I happened to be in the greater Tampa Bay-Saint Petersburg area on Monday, October 6 – a statement that is rife with context. This is a weird neck of the woods, a place where decaying old money and jittery Nuevo Riche arrivistes rub up against each other in a culture clash obvious to anyone straying off the Interstates. It’s a place where porn empires and strip clubs, regional banking and drug money, art deco resorts and seedy beach towns, lilting oak trees and sea oats all struggle for footing in an ever-shifting landscape of development and erosion. Everyone seems to smoke menthols around here. Tampa-St. Pete feels like a place that's struggling to make it, a place where people come to uncomfortable agreements with themselves in a comfortable climate.
I’m starting to like it here.
And then there’s the rain. In the past several days, I’ve experienced downpours the likes of which we’d biblical back in Los Angeles. They’d cause mudslides and flash floods. Here, they’re just evening thunderstorms, the kind caused by the heat and humidity of an average early-Autumn day as much as any weather system. These storms soften the air, mix with the salty sea breezes, and make you feel like you’re visiting a spa. It’s kind of delicious.
Best of all, Tampa Bay-Saint Petersburg is a battleground metropolitan area in a battleground state, as divided by the coming election as the hood of Southside St. Pete is divided from upscale Tierra Verde by I-275.
On the downside, you can’t get a good cup of coffee for at least four states in any direction. Which is how me and my companion, a bona fide daughter of the dirty south – a femme fatale straight out of a Carl Hiaasen novel (that’s just a guess, I’ve never read any, but he does live a couple hours away) – happened into a Dunkin’ Donuts at about 12:30 p.m. I needed a coffee and this was the best it was going to get. Plus, there is the matter of the pumpkin muffin, a delicious mix of sugar and carbs that more than makes up for the just-okay coffee.
Before I get to the muffin, though, I notice Sandi Whitely and Sharon Dorsey. They are hard to miss in hot pink and green Palin Power T-shirts, complete with the symbol for female gender coming out of the O. Both of them blond and on the on the far side of middle age, they look like former high school cheerleaders from the heartland who almost married the quarterback.
After I get my coffee and muffin, I sit down at the table next to them and I tell them I like their T-shirts. Whitely says that they had just come from an appearance by Ms. Palin at Coachman Park in Clearwater and a Christian group called wakeupamerica.com was selling the shirts. On them are buttons with headshots of John McCain and Sarah Palin superimposed on the foreground of an image of Ms. Liberty. The ladies are charged up by Palin’s performance.
“With Sarah, the excitement she brings…John McCain is the foundation and he’s going to be there for our country, but the excitement she brings gives me hope,” says Dorsey, a sturdy looking woman with stern eyes and short, no-nonsense hair who one could as easily picture behind the wheel of a combine harvester as a minivan.
“She’s going to be a big part of this party,” adds Whitely, who is a little more girlish than her friend and comes off a bit like Dorsey’s eager, little sister.
In fact, both Whitely and Dorsey it are classic snowbirds, refugees from the harsher rains of Illinois farm country. They came here separately in the late 80s and now live near Saint Pete Beach. Dorsey says she first met Whitley’s husband when he moved into the same condo complex in the unit above her. Her first thought, she admits, was who’s this handsome farmer? Then came Whitely down the stairs.
“We’ve been best friends ever since,” laughs Dorsey.
“I was a Hillary person,” Dorsey confides.
“We both were,” says Whitely.
Dorsey tells me that while she’s registered Independent, “This is the first time I’ll vote Republican.”
Whitely, too, says she’s Independent but more often than not votes Democrat.
“I loved Bill Clinton,” she says. “I didn’t care about all his women. That was on her [Hillary] to take care of.’
“I loved Bill Clinton, too,” adds Dorsey.
But for some reason, they can’t get with Obama.
Whitely tells me she’s just not comfortable with Obama’s past, making reference to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the widely discredited ties the McCain campaign, and particularly Sarah Palin, have tried to make between Obama and former 60’s radical and Weatherman Underground founder Bill Ayers. Palin, who’s obviously been charged with the task of tagging Obama with otherness, has taken to saying on the campaign trail that the Democratic nominees was “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
“He has too many bad friends,” says Whitely. “Anyone can have some bad friends, but he has a whole list.”
I don’t suggest to these Illinois natives that Obama and Ayers are mostly connected by the fact that they once lived in the same Southside Chicago neighborhood. Or that an Associated Press investigation has all but called the Ayers-related attacks false and smears, bordering on racism. Privately, I wonder if Whitely has heard about Palin’s ties to a militant Alaskan separatist group, a connection that's a little closer than Obama’s to Ayers seeing how it was primarily her husband’s fetish. Or that Palin’s church has warned that Alaska must be ready for the coming End Days when refugees will be streaming over the border seeking sanctuary during the apocalypse (which, thanks to nearly 30 years of Reaganomics, may in fact be upon us – while we spoke, the stock market plunged another 800 points yesterday.). Or the exorcisms and the speaking in tongues, etc.
But these gals have stars in their eyes, and you’d be wrong to dismiss them as dumb or deluded. They have second residences, good incomes, and successful children. They seem to have made out of their lives what they'd hoped to.
Do you think Palin is ready to be president? I ask.
“Oh yes. She has more experience than Barack does,” says Dorsey.
Do you think she’s bright?
“Yes, very bright,” says Whitely. “She has no patience for stupid questions and she apologized for that. Katie Couric has a great opportunity to interview her woman to woman, and what did she do? Ask about what newspapers she reads.”
I ask what they would have done had Obama picked Hillary Clinton as his running mate.
“I would have voted for him, probably,” admits Whitely, almost conspiratorially.
But now, says Dorsey, “When Hillary sends out those email messages asking us to support Obama, because we still get them, we tell her, ‘We love you, but we can’t vote for you.’”
Both ladies tell me that while most of their friends are voting McCain-Palin, their families are split. “Half my family is for Barack and half is for McCain-Palin,” says Dorsey. “So, I’ll have to be very careful, especially around my two sisters.”
I ask them if they think Republicans are playing them for a kind of cheap gender allegiance. As soon as the question is out, a couple of construction workers, one black and the other Latino, sitting a few tables away nod as if they’ve been thinking the same thing.
“0h, no,” says Whitely. “I had a psychic tell me I have a lot of psychic abilities and I am not being played. I know that. I have seen things.”
Dorsey, too, insists that she’s not one to be manipulated, and adds, “I was surprised at all the young kids out there [at the rally] all the 18 and 19 year old Christians.” Then, she gets to the heart of the matter, telling me that as far as health care, the economy, national defense, “It’s all important, but we…. the world, is becoming too liberal. Now, it’s whatever you want to do, go out and do it.”
“The whole world needs a foundation,” she continues. “We’re too much into materialism, money and things.”
I ask her if it’s a Christian foundation she thinks the world needs. She says it is.
Whitely tells me that she’s heard there are gold coins out there “and they don’t even have In God We Trust.”
I tell them that it seems to me that Hillary earned her place in history while Palin appears to have been plucked out of central casting as a ploy.
“Palin is not a ploy,” insists Dorsey with the assurance of one who has just sized up someone in person and come away convinced. She hesitates for a momemt.
“When Hillary lost…I was really upset,” she confesses.
I can tell she means it. It’s like she lost a friend.
“We are so ready for a change in the gender of who’s running things,” says Whitely.
“Hillary took it to that glass ceiling and I think that Sarah is going to break it,” adds Dorsey.
The Palin Power ladies take their leave and wish me well. In the parking lot, as I scarf down the pumpkin muffin, the little old lady – and I mean that to the full extent of the cliché – whom I’d noticed in the shop, done up in country club plaids, lipstick and with one white glove on her left hand while she handled her donut and coffee with the other, exits into the lot. As she gets to her car, she calls across the lot to me.
“I think it’s about time a woman ran the country!”
Which makes me wonder, when it comes to McCain-Palin, who’s on top?