Letter from Miami: Florida Just Can't Seem to Shake Off Its Banana Republicanism -- Even The Democrats

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • David Paul Appell Principal, EnLinea Media,; author, Frommer's Miami & the Keys

My goodness, all this drawn-out brouhaha about how Florida Democrats did or didn't really stick their feet in it this time by going along with the Republican-dominated legislature's scheme to move up the state's primary. But it's just the latest episode in the ongoing saga of this state's hapless Dems since they lost both executive and legislative branches back in the 1990's. The only reason there are any at all in office statewide now is because the Repubs pulled a howler of their own in '04 by saddling themselves with Katharine Harris running against Senator Bill Nelson; the Florida Secretary of State who helped pull off the Great Election Robbery of 2000 turned out to be such a ditzy disaster that by comparison Lil' Bush comes across like Winston Churchill. But I digress. My point is that after observing local Democrats at close hand for years now, I must say the "circular firing squad" (as their Broward County chairman has put it) they formed over this past February's notorious primary is -- yawn -- just par for the course when you know the context.

Naturally, we've had our flamboyant and/or salacious pol meltdowns -- notably Mark "so you got a stiff one now?" Foley and Arthur Teele, the corrupt Republican county commissioner who blew his brains out in the lobby of the Miami Herald in '05. But what's truly scandalous in one of America's most populous and overheated states is unfortunately a lot more consequential and less entertaining. The Sunshine State's version of a banana republic is a sun-kissed stew that starts with a roux of bible-thumpers still either serving up or sucking down the age-old "God, guns, 'n' gays" Kool-Ade, with a generous dollop of rapacious developers and their pitbull lawyers and lobbyists paving over the coasts, Everglades, and everything in between (Jeb Bush was both groups' hero -- heck, he was a card-carrying member of the latter). Then of course to add thickness we stir in some finely aged chunks of senior citizenry (well, those who still haven't fled for lower-cost havens like North Carolina and Panama) -- liberal, conservative, and in between, but mostly united in the conviction that rock-bottom taxes are far more important than, say, funding decent schools.

Oh, and for extra spice down here in Miami Dade County (aka la capital de América Latina), we've got rich, arrogant, Castro-obsessed Cubans, both first and second-generation, who now run practically everything -- some of them in ways muy reminiscent of Batista's crowd and the sugar barons back in the old country. At the bottom of the pot cooks a flavorful layer of immigrants from all over the hemisphere, mostly upright strivers but also riddled with exceptionally disastrous drivers, illegal aliens, and scammers specializing in everything from phony traffic-accident and ADA lawsuits to Medicare scams. Meanwhile, amid one of America's poorest metro areas, Biscayne Bay islets like Fisher and Star islands sit pretty as America's wealthiest enclaves, while from South Beach comes a patina of glitz 'n' glam (just watch out for the thuggish bouncers). At least we still manage to be a tad more blue-state down here than the rest of Florida (yes, we had angry mobs harassing the recount for Gore in '00, but the county went for Kerry in '04, for example) -- thanks especially to municipalities like Miami Beach, Miami Shores, and Aventura. But by and large, Greater Miami has been fondly burnishing its Darwinian impersonation of Central America, with the rich getting richer, services away from the shiny highrises deteriorating, and the poor and middle class being squeezed downward and outward.

Frankly, as with most banana republics, Florida's is a half-baked economy, dependent on tourism, real estate, health care and other service industries (thanks, retirees), with a spot of agriculture and light manufacturing. Information and tech industries? Ha -- a couple of high-profile research institutes like Scripps and Torrey Pines, and that's pretty much it. Thanks to rising costs and insufficient investment in education and infrastructure, we're in the midst of a Third-World-style brain drain, especially among folks in their 20's and 30's and most especially here in South Florida (though in Miami it's somewhat offset by immigration from even poorer places in the rest of Latin America).

So how's all this playing out so far in 2008? Well, we finally got rid of Governor Jeb (if only because of term limits), and though naturally the Dems couldn't prevent a Republican successor, at least smooth, well-groomed Charlie Crist seems like a bit of an improvement so far (y'all will get a taste if he gets McCain's veep nod). But for the most part we're still stuck with the same old numbskull government types. True, the legislature -- Repub by a two-to-one margin -- did just vote to say "oops" for slavery, and the state board of education, amazingly, finally sorta slipped evolution back into the science curriculum for the first time in years (while still keeping a little loophole open for so-called "intelligent design").

But otherwise it's bidness as usual. Lawmakers are now prepping to slam those slaves' descendants along with the rest of us with record budget slashing (16 percent over last year) by this session's close on May 2, even while continuing to fund right-wing drivel like abstinence-only sex ed and pushing yet more tax exemptions and breaks for wealthy special interests. Revenues? Hey, have another helping of the lottery, casino gambling, tuition hikes! And really, why do prison inmates need such big meals? Big likely losers: public schools and universities (as always), hospitals, nursing homes, the courts, and public financing of elections, among others. Other mischief in the works: a bill making abortion more expensive, and statewide referendums pushed onto this fall's ballot such as a gratuitous constitutional amendment to really, really, really forbid same-sex marriage (along with any form of civil union or domestic partnership, hetero or homo), though a law to that effect's already on the books. Oh, and another that would scrap the constitution's ban on taxpayer money being freely doled out to already tax-exempt religious groups. Now all we need is a provision mandating an assault weapon in every pot, and we'll have all the G's nicely covered.

Meanwhile, down here in Greater Miami -- home of O.J. Simpson and a colony of sex offenders forced to live under a causeway -- folks are grumpier than ever and we're mired in mounting traffic gridlock and the icky mess from one of the country's biggest burst housing bubbles, along with ever more folks (especially of the working-class variety) driven out by foreclosures and ballooning insurance and mortgage rates. Pols and developers are still busy feeding at the trough, though. Miami International Airport remains a chaotic playground of incompetence and corruption, and the county commission has bungled maintenance and expansion of our anemic, unridden Metrorail system. The county jail system's being investigated by the Feds for horrendous conditions and civil rights violations (yep, when even the Bush-Cheney "Justice" Department thinks it's bad, watch out). And despite homeowner water rationing, ever more monstrous condo and office towers still get greenlighted and developers keep hammering away to get the so-called Urban Development Boundary pushed ever deeper into the Everglades. Finally, here's a real doozy: a shell game called "Miami 21" -- never submitted to voters -- promises to rehabilitate blighted areas including parts of downtown for just $3 billion (hehe), mixing admittedly needed infrastructure improvements with highly dubious projects like a new stadium for the bottom-of-the-barrel Florida Marlins and an electric streetcar system that's likely to be as successful as Metrorail. Big Dig, here we come.

One possible brightish spot, at least, is that the notorious Gang of 3, Congressional GOP hacks Lincoln Diaz-Balart, his brother Mario, and to a lesser extent their gal pal Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, now face their toughest Democratic challengers ever, and could get trounced as part of a Congressional Republican rout this November. Yet South Florida's Democratic Representatives, Kendrick Meek and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, aren't lifting a blessed finger to help, so across-the-aisle cozy have they all become. And so we're back to the circular firing squad. Our Dems may well pick up a few more seats in the legislature this fall, but they're far from likely to take the state back, and the presidential-primary fiasco they've helped bring about could sink all our once bright hopes of routing the Republicans who've hijacked this country. Whatever -- despite the disasters they've inflicted on all of us these past seven years, current polls show Flori-duh all too likely to be McSame country, anyway.

Oh, well. At least, as I write this, it's 85 degrees, gently breezy, and gloriously sunny, and not even cracking 50 in my old stomping grounds, New York City. After all -- at least until the next Katrina -- you've gotta love that banana republic weather...