October 27, 2007

Chiles and His Florida: Baker

Baker in Okaloosa County doesn't get much comment in the Walkin' Notes, but it's got character--especially the Baker Block Museum right at the main intersection when you arrive. Unfortunately it wasn't open when I got there. The museum has a genealogical library as well as other artifacts. The rest of town seemed occupied with a softball game in one the fields farther down the road. If you had to walk state road 4--which intersects with US 90 soon after Baker--I would think Baker would be a nice rest stop after a long slog through the Blackwater Forest.

The average person in Florida probably has never heard of Baker, but they might have heard of the Okaloosa county seat Crestview, which dominates the area along with the massive Eglin Air Force Base to its south. With its socially conservative culture and military-and-cotton field economy, Okaloosa County votes solid Republican down the line. The Yellow Dog Democrats have long since gone. So have the coonskin Democrats. The late Congressman Bob Sikes represented the area for decades in the U.S. Congress, long enough to crown himself a 'He-Coon' before Chiles had even become governor. The buildings and roads named after Sikes are the legacy of that bygone era of Democratic dominance. Last year, Katherine Harris, unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Florida, got 60% of the vote in the county--despite losing the state overall in a 2-to-1 Bill Nelson landslide.

Okaloosa County, deep in the Panhandle.

Cotton gin.

The opposite side of the museum building.

Blackwater River and Forest.

Front porch of the Panhandle.

Baker Block Museum.

Wildfire Country

This drought index from the USDA shows you the red-hot conditions in Southern California. Florida is quite dry and has had its share of wildfire problems, but it's still mostly green. Especially in the Panhandle.

I haven't been there since July, but I suspect Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge still looks bone-dry.

Back on the Trail

Next stops on the Chiles Trail are Crestview, Bonifay, Chipley, DeFuniak Springs, and Ponce de Leon. I've been reading this great travel guide by Jan Annino Godown called Scenic Driving Florida (The Globe Pequot Press, 2005).

For the Panhandle it's got some awesome drives:

"The Canopy Roads"; Pisgah Church Road to Lake Miccosukee to Monticello

"Red Hills at the Roof of the State"; Havana to Thomasville to Tallahassee

"Mysteries of Strange Waters"; Wakulla Springs State Park to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

I'm looking forward to using the book for DeFuniak Springs since it's got a guide to the Victorian-era homes in that town that Chiles loved.

The Governor Proposes, The Public Disposes

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed a public referendum on the November 2008 ballot to decide the controversial question of building slot machines at a handful of venues around the state. The horse racing industry in the Old Line State wants slots badly.

I doubt it will get much discussion in the book--except maybe as part of the debate over the 1991-1992 Florida budget--but I keep coming across casino gambling in the Chiles-MacKay clips. All that I've read says he was dead set against gambling, not an inch of wiggle room.

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.

Bluegrass and Sunshine

I found this graphic in the description of Kentucky--the Bluegrass State--on Wikipedia. I haven't found a similar online graphic for Florida yet--one that breaks the state into topographical and cultural regions: the Big Bend, Nature Coast, Space Coast, Gold Coast, Miami, the Keys, etc.

This sort of map is much more important than just a blur of dozens of counties. I don't know that "Jackson Purchase" tells you much, but the difference between a coal field and a cotton field can tell you volumes. A mining, union-based economy produces a politics miles and miles away from a plantation, share-cropping economy. A riverside region often becomes a trade-based economy because of prime location. For instance, the mighty Mississippi is close to the "Jackson Purchase" region, and probably allowed folks there to get a piece of the riverside market.

The reason there aren't maps everywhere like this for the Sunshine State is probably that no one can agree on regions. Sure, Jacksonville and Tallahassee have got their "metro areas." But what do you call the stretch of North Florida rural country bridging them? Beats me.

The Road to Baker

The thing about the Panhandle is, once you get way out in it, you'll notice some wind at your back. You'll look around to see if a storm is coming near, but there's nothing. A blustery wind means a storm in Tallahassee and everywhere else I've been in Florida--unless you're on the water. But not in Jay and Baker in Santa Rosa County. From Walkin' Notes:

Then I got out on the road and I noticed that we have a pretty good headwind today. You usually think about headwinds when you're flying in an airplane, but I was facing a headwind walking on the ground today. I found that the wind was so brisk that it cut 10 steps a minute off my pace. I usually was stepping off at about 120 steps a minute; it cut my pace down to 110. That doesn't seem like too much but the way I was figuring, it was going to add about an hour to my day, so I was a little disgusted with the headwind.

The soil was still damp enough that the dust hadn't started blowing yet, and I was real thankful for that.

I was walking today in some service boots that I haven't worn since I was in Korea. I started thinking back and remembering that it was during the "cease-fire" and we had a Colonel that wanted to keep the troops occupied so that they wouldn't get bored so he had us go on forced marches. I used to lead the column on a 20 mile forced march wearing these boots. At that time I was a first lieutenant and could step our ahead of the column and slip back to the back and pick up stragglers and see how they were getting along and dog-trot back up to the head of the column and march at a clip that would make 20 miles in a day. I was kinda wondering what was wrong with these boots today 'cause I wasn't making quite that kind of time. Maybe it's the 18 years in between and not the boots. Lt. Chiles was still at the head of the column today, but he was having a lot of trouble with Sen. Chiles who was a straggler. Sen. Chiles kept looking for a corpsman, and I think he was looking for a stretcher to ride on.

I met two very fine ladies on the road today, Miss Lilian Killam from Bagdad and Mrs. Abbie Carr from Crestview. They said they'd been reading about me in the paper and were delighted to see me. They stopped and we chatted for a long time. They laughed and said I'd made their day 'cause they were hoping they'd get to see me on the road. I really had a great visit with them.

One of the most pleasant surprises I had today was when I met Mr. Nixon on the road. Mr. Nixon stopped and introduced himself to me and I told him I was running for the U.S. Senate and Mr. Nixon pledged his support. It turned out that this was Mr. Perry Nixon, Route 2, Baker, and not Mr. Richard Nixon, but I was delighted to meet Mr. Nixon and get his support.

Baker certainly is a welcome sight!

October 23, 2007

Colburn's Book Reviewed

Retired St. Petersburg Times editor Martin Dyckman, author of a successful 2006 LeRoy Collins biography--also a University Press of Florida title--recently reviewed David Colburn's new book, From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans: Florida and Its Politics since 1940.

Dyckman smartly notes Colburn's quote that race was a "minor factor at best" in the rise of the Florida Republican Party and the national party's success in the Sunshine State.

To me, that's what stuck the most. How much did race, demography, and migration change Florida between 1940 and today? Which was the prime mover? What were the turning points?

This comes back to the original question, I think--of definition. What is a Yellow Dog? What is Dixiecrat? What is a Blue Dog? Where are Florida Democrats and what do they look like? Where are Florida Republicans and what do they look like?

I'm definitely in agreement that geography and people movement need more discussion in the mix. Wanna get to know Florida politics? Start by buying a map. If you can memorize even half the 67 counties in the state, you've got a shot. Otherwise you might try an easier state like say Rhode Island or Delaware.

Yellow Dogs, Blue Dogs, and Dead Armadillos

University Press of Florida recently released a new book that I think is the first academic piece to chronicle Florida's post-World War II governors up to the present--through the Jeb Bush years even. UF professor David R. Colburn's book, From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans: Florida and Its Politics since 1940, features a collage of pictures on the cover--including Lawton Chiles walking in 1970, and shots of Bob Graham, Jeb Bush, and current Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R).

It's incredible it took this long for a book to give the Yellow Dog lore some ink, especially since the "doghouse" political language is alive and well in the U.S. Capitol and on campaign trails nationwide. What else would you expect from a Southern political tradition that's got enough hunting dogs, pigs, raccoons, boll weevils, and gypsy moths to fill a barnyard?

David Colburn defines a "Blue Dog" Democrat as one carping that "they were being choked blue by the leash placed around their necks by the federal government." If a "Yellow Dog" Democrat is a conservative Democrat--usually from the South--who would vote for a yellow dog before a Republican, maybe a Blue Dog is just a pissed off Yellow Dog. He's barking and scratching, but he's still on the porch and too lazy to run away. In Florida, that old-time Yellow Dog--with conservative social values, deficit-hawk convictions and a populist core--is on the endangered species list. They've been lost in the wilderness since 1928, when solidly Democratic Protestant Florida favored Republican Herbert Hoover for president over Catholic Democrat Al Smith. The Great Depression brought the yellows back on the porch, but after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal they started to turn blue quick. The civil rights movement, feminism, welfare, Medicare, and Bill Clinton's scandals saw to that. Many left for fatter living and greener pastures in the Republican Party, leaving the current congressional Democratic caucus a legacy of Blue Dogs and Dixiecrats too old to break their leash.

When you're walking down the halls of the House Office buildings, you can usually spot a Blue Dog Democrat easy. They've got a chart on an easel outside the office door, with an upward sloping line marking the national debt's expansion. Maybe even a Blue Dog key-chain or two. Since Lawton Chiles' day, the U.S. Congressional Blue Dog Caucus has gone digital. They claim to have formally set up shop in the aftermath of the 1994 Gingrich Revolution, in rebellion to the Clinton Administration's "tax-and-spend" excess. For all the pioneering work done by Chiles on the federal deficit crunch in his Senate years from 1970 to 1988, you might label him an honorary Blue Dog--if he hadn't already picked his moniker of choice. He didn't have much company at his hearings on the deficit, and not much has changed. Even though the Blue Dogs have got 47 members today, they're getting less and less support for fiscal responsibility from the other side of the aisle.

Which brings me to Texas populist Jim Hightower's book from years back, There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.

Today's Congressional Democratic Caucus includes Blue Dogs, progressives, DLCers (Democratic Leadership Council), New Democrats, and maybe even a few "Atari" Democrats who remember Al Gore's work on the internet. What happened to the Republican Party's liberal-to-moderate wing? Hightower was right about one thing. The moderates, centrists, and "Main Street" Republicans like Lincoln Chafee, Sherwood Boehlert, and Jim Jeffords--they've gone the way of the armadillo, leaving none but Democrats to claim the middle of the road.

Blackwater River State Forest

Soon after he set out walking, Chiles was deep in the forest. I found this small park as I drove through. It's on the Blackwater River. A touch of autumn has arrived. From the pages of the Notes:

We made camp after dark last night because I was a little bit slow getting into Munson and had to walk a little by moonlight. The camper had already gone ahead and they'd located the camp and we camped out by a pool in the Blackwater Forest. I couldn't see it very good that night and we stayed in the camper. We got up this morning about 6 o'clock and found that we were by a beautiful pool. They dammed up the stream there and have a beautiful swimming place. It's among some real big pine trees and there were big docks going out. It was nice weather so we decided to take a dip this morning about 6 o'clock. It was awfully brisk when we got into the water. We had the camp completely to ourselves so we had sort of a swim in the altogether. That really loosened up my legs a little bit this morning. The sunrise was beautiful at that time.

Blackwater Forest.

October 22, 2007

The "Dixie-Dade" Strategy

A lot of folks who follow Florida electoral politics--statewide races especially--would say that for a Democrat to win the state, he/she needs to dominate South Florida, fight to a draw or better in Central Florida, and survive in North Florida.

In Maryland, it's much the same equation: dominate the "Blue Corridor" stretching from Prince George's County through Montgomery County, Howard County all the way to Baltimore City; fight to a draw or better in the Baltimore suburbs; and survive in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

In Virginia, you need to rack up giant margins in Northern Virginia (NOVA), get out the progressive vote in Norfolk/Newport News, Charlottesville, and Richmond, and survive in Southside, Shenandoah, Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, Southwest VA and assorted hinterlands.

The 1994 Bush-Chiles Florida gubernatorial election put conventional wisdom about the state to the ultimate test. It taught a good rule of thumb: If a Democrat can carry Dixie and Miami-Dade County, they've bagged the elephant. Governor Chiles won re-election in a year when Congressman Newt Gingrich's slash-and-burn conservative revolution incinerated every big oak in the forest from Texas to Alabama to New York. Social conservative Rick Santorum won a Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Even in Democratic strongholds Maryland and Massachusetts, incumbents fought to 11th hour, nail-biting victories. In his first mid-term test, voters pushed back President Bill Clinton's agenda in state houses across the country and in Washington, DC.

Dixie County is the heart of Florida's Big Bend, aka "Nature Coast," where the swampy, poison ivied, cypress-kneed Suwannee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is "cracker" country that supported cracker Democrats like Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Bill Clinton. You're about as likely to find a Starbucks there as you are a liberal Democrat. In 2004, President Bush carried it by 68%.

Miami-Dade County...as late as the 1950s it was still a "lamb chop" compared to the North Florida "Pork Choppers" who ran state politics. When Chiles was born, Miami-Dade was a burgeoning backwater. Today, the census bureau estimates it's the eighth most populous county in the United States and its got the political heft worthy of an international metropolis. Half the county is foreign-born. Half speak Spanish as their first language. In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry carried it by about 53%.

Dixie County favored Governor Chiles in 1994 by 22 votes, Miami-Dade by about 17,000. The exact numbers don't matter so much as the image of a Dixie Blue Dog and a Miami-Dade Yankee going into the voting booth on Election Day in the nation's fourth largest state and pulling the lever for the "Dream Team" Chiles/MacKay. The He-Coon's campaign surely didn't target Dixie and Dade; but it must have been a satisfying sprinkle on top of the victory cake to take them both. The very mark of the 67-county strategy.

As many have remarked, Chiles could "swim in two ponds." Of course, win a big enough margin in Miami-Dade and the rest of Florida--including little Dixie County--can take a long walk off a short pier. The election is sealed up. But the Dixie-Dade Strategy is about symbolism. And that still counts for a lot in politics.

Dixie County: Chiles-MacKay Country in 1994.

Miami-Dade County: Chiles-MacKay Country in 1994.

October 21, 2007

The Big Money

Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen wrote a critique today of all the Democratic presidential candidates' scramble for enough cash to win Iowa and a shot at the White House.

Although he's known for his acid, sarcastic tone, Hiaasen wrote a touching elegy for Lawton Chiles soon after his death. Unfortunately, 1998 is too far back to link to it. You'd have to pay to see the archive.

Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff

For many in my generation, the TV show The West Wing has been a guide through the wilderness of today's politics, thanks to the brilliant synergy of director Thomas Schlamme, screenwriter and creator Aaron Sorkin, and the entire cast.

It's great political storytelling. Sorkin creates a fully functioning family that fights, compromises, and celebrates victory and mourns defeat--together. Here DC is the company town and the White House is HQ. The office never sleeps, no matter how many well-placed memos Josh Lyman writes.

And when the two oldest characters fight, the junior staff might as well be flies on the wall. President Jed Bartlet and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry fill the roles of elder statesmen in Sorkin's world. As I think about the role of the several chiefs of staff who served with Governor Lawton Chiles, I think often about the post. Seems to be McGarry got it right.

"So, my friend, if you wanna start using the American military strength as the arm of the Lord, you can do that. We're the only superpower left, you can conquer the world like Charlemagne, but you better be prepared to kill everyone, and you better start with me, 'cause I will raise-up an army against you and I will beat you."

- Leo McGarry, "A Proportional Response"

"If we're going to walk into walls I want us running into them full speed. We're going to lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we're not going to be threatened by issues. We're going to bring 'em front and center. We're going to raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy."

- Leo McGarry, "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"

"Because I'm tired of it. Year after year after year after year, having to choose between the lesser of who cares. Of trying to get myself excited about the candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low I can hardly look at it. They say a good man can't get elected, president, I don't believe that, do you?"

- Leo McGarry, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen"

McGarry found Bartlet, taught him how to run for office on a national stage, to lean on his political principles, his economic genius, and his soaring oration--not just his New Hampshire background. To pick a phrase from a later season of the show, he made Bartlet "good for all time zones." A brand. A name and a cause that wedded McGarry to his job and the constant fight to "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" in spite of sagging public approval, Republican attacks, and the exhaustion of a 24/7 week. The job never ends, even after the collapse of his marriage.

Josh, Toby, Sam, and C.J. may have joined the team later, but McGarry is the one who wrote the presidential campaign's strategy on a napkin: "Bartlet for America." He gave it voice, credibility,and grativas all the way from the New Hampshire's January snows to the summer Democratic National Convention's bright lights and balloons. He gave it voice until Bartlet found his.

In the Third Season, the episode "Bartlet for America" puts you in the room with McGarry's race of emotions. As a Christmas gift, Bartlet gives McGarry a framed copy of the famous napkin. The crush of nostalgia and satisfaction brings Leo to tears. He takes a seat, alone. The screen fades to black. The late actor John Spencer doesn't just sell it; he lives it and lets it happen.

Unlike Bob Graham and Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles never seemed to harbor presidential ambitions. His most stories political campaigns made for edge-of-the seat cinema nonetheless. These were underdog Florida-wide campaigns chock full of personality, drive, and tables of finger lickin' hot dogs and chicken--enough to make Bartlet for America seem like week-old oatmeal.

When old friend Buddy MacKay first met with Lawton Chiles in 1990 to try to persuade him to get back into politics and run for governor, Chiles said, "you're crazy." Then Chiles said he would only do it if contributions were limited to $100 a head. MacKay said, "you're crazy." The Martinez administration's failures, an inspiring speech from Vaclav Havel, and other factors pushed him, too. Rhea Chiles said it was like watching an old outboard motor get tugged and tugged until finally it started to purr. And the $100 a head contributions continued in the successful Chiles-MacKay 1994 bid for re-election.

Multiple chiefs of staff served under Gov. Chiles. When the governor died, his old friend Dexter Douglass remarked, "Lawton was always Lawton."

Thanks to a friend for the choice West Wing quotes. Godspeed, John Spencer.