Gwen Graham’s closing statement to the voters of the 2nd Congressional District begins with Jimmy Buffett. The quintessential Floridian, as one Parrothead described him, entertained about 1,500 people Wednesday at a get-out-the vote rally held in a Tallahassee nightclub.
“Politics and music, my two favorite things,” whooped Marty Monroe, a Tallahassee resident, before Buffett took the stage. “Jimmy Buffett’s commitment to the environment is my kind of politics.”
Buffett may have been born in Mississippi, reared in Mobile and is famous for singing about the Keys but many in Tallahassee considers him one of their own. He’s hunted North Florida woods, taken the stage at the annual Capitol Press Corps skits to mock the political establishment, and is a founding member of the Save the Manatee Club with former Gov. Bob Graham.
Gwen Graham and incumbent Congressman Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, are engaged in a tight race. That both parties think they can win the seat is evident by a reported flood of $7-million in outside money inundating voters with broadcast commercials, mailings and knocks on the door.
Buffett opened his 30-minute set with Changes in Latitude Changes in Attitudes, a thought in line with Graham’s talking point that Southerland’s hyper-partisanship is not representative of North Florida values.
Between songs, Buffett bantered with the audience about Florida, the Grahams and his music. Recalling the criticism Gov. Graham received for naming a “Key West pirate” to head the Save the Manatee effort, Buffett said his reaction to the bad press was , “It’s Florida, everyone is welcomed here.”
As the applause faded, Buffett began “Come Monday.”
“His music is symbolic of good times, of the past and those to come,” said Mark Schlakman, a losing candidate in the 2012 Democratic primary for the 2-nd District nomination.
Some find in Buffett’s songs, writings and other projects an exploration of the ideas of community, responsibility and pluralism, all talking points in Graham’s stump speech. Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt assembled a collection of essays in Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy.
And while this line from Bob Roberts’ Society Band could very well play out in Tallahassee’s Railroad Square district, “I saw mini vans from Boca, buses from Perrine. There were people speaking Hindu in the bar-b-que line.”
Away from the Capital City, in the small towns that dot the 14-county district the people seem to reflect more the hardscrabble life Hank Williams sang about than the island ambience Buffett exudes; men’s faces suggest they know why the moon went behind a cloud to cry or had come home after a night out with friends to find the front door locked, looked their dog in the eye and said “I done let the deal go down … move over nice dog cause a bad dog’s moving in.”
And while Graham argues gridlock in Washington is bad, Southerland counters he’s representing the district’s interest in his opposition to policies advanced by President Barack Obama. Rural voters have stood with him, in each of a handful of counties Southerland has posted more than 60-percent victory margins while losing receiving fewer than 40-percent of the vote in Leon and Gadsden counties.
If Southerland checks Graham’s strength in Tallahassee with Panama City, then he can ride to victory on 3,000 vote wins in Taylor, Madison, Liberty counties and so on.
Whether Buffett can change attitudes enough in the countryside to erase Southerland’s 18,000 victory margin posted last election remains to be seen. Madison County’s Bobby Goodling drove more than 60 miles Wednesday to hear Jimmy Buffett perform for 30 minutes.
Pony-tailed, gray-haired and in a Harley Davidson T-shirt, Goodling ambled to the bar and order a diet coke on ice.
“I’m a big Jimmy Buffett fan. He’s a big Gwen fan,” said Goodling. “So, I’m here to hear what she has to say.”
The election may turn on whether Graham can convert the opening Buffett provided with Goodling into a vote. Buffett is the second celebrity the Graham campaign has showcased this week in Tallahassee, the 2-nd District’s Democratic enclave. Sunday former President Bill Clinton spoke at a Graham rally.
Although popular in the city, it’s unclear the net value a Clinton or Buffett brings when courting rural voters. Speaking about the Clinton appearance Sunday, Tallahassee consultant Steve Vancore said at this stage of the game, the object is to turn out voters.
“Bringing in the Big Dog can’t hurt,” said Vancore who consults for Democrats. “In a close race in an off year election Democrats must pull out all stops to turn out surge voters. That could be the difference for Gwen and of course Crist.”
And if a few of them are whistling Cheeseburger in Paradise while marking the ballot then Buffett can say mission accomplished for his kind of politics and the daughter of an old friend.
An update on the 2nd District’s early voting for this week. Republican voters narrowed the Democrats advantage in the four largest counties. Leon and Gadsden break for Democrats and Bay and Jackson for Republicans.
Midday Monday, 8,256 more Democrats than Republicans had cast ballots in those four counties; midday Wednesday the GOP had narrowed the gap to 7,242, total ballots.
The totals for Leon, Gadsden, Bay and Jackson were 33,711 Democrats and 26,469 Republicans and 6,500 from voters not affiliated with either of the two major parties.