At a Three Kings Day Festival on January 5, in Kissimmee, Florida, the line for free toys snakes around the edge of a dais, along a pond, and down to the road, as some 100 families in the queue zigzag around mud patches and swampy soil. A local Spanish-language radio host entertains over a microphone, and vendors hawk everything from alcapurrias to Puerto Rican flags to health insurance. Several young people with clipboards in hand register voters. By late afternoon, the local politicians will descend on the festival, courting the community and making promises.
The Latinx voters whom Democrats are after on this sunny day are the newcomers to Florida (more than three million since the last census), the Independents (28 percent of registered voters here), and the Floridians who didn’t vote at all in 2016 (4.6 million).
Glarivettzy Silva, a 24-year-old Puerto Rican who moved to Florida three years ago, and Bruce Eckenrode, a 26-year-old South Carolinian who moved here a year ago, are all three.
Both are registered to vote—Silva as a Democrat; Eckenrode as an Independent—but neither voted last year. “I just didn’t like either candidate,” says Eckenrode. Silva concurs.
Silva works at Dunkin’ Donuts and jostles her toddler in her arms as we speak. Eckenrode is a line cook at Texas Roadhouse, and as they slowly open up, both sound like Democrats. Silva complains about corruption that is coming out during the impeachment. Eckenrode complains of the “1 percent that benefitted under Trump.” Silva, who is on Medicaid, worries about Trump’s health care policy.
“Climate change is the biggest issue for me,” says Eckenrode. “And Trump just basically ignores it.”
Then Silva surprises me. “A little, I agree with Trump on immigration,” she says. “For example, I know that it’s wrong what he’s doing with the Mexicans coming over the border, but, in a way, he’s right. There are a lot of vandals and criminals around here, and the biggest percentage is Hispanics.” She says she doesn’t think kids should be separated from their parents, and “the wall is a waste of time,” but she thinks he “has the balls to tackle immigration.” She puts a plus in his column for that.
“I agree with Trump’s ideology but not his execution,” says Eckenrode. “Those are basically concentration camps,” he says, referring to the detention centers. “He is going in the right direction with immigration, but he’s going about it the wrong way.”
On the ground in Florida, January 2020, it’s a new decade, a new election season, and a brand-new tangled web of shifting demographics and loyalties. Florida, of course, is one of the swing states over which both parties are fiercely fighting.
After several weeks of crisscrossing the state to talk with voters, I got some sense of the voters Democrats are chasing.
Yes, it is rife with die-hard Trumpers—and I spoke to many of them, so I do not intend to downplay their numbers—who dismiss impeachment and corruption charges as irrelevant and fall into line with a zombielike glaze in their eyes and “witch-hunt” on their lips, but it is also peopled by voters who just aren’t sure. They sit on their lanais, lean back in their chaise longues, and fold their arms across their chests in a challenge to the Democrats: “Show me what you’ve got.”
Florida is theirs to lose—and with its 29 electoral college votes, it’s a prize worth fighting for.
On the surface, Florida’s 2016 electoral map looks like most such maps. The urban areas are dark blue; the rural, deep red. But fast-forward to 2020, and those rural areas are shrinking, as sugarcane field by citrus field, pasture by swamp, the state reconfigures itself into one giant suburb. And remember, by 2018, suburban voters were turning away from the GOP, with 32 out of 69 suburban Republican strongholds being handed to the Democrats.
Approximately 20 percent of Florida voters were Latinx in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Though some of those—older Cubans, for example—lean right, their offspring appear less loyal to Republicans. Complicating matters, since the 2016 election, 30,000 to 58,000 Puerto Ricans have settled in Florida on the heels of Hurricane Maria. (We all know that photos of Trump tossing paper towels to Puerto Rican residents without electricity or water went viral; we also know—unlike Trump—that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and when they’re on the mainland, they can vote in the presidential election. Trump’s opposition to Puerto Rican statehood may further predispose Puerto Ricans to vote against him.)
In Florida, the population is projected to reach almost 22 million in 2020, a jump from 20 million in 2015, according to World Population Review. These newcomers represent a game change in a state where Trump won the popular vote by the slim margin of 1.2 percent and Obama carried the state in 2012 by 1 percent. True, in 2018, Florida elected a Republican governor, and former Republican Governor Rick Scott beat Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in the Senate race by 10,000 votes, but the demographic shifts in the state, the enfranchisement of former felons, a full-court press on college campuses, and some strategic decisions about minority outreach by state Democrats after the 2018 election could flip this state Trump won by just under 130,000 votes.
To get a proper sense of the lay of the land for Democrats down here in Florida, readers need a foil: the retired resident who colored huge swaths of the state blood-red in 2016 and swears they’ll do the same in 2020.
Enter Charlie Lenny, 93, who lives in Sarasota. (Disclaimer: My mother used to date him. Elaboration: She volunteered on both Obama campaigns. Understatement: Things were fraught.)
Lenny lives on a cul-de-sac in a gated community of low-slung stucco homes built circa 1985. A red Cadillac sits in the driveway, a few once-tended bushes line the sidewalk, a pair of mourning doves coo in the thin shadow the roof casts.
When I knock, Lenny, less mobile than he used to be, calls for me to come on in. He sits in an easy chair dressed in khakis, a grey shirt, and suspenders and has his walker, his water, his Coke, his iPad, his phone, his remote, and his book within easy reach.
We jump right in.
First off, he tells me he votes. In every election. “Always have,” he says. “Always will.”
That is true of 82 percent of voters over 65 in Florida.
In 2016, Lenny also marched lockstep with most of those in his precinct, which went for Trump with just over 50 percent of the vote. This is not too far from how Sarasota County as a whole voted: 54 percent Trump, 42 percent Clinton.
Lenny, a retired engineer who moved to Florida from the east side of St. Louis—“Now it’s all black,” he tells me—has always voted Republican. His grown daughter and son do the same.
“I not only voted for Trump, but I gave him $400,” he says. He likes what Trump says about money, how he tried to get the United States a better trade deal with China. “Just the fact that he was giving attention to our international money situation, well, I never heard of anybody before who worried about how much China was beating us up on tariffs,” he says.
“What do you mean, ‘nobody’—” I start to say, but he interrupts.
“Well, there may have been, but I can’t remember it.”
He goes on. “Stock market’s at an all-time high, unemployment at an all-time low. This may just be coincidence, but it happened while he was president.” He goes on to complain that NATO nations are not paying their share of expenses, to extoll Trump’s business acumen, and to applaud his actions in Iran. “Murdering that bad general meets my approval.”
He interrupts his list of Trumpian accolades for a vignette: “Did your mother tell you about the time she says to me, ‘Are you going to vote for Trump again?’ and I say, ‘Yes,’ and she says, ‘Get out!’”
I affirm having heard of the breakup.
When I ask about health care, Medicaid, restrictions on preexisting conditions, he’s unfazed. “Health care hasn’t been on my mind at all. I don’t even know what Trump’s opinion is on health care.”
Like many of the Trump supporters I will talk to at a Mike Pence rally in St. Petersburg a few days later, impeachment holds zero interest for him. “Not watching it,” he says. “Dumbest thing the Democrats ever did.”
Mostly though, it’s the money that keeps him in Trump’s camp. “His financial success in the country is hard to beat, whether that is his accomplishment, I don’t know, but he’s getting credit for it.”
“Your mother used to criticize me and say, ‘Don’t you ever think about anything but money?’” He laughs, shrugs.
“I thought she told me at one point that you had changed your mind about supporting Trump?”
“At one point,” he says. “For 30 seconds maybe.”
Charlie Lenny, and the many other entrenched Trumpians I spoke to who echo these views remain unmoved by logic, data, or even self-interest.
But there’s wiggle room in other demographics.
One group ripe for courting lies at the other end of the voting-age spectrum, among college students in Florida.
Republicans recognize this and have twice tried to suppress the liberal-leaning campus vote. In 2014, the secretary of state tried to eliminate early voting polls on several college campuses across the state. (Interestingly, election code states explicitly that early voting is allowed in government-owned senior centers.) A federal court overturned the ban. As a result, in the 2018 midterms, 60,000 college students cast ballots on 11 campuses across the state. In a state where Trump won by 130,000 votes, these voters play an outsize role.
The Republican-led legislature came back at ’em in 2019 with an end run around the court ruling, sneaking in a new requirement that all early polling sites have a set number of non-permitted parking spots nearby, something pretty much no university—or densely populated urban center—has.
At a Florida College Democrats roundtable discussion in February, students asked visiting speaker Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight and, of course, 2018 gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, for advice on fighting this voter-suppression effort.
Abrams assured them their righteous indignation was well placed. “They know if this goes through, if we can restore to Florida college campuses the authority to hold those early voting locations, the outcome of 2020 belongs to Democrats in Florida.” Abrams reminded students of the three-pronged battle they needed to wage. “Fighting the legal side, fighting the legislative side, fighting the advocacy side.”
Florida’s League of Women Voters and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a nonprofit encouraging political activism on campus, have picked up the legal side, filing a lawsuit in support of the campus-based early voting sites.
A second voter-suppression battle involves former felons. In a 2018 referendum, voters gave the formerly incarcerated voting rights “upon completion of their sentences.” Thanks to Florida’s incarceration rate (eleventh-highest in the nation, according to the Sentencing Project), that’s somewhere between 1.4 and 1.6 million newly eligible voters.
But here’s the catch.
While most states that grant this right simply require that parole and probation be completed, Florida, in crafting language around implementation, decided that “completion” included this caveat: Court fines, fees, and restitution must be paid before registering. Leaving aside the very complicated task of tracking down whether one owes money, how much, and whom to pay it to, many simply cannot pay the fees that have added up and accumulated interest. The Tampa Bay Times put the number of felons “slowly chipping away at hundreds or thousands of dollars in obligations” at 80 percent of those 1.4 million. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who oversaw a legal challenge to the restriction, called it “an administrative nightmare” and insisted that those who were “genuinely unable” to pay needed a way to show this, quickly, so they could get a waiver to vote. Otherwise, this is basically a poll tax.
The state’s lawyers are fighting this. The thinly veiled strategy? Slow-walk this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and bank on resolution being forestalled until after the 2020 election.
No one knows how former felons will vote, but since the majority come from urban areas (traditionally blue), Democrats clearly see an opportunity here to get this demographic registered. Advocacy groups and the Florida Democratic Party, in their voter-registration outreach efforts, are already crisscrossing the state.
It is strangely difficult to get a distinct sense of place in Florida. I traveled from Key West, up through Miami and Palm Beach, cutting across the state through Orlando and Kissimmee, scooting up to Sanford and then over to Tampa and St. Pete before heading south to Sarasota. Those are the actual logistics, but the sensation of movement through space occurs exclusively when the windows are open, when wind ruffles the hair and the podcast gets harder to hear. Very little changes in the landscape. I travel wide, divided highways or boulevards that are difficult to cross, see parking lots and chain restaurants and big box stores that are nearly indistinguishable—the only wild card to occupy the imagination: “Publix or a Winn-Dixie, Applebee’s or a TGI Fridays”—and pass the rare pedestrian seeking a purchase by the side of the road.
The landscape runs on a loop. Gated communities link arms with more gated communities, and one travels past mile-long stucco walls with only Spanish roof tile and posh pool screens hinting at the greener grass on the other side. One spots a few indigenous live oaks, massive and glorious and dripping with Spanish moss, but most have been razed and replaced with palms equidistance apart in tidy rows. Wildlife—cranes, turtles, herons—follows the path of the poor, corralled in their own low-income communities on the outskirts, the fenced-in flood ponds and leach fields that edge these developments.
Still, there are spots in Florida—mostly central Florida—where this metamorphosis to exurb is still underway, where the friction between urban and rural, old-timer and newcomer, predictable voter and wild card is tangible.
This interests me.
And I found myself lingering for a week in Sanford, Florida (population 58,605). Sanford sits in Seminole County, just north of the hotly contested counties along the Interstate 4 corridor (the road that cuts through the center of the state, delivering drivers to the theme parks). In the 2016 presidential election, Seminole County residents were one percentage point apart, with Trump carrying the county by 3,529 votes. By 2018’s governor race, Tallahassee’s Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum edged out Republican Ron DeSantis in the county (though not the state, of course) by 3,558 votes—an almost perfect switch.
The county is 12 percent black, 22 percent Latinx, 60 percent white, 5 percent Asian, with the biggest population growth in the last 10 years occurring among Hispanics. In other words, the demographics hew pretty close to the state’s overall.
These are the numbers, but what does this look like on the ground, and what’s on voters’ minds there?
First, some background. The city nestles on the edge of Lake Monroe and was once a bustling commercial center for shipping agricultural products from central Florida to the coasts. Today, the lake is a way to attract new Floridians looking for an expansive water view without the price tag—or the ability to take a cooling dip, for that matter; alligators proliferate. The town spreads south along the lakeshore, and if one squints—details and edges blurred—Sanford’s main street could pass for Everytown America, circa 1920. The street is brick, the shops and restaurants open and thriving, the houses craftsman or bungalow.
Stop squinting, and the juxtaposition of old and new comes into sharp focus: Sanford is a place where the Colonial Room Restaurant lists fried bologna sandwiches on the menu next to fried green tomatoes with remoulade; where the Totally Yours Catholic gift shop stakes a claim among absinthe and craft beer bars; where trendy farm-to-table restaurants in the quaint downtown ultimately give way to the divided highways hosting shiny Walmarts and Best Buys; where the orange groves of the 1800s became the celery fields of the 1900s, became the slapped-up apartments for the theme-park workers in the 2010s; where author Zora Neale Hurston once lived; where Trayvon Martin died.
The Sanford Museum lies at one end of East First Street and offers a quick history lesson. On the surface, the backstory of a backwater town appears disconnected from the contemporary electoral landscape, but of course this long line of history—the demographic shifts, the turning points, the origins of segregation and enduring marginalization—that gets a place from here to there hovers over it, not like a cloud (the skies here are almost unbearably, relentlessly blue) but like a sheet on a line casting shade: a white sheet, eyes cut out.
The city was incorporated in 1877, during the reconstruction era. As city founder Henry S. Sanford cultivated his 140 acres of orange groves, he needed cheap labor—many of the earlier plantation slaves having fled—and brought in “sixty colored laborers” to work the land, according to The History of a Black Neighborhood by Altermese Bentley, in the Sanford Museum archives. “This was not met with approval from some of the local people, who said it was a ‘white man’s country.’” Mobs attacked and shot at the black workers, killing one and wounding many. To protect his laborers, Sanford brought them closer into town and created a settlement for “worthy colored people” to the east.
Sanford’s history also includes the incorporation of one of the first African American towns in Florida, Goldsboro, which was later folded into the city limits, in 1911. Tensions between white and black residents of the area have a long history.
Between 1882 and 1930, the Klan lynched 212 African Americans in Florida, the highest per capita of any state, according to Florida History Archives. Sanford had its share of lynchings (no museum display here, though), with a once famous, now forgotten case of a man accused and acquitted of breaking and entering a white family’s home in 1925. Rumors circulated that he had raped their three-year-old child, so when he arrived back in town after being acquitted in his Orlando trial, he was strung up, castrated, and then shot. No one was ever charged in his death. Other stories of the Klan’s presence in these parts abound. Most famously, a KKK mob went after Jackie Robinson in Sanford when he was down there for spring training in 1945.
Zora Neale Hurston, whose novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is required reading in most high school English classes these days, gets a corkboard display in the museum, which calls her their “best known resident.” Though she moved here when she was six and wrote her first book here, no statue or plaque or monument marks her existence in the city. Indeed, the house she lived in is vacant, boarded up and falling to ruin.
If you leave the past behind—as if!—and exit the museum to walk west, you’ll hit Sanford’s business hub. Here, over the course of several days, I interviewed shopkeepers, customers, pedestrians, parents on the playground, “parents” in the dog park, a local historian, a fisherman—pretty much anybody in a public space who’d give me the time of day.
This is not news but bears repeating: Everybody feels strongly about this election.
Yvette Comeau, 60, runs Maya Books & Music on East First Street in Sanford. She’s a Bernie fan and hates Trump but tries to keep it on the down low. When she gets a customer lauding Trump—“and I think it is usually a deep-rooted thing in history and tradition, where they typically say, ‘We’re Republican because we’ve always been Republican,’ and they’ve never actually thought about it”—she keeps her mouth shut.
To cheer herself up, on the heels of these conversations, she keeps a talisman in her top drawer. She pulls out a fuck trump T-shirt and holds it across her chest. She doesn’t wear it because she “doesn’t want an arrow through her heart,” and besides, she “got a lot of flak” during the last election when her shop was a drop-spot for Bernie literature. “People here tend to confuse socialism and communism,” she says and, as a small business owner who does not have health insurance because she can’t afford it, this really grates on her. Universal health care is a big issue for her.
The places she parts ways with Trump are the nuclear deal with Iran, climate change, immigration—“Do you not even have a soul?” she wants to ask the president—and, like so many who are put off by Trump, ethics. She clarifies, “When I say ‘moral,’ I’m not saying who he sleeps with. I mean the way he treats people in general.”
Further down East First Street is the Corner Café, owned and operated by Michael O’Brien Sr. The cafe is tiny—seven tables, a few ceiling fans, a clientele of regulars O’Brien greets by name. If this were Our Town, O’Brien would be the stage manager. He checks in with a group of customers who are prepping for a historical society meeting over coffee, questions a young woman who has been making herself scarce to find out she’s switched from the night shift, offers a round of freebie custard desserts in plastic shot glasses to all who are present.
I stick out, not from around these parts. Still, because this is my second lunch here (the food is delicious), O’Brien remembers my name and settles in at the table across from me to get my story.
I turn the tables. “What’s yours?” I ask and wonder if he wants to talk to me about politics.
“Sure,” he says, and then settles in to discuss a subject he will later declare off-limits in his chitchat reservoir. “Three things I can’t discuss in my restaurant: politics, religion, and, are you ready?”
“College football. Because those people are insane.”
This should not be misconstrued to mean, literally, no talking about politics, because O’Brien is clearly a news junkie and passionate about the subject, but he recasts the term: “We do talk philosophy,” he says. “Philosophy and philosophies.”
He’s done some serious “philosophical” musings on Trump, whom he dislikes, and taken the pulse of his clientele.
First off, as a small business owner, member of the Chamber of Commerce, and member of the town’s Economic Development Advisory Board, he is obviously attentive to the economy and says he would rank this issue as central to the customers with whom he is not talking about politics.
“And, I mean, listen, God bless ’em, man, you can’t argue the economy,” he says. “It’s red hot. If I had to rank the second thing, no question that he’s made it about himself: It’s Trump or no Trump. Number three is everything else.”
So, health care? Bernie’s free tuition? Climate change?
He shakes his head. Such topics rarely make it onto the table here. “They’re falling on deaf ears because Trump has got people so ginned up about him.” His personality issues just suck all the air out of the room. This is true of the Democratic candidates, too, he says. “The number of people that are discussing viable plans for health care, viable plans for investments and such, for how do we deal with the student debt situation, which is serious enough now that it is an economic factor. . . .” He trails off. Sighs. “Just not being discussed.”
He considers the reasons for this and circles back to Trump and his “hyperdynamic leadership style.”
Personally, he has a sneaking suspicion that Trump throwing his hat in the ring was a joke. This is that conspiracy theory—that last-laugh morality tale—that many readers will have heard before. It’s not clear that he really, really believes it, but maybe he kinda sorta does, or in any case, it’s got a self-flagellation element where the too-cocky Democrats get their comeuppance.
“I have a theory about this,” he begins, “as cockamamie as it can be, but I still can’t get it out of my head,” he says. “The Republicans get a dozen and half candidates in a stall, and they all spend a year beating the shit out of each other and giving each other ammunition . . . I can’t get the notion out of my head that Hillary called him and said, ‘Hey, Don, why don’t we have some fun with that Simpsons’ prediction.’” You know, the one that aired in 2000 and had President Lisa Simpson bemoaning the “budget crunch” she had inherited from President Trump. “Hillary said, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and run, Don? . . . I want you to rattle the cage and see if you can’t knock a few of those front-runners out so all I have to deal with is a third-rate candidate.’ So he went in there and started saying the most outrageous things, attacking Gold Medal mothers and fathers and saying women should be put in jail for abortion. . . . All of a sudden, he goes, ‘Wait a sec. This is fun. Lemme see how far I could push this.’ He still didn’t intend on being president. Remember, nobody thought that jackass was going to make it. . . . It got to the point where things were so, almost like Clockwork Orange, that you couldn’t. . . . ” He trails off. “And still, people drank it up.”
I am curious as to whether he has run across those who were Trump fans in 2016 but who, after seeing him in office, are less eager to vote for him now.
He shakes his head, says he hasn’t “met a single soul” who acknowledges rethinking their Trump vote.
He considers this. “It kind of feels like maybe what it might have been if you had been a member of the KKK,” he says. “They were eliminating the black scourge, and they were purifying the race and blah, blah, blah, blah. But then, of course, they all—well, not all, but a great many of them—realized how wrong-minded that is. And they just quietly left and never said anything else about it. It kind of reminds me of that dynamic. It’s like, ‘Oh, Jesus, I hope nobody remembers that I was on that bandwagon.’”
A few blocks away from O’Brien’s Corner Café, I run into Michael Johnson, 52, who gives a shrug of assent when I ask if I can interview him about his politics. He is sitting alone on the end of a jetty by Sanford’s marina, two fishing poles going, two plastic buckets beside him—one for bait, one for catch. Wind whips the waves of Lake Monroe, and the crappies aren’t biting. He has time to kill.
He tells me he is out here every other day—dialysis for his renal failure keeps him away on off-days—and now that he is retired, after 30-plus years as a trucker, he finds it peaceful. Indeed it is: A warm sun takes the edge off the wind, and the silence is cut only by the rustle of palm fronds on nearby trees. The peace gives him plenty of time to think; he’s got a few thoughts on the upcoming race.
First off, he says, he was not enthused by the 2016 election and cast his vote as a write-in for Michelle Obama. This time, though, he will vote for anybody who is not Trump. “He’s a crook and a slumlord. He didn’t want certain races to live in his buildings in New York. He is just a horrible individual.”
And he always votes: “I vote for president. I vote for senators. I vote for Congress. I vote for dog-catcher.”
The top three issues for him are climate change, the economy, and immigration. (Later in our conversation, he changes this, telling me that education—specifically disparities in education that negatively impact black children—is the biggest issue for him and, he thinks, the black community at large.) “I believe we have to have strong borders,” he says, but he chafes at Trump’s disparagement of Mexicans. “The Mexican people are the hardest-working group I know, and without them doing the work that most Americans don’t want to do, we’re really messed up.”
And Trump’s morality—or lack thereof—also gets his goat, especially when evangelicals continue to support him. “If you’re religious, I don’t know how you could have any dealings with this dude.”
When he talks issues, Johnson sounds like a Democrat. I point that out. He smiles but corrects me; he says he voted for the Bushes.
He has nothing to say about Biden, likes Sanders’s ideas but wants to see him “scale it back a little,” worries about Warren’s tax on the wealthy. Not because she’s wrong, he says. But, “you have to do it in a way that’s not going to turn wealthy people off from the Democratic Party.”
As the conversation wends on, and the lines get cast out and reeled in, and the bladderwort gets tangled on the line and then disentangled, and a fresh minnow baits the hook, we eventually get to the heart of why he’s stayed a registered independent. “Me, as a black man, well, the Democrats continue to court our vote, but once they get it, what’ve they done?”
This is when we get to the schools and the disparities in resources between predominantly black schools and predominantly white ones. The crappy schools in nearby Volusia County spurred him to move the few miles into Seminole County so his youngest kids, 11 and 16, could attend better schools—his youngest at a magnet middle school.
He never mentions Trayvon Martin, who died just up the road, but he’s under no illusions about the persistent residential segregation or racism—and the danger it poses for him and his family. “Every time I get in my car at night and drive somewhere, I fear I’m going to be pulled over for some reason and be harassed,” he says. He tells me that he has no criminal record, but fear keeps him armed. He shows me, opening his sweatshirt that somehow has interior straps holding a .45 in place. “The way this world is today, you can’t trust anybody, white, black, blue,” he says, tucks his gun back in, and picks up the pole where he maybe got a nibble to check the bait. He reels it in, recasts. “I know cops. I have dealt with police. Ninety percent are good, but 10 percent are no good. But you want to know the worst thing?”
“The worst thing is the 90 percent who know who those 10 percent are and do nothing.” He shakes his head, studies the water, the horizon line, the clouds heading this way. “I worry if my sons get arrested, they’ll get shot just because they speak their minds.” They’re like him, opinionated, he explains. He never forgets this. “I worry about it every day.”
Thirty-three miles south of where Johnson sits fishing in Sanford, along the Florida Turnpike in Osceola County, a giant billboard warns drivers prohibido olvidar (Never Forget). The text scrawls across the now-infamous photo of Trump tossing paper towels to Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Paid for by the Florida Democratic Party, the sign’s appearance coincided with multiple Trump and Pence appearances across the state during early January. The ad-buy is strategic; Osceola County has the largest Puerto Rican population in the state, and Hurricane Maria refugees bumped it up by another 22 percent.
Both Republicans and Democrats are hitting Central Florida hard, even this early in the game, recognizing the busting-at-the-seams population growth in Orlando and its surrounding area. Theme-park workers and others in the service industry who can’t afford rents in the city are creeping ever-outward in a search for affordable housing—and many of those workers are Latinx.
“Tourism is the industry that drives everything here,” says Alex Barrio, political director for Alianza for Progress, a Latinx progressive advocacy group, and a candidate for Florida State House of Representatives for Kissimmee’s District 43. As a result, Barrio says, wages “are very low and a lot of jobs don’t have health insurance.” Add to this a housing crisis and a median wage of $13.31 for these workers, he says, and “it’s really hard to find an affordable apartment.”
“The main issues [in Osceola] are bread and butter, or rice and beans,” says Barrio. “Affordable housing, jobs, health care, education.” But also, he says, the Puerto Rican voters want to be “treated with respect, are concerned about discrimination, are American citizens, and want people to recognize this when they come to the mainland.”
The big push will be to register these voters and make sure they turn up at the polls. Barrio isn’t speculating about which Democrat will come out ahead in the primary here but notes that the Hispanic community in Central Florida includes thousands of non–Puerto Ricans—and their agenda can differ.
For example, Venezuelans are waiting to be courted and, according to some I spoke with, their vote goes to the highest bidder. William Diaz, a MAS 100.7 F.M. host for the past 11 years, moved from Venezuela to Orlando 30 years ago.
He points out that of the 150,000 Venezuelans in Florida, about 39,000 of them are U.S. citizens. (Other estimates, such as a 2018 University of Miami study, put the number of residents as high as 200,000.) “My proposal is simple,” he says. “Whoever helps us, we might give them our vote.”
With this in mind, Republicans are capitalizing on the negative associations that Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Venezuelans have with the term socialism by using scare tactics whenever they can squeeze them in. “If you like Bernie Sanders, why don’t you move to Caracas?” Florida Senator Rick Scott demanded on CNBC in April, while Pence has hammered away at this in speeches and tweets: “The moment America becomes a socialist country, the moment America ceases to be America.”
For now, Diaz is biding his time.
Technically, he is a registered Democrat but, he says, “My party is called Venezuela.” That makes it simple for him: “Democratic candidate Bill Nelson did not give attention to us Venezuelans, so I personally endorsed Rick Scott.” Diaz shrugs. “I’m not going to switch parties, but if Donald Trump does to Maduro what he did to Suleimani, he gets my vote.”
To pull back the lens from the close-up of voters to the wide-angle, I spoke with Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, who explained that in the two previous elections, little organizing or registering of voters or indeed spending took place prior the general election. For example, of the $165 million the party spent, only $5 million was used for organizing prior to the general election. “I stepped in a little under two years ago and argued that the party needs to be working year-round,” says Penalosa, who insists that it needs more than a few months to lay all the groundwork and get staff and volunteers going. “Once we have a nominee, our goal is to have a campaign to hand over on day one.”
The new strategy likely arises from a post-mortem state Democrats did on the heels of the 2016 and 2018 election. From an outsider’s perspective this report, “Path to Power,” has some shocking recommendations—not because they’re radical but because they are so basic it’s hard to believe they weren’t happening. For example, the commission recommended “[hiring] experts to help craft and develop a strong message,” (really? Ya think?) and “[partnering] with a digital strategy firm to reach potential Democrats who have just turned 18 on social media through targeted ads.” (Again, of course!) Further, the party registered only 10,000 voters across the whole state in the months leading up to the election. While plenty of nonprofits registered far more than that, the groups are nonpartisan, so can’t plug Democrats the way the party can.
But the most stupefying aspects of the report come buried on page 14, “The Party should hire an African American Outreach Director,” commissioners suggest. And then this, “The party should hire a Latinx Outreach Director.”
The commission of 32 hand-wringing Democrats noticed that they forgot to pay attention to one-third of the state’s voters. The report recommends an early hire of a Latinx coordinator with a second one coming on for the general election.
Under Penalosa, this has already happened. “We’ve never had a field team more than a year out,” he says, noting that it has already raised approximately $7 million in the last year and has 97 people on staff with plans to add 40 more this month. Historically, he says, “Two million dollars kept the lights on and a staff of 12 to 15. That’s what the party was working with in the past.”
Aside from targeted outreach and hires, a big bump in digital ad spending, and a 24-hour voter hotline, Penalosa says the plan is to register 200,000 voters by November, compared to the 10,000 the party registered in 2015. At the moment, Penalosa says, it is averaging 220 new voters per day, compared to eight per day in June of last year. He’s committed to a “geometric ramp” that will steadily build up organizing efforts in the state.
Is this “enough to defeat this glitzy glam rally strategy of Trump’s [in Florida]?” he asks. Then he answers: “I think it is. The fact that we are able to organize and scale up now will pay dividends.”
Then he pauses. “This is the gamble.”
Karen Houppert is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, associate director of the Master of Arts in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and author of Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice.