahassee--200 miles to be exact--but isn't drawn to any political poles as strong as Philadelphia or Wilmington. It's close to Mobile, Alabama, but equally close to Pensacola, Florida. So I suspect folks in Century feel Floridian, but they probably don't feel connected to Florida politics. Why should any candidate for Florida governor, U.S. senator, or attorney general come there? The Panhandle is deep red; why bother if you're Democrat or Republican? And it's sparsely populated compared to the boomburbs of South and Central Florida. I suspect the last statewide candidate to campaign hard out there was Lawton Chiles.

When state candidates ultimately do go to the corners, embracing either a 24-county strategy in Maryland or a 67-county strategy in Florida, apathy and cynicism abound. For every election year that they're ignored, it takes a half dozen election cycles to build back the trust and the inclusion. But as Chiles showed, once you make that genuine connection to the folks in Escambia County, they're yours forever. Howard Dean's 50-state strategy has brought this spirit of inclusion to the national Democratic Party.

Thankfully, on a presidential level, some candidates are hitting the rural trail, corners included. John Edwards just released his plan for revitalization in the South Carolina countryside. If you're not president for all the counties--from the heartland to the hinterland--you're not doing the job.

Jay: Town Center to City Hall

If pressed, you might put Jay and Century in the Pensacola "metro area." But it's not "on the way" to anywhere so there's not much traffic and hardly any signs of the swamp-to-suburb demographic explosion across Florida. Jay is about as close to Mobile, Alabama as it is Pensacola, Florida.
About the only sign of "typical" Florida. Boxes for the paper of record, Pensacola News-Journal.

The seal for an old bank of Jay.
Bank of Jay closed business.
Side street off of the main intersection. The commercial heart of the town. Everyone is at the peanut festival.

Jay City Hall.
Small, but proud. There are a couple of these trash cans around town.
Sadly, I missed the pet dress-up parade, too.
They've got a town park, too.

October 12, 2007

Jay's Cotton Country

When I stopped in Jay to walk around, the wind was blowin' briskly. I could easily see why Chiles was a "red man" from all the dirt blowing from the fields. I'm just surprised he didn't have a few cotton balls stuck to his shirt by the time he got to Jay, too.

For me, seeing Jay's old-time from-the-ground economy was a bit of a shock. I guess I wasn't expecting to see cotton in agriculture before Alabama. Gadsden, Leon, and Jefferson Counties in the middle of North Florida may be the Old Cotton Belt, but the towns of Jay, Century, and Baker are still the Cotton Belt. But that doesn't mean Escambia County or Santa Rosa County act like Cotton Counties. Today, they're as deeply Republican as Leon County is Democratic. More even.

An hour north on Route 4 and I was in another century. Lawton Chiles got his first taste of in-your-face Panhandle politickin' when he got to Jay...once the rain clouds cleared. I didn't see any livestock. They must have sold the hogs and cattle and replaced them with cotton since 1970:

I reached Jay about noon and after I had lunch it looked like it was starting to rain, so I went to the livestock auction. That worked out real well because there were some 200 farmers there. By the time I got there, the bottom had fallen out —a real cloudburst. It would have been impossible to walk the streets of Jay and visit with the people.

There was a break in the auction and I was able to get on the microphone and give them a little talk about my campaign, to tell them why I was walking and talking through the state of Florida. And I had a good opportunity not only to talk but to do some listening. I found out a lot about the problems of the row farmer.

The people are trying to raise wheat and soy beans up here and one them was telling me that of a loaf of bread, the farmer himself gets about two and a half cents; and with their costs for fertilizer, help and tractors and everything going up continually, they're really caught in a squeeze. They're particularly hurt by the high interest rates, having to borrow a lot of money every year to make their crops. They're very disturbed with the government buying wheat and corn in other parts of the country and holding it till they're ready to put theirs on the market. Then the government starts to sell their holdings and that breaks the market. It keeps them from being able to make a profit. They don't want to see government controls and yet they feel that is the way they're heading unless they can get together in some kind of co-op and do more to see that the farmer gets a decent price for his goods and that all the profits aren't taken up by the middleman and the people handling the end product.

They had a lot of good looking livestock — hogs and cattle. Prices for them seemed to be pretty good. The row farmer is the one who's really having a tough time of it. It's great to have my feet on the ground and to be with good Florida people, to learn from them and to tell them of my ideas. This day has certainly confirmed my belief that there is a crying need to bring more of our government back closer to home and to the people it is intended to serve.

Chiles and His Florida: Jay

"When them cotton balls get rotten, you can't pick very much cotton," goes the old Lead Belly blues classic. This mural adorns the side the Masonic lodge in Jay. I'm beginning to enjoying seeing the murals in each town. I like that they have that connection to their heritage on display. What a day, they day when you could stand on a 5-foot bed of cotton with impunity...before the boll weevil came.

The Masonic lodge was packed.

Peanuts and cotton--that's what Jay does.

Cotton fields forever.

