Forest Festival Parade draws congressional candidates; Steve Southerland protects base while Gwen Graham tries to peel away voters

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It’s easy to get the wrong impression of Perry, Florida.

The town hosts the annual Florida Forest Festival, which features the World’s Largest Free Fish Fry. Yes, the residents are tree huggers; for many their livelihood depends on it. They log and process pine trees. And when visitors arrive in town they pass a memorial flying the Confederate flag, which reads, “Be brave when you proclaim your heritage. Fly our flag in the face of intimidation and fear.”

In their battle for the 2nd District seat, Congressman Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, and Democratic challenger Gwen Graham marched through downtown Perry in the Forest Festival Parade. The two were separated by more than a mile and about an hour of parade time.

Southerland was near the front, right behind five semi-trailers hauling harvested pine trees. Aides carried signs proclaiming “logging=jobs.”

Southerland was enthusiastically greeted by a group of Girl Scouts. When one of the fathers shouted, “don’t forget about the cookies,” Southerland smiled, waved his hands in front of himself like a model and replied, “Do I look like I forgot any?”

Graham’s reception among the folks lining the nearly two-mile parade route, excluding the Girl Scouts, was subdued, while Southerland joked with onlookers and his staff distributed candy to children.

This is Southerland country. In Taylor County in 2012 he scored 69 percent of the 8,975 votes cast.

“Hopefully we can beat that in 2014,” said Richard O’Neill, vice chair of the Taylor County Republican Executive Committee, who wore a T-shirt proclaiming, “Smart Democrats Vote Republican.”

The road to victory in the 2nd Congressional District race runs through Taylor and seven other rural counties, where the total number of votes cast in each county was 10,000 or fewer in 2012. Southerland won those eight counties with an average of 66 percent of the vote.  He also won Jackson County, where 20,000 people voted, and Wakulla, which had 15,000. Al Lawson captured Jefferson County with nearly 4,000 votes.  The two main population centers in the district are Bay County, where Southerland won 73 percent, and Leon County, where Lawson carried 62 percent of the vote.

“We’re a conservative Christian county where people don’t like what’s going on in Washington and Steve reflects that,” said Elmer Coker, chair of the Taylor County REC.

Coker recited Southerland’s talking points — that Gwen Graham is an appendage of the Obama-Reid-Pelosi regime that’s running Washington.

“Miss Graham would support Pelosi because she is the minority leader and a power in the House,” said Coker. “And Obama wants to do away with our coal plants . . . the EPA is one of the biggest enemies this country has.”

Coker blames high electric rates on Obama’s environmental policies. Environmentalists and owners of a local paper mill have argued about the mill’s discharge into the Fenholloway River for decades.

About a half mile up the parade route, Bridgette Macalister and Wayne Dunwoody accepted hugs from Graham. Dunwoody took on the look of a man waiting for the punchline to a joke when told of Coker’s take on the Southerland-Graham race. His response was in line with Graham’s talking point of a need to bridge a partisan divide in Washington.

“All these people running around saying that Barack Obama is doing a bad job, that’s all Southerland people are saying. Miss Graham is saying it’s both sides and she wants to get it right for the people” said Dunwoody. “That’s what we need, someone who is going to be fair and stop badgering the president.”

Southerland carried the district two years ago with 53 percent of the vote and a victory margin of 18,000. He balanced the Democrats’ strength in the Capital region by running up huge leads in Bay and the farming and forested counties encircling Tallahassee. If Graham is able to keep Tallahassee in the fold and peel 1,800 votes away from Southerland in each of the 10 surrounding small-populated counties, then the seat could very well flip to the Democrats.

Coker was asked what he thought of  that possibility, Graham collecting more Taylor County votes then Lawson did.

“It’s possible. Yes, that is possible,” he said.

At the end of the talk the REC chair turned the tables on your correspondent and asked what he thought was the biggest danger facing the country. When the response was the continual demonization of elected officials, he replied.

“Yes, I’ll give you that, I’ll give you that,” he said. “And then, ISIS.”

It’s easy to get the wrong impression of Perry and a bit difficult to get the right one.