By DEBORAH O'NEIL, ADAM C. SMITH, BILL DURYEA and TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2000
They are kingmakers and heartbreakers.
They may not know it, but the 2.7-million voters along the I-4 corridor from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach could determine our next president. People across the country will cast their ballots, but some votes count more than others.
Al Gore expects to win southeast Florida. George W. Bush counts on southwest and north Florida. The state's mid-section, nicknamed for its well-traveled and much-cursed interstate, is the battleground.
That's why Bush visited Orlando on Saturday, Tampa on Friday and Clearwater two weeks ago. That's why Gore celebrated Labor Day in Tampa and will be in St. Petersburg Monday.
In this part of the state, there are nearly as many Democrats as Republicans, yet most are unbound by party affiliation. Most moved here from somewhere else.
There is the community of psychics in Volusia County and the commuters griping about growth in Orlando. There are the mega-garage people in Polk and the socialist farmer in Plant City. Good luck fashioning a stump speech that appeals to them all.
We begin in the east, and work our way home.
Daytona: A ex-sin city
I-4 doesn't quite run into the Atlantic. The concrete starts at Daytona Beach, at that stretch of sand and neon-lit asphalt that became America's spring break haven.
Now Daytona, with its oversized Harley hogs, jiggly women and drinking, lots and lots of drinking, finds itself in conflict. Forces are at work, evil forces to some, to make this place, bah, family friendly.
Take this past spring. The Volusia County Commission had the audacity to ban cars and pickups from a 1-mile stretch of Daytona Beach. Why? They were concerned about endangered turtle nests.
"This used to be a great town," says Patrick Rowley, a 31-year-old beach resident. "Used to be if you'd go drinking you could just come out of the bars, pass out on the beach and sleep there. In the morning you'd wake up and get in your car and go. Now it's illegal to do that."
Some business owners are trying to change with the times. On Atlantic Avenue, outside Tudyand Rob Tabasky's beachware store The Sand Box, the sign reads: Welcome Families.
On a Tuesday afternoon, a small radio behind the cash register is tuned to Rush Limbaugh, on Daytona's WNDB-AM 1150. Tabasky is the Republican of the household, but it's Mrs. Tabasky, a 42-year-old Democrat, who listens.
"One of the tactics of liberal Democrats," Limbaugh is saying, "is to pit groups of Americans against each other."
Mrs. Tabasky will wait until after the debates to decide who gets her vote, but her husband already knows. Tabasky, 45, is for Bush. The Clinton economy, he says, is "horrible."
Wearing clogs and shorts, he gets up from his desk in the back of the store and does quick calculations on the adding machine at his wife's desk.
"As they say inflation has been relatively low, I've been experiencing approximately a 12 percent increase in costs per year for the last six years," Tabasky says. "The reason I say the economy is horrible is because of the secret inflation that's going."
Take I-4 out of Daytona, leaving the hyper-charged commercialism, and head for the opposite side of Volusia County. There you find just that -- the opposite -- roads rolling for miles, pines and oaks, farmer's fields and the occasional cow. Tucked in this western thicket is Cassadaga, a settlement of psychics and spiritual mediums.
The Cassadaga Hotel at the center of the village bears this banner: Book Your Millennium Reading Now.
"We have spirits here," says Carol Taylor, who works at the hotel. "We can sense them. We know they're here."
In the neighborhoods off Cassadaga Road, old Florida bungalows with tin roofs stand up close to narrow lanes lined with chinaberry trees. One yard is chained off with the warning, "Slow / Ghost Xing."
"It's the town time forgot," says psychic Mary Lou Cooley. "People get along, and here we are in the middle of the Bible Belt."
Cooley calls herself a "bleeding heart liberal." So it was hardly to her delight when she read the future and it came up Bush. "The cards told me Bush was going to win. I'm hoping I'm wrong."