Most towns are littered with beer cans, candy wrappers, and slips of paper. Jay is littered with fresh, wind-blown cotton.

Everyone in Jay was at the Peanut Festival when I got there. I didn't realize that until I left; otherwise I would have. I'm kicking myself for missing it.

October 11, 2007

"Bull Bombs Bursting in Air"

For somebody who mangled words as much as Chiles did, changing "Sadowski" to "Sandusky" and "parental" to "perennial" and "organism" to "orgasm," he must have been a heck of a scrabble player.

And the memories of his children bear that out. One day when he was playing with his young family in Lakeland, he convinced himself that "bullbombs" was a word. Rhea and the kids demanded verification. He gladly relented: "You know, the Star-Spangled Banner, 'Bull bombs bursting in air!'"


The Chiles legacy brims with stories like these...It's something no other Florida governor can claim.

“Once Chiles pulled a ‘gotcha’ on a Tampa Tribune reporter. A malfunctioning turn signal in the governor’s limousine made a tick-tick, like an egg timer—or a bomb. With the reporter in the car and the passengers, including Chiles’ grandson, acting nervous over the ticking, Chiles faked a telephone conversation with Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who ordered him to immediately evacuate the car. The limo screeched to a halt by the side of the road, at which the Tribune reporter bolted from the back seat and began to run, when he noticed the governor laughing.” Chiles smiled, ‘Gotcha.’


Talev, Margaret and David Cox. “More to legacy than just politics.” The Tampa Tribune.

December 13, 1998.

October 10, 2007

The Road to Jay

After taking in some breakfast and culture in Century, Chiles hit the road for Jay, home of the Jay Peanut Festival each October, a whole mess of cotton fields and long leaf pine, and a brisk wind that'll take you're cap off if you're not ready and cover you in red clay dirt even if you are.

The Walk was a path through history sure. Chiles loved the Panhandle's Old Florida air. But when you're walking you notice practical, basic things, too, as much as the philosophical.

Like hills. Road shoulders. Periodic rain showers stand out more than usual. At the beginning of the walk, when nobody but his family and friends knew what he was doing, he was out there alone. Surely he noticed that his journey was also a travel from Florida's "highlands" to its lowest swamps and hammocks. Britton Hill, in Walton County in the Panhandle, is the highest point in Florida at 345 feet above sea level.

But Jay Hill is pretty steep by Florida standards, too. After he got over it, he'd have nice level ground under his feet all the way to the Keys. He noted it:

We talked with a number of people in Century and had breakfast there. At first they wanted to talk only about the 800-mile plus walk before me, but then everybody started telling me about the Jay hill which lay ahead of me on the way to Jay.

I don't believe it was more than three or four miles but it looked like eight miles when I started up. The word was that if I could make it up the Jay hill, the trip would be coasting the rest of the way to the Keys. I thought I had made it up and stopped to rest. About that time Officer Wood, a highway patrolman who used to be stationed in Lakeland, came by and stopped to see what I was doing there. He broke it to me that I was only halfway up the hill. It was kind of a blow cause I hadn't realized that when the road curved ahead, I'd have another half of the hill to traverse.

Tough to say which was more shocking...a steep hill in Florida or the 900 miles he had to go.

Jay Hill Country

October 9, 2007

Century: "The Heart of the South"

Century's got some bravado left over from the Golden Age of Lumber.

The administrative heart of Century--Town Hall on the right and public library on the left. They've got money in Century, or at least they did in 1991 when the complex was built.

Not even the park can escape the city election! You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a campaign sign in Century.

The Country Bumpkin supports Ann Freddie Nadi. Take note!

As expected, the mayor has the biggest, best-made signs.

One of the best features of Panhandle towns is the murals, this one with a commercial bent.

The abandoned furniture store, across from the Piggly Wiggly.

Abandoned store across from Town Hall.

Historic town park.

October 8, 2007

Giannillo and Chiles

Unrelated to the theme of Century, but a good memorial anecdote nonetheless.

“Augustin Giannillo, a local businessman, remembered Chiles as someone who didn’t put on airs. They struck up a friendship after Chiles walked into Giannillo’s Holmes Beach pizza shop back in the 1970s, when Chiles was a U.S. senator.
"When one of Giannillo’s sons became ill, Chiles arranged for the boy to be treated at a hospital in the nation’s capital. He also arranged for the boy to meet then-Vice President George Bush on a VIP-treatment trip to Daytona Beach. ‘This guy had the biggest heart in the world,’ Giannillo said. ‘He was a human being above all else.’
"Years later, Chiles was again a calming presence for Giannillo in a time of tragedy. When another of Giannillo’s sons died this August, he sent Giannillo a note of condolence. ‘He has done his job on Earth, and he’s with my son…now, walking along a beach somewhere,’ Giannillo said.”


Haber, Gary and Kevin Horan. “Friends recall Chiles’ human touch.” Bradenton Herald.

December 13, 1998.


