Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Politics

Lack of diversity hurts local politics

Having heard for so long about the days of the Democrat-dominated Solid South, I recently dug up some old voter registration ledgers to see how solid it really was.

In a precinct based at Watley's Saw Mill, just east of downtown Brooksville — chosen only to provide a random sample — 647 new voters registered between 1948 and 1956. Nine were Republicans, which was actually more than I expected. Almost all of them listed their occupation as "retiree" and their "nativity" as states such as Ohio and New Jersey.

And, as testament to the persistence of independent political thought even in the era of red scares, a brave Lithuanian-American named S.G. Jaffe registered as a Socialist.

Still, our corner of the South was pretty darn solid.

So solid that people moving here from the north were often advised not to register as Republican because every election was decided in the Democratic primary. So solid that one particular Democrat — banker Alfred McKethan — had some say about who ran in those primaries and even more about how winners voted once in office.

Maybe McKethan's pull was exaggerated, as I've heard from time to time. Even so, I don't think anyone would say total control by one party is good for democracy.

Which brings us to the present — or at least the standard explanation of how we got here.

The trickle of Republican retirees arriving in the 1950s turned into a flood after Spring Hill opened in 1967. With the "southern strategy" Republicans won over conservative and racially biased voters. The party's organization has been superior on all levels.

The first Republican, Jim Stenholm, was elected to the County Commission in 1968. In 1991, the commission became all Republican for the first time. Two years later, the number of registered Republicans in the county passed the number of registered Democrats and in 1996, just a few decades after most offices were decided in Democratic primaries, the party didn't field enough candidates to hold a single one.

And now? The only two Democrats holding partisan office in the county — Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams and Tax Collector Juanita Sikes — plan to resign at the end of their current terms. With Republicans far outnumbering Democrats in number of candidates fielded (23-4) and holding a big countywide lead in registered voters (about 3,500), there's a good chance that after November not a single Democrat will hold elective office in Hernando County.

No, party affiliation doesn't matter as much here as in Tallahassee. Donations are smaller. Voters are more likely to be neighbors.

But wouldn't we be better served by a broader choice of candidates? Wouldn't it be healthy to have more thoughtful Democrats around to broaden the scope of political discussion?

Taxes. Republican have owned this issue locally at least since the peak of the boom, when, frankly, they had a point. We couldn't yet see it through the fog of speculation, but taxes were high enough to discourage prospective out-of-state home buyers and, it seemed, to provide a new work truck to every county employee who wanted one.

But now Hernando ranks near the bottom of counties statewide in total revenue collected per resident, according to the nonpartisan Florida TaxWatch. Could there be a sizable number of voters who are getting tired of bare shelves at libraries, run-down parks and the kind of neighborhood decay that could easily be contained by code enforcement?

Could a Democratic candidate successfully argue that four straight years of de facto tax cuts due to falling property values is enough — that it's time to stop the bleeding?

At least it might be nice to hear a few of them try.

And who is responsible for that declining property values?

As the recent bump in foreclosures reminded us, too much home building had a lot to do with it. Sure, many local builders only responded to the speculative market. But it's interesting to note that the builder who was most visible in promoting that market — who flew around the country pitching his homes to investors — is also the most politically powerful. I'm referring, of course, to Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the local Republican party and vice chairman of the statewide one.

How lame is the opposition, how tame is the public debate, when not a single Democrat has been able to take advantage of such an obvious liability?

That's especially true because the builders' influence with our all-Republican commission is steering policy in the wrong direction. I'm talking about eliminating impact fees, which amounted to the commission doubling down on the building industry, when, obviously, what we need is economic diversity.

Yes, as regular readers know, these are all positions I've advocated a time or two.

But this is not just about my political point of view but about the spirit of Mr. Jaffe — and I don't mean his socialism.

I mean his independent streak, which is stronger in this county than you might think. After all, nearly 28,000 voters aren't registered as Democrats or Republicans.

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