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Susan MacManus says interest in politics started as a girl

Susan MacManus stands in her lush yard in Land O’Lakes. Her appeal as an analyst? “You know, I simplify it. I’m a country girl.”

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Susan MacManus stands in her lush yard in Land O’Lakes. Her appeal as an analyst? “You know, I simplify it. I’m a country girl.”

The busy season looms for Florida political analyst Susan MacManus. During election years, the longtime University of South Florida political science professor is a familiar face on Florida news shows and in guest newspaper columns. • MacManus, 66, is a Florida State University graduate who earned her master's degree at the University of Michigan and returned to FSU for her Ph.D. A native Floridian, MacManus lives in a Land O'Lakes farmhouse that has been in her family since the 1920s. • She recently talked with Times staff writer Philip Morgan about her early influences, love of football and thoughts on the Florida governor's race.

What sparked your interest in politics?

Well, several things. First of all, I had a family that has been very civic minded and interested in current events from day one. My parents both were avid readers of the newspaper every day. But then, my family was divided politically and still is extremely divided — everything from my dear uncle, who is an avid, hard-core railroad union leader, retired, who would never vote for a Republican in his entire life, to Baptist preacher cousins who would just be at the other end. And my parents were split, which was great when the mailers would come in at election time. I could see what was going to both sides.

Anyway, I had a terrific high school government teacher and then when I went to FSU, I had a fabulous Florida government professor.

What makes a good government teacher?

Make it fun and exciting, and see how it applies, and to spark discussion, and not be disparaging and partisan. To this day, I detest partisanship in the classroom, and I don't do it because half my class every semester at USF, it's pretty evenly split, just like Florida. I really think that it's a turnoff for students to have dogma in terms of what somebody's party is and always stressing that and belittling the other party.

I grew up with dialogue between — heated dialogue — the family. I grew up hearing different opinions, and, honestly, if there's one thing I'm grateful for it was that after we would all raise Cain about politics with each other, we'd sit down and have meals and have fun and know we loved each other, and to this day, I like hearing different opinions. It's critical to what I do in a divided state.

What, other than politics, draws your interest?

The truth of it is, I also love sports. And out of my 12 cousins, my grandmother's 12 grandchildren, I was oldest, but there were seven boys and five girls; every one of the women in our family absolutely loves sports. Actually, very few people know this, but when I went to FSU, I went as a double major, in physical education and politics.

What's your favorite sport?

Football — Bucs and Cowboys. I liked the Cowboys from the beginning, since I was 10 years old. And then there were FSU players who would go there, and then I taught in Texas for 10 years. I taught in Houston but liked the Cowboys. That was fun.

Of course, I'm an avid college football fan. I did go to the FSU championship game. I decided at the last minute. It was tugging at me. I have season tickets to USF and FSU. But I have to tell you, the year that USF beat FSU, my students gave me holy whatever, 'cause I have fun with my kids.

What do you read besides politics?

The only time I really read for pleasure is when I'm on an airplane, and I like political intrigue novels. If I want something, here's my rule for how I pick a book: I look at it; the subject has to be good, with a mystery and political tinge to it ... I gauge it so that when I fly up and fly back, just as I'm landing, coming home, I'm closing the book.

I have so much reading — it takes me two or three hours a day just to read all the papers around the state and nation. And then you're constantly reading, now with blogs, and so forth, you're reading all day long. But I still love sitting down to a newspaper, I have to confess.

You are often interviewed on television. Was it difficult adjusting to that?

People always ask, ''Aren't you frightened in front of the camera?" I say, ''No, I'm just talking to one other person'' I started in public speaking in Pasco County when I was 10 years old in 4-H.

My mother was painfully shy, to the point of where she said it was horrible and she did not want her children to feel like that. So she insisted that we start getting involved. And my dad was very outgoing. He was in sales.

Do you have separate contracts for television commentary?

I am exclusive with Channel 8 for Election Day coverage. Otherwise, I'm open to all the media.

And I don't get paid for any of it. I just do it as a public service. I regard it as teaching to a broader audience. It's very fulfilling when somebody will stop in the grocery store that I don't know and say that they enjoy what I'm saying, or that they think I say it in a way that they can get it. You know, I simplify it, I'm a country girl.

How do politicians treat you? Do they try to lobby or schmooze you?

My rule of thumb is I don't go to political events that the public is not invited to, because my view on being an analyst is to look at it like the person on the couch, the casual voter — what do they see? The way the average person is going to look at politics, not how the insiders look at it.

I get a lot of invitations, but in terms of schmoozing? No. But what I do get is a lot of first-time candidates, they want to come and talk to me about their campaign. And I say to them — very nicely — "I can't talk about your campaign, because if I did that for you, wouldn't I have to do that for your opponent? What I can talk to you about is general kinds of challenges that the first-time candidates meet, only generically.'' And they understand, but I don't get into the political consulting game.

You refer to Florida as the epicenter of national politics. What do you mean?

What made Florida the microcosm of the country is the fact that our ratio and ethnic makeup looks more like the country at large than any other state, in terms of African-American and Caribbean blacks, and then Hispanics of all different countries of origin, and Anglos.

So you put side by side the percentage makeup racially of Florida next to the U.S. at large, and you plug in any other state other than Florida, and nothing looks on all fronts like we do.

Florida also mirrors the country in terms of the key geographies that people look at when they're trying to figure out how to campaign — rural, urban, suburban. And Hillsborough County is probably the best county, singularly, for being a microcosm of Florida, and it's a very good predictor of how the state is going to vote, especially in presidential elections. We also have a very interesting age mix that makes Florida so intriguing. Many people feel that everybody in Florida is over 95 years of age. We have almost an equal divide in terms of registered voters between those over 50 and those under 50.

Charlie Crist versus Rick Scott. How close is that going to be?

This will be a very close governor's race because both parties are going to have a lot of money. One of the things that we're seeing that's going to characterize this election cycle that was different from what we've seen before is the proportion of money coming into campaigns from outside of the candidate or the party, coming in from these outside groups.

When I moderated the second debate in the David Jolly-Alex Sink congressional race, I asked the candidates whether they thought this outside money is causing you to lose control as a candidate over your message. Both of them, without missing a beat, said absolutely, and acknowledged that they were having to go out when they were talking to groups and apologize for the tone and the content of ads that they had absolutely nothing to do with.

But it will be close because Florida is close.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.

Susan MacManus says interest in politics started as a girl 06/04/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 5:03pm]

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