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Chiles and His Florida: Century

The Alabama-Florida Border, perhaps the most political conservative corner of the Sunshine State and the hardest to define culturally as a split between Old South and something uniquely "Floridian." Century, however, is a majority-black town as of 2000 census and probably one of the only Democratic jurisdictions in Escambia County. That's unique. Looking at Wikipedia, it seems that Century and Pensacola are the only incorporated cities in the county--no wonder Chiles picked Century as the starting point of the Walk. Big-City Pensacola doesn't carry much symbolic value.

The above picture is right on the border, as you enter Century.

The most obvious thing coming into town is that it's Election Time in Century! See the sign lurking behind the Florida Welcome sign.
Century, so named because it was built at the turn of the 20th century.
Municipal Election Time! City Council seats up and the mayor's office too. It's a genuine squatters village in front of the Piggly Wiggly.

Founded in 1900 to house mill employees of the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company, by Yankees General Russell A. Alger of Michigan and Martin H. Sullivan of New York, the town's name comes from the turn of the century spirit in its construction. Oxen were used to pull long leaf pine lumber off the rail cars that journeyed 90 miles south from Alabama pine forests to Century saw mill. In 1942, the railroad shut down. Trucks were used instead of rail. In 1957, the mill was sold and new management took over.

Since workers in the logging industry had to labor long hours in the hot sun far from home each day, they built camps in Alabama presumably to bring some civilization to the lifestyle. Working with the timber though, with the snakes and spiders and bugs, had its share of frustrations.

See the Alger-Sullivan Historical Society for more info and pictures.
Another reminder you're close to Alabama. Cotton puffing up behind the bushes as you leave town. This is pine-and-cotton country.
Century Chamber of Commerce.

October 7, 2007

Where It All Began...

It's a common rhetorical tool in electoral politics--the appeal to one's home, the poetry of beginnings.

In The West Wing, Jed Bartlett orates on the movement that began as a Hanover, New Hampshire grassroots uprising when he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination.

In the final season of the show, Matt Santos declares his bid for the presidency at his boyhood home of Houston, Texas. It was also where he began his political life, as mayor of the energy industry boomtown.

Our current U.S. president, George W. Bush, rarely gave us a paragraph on the 2000 presidential trail without a few Texas-sized hints at his first political platform. But of course, he was actually born in Connecticut.

So, there is always room for fiction when the truth doesn't make for romantic rhetoric on the campaign trial. "Where it all began..." can depend on the day, week, or month according to what works politically. It seems to me that urban beginnings rarely make the grade on the presidential campaign trail. It's much easier to create a sweeping Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches, outsider versus establishment narrative when the candidate learned a hard day's work on a dairy farm or a citrus grove--somewhere reasonably close to amber waves of grain.

If a city is invoked, it's used as a whipping post. Rudy Guiliani talks about cleaning up the mean streets of New York City. Barack Obama talks about organizing on the mean streets of Chicago. I guess Hillary Clinton mentions Chicago sometimes, but I don't think it's a theme of the campaign. Martin O'Malley made cleaning up Baltimore an issue in his successful bid for the governorship of Maryland.

John Edwards gets the easy road to campaign biography, since his shot to the U.S. Senate and political stardom began in the small town of Seneca, South Carolina. When he was still very young, his family moved to the small mill town of Robbins, North Carolina. It's a great photo backdrop, fits into the grand, tragic narrative of the Rust Belt and probably even the Wal-Mart Effect. And his parents still live there, and his own family lives nearby in Orange County. It's the American Dream.

Lawton Chiles may have been born in Lakeland in 1930, a phosphate-citrus-railroad town in central Florida, but his path to political legend began in 1970 in a sawmill village on the Florida-Alabama border called Century. Though he never represented the area in the state legislature or the U.S. Congress, and had never been there before summer of 1970, he drove up there at his wife Rhea's urging to begin the thousand-mile walk across Florida that earned him a seat in the U.S. Senate. He returned to Century in later senatorial campaigns, to stay connected with the folks who gave him his start. In the governor years, when he reflected on "where it all began," he readily chatted up how the Walk changed his life. When he died, a gubernatorial funeral motorcade drove the Chiles Trail slowly from Route 4 in Century along US 90 to Tallahassee. At the procession's beginning in Century, an old lady who accompanied him in his 1982 re-election campaign walk returned to his side.

The first fellow that I saw I had to lure down off a power pole. He kept trying to get a word in and I kept talking to him about my running for the United States Senate and finally he got an opportunity to break in and tell me he was from Alabama. I just told him I sure hoped he had some Florida friends to pass the word on to.

And it was uphill from there, where it all began.

Good-Time Century Tales

Just back from road-trippin'. No poison ivy this time I'm glad to report. On the flip side, Interstate 10 seems to be treacherous these days. Maybe it's always that way. Lots of accidents in the past couple days.

Round the Bend

Never know what you'll find around bend while you're walking. Rainbows are tough to catch on camera they're so unsubstantial.