Not everyone comes to Cassadaga to commune with spirits. Jim and Charlotte Hires restored a 115-year-old Florida cracker house on Stevens Street 18 years ago. Today confederate and Carolina jasmine creeps up their house and a magnolia tree arches over their yard.
At 86, Hires has never lived anywhere but Florida. On a hot day, he drags a plastic lawn chair out of the shade and plants it where the sun can hit his face.
"I got to have my sunshine," he says. "It's healing stuff."
They believe families ought to raise their children with values and churches ought to stay out of government. They're Gore supporters.
"He's talking for the people," Hires says. "He's against these hospitals and HMOs, and so am I."
Gore's appearance on Oprah won over Mrs. Hires.
"He dropped the mask," says Mrs. Hires, 83. "He was more sincere than I ever dreamed he could be."
Back on the coast off New Smyrna Beach, the evening is warm. In the amber light of his boat's cabin, Monroe Lamar Fryer II leans against the bunks and contemplates the future. He lives on the 36-foot Gulfstar motor sailer with his wife, teenage son, their Dalmatian, Cooter Brown, and their shelty, Molly.
"Florida's theory is: Let's get all those Yankees down here spending money on stupid things," Fryer says. "I figure New Smyrna in a couple more years, I won't want to live here."
He's a seventh-generation Floridian, goes by "Bubba" and doesn't like what he sees happening, not only in New Smyrna, but in the entire state. Too many Yankees. The worst ones are from Ohio.
He has a test to figure out where you're from. What's your favorite lunch? Caesar salad? Turkey? Ham and cheese? Go home. You aren't native.
His favorite? "Chicken fried steak smothered in sausage gravy."
Those Northerners, they don't care about the communities, the beaches, the water, he says, yet the government keeps luring them here. It's only a matter of time before they come after the Smyrna Marina, where he and a half-dozen other families live on their boats like one big family.
"They want it to be a little line of pink and pastel little shops selling T-shirts three for $10," Fryer says.
A registered Democrat, Fryer will probably vote for Gore.
Much of New Smyrna already has become what Fryer so dislikes: quaint, cute and pastel. Homespun shops and newish streetscaping designed to look old-fashioned. At the end of Flagler Avenue, the gateway to the beach, the air is banana-coconut sweet, a tourist's delight.
Then again, if Fryer doesn't like tourism and communities with a fake facade, New Smyrna is small potatoes compared to the behemoth to the southwest. All he has to do is hop on I-4 and get off when the traffic gets unbearable.
Orlando: Cursed by growth
You know you've arrived in the sometimes surreal world of greater Orlando when the traditional billboards no longer suffice. Here the highway signs offer revolving pitches, one moment for a roller coaster, the next for a grand new restaurant. (Everything is grand.) If you look hard amid the new subdivisions in Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties, you come across breathtaking lakes surrounded by bearded oaks and rolling hills. You see cheesy 40-foot tall skulls just down the road from Barney's New York, where pocketbooks are marked down to $1,400. You meet people who spend more than $100 a month on toll roads -- and still their daily commutes grow longer and longer.
You find people like Diego Serafini, a white-haired grandfather, who on a recent afternoon in Kissimmee waxes eloquent about the state of America. He is dressed as a Medieval peasant.
"Life is good. Everything's going great," he gushes in front of the massive Medieval Times castle on U.S. 192 in Kissimmee. Tourists come here to chow on chicken and ribs while watching knights fight "to the death."
Serafini, in his puffy white shirt, faded woolen vest and sandals, is part of the army of low-wage employees who keep the service economy humming here. He's not much interested in political change.
"The economy's thriving, and Bush wants to give away everything but the kitchen sink with tax breaks. It doesn't make sense," the 76-year-old Serafini says. "Gore's good for the economy."
Unemployment is virtually non-existent in and around Orlando, where Disney no longer defines the increasingly diversified economy. You can't go anywhere without coming across new subdivisions, road projects or new shopping centers.
Amid this boom, though, especially for people who have lived here more than a few years, there is uneasiness, people worried that their quality of life is endangered.
What are the most pressing issues this election season? Most mention increasingly overcrowded schools and clogged roads. National issues are secondary.
"I don't have a sense of how it translates to the presidential race, but people in my district don't want to lose their sense of community and identity," says Republican Teresa Jacobs, who unseated an eight-year incumbent on the Orange County Commission this year, running on a platform calling for better growth management.
If it weren't for local concerns, 49-year-old Susan Cross says she might not even go to the polls in November. She likes Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bill Nelson, but with John McCain out of the presidential race, she can't muster any enthusiasm for the presidential choices.
"Protecting abortion rights is important to me, so I hesitate to vote for Bush. But I have a real credibility problem with Al Gore. He's seems perfectly nice, but I just don't believe him," she says.
Mrs. Cross, a database technician at Siemens Westinghouse, is part of the area's burgeoning high tech work force, but after 17 years in the area, she's thinking about leaving. Only a few years ago, she left southeast Orlando for Seminole County after her neighborhood began sprouting more and more signs in Spanish and her neighborhood stores had fewer and fewer employees who spoke English.
She thinks the Orlando area is losing its soul.
"Anywhere you go, you run into traffic. The new roads aren't keeping up with the growth," she says, leaving one of the countless restaurant chains near the University of Central Florida. "I used to live in south Florida until I watched it change into a place I didn't want to live anymore. Now I'm feeling the same vibrations here."
Busy toll roads crisscross the region, bypassing mile after mile of shadeless strip centers around Orlando. Most roads out of downtown eventually lead to tidy new subdivisions where citrus groves, cattle ranches or pines used to stand.
"I live 6 miles from here, and sometimes it takes me 30 minutes to get to work," says Harriet Blackwell, 46, who owns a fabric store in tiny downtown Ocoee, in west Orange County.
Downtown Ocoee, which includes a citrus packing plant and not much else, has essentially been lost amid a new mall, the new shopping plazas and assorted developments crammed with stucco homes. Mrs. Blackwell doesn't think much of this growth.
Without much enthusiasm, she'll back Bush because she couldn't support anyone connected with Bill Clinton. What she really wants are political leaders who can tackle the issues most relevant to her: declining schools and unchecked growth.
Veer southwest to a former Osceola County cow pasture to find the small town of Celebration, where Disney has manufactured quality of life with a vengeance.
Buyers are flocking to this 5-year-old community, paying at least $300,000 to live in a town of front porches, hidden garages and pedestrian-friendly streets dotted with chatting neighbors.
"I've lived here 21/2 years, and I still think to myself almost every day that this has to be too good to be true. My children can see the EPCOT fireworks every night from the bedroom. Can you imagine," says Dena Egan, a bubbly mother of three who moved from Chicago.
"The beauty of it is really the people. Everybody came here with the same values and goals. Neighbors help each other, they know your children and watch out for them."
Mrs. Egan stands outside a food market in Market Square, as easy-listening jazz wafts from the downtown speakers and teens skate around the lake. Every few moments, she greets neighbors passing by.
She grew up a Democrat, but will vote eagerly for Bush. "I just have a problem with all the coverups, the dishonesty and lack of moral values in the Clinton administration."
Down the street in Max's Cafe, 52-year-old computer programmer David Bryan, a recent transplant from Los Angeles, says he's fed up with the Democrats cozying up to Hollywood; he doesn't see the party standing for much any more. But Bryan is gay, and he's not sure he can back the Republican Party.
"I have trouble voting for a party that has so much hate in it," says Bryan, who is building a $900,000 home in Celebration with his partner. "I still remember that speech (attacking gays) that Pat Buchanan gave at the 1992 Republican convention.
"This election is a dilemma for me. I don't know what I'm going to do."
Back on I-4, heading west, it's only a few miles from Celebration into rural Polk County. It might as well be halfway around the world.
Polk-East Hillsborough: In between
If you leave the interstate at Highway 33 and head north in the direction of Polk City and the Green Swamp beyond, you quickly pass Po Folks Drive, followed by the Mud Boggin track and the North Forty mobile home park.
Look to your right and you see the wall of Mount Olive Shores North on Motorcoach Drive, so named because the most dramatic architectural detail of the new homes behind the wall is their garages.
They are not garages, really, but huge motorports, high enough and deep enough to accommodate a 40-foot motor home. And every home has one.
In Polk County, citrus and phosphate are on the decline, but the garages are growing.
Ron and Marsha Payne bought their home, the one without wheels, in January. They spent $51,000 for it. Their other home, the one that gets 9 miles to the gallon, lists for $247,000.
The Paynes left Cincinnati after Ron took a generous buy-out from Procter & Gamble, where he was an assembly line mechanic. He was a union president, but he's a registered Republican, as is Mrs. Payne. Their politics fit their new home county as snugly as oranges in a tissue-lined gift box.
With varying degrees of certainty, they're voting Republican in November. It is not that they feel so passionately about Bush (they were McCain supporters), but that Gore is personally and politically offensive to them.
Payne: "He's just fake. It's like he went to classes for all these things."
Mrs. Payne: "He just wants to give all our money away."
There are Gore supporters in Polk County. There's the black funeral home owner in Lakeland who notes that he's the only viable business in his neighborhood. And there's the beer-drinking, golf-dreaming guy in Mulberry who was giving his lawn mower a rest one recent afternoon.
Even in a conservative county where a former sheriff is the head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, there are plenty of people who don't give a hoot about what Bill Clinton did while he was on the phone and who care a whole lot that the national economy is humming along like a Peterbilt engine.
But this is not Gore country, no matter that more than half of Polk County's 241,604 voters are Democrats. They come from a long line of Yellow Dogs, distrustful of liberals, Northern liberals in particular. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis never had a chance in Polk County.
In the last three presidential elections, Polk has favored the Republican. In the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, the county even spurned Lawton Chiles, who was raised in Lakeland, in favor of Jeb Bush.
Polk County once was known as a bellwether for the state. That's when its two main industries, citrus and phosphate, dominated the state economy. Back then, the county called itself Imperial Polk. It exported more citrus than all of California and more than a quarter of the world's phosphate.
That was before the bad freezes pushed citrus farther south. Before slumping phosphate prices forced mine closures. That was before Disney and banking centers, before malls and multiplexes. Polk is no longer king, and it's record at the polls indicates it's no longer a kingmaker.
Economic uncertainty and increasingly visible government is growing a bumper crop of contrarians.
"Democrats want to be your nanny, and Republicans want to be your daddy. It's unconstitutional, and it's annoying," says Carl Strang, a Libertarian who would still be Republican "if the party hadn't wimped out on the Contract With America."
Heading west on I-4 into eastern Hillsborough County, the peripheral blur is a pastiche of roadside attractions -- the crash-landed plane, the dinosaur -- manufactured homes and massive distribution centers, disgorging endless truckloads of auto parts and furniture suites destined for stores in pricier zip codes, where the parking lots are filled with Volvos not Ford pickups.
Six lanes of fresh asphalt suck traffic along too fast for drivers to take in the migrant workers bent over the ankle-high strawberry plants. If they never got off the highway, they'd never see the Army Navy supply store with the spray-painted alligator holding a machine gun, or the Buy-Here-Pay-Here car lots with the drooping pennants and the overly optimistic sales pitches.
"The economy doesn't affect me too much," says Noma Glusica, the owner of Family Motors, one of those car lots on Highway 92 in Plant City. "I sell to people who don't have any money anyway."
For 13 years, Glusica, a fit woman with teased blond hair, has made a go of a business that depends on people whose work ethic she doesn't admire all that much.
