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The Boston Globe
Deep South State Takes On New Diversity
by Curtis Wilkie, Globe Correspondent
November 10, 2000
As Americans looked anxiously to Florida yesterday, they could be comforted that the 2000 election would ultimately be determined by a modern microcosm of the rest of the country rather than by the provincial backwater that the state once was.
Florida is prosperous and fast-growing, a home to 14 million people. Its population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, helping to transform the state from a taproot for the old, Democratic "Solid South" to a bipartisan battleground where 45 percent of the voters are Democratic, 40 percent are Republican, and 15 percent are not affiliated.
Florida's politics are no longer predictable. The state voted for George Bush for president in 1988 and 1992, and sided with Bill Clinton in 1996. In 1994, Florida voters preferred a Democrat, Lawton Chiles, to Republican Jeb Bush in the race for governor; four years later, Jeb Bush was elected.
On the map, Florida represents the deepest of the Deep South, yet it is the least "Southern" of the states in Dixie.
"We are really three or four states, and two or three foreign countries," said Tom Slade, a former state Republican chairman.
Demographically, parts of the southeast corner of Florida resemble the Northeast. The condominiums that line the Atlantic coast from Miami to Palm Beach are full of New Yorkers and natives of New England. As a result, Broward and Palm Beach counties have become liberal Democratic strongholds.
According to the Almanac of American Politics, the flow from New York to Florida involves the largest migration between any two states in the country. More than 600,000 Jews live in South Florida, the largest concentration of Jewish voters outside of New York and Los Angeles.
The west coast of the state has been settled in recent years by hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Midwest, the "snowbirds" who used to descend on the state to spend winters. Enjoying the balmy climate, many wound up staying, importing to Florida the mainstream Republicanism they inherited from their ancestors in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
The center of the state, along the "I-4 corridor" between Daytona Beach and St. Petersburg, has seen explosive growth in the years since Disney World sprouted outside Orlando and other theme parks were developed. More than 50 percent of the residents of this region were not born in Florida, and they are said to be the most independent-minded voters in the state.
The strongest traces of traditional Southern culture are found in the Panhandle, the northern tier of the state where the terrain and the people are closely related to neighboring Alabama and Georgia. Conservative attitudes are reflected in Panhandle politics.
Miami, of course, has its huge Cuban-American population, an anticommunist bloc that has held a collective grudge against Democrats since the Bay of Pigs invasion failed in the first year of President Kennedy's administration.
Yet a new influx of Hispanics, people with Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Nicaraguan backgrounds, has pushed political calculations to the left in the middle of the state. These Hispanics tend to be Democrats, and in the last election they replaced a Republican incumbent in the state Legislature with one of their own.
"We feel like we've done a good job of creating a mosaic with senior citizens, non-Cuban Hispanics and African-Americans," said Bob Poe, the state Democratic chairman.
Despite the recent memories of scandal in Miami, when newly elected mayor Xavier Suarez was ejected from office and a city commissioner was sent to jail because of voting frauds in the 1997 city elections, the state's history of electoral hijinks is short.
"In my 20 years here, I don't remember anything in north Florida that smelled of tampering or fraud or vote-fixing," said Fred Hartman, the retired editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.
"Florida, I think, is relatively clean," said Slade, who still serves as the state's national Republican committeeman. He acknowledged that the ballot used Tuesday in Palm Beach County - the subject of a pending court action by Democrats - was "a bad ballot design." But Slade said that most mischief that takes place in the state is created by "individual candidates."
"Neither political party in Florida would involve themselves in anything illegal," he said.
Old-timers in Florida recall a 1936 race, when a courthouse crowd in Tampa held back the votes in Hillsborough County for five days to see how many would be needed to defeat a young, liberal candidate named Claude Pepper in a race for a US Senate seat. (Pepper went on to serve 27 years in the US House.)
But that was in the days when all of Florida was Democratic and relatively conservative.
Over the years, the Democratic dominance was diluted by newcomers and indigenous conservatives who converted to the Republican Party.
Jack Gordon, a liberal Democrat who represented a Miami district in the state Senate for 20 years, remembers that the seeds of Republican opposition were sowed by foot soldiers of the Christian Coalition. When he first went to the Legislature, Republicans could hold their caucus in a phone booth.
"There's been a significant realignment," he said. Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats in both houses.