This time of year, I always feel compelled to remind everyone that the first Thanksgiving Day took place in Florida 56 years before the Pilgrims arrived. The attendees were Spanish settlers and the native Timucuans, they ate garbanzo stew and alligator and afterward they probably all got into an argument over whose sportsball team had a better record.
One thing we can all be thankful for is that recount season is over at last, and faster than last time.
Remember 2000, when the wrangling over the ballots in the presidential race went on for three weeks, guaranteeing no one in Florida would ever again name a child “Chad”? This year it happened again with not one, not two, but three statewide races undergoing a recount amid a blizzard of lawsuits. One of them even wound up with a different outcome as marijuana lobbyist Nikki Fried beat pro-NRA, Big Sugar-backed candidate Matt Caldwell for agriculture commissioner. Something tells me she has some interesting ideas about alternatives to citrus.
The multiple recounts were going on amid the usual Florida weirdness: the naked burglar who broke into a restaurant to eat ramen and play bongos; the man who dove into the crocodile pit at Gatorland and lost his Crocs; and the guy who was released from jail and tried to steal a car from the parking lot, only to discover it had a cop inside.
Yet the recount mess is the reason a federal judge declared Florida to be “the laughingstock of the world.” Go figure.
Usually what happens in Florida is regarded by the rest of the country as amusing (woman caught shoplifting while dressed as a turkey) or horrifying (the Parkland shooting). But when it comes to elections, what happens in Florida has an impact on the nation as a whole.
Since 1964 Florida has gone for the winning presidential candidate every time but one (1992, Clinton versus Bush). Since 1924 not one Republican candidate has won the presidency while losing Florida.
Thus, every election season, the nation turns its lonely eyes to the phallic-shaped playground state, amazed at our antics. The Washington Post recently asked, “What’s Wrong With Florida?” Meanwhile, a columnist for another Florida paper wrote a piece headlined, “Dear America, We’re sorry we keep screwing up democracy. Love, Florida.”
Actually, though, we’re not screwing up democracy. We’re showing all the cracks in it.
Florida is far from the only state with cranky voting machines, badly designed ballots and politicians ready to cry “fraud!” at the drop of a MAGA hat. But you don’t hear about them as much because the vote margins there tend to be wide enough that no recount is required.
In Florida, though, the population is split just like America is. Our 21 million residents (third most in the nation, ahead of New York) include every demographic stratum. We’ve got Medicare fraudsters, professional mermaids, uniformed Scientologists, python hunters, spam kings, strip club moguls, retired CIA agents, hurricane refugees and monkey breeders, all crammed together in the 30-mile strip along the coast or along I-4, the highway connecting the theme parks.
Like Billy Martin in the old Miller Lite commercials, when we go to the polls we feel strongly both ways. We voted for Obama for president twice — he won the state by a 2.82 percent margin of victory in 2008 and then 0.88 percent in 2012. Meanwhile we put tea party-friendly Scott in the governor’s mansion twice, by margins of 1.2 percent and 1.07 percent. He just won a U.S. Senate seat by a mere 0.12 percent.
We’re neither red nor blue. We’re as purple as a stone bruise. Trump won Florida in 2016, but his margin of victory, 1.2 percent, reflected how divided the whole country was.
And every day we get an average of 900 more people moving here, making us even more diverse and weird and influential. You know that corny Washington Post slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness”? In Florida, a sunny place for shady people, democracy thrives.
What we’re missing here is not democracy but unity. We each have our own separate and competing vision of what’s best for the nation and for our neighborhood. Finding common ground is as easy as finding a Florida lake with no alligators in it.
What can we as Floridians agree on? I’ve started a list: We can agree on the beauty of our sunsets and our beaches. We can agree that clean water that’s free of toxic algae is important to our economy and our health. We can agree that our award-winning state parks are pretty cool. And we can agree that we have the most interesting set of police log items in the nation and perhaps the world.
Come to think of it, that could double as a list of things to be thankful for.