"I'm tired of these women who work a little bit, have a bunch of kids who all have different fathers, and then get a tax refund," she says. Glusica's only reward, she says, is when those same people use their tax refunds to buy a car from her.
Glusica has come to the conclusion that the country is riding the back of the middle-class. The poor don't pay taxes, she says, and the rich have loopholes.
"There should be no income tax, just a national sales tax," Glusica says. "You buy a dollar, you pay a dime. If they did that they'd have more money than they could shake a stick at. But they won't do that, there's too many lawyers and CPAs in Washington."
You find a lot of people in the heart of the state who feel like Glusica, that they are being eaten alive by an economy that seems to be making a lot of other people rich. And no one hears them scream.
A few miles north, 47-year-old Karl Butts, perhaps the only Hillsborough farmer who is a registered member of the Socialist Workers Party, walks the rows of his chinese eggplant and worries about microscopic mites and money-grabbing middlemen who add no value to his produce but manage to get a cut anyway.
"Trying to make a living farming, you get a true picture of the chaos of the market system and how it impacts your ability to budget because you have no idea what your income will be," Butts says.
The government -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- props up sugar prices, he says, but does nothing for the farmer who can't afford a lobbyist.
Back in Lakeland, in a part of town that gets precious little attention from politicians, Essau Joe Coney got tired of people not listening.
So Coney, owner of Coney Brothers Funeral Home, put up a sign. Suddenly he was all over the news.
On a recent Monday the sign read: "The White mothers of white children at Lincoln and Rochelle are stealing our black heritage."
Coney's business sits directly across the street from the Rochelle School of the Arts, a magnet K-8 school that was formed in 1992-93 as part of the county's desegregation plan. The year before, the school had been 66 percent black, reflecting the complexion of the neighborhood around it.
"Rochelle, that was our school," Coney says. "They took it over. There's nothing in this county that speaks to blacks."
In a light gravelly voice, Coney explains who "they" are by pointing out the window of his darkened sanctuary at the parade of cars in and out of the school's parking lot.
"Nice vans, Navigators, SUVs," Coney says. "Those are white people driving them. They don't even like us. They won't be buried in the same cemetery with us."
Recently, Coney turned his sign to the presidential race: "If you want more -- vote for Gore."
Probably not in Polk.
Tampa Bay: A little of everything
From Mile Marker 1 on I-4 in Hillsborough, you can see two of the many sides of the Tampa Bay area. To the south is Ybor City and its promise of upscale stores and restaurants. To the north are blighted shotgun houses and a neighborhood walled off from the shiny success.
The highway ends here, but the political corridor reaches all around Tampa Bay, to the gulf.
At the West Tampa Sandwich Shop, the political talk starts before the sun rises. The county Democratic chairman greets a Republican candidate for state attorney who is working the room.
Everyone knows everyone else, and regulars are at their regular tables, with the red-and-white checked plastic tablecloths. Near the door are Juan Morales Sr., 70, and Greg Perez, 66, native Floridians who worked at the same sheet-metal plant for years, and Leo Sardinas, 74. They slip easily between English and Spanish.
To support anyone other than a Democrat for president is unthinkable. "There's just something about him I don't like," Morales says of Bush.
Two tables away, Tom Gibbs ignores the catcalls as he argues for Republicans in general and Bush in particular. Gibbs, 60, owns Tampa warehouses and recalls tougher times in the '70s when he couldn't lease them. He has put two kids through college. A conservative, he distrusts big government and supports tax cuts and self-reliance.
"I think George W. has the right ideas," Gibbs says. "The press does a hatchet job on Bush every chance they get. He says "subliminable.' I can't even say it."
Finally, Carl Hinson can't take it. Voices rise as the 40-year-old Tampa lawyer and the warehouse investor square off. Hinson says this election is about Gore and issues, not Clinton and impeachment.
"Ask everybody else in here whether they are better off than they were eight years ago," Hinson says. "All I know is Florida should be a slam dunk for Bush, and it's not."
The decibel level is considerably lower across the bay at the Top of the World, where the Bush brothers visited more than a week ago. The low-rise, unpretentious condominiums appear stuck in the '70s. The arch at the entrance and the large globe in the empty fountains are relics from the past.
The 10 retirees gathered in a rec center for a philosophy club meeting reflect Tampa Bay politics: generally moderate, independent and unwilling to be defined by their political party labels: five Republicans, three Democrats and two independents.
That nearly mirrors the electorate at Top of The World, which has 10,000 residents and three voting precincts.
The price of prescription drugs is a hot topic. Mary Kowalchuk, a Republican who is older than 80 and has lived at Top of the World for nine years, says she had stopped taking her medicine for osteoporosis. The price for 30 pills had risen from $60 to $66, and the expense was affecting her lifestyle.
"Medicine is always more available for the poor and the wealthy," says Kowalchuk, who plans to vote for Gore. "It is the middle class that gets the pinch."
The condominium complex was once the largest Republican precinct in the country before it was divided into three.
In this group, there is little sentiment for large tax cuts like those proposed by Bush. Most of the seniors were more interested in using the federal budget surplus to reduce the nation's debt.
They are divided over how to address Social Security. Some support Bush's plan to let younger workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts.
Bob Reis, the 69-year-old chairman of the club, says he has made higher returns from his 401k account than Social Security.
"A person will be able to take their own money, learn how to invest it," says Reis, a Republican who plans to vote for Bush.
A few are not impressed by Bush or Gore and find little difference in their positions.
"Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee," says Philip Morabito, an 83-year-old Democrat who will vote for Gore anyway.
Top of the World represents the old Tampa Bay. Trinity represents the new.
Covering 8,000 acres in southeast Pasco County that were pasture a decade ago, Trinity just won its own address from the U.S. Postal Service this summer. Conceived by developer and eye surgeon James Gills, it is expected to have more than 15,000 homes when it is completed in 2010.
When Clinton first elected in 1992, the corner home owned by Rick and Jean Herny with the Volvo station wagon in the driveway wasn't built. The couple bought their house in Trinity Oaks seven years ago and are proud of their neighborhood, where homes typically sell for $150,000 or more and many feature landscaped yards and screened pools.
Mrs. Herny is one of the voters most sought after by Bush and Gore. She is 37, has a 4-year-old and commutes an hour to her job as a legal secretary in downtown Tampa. A registered Democrat, she says she is undecided, but leaning toward Gore.
The Herny's are particularly concerned about education. They are debating whether to send their son to private or public schools, and they worry about whether public schools have performance and discipline standards that are high enough. They like the sound of Bush's tax cuts, and Herny is especially skeptical about Gore's spending plans.
"Where is he going to get all of the money?" asks Herny, a senior service manager for Volvo who is not registered to vote.
Yet Mrs. Herny doesn't want to jeopardize the country's prosperity. "The economy is in good shape," she says.
Vea Flood, a Trinity Oaks retiree, is ready for a change.
Republicans like her make up just over half of the voters in the precinct that includes the Trinity developments, and Dole won comfortably here in 1996. Flood voted for Clinton in 1992 because she was concerned about the recession, but switched to Dole four years ago. She says she is disgusted by the Clinton impeachment scandal and will vote for Bush.
"He's kind of an unknown," she says, "but I'd like to give him a chance."
* * *
So it would seem a simple matter. All Bush and Gore (or, Gore and Bush) have to do is win the hearts of this completely homogenous group:
The psychics in Cassadaga, the businessman on the strip in Daytona, the commuter living way, way, way outside Orlando, the mega garage folks in Polk, the socialist farmer in East Hillsborough, the philosophy club at Top of the World and the commuter couple in Trinity.
Plus everybody in between.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire