DESTIN — Bad weather grounded Marco Rubio's campaign plane Thursday, but it didn't stop the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from hearing bad economic news from Panhandle residents frustrated about the gulf oil spill.
Outraged residents said oil never should have reached the Emerald Coast, a region renown for its snow-white beaches, now befouled by tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
"This is criminal behavior but we can't touch them because they're the government," said Betsy Robins of Navarre, who owns homes on Pensacola Beach.
Hoteliers told Rubio via the Internet that they're laying off workers due to lost customers. County commissioners said the spill will cause property values to plummet. A sheriff said BP's cleanup efforts have been erratic and ineffective. Business owners pelted a lawyer with questions about how to submit claims, and almost everyone complained of too few skimmers and a weak federal response.
"How does BP have a business license in this country?" asked Jeff Raines, a small business owner in Fort Walton Beach.
In an atmosphere of mounting anxiety and cynicism, some residents said they have heard rumors of massive evacuations from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Tampa. Others nodded in agreement when a man said that a Democratic White House was deliberately punishing the conservative, Republican-voting Panhandle.
Using Skype video-conferencing technology, Rubio decried the "gross incompetence" in Washington and fielded questions from residents and local leaders in Destin and Navarre while sitting in his Miami campaign headquarters. He missed a third event in Miramar Beach as rain pounded the Panhandle.
"I believe in limited government, but the limited government we have has to function effectively," Rubio said. "Our government is broken."
Rubio remains a supporter of offshore drilling, but that did not come up in either town hall meeting. Neither did his independent Senate rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, though Rubio complimented the more aggressive state response by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, outlined proposals for tax relief and lifting regulatory barriers. He said the catastrophe has made a special legislative session more urgent, and he predicted calamity for local governments. Action is needed now, he said, because property taxes are due in November.