LABELLE — Citrus haulers and pickup trucks kick up eddies of dust along 80 East. Past Alva, where civilization seems to drop away, Fort Myers' concrete softens into lush green and longleaf pines. Gravel lanes vanish into distant ranches. Twenty minutes later, there’s LaBelle.
Charlie Harris, 33, drives this way most mornings to open up Bridge Street Coffee & Tea, though everybody calls it Charlie’s. His mom’s side goes way back here. He learned to drive on 20 acres of cow pasture, strapped into a makeshift swamp buggy. He spent summers running iced gator hides and flesh across the family farm. He likes to show friends the hidden Florida: Sawgrass stretching to the horizon, bordered by willows and myrtles, where cattle egrets float down like a white blanket.
These days, the Walmart rises up at LaBelle’s city limits, its parking lot like the photo negative of the field across the highway. There, longhorn cattle lounge beneath a palmetto. At the border of that pasture sits the unmistakable navy blue sign of the times: TRUMP.
Fall in an election year always proves exhausting to Harris. He steels himself, some days. LaBelle’s small-town, neighborly nostalgia can leave him feeling both embraced — and shut out.
He wears diamond studs and silver hoops, keeps copies of Out magazine alongside The New Yorker by the cozy coffee shop door. He wants Charlie’s to be a neutral zone, but what is neutral, anymore?
When Black Lives Matter protests erupted this summer, sprouting even here in the seat of deep-red Hendry County, Harris felt a connection. He often feels like locals treat him as “one of the good ones,” the exception to a rule — love the sinner, and all that. He knows something about being on the outside.
He tells his conservative family, "We don’t know what we don’t know.” As in, just listen to what others have experienced. Loving his family can mean pushing up against stubbornness. And loving this place can mean voting for change — though turnout here has never reached high enough to make the difference Harris and others hope for. LaBelle has its ways.
This is Florida’s big-sky country. Half an hour east, sister city Clewiston sits at the rim of the vast Lake Okeechobee. In between, sugarcane billows in the hot breeze, interrupted by irrigation ditches, palm trees and plowed-over fields. Dense clouds, perpetually on the edge of rain, tower above.
Everywhere, Trump signs. Says one billboard, looming over the freight route: SAVE AMERICA FROM SOCIALISM.
The air feels particularly charged this fall.
"People seem to be excited about it,” Supervisor of Elections Brenda Hoots said. “But I’ve been fooled before. You think, ‘Oh, we’re going to have the best turnout we’ve ever had,’ but then it’s like, ‘Where did everybody go?’”
Hendry’s 2016 turnout was Florida’s lowest. Only 64.5 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Two years later, in the midterms, Hendry stayed at the bottom with 50.5 percent. It’s a pattern.
Hoots doesn’t know why.
As she handles early votes and manages misinformation, she’s also trying to inspire a greater turnout. She’s tried Facebook posts and food banks. She’s made trips to high schools and the Big Cypress Reservation. Sometimes, sugar amendments draw voters. Sometimes, county races do. Locals say that in Hendry, you vote for the guy you know, and those guys never seem to get voted out.
In 2020, it all comes down to Donald J. Trump.
Hendry Republicans have been leaning hard on Trump’s playbook as they encourage Democrats to abandon ship. A representative Facebook post: It is not too late to leave the party that supports defunding of police, removal of police protection even from schools, open borders, post-birth abortion, disrespect for our flag, socialism, violent protests and anarchy, Andrew Gillum, AOC, and Nancy Pelosi.
Trump, for all of his big-city business sheen, goes over particularly well among rural voters, who feel like he’s speaking what’s in their minds.
Democrats have long claimed more registered voters in Hendry, though they likely owe their lead to Dixiecrats, the enduring conservatives of the old South. Republicans are storming the gap, a sweep happening across many Florida counties. At last count, in Hendry, pop. 40,000, Democrats led by just 15 heads.
That matters little if turnout mirrors 2016, when higher rates of Florida Democrats sat out. Most likely, Hendry will be Trump’s.
Less certain is whether 2020 turnout will be any different. Apathy, distrust and disenfranchisement may run so deep that some feel no need, no duty, to cast their drop in the bucket.
But, like so much of this swing state, Hendry sits at a crossroads. Confederate namesake, shifting demographics. Orange groves, RV parks. Old Florida, new highways. Trump Country, seeds of change.
White lattice runs along the wall at Two Peas Cafe, where servers sling coffee and pie to the who’s who of LaBelle. The decor leans Lilly Pulitzer picnic, with sunflowers, butterflies and rustic signs saying God is great, God is good. Two women leaned over their scraped-clean plates on a Friday morning and, with a drawl, discussed the drama of a splintered Bible study: “She is not in the Word. She doesn’t know the Word. It’s crazy, Gina.”
Two Peas co-owner Debbie Klemmer stopped in at booth after booth. Leaning on a countertop, she and co-owner Vicki Reynolds described how everybody knows everybody here. People take care of each other no matter what. Politics? They laughed.
“Politics stay out of the Pod,” Reynolds said.
“That’s how we stay friends,” Klemmer said.
They pointed to a death that shook the town in June. Julian Keen Jr., a beloved Fish and Wildlife officer, drove after a hit-and-run suspect while off-duty. He was shot and killed.
The cafe’s parking lot filled for a fundraiser, collecting $26,000. “That’s LaBelle,” Klemmer said. A cafe chalkboard encouraged diners to #belikejulian.
This is the ideal vision of LaBelle: Neighborly, generous, a place where Keen’s race — or anybody’s — is beside the point. A memorial for Keen filled Barron Park along the Caloosahatchee River. That was proof, some mourners said, that in LaBelle, divisions dissolved.
Downtown, that same September afternoon, heat beat down on the McDonald’s double drive-thru. In his office behind the restaurant, where a co-worker was unloading WOMEN FOR TRUMP signs from her SUV, franchise owner Steve Nisbet settled in at his desk.
On the walls: Abraham Lincoln, Ronald McDonald, Ronald Reagan.
A committeeman for the Hendry Republicans, he was prepping for a run on more than 10,000 mailers laying out the local slate. They would say: Keep America Great. The Best is Yet To Come.
Most places, you wouldn’t know the sheriff’s cell number, Nisbet said. Not LaBelle. Business had brought him here, and seven McDonald’s later, a communal respect for work ethic and a love of small-town life have kept him.
Nisbet recognizes government’s uses, like the aid that let him avoid COVID-19 layoffs. Still, he worries about people moving in from “high-tax states,” toting liberal philosophies. “It’s going to be hard work to keep it Republican,” he said.
Nisbet points to faraway riots and says to voters, “Is that the party you want running the country?” Trump’s promise of draining the swamp — that goes over well. The prospect of more jobs out here, in this historically rock-bottom county for employment, is also exciting. His party celebrates wins like the new 7-Eleven and Tractor Supply Co.
He knows Florida could be Trump’s ticket to reelection. The ghost of Bush v. Gore lingers. In a close race, Nisbet reminds people, a landslide for Trump here means ammunition against the votes of Miami.
“I’ve had a good life. I worked hard to get where I got,” he said in his spacious office. “My kids, I think, are going to do okay. But I look at my grandkids and it’s hard to say, the way things are going, how well they’re going to do.”
Online, some conservatives let loose. In his Facebook group, “What’s happening in LaBelle today UNCUT,” retired businessman David Harrod shared in July: “The best thing to do at this point is buy a gun, mind your business and protect your family. Our country is no longer a safe place.”
On the phone, Harrod said he doesn’t believe in everything Trump does, but thinks he’s better for the economy. He likes Trump’s approach to Israel, China and lower taxes. He likes taking care of America first. Trump, he believes, has done more for Black people than any president before him.
“It’s evident to informed people that really look at what he’s done,” Harrod said. “And I’m just hoping more people become informed.”
In between towns, south on a stick-straight road that runs past orange groves, where cell service grows patchy, is Montura.
The streets, most gravel, bear names like Fronda, Granja, Hacienda. Acres, fenced off, hold trailers, set down in dirt. Cars park by faded Virgin Mary statues, terracotta pots and blue tarps stretched over leaning carports.
Cynthia Santana De Las Salas knows Hendry County’s growth inches closer. She worries what it will do to her father.
Her dad, a “country bumpkin” from Puerto Rico, had initially moved to Chicago. The bitter cold shocked him back south, where he met a man slinging “little pieces of sunshine” for $1,000.
In Montura, he could leave his car door open outside the Post Office, no problem. People respected each other’s things. His own acre and a quarter felt like home. He raised goats and pigs and cows, and a pony for the kids. He planted mangos, cilantro, five types of avocado trees.
Montura grew alongside him as Hispanic families came to work the oranges, then the sugarcane, though those ways are dying out. He led a small congregation as pastor at a Pentecostal church. Some roads were paved, the outside world crept in, but Montura has stayed affordable, a haven.
De Las Salas grew up in a two-bedroom trailer. It could be isolating, attending Clewiston schools while not a Clewiston girl. Still today, she feels the divide. From her vantage point as an educator, she wonders why so many Montura kids get neglected, shot, killed or locked up — 25 of her students, she counted, have ended up in jail. “No, no!” she said.
She and her family live next door to her dad now, on their own acre and a quarter. They have eight dogs, eight rabbits, two pot-bellied pigs named Penelope and Petunia, and chickens on the way. Her dad’s rainforest, where the papaya trees and sugarcane grow tall, rises along their shared fence.
She’s a pastor’s daughter, devoted to her faith. She thinks of a line in Joshua: ...choose this day whom you will serve... But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. “We can’t force people into choices we want them to make,” she said. She walked the divide well. Until recently, when she started running for a seat on the county commission, most friends didn’t know she was a Democrat.
“I feel like I’m in high school again, like I’m that fish out of water.” But she holds out hope. She wants to be able to say, “Include us.”
Many here like to speak in their native tongue, she said, and they’re comfortable living quiet lives.
Not voting, she said, often comes down to a lack of education. Her husband is Cuban; some relatives on his side don’t vote. Now, they ask: “What do I do? How? Where?” Some in the neighborhood tell De Las Salas, “If I could vote, I’d vote for you.”
Apples, peaches, bell peppers, sugarcane. Every season, the labor camp followed the work. When Nora Ned landed in LaBelle in her late teens, the friendly town was a step up. She went to school, didn’t let herself get C’s — C stood for camp.
After finishing her studies, her commute took her by the orange groves, which cordoned off her part of town. She was 18, and, in 1978, the courthouse’s rare Black employee. Kids stared. People hesitated to hand over payments. A receptionist, she handled child support, traffic tickets; she handled anything that needed doing, but she could never advance, despite her asking. Eventually, she left.
She tried to live by the values she’d learned in the camps: You’re no better than the next one, and no one’s better than you. But back in the ’70s, LaBelle still had a restaurant Black people couldn’t enter. Co-workers would ask, “How’s it goin' in The Quarters?” — as in, slave quarters. She knew there had been a lynching, back in the town’s earliest days, in which false rumors flew that a young Black laborer had committed assault. But nobody could pinpoint for her where the hanging tree was. Unflattering history blurred, got painted over. In government work — she made a career in the elections office — she saw how people with money, resources and power got to live. Yet, she said, ask anyone in LaBelle if their town is racist and they will tell you, “No.”
This summer, in the swirl of protests in the name of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Ned retired at 61. She marched. She waited for local leaders to ask after the two young Black men shot at a block party by deputies this summer. Details are still scant. Fed up, she walked to the LaBelle City Commission lectern one evening in June.
“My mother would call me her bucket child,” she said. “She said whatever is in me, if you tilt me, it’ll come out. And so, today, I’ve been tilted.”
"We sit back and we pretend, oh, ‘LaBelle is perfect. We don’t have no issues,’ " Ned told city leaders in a speech printed by the Caloosa Belle. The nation was talking about race. Why not here? Maybe she had been mild-mannered for too long, she said. Perhaps that was her fault. Her voice choked up.
“Please don’t ever mistake me for less than anybody,” she said. She breathed hard. She laid out what she wanted: “Your feet off our neck. Your knee off our neck. Your arm off our neck. Anything you’re doing to hold us down, we want you to stop.”
The mayor thanked her. The commission moved on.
There was a day Jennifer Wingard stepped outside and the breeze carried the scent of orange trees and jasmine. I’m home, she thought, for the first time in her life.
“People wreck that,” she said this fall, and laughed. LaBelle, with its wide-open sky, also has pushed her to her limits. She sat with her daughter, Christina DeVault, and her mother, Becky Rhodes. The women, ages 74, 52 and 31, share a righteous streak, growing more progressive by the generation. Their tendency to poke and prod at the powers that be — their willingness to say that LaBelle’s pride is also its crutch — has not made them popular.
Outsiders to Hendry, they quickly earned side-eyes for neglecting to go to church. (Rhodes prefers her “backyard cathedral,” with its laurel oaks and the cow pasture’s long, golden grasses.) Fall 2016 only brought new ripples of hostility. Now, friends' Biden signs go missing in the night. Fellow Democrats feel too anxious to “come out.”
People she’s known for years avoid Wingard’s eye. It gets exhausting, burning bridges. She and her daughter criticize the public schools and the sheriff and Trump supporters. They have demands, such as broadband for all and affordable mental health care. When the outpatient center DeVault relied on closed, she pored over budget breakdowns and saw Hendry’s paltry state funding. It fit into the way her family saw much of the county: Brutally neglected, left to rot.
“Those who do vote turn out to maintain the illusion of safety, prosperity and control,” Wingard said. “They’re very proud of their backgrounds and heritages, and they overlook the cost.”
Though few are as outspoken, the women found compatriots this summer. They helped launch a tiny protest movement, which gave way to a tinier, ragtag group of progressives trying to get out the vote.
They call themselves Hendry Rising.
Brandon Jett, a history professor at the nearby state college, hears students say voting is daunting — like a test on foreign policy, domestic relations and the tax code rolled into one — and worse, useless.
Some describe a sinking realization. Hendry, their home, is also a place with middling schools, low wages and limited prospects. “How come this is my experience?” they lament. Jett offers extra credit to students who register to vote.
He and his wife, Dori Cowan Jett, a fellow educator, moved here with their daughter, Poppy, recently from more liberal circles in Central Florida. Raised conservative, both try to strike a diplomatic tone around town. Dori Jett often finds herself editing her thoughts, and she gets nervous watering plants by their Democratic yard signs. But they posted them thinking of someone driving by and feeling less alone.
After some summer momentum, Keen’s death put Hendry Rising members in a bind: March again and be accused of callousness. Then came double-digit COVID-19 cases. Now, they meet in Facebook Rooms, with no illusions of dismantling the good old boys' club this election. So they won’t get written off as firebrands, they’ve adopted unassailable causes like voting and scholarships.
They think back to one bright blue day in June, when they marched from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the courthouse.
They walked the sidewalks, then lined them, holding banners and signs. Dori Jett’s said, SAY THEIR NAMES. Some 70 people came, maybe a little more, many of them strangers from neighborhoods that rarely mixed. They chanted “Black lives matter!” They knelt. Passing drivers kept honking. With open windows, they raised fists and blew kisses. Wingard teared up. She hadn’t expected that.
Janet Taylor drummed her orange nails on the terrazzo-style Dunkin table, fuschia phone pressed to her ear. Freighters roared by, steaming through Clewiston.
Taylor wore a leopard-print mask and a DECISION 2020 T-shirt. She wanted the elections office to tell her how many people had turned in mail-in ballots. “About 1,000?” she said. “How many y’all actually sent out? Over 3,000? Is that a good sign or not?”
Come election season, Taylor, 74, climbs into her white SUV and cruises the wide asphalt streets, tires thumping over the railroad tracks into her neighborhood, perpetually on call.
Home is Harlem, where U.S. Sugar’s gray stacks are the only buildings to break the skyline. Wafting through the air is the sweet, sun-baked funk of something like manure. On this early October morning, Taylor glided down Harlem Academy Avenue, which Walmart helped turn into a ghost strip of boarded-up cinderblock. She drove by housing run by the Black-owned Harlem Tenants Association, with which she’s celebrating 50 years. She passed the old school, which turned into a daycare, until the daycare’s run ended, too.
She pulled into the driveway of a squat house with bright teal trim and rapped on the painted door.
“Good morning,” Taylor called as Erma Moore, 76, cracked open the inside door in her bathrobe, revealing a faded Obama/Biden sticker. Moore handed over her mail-in ballot.
“'Preciate you,” Taylor said. “Remember, we got to encourage everybody to get out to vote.”
“I am,” Moore said. “Working real hard.”
The Sunday before Election Day, Taylor used to help organize Souls to the Polls. That early voting day has been eliminated. There used to be more polling sites. Confusion swirls, so Taylor tries to hammer in the plan. Vote early, she insists. Drop off your ballot — or she will.
She parked at the elections office and slid Moore’s ballot into the dropbox. She keeps them for as little time as possible. “Can I have a—” she began to ask, and a staffer handed her a sticker that said I VOTED.
“You want them to feel a part — the whole experience,” Taylor said.
If she sees a group hanging around, she pulls over. She tells them, This election is going to determine for years and years what our representation is going to be like, in the courts, in the schools, all around, for your children, for your children’s children.
She thinks about Roe v. Wade, pre-existing conditions, high unemployment and the assistance her community needs. She thinks about the people in Hendry dying of the coronavirus, one of their doctors recently buried, and says, You have to vote like your life depends on it.
She made a pit stop on Obispo Avenue, popped her trunk and pushed a BIDEN sign into the earth for a woman who called that morning — not too close to the street, since that’s where they get snatched. She cruised, looking right and left, making sure neighbors' signs were where she left them. “Mhm, still there.”
This was Hendry County a month out from the election: Divided, wedded to an old, patriotic vision. Warring over health care, classrooms and jobs, insiders and outsiders. Its residents are exhausted, anxious, unsure their votes really matter. But that was everywhere, Taylor insisted. Hendry’s issues were America’s issues.
An early afternoon sunshower split the sky into storm clouds and gleaming light. In a lull between errands, Taylor learned the state was extending voter registration after a website outage on deadline day. Hopeful registrants had a few more hours. She reached for her phone, so she could let folks know she was there to help. Maybe, she thought, settling back into her driver’s seat, they could still rustle up a few more.
Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com. Follow @clairemcneill.