Burgess: Dispatch from Florida on Election Day

Even comparing Obama to Fidel Castro didn't work. Mitt's boat ran aground here.

By Steve Burgess 7 Nov 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture for The Tyee and, no, we didn't send him to Florida to write this. He happened to be there.

KEY WEST, FLORIDA -- On the morning of Election Day the Miami weatherman strikes a note of concern. "There's a cold front moving in," he intones. "Could get down to 73 later in the week."

Oh, the humanity. But they make 'em tough down here. Floridians will overcome greater hardships than that to get out and vote. And genuine hardships there have been in the weeks leading up to Decision 2012. Blithely unconcerned about further damage to this state's well-stained electoral reputation, Florida's Republican legislators cut back on the number of advance voting days from 14 to eight, leading to advance poll lineups that few Canadians would be likely to put up with. And yet Floridians do. Jewel Figueras of Miramar, a Miami suburb, waited close to five hours last weekend. All in all, she says, it wasn't really so bad. "There were sororities and fraternities out there helping," she says. "They'd get you some water or take your spot in line if you wanted to go to the bathroom. People knew it was going to be a long wait. There was no frustration."

There had been a lot of talk about Ohio in the home stretch. But Florida, that old diva, demanded attention. After all, as a New York Times pre-election chart demonstrated, Mitt Romney could not even start thinking about Ohio until the Sunshine State was nailed down. With Florida in the bag Romney would have 75 routes to victory in the Electoral College. Without Florida, he would have only one. And a Wall Street Journal/NBC/Marist poll days before the vote showed Obama with a two per cent lead. Like a petulant six-year-old at someone else's birthday party, Florida was reasserting its right to the spotlight.

Look! In the sky!

Here in Key West signs were in the air and on the ground. A plane droned along above the beach towing a banner reading: Fire Obama! (A second, more bipartisan aircraft urged voters to save money with Geico.)

It's no wonder the Florida ballot is 10 pages long -- there are a lot of races here. Where else but in the Florida Keys would voters elect members to the Mosquito Control Board? The signs are everywhere, decorated with mosquitoes in gun sights. It would be interesting to know the different partisan Republican vs. Democratic ideas about mosquito control -- perhaps the Dems favour attempts at reasonable accommodation?

Out front of the Elks Lodge #610 on Whitehead Street a little tent canopy has been set up to peddle Obama/Biden t-shirts. Inside the hall Ken Sullivan was upbeat. "Been up since six this morning," he says. "Driving people to the polls, getting them a little breakfast."

"I'm the Exalted Leader here," Sullivan says. And lest there be any doubt he leads me to a plaque on the wall with the list of lodge officials. There it is, engraved with a photo: Ken Sullivan -- Exalted Leader.

Ken's wife Priscilla (unofficial title: leader of the Exalted Leader) has been helping make phone calls. While she is upbeat too, she's heard some horror stories: "People saying: 'I ain't voting for that n-----' and slamming the phone down," she says.

Four years ago hundreds of people crowded into the Elks Lodge #610 to watch the election results, then poured out into the streets of Key West in a spontaneous parade. Were there complaints from civic officials, I asked? "Aw, no," says Sullivan. "The District 6 commissioner is the Esteemed Leader here. See?" He points to the plaque. "Right below me."

They tried everything

Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami, and Cuban ex-pats have always loomed large here. The Hispanic vote has a different character in Florida than elsewhere in the country -- on the whole they are more politically conservative. "Frankly, Florida Hispanics don't really connect themselves with the national Hispanic community," Figuras says. "Here they're members of the elite."

The Romney campaign even ran ads here attempting to connect Obama with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez -- the Florida equivalent of Ohio GOP ads claiming Jeep would be moving production to China.

Billions of dollars and two Koch brothers later it does not seem to have worked -- not in Florida, not in the nation. As CNN tracks the numbers James Carville says: "I'm watching Florida, Florida, Florida."

Just how Florida likes it. Well before midnight Key West time, some happy Elks were surely getting ready to parade.  [Tyee]

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