One thing I learned since the Wednesday debate: If Democratic candidates for governor did nothing else during the televised event, they turned off the 50,000-or-so folks in Clewiston, Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay, the farming communities around Lake Okeechobee.
The people who farm, or rely on farming and livestock for their livelihood, were still fuming on Friday. I heard from a lot of them.
"They must be OK with throwing us away," Annabelle St. Marie, a farmworker who has lived her whole life in Belle Glade, told me during a telephone call. "I watched the debate. I saw and heard."
"They care about the rich folks," said LaRonda Lake, a Pahokee mother whose two daughters both pick vegetables. "Folks like us can die and go to Jesus and only Jesus will care."
The Democratic candidates debating were Andrew Gillum, mayor of Tallahassee; Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman; Jeff Greene, an entrepreneur; Chris King, another entrepreneur; and Philip Levine, a two-term mayor of Miami Beach.
Four of the five -- all but Andrew Gillum -- are millionaires or billionaires. Around the lake they are perceived as voices of the coastal elite. And for good reason.
They spent much of the Wednesday evening debate threatening to dismantle the sugar industry, the Everglades Agricultural Area's chief employer, though hardly its only presence.
All blamed sugar for the algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
These candidates showed they have abandoned rural Florida and its farming backbone. And for nothing. Sugarcane farms are south of the lake.
All but Gillum totally ignored the real problem, unchecked water and pollution rushing in from north of the lake, and opted for campaign-friendly sound bites instead. And in the process put targets on the backs of good, hardworking families.
If you missed the debate, watch it here. See if there isn't truth in what I say.
And only Gillum, the nonmillionaire, talked about the people who live in the communities around the lake. But he concentrated on retraining them for more skilled employment -- a humiliation for residents like St. Marie and her friends in Belle Glade, whose families have worked on the EAA's farms for generations.
"They already say my job is going," St. Marie said. "They want to take away my life and teach me something I don't want. If I don't like it, I can go."
If candidates were going to spend 15 minutes of the entire debate on the Everglades Agricultural Area -- which is the actual time I counted -- you'd think at least one of them would know -- and mention with some pride -- that roughly 100,000 acres of vegetables are planted in the winter season alone and help feed much of the nation.
They mentioned not a word.
So angry at the negativity was John Hundley, vice president of family-owned Hundley Farms and president of EAA Farmers, Inc., that he issued a written press statement the next day.
“The display at Wednesday night’s Florida Democratic gubernatorial debate was shameful," he wrote. "While the candidates on stage were trying to one-up each other to score cheap political points by maligning Florida farmers, we were hard at work past sundown growing the food to feed their families.
"In their ignorance, they aimed squarely at the same farmers that supply our nation with more sweet corn and fresh winter vegetables than any other area in America. Perhaps if they ever took the time to visit rural Florida, they’d be able to get their facts straight. And the next time they charge an arm and a leg at their high-priced donor dinners, they should remember that we are the Florida farmers who put the food on their plates.”
Not many people grasp the magnitude of the job farmers in the EAA do for Florida and the nation. But candidates for governor should. And it's heartbreaking that these five, representing the party that self-advertises as "for the people," do not.
Candidates might want to store away these 2016 ag numbers for Palm Beach County alone:
- Sugar: Enough to supply 65 million people for a year
- Sweet corn: Enough to supply 1 billion people for two months
- Rice: Enough to supply 150 million people for 2 months
- Lettuce: 1 billion salads a year
- Radishes: 36 million pounds a year
- Celery: 120 million stalks a year
- Cabbage: 250 million servings of cole slaw per year
- Fresh Green Beans: 350 million servings per year
Here were candidates who spent the second biggest chunk of debate time railing about how unfit Donald Trump is to be president. Yet, their combined performance -- "nothing good to look at here, folks" -- was a perfect show of why the state and nation elected him.
Where was their vision for Florida? Focusing on Florida's "underserved" medical patients and failing public school children, they wrote off Florida's hardworking farmers and, for that matter, pretty much any of the good things happening in Florida.
I think these candidates have forgotten there's a whole world of Floridians who don't live on the coast; who don't read the Miami Herald or the Tampa Bay Times or the Tallahassee Democrat; who don't listen to NPR, or go to Starbucks to sip mocha cream lattes. They’re part of Florida -- invisible heroes in my book -- and have a vital purpose other than providing a blue wall to protect the power of their bi-coastal elitism. In case they haven’t noticed for lack of ever visiting, these rural folks are not doing so well in the globalized economy in which rich politicians are prospering.
They don’t generally have the capital for Greene- or King-style entrepreneurism or the money for Harvard. They can’t afford to eat at a fancy restaurant even if there were one where they live. They don’t have much savings, and may be deeply in debt. They break their backs to send their kids to state colleges and universities, where these candidates' ideological soulmates indoctrinate them to hate the state and nation their parents love, just because they are not in charge of either one.
Yet these people who work every day for Florida's food industry are critical to the economy of their counties and their state.
Get a vision, Democrats. Do your homework. Rise above the sound bites that demean the real people you've never met and factor their lives into your vision. Maybe then you will place a higher value on what they do for all of us.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith