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Oh, Florida! For our Puerto Rican evacuees, a primer on Florida politics

Posted April 29, 2018 6:07 p.m. EDT

The other night when I got home from work, Turner Classic Movies was showing Casablanca again, and as always I got sucked in by the romantic triangle of Rick, Ilsa and Captain Renault. (Oh, and Victor. Hmm, I guess it's more of a love rhombus.)

Anyway, there's a scene in there that never fails to make me think of Florida. Two men are at the bar in Rick's, and one is telling the other one to be careful: "This place is full of vultures. Vultures ... vultures everywhere!"

And the whole time he's warning the guy about vultures, he's picking his pocket.

I thought of that scene last week when I read a story about how Florida politicians are swooping down on thousands of people who moved to Central Florida from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Are they bringing them humanitarian aid? Maybe providing them with blankets and food? And a cheap place to stay?

No, don't be ridiculous. They're begging them for votes, of course.

You see, not only did these folks flee to Florida, but they settled in the most political part of Florida, the I-4 Corridor, a.k.a. the "Highway to Heaven" for political candidates in statewide or national races.

The highway -- stretching from the sprawling suburbs of Tampa, through the fantasylands around Orlando to NASCAR fans' nirvana in Daytona Beach -- rounds up more than 40 percent of Florida's registered voters. Its residents cover the political spectrum from die-hard right-wingers to hard-core left-wingers to swing voters who switch their allegiance with each election.

The advertising dollars spent during the last presidential campaign should tell you just how precious this slice of the electorate is: In August 2016, in the heat of the presidential race, the Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne TV market ranked No. 1 in the entire nation in political ad spending. Second place went to the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota market.

I feel bad for the Maria evacuees. They lost their homes, they lost their power, the president threw paper towels at them -- haven't they suffered enough? Now they have Florida pols ringing their doorbells and accosting them at the mall -- and probably warning them about "vultures, vultures everywhere!"

Maybe it would be helpful if someone were to give them a short tutorial in Florida's political culture. After all, Florida politicians are not like politicians anywhere else. You want proof? In the 2016 U.S. Senate race, there was a candidate who said he had sacrificed a goat and drank its blood. When I asked him what the blood tasted like, he said, "Fame."

As a lifelong Floridian and someone who's been a registered voter here for 40 years, I feel qualified to offer a few pointers:

1. Florida politicians will do anything for publicity. For years there was a tradition that anyone running for political office in Florida had to go to the Possum Festival in Wausau and pretend to enjoy holding a possum up by its tail while grinning for the cameras. My favorite photo of ex-Gov. Jeb Bush shows him, during his 2002 re-election campaign, holding a possum that has the same grim expression that he does.

More recently, the smart PR move is to go wading around in the Everglades with a machete looking for pythons. Sen. Bill Nelson did it and so did Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. I am hopeful in lieu of a senatorial debate, Sen. Nelson will challenge Gov. Rick Scott to a python-off.

2. Florida politicians talk a lot about the people but don't ever listen to them. Generally speaking, you'll hear politicians mention "the people" more often than the average Morgan & Morgan TV ad. But when it comes to doing what "the people" want, forget it.

For a couple of decades Florida had a politically popular environmental land-buying program, but in recent years the Legislature repeatedly diverted the money in that fund to pay for other stuff. So in 2014, "the people" passed a constitutional amendment requiring them to bring back the environmental fund known as "Florida Forever." It got a far higher support -- 75 percent of the votes -- than any politician on the ballot.

Did the Legislature change its ways? Does an osprey get Chinese takeout? No they did not, not until they were sued, and even then they didn't put nearly as much in that pot as there used to be.

3. They would much rather listen to lobbyists. Four decades ago, a respected political think tank rated the Florida Legislature as one of the best in the country for its enlightened leadership and expert staff. In 1992, Florida's voters imposed term limits on legislators. None of them could serve more than eight years in office. The result: a revolving-door Legislature in which many House members spend years jockeying for Senate seats, and in which the most powerful group is now the lobbyists, who have no term limits at all. They not only write the legislation but also give the "sponsor" a set of talking points so they can answer questions.

4. They will always take your money, even if it's in a cookpot. Term limits accelerated the pace of fundraising for Florida legislators, and the sheer number of media markets mean any statewide race requires a major fundraising effort. And then there's the under-the-table money.

In 1999, for instance, Democratic House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson (yes, that was his name) and his wife were convicted of failing to report to the IRS more than $503,000 they received from casinos, nursing home companies, bond financiers, telecommunications companies and a major road paving contractor.

For years one of the craftiest politicians in the Legislature was Democratic Sen. W.D. Childers, a.k.a. "The Banty Rooster." Term limits finally pushed him out, so he ran for county commission in Pensacola and won. In 2003, he was convicted of accepting bribes, thanks in part to the testimony of another commissioner who ran a drive-through funeral home. Childers, he said, gave him thousands in cash stuffed in a cookpot.

5. The best way to get money from a Florida politician is to give him something in return, like a helicopter ride. Or a building name.

In 2015, an agricultural giant called Alico gave a bunch of Republican legislative leaders a free helicopter ride over the Everglades, then made donations to their political action committees. Voila, they voted to fund a program that would have yielded Alico a contract worth more than $120 million over 11 years. Perhaps they should have given Gov. Scott something, too -- he vetoed the funding.

Then there was U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, the longest-serving member of Congress. Over and over his name was put on buildings and other facilities around the Tampa Bay area -- even Tampa Bay Water's gigantic reservoir -- as a way to entice him to steer federal funding to the project, or to thank him for having done so.

Then, after he died, news broke that while he was in office, Young had fathered a child out of wedlock. With his secretary. While he was married to his first wife. And then after they divorced, he basically erased his first family from his official history. Suddenly having that name on all those facilities didn't seem like such a great idea.

Anyway, there you have it. A primer for dealing with Florida pols. I hope it helps. Remember, give them a building or some cash in a cookpot and you might get their attention. You can list it in your expense book as "vulture bait."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.