Sunshine State Basking Under The Nation’s Gaze

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

While Mitt Romney shook hands with the Republican voters who he hopes will support him in today’s Florida presidential primary, state Sen. Mike Haridopolos stood to the side of the swarming news media, his arms folded and a proud smile on his tanned face.

Not so much because Mr. Romney, the candidate he has endorsed, leads in all the polls, but because Mr. Haridopolos has been vindicated.

Mr. Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, is president of the Florida Senate and the man who championed moving Florida’s primary from Super Tuesday in March to its own date in January, a controversial step that prompted Iowa and New Hampshire to respond in kind.

“It was a risk,” he said, “but it’s paying off. It’s nice to be proved right.”

For years, Florida’s growth has not been limited to its burgeoning population. It also has been growing more influential in terms of national politics.

Mr. Haridopolos, 41, a native New Yorker, attended college at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., and began a career as a history teacher before being elected to the Legislature in 2001. A solid Republican, he saw Florida become key in the general elections and decided the state needed to be more elemental to the nominating process.

That meant moving the primary up.

The Republican National Committee opposed the move, which violated party rules, and penalized Florida 49 of its 99 delegates at the GOP convention this summer in Tampa. With a tightly contested race for the nomination, those lost delegates could hurt Florida’s influence further down the road.

But today, Mr. Haridopolos is happy.

In the past few months, the race for the nomination has brought Florida attention, power and money. The airwaves crackle with political ads and the hotels are filled with campaign workers and reporters.

“The eyes of the nation are on Florida,” Mr. Haridopolos said, calling the primary “a jackpot.”

“Florida is a bellwether state,” he said, “and we should influence the direction of the nation.”

Several decades ago, the course of America was charted in the Northeast, the Midwest and Virginia. Before the advent of air conditioning and mosquito control, the Sunshine State was hot and swampy. The state had little in the way of mineral resources and its agriculture was essentially limited to citrus groves.

There were no super theme parks, and the tourism industry relied on beaches and spring training baseball.

In the first part of the 20th century, it was one of the smaller states with a population of less than 2 million. Now, it’s around 20 million, making it the fourth-largest state in the nation and moving up fast on New York.

Florida’s population growth between the 2000 census and that of 2010 was more than 2.8 million people, an increase of 17.6 percent, the eighth-largest jump in the nation.

The number of people who moved to Florida in the first 10 years of this century exceeds the total population of 17 states and is within a few thousand people of three others. The growth alone amounts to more than the entire population of Delaware, Vermont, Wyoming and North Dakota combined.

Much of Florida’s population growth is from other states and other countries.

According to The Almanac of American Politics 2010, only 1 of 3 residents is a native and more than 10 percent of them are not citizens. It breaks down: 61 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black.

The southern part of the state has always been a haven for the Hispanic population, having seen two significant waves of Cuban immigrants — first when Fidel Castro took hold in the early 1960s and again when refugees fled in the 1980s. Others have come from the Caribbean and Latin America.

The northern part — particularly the panhandle, known as the “Redneck Riviera,” that runs under Alabama and Georgia — is conservative and for a long time stuck to the ways of Jim Crow.

The central belt of the state is a mix of everything Florida has to offer. Tampa Bay, Orlando and the Space Coast have been built on golf carts, roller coasters and rocket ships.

The heaviest influx of newcomers always has come from New York and the rest of the Northeast, and a significant number of them are retirees. Twenty percent of Florida is older than 65, the nation’s largest percentage of senior citizens.

Veterans make up 12 percent of the population, and the number of media markets and state universities support an informed, well-educated population. High-tech and international industries thrive.

But the economy is built upon a foundation of small businesses. The Almanac of American Politics reports that 98 percent of the companies in Florida have fewer than 100 employees. The state led the nation in small-business starts during the 1990s.

More than 85 percent of Florida is considered urban, a sharp shift from the days when cattle ranches and orange groves dominated the state. The median income is $46,602, and the average home value is just over $200,000.

The tax structure in Florida also is appealing. Residents embrace a high sales tax rather than an income tax because so much of the money that changes hands is from tourists.

But not all the issues of importance in Florida are traditional conservative matters such as the economy and social values. There is the environment. Florida’s delicate ecosystem — with a limited freshwater supply, its pristine beaches, its wildlife and the precious Everglades — is fiercely protected by residents and the politicians who hope to stay in office.

Anyone who has followed Florida’s growth knows that two of the biggest factors in its economy over the past decades have been construction and real estate, both of which have struggled in the recent recession. Florida’s growth continues, but not at the pace it once did.

Like voters in all other parts of the nation, Floridians are concerned about jobs. The unemployment rate in the Sunshine State is near 10 percent. And Florida has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country — accounting for half of the nation’s foreclosures in 2007 and 2008.

Republicans have held all the statewide offices and large majorities in the Legislature since asserting themselves in the 1990s. Republican Jeb Bush won two terms as governor and remains hugely popular. His refusal to endorse any of the candidates in the Florida primary was seen as very frustrating, not only to the candidates but to the voters who trust him.

And yet Democrats haven’t disappeared. The party holds its own in the presidential elections, as President Bill Clinton won in 1996 and Vice President Al Gore came notoriously close in 2000, when a 36-day recount showed … well, it depends on who you talk to.

In 2008, the state went with President Barack Obama, a course that Republicans set out to reverse today.

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