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That's Not Weird, That's a Florida Election | Bill Cotterell

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That's Not Weird, That's a Florida Election | Bill Cotterell

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That's Not Weird, That's a Florida Election
Tuesday, September 04, 2012 — Bill Cotterell

I told a friend the goofy new Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis comedy, "The Campaign," is hilarious -- although it could never happen in real life. 

"And you've been watching Florida politics for how long?" he shot back.

We like farce. Long before the Republican National Convention previewed Clint Eastwood's one-man show, "A Fist Full of Crazy," Florida rewarded the odd and unexpected at the polls.

What other state's first territorial governor was Andrew Jackson, who hated the place? Where else was the state song written by Stephen Foster, who never saw the Suwannee River he so rhapsodized with racist minstrel lyrics? Does any other state's demographics range from baja Alabama, where people vote Republican and call themselves "Yellow Dog Democrats," to The Villages, where golf-cart trails lead to a gaslight-era town square where, every other year, Republican candidates reassure rich retirees how tough they've got it?

What other state could produce a Miami -- the de-facto sixth borough of New York and northern province of Cuba?

Name me one other state where a liberal, a conservative and a moderate can walk into a bar and the bartender asks: "What'll it be, Gov. Crist?"

On what other hurricane-alley peninsula do people hunker down on the coasts, then demand elected leaders keep property insurance premiums low?

Has any other state ever cast 5,963,110 ballots for president, only to have the White House decided by 537 of them? The morning after the 2000 election, when five states were too close to call and Al Gore needed all to win, didn't you just know it would come down to the state where George Bush's brother was governor? And where the secretary of state, who interpreted the rules for the recount, was honorary co-chair of the Bush campaign?

Oh, sure, Minnesota once elected a pro wrestler with a feather boa and a fake name as its governor, and now has a former Saturday Night Live comic for a U.S. Senator. New York had a governor resign for patronizing a high-priced hooker, and South Carolina had a guy who gave new meaning to "hiking on the Appalachian Trail," when he was visiting his mistress in Brazil.

But no state can match Florida for sustained, lifetime-achievement, bipartisan weirdness.

Take Mark Foley in 2006, for instance. A conservative Republican congressman in a safe district, Foley resigned amid disclosure of instant messages he sent teen-aged House pages. State Republicans hastily nominated then-state Rep. Joe Negron in his place, but it was too late to reprint ballots. The Democrats -- sensing their unknown Tim Mahoney had a chance -- refused to even let counties post signs at polling places that said: "Votes for Mark Foley will count as votes for Joe Negron."

Still, Negron almost beat Mahoney, who was to serve only one term before a hush-money mistress scandal led to his defeat. In France, they'd call that, "But of course…"

Take the 1984-86 cycle, for instance. Everybody knew Attorney General Jim Smith and Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter would slug it out in the Democratic primary to succeed Gov. Bob Graham, himself somewhat of an oddball, but a good one. So both Gunter and Smith dropped out. Smith dropped back in again as running mate to Senate President Harry Johnston, but a few weeks later, their "dream ticket" blew up and they wound up running against each other.

Another candidate for governor, state Sen. Frank Mann, rode a horse all the way from Fort Myers to the Capitol to kick off his campaign. He wound up going for lieutenant governor with little-known Rep. Steve Pajcic, who beat both Smith and Johnston for the nomination -- and lost to Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez, a former Democrat who changed parties.

Martinez was the last of a Republican archetype in statewide races. It used to be that the GOP could win statewide races only if the Democrats slashed their nominees' Achilles tendons in vicious primary races. Gov. Claude Kirk (1966), Sen. Ed Gurney (1968), Sen. Paula Hawkins (1980) and Martinez all won when Democrats couldn't reunite after bitterly divisive runoff primaries. 

In 1994, Jeb Bush won a four-way race for the Republican nomination for governor and had a united Republican Party behind him in the year of the "Gingrich Revolution." Bush also had the advantage of a famous name, boatloads of money and a fresh, young squad of private sector-minded acolytes around him.

With everything going for him, Bush lost to Gov. Lawton Chiles, who'd started his political career in the 1950s. Days before the election, Chiles predicted in a televised debate, "The he coon walks just before the light of day."

That saying has puzzled political observers for 18 years. I think Chiles was saying, "This is Florida."

Bill Cotterell is a retired reporter who covered the government and politics 44 years for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted [email protected]

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