FLORIDA — They came to dig their toes into the sand and to catch a glimpse of Mickey. They tossed baseballs and swung rackets. They admired the natural wonders and sought cover from natural disasters. They won redemption and even found love — lasting and fleeting.
They came to Florida for the same reasons so many do: its shores and sunshine, its theme parks and temptations.
The Democratic presidential contenders gather in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday to debate for the first time. But for most, it won’t be their first visit to the Sunshine State. Many have relationships with Florida that go back decades, to childhood vacations and their early careers. Some recall seminal experiences here that ranged from coming of age to laying their political foundation.
Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand remember family trips under the Florida sun. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper earned a spot here as a starting pitcher on his high school baseball team. Rep. Eric Swalwell survived a family reunion and a hurricane in Miami. Florida is where Sen. Elizabeth Warren met her husband.
How many states on the primary calendar can claim as much shared history between the candidates? Kids don’t dream mom and dad will surprise them with a magical visit to South Carolina. Spring Break in New Hampshire is not a thing. No one is sipping piña coladas in an Iowa cornfield.
By one estimate, nearly half of American adults have visited Florida at least once in their lives. No other state is close. Tens of thousands of people call Florida their second home — including the man these Democrats want to replace, President Donald Trump.
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One underdog Democrat, Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, was born and raised here. Many of the rest experienced the state long before they were politicians.
The Tampa Bay Times asked the Democratic candidates to recall their earliest adventures in Florida. Here’s what they said.
In 1979, a recently divorced Elizabeth Warren landed in Key Biscayne for an economics course for law professors. Among two dozen other attendees, one immediately stood out: Bruce Mann.
Apparently the attraction was mutual. “I saw this woman talking to someone, and I was just captivated,” Mann once told the Boston Globe. “I just walked right over. She barely noticed me. It took a couple of days.”
Mann played tennis, so Warren requested a lesson. While the future Massachusetts senator would later ask her erstwhile coach to marry her, the tutorial apparently didn’t go as well as Warren had hoped.
“Years later, over a great deal of beer, Bruce confessed that I wasn’t just pretty bad at tennis, I was terrible,” said Warren, who turned 70 on Saturday. “I was his worst student ever. But Bruce loved me anyway.”
Marianne Williamson also recalled finding love here, though it didn’t last for the self-help author-turned-politician.
“For that period of time the blue looked bluer and the green looked greener and the sun shone brighter,” said Williamson, 66. “Some of that was Florida and some of it was him.”
As a high school junior, John Hickenlooper saved up $200 to travel with his baseball team to Fort Lauderdale. It was a lot of money for a middle-class boy raised by a single mother. His father died when he was 8, and Hickenlooper said his family rarely traveled far from their Pennsylvania home.
It was hot, humid and there were bugs everywhere, he recalled. The team stayed in cheap motels.
“I remember that there was sand everywhere,” Hickenlooper said. “In every restaurant, in every car, and in the bed.”
The trip was a bust for Hickenlooper. In a week of games, he didn’t get to pitch once. When he returned to Pennsylvania, he was relegated to junior varsity.
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But he kept practicing and improving and by the time his team returned to South Florida, Hickenlooper was ready to make a name for himself. “I pitched my heart out,” he said. He ultimately won a spot as a starting pitcher and helped lead his team to a league championship that year.
“That experience left me with the feeling that I have to this day,” said Hickenlooper, 67. “Florida is a place where people can reimagine themselves.”
Youth baseball brought another presidential candidate from Colorado to Florida: Sen. Michael Bennet. But he had less success than Hickenlooper.
“I remember the great weather and friendly people,” said Bennet, 54. “The baseball skills, not so much.”
Fun and fear in Florida
Investor and entrepreneur Andrew Yang has built his campaign around his Ivy League smarts and wonky economic ideas. As a kid, he has said, he was a bit of a nerd.
Case in point: As a pre-teen at Disney World, Yang remembers being most excited for the since-retired 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. “I was a fan of the book,” he explained.
“We rode all the rides and went to see one of those ‘4D’ films,” said Yang, 44. “I remember seeing one with Michael Jackson in space.”
Kirsten Gillibrand was only 5 when her family vacationed on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. A grainy photo captured a young Gillibrand, who then went by Tina, on a windy day, holding hands with friends as the waves crashed into the beach.
“I was young, but do remember that relaxation, fun and focus on family that surrounded our visit,” said Gillibrand, now a 52-year-old New York senator.
Cory Booker has similarly hazy memories of traveling with his parents here.
“All I remember were lots of palm trees and the sun on my face,” the 50-year-old New Jersey senator said. “But I never miss a chance to come back.”
Eric Swalwell’s first time in Florida was unforgettable.
In 1992, at age 11, Swalwell’s family held a reunion in Miami. The gathering quickly went south as Hurricane Andrew intensified into a Category 5 storm just off Florida’s southeast coast.
Swalwell, now a California congressman, still remembers the rain and the roar of Andrew as it crossed through the state. Helicopters landed on fields as his dad and uncle unloaded supplies from a truck. Forty-four people died as a result of the storm.
“I remember seeing Floridians come together to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start the process of putting their lives back together,” said Swalwell, 38. “That has stayed with me through my career and into my campaign: Americans’ instinct to join together in the face of calamity, and our resilience and determination to keep on moving ahead.”
A different side of Florida
As a lifelong resident of Washington, Jay Inslee couldn’t have found himself farther from his home state when he landed in Florida as a member of Congress during the 2000s.
“The state was beautiful and so different from anything we have in the Pacific northwest,” Inslee said, remembering the Spanish moss hanging off trees.
Last year, as leader of the Democratic Governors Association, Inslee returned to Florida to campaign for Andrew Gillum. There, the Washington governor saw the direct impact of rising sea levels in south Florida. Climate change is now the central tenet of Inslee’s campaign.
“I am still struck by my tour of Miami Beach with Mayor Dan Gelber,” said Inslee, 68.
South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg also didn’t make it to Florida until he was an adult. After graduating from Harvard, he joined the Cohen Group, a firm started by former United States Secretary of Defense William Cohen. His job was to plan conferences, and in 2005, the work took him to northeast Florida.
Buttigieg, 37, helped organize a conference for United States and Muslim leaders. He expected to land in the Florida of his imagination — beaches and tall buildings. Instead, he found himself at White Oak Conservatory, a wildlife preserve at the Florida-Georgia state line. They slept in cabins and worked among nature.
The experience forever changed his perception of Florida.
“It taught me that Florida is a large and complex place,” Buttigieg said, “with a great diversity of places and people.”
Note: The Times invited all the Democratic presidential candidates to participate in this story. Those not mentioned declined to respond.