“Old Florida” Shows Its Colors in Governor’s Race

I followed the sun to Florida back in April 1979, to a dusty, shabby county on the Gulf Coast, where less affluent northerners used to go to await their final call. This was not your ritzy South Beach or your cosmopolitan Miami, where I later lived. It was like some place in a John Steinbeck novel, a tepid backwater where hope was just another four-letter word.

The area has changed a lot in the past 31 years. New roads, new subdivisions and apartment complexes, fancy restaurants, even gambling boats have irretrievably altered the county’s appearance. And the new people have brought a different patina to the place. But don’t be deceived: Old Florida lives on beneath the surface – there as in much of the Sunshine State.

And Old Florida is very much Old South – not Cole Porter South but “Strange Fruit”
South. There are many trees still standing from which black bodies once swayed in the breeze. This is still home to the Klan, boy. And don’t you forget it!

Nowhere is more Old South than Brooksville, a quaint town a little north of my first Florida home, where the dogwood and azalea make you think about mint juleps and cotillions – and forget about midnight riders in white hoods.

It was here that Ira William (Bill) McCollum, the state’s current attorney general and the front-running Republican candidate for governor, was born and raised.

In Jamaica they have a saying: Fruit never fall far from tree. And Bill McCollum is living testament to its truth. He is a real Son of Brooksville.

This is a man steeped in tradition – a Gator, and not just a Gator but a member of the University of Florida Hall of Fame and president of Florida Blue Key (it’s a kind of elite fraternity). He joined the United States Navy after graduation and retired from the Naval Reserve a quarter of a century later as a Commander in the JAG Corps.

Entering private practice as a lawyer in Orlando, McCollum immediately became involved in local politics, and served as Chairman of the Seminole County Republican Party for several years. He is also one of the Republican attorneys general who filed those ridiculous suits against the new federal health care law.

So it comes as no surprise that good ol’ Bill has second thoughts about that racist Arizona law – the one that requires people who look, well suspicious, to carry papers showing they’re in America legally.  A couple of weeks ago, he allowed as how the law was too “far out.” Now, he figures it’s not so bad after all.

McCollum’s change of heart follows a recent poll that showed him losing ground to unknown but well-heeled Republican rival Rick Scott, who backs the Arizona law. The other major Republican candidate, state Senator Paula Dockery of Lakeland (where I live now), also supports the Arizona law.

The leading Democratic candidate for governor, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, opposes the law. So does Rubio’s major Senate rivals, the newly independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek.

In abandoning his previous opposition to the Arizona law, McCollum joined another far-right flag bearer, U.S. Senate contender Marco Rubio. Both said they changed positions in light of amendments designed to ban ethnic and racial profiling. But I bet their real reason is the current political environment in Florida.

It’s no accident that the Republicans chose Tampa for their 2012 convention. The Confederate flag still adorns the rear windows of pick-up trucks hereabouts, and to be a Democrat is to be black or – worse – “liberal.”

They say that when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he expected to “lose the South for a generation.” Well, he lost the South, all right, and that includes Old Florida, which is most of the state once you get out of the Miami-Broward-Palm Beach area.

So I suppose we can expect a similar racist law in Florida if – as usually happens – one of the Republican candidates is elected governor. And it would cause havoc in this part of the state, where much of the dirty work is done by Hispanics who might look suspicious to local law enforcement officers.