Thursday, April 19, 2018
Politics

Bousquet: Panhandle's Possum Festival changes with the political times

WAUSAU

Florida loves its festivals, and if they involve food, all the better.

Strawberries. Watermelon. Scallops. Mullet.

And possum.

In a state that has so few political traditions, the annual Possum Festival endures. It's held on the first Saturday in August under a big outdoor pavilion, the Possum Palace, in a tiny Panhandle town called Wausau. The 45th edition took place Saturday, and hundreds showed up.

Wausau is near Chipley, in Washington County. If you wouldn't know how to get there, you're not alone.

As people eat possum off paper plates, politicians take turns bidding hundreds of dollars for one of the stone-faced marsupials. The money supports the local volunteer fire department, and the critters are later returned to the wild.

The Possum Festival used to be a mandatory stop for statewide political candidates, but that wasn't the case on Saturday, even though this is a big election year.

Gov. Rick Scott (who went last year) was far away, opening a campaign field office in Hialeah. There was no sign of Charlie Crist or Nan Rich, and none of the candidates for the three Cabinet seats showed up except for George Sheldon, a Democratic candidate for attorney general.

The smaller crowd was a bit of a disappointment to Brad Drake, a Republican who's trying to return to the state House after his former district was merged with another in the last redistricting.

"It's dwindled down," Drake said. "People are doing other things."

Still, plenty of people came by to see the parade go through town or to see the crowning of the Possum Festival king and queen or to stop by one of two dozen booths, including Trailer Trash Bullet Jewelry, offering bracelets made in part from the remnants of shotgun shells.

The best-known pols who bid on possums were U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, a Republican being challenged by Democrat Gwen Graham, who brought along a sizable entourage of family members, including her father, former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

For Bob Graham, now 77, being in Wausau was like stepping back to a bygone era, a time when elections weren't decided largely on 30-second TV ads.

Mikey Burch, a 25-year resident, held down the fort at a small booth for the local Democratic Party, which was a lot more influential in Wausau back in Graham's day.

"This whole area has turned red, and for years, it was blue," Burch said in a voiced tinged with frustration.

That helps explain why so few candidates were posing with possums in Wausau on Saturday: Most people here have made up their minds.

Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by a 4-1 ratio here in 2012, and Scott beat Democrat Alex Sink by 2-1 in the 2010 governor's race.

After a half-dozen possums were raffled off, the five candidates for county clerk stepped to the podium, one by one, to pitch for votes. Having deep roots in this area is a lot more important than any endorsement.

Steve Whittington introduced himself as "fifth generation Washington County," and demonstrated his hog-calling technique for the crowd.

"I've never seen so many people running for clerk of the court," Sheldon said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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