41st annual Fun Day and Possum Festival, Wausau • Leonard Parry has a possum in his pants. Most people — okay, all people — would be distracted by a marsupial rooting around in their trousers. But the 53-year-old newspaper delivery man, who is also wearing live possums on his head and shoulders, stays remarkably on point: "I fight for animals!"
Equally unflappable is U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is battling billionaire Jeff Greene for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Most people would flee Mr. Possum Pants — or at least fend him off with an industrial-size bottle of Purell. Meek, eager to connect with critters of all kinds, reaches out for Parry's pets: "Let me hold one!"
It's a revelatory moment, a rare genuine glimpse into a man who wants us to trust him with Florida's future.
Meek, as it turns out, suffers from Reverse Superman Syndrome: Put the Miami native in suit and tie and he becomes a cardboard politician, hemorrhaging charm, sway. During debates with his money-bagged archenemy, Meek lets Greene get under his skin, flustering him into a rigid, uncool stiff. But when he ditches the uni for khakis and a leisure shirt — or grabs a fishing pole and drops a line with his two kids — he is dynamic, real, voteable. He talks in a hip, self-aware cadence akin to Bill Cosby coercing kids to eat their pudding: "I've had possum croquette. It tastes goood."
I like Meek — half the time. But it makes me wonder: Why does he ever do the wonk thing?
That's life on the 2010 Florida campaign trail, where things are so constipated with artifice and lip service, where men so rarely remove the grotesque mask of needy, ambitious pleaser, it takes a dude like Mr. Possum Pants to help illuminate the voting landscape.
We're going to miss this Florida primary season, aren't we? Not the incessant poke-poke TV ads or the catfight "debates," but the Fellini-esque feel of it all. What a cast of characters! In the Democratic race for Senate, we have Greene, who pals around with that bastion of bad decisions, Mike Tyson, who moved here in 2008 and claims Floridian blood as if he were a Miccosukee. His opponent, Meek, might not be in the House if not for his mother and might not get to the Senate because of her. How Sophoclean!
In the Republican governor's race, we have a millionaire, Rick Scott, who pays people to cheer for him at rallies and asserts his ethical purity by boasting he was never even questioned by the feds in that massive Medicare fraud. And we have another guy, I forget who. Larry something, maybe.
The options are unsettling if you like good government. But if you also like a good story, and the taste of possum, come with me.
Beardall Senior Center, Orlando
Mildred Heinig is confused. The 92-year-old has been summoned by a mysterious caller to this shuffleboard mecca to meet a politician she couldn't pick out of a lineup.
"Who's Jeff Greene?" she says to no one in particular.
She is very loud.
"Are you Jeff Greene?!" she shouts at me.
Heinig is not unlike the inspiration for Mike Myers' Saturday Night Live skit "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman."
"Twenty minutes ago, I get a call that Jeff Greene's going to be here. And I still don't know who Jeff Greene is! Ha! Ha!"
When Greene finally walks into a bare, slightly sad all-purpose room, Mildred shakes his hand and says, "Hello, Rick!"
It's not easy to feel sorry for Greene, who lives in a mansion in Palm Beach, who used to throw parties with Hollywood hotties in what Vanity Fair called his Moroccan "love den," whose best man at his wedding was convicted rapist Tyson, and some of whose former employees describe him as a tyrant and a bully. (They're disgruntled, he says. Sounds like it.)
Unlike Meek, who is vastly different off the stump than on it, Greene is always Greene. His eyebrows arch in Mephistophelean pyramids; his patter is shell-game fast but oddly charming, as if he's picking teams for stickball. He exudes the overconfident air of a guy who's used to winging it, as if he's had the answers all along.
It's hard to imagine (okay, maybe twisted fun to imagine) this guy in the collegial Senate, serving on committees, referring to other members as "my friend from Arkansas." He's a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. So what's he doing running for Senate? Well, a lot of people confuse him with the other rich candidate, Rick Scott, who's running for governor. It occurs to me that maybe Greene is confused, too. Maybe he thinks he's running for governor.
Greene also has a vaguely condescending vocal tic in which he answers pointed questions — about being a carpetbagger, about his wealth blurring his view of blue-collar problems, about unemployment — by saying "Look . . ."
It makes him sound like he's always in an argument:
"Look, I live in Florida."
"Look, I've had enormous success."
"Look, my heart goes out to people in this situation."
Not even two dozen people have come to see him at the Beardall Senior Center, which smells like Clorox and Hummel figurines. But Greene's handler has encouraging news: "There's a bridge game upstairs that's about to break up."
When his small audience finally assembles, Greene launches into a short speech punctuated with large promises: "I will be the strongest fighter ever in the history of Florida to fight for Medicare and Social Security!"
The crowd is not so much listening as waiting to be heard. It's a common disconnect at the campaign stops I go to. There's a lot of wasted breath on both sides of the lectern. Everyone's talking; no one's listening. Greene monologues about growing up humble and middle-class in Massachusetts. (Now he's neither.) He talks about how Barack Obama is a good president who inherited a mess from a bad one. But Mildred Heinig is waiting for just . . . the right . . . moment:
"I'd like to make a statement over here! The Arabs want to take over the world! And they want this country first!"
The politician's eyebrows droop; his shoulders slump. He says: "Uhhh, I don't think the Arabs want to take over the world."
Mildred, though, is having none of it: "They DO want to take over the world!"
At that moment, I finally feel sorry for Jeff Greene.
Bay News 9 studios, St. Petersburg
If you have ignored the campaigns so far, you'll have no trouble catching up in the next day or so, and that's not a good thing. In debates and press conferences, the same stale things are repeated.
Scott, 57, is attacked by Bill McCollum for being a political outsider whose Columbia/HCA hospital chain was involved in the largest Medicare fraud case in our nation's history, which the company settled for $1.7 billion. McCollum, the 66-year-old state attorney general who spent 20 years in Congress, is attacked by Scott for being a "career politician" (the new four-letter word) who has been a serial tax-raiser.
Greene, 55, is attacked by Meek for being a political outsider who made billions betting on the housing collapse. There are also shenanigans involving Greene's yacht, Summerwind, which Greene says he took on a religious pilgrimage and his former stewardess described as a kind of Booty Boat. Meek, the 43-year-old congressman from Miami, is attacked by Greene for helping lead the nation down its recessive path. He also impugns Meek's ethics, as the congressman sought earmarks for a developer who hired Meek's mother, longtime U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, as a $90,000 consultant plus provided her with a Cadillac Escalade.
But just when things seem bleakest — for instance, at a Sunday Meek-Greene debate at Bay News 9 studios — there arrives a glimmer of hope.
Herewith, the uplifting tale of the Flying Mommy Towel.
Meek's and Greene's families and staff arrive at the TV station in different cars, take different elevators up to the studio and are cordoned off in different holding pens. They are like boxers arriving to the ring separately, presumably so they don't beat the heck out of each other before the bell. But when the politicians are led into the studio for the debate, their entourages are stuffed into the same small conference room. Or, as I like to call it, the Hatfield-McCoy Suite.
"You'd expect them to be a little more sensitive," someone on Greene's side harrumphs.
At one end of a long table is a flat-screen TV showing a feed of the debate. At the other end, sitting across from each other, are Leslie Meek and Mei Greene, the wives. Meek, 45, is in a navy-blue pantsuit; Greene, 20 years younger than her husband, is in a leggy black dress.
Smart, kind, beautiful, they don't say a word to each other.
Greene has in her lap 10-month-old son Malcolm. She is feeding him with a bottle. As her husband and his opponent scrum on TV — "Please allow me to speak!" Meek snaps. "I know that's hard for you!" — Mei sighs: "It's like cage-fighting. The bloodier the better."
But an interesting thing happens on the way to the slaughter. As Kendrick and Jeff throw down, Malcolm throws up.
Leslie Meek, a mother of two herself, sees the mess. For just a moment, she puts aside the bitterness of the campaign and dares to connect with this other mom. She reaches into Malcolm's stroller, the only part of the Greene entourage on the Meek side of the conference room. She grabs a towel and with expert aim sends it fluttering past the image of the barking politicians and into the hands of Mei Greene.
I'm telling you: I almost cried.
Soon, a commercial break. The conference room empties, everyone rushes into the studio, calm, confident cornermen offering advice and makeup to the pugilists they love.
The Flying Mommy Towel stays behind. But this much is now clear: I'd totally vote for Leslie Meek and Mei Greene.
Fox 13 studios, Tampa
Natalie Hudson has a mad crush on Rick Scott. Never mind that the Naples millionaire looks like a postapocalyptic Cal Ripken: smooth pate, thin build, cyborgian eyes, body movements not unlike the Abe Lincoln robot in the Hall of Presidents. Scott is the closest thing this primary election has to a sex symbol.
The 15-year-old Hudson thinks so, and so do the hundreds of women wearing red and pink "Chicks for Rick" shirts rallying for their man outside the TV studio. Sure, campaign reports reveal that Scott has paid some of his "chicks" to help out at rallies, including a 19-year-old Florida State University student at a Tallahassee event who received $283.87. But after considerable leering, I declare most of today's chicks to be totally legit. It's an unscientific study. Just trust me.
"He's so cute!" Hudson says, smiling. "I like the bald head, and the little white hair on the side."
As for the $1.7 billion fraud settlement, Hudson does not weigh in on that. (Scott's refrain when asked about this epic hosing of the taxpayer? He takes responsibility but not blame.) Rick's chick is not terribly interested in Scott's debate tonight with McCollum, either. She won't miss much. Scott and McCollum will essentially whine about which one of them loooves the Arizona immigration law more. Seriously, doffing shirts and comparing abs would have been more dignified.
Hillsborough County McCollum headquarters, Temple Terrace
I get a second of alone time with Bill McCollum. So naturally, I ask what any responsible journalist would ask with such intimate access to the man who could be governor of Florida:
"Bill, you and I both have great hair. Do you ever want to use the sly political tactic of mocking Scott's bald head?"
"A little," McCollum chuckles guiltily. "A little."
Then he perks up: "Hey, did you see it sweating at the debate the other day?"
And for the first time, I kind of like Bill McCollum, too.
The glow doesn't last.
McCollum has been traversing the state with a key political ally: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Most see Bush's endorsement as a positive. But it also shines a glaring light on this uncomfortable truth: drying paint probably finds McCollum boring. Whereas Bush is charismatic and constantly quotable — and seemingly 10 feet tall next to the smurfy attorney general — McCollum has all the verve of a scientist in a 1950s B-movie explaining why Godzilla is about to devour the city.
He's a nerd, a dweeb. Which is not the worst thing for a politician to be. However, when McCollum gazes at Bush, he does so with a little-brother awe, a straight man in a comic's world. At one point, McCollum says to a crowded room: "(Bush) voted earlier today and he said he voted for me." Clap. Clap. To which Bush adds after a perfect beat: "Twice, I think." HOORAY!
Even McCollum's supporters throw off more heat talking about Scott — okay, bashing Scott mercilessly — than touting their choice for governor.
Scott is "not sexy," says Sarah Sussman, 20. "I don't think being a crook is attractive, either. He kind of looks like Freddy Krueger." As for McCollum, Sussman says: "Out of everybody running, I think he has the best plans for Florida."
Yep, that is so Bill.
Capt'n Fishbone's, North Fort Myers
Rick Scott is running late. Dozens of people are waiting for him in a deliciously tacky restaurant festooned with flying dolphins and plastic sharks. A brutal sun is grilling his bald head to a toasty, sweaty pink.
He's late, and it's our fault. We've asked him to pose for a picture in one of those touristy thingies where you stick your head through a hole. Scott is considering this photographic moment with all the deliberation of Ansel Adams snapping Half Dome.
"Hold on," says Scott, walking from behind the cutout. "Should I have my hands up or not?"
Scott has a reputation as a micromanager, a meticulous worshiper of details, and if this Kodak moment is any indication, you can believe the buzz. He has programmed himself to succeed. Or at least not to lose.
You may wonder how a man so intensely aware of his surroundings could allow his hospital chain to sink into scandal. But here's the better question: How can a man with that smudge on his resume — "I'm not a politician. I'm a business person," he touts without irony — still be very much in the running for the Governor's Mansion?
In my short time with Scott, I find him to be charming, soft-spoken, considerate. His voice does not grow soft nor does it scream; he talks in the same measured tone, like a hypnotist or Hannibal Lecter. It's scary how mesmerizing the guy is.
But more than that, I realize Scott is new at a time when the masses are sick of old, tired of lethargy from men in power. We are mired in a fierce anti-establishment, anti-incumbent cycle now, and Scott, for all his faults, offers some the chance to seriously ponder: Perhaps . . .
He is a nightmare opponent for Bill McCollum.
After a few minutes of picture time, Scott says in a familiar timbre that is both gentle and firm: "Did you get your shot?"
He's not asking; he's telling.
EPILOGUE: Mr. Possum Pants goes to Washington
Situated in Washington County, the Wausau Possum Festival has been a campaign-trail staple for decades: Politicos slurp greasy plates of roadkill and flash thumbs-up for the natives. Never mind that the natives don't actually slurp possum: "You don't see anyone in the audience eating possum, do you?" whispers Scott Maddox, former mayor of Tallahassee, currently running for agriculture commissioner. "Just the out-of-town politicians eat possum."
Earlier in the day, Alex Sink, Democratic candidate for governor, got in line for a $6 plate of "possum & taters."
"Isn't someone going to take a picture of me eating possum?" Slurp! She raised a fork in triumph: "Tastes like pork!" She posed with Leonard Parry, too, but was stingy with time and smile and possum-love.
Meek, however, is not. Parry tells the congressman that his possum are 6-month-old orphans: Adrianna, Sylvia, Stella. (Not sure which one lives in his pants.) Their mother was killed, perhaps by an automobile. He points a finger at Meek and fires away: "We really need 'Possum Crossing' signs on our highways."
Ah yes, the glamour of public office.
Meek puts his arm around Parry, flashing a smile that could easily turn into a laugh: "Okay, we're going to work on it